In our last article, we looked at the implications of the Matthew 18 “process” for recovery. It challenges our commitment to the fight against sin and our fundamental love of our brother. Just a bit of unfinished business. I’d like to take a quick look at the job of “witnesses” before we deal with this article’s focus — delivering unto Satan.
It’s easy for us to confuse the role of witnesses with how one serves as a witness in a judicial trial. The role of witnesses under Man’s rule is associated with gathering evidence or verifying what was or wasn’t done by the defendant. That view has more similarity to the role of witnesses under the Law, However, the role of the witness under the Law of Christ operates much differently.
First of all, witnesses under the Law of Moses were primarily involved in verification of facts in order to assess and confirm punishment. This is what the Law of Moses says about witnesses:
“If there be found among you, within any of thy gates which the Lord thy God giveth thee, man or woman, that hath wrought wickedness in the sight of the Lord thy God, in transgressing his covenant, And hath gone and served other gods, and worshipped them, either the sun, or moon, or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded; And it be told thee, and thou hast heard of it, and enquired diligently, and, behold, it be true, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought in Israel: Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die. At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death. The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you” (Deut 17:2-7).
Under the Law, witnesses were gathered to establish guilt. Witnesses were themselves directly involved in the execution of the sentence.
That doesn’t sound much like the role of witnesses today does it? When the Jews brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery to Jesus, she was accompanied by witnesses. The account in John 8 would give us the impression that there were a good number of witnesses and there may have been a variation in age. They were doing what they thought they should do in order to attempt to trap Jesus. They brought one caught in a sin unto death before him. Under the Law, assuming the witnesses were correct, she was to die — as was the man who had been with her, who they conveniently left out of the confrontation! But Jesus masterfully teaches these elders a lesson about forgiveness as well as a critical lesson for us about being witnesses. Jesus does not deny the sin. Rather, he asks for the one without sin to cast the first stone. One by one, seemingly by age, they all walk away. Jesus then tells the woman, who certainly sounds repentant, “Neither do I condemn thee: go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
What can we take from this story about witnesses? The witnesses had borne an accurate witness — there is no denial of the charge (though what of the man involved?). Jesus saw this as an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson — that even this convicted woman, if she repented, could go and sin no more. The Law wasn’t designed for punishment, but for leading men to repentance and righteousness. The role of the witnesses, as applied to Matthew 18, is chiefly a restorative process. They are not brought into the situation in some forensic way to establish guilt. Their chief role is to teach and to rebuke — much as a priest would help one overcome with sin.
Based on this, how might we consider the selection of witnesses today? First, the ideal witnesses are those who are sincerely concerned about the spiritual welfare and eternal life of the wayward brother. Since their primary purpose is to restore, do they have the skills requisite for this task? Are they apt to teach and strong in the Word? Does the offending brother know them and perhaps have experience with them? Do they understand their role as witnesses? Will they keep this confidential? Will their testimony to the ecclesia be acceptable?
Just as the first step of confidentially approaching the brother one-on-one is a great act of faithfulness and love, so also is the work of the witnesses. Their work is to guide, to demonstrate Scriptural principles. Only when they are unsuccessful in bringing about repentance will they take the matter to others outside this exclusive communication team.
In our ecclesias today, many faithful brothers and sisters serve in the capacity of witnesses. Their work is seldom recognized or even known across the ecclesia — and they would have it no other way. He who agrees to serve in this capacity is one who has a genuine love of the brother or sister, recognizes the gravity of the situation, is able to control his/her emotions and tongue, and knows how to apply Scriptural wisdom. They are treasured resources in our midst!
We now move on to consider the final ecclesial step of correction, potentially leading to withdrawal.
Before looking at Scriptural direction on this, we begin with a couple of comments about the age we live in. Too often we hear that some ecclesias are not “disfellowshipping ecclesias.” Some say that withdrawal only drives people away and has no practical value for restoration. This sounds much more like the influence of Humanism in our midst than it does sound dividing of Scripture. Did not the Lord himself provide us with these processes? We must accept that our Lord understands sin and repentance far better than we. Are we going to trust in his judgment or our own? It is as straightforward a question as that.
Maya Angelou, the American poet and author, once wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I have witnessed this on many occasions in ecclesial life. Perhaps one of the reasons we have such a negative view about withdrawal is because it is often done at a point where unfortunate things have been said and feelings have been hurt. The standard for Matthew 18, as we have said previously, is all about love and restoration. We need not reach the point of withdrawal with frustration and anger. This last step of discipline must be a witness of the love and concern we have for our brother or sister.
There are really three ways that we are involved with judgment:
First, there is the ongoing judgment of ourselves — an important signal of Spiritual health. We ought to judge ourselves, that we be not judged. We must examine ourselves against righteous principles and standards.
A second judgment is the Lord’s chastening, designed to shake us out of complacency and to return to judging ourselves appropriately.
Then there is the final judgment, which will bring condemnation on those who do not judge themselves.
Sadly, when we are overcome with sin, we often find that self-examination is broken in our lives. We no longer can look at our lives with spiritual discernment. Our pride stands in the way of accurate assessment. The flesh is dominating our mind’s operation. If this continues, we become callous to sin. When confronted with our sin, we may become rebellious. The natural, healthy process for Saints is one where there is a continual self-monitoring against sin. While we confess that even our own hearts may deceive us, there is great value in looking at our lives diagnostically and with the right standards in view.
When we reach the stage where one overcome in sin has been unwilling to hear a faithful brother, then witnesses, and finally the ecclesia, the self-examination process is completely disabled. Rebellion has taken its place. Until the flesh is brought under some modicum of control, a fleshly mind cannot please God and is at enmity against God. For this mind, a complete reversal of thinking must occur. The flesh must be crushed and the brother restored once again to a mind that operates in harmony with our Lord’s.
Paul’s message to Corinth about the incestuous man in their ecclesia is a case study for this restorative process. A review of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 would tell us that the sin of fornication was continuing in the ecclesia and that the ecclesia had not taken adequate action (if any) to address it. Paul wrote to them to take immediate action with the unrepentant man, removing him from the ecclesia and suspending all social activity with him. The situation in Corinth was quite grave. Not only was this man involved in a sin unto death, but the effects of this sin were now being felt in the ecclesia, like a canker, and it was spilling outside the ecclesia to the general population of the city, tarnishing the reputation of the Truth in the city.
Paul’s words to Corinth throughout his first epistle indicated that there were a number of serious problems brewing. The ecclesia had been a remarkable story — growing rapidly in a difficult pagan environment. The change in lives of brothers and sisters from the morass of evil would have been perhaps unlike anything we have experienced. But, it appears that there was pride bubbling up! In 1 Corinthians 4:18, it would appear that the leaders had started to think that the success of the ecclesia was their own doing and that they no longer needed the counsel and words of Paul. One wonders if they had begun to rely on their own sense of what was right and wrong and had begun to depart from sound application of the Word itself? Perhaps this case of the incestuous man had a number of extenuating circumstances? Was the father part of the ecclesia? Did the father have a number of wives? Was the woman in question a believer? Was it an unwanted relationship by the woman? Were there family connections that made this a “sticky” item to address?
Maybe we could find in this list of possibilities one or more areas for us to consider in our own ecclesias? Do we push aside Scripture and contemplate what must be done based on what “feels right” to us? Do we allow blood relationships and ecclesial family influences to cloud our judgment? Do we fail to take urgent action because it is unpleasant? If so, we really need to listen to Paul’s counsel in Corinth.
The counsel of Paul was 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” (1Cor 5:5). It’s a very curious phrase isn’t it? The world has a superstitious view of a supernatural Satan that entices one into sin. Here, the errant brother is delivered to Satan for the DESTRUCTION of the flesh in order that the brother may be saved.
Destruction of the flesh
So, what does this really mean to us in our ecclesias? Bro. Carter wrote:
“One of the objects of withdrawal is corrective and disciplinary — in the apostle’s language a delivering to Satan for the destruction of the flesh (1Cor 5:5), delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme. It is a judgment and as such must be made carefully and modestly; it is saying in effect, “Your behavior is so far short of the standard required of members of the body of Christ, that we feel compelled to dissociate ourselves from it and show our disapproval in the way the apostles have enjoined. If it is done arrogantly its effect upon the offender might be the very opposite of that desired and indeed aimed at. It must be done with sadness and regret at its necessity. If so performed it should have the effect of bringing home to the offending brother or sister the gravity of their position, without making them feel they are treated as enemies, but rather admonished as brethren (2Thess 3:15).”1
When we withdraw from our brother, it is a serious matter. We do so because the Lord has instructed us that there is no other way for restoration. It must become apparent to the withdrawn brother what he is forfeiting now, and potentially in the Lord’s Kingdom. It demands that we not send wrong or misleading messages. They are not just being restricted from the bread and wine, but from our very fellowship.
This message is diluted, not strengthened, when we continue to act as if nothing has really changed. Our fellowship is made up on many activities — Bible classes, Bible Schools, Fraternal Gatherings, Study Days, Bible Campaigns, public seminars, social events, and receiving ecclesial newsletters. When withdrawn brothers and sisters continue to be involved in these activities, it is not the spirit of Matthew 18 (let him be to thee as a publican or a heathen) or Paul’s counsel to the ecclesia in Corinth.
What we are fundamentally doing is reintroducing the conversion process, placing the individual back in a world of darkness that they may once again see light. It is not punitive, but disciplinary — to chasten, to teach, to “destroy the flesh” to be “saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This is a critical action to be taken with an unrepentant sinner. It is an acknowledgement that all efforts have failed and we must now turn this over to the Lord for the discipline and destruction of the flesh. It is in the Lord’s hands.
Paul’s counsel in Corinth was to put away that wicked man, to not even eat with him. As we compare 2 Corinthians 2, which appears to be a later account that focuses on this incestuous man, it appears that the ecclesia did follow through with Paul’s instruction — at least the majority. The word in 2 Corinthians 2:6 is translated as “punishment.” But the Oxford KJV margin offers “censure.” The censure was inflicted of many. We must wonder how the censure took place in Corinth? Did they fraternize with him? Was he involved in ecclesial events? I doubt this. Rather, in 2 Corinthians we find this man now humbled and repentant. The risk now was that he might be “swallowed up with overmuch sorrow.” The Corinthians were to pro-actively go to him, confirming their love. What about forgiveness? The word used by Paul for this repentant brother is charizomai — to forgive unconditionally.
In this man’s life, the Lord had worked with him and so had the ecclesia. It had become clear to the man that the choice of continuing in the sin of fornication was also a choice to reenter into the depravity from which he had once escaped. He would not enjoy the fellowship of his brethren and he was headed to rejection at the day of the Lord.
It’s interesting to note how the Lord works in our lives when we are “delivered unto Satan.” Perhaps it is useful to go back to the life of Job, who indeed was delivered over to Satan. What were the tools of the destruction of the flesh for Job? First he lost his possessions. Then his family. Then his health was removed. His closest and most intimate counselors — his wife and his friends — failed to be of any redeeming help. He was falsely accused by his brethren. All these (and more) are the methods our Lord uses when he works with us to bring about the destruction of the flesh. Alas, not all will come to their senses and return to the Lord. But, the Lord is in control and he will do what is right.
Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar is a fascinating example of a similar process of restoration. God had given him the dominion of the nations and elevated him to lead the most powerful nation on earth. Yet, his heart was filled with pride as he declared, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and the honor of my majesty?” Daniel’s record in 5:20-21 describes how a palace revolt occurs, and “they took his glory from him.” He was driven from men and his heart was made like the beasts until seven times passed over. We can only imagine the terrible experience this once great King went through — rejected by his own people, without a home, and in a state of madness. Yet, while he would have certainly appeared non-redeemable to the people, God was working mightily in Nebuchadnezzar, crushing his foolish pride and fleshly thinking. Daniel’s record provides us with the very words of the restored King. We are told that at the end of these days, he “lifted his eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me and I blessed the Most High…” (Dan 4:34).The madness now gone, he was of a sound mind and suddenly he possessed a clarity of mind that could only occur by a spiritual transformation. The flesh had been destroyed. No matter how bleak the situation, no matter how unlikely it may appear that our brother or sister will ever desire the Truth again once they have left, the most High still rules in the kingdoms of men and for “those who walk in pride, he is able to abase” (Dan 4:37).
When we withdraw fellowship, we hand over those most intimate in our lives to our Lord. It is a period of time where the Lord will work with our brother or sister to crush their pride and destroy their fleshly thinking — to help them to clearly see what is lost. This is an absolute requirement for restoration. We must not invalidate that message by acting as if the breach is not real and that life can continue as it always was. But, we must take this action in a spirit of love. If we do this, the pathway back to repentance and the ecclesia is much easier.
Hymenaeus and Philetus were withdrawn from in Thessalonica for the destruction of the flesh. It is clear that this bold measure was required to teach them a lesson that they could not learn while they were in fellowship.
In our next article, we will look at the topic of restoration and how we might consider the re-entry of our brothers and sisters into our ecclesias. But, I’d like to leave you with the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s unlikely that this young man had a grand plan in place to ruin his life. Few do. Rather, he made a series of bad decisions. He left his father’s house and went off to spend his inheritance on lifestyle that must have, for a time, brought him pleasure. But, spiritually he was dead. However, in the parable the Lord worked with him to bring about repentance. At the same time that the money ran out, a famine gripped the land. In desperation he joins himself to a Gentile. The Gentile puts him into a job that was below what this man ever thought his life could spiral down to — actually feeding the swine for a Gentile! On top of that, he was struck with a hunger he had never experienced while living with his father. At that point of utter desperation — he came to himself.
This is our prayer for our friends, siblings, children, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers that may have slipped away under the control of the flesh. We pray that the strong arm of the Lord will touch them and bring them to repentance. We are to pray without ceasing for them. Not in some generic format, but specifically, and by name. May they never be forgotten in our ecclesias or our prayers. Only the Lord can remove a guilty conscience when poor choices are made in our lives. He heals us by transforming us from minds wracked with paralyzing feelings of guilt to freed spiritual minds that are likened to having a “sprinkled conscience.” In the days that remain, let us pray brethren that the Lord will heal us all!
David Jennings (Pomona, CA)
1. The Christadelphian, 1961, p. 323.