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Opinion by Mark Tabladillo
Atlanta, GA


How to "Disfellowship" or Excommunicate based on Titus 3 -- Version 2.0

For decades, the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) has built a tradition called "disfellowshipping" which it has used to separate individuals from its ministry and membership. This policy has the same net result of what some people call excommunication.

However, the means and methods by which WCG has practiced this policy have been largely undisclosed to not only the membership but also the ministry as well. This secrecy has been compounded by two historical problems: 1) the word "disfellowship" (or "disfellowshipped" or "disfellowshipping") does not appear in the English bible (any version), and 2) there is no official WCG literature providing a biblical explanation of why this policy is used and how it builds a strong church. The former problem makes it almost impossible for Christians to independently arrive at the same policy based on the Bible alone, and the latter problem demonstrates that this doctrine has been based more on tradition than scripture.

Many ministers and members believe that "disfellowshipping" has been derived from a number of texts, most notably I Corinthians 5. The purpose of this webpage is to derive a "how-to" manual of disfellowshipping from Titus 3, and also explain the organizational and social dynamics which are revealed in this short passage of text.

Before this specific passage is examined, it is noted that there are other New and Old Testament verses which could provide some basis for "disfellowshipping" -- such material will be covered in other webpages.

Version 2.0 answers the question of whether Titus applies to elders or to the congregation.


What does Titus 3 Say?

Titus 3 contains several verses which are of interest, starting in verse 3:

(Titus 3:3 NIV) At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

(Titus 3:4 NIV) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,

(Titus 3:5 NIV) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,

(Titus 3:6 NIV) whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,

(Titus 3:7 NIV) so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3:8 NIV) This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

(Titus 3:9 NIV) But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

(Titus 3:10 NIV) Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.

(Titus 3:11 NIV) You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.


How to Disfellowship

Titus 3:3 starts a history lesson of how the Christians were all once disobedient, but by the grace (free gift) of God, he saved us through his mercy. This salvation is not the product of anything we did or do now. God washes the Christian pure by the symbolic water of the Holy Spirit, made possible only by Jesus Christ the Savior.

Paul also reminds us of the future hope of all Christians: eternal life. This whole section is provided as a reminder for why Christians should be completely devoted to doing good. This is the essence of the good news which Christians can spread to others.

Paul then contrasts the above with foolish controversies, genealogies, and arguments and quarrels about the law. These three specific areas could cause a Christian to miss the important essentials listed in the preceding passage.

1. The elder instructs the congregation to warn a divisive person first. With specific reference to the three areas of division listed in verse nine, Paul wants the congregation to take action and warn the divisive person that they are causing division. Paul had earlier told the congregation to encourage and rebuke with all authority (Titus 2:15). Note that Paul is not responding to a specific incident, but instead is giving general instruction for the congregation to follow as necessary. It would be the responsibility of the congregation to identify such situations, because Paul wants them to be generally aware that such situations could happen.

2. The elder instructs the congregation to warn a divisive person a second time. The second warning follows an unheeded first warning.

3. The elder instructs the people to have nothing to do with him. The congregation would decide to place a divisive individual outside the congregation. Separation from the congregation, after two warnings from the congregation (not the elder), would be the way the community would establish a fair procedure for protecting itself from division. Note that the divisive person could be a believer or unbeliever, elder or not -- thus, these verses do not restrict the definition of "divisive person".


Does Titus 3 Apply to Elders or to the Congregation?

Having read the above material, a WCG minister wrote in private e-mail:

Just a quick question about the material on Titus. You continually refer to the "congregation" as being the responsible party. Isn't this letter to a person/pastor, Titus? Is the "you" plural? I have always assumed by the context that Paul was giving TITUS the instructions, not the congregation... What have I missed?

Titus is a book clearly written to an individual, as opposed to a book written to a congregation. I believe that the scripture is best interpreted as something which an individual elder should do as appropriate. By extension, the next best interpretation applies the scripture to an individual Christian, and the general advice to have nothing to do with a "divisive" individual would appear to be practical Christian living.

That the above passage would apply to a congregation, or group of Christians, is inferred (in my opinion) as a running theme of chapter three. The evidence comes from verse one which starts "Remind the people" and verse eight which reads "these things are excellent and profitable for everyone":

(Titus 3:1 NIV) Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,

(Titus 3:2 NIV) to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.

(Titus 3:3 NIV) At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another.

(Titus 3:4 NIV) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared,

(Titus 3:5 NIV) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,

(Titus 3:6 NIV) whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior,

(Titus 3:7 NIV) so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

(Titus 3:8 NIV) This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

(Titus 3:9 NIV) But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

(Titus 3:10 NIV) Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him.

(Titus 3:11 NIV) You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

By contrast, the traditional approach of some might be to apply a hybrid interpretation of Titus, where the first part applies to the elder, and the second part applies to the congregation.

To illustrate, some may read the first part as applying to the elder:

(Titus 3:9 NIV) But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

(Titus 3:10 NIV) Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time.

while the second part applies to the congregation:

(Titus 3:10 NIV) After that, have nothing to do with him.

This hybrid interpretation, given the above alternatives, is in my opinion the hardest to defend. Other New Testament passages indicate that "disfellowshipping" is not the first step, but rather the second step (and in Titus, the third step) after a serious attempt at reconciliation has been pursued. When the party (or parties) involved are charged with the warning, there is a clear understanding of 1) who the offender is, 2) what the crime is, and 3) why the crime might appropriately lead to separation from believers. Also, there is first an active participation in trying to remedy the situation before complete "disfellowshipping" (social and spiritual) is warranted.


Problems with Hybrid Interpretation

By contrast, attempts to follow a hybrid model can often lead to two problems. First, members of the congregation assume that the elders are charged with the warning and correction task for almost any offense (perceived or real). In this case, the advice starting in Matthew 18:15 is not followed in sequence.

(Mat 18:15 NIV) "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.

(Mat 18:16 NIV) But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'

(Mat 18:17 NIV) If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Any and all accusers must be ready to defend, from scripture if necessary, why a warning is heeded.

(1 Pet 3:15 NIV) But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,

(1 Pet 3:16 NIV) keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

(1 Pet 3:17 NIV) It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

In some cases the accuser might be perceiving a situation incorrectly, and when this mistaken impression is shared between two Christians in confidence, then embarrassment can be avoided. Following a hybrid interpretation provides individual Christians an automatic method of both avoiding confrontation and potential embarrassment: assume that someone else (namely your pastor) will execute justice. I believe God wants Christians to be actively involved in protecting their own community and also active in learning how to confront sin.

Hybrid interpretation can secondarily breed gossip. In this context, gossip can be defined as speaking about another Christian's problems with no personal plan or intention on taking corrective action. Certainly, Titus 3 does not absolve elders from confronting sin, but a hybrid interpretation might make some non-elder Christians believe that they individually have no responsibility to act. Perhaps these Christians might believe that if enough members of a congregation knew about a problem, then certainly the elder would take action for the community.

Matthew 18 does not allow for such liberty -- individuals are personally charged with confronting sin. Anyone with the Holy Spirit will automatically be lead to hate sin, and this energy should be used to directly confront and solve the problem, as opposed to spreading possibly rumors which may or may not be true.


Final Caveats

Finally, I believe that the role of the elder is to help the individual Christian to follow Jesus Christ, a role is clearly defined in Titus 3:

(Titus 3:1 NIV) Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,

(Titus 3:2 NIV) to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.

These two verses describe helpful advice in how to proceed with confrontation. It might be completely appropriate for an individual Christian to seek an elder's confidential advice on confrontation. Under this scenario, the elder's first role becomes a coach and advisor, not an executor.

As a practical reality, it is very unlikely that an elder would establish a 1 Timothy 3 lifestyle and reputation without having confronted Christians successfully in the past -- and perhaps even choosing to voluntarily dissociate from individuals who worked to divide their faith from Jesus Christ.

Thus, an elder can and should provide the loving instruction to enable the congregation to (in my opinion) both individually and as a group react appropriately toward sinful behavior. Such instruction is most important when the individual Christian may have a number of perceived barriers to cross in confronting sin, which might include age, sex, race, tenure in Christianity, and previous unrelated interpersonal problems. In truth, there is no barrier that the grace of Jesus Christ cannot cross:

(Gal 3:25 NIV) Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.

(Gal 3:26 NIV) You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,

(Gal 3:27 NIV) for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

(Gal 3:28 NIV) There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

(Gal 3:29 NIV) If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.


Conclusion

As in 1 Corinthians 5, these verses strongly lean on the judgment and responsibility of the congregation to protect itself from divisive people. The congregation is told to warn individuals twice, then "have nothing to do with" the divisive person. The congregation is left to collectively decide what is a "foolish controversy" or a divisive "genealogy" or "arguments and quarrels about the law." The excommunication is not carried out by Paul, the elder, but instead is left as the discretion of the congregation based on the general instruction given in Titus 3.


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Last Modified: July 15, 1997
Version 2.0: July 15, 1997 Page Created: June 23, 1997

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