Text: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
Read also: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13

Christians are called to be saints (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2). The word saints (hagios) literally means “holy ones”. Thus, all believers in Christ are called to a life of holiness and separation from all forms of sin, wickedness, disobedience and unbelief.

Some would readily accept that Christians should separate from unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1), false teachers (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 John 9-11), and the ungodly philosophy and system of the world (1 John 2:15-17). But what about separation from Christian brethren?

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 teaches us that separation from Christian brethren is sometimes necessary:

“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. 7 For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; 8 Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: 9 Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. 10 For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. 11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. 12 Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 13 But ye, brethren, be not weary in well doing. 14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

Note the use of the term “command” in verse 6. Paul is not offering a suggestion or an opinion. This separation from brethren is demanded of us and the Thessalonian Christians in the light of the holiness of God.

Paul describes the brethren from whom we are to separate as “disorderly” (ataktos). This is a military term which describes soldiers who are “out of rank” with command. In the context of the Thessalonian Church, these were those who misunderstood and misapplied the doctrine of the return of Christ (see 2 Thess. 2:1-2). Instead of being spiritually alert and sober, these brethren became idlers and busybodies (v.10-11). These were physically and mentally able brethren, but chose to shirk work, expecting the church to feed and support them. In fact, this was not the first time Paul had addressed the issue. Paul had earlier admonished the loafers in 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12, but they refused to listen. Thus, they have brazenly rejected the traditions (paradosin), that is, the apostolic teachings that have been handed down to them. This is a public rebellion against God. If left unchecked, these disorderly brethren will not only destroy themselves, but lead others into error.

Paul commanded the congregation to “withdraw” themselves from every brother that walks out of rank. The command to withdraw (stellō) means to “shun”, “avoid” and “keep one’s distance”. The idea of separation is clear. The Thessalonian Christians are not to have any dealings or company with any who is stubbornly in error (v.14). Moreover, Paul tells us that we ought to do so with every brother. We are not to pick and choose whom we withdraw from. Even if we may have close relationship with a brother due to many years of friendship, we must still love the Lord above all and separate from him. “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10:37-38)

Some will argue that it is unloving to dissociate from the brother. In fact, Paul tells us that if we love our disorderly brother, we ought to separate from him (v.15). Before the separation, the disorderly brother was brazened and unashamed of his ways. Separation thus serves as an admonishment, rebuke and instruction to his erroneous ways. The hope is that he will experience shame for his error and repent. Separation is not meant to destroy but to help the brother.

Leviticus 19:17 says, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” The first step to help a brother is to instruct and confront gently but firmly concerning his error. However, if he is recalcitrant and publicly rebellious, then sadly the only way forward is to dissociate oneself from him. In this case, to continue associating with the recalcitrant would only make him comfortable with his sin and embolden further in his downward spiral. According to Leviticus 19:17, this is not love but hatred. What the brother needs is to be restored to a right fellowship with God, but we are only serving to tear him further away from the Saviour.

On our part, we must also make sure we understand the purpose and motive of separation from disorderly brethren. Remember that it is not done to destroy, but to restore. It must never be done in a spirit of pride and bitterness. What we are seeking is for the recalcitrant to turn back to the Lord, and not to promote our own “pseudo-holiness”.

In summary, separation from disorderly brethren is not a suggestion, opinion or denominational distinctive, but a command and requirement. We do so because we love the Lord and the brethren. Separating from a disobedient brother serves to (1) protect the testimony and purity of the church; (2) prevent the disorderly brother from influencing others to walk in error; (3) encourage others to follow biblical doctrine and practice and (4) provoke the disobedient brother unto repentance and thus be restored to a right fellowship with God.

Biblical separation rightly practiced is love.

Yours affectionately,
Pastor Clement Chew