Church Discipline: What is Excommunication?
Learning about the battle between popes and civil authorities in medieval Europe feels a bit like an episode of Oprah’s show: “You get excommunicated; you get excommunicated; everyone gets excommunicated.” Of course it famously culminated in Henry VIII finally not going along with the program and breaking away from the Roman Church after Luther had already published the blueprint. During that period of history, excommunication was a weapon used by the pope to force his political will on the world: do what I tell you or face an eternity in hell. As comical as it is to look back at that time and see how excommunication was used, sadly the common view of it hasn’t changed all that much. The average church goer shutters at the word, seeing it as some heavy-handed form of authoritative action used by church leaders to enact their wills on helpless congregations. And it may very well be that in some churches today, but the thoughtful Christian must wrestle seriously with the fact that the practice of church disciple which culminates in excommunication is thoroughly biblical. Just because a practice might be abused by some does not necessitate a complete discarding of it altogether. Let us take a few moments to understand the biblical message on excommunication.
The primary passages of Scripture which reveal the practice of excommunication are Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, with some specific scenarios laid out in 1 Timothy 5. But in reality the premise of church discipline and excommunication is laced throughout Scripture. It begins when Adam and Eve are removed from Eden for their sin. Yes, this is excommunication; they are removed from the earthly dwelling of God and forced to wander in the wilderness. Likewise their eldest son is removed from their fellowship when he murders Abel. Excommunication is even shadowed in Old Covenant Israel when both individuals made themselves unclean and were forced to abstain from temple worship and when the nation itself was removed by God from the land of promise into exile for both their disobedience and unrepentance. The purposes of God in Israel’s excommunication are displayed throughout the Old Testament. God has voluntarily associated His own name with this people, He has covenanted with them, and thus their sin not only leads to horrible abuses within the nation but it also throws mud on God’s holy name. God’s excommunication of Israel was meant to keep His own name holy, but it was also meant to bring Israel back to repentance and faith. God’s promise of removal from the land is consistently accompanied by His promise of restoration. Most famously, God says this in 2 Chronicles 7: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Again, notice the importance of God’s holy name and the promise of forgiveness and healing with repentance. Thus excommunication in the New Testament should not only not be a shock to us, but the purposes of God in it follow as well.
First, Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 18:20 that the physical gathering of the church is tied to the very name of Jesus Himself. “Where two or three are gathered in my name…” is instructive for us in that the keys of the kingdom are given to the church as a representation of Christ on earth, that which He has tied His very name to. And this sets the context for what He had just said: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” So we see then in the New Testament as well that the name of Christ, His reputation, is tied to the church He has assembled. It is also vitally important to note that not only the name of Jesus is present with His church, but His very presence: “…there I am among them.”
Secondly, Paul briefly touches on the second purpose of excommunication. He says in 1 Corinthians 5:5, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” It seems likely that Paul here is referring to the action of excommunication being used sovereignly by God to bring the sinner to the point of repentance through the absolute devastation that a sinful life can cause in a professing believer who lives for the passions of the flesh. And it seems this is what happened, as Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians 2 for the church to welcome back the sinful brother is most likely a reference to this individual who has been dealt a punishment by the church itself.[i]
Thirdly, Paul in 1 Corinthians unpacks a third reason for excommunication: it cleanses the church of the leaven of sin, a point he makes in 5:6-7. Paul picks up on this point briefly in 15:33 in instructing the church to not associate with the hedonistic among them because “bad company ruins good morals.” The church must remove the unrepentant person because sin, like gangrene, will slowly infect and bring spiritual decay to the whole body. Left unchecked, it will bring death to the whole body. And so the three-fold purpose of excommunication in the church is to protect the name of Christ, to bring repentance to the sinner, and to preserve the holiness of the body. But finally, what does excommunication actually entail?
There is certainly some discussion on this in Christian circles, but I simply want to submit two lines of biblical evidence on the extent of excommunication. First, Jesus says to treat the unrepentant sinner as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” For the Jewish listener, this is a shocking statement. These two groups of people were the most hated individuals within society. The Gentile was someone outside the covenant and who was seen as an enemy. The tax collector was often a Jew who usually betrayed his people by cozying up to the Romans for financial gain. To his listeners, these are people that they wouldn’t have wanted to ever be around.[ii] This is then further expounded by Paul, where he explicitly says in 1 Corinthians 5:11, “But I now am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of….” Association with the sinner is explicitly what Paul bans.
Some have argued that excommunication means to simply bar the person from the Lord’s Supper but still allow them in the church during service so that they can continue to hear the Gospel preached. I don’t think this goes far enough, as Paul says to not even associate with them. The unrepentant sinner is a professing Christian, someone who knows the Gospel and who knows of the grace found in Christ. Yet they have spurned that to pursue their lusts. The church is to collectively bar them from all Christian fellowship, both in corporate worship and in public association. We should not invite them over to our house for dinner. If we reach out and contact them, it should be with the goal of reminding them of the truth they profess and calling them to repentance once again. Letting them hang out at church not only still brings the risk of the leaven influencing the good dough, but an outside world still sees them walking into church and wonders how the community of Christ is ok with that. Removing them from all means of grace instead of only one also makes the severity of sin abundantly clear to the sinner, putting maximum weight on repentance and faith. Note again that Paul says association is the problem, so simply barring them from the table doesn’t seem to fit Paul’s logic.
Again, excommunication is meant to protect the name of Christ, to protect the church body, and to draw the sinner to repentance. It is this 3-fold purpose, when rightly taught and understood in the church, that will bear fruit by ensuring the body is more and more conformed to the image of its Savior. Excommunication is ultimately an act of love: for God, for the church, and for the sinner.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.
[i] The action of church discipline is consistently seen in the New Testament as an action taken by the church. Jesus sees it that way in Matthew 18 as an action carried out by the church when the sinner refuses to listen to them. The very keys are wielded by the church, not an elite individual or group. It’s the responsibility of the entire church to carry this out. Paul then it 2 Corinthians 2 states that this was a punishment carried out by the majority, seemingly something that was actually a corporate decision. It is then on the church body to bring them back in.
[ii] We must say that Jesus does have mercy on Gentiles and tax collectors, but His point here seems to be that treating them as these groups of people means to avoid contact or association with them, which is what his listeners would have heard when he said it.