What does it mean to ‘not associate with’ an unrepentant person?

When Jesus laid out the steps to be taken in church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20, he had this to say regarding the last step in dealing with an unrepentant person:

If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church.[a] If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you.

Matthew 18:17, CSB

What does Jesus mean by this? How are we supposed to treat such an unrepentant person like a tax collector or Gentile?

The fact that Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience under the old covenant here is significant. Jews did not generally associate with Gentiles lest they become unclean. Nor did they associate with tax collectors because they were considered to be traitors, working for the Romans and lining their own pockets by taking from their own people. When Jesus says to his Jewish audience to treat an unrepentant person like a Gentile or tax collector, he is quite clearly telling them to keep away from them altogether. They are not to be invited in like brothers and treated like friends.

Speaking to a Christian audience, Paul expands on this in 1 Corinthians 5, dealing with a specific issue of public sin:

I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10 I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11 But actually, I wrote[d] you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister and is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12 For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13 God judges outsiders. Remove the evil person from among you.[e]

Paul is clear that the church are not to associate with those who bear the name of Christ – claiming to be his follower – but who live in such a way as to undermine his gospel. Those who claim to be believers but unrepentantly continue in sin are, Paul says, not to be associated with. Even to the point of not even eating with them. Whilst removing that person from membership, as Paul says to do, should also entail eating the Lord’s Supper together, this must extend beyond this too. When we read of the early church breaking bread together daily in houses, one gets the impression here that Paul is suggesting that sort of thing ought to stop until there is some repentance on the part of the unrepentant person.

The difficulty, of course, is that someone who is so unrepentant is showing themselves to be an unbeliever in reality. But if we want that unbeliever to be brought to repentance, and we want them to come to Christ and lead them to repentance, we cannot cut them off altogether. We necessarily need to speak to them and let them access opportunities to engage with the gospel if we have any hope of winning them back. And that, after all, is the ultimate goal of church discipline. This begs a question: how do we maintain the distinction that this unrepentant person cannot be treated as a believer whilst leaving the door open to opportunities for them to repent and turn to Christ again?

In the first instance, this necessitates meaningful church discipline. As Jesus commands, we must remove the person from membership of the church. This sends the message that the church no longer affirms them as a believer.

Along with that removal from membership should come removal of the Lord’s Supper. One who is not a believer ought not to be partaking. Minimally, when Paul says not to even eat with such a one, whilst not exclusively, he must have the Lord’s Supper in mind. If the Lord’s Supper is the mean by which the church draws a boundary around itself and says ‘here sit Christians’ and outside of this is the world, we necessarily should not welcome such a person to take the Lord’s Supper. It is partly for this reason I believe the Lord’s Supper is exclusively for members of local churches in good standing. If we hold to a self-examination position, we have no grounds to stop an unrepentant person who self-examines and determines themselves fine – even in the face of church discipline and removal from membership – from joining in. But if the church wish not to affirm someone as a believer they ought to remove the supper from the one they have removed from membership, to do anything else is to eat with one Paul says not to eat or associate with.

Beyond these more formal things, there necessarily must be some impact on our fellowship outside of the church. Jesus’ ‘treat them as tax collectors and Gentiles’ or Paul’s ‘not to associate’ must actually mean something in practice. We can’t simply say that this person isn’t a believer, we want believers to repent and hear the gospel, so we will continue to treat them in exactly the same way. That renders Jesus and Paul’s comments null and void. At the same time, we do want them to be brought to repentance and that must involve some ongoing interaction.

It is my view this means that continuing in friendship as friends – hanging out with the person outside of church as if they have done nothing wrong – is entirely inappropriate. Meeting up for meals and doing the sort of things we do with those we are in good relationships with are not appropriate. Those things cannot be restored until such time as there has been repentance.

That doesn’t mean we do not ever see the person. They should be welcome to come to the public meetings of the church and hear the gospel. And it may well be that members of the church legitimately continue to meet with this person. But those meetings are not ones whereby they shoot the breeze and act as though there is no issue. Rather, those meetings must include continuing to call the person to repentance and holding out the gospel to which they must respond if they will be restored to fellowship.

I don’t think ‘do not associate with’ means ‘never ever see’. Association implies belonging together. It suggests good relations. It ought to be possible to see this person without giving the impression we are properly associated together. We should be able to meet with the person, share the gospel afresh with them and make clear that their lack of repentance is what is causing the rift between them, the Lord and his people.

Again, the aim of any meeting ought to be to restore the person to fellowship. For them to be restored, they need to repent. To bring them to repentance, we cannot simply hang out as though nothing has gone on and there is no rift. But in order to achieve this, we will have to see them at least some of the time to make these things clear.