Warning the Disobedient
“If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”- 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15
Church discipline, according to the Protestant Reformers, is one of the marks of a true church of Christ. Their understanding of this was drawn from texts such as Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5, which tell us how the church must deal formally with serious, scandalous sin. The steps of discipline may vary some from case to case depending on the sinner, the sin, and whether the transgression is publicly known, but a basic pattern emerges from these texts. The offender is first confronted privately and urged to repent. If repentance is not forthcoming, the sinner is then confronted in the presence of a few witnesses. Next, the matter is brought to the church. Finally, should impenitence persist, the sinner is treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17), that is, as an unbeliever.
Other texts, such as today’s passage, flesh out some of the aspects of church discipline. Paul explains that we are to have nothing to do with anyone who does not heed his letter (2 Thess. 3:14). This seems to be a reference to excommunication, or expulsion from membership and the sacraments. However, the Apostle’s comment in verse 15 may call this understanding into question. Paul tells us to treat the disciplined person not as an enemy but as a brother. But what does this mean if we are to have nothing to do with said offender?
Some commentators suggest that what Paul has in mind in 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 are intermediate steps of church discipline wherein the sinner is barred from the Lord’s Supper but not from membership in the church. He is treated as a brother because he has not been cast out of the church, though he cannot come to the Lord’s Table. This interpretation is possible, but perhaps more likely is that Paul is telling us that we are to love excommunicated people, not hate them. The goal of church discipline is to “gain” an errant believer (Matt. 18:15), so restoration must be our goal. The hearts of unrepentant people are not softened by our hating them but by our continuing to reach out in love insofar as it is reasonable and we are able. We are not to interact with excommunicated people in a way that makes them think we view them as believers, but that does not mean we cease to love them. John Calvin comments, “As to those that the Church marks out by the severity of its censure, Paul admonishes that they should not be utterly cast away, as if they were cut off from all hope of salvation; but endeavors must be used, that they may be brought back to a sound mind.”
Excommunication is not the loveless shunning that we see in many cults when former cult members leave their false religion. We are to make the impenitent sinner aware that his life invalidates his profession of faith, but we are to do so in a manner that encourages him to turn from his sin. We should treat him as we would treat an unbeliever, with love and exhortations to trust in Christ.
Passages for Further Study