Excommunication is a form of church discipline. It is when a church prohibits someone from attending the faith community, declaring that he or she is no longer part of the church body. Such a judgement is reserved for those times when a member acts in some grievous way. In response, the offending person is cut off from the fellowship. This is done to protect the safety, and the unity, of the congregation.
The difficulty with excommunication is that there is no agreed upon criteria for what warrants such a discipline. Each church-group or denomination seems to decide for itself. For example, in one community, wearing a hat in church may be grounds for asking the person to exit a worship service; for another, it will be the acceptance of women in leadership. In some communities, questioning the pastor’s decision or theology becomes grounds for excommunication.
This leads to all sorts of questions. When is excommunication warranted? Is excommunication final? The Bible speaks about excommunication as a real and justified act of church discipline. Furthermore, the Bible clearly teaches that there are times when excommunication is needed. Yet, when we look at the verses that describe this act of discipline, we see that excommunication is not exactly as we often understand it to be. In fact, when we look at this matter biblically, we may be surprised at both the motivation and the goal of excommunication.
1. Excommunication Is an Act of Unity
Biblically speaking, excommunication is a response to harm occurring within the church community. Excommunication is not a response to a difference of opinion, a question, or a divergent outlook. The church excommunicates a member only when there exists a threat of division within the church.
Paul emphasizes this in his letter to Titus. He writes, “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 3:10-11). Paul makes clear that the issue at hand is division within the life of the community. The indication is that the divisive person was engaging in “foolish controversies, genealogies, arguments and quarrels about the law” (3:8). Such behavior was fracturing the church’s fellowship. Instead of unity in praise and worship, the community began to become divided.
We see a similar exhortation in his letter to the Romans. Paul writes, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles to the doctrine you have been taught; avoid them” (16:17). The matter at hand is not so much a difference in theological opinion, but the manner in which such differences were being used to divide the church community.
Excommunication is a way to the keep the community together and maintain church unity. For this reason, excommunication is to be an act by the whole church. No individual leader has the right to excommunicate someone based on a personal dislike or decision. An individual leader does not excommunicate; the church does. Thus, excommunication is an act by which the church affirms, and protects, its own unity.
2. Excommunication Is an Act of Love
Perhaps the most striking thing about excommunication is that it is rooted in the love of Christ. This seems counterintuitive to the way we most commonly think of excommunication. We tend to view excommunication as punitive, a punishment for disruptive or divisive behavior. Yet scripture is clear that excommunication is aimed at correcting the erring brother or sister. In fact, excommunication is an attempt to restore the offending person in the “spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). Although it is a way of discipline, this discipline is rooted in the church’s desire for the individual to experience the love of Christ.
We see this fundamental basis of love clearly indicated in Paul’s instruction to the Thessalonians. Paul approaches the need for excommunication, stating “if anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Here, excommunication from the body of Christ is, again, a result of quarrelsome and disruptive behavior. Interestingly, however, Paul continues: “do not regard him as an enemy but warn him as a brother” (3:15). Excommunication is actually an extension of the Christlike love that is to define the community of faith.
God disciplines that God loves (Hebrews 12:6), and God’s people are called to do the same. The Christian community necessarily creates boundaries around acceptable and ethical behavior. Activity that disrupts the unity of the church is to be mentioned and corrected. This is for the protection of the community and the safety of the vulnerable. The aim of this discipline is to build one another in love and provide the means for each person to grow in the grace of Christ.
This is because divisiveness does not just destroy the community of faith, but it destroys the individual as well. Excommunication is designed to show the erring member that they have wandered from the way of Christ and are walking a dangerous spiritual path. The intent of excommunication is for the erring individual to feel the harm they are causing to the church community. This is done in the hope that the individual will amend his or her ways.
3. Excommunication Is to Lead to Redemption
Excommunication is often thought to be permanent. One is cast out of the ranks of the church, never to return. This is an unbiblical understanding of excommunication. Biblically speaking, excommunication was an aid to redemption; it was to lead to repentance. The intent of excommunication was not to expel the person from the Christian community forever but to restore the wayward member to the place of fellowship. By showing the erring member the gravity of their sin, excommunication was to highlight the way to salvation. This act of discipline was to bring about repentance and an eventual re-entry to the community of faith.
Jesus describes this very thing when he implores the disciples to confront a sinful brother or sister (Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus puts forward a gradual response to sinful transgression. First, there is a private meeting, then a meeting with two or three witnesses, and finally, a discussion with the church itself. If, after all this, the offending brother or sister still refuses to amend their behavior, Jesus instructs that they be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:18). We often read this to mean that the erring brother or sister is declared wicked and unholy; they are to be cast out of our lives without further care or thought.
Is this really the case? Did Jesus call his followers to treat one another so heartlessly? More to the point, is this how Jesus treated the tax collectors and gentiles around him? This passage does not call the disciples to cut off any relationship with the offending brother or sister. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Jesus himself was loving towards tax collectors and gentile sinners. He preached the gospel message to them, healing their infirmities and forgiving their sins. In calling the disciples to treat an offending person as a tax collector or a Gentile, Jesus is instructing them to take up a position of loving service and ministry. The offending person is to not to be cast off or rejected; they are to have the gospel preached to them.
The whole point of treating another “not as an enemy but as a brother” (Thessalonians 3:15) is that the relationship of love and grace is to continue even after the excommunication takes place. Otherwise, how is the person ever to be led back into loving fellowship? As James writes, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). Excommunication is to be the beginning stage of a ministry that is to lead to repentance and restoration. Thus, any church that excommunicates a member is necessarily called to maintain some connection with that person.
What if Churches Practiced Excommunication More Robustly?
Excommunication does not occur much today. In some respects, this is a sad reality. We are painfully aware of the presence of toxic and abusive pastors, priests, and leaders. Too many people in Christian leadership have used their leadership to hurt others. From the sexual scandals of megachurch pastors to the history of the Residential Schools in North America, such behavior has often gone without response. One has to wonder how much pain, division, and hurt could have been avoided if excommunication was practiced more robustly.
Yet, in saying this, we must recognize the biblical truth of this practice. Excommunication is not easy. It demands the Christian community be a body that cares passionately for its unity, and for the spiritual well-being of its members. Excommunication calls the church to love each other so devoutly that it will risk naming behaviors and actions that destroy the vulnerable. But even more than this, excommunication demands the willingness to hold true to the message of redemption and continually look for, and work towards, one’s redemption in Christ. This is not an easy task, but it is the way of Christ.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.