The subject of “withdrawal” is of huge importance within the Stanton churches, because it is so grossly misunderstood, taught, and practiced. In its current form, it is unscriptural, unloving, and unjust, and the fear and dread it brings to those under its threat can silence even the most honest of questions.
Some of you reading this have been “withdrawn from” (an unscriptural term, how Stanton uses it) and others have spouses, mothers, fathers, or siblings who have been, thereby creating an intricate web of rules you or they have to live by.
Others of you have remained silent about your dissent from official church teachings due to the threat of withdrawal, and the dysfunction it would create in your relationships with your spouse or children. My hope is this study will cause you to dig into these verses and learn the truth of what the Bible really teaches about it, not just the doctrines and commandments of men.
The church has been great, as usual, at pointing out how other churches don’t do “withdrawal” right (or at all). That may be true. But I hope to make it very clear that Biblically, Stanton has it painfully wrong, with a one-size-fits-all approach that metes out the same form of church discipline for every offense under the sun, without Biblical authority. It is rather like a parent applying one extreme form of discipline for any offense, great or small, whether it’s defying authority or forgetting to put toys away. This is unjust, at best, and produces compliance only through fear of punishment, not love.
1 John 4:18 – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. ESV
Their error in reasoning stems from the fact that their teachings pull several disparate verses out of their original context and cobble them together into one category arbitrarily labeled “withdrawal.” When looked at individually, these verses have almost nothing to do with each other. They are largely unrelated teachings by Paul on unrelated subjects arising out of unrelated circumstances. Stanton takes a little from Paul’s letter to Corinth, a little more from his letter to Rome, and still more from his letter to Thessalonica. They then mix these passages all up and put them in parallel with still more excerpts from Paul’s letter to Titus, and again, from his letter to Timothy.
What we end up with is a self-contradictory set of laws, rules, and regulations developed by the imagination of men, not the will of God. Stanton teaches that the spouse of someone “withdrawn from,” who remains in good standing, can have sexual relations with them, eat with them, and have an otherwise friendly and intimate relationship with them. They cannot, however, talk about the church, the Bible, or the terms of their withdrawal. Controlling much?But how about their children? Once their children are baptized, they are expected to “honor the withdrawal” by abiding by rules such as not eating with the parent who is withdrawn from or discussing Biblical matters with them. And what if the “withdrawal” is truly unscriptural and unjust; a mistake? Well, the victim of the unjust withdrawal cannot do or say anything to try to correct the error, because that would be “murmuring.” He or she must suffer in silence, unless your name was Merie. (Merie carved out for herself an exception. She was withdrawn from in 1958 for sowing discord and division, never returned from withdrawal, and went out and started the Stanton sect years later. But I digress.)
Stanton’s rules surrounding withdrawal are completely arbitrary, no different than when the Pharisees legislated rules for their followers on subjects like how far someone could travel on the Sabbath, or whether one should tithe their spice rack (yeah, really). It may sound funny, but there is a real human cost to relationships between spouses and children here, and for nothing better than “teaching for doctrines, the commandments of men.” It’s wrong, friends. These unscriptural practices are destroying family relationships, causing children to unfairly have to pick sides.
I’ve devoted a considerable word count on this study to satisfy both the person with a casual interest, and the one who is really struggling and questioning the scriptural exegesis and applications of these verses. I’ve divided this study into two parts, a short and sweet overview, and a detailed exegesis of each of the passages twisted by Stanton into these unloving and arbitrary rules of men.My prayer, once again, is that the rules of men will crumble beneath the weight of the truth.
I. Overview of “withdrawal” as church discipline
- Withdrawal is a verb, not a noun
- Fellowship isn’t ours to “withdraw”
- Bible words for Bible things
- “Delivering unto Satan” means expulsion
- To withdraw means “to distance oneself from”
- Heresy and schism
II. Detailed scripture study of misused verses
- “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly”
- “From such withdraw thyself”
- “From such turn away”
- “Mark them which cause divisions”
- “Deliver such an one unto Satan” and “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person”
- “Whom I have delivered unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”
- “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject”
I. Overview of “withdrawal” as church discipline
Withdrawal is a verb, not a noun
First, let’s address the fact that “withdrawal” is a
verb. It is not a noun, meaning it is not a state that someone is in. It is an action on the part of the one doing the withdrawing. It is impossible to “withdraw” or continue “withdrawing” for years or decades from someone who has already “withdrawn” themselves from a group.
All of the Biblical teaching on the subject is about either purging the church of wicked people (fornicators, idolaters, etc.) or withholding something an errant brother wants (brotherly camaraderie) in order to encourage him to change his ways. If someone no longer wants to be part of the congregation, both reasons for “withdrawing” are gone. You don’t discipline adult kids who leave the home and want to do their own thing. You discipline and set the rules of the house for the ones who still want to be part of the family, and therefore have a reason to respond to your discipline.
Fellowship isn’t ours to “withdraw”
The subject of fellowship is often understood as spiritual and social interaction, but this is not how the Bible uses the term. Fellowship is synonymous with brother-ship; a brother is a “fellow” disciple, and the “ship” suffix means “state of.” This means that fellowship is a state of “brothership” or brotherhood—a relationship the Lord alone puts us into. Thus to disfellowship someone or withdraw fellowship from him is something God alone can do. We can neither make someone a brother nor declare him not our brother.
Bible words for Bible things
None of the following terms appear in the Scriptures in reference to church discipline: withdrawal, disfellowship, excommunicate, shun. If we are to speak as the Bible speaks, be silent where it’s silent, and use Bible words in Bible ways, then we shouldn’t use these words to describe church discipline practices.
The confusion over these terms came from the miscategorization of a bunch of verses that contain similar instructions but in much different contexts. When they are mistakenly considered parallel passages with 1 Corinthians 5, we end up with bad conclusions where real lives are affected for generations.
Just as we cannot take the word “baptism” and apply it the same way in every verse (since some verses are talking about immersion in water, others a figurative baptism by fire, and still others, the baptism of the Holy Spirit) we cannot take the use of the word “withdraw” as indicating a disciplinary state of “disfellowship.” If we could, then we could say that the Jewish rulers “disfellowshipped” the Sanhedrin: “So they ordered them to withdraw from the Sanhedrin.” (Acts 4:15) This is silly, of course. You have to look at the context and understand the circumstances he’s addressing.
“Delivering unto Satan” means expulsion
There are two prominent examples of church discipline in the New Testament. The most detailed one is in 1 Corinthians 5, and Paul calls it “delivering unto Satan,” where the grossly immoral person is to be completely expelled from the assembly. Note that the word “withdraw” is not used here at all. When Paul writes to “purge out therefore the old leaven” and “put away from among yourselves that wicked person,” there should be no question about what is intended. The idea is for that person to be completely excluded from all gatherings of the church until he has changed his immoral ways, not meekly sit on a back bench until he demonstrates enough remorse to church leaders.
The second example of a disciplinary action is alluded to in 1 Timothy 1:19-20, where Paul uses a phrase similar to the one he used in 1 Corinthians 5 (delivering unto Satan). He again did not choose to use the word “withdrawal.” Paul used his apostolic authority to expel Hymenaeus and Alexander, apparently for their blasphemous departure from the faith.
To withdraw means “to distance oneself from”
The other verses commonly applied to church discipline use the word “withdraw” to simply mean “removing oneself” from certain kinds of people. These verses are talking about avoiding social interaction, but there are no detailed rules for how to carry it out. We are all supposed to just exercise good judgment about the kinds of people we hang around.
Also in this category is 2 Thessalonians 3:6, which is teaching to stay away from (and don’t be an enabler to) brothers who refuse to work, and who get their sustenance by leaching meals off of other Christians. This is not the same as what Paul refers to as “delivering unto Satan” in 1 Corinthians 5.
1 Timothy 6:5 is similar, and it is saying to stay away from those who dote about “questions and strifes of words.” Again, there is no instruction here to expel them or “deliver them unto Satan.” We are simply to avoid the kind of people whose goal is to produce factional strife.
In 2 Timothy 3:2-5, “From such turn away” is clearly parallel to “from such with withdraw thyself,” yet no one feels that
unthankful people should be “withdrawn from.” This shows that “withdrawal” has been completely misunderstood as church discipline, when it is really an action to be taken by individuals. We’re simply to avoid such people—don’t be influenced by them—don’t make a habit of being around them.
Romans 16:17 is also in the category of avoiding certain kinds of people, in this case, those who cause divisions. The idea Paul is trying to convey is again not a formal disciplinary measure, but an avoidance of people who are divisive. People who seek to separate one group of Christians from another are constantly seeking alliances and making political factions out
of groups of Christians. We are to avoid associating ourselves with this kind of person.
Heresy and schism
Avoiding schismatic people fits right in with Paul’s instructions in Titus 3:9-11 – “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.” When we properly understand the word “heretic” as meaning a divisive person, it is clear that we are to remove ourselves far from schismatic people so that we don’t contribute to their influence on the body of Christ. To give them social standing in the church just lends them credibility.
In no case do I find an example of people being disciplined by the congregation and continuing to show up at the assembly with rules like not talking, not eating with others, not taking the Lord’s supper, etc. At best, those are human-contrived rules which are “doctrines and commandments of men.” At worst, they are a twisting of various scriptures out of the context of what the original authors meant by them.
II. Detailed scripture studies of misused verses
“Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly”
This phrase in 2 Thessalonians is one that is frequently taken out of context. In fact, it is most often used to “withdraw
fellowship” from people for the wrong reasons, and rarely used to justify dissociating from someone for the correct reasons given by Paul when he wrote it:
2 Thessalonians 3:6 – Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
If we are to understand what he means by the phrase “not after the tradition which he received of us,” in verse 6, we
should take the time to understand what those traditions were that the Thessalonian Christians received from Paul. Fortunately, he explains in verses 7-9.
2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 – For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make
ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.
He is clearly telling the Thessalonian Christians to stay away from someone who is lazy and refuses to work for their own food. In fact, he defines precisely what he means by “walking disorderly:”
2 Thessalonians 3:10-11 – For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.
His intention is that people disengage socially from someone who refuses to work, but is constantly begging food from the brethren. Don’t invite them for dinner and enable their laziness. Don’t bring the busybody into your house to tell you all his or her latest gossip. To these people, he gives a command:
2 Thessalonians 3:12 – Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.
Then he goes back to addressing the brethren who had to deal with such people, telling them not to be discouraged from doing good just because some people abuse their generosity.
2 Thessalonians 3:13 – But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing.
He follows this encouragement with specific instruction on what to do with the person who refuses to work and insists on living off of the bread of other brothers in Christ:
2 Thessalonians 3:14-15 – And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
So let’s review what Paul said and did not say in this letter:
- This brother remains in “brothership” or “fellowship” and is to be treated as such.
- The tradition the church received of Paul is very clearly defined in verses 7 and 8 as working for a living rather than relying on the generosity of the saints.
- “Walking disorderly” is also clearly defined in verse 11 as “working not all.”
- The path to follow, according to verse 12, is to command and exhort these people to work and to eat their own bread with
- Those who still refuse to obey the instruction to work for their own living are to be noted and excluded from social settings for the purpose of shaming and admonishing them.
- There is nothing here about not talking to them, or not eating with them at the same table, or in the same room, etc. We are just to obey the spirit of this instruction; in order to shame and admonish them, we are to avoid making them feel a part of the congregation’s social circle. A social get together implies acceptance and usually includes food, and that would just be another occasion for a lazy person to get a meal without feeling admonished and without having to work for it. In other words, don’t be an enabler.
- There is nothing here about a formal “withdrawal meeting” or “delivering unto Satan” when the whole church is gathered together. The instruction is merely to avoid these people socially in order to discourage their bad behavior. If the person’s
behavior changes from Sunday to Monday, and on Monday, he lands a job, there is no meeting of the church required before a brother could invite him over for dinner.
“From such withdraw thyself”
Paul’s letter to Timothy has also been construed to mean that we ought to “withdraw fellowship” from certain people.
1 Timothy 6:5 – …perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.
The most obvious thing to note is that Paul is writing to Timothy to stay away from these types of people, not ordering him to excommunicate or deliver such a person to Satan, so to speak. This is a personal exhortation from Paul to Timothy.
Taking Paul’s comments in context, I’ll start at the beginning of the chapter:
1 Timothy 6:1-2 – Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.
Apparently, the poor of the churches were rebelling against their Christian employers and masters. There was apparently some “class envy” going on. But Paul instructs Timothy that servants should not despise their masters, but serve them all the more because they are brethren and fellow heirs of the benefit of salvation. Then he warns against those who might continue to teach that slaves should rise up against their masters:
1 Timothy 6:3-5 – If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.
There were apparently Christian servants at the time who felt justified in despising their Christian masters. But Paul says they were engaging in strifes over words, railings, evil surmising, and perverse disputing. He further says that these people supposed that “gain is godliness,” and urged Timothy not to get caught up with such people. That is what I think he means by “from such withdraw thyself.” He’s instructing Timothy, as a man of God, not to get involved in taking sides with the factional infighting of Christian against Christian, which invariably led to envy, strife, railings, evil surmising, etc.
He goes on to clarify and emphasize the same point about the deceitfulness of riches and those who follow after it in the rest of the chapter.
What we learn from Paul’s letter to Timothy about this subject is:
- As with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church, there is no law given here about formal church discipline, or a
“state of withdrawal.”
- Paul is simply telling Timothy to stay away from people who insist that gain is godliness. There are people today, many of whom are in the inner cities, who preach class hatred for poor Christians against their “rich” employers. Those are precisely the people Paul is telling Timothy to stay away from.
“From such turn away”
This passage is often overlooked when looking into the Bible’s teaching on “disfellowship.” Yet clearly, “from such turn
away” is equivalent to “from such withdraw thyself.” So in whatever way Timothy was to withdraw himself from those other people, he was also to avoid these types of people:
2 Timothy 3:2-5 – For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
This emphasizes to me that “turning away” from such bad characters (particularly those who call themselves believers) should be the individual, natural response of a faithful believer. There is nothing implying that all people fitting the above character traits are to be formally expelled and “delivered unto Satan,” although a number of these character traits could
easily rise to the level of such action.
I have known of unthankful people who call themselves Christians. Is Paul teaching us to cast out such person, or to simply avoid enabling and learning their unthankful ways? Avoiding clearly could not have meant “excommunicating” in Paul’s mind.
On the other hand, a blasphemer and a lover of pleasure (particularly sexually immoral pleasure) could easily find himself “cast out” of the assembly, considering Paul’s strong instructions to the believers in Corinth and his example in dealing with Hymenaeus.
“Mark them which cause divisions”
This passage is relatively straightforward: make note of those who are out to cause divisions and lead people away from the teachings of Jesus Christ and avoid them.
Romans 16:17 – Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
The next verse fills in a pretty good picture of the kind of person he is writing about:
Romans 16:18 – For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.
The people to be avoided are people who are evidently not out to serve Jesus Christ, but their own appetites for glory, power, etc. There is nothing in this passage that indicates a congregational “trial” of any sort. When Christians cross paths with brothers who are divisive or egotistical, we are to simply make note of them and avoid them. In other words, don’t give them an audience. This is what the Spring Valley church should have done to Merie. Instead, they gave her a seat of prominence, and the rest is history.
“Deliver such an one unto Satan” and “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person”
This passage is one which urges very explicitly the “casting out” of a wicked person from among the group. It is clearly an act of “church discipline” done for the purpose of purging sin and reproving the sinner to bring about shame and repentance.
1 Corinthians 5 – It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. 2 And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: 8 Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: 10 Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. 11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. 12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? 13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
Note that this passage is unlike many of the other passages that simply tell us to avoid certain kinds of unsavory characters. This is not an avoidance of social interaction, but a complete expulsion from the group. “Put away from among yourselves that wicked person” is a pretty strong statement and does not imply that someone continues to come to the assembly and quietly sits in the back row. That is nothing more than a tradition of men.
I also think this implies that there is malice and wicked intentions on the part of a sinner who calls himself a Christian. Jesus ate with publicans, and adulteresses in the hope of reaching them with his message of forgiveness and repentance. This is clearly a different situation with someone who professed Christianity but flagrantly lived opposite to its ideals.
“Whom I have delivered unto Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”
Hymenaeus and Alexander were apparently two individuals who “rejected faith and a good conscience,” resulting in blasphemy.
1 Timothy 1:19-20 – Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.
Paul personally “delivered them unto Satan.” Hymenaeus apparently was teaching that the resurrection was already past, “overthrowing the faith of some.”
2 Timothy 2:16-18 – But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.
Since 1 Corinthians 5 is the only other example of someone being “delivered unto Satan,” and that example is where a fornicator was to be put out of the congregation, we can infer that this must be what Paul meant by the phrase.
“A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject”
Paul said this to Titus:
Titus 3:9-11 – But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain. A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; Knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.
This is a case where the choice of the word “heretic” in the King James translation (like the word “Easter” in Acts 12:4) makes Paul’s meaning less clear; but it is not impossible to figure out, given the context. In verse 9, Paul is clearly advising Titus to reject divisive people who engage in unprofitable, foolish strivings and contentions about the law. The subject he is addressing is contentiousness about opinions (being schismatic), not having or teaching an incorrect opinion about them (being unorthodox).
The meaning of the word translated “heretic” in Titus 3:10 is clearly “a schismatic person.” This is borne out by the following verses, where the words heresy and sect (which is a schism or faction) are all translated from the same Greek word: Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5; Acts 24:5,14; Acts 26:5; Acts 28:22; 1 Corinthians 11:19; Galatians 5:20; Titus
It is also borne out by the American Standard Version translation of the Titus passage:
Titus 3:9-11 – 9 but shun foolish questionings, and genealogies, and strifes, and fightings about law; for they are unprofitable and vain. 10 A factious man after a first and second admonition refuse; 11 knowing that such a one is perverted, and sinneth, being self-condemned. (ASV)
Far from instructing Titus to “withdraw fellowship” from people who have an incorrect opinion, Paul is telling Titus something a lot simpler: to have nothing to do with people who have a factious attitude. There are those in the church who are out to splinter it into fragments, and Titus was to stay away from such people.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The only reason this church exists is because certain Christians in the 60’s and 70’s decided to split off from other Christians. This should raise some red flags for current members. Do you know your history and your Bible as well as you think you do? When you read Merie’s letters, did the Spring Valley church divide from El Cajon and other congregations in the San Diego area in righteous indignation over “church heresies,” or were they the ones being “heretical” (factious, causing division)?
Biblically, the truth is that Spring Valley was itself the faction, and its leaders were the factious brethren that the rest of the congregations at the time rightly decided to ignore. Whatever moral authority Merie and other leaders thought they had, even if some of their concerns were valid, was sacrificed when they decided to create a faction out of God’s people.