There are reasons to believe that many Christians are uncertain as to the extent to which they should disassociate themselves from “sinful” people. However, because every person, including the most righteous Christians, is sinful to some extent, it is important to determine if the Bible provides guidance as to (a) the nature of the sins that should result in disassociation, (b) whether or not to disassociate from both Christians and non-Christians who commit these sins, and (c) the extent of the disassociation.
With regard to the nature of sins, we believe the Bible indicates that there are basically two types: (1) flagrant sins and (2) other sins. So, what is the definition of flagrant sin?
Webster’s Dictionary defines the term flagrant as “glaringly bad, notorious, outrageous.” However, the application of these definitions can vary from person to person and from one period of time to another. For example, some people today regard adulterous acts as justifiable under certain circumstances, whereas other people regard all acts of adultery as flagrant sins, regardless of the circumstances. And, essentially the same thing can be said with regard to excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages, homosexual relationships, recreational use of drugs, and a number of other behaviors. In any case, our society now seems to have much more tolerance for such behaviors than it did in previous generations, despite the fact that the Bible, either directly or indirectly, condemns such types of behavior.
Another term that needs to be defined in attempting to answer the primary question posed by this article is the verb associate. Webster’s relevant definition of this term is: “to bring (a person) into relationship with oneself or another as companion, partner, friend, etc.” And, according to Webster, a relationship in situations such as we are discussing pertains to “a continuing attachment or association between persons.”
Now, we will determine what the Bible says regarding Christians associating with sinners.
First Corinthians 5:9-13 is the primary scripture dealing with this matter. In the New King James Version of the Bible, this scripture declares,
I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person.
For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.”
To obtain additional perspective regarding the significance of 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, we will now consider what several Bible commentaries say. Particular attention should be given to whether or not each commentary addresses the extent to which Christians should avoid associating with people who are flagrantly sinful, including both those who are not Christians and those who profess to be Christians; i.e., whether disassociating should involve all relationships with such people or just close relationships with them.
John Calvin’s Commentary on the Bible provides the following perspective regarding 1 Corinthians 5:9-13,:
I wrote to you in an epistle. He [Paul] reminds the Corinthians of what he had already enjoined upon them — that they should refrain from intercourse with the wicked. For the word rendered to keep company with, means to be on terms of familiarity with any one, and to be in habits of close intimacy with him.
He [Paul] adds an exception, that they may the better understand that this refers particularly to those that belong to the Church, as they did not require to be admonished to avoid the society of the world. In short, then, he prohibits the Corinthians from holding intercourse with those who, while professing to be believers, do, nevertheless, live wickedly and to the dishonor of God.
If he who is called a brother. What he [Paul] means . . . is this: “If any one is reckoned a brother among you, and at the same time leads a wicked life, and such as is unbecoming a Christian, keep aloof from his society.” In short, being called a brother, means here a false profession, which has no corresponding reality.
With such an [sic] one not even to take food. In the first place, we must ascertain whether he [Paul] addresses here the whole Church, or merely individuals. I answer, that this is said, indeed, to individuals. . . . By partaking of food here, is meant either living together, or familiar association in meals. . . . What Paul means is, that, in so far as it is in our power, we are to shun the society of those whom the Church has cut off from her communion.
For what have I to do to judge them that are without? Paul is speaking here of the jurisdiction that belongs peculiarly to the Church. “The Lord has furnished us with this power, that we may exercise it upon those who belong to his household. For this chastisement is a part of discipline which is confined to the Church, and does not extend to strangers.
In reference to the same passage of scripture, John Gill’s Exposition on the Whole Bible declares,
The fornicators of this world. By “the fornicators of this world” are meant, such as were guilty of this sin, who were the men of the world, mere worldly carnal men, who were never called out of it, or ever professed to be; in distinction from those that were in the church, that had committed this iniquity; and the apostle’s [Paul’s] sense is, that his former prohibition of keeping company with fornicators was not to be understood as referring to such persons as were, out of the church. . . .
for then must you needs go out of the world; . . . [I]t is an hyperbolical way of speaking, showing that the thing is impracticable and impossible, since men of this sort are everywhere; and were all trade and conversation with them to be forbidden, the families of God’s people could never be supported, nor the interest of religion maintained; a stop would soon be put to worldly business, and saints would have little or nothing to do in the world. . . .
not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother, be a fornicator; or if any man that is a brother is called, or named a fornicator; or covetous, or an idolater; or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, with such an one, no, not to eat. The apostle’s meaning is, that in his prohibition of keeping company with men of the above character, he would be understood of such persons as were called brethren; who had been received into the church . . . . and that such persons remaining impenitent and incorrigible, still persisting, in such a vicious course of life, after due admonition given them, were not only to be removed from their religious society, from the communion of the church, and be debarred sitting down, and eating with them at the Lord’s table, or at their love feasts, but also were to be denied civil conversation and familiarity with them, and even not suffered to eat common food at the same table with them: which though lawful to be used with the men of the world, yet for some reasons were not advisable to be used with such; partly for vindicating the honour of religion, and preventing the stumbling of the weak; and partly to make such offenders ashamed, and bring them to repentance. . . .
For what have I to do to judge,…. To admonish, reprove, censure, and condemn:
them also that are without? without the church, who never were in it, or members of it; to whom ecclesiastical jurisdiction does not reach; and with whom the apostle had no more concern, than the magistrates of one city, or the heads of one family have with another:
do not ye judge them that are within? The apostle appeals to their own conduct, that they only reproved, censured, and punished with excommunication, such as were within the pale of the church, were members of it, and belonged unto it; nor did they pretend to exercise a power over others; and it would have been well if they had made use of the power they had over their own members, by admonishing and reproving such as had sinned; by censuring delinquents, and removing from their communion scandalous and impenitent offenders. . . .
But them that are without God judgeth,…. Or “will judge”, in the great day of judgment; wherefore though such persons did not fall under the censures and punishment of the apostle, nor of a church of Christ, yet they shall not go unpunished; God will call them to an account for their fornication, covetousness, idolatry, extortion, &c. and will judge, condemn, and punish them, according to their works; and therefore since they do not fall under the cognizance of the churches of Christ, they are to be left to the tribunal of God.
Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible provides the following combination of paraphrase and explanation in reference to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:
Yet not altogether … – In my [Paul’s] direction not “to company” with them [people who commit the sins that are mentioned], I did not mean that you should refuse all kinds of contact with them; that you should not treat them with civility, or be engaged with them in any of the transactions of life, or in the ordinary contact of society between man and man, for this would be impossible – but that you should not so associate with them as to be esteemed to belong to them, or so as to be corrupted by their example. You are not to make them companions and friends.
Then must ye needs … – It would be necessary to leave the world. The world is full of such persons. You meet them everywhere. You cannot avoid them in the ordinary transactions of life, unless you either destroy yourselves, or withdraw wholly from society.
I have written to you. – I have designed to give this injunction that you are to be entirely separated from one who is a professor of religion and who is guilty of these things.
Not to keep company – To be wholly separated and withdrawn from such a person. Not to associate with him in any manner.
If any man that is called a brother – Any professing Christian; any member of the church.
With such an one no not to eat – To have no contact or fellowship with him of any kind; not to do anything that would seem to acknowledge him as a brother; with such an one not even to eat at the same table. . . . The true Christian was wholly to disown such a person, and not to do anything that would seem to imply that he regarded him as a Christian brother. It will be seen here that the rule was much more strict in regard to one who professed to be a Christian than to those who were known and acknowledged pagans.
For what have I to do … – I have no authority over them; and can exercise no jurisdiction over them [those who are not Christians]. All my rules, therefore, must have reference only to those who are within the church.
But them … – They who are unconnected with the church are under the direct and special government of God. They are indeed sinners, and they deserve punishment for their crimes. But it is not ours to pronounce sentence upon them, or to inflict punishment. God will do that. Our province is in regard to the church. We are to judge these; and these alone. All others we are to leave entirely in the hands of God.
Again, with regard to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Matthew Poole’s English Annotations on the Holy Bible says,
[Paul did not intend that the admonition be] to such persons as were no Christians, no members of the church (so this term world is used, John 15:19 17:14; and so it is to be interpreted here).
For then must ye needs go out of the world; for (saith he) you could have no commerce nor trading with men in the world, if you might keep no company with such as these.
[T]he apostle’s meaning is, that the members of this church should forbear any unnecessary fellowship and communion with any persons that went under the name of Christians, and yet indulged themselves in any notorious and scandalous courses of life. . . .
For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? My jurisdiction extendeth not to heathens; God hath intrusted [sic] to me not the government of the world, but the government of his church.
But them that are without God judgeth; for heathens that live brutish and scandalous lives, God will judge them; the church hath nothing to do with them.
Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person: The conclusion of this discourse helps us clearly to understand those former precepts, Purge out the old leaven, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and: Let us keep the feast, not with the old leaven, 1 Corinthians 5:8; that they are not so properly to be interpreted of particular Christians’ purging out their lusts and corruptions, (though that be every good Christian’s duty), as of every Christian church’s duty to purge themselves of flagitious and scandalous persons.
Peter Pett’s Commentary on the Bible states in reference to the same scripture passage,
He [Paul] points out that he was not talking about dealings with non-Christians when he said avoid such people. Otherwise Christians would never have anything to do with any non-Christians, for they all disobey the commandments. Thus, while their ways must not be followed, and their sins must not be partaken of, Christians may have general dealings with them and befriend them. Judgment of them can be left to the judgment of God.
Now he includes not just sexual immorality but also misbehaviour of any kind. If they were to avoid all immoral people, all greedy and ambitious people, all deceivers, cheats and blackmailers, and all idolaters, there would be no one left for them to keep company with in everyday life. And that would make life impossible.
However, when those who claim to be Christians behave in the ways described they are to be ostracised [sic] by fellow-Christians because they are bringing the name of Christ into disrepute. They are not to be openly acknowledged as brothers in front of the outside world. Nevertheless they are not to be counted as an enemy but admonished as a brother in private, because the purpose of the ostracism is to restore them to repentance. . . .
It is not Paul’s business to act as an official judge on non-Christians, those outside the church, nor is it the church’s. They can be left to the civil authorities. What he means by a judge here is one who passes a verdict which results in civil punishment. Clearly he is to pass judgment on them as being sinners and as being in need of mercy. But it is not for him in that case to exact the punishment. That is in God’s hands.
But those who claim to be Christians and are in the church thereby submit themselves to the judgment of the church, and are subject to the discipline of the church. They are claiming to be under the Kingly Rule of God.
Also, with regard to 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, The Pulpit Commentaries declares,
Yet not altogether. [Paul is saying,] “I did not intend absolutely to prohibit all communication with Gentiles guilty of this sin [sexual immorality] under all circumstances.”
But now I have written unto you. St. Paul expressly tells them in 1 Corinthians 10:27 that he never intended to forbid all intercourse with heathens. They were not to be “taken out of the world,” but to be free from evil (John 17:15). If any man that is called a brother. The word “brother” was used before the name “Christian” was accepted by the members of the Church. . . . He might call himself a Christian, and yet be in reality an idolater (Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; Galatians 5:20; 1 John 5:21). With such a one no not to eat. If the phrase be pressed, it would involve exclusion from all privileges of the body.
For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? To pass sentence on heathens is no concern of mine [Paul’s] ; it is no part of my office. The phrase “them that are without” was originally a Jewish phrase. To the Jews all men were outsiders (chitsonin) except themselves. The phrase was adopted by Christians, but in a less contemptuous sense.
God judgeth. To that “judgment of God” (Romans 1:29) Christians must leave them. They have no jurisdiction over them.
And, in reference to the same scripture passage, Adam Clarke Commentary says,
But now I have written – [I]f any one who is called a brother, i.e. professes the Christian religion, be a fornicator, covetous, idolater, railer, drunkard, or extortioner, not even to eat with such – have no communion with such a one, in things either sacred or civil. You may transact your worldly concerns with a person that knows not God, and makes no profession of Christianity, whatever his moral character may be; but ye must not even thus far acknowledge a man professing Christianity, who is scandalous in his conduct.
For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? – The term without . . . signifies those who were not members of the Church, . . . Pass ye sentence on them which are within – which are members of the Church: those which are without – which are not members of the Church, God will pass sentence on, in that way in which he generally deals with the heathen world. But put ye away the evil from among yourselves.
With regard to explaining the extent to which Christians should not associate with people who are flagrantly sinful, we believe that most of the aforementioned Bible commentaries, as well as other Bible commentaries, do not provide adequate commentary. Nevertheless, it is our belief that what is stated in 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 is intended to instruct Christians not to closely associate with flagrantly sinful people, including those who profess to be Christians.
We also believe 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 implies that disassociation from flagrantly sinful Christians should be both personal and corporate. In other words, neither individual Christians nor the church as an entity should closely associate with such Christians. However, it is clear this scripture passage asserts that it is not necessary for Christians to avoid all types of associating with every person who is flagrantly sinful (i.e., both non-Christians and professing Christians), because it would be practically impossible to do so.
In any case, Christians should always seek opportunities to share the gospel with anyone who is not a Christian and to lovingly encourage people who profess to be Christians to regularly confess all of their sins in accordance with 1 John 1:9 and to genuinely repent for their sins. [To read about how a person can be assured of eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?” and to gain additional understanding of the importance of both confession and repentance, click on “Are Both Confession and Repentance Necessary?”]