The Case for Excommunication

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This was meant to be a no-blogging week, but I have a story to tell and now is the time to tell it.

Why now?

Well, last week Leadership Journal published an article written by a former youth pastor and convicted sexual predator entitled “My Easy Trip From Youth Minister to Felon“. I do not want to detail the ins and outs of the article, and to their credit – Leadership Journal took the article down and issued an apology.

(If you do want some quick background, though, I would refer you to the hashtags #takedownthatpost and #howoldwereyou on Twitter if you would like to read up on the outcry for justice that erupted after this post. Also, I would commend to you Karen Swallow Prior’s #HowOldWereYou: Origins of a Heartbreaking Hashtag and Halee Gray Scott’s To Publish a Predator. If you read nothing else on this topic, read those two.)

This is not a post about sexual predators in the church, though. This is a post to say that at times like this, I want to make a case for us to take the Bible’s words about church discipline, or excommunication, to heart.

In Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus spoke about how we were to deal with situations where a Christian sins against another – calling for an increasing number of witnesses and publicity if the person does not repent. If the person did not fully repent, Jesus said to treat them as “a Gentile or a tax collector” (in other words, outside of the worshiping community). Such a public “binding” would be reflective of a heavenly binding, said Jesus: the words we speak corporately against egregious deeds echo in the heavens.

In 1 Corinthians 5:1-12, Paul wrote to a church where some had been caught in terrible sexual sin – and the community had done nothing about it. Paul had strong words for this church, who had “become arrogant and had not mourned instead, so that the one who did this would be removed from your midst.” Rather than turn a blind eye, they should have spoken up and dealt with the couple – excluding them from fellowship to show them the grievous nature of what they had done. This expulsion, or “handing over to Satan”, was hoped to show the offender the seriousness of what they had done, in the hopes that the “wake up call” would bring them to repentance (v5).

Furthermore, Paul says, to fail to exclude them from fellowship would mean that the church was keeping a breeding evil in its midst: it would be keeping “leaven in a lump of dough” – a combination which could only lead to further spiritual and moral fermentation (v6-7).

Waste no time: said the Apostle. Deal with this kind of stuff swiftly.

I am not unaware of some of the incredible difficulties that might come from putting this into practice. Abusive and cult-like churches can quickly turn these passages into licenses for witch-hunts and a paranoid control of others’ lives. In addition to the problems of the abuse of this practice, there is also the problem of discerning when it should be applied: should all young couples who are known to be engaging in pre-marital sex be called out? What about those who download pirated movies? Or use their cellphones while driving?

We are always in danger of hypocrisy here: none of us are without sin; none of us qualified to throw the first stone. The threats of being piecemeal, hypocritical and partisan are tremendous, not to mention the damage we fear it would do to the church’s reputation as a place of grace and welcome. How would we communicate grace if our community knew we were people who sometimes singled out unrepentant sinners?

These considerations are enough to stymie almost every church I know into a position of passivity in the face of gross sin. But when I read this last week’s articles – I was reminded of a story I want to tell.

I once attended a church where someone was excommunicated. The situation was this: an elder in our church had decided to abandon his wife. I knew the couple well, and his behavior tore our community apart. Those who served with him and under him in church were angry and felt betrayed. Those who loved them both were hurt and bewildered. Those who watched his young wife respond with an almost impossible amount of grace and strength were heartbroken. We all felt so helpless. Our pastor spoke with him: he would not change his mind. A few more elders went to see him a second time: he would still not change his mind. And finally, after much prayer and consideration, a closed meeting of church members only was called after one Sunday morning service – and in it, our leaders announced that he was officially being removed from our church community as a response to his behavior.

Granted: the man was not there and did not hear what was said (he received a letter informing him of the decision after the fact). Granted: he could easily have attended the church around the corner who would have been none the wiser about what had happened behind our closed doors. BUT those 10 minutes of church discipline (the only I have ever seen enacted in my 30+ years of church attendance) made a significant etch on my soul – for in that moment, our community named what he did as unacceptable. We called it sin. We took a side. Doing so brought a clarity and a relief to our hurting community who had felt so helpless in the face of someone who had been causing hurt. We said “that’s not okay, and God says it’s not okay,” and just the saying of it made a difference.

I am reminded of this one incident, more than a dozen years ago, when I read of pastors committing sexual offenses against parishioners in their churches.

Yes, they should be prosecuted by law. Yes, they should be fired.

But for the health of our communities – they should also be excommunicated. There is healing in a hurting community standing together and saying “that is NOT right, and we will not have it here.” It is an extreme thing to do- but it occurs to me that in these extreme cases which cause extreme pain, it is appropriate. The hurting church is not without remedy to call out evil.

And more than that: I believe the Gospel demands it.