I have some thought questions about fellowship in the digital age. We usually see fellowship being withdrawn from only those within a local congregation. But today Christians across the globe can have a close, personal, instant relationship via text, email, phone, social media, etc. In that sense, can fellowship be had between faithful members of the Church who have never met face to face? Can the fellowship be withdrawn from by removing those avenues of interaction even if they aren’t in close proximity?
Say there is a well known brother in Christ who has shown to be unfaithful? If the sin (such as false teaching) was public, the withdrawing followed and he is “marked” per 2 Thessalonians 3:14, how would those outside of his home congregation be able to fellowship him? If he no longer walks in the light per 1 John 1, how are those who are walking in the light to treat him?
In Matthew 18:15-17, both congregational and individual disfellowship was commanded to brethren who were proven to be unrepentantly in sin and who had already been admonished several times, including by the entire church.
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, congregational disfellowship was commanded towards a brother whose unrepentant immorality was already known by all. Taking passages such as Matthew 18 and Galatians 6:1 into account, it can be surmised that before final withdrawing he would have been admonished and urged to repent by individuals and the church. 2 Corinthians 2 shows that this worked and he later wanted to be restored.
2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15 commanded both congregational and individual disfellowship towards any Christian proven to not follow the Word unrepentantly. Again, earlier rebuking and exhorting to repent would be required before final disfellowship due to Matthew 18 and Galatians 6. Similar commands to withdraw in Romans 16:17-18 would also need to have Matthew 18 and Galatians 6 applied to them first. Note also that the Thessalonians passage says to not treat the withdrawn one as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
Timothy, an individual Christian, was commanded to himself “avoid” those caught up in various sins (2 Tim. 3:1ff), and to teach the church as a whole to do the same (1 Tim. 3:14-15; cf. 1:3ff). Titus, likewise, was commanded to both himself have nothing to do with sinful brethren after the first and second adnomition, and to teach the Cretan churches to do the same (Tit. 3:10-11).
So there is a case to be made for individual withdrawing of fellowship. However, whether it be individual or congregational, it is the final step of discipline, not the first. Sin must be proven, not assumed, before withdrawing of fellowship. Loving, tearful exhortation to repent must be made first and the brother must prove himself to be stubbornly unrepentant before withdrawing is done.
Concerning interaction via social media, there is something else to consider. If the only way you know someone, period, is through Facebook, then how well do you know them? Fellowship means sharing, partnership, having communion with someone, working together. If I’m talking with someone online whom I’ve never met and they say they are a Christian, I have only their word which they have given via what they’ve said online that they are my brother in Christ. I’ve never met them face to face, and might never do so. I can surmise as much as is possible within my human limitations what they believe and what kind of person they are, but there would still be much about them that I do not know and will never know due to the fact that we have extremely limited interaction solely on Facebook.
So if they as a Christian are caught up in some unrepentant sin, how am I to know about it? If they were even to be withdrawn from by their home congregation, it is likely that I would never know about it. God understands this. He knows all, and knows that many things slip by us (1 Tim. 5:24-25).