Monday, September 15, 2014

Why Do Churches Excommunicate?

My article from this week's newspapers responds to a question about excommunication:

Q:  What is excommunication, and what are the implications if a church has excommunicated a person? 

Although the term excommunication might initially evoke mental images that resemble an Amish shunning or a scene from the Scarlet Letter, the reality is much less dramatic and much less common than many might imagine. 

Christians believe a person is saved as a gift from God because of the crucifixion of Jesus for them.  All who trust that this sacrifice forgives their sins confess them – that is they agree with God’s law concerning their actions – and receive God’s forgiveness.  This occurs privately between the person and God, as well as being spoken corporately in the services of many types of churches, and in some traditions also occurs privately between the person and his pastor or priest. 

While many sins are known only to the sinner and to God, occasionally a sin becomes known to a person’s pastor or their fellow Christians, who may need to confront them regarding that sin.  When the person who has committed the sin agrees with God’s law about his actions, he receives forgiveness.  In such a case, his pastor and fellow Christians would not have further concerns about his spiritual condition, even though it may still be necessary to provide counsel and support to help him overcome any inclinations to return to that particular sin. 

However, when a member is confronted with a sin and either denies its sinfulness or disregards its sinfulness, concern about his spiritual condition quickly intensifies.  In Matthew 18, Jesus instructs His disciples that if the correction of one person does not convince the person they ought to take along 2 or 3 people with authority in the church and confront him again.  If after this second intervention the person still defends his sin, Jesus says to take the matter before the whole church to plead with him, following which he is to be excluded as long as he does not repent. 

Paul instructs the Corinthians in his first letter to them to do this regarding a particular man in their congregation who is involved in an illicit intimate relationship with his step-mother, saying to “Expel the evil person from among you.”  But, contrary to what many first impressions might be, this is not an effort to keep the congregation pure by removing sinners.  Instead, it is intended as a method by which the unrepentant would be guided to recognize their sin.  Paul makes this clear when he says, “you must deliver this man over to Satan… that his spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord.” 

Similarly it is not done in order to place condemnation onto the man, but rather to recognize the fact that he has already separated himself from God’s forgiveness by refusing to acknowledge his sin.  Jesus reflects this same understanding when He assigns His disciples the task of forgiving and withholding sins in John 20, saying, “If you forgive the sins of any, they have already been forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness, it has already been withheld.”

Many traditions prefer the term Church Discipline rather than Excommunication to refer to this process, because it emphasizes the intended result that the person be restored to the congregation rather than the method that they are placed outside the church’s fellowship.  Correspondingly, a public removal from the congregation is not the only form of church discipline. 

Instead, on some occasions, a pastor might privately exclude the individual from the Lord’s Supper in the congregation because of the danger of doing spiritual harm to them, according to Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 10-11 against receiving Communion while unrepentant.  On some occasions, this is a first step before formal removal from the congregation, but frequently it results in the restoration of the person to a repentant and forgiven status without proceeding to bring them before the congregation for removal.    

Regardless of the procedure by which this is achieved, the goal is the same – restoration of the sinner to the reception of the Lord’s forgiveness.  While such a practice might appear intolerant to the world outside of the Church, it is done as a matter of responsible spiritual care, in order to avoid the most dreadful consequence that a Christian would abandon His Lord’s forgiveness in favor of defending and embracing his own sinful acts.

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