We don’t often tie the words discipline and church together, but there is a place for it within the body of Christ. I must say, some churches have carried this idea overboard but that doesn’t mean it does not belong. One of the most difficult and extreme forms of church discipline is excommunication, where a person is removed from fellowship. In today’s church this practice is not used very often and to be honest many churches struggle with any type of discipline at all.
What I want you to think about is this. Is discipline in church ever appropriate and is excommunication something that should even be practiced in the twenty first century?
What Does Excommunication Mean?
In general, excommunication is when a person is excluded or expelled from being able to participate or remain a member of a group, club, or association. In short, a person is kicked out or banned.
In a church setting, excommunication is when a person is either cut off from fellowship within a church or they are barred from participating in the sacraments, one of which is taking communion. This is done by order of the leadership in the church. The purpose of excommunication is not to exact revenge, but to hopefully encourage repentance. The thinking is that by doing this the person will realize the error of their ways and turn away from them.
Is Excommunication Biblical?
Many may wonder if excommunication is biblical or is it just mean? Doesn’t it go against the mandate to love everyone and accept everyone? The answer to these questions is that excommunication is biblical, but if this step is taken, how you do it is equally important.
There are some instances you can argue excommunication is actually good for a particular church and not mean at all. In the New Testament there were instances where the idea of separating or removing a person seemed to be allowable. There were primarily two instances where removing someone from the fellowship of the church would seem appropriate.
1. When There Was Blatant, Unrepentant Sin
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” (1 Corinthians 5:1-2).
As you can see in this instance, removal or excommunication was recommended because there was blatant, open, obvious, unrepentant sin. In the case of the church in Corinth a man was having sexual relations with his stepmother, and if that wasn’t bad enough the church was not ashamed of it, but they were proud of it. If someone chooses to live in open, unrepentant sin, that can be a ground for removing them. If that decision is made, always remember the hope is this person will turn from their sinful condition and find true repentance.
“So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5).
2. They Are Spreading False Teachings or Causing Division
“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people” (Romans 16:17-18).
While this instruction does not say directly to remove the person from the fellowship, it does give the warning to avoid this type of person who is causing division and promoting bad or false doctrine. I believe it would be safe to say in a situation like this, the leadership of the church would be wise to remove such a person from the fellowship.
Removing this person is about protecting the other members of the church from heretical teaching. Taking this step may cause that person to repent or it may not, but doing so is necessary to prevent others from falling victim to their false teaching or divisive nature.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Lilian Dibbern
Other Scriptures That Point to Excommunication
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:9-11).
“In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us” (1 Thessalonian 3:6).
“Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer” (1 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
What Churches Practice Excommunication?
Within the Catholic church there is a written provision for excommunication, and again it is not meant to be vindictive but to hopefully move a person to repentance. Within the canon of the Catholic church there are defined reasons for excommunication, some of which can lead to automatic excommunication. Among these are procuring an abortion, apostasy or heresy.
Within the Protestant church, the process that leads to excommunication is not as clear, primarily because the Protestant church does not have the same type of structure as the Catholic church. There is not one Protestant church, instead there are many different Protestant denominations and each one may have a different doctrinal position on when excommunication is appropriate. Because of this lack of uniformity, it is difficult to make a general statement of how the Protestant church handles excommunication, but there are some guidelines from Scripture to follow.
How Do Protestant Leaders Decide to Excommunicate Someone?
If you are going to use excommunication, what would be the guidelines to warrant when this action is appropriate? Without one uniform written policy on excommunication, most Protestant churches should use Scripture as the guide, which is probably best anyway. A great guideline on the process is found in Matthew 18.
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17).
As you can see, the road to excommunication is a process, not an instant decision. It should never be the first option, but the last resort. No one leader should have the authority to execute this of their own accord. This will help prevent excommunication being used in a vindictive manner. What is also important to note is that excommunication should come after a continued refusal of a person to turn from their sinful behavior once they have been made aware of it. When that happens, then removal becomes the only appropriate action.
Can Someone Who Has Been Excommunicated Still Participate in Church?
If a person is refusing to repent or causing divisions, while they still may be allowed to attend the local church (remember the goal is hopefully they will repent) this person should not be allowed to serve in ministry, and they should not be in any leadership position. Again, most churches today don’t actually use this practice of excommunication, but churches will sometimes ask someone to step down from leadership, or to stop serving in the church. Though that person is still free to attend, most of the time it is only a matter of time before that person leaves.
Is Someone Who's Been Excommunicated Still a Christian?
It is important to note that excommunication is not a judgment of a person’s eternal condition. I will say this however, if a person is living in willful unrepentant sin or they are causing divisions and teaching heresies, then I would call into question whether this person is a believer or not. I can’t say that definitively, but it is a question worth asking.
Hopefully for most people you will never have to deal with excommunication. However, as we have seen, there are times when it may be appropriate. In those moments, let’s make sure everything we do aligns with Scripture and that we are rooting for repentance of the individual, not revenge.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Ivan Balvan
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.