Who Is My Brother: Part III

December 2, 2006

As a review of recent posts, Who Is My Brother by F. LaGard Smith is subdivided into three parts:

Part I: The Quiet Revolution
Part II: Five-fold Fellowship

Part III: Rethinking Sacred Cows

In Part III, Smith discusses the withdrawal of fellowship, or disfellowship. Illustrating with a famous court case following a disfellowship action in 1984, he demonstrates that biblical disfellowship is not accepted in our modern culture, but nonetheless we must practice it in certain scenarios. The key question is, which are those scenarios?

After referring to Matt 18:15-17, 1 Cor 5:1-13, Titus 3:10, and 2 Thess 3:6, he states:

Undoubtedly, this list is not exhaustive, but merely suggestive of any number of similar situations which merit action on the part of the church against one of its members.

He concludes that disfellowship is justified whenever there is a threat not only to the individual Christian but also to the church corporately.

I have a different view. Disfellowship is such an extreme step that it should only be taken when explicitly authorized by scripture. Clearly the members of the Corinthian church had many sins and doctrinal problems, but the scriptures tell only of one brother singled out for disfellowship. By taking these scenarios as “merely suggestive” we invite an escalation of disfellowship far beyond the examples seen in scripture.

Matt 18 is different from the other passages cited in an important respect. It addresses a case where one Christian sins against another. The offended individual is given instructions on how to proceed toward reconciliation. When repentance does not result after the final step, that individual is instructed as follows:

Mat 18:17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. (KJV)

I quote from the KJV because it distinguishes between singular and plural “you”. Here the instruction is to “let him be unto thee…” The pronoun is singular. Only one person is instructed to treat him as a tax collector and a sinner. So I am not convinced that this justifies exclusion from the church. In fact, by maintaining fellowship, the rest of the church could have a powerful positive effect to bring about repentance and reconciliation over time.

On the other hand, in cases where behavior is divisive or otherwise destructive to the church, a more general shunning is taught (Rom 16:17, Titus 3:10, 2 John 9-10). And in certain specified cases of sin (1 Cor 5), the offending brother is to be expelled. Left unaddressed, that sin could infect the entire church:

1 Cor 5:6b Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?

But Smith says that these passages do not support the kind of disfellowship epidemic that has been seen in churches of Christ over doctrinal disagreements:

In the absence of some divisive crusade leading to dissension and strife, mere differences in doctrinal understanding are not a cause for disfellowship. [p. 186]

On the other hand, he points out that the practice of biblical disfellowship is nearly abandoned in today’s church. He identifies the “first stone syndrome”, the idea that only those who are not guilty themselves can initiate the process, as a major cause. Churches need to do some soul searching to see if we have truly become so corrupt that we cannot perform biblical discipline.

In the subsequent section, F. LaGard Smith addresses the mean-spirited way in which many people treat those with whom they disagree. Smith painfully details the treatment he and others have received from those who disagree with them on various topics. He discusses a controversy over whether or not God has prerogative to save whomever he wants. And in the epilogue, he closes with an open letter to Max Lucado, a heartfelt appeal on the subject of baptism. I won’t go into the details of that letter. But F LaGard Smith leaves no doubt that he loves and respects Max Lucado. Yet he feels Max goes too far in reaching out to the unbaptized believers. In the letter he demonstrates a better way to disagree. That alone makes the book worth reading.

But there is much more. I have struggled with how to summarize a book that is so full of profound and compelling ideas. This book is a must read for every leader in churches of Christ. May we all come to a better understanding of “Who Is My Brother?”


  1. David Bercot addresses church disipline in his CD series. Probably one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject I have ever heard. Sincerely, Phil RestorationUnity.com

  2. I wasn’t aware of his CD series, though I have read a couple of his books. Sounds like something worth checking out.

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