One passage that has often been distorted by Christians and cult members alike is found at 2 John 9-11, and reads:
Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.
Members of certain aberrant groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and followers of Herbert W. Armstrong, have focused on the words of verse 9, “does not abide in the teaching.” They apply these words to former members of their group who are then branded as apostates to be shunned. In such high-control settings, leaving the organization or group is equated with abandoning faith in God the Father and Jesus Christ. Members of the group are required to shun those who leave, using this text as support for the practice. Shunning is carried out even by close friends and family members and is often done without regard to whether the former members have been expelled by the group or have left voluntarily. In the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, attendees at the 2016 Regional Conventions were urged to shun even inactive members who have not been formally disciplined by the elders, but who are known to be living in a manner not approved by the organization. The result of the misunderstanding of this text is a practice that is virtually horrifying in its effects. Families and communities are often ripped apart by this sham of Christianity.
Cultists are not alone in misunderstanding this text, however. Many Christians have applied its reasoning to cultists who may approach them at their doors, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormon missionaries. Some Christians have refused on the basis of this scripture to speak to such false teachers, even for the purpose of sharing Christ with them!
Two points about the historical situation at the time John wrote are germane to the understanding of these verses. First, churches at the time generally did not have church buildings such as we see today. Rather, meetings for worship were frequently held in the homes of believers. Second, itinerant preachers were common among Christians in the first century. It was not unusual for individuals to travel from area to area, preaching to the local churches for a time in each location and receiving support and encouragement from the local churches that they served.
Unfortunately, along with the good teachers, there were many false teachers who were willing to take advantage of the hospitality that the early Christians were willing to extend to the itinerant preachers. Once they had gained the confidence of the church, these false teachers would begin to advance their own corrupt and self-serving ideas, rather than the pure Gospel. Such men were a real danger to the household of faith and could mislead many.
It is also important to note that many commentators regard the “chosen lady” to whom the epistle of 2 John is addressed as really being an oblique reference to the church as a whole (though not all would agree). If this is the case, it becomes easy to see that John was giving a warning to the church against admitting false teachers to its fellowship and extending them hospitality. Such teachers should not be received into one’s home, which is where church meetings and studies were held. They should also not be given a greeting (the King James Version uses the expression, “bid him Godspeed”) in the sense of lending any encouragement or support to their work.
How, then, might a Christian today apply John’s counsel? My understanding of the text is that it would apply to false teachers of any sort, whether they are members of cults or have originated in a supposedly evangelical setting. Anyone who distorts the Gospel in a serious way should not be allowed to use the church in order to propagate his teachings. It would be inappropriate to invite a cultist or any other teacher of heresy to address or teach the church, even for the purpose of educating Christians about false teachings. Such a person would be welcome at services as an observer, of course, but would not be allowed to instruct anyone about his beliefs. No material help or even encouragement should be afforded to a teacher of false doctrine as long as he continues in his Christ-denying course.
Similarly, when such false teachers call at the home of a Christian, it would be inappropriate to offer any sort of material assistance or encouragement or to permit them to propagate their beliefs in a Christian family setting. This does not mean that a Christian who is knowledgeable about the scriptures might not invite the false teachers into his home in order to present the Gospel to them, nor do I think that it prohibits extending them normal courtesies during such a visit (offering a cup of tea or coffee or a snack, for instance). I also do not believe that John intended for Christians to shun such persons in ordinary, everyday social settings. John’s concern in writing was that Christians not be subjected to deceptive teaching. It was not his intent to prevent the real Gospel from being presented to false teachers, who are themselves merely lost sinners in need of a Redeemer.