Does the New Testament ever advocate limiting social contact with another believer?
Romans 14:1-15:6 teaches the necessity of preserving unity among believers by receiving one another to eat meals together. If verses 5, 14, 15 in chapter 16 refer to three separate churches in Rome, then social contact among believers also preserves a right relationship among assemblies in an area.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-165 in notably different. The apostle advocates limiting social contact with certain believers. The believers who were not working, using the Lords coming as their reason, were becoming busy-bodies, adversely affecting the heavier of others. If they would not obey Pauls teaching in this letter (verse 14), the believers were to withdraw from them (Verse 6) and have no company with them (Verse 14). This discipline within the assembly could be called “social discipline.”
In addition, the words, “have no company,” are the same as in 1 Corinthians 5:9 and 11. There in verse 11, “have no company: includes “with such an one, no not to eat.” Both 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Corinthians 5 are assembly actions. Social division in the assembly is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament, but social discipline is not a decision by individuals, but by the assembly.
Does excommunication involve two forms of discipline?
Because of the nature of the sins listed in 1 Corinthians 5, the individual must be put away to cleanse Gods temple. Sins of the kind mentioned there cannot coexist with Gods presence. Since 2 Thessalonians 3:14 shows that social discipline (“with such an one, no not to eat”, 1 Corinthians 5:11), is a form of discipline in itself, two forms of discipline are imposed when an individual is excommunicated. Social discipline can be imposed by itself (2 Thessalonians 3:14), but excommunication cannot. Pauls instruction regarding excommunication joins social discipline with putting a person away.
As in 2 Thessalonians 3, a potential problem in Corinth was that the sin in the assembly could adversely affect the behavior of others, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (verse 6). For this reason, the believers were to have no company with the offender in order to protect the assembly. Both forms of discipline are also to promote the persons recovery. The passage in 2 Thessalonians indicates that social discipline is to make him ashamed verse 14), to see the wrong of his behavior. There is a contrast between them, however. In 2 Thessalonians he is to be admonished as a brother (verse 15). 1 Corinthians merely states that he is “called a brother.” His is put away and is on the same ground as a heathen man and a publican (Matthew 18:17).
Can social discipline be lifted for a person who has been put away from the assembly?
Social discipline is intended to preserve other believers from doing what the offender has done. When the excommunicated person changes his behavior., social contact with the other assembly believers no longer poses any threat to their behavior. For example, when a couple put away for fornication marries, they no longer endanger the behavior of others. On occasion the excommunicated individual chooses to remove himself from contact with believers, perhaps going back into the world. In that case, 1 Corinthians 5:9, 10 applies. He is no longer in the class of those from whom believers must withdraw.
In Matthew 18:18, the Lord teaches that, because the Lord is in the midst (verse 20), the assembly must carry out Gods mind on earth. Through Gods Word, the decision of God in heaven and the assembly on earth are the to the same. The assembly imposes discipline (“whatsoever ye shall bind”) and exempts from or lift discipline (“/whatsoever ye shall loose”) in concert with heaven. The social discipline in 2 Thessalonians 3 was temporary until the behavior changed. Therefore, the Lord intends the social discipline in both 2 Thessalonians 3 and 1 Corinthians 5 to be lifted at the appropriate time.
The assembly applied the Word of God, binding the discipline. The assembly is now to apply the Word of God in lifting or loosing the discipline, thus carrying out the Lords mind on earth. Just as the discipline is not an act of the overseers, but of the assembly, and has been handled in the presence of all the assembly, so lifting the discipline should be handled in the same way.
How will the assembly know when social discipline should be lifted?
This involves a subjective judgment by the overseers in guiding the assembly. As shepherds they know the spiritual state of the disciplined person and have an ongoing interest in bringing that individual back to the Lord and eventually to the assembly. Even if there is no spiritual recovery, shepherds, who see the wanderers, will know that the time comes that he wondering offender no longer endangers other believers with this behavior.
Social discipline is not intended to heap shame on a person for all the years of his life, but to cause him to be ashamed that his sin has had such serious results and has endangered others. When his behavior no longer endangers others, it is time to end the shame and lift the social discipline.