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.


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17 thoughts on “The Case for Excommunication”

  1. Amen, Bronwyn! Peacemaker Ministries — — has excellent conflict resolution training resources for churches. We just went through it at our church. They carefully work through all that can be done to bring about repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. They also state that if all the many interventions don’t work to bring about repentance, then a church community’s only recourse is excommunication. The speaker in the video series has seen people finally come to repentance when a church takes this step of discipline.

    I only give the briefest sketch here in my comment. Of course if there is a crime committed, the police should be called first thing; the Bible also says to submit to the government.

      1. Now we need to re-study it as a family and do a much better job of putting it into practice!!! (Good thing Mommies rarely get excommunicated from families…)

    1. Well said. I think the church as a whole seems to be unable to do this well. Either churches show no grace at all, and do not give them a chance, or (increasingly often) they just turn a blind eye.
      I know Al has said that when such discipline is enforced, & the leaders hear that the relevant person is attending a new church, it is their responsibility to communicate the facts to that church so that they can still hold them accountable… Something to bare in mind too.

  2. I knew a couple such as the one you describe, but after much prayer and forgiveness (this process took many months) the erring partner repented, a separation of the two couples was agreed on, and eventual reconciliation in both families was won. I have counseled in many situations where the only alternative was separation and psychiatric intervention (the secular alternative) was not helpful

    I have not time just now to follow up on the specific child abuse issue you raised, but those problems are not only rampant in our society but have been since forever, as you point out in your Pauline example. The Greeks of the early Christian era routinely used children for sex; some temple cults in India did until a relatively short time ago. Sexual abuse of children in Asian has been reported by some as extremely prevalent. The traditional method for Christians of dealing with such problems is to separate and shun, which is what secular society attempts to do as well. At the time of the Mount Cashel Orphanage scandal here in Canada, which was a Roman Catholic facility, most people ignored other reports at the time that sexual abuse of children had occurred in all of the main Protestant denominations in that part of Canada.

    My learning about the basis of behaviour in faulty audition gives us another alternative to explore. I have explained this aspect of what we call “mental illness” in neurological terms in my book Listening for the Light. The learning of self-control depends on the ability of the right ear to process sound. People with imperfect hearing to some lesser or greater degree are unable to learn normally, including the learning of self-control. If the flow of sound energy through the right ear through the brain stem to the left brain is insufficient, the left, rational brain suffers sound-deprivation–it simply does not receive enough energy from sound to integrate powerfully with the right side of the brain. The two halves of the brain are specialized to different activities: rationality, the belief system, the construction of language and logic are left-brain activities. The reason for that development of specialization is that the neurological route for communication (from the right ear to the left brain to the larynx to the ear) is physically shorter and therefore faster than the route that gives emotional content to the voice (from the left ear to the left brain to the larynx to the left ear) From before birth, humans are learning to prioritize the left brain for “meaning,” which is an aspect of learning of all kinds, including of self-control. The “self” in that term is the right-brain self that needs to be controlled according to our ethics and belief. Unfortunately, some people are disabled and physically incapable of some kinds of self-control.

    The right brain, when separated from the left brain, lacks all the qualities of the left brain: rationality, logic, grammatical language, and a rational system of beliefs. In schizophrenia, the flow of sound from the right ear is so weak a stream that neither half dominates: the two halves of the brain take turns at two-minute intervals, driven by other processes (likely pulsing in the cerebro-spinal fluid). The person has no control over her or his behaviour because those constant shifts (that normal people experience only in sleep and dreams) erode whatever learning has already taken place. (In autism, formerly called infantile schizophrenia, the shifts prevent learning from happening from the git-go.) People without the ability to learn to control their sexual urges (one of the strongest of the primal drives) are likely to become aberrant in any of the ways you can imagine: promiscuous, gay or lesbian, attracted to a wide range of age partners including children, or some combination of those tendencies, and so on. Similarly, sound-deprived people are likely to have poor self-control in other ways: “bipolarity” is one general label for poorly controlled emotions and primal drives. In our religious tradition, most such people are simply called “sinful” or “demon possessed.” Of course, the kind of teaching to which a person is exposed may be a significant mitigating factor. And the environmental stresses or pressures on a person are significant factors, too. Contemporary society with its many liberties is much harder to navigate for people with audio deficits, especially since very, very few people to this point recognize this cause-and-effect aspect of aberrant behaviour based in the right ear. (Other problems, such as depression, are usually left-ear based because the left ear conveys sound energy to the “emotional” right brain. Sound deprivation to the right brain creates apathy and loss of “affect,” i.e., loss of normal emotional reactions.) Many people have deficits in both ears.

    The astonishing reality is that amplified music applied to one or both ears strengthens the muscles pivotal to conveying the sound stream to the brain. Suicidal depression can usually be healed within two weeks, as Dr. Guy Berard healed 90% of his 235 suicidal patients that quickly (and the remaining 7.7% healed with two or three further 10-day sessions). Drugs and alcohol complicate the situation and slow the recovery process, as do psychoactive chemicals whether Rx or obtained illegally; but there again, consistent use of amplified sound builds strength in the ear muscles so the person gradually gains control over the addiction while receiving increasing amounts of sound energy essential to the normal integration of the hemispheres — with the left dominant over the right. I have seen recoveries not only in our son Daniel, but in a couple of dozen other people I have counseled for various problems from severe dyslexia, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and bipolarity to the effects of chemo and insomnia. Moderate to severe Alzheimer’s improves with singing. As you would expect, the age of the person is a factor in recovery because of the extent to which unlearning will need to take place. The ear also controls body systems: healing the ear often will clear skin problems or asthma or gut problems. The ear is the timing mechanism for the body, affecting most body systems. A useful literature exists and my writing draws on research in many fields that are contributing to solutions to these highly problematical kinds of behaviour. Through the Tomatis Method and Berard’s adaptation of it in AIT, hundreds of thousands of cases of dyslexic syndrome, stuttering, bipolarity, and autism have been healed. I have shown that in audio deficits as severe as schizophrenia that a person can be treated with a simpler method and at home. Treatments with sound are beginning to revolutionize certain kinds of learning, just as the invention of glasses to correct vision has revolutionized learning so that fewer people than in Jesus’s day are “the blind leading the blind.” We still see “the deaf leading the deaf” into everything we call evil; but that will change dramatically when we learn how to apply music to strengthen the ears.

    1. Thanks for this, Laurna. I remember reading Jamie’s review of your book when it came out with interest, as my nephew with autism had music therapy and they found it helpful (although we would not say ‘healed’). As always, it gives me a lot to think about – not the least of which is the issue of how much we (and God) can hold people morally responsible for certain behaviors (such as sexually predatory behavior) if the cause of this behavior is a physiological one pertaining to ear function. I am equally fascinated and terrified by the implications of this thinking – it seems very unjust to punish people for behavior over which they physiologically had no choice. Much to think on here – thank you.

      1. “it seems very unjust to punish people for behavior over which they physiologically had no choice.”
        I doubt that sexually aberrant behavior is as physiologically black-n-white as being between “total control” and “no choice”. I battle with depression, and I’m still responsible for my behavior. Because I knew my feelings and behavior were not normal, I sought help. I thank God for all the methods available for healing: relationship with God, relationship with others, physical exercise, good diet, guarding and choosing my thoughts, and medicine.
        If a person is abusing another, they must be held accountable for their behavior no matter the reason. Accountability looks for solutions, rather than simply punishing. If they truly are a complete sociopath, they still need to be confined away from the vulnerable so that they will no longer harm them.

  3. Hi Bronwyn, I agree with you. In situations like the one you described above that you experienced, when there is no repentance, the apostle Paul wrote that we should remove that person from our fellowship. Of course, if lower levels of discipline work and a person repents and changes, submitting to godly discipline and accountability, I would not say the same. And I’m only talking about things here that don’t require jail time. 🙂 If someone’s a predator, I definitely believe they should be tried according to the law.

    1. Thanks, Jamie – and I agree: in cased of sexual predators – I think they should be tried according to the law, but I ALSO think the church should make a declaratory statement on it: for the health and healing of the community. I appreciate your reading and commenting!

  4. Thanks for tackling a tough subject. Church discipline is often seen to be “unloving” or “judgmental” but it is vital to establishing a base line for what we tolerate. I recently had a close family member excommunicated from his church; it was very much the same situation you described with the young elder. And yet, even as his entire church family and biological family stood unified against his actions, he was so caught in the mind-numbing affects of his sin that he believed WE were rejecting him. In many ways, you are right that even if discipline doesn’t immediately change the mind of the erring brother, it does restore a certain amount of equilibrium to those hurt by his/her actions. Tough stuff.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with this Hannah. I have heard so few people tell of what church discipline can look like when it is exercised cautiously and for the health of the church. I’m sorry for the sadness of the situation in your family: I hope in time the distance will do your family member good and bring him back.

  5. Oh Bronwyn, wonderful post! Many of us have had bad experiences in the church ( mine was with a former Pastor who was verbally inappropriate (creepy) with several of us young Moms. While he was eventually asked to leave, at the time WE were called “histrionic” by the older church leader who came to investigate, and the church elders did nothing…a sign of severe disfunction!

    Currently, there is a trial pending for July involving allegations of sexual abuse by a youth leader at Grace Valley with young men. (Several years ago). Please pray for God’s mercy and justice. Many lives were wrecked.

    Bless you for your wise ministry.

    Love, Melanie

    Sent from my iPhone


    1. Melanie, I had no idea bout the allegations so close to home! How horrific. I will certainly pray. Thanks for your encouraging words: I wish for all our sakes that inappropriate behavior would be called out as inappropriate – ESPECIALLY among church leaders. The requirement that they should be “above reproach” should mean that they never do reproachful things, not that we fail to reproach them if they cross the line.

  6. Thank you for this excellent post! My church practices loving, cautious discipline and it has greatly increased the spiritual health and wellness of our congregation.

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