“Context and Withdrawal”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

There is no error more dangerous to the Bible student than overlooking the context of a passage.  Though all of us know the temptation to proof-text, many of the most pernicious false doctrines of all time arose because someone prioritized the verse over the context.

Of course, dismissing the context doesn’t always lead us into apostasy.  Sometimes, it merely leads us to miss the point.  This is probably true for most brethren when it comes to Matthew 18:15-18.  We know this one as the withdrawal-process passage.  It lays out the steps that you have to go through before you can cross a brother off the membership rolls who is “walking disorderly”.

A look at context, though, sheds a different light on these four verses.  In Matthew 18:1-5, Jesus informs us that we have to become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  In vs. 6-9, He warns us about the dire punishment that will come upon one who causes such a child to stumble and emphasizes how far we must go to avoid such a fate.  In vs. 10-14, He highlights the value of every such child to their heavenly Father.  Even vs. 21-35 show how important God’s children are by explaining the lengths to which we must go in forgiving them.

In sum, the context of Matthew 18 is about the value of every child of God.  Every.  Single.  One.  If our reading of vs. 15-18 also does not reaffirm that importance (and it usually doesn’t), we’ve overlooked something vital.

Read in context, vs. 15-18 isn’t the bureaucratic process for excluding a Christian from fellowship.  Instead, Jesus is setting out the lengths to which we must go to try to rescue an erring child of God, because every one of them is that precious.

When we see a Christian who looks like they’re getting in trouble, we don’t gossip about them with our friends or wait quietly for the elders to get involved.  We go to them ourselves.  We act immediately, just as we would act immediately if hackers got hold of the password to our bank account.

If that doesn’t get through to them, we’re supposed to return with reinforcements, bringing in others in a desperate effort to avert calamity.  If that doesn’t work, we are supposed to involve the entire congregation.  Only then, only after we have done everything we possibly could do, to no avail, are we allowed to consider that Christian as though they are no longer part of us.

Too often, we follow the letter of the law here while ignoring its spirit.  One Christian learns of another brother in sin.  He informs the elders, who send the erring brother a letter that gets ignored.  The elders announce to the church that the wayward member isn’t responding to correction, and two weeks later, they read another letter which they have used to inform him that he has been withdrawn from.  None of this produces any outward result because the brother in question stopped assembling six months ago.

Does this follow the form of Matthew 18:15-18? 

It does. 

Does it honor the Lord’s intent?

Absolutely not.