Excommunication and Shunning Members of the Church (Part 1 of 3)
By Joe Keim
January 1, 2011
Warning! Before you read the following article, I would like to say a few things:
1. A few will read the this article and become upset, possibly even angry.
2. Others will read this with an open mind, consider what is being said and possibly even be blessed by it.
Having said that, can I urge you to consider two very important thoughts before you react?
1. I could very well be wrong on some interpretations of Scripture and am willing to be challenged with your views and understanding of excommunication and shunning.
2. Let's not forget that in the end, God has the last word - not me or you. And because God has the last word, we will be much further ahead IF we base our views and understanding of excommunication and shunning on His Word; not ours.
Excommunication and shunning, as most of us know, was one of the main reasons why Jacob Amman split away from the Mennonites in late 1600's. In fact, let's visit parts of that history before we get into our main study today.
Jacob Amman and Hans Reist
The year was 1690, and two men, who were leaders in the Mennonite Church, began to struggle over some religious practices that were taking place in the church. Their names were Hans Reist and Jacob Amman. In 1693, Amman, in a confrontation with Reist's followers, excommunicated Reist and his leaders, causing a shock throughout all of the Mennonite communities in Western Europe. Jacob Amman was causing divisions within the Mennonite church.
After years of banning and excommunicating nearly half of all Mennonites, some calmer heads began to reason with Jacob Amman. After much soul searching, and considering of the consequences that he had caused within the Mennonite church, Jacob Amman and some of his leaders decided to try to rejoin the mainstream Mennonite church.
In order to show repentance, Jacob Amman excommunicated himself and his leaders. In 1699, and again in 1700, Amman tried to rejoin the Mennonites. The Mennonites felt it was not possible, since there would always be differences and separation by doctrine and interpretation of scripture and traditions.
Some Facts On Jacob Amman
- Jacob Amman had excommunicated over half of the Mennonites.
- The Mennonites excommunicated Jacob Amman
- And finally, Jacob Amman excommunicated himself from his own group.
- Jacob Amman, spiritual leader and founder of the Amish faith, died while he was still excommunicated from the Mennonites.
Is Excommunication and Shunning Biblical?
This question is answered in one of three ways, depending on who you ask. View #1 and #2, as outlined below, are extreme opposites, however, view #3 describes a more balanced Biblical view. Let's take a close look at all three views.
There are churches who turn a blind eye toward Scriptures that teach excommunication and shunning. In fact, if the pastor or church elders, I am about to describe, would so much as dare use discipline on one of their members, they would loose half of their membership; maybe even get sued.
In the case of this view, church discipline is a phrase that no one dare speak, not even in the most sinful of situations.
Besides that, it is often much easier for the troublemaker to uproot and move on to another church in the area. After leaving the first church and attending the new one for awhile, they stir up more trouble, and eventually, they do it all over again; they move on to the next church.
These troublemakers are never at one church long enough to become established and usable in ministry. And secondly, the new church, in which the troublemaker has just joined, is so disconnected from all other churches in the area, that no one is aware of what happened at the previous church.
The Bible is very clear, when the church allows a little bit of sin to dwell in the camp, it will eventually effect everybody. It is just like cancer, if left unattended, you can bet, it will destroy your whole body.
...know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? 1 Cor 5:6
The point is this: the church must wake up and learn something. Leaven is a type of sin in the Bible. Therefore, if the church member and his/her shameful sin are allowed to remain in the church, it will spread throughout the whole membership. If the church continues to accept the person who is living in open sin, others will begin to feel that they, too, can be acceptable even if they sin. If there is no restraint upon sin, then sin will grow. If sin is accepted, then sin, not righteousness, rules.
Note what Scripture says: it takes only a little leaven, not much, for sin to grow. Accepting just one member who lives in sin will cause others to begin living worldly and sinful lives.
To the church, living and practicing under View #1, may I remind you, the Bible has some clear words written for you.
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened... 1 Cor 5:6
May I also remind you what happened to Achan in the Old Testament? Joshua informed the Children of Israel in Joshua 6:18, "do not take anything from the City of Jericho or you will bring a curse on the whole camp."
Achan got sticky fingers, and when he saw some gold and silver shekels, he picked them up and hid them in his tent. He probably thought to himself, I will never get caught and no one will ever know. However, he forgot that the Lord was watching.
When God handed out the blame for Achan's sin, He did not ONLY blame Achan, He blamed ALL the children of Israel. Look what God says:
But the children of Israel committed a trespass in the accursed thing: for Achan...took of the accursed thing: and the anger of the LORD was kindled against the children of Israel. Joshua 7:1
- How many people got blamed for one man's sin? Everybody.
- How many people did the Lord God become angry at over one man's sin? Everybody.
God got angry at every single person in the camp; even those who were completely in the dark and unaware of Achan's sin. Verse 5 tells us that because of Achan's sin, thirty six men died.
When the thirty six men died, Joshua and the elders of Israel rent their clothes, put dust on their heads and fell on their faces before God.
Notice how God responds to Joshua and the Elders of Israel.
And the LORD said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the accursed thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and they have put it even among their own stuff. Therefore the children of Israel could not stand before their enemies, but turned their backs before their enemies, because they were accursed: neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the accursed from among you. -Joshua 7:10-12
One man's sin caused thirty six innocent men to die! Truly, it makes a person wonder how many innocent church members are suffering severe consequences because nothing is being done to purge out the sin that has sprung up with in the camp.
And, might I add; maybe that is why we see so little power in many of the main stream churches today. And maybe, just maybe, that is why we see so many of our prayers go unanswered. These are just some honest questions we should ask ourselves.
Something else to consider; is it possible that many churches fall under the judgment that Christ spoke of in Revelation 3?
And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; ... I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue [vomit] thee out of my mouth.
Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door [of the church], and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. -Revelation 3:14-20
In our second view, I would like to take a look at some of the practices and views of another type of churches. They are in fact quite opposite of the view we just covered.
The churches in our second view, use Scriptures, such as Matthew 18:17, I Corinthians 5, and I Timothy 1:20 to put the fear of God into anyone who would dare to go against the rules and regulations that have been set forth by the leadership of the church. And, once that member has been excommunicated from the church, they become a marked person. From that point on, they are noted and shunned, not only by their home church, but also by most of the other churches in the area. And unless that person comes back to the same church that excommunicated him/her, the ban will not be lifted.
Over the years, there have been some extreme cases where certain members in these churches have taken their own lives, because they saw no way out of their emotional and mental misery. Their thinking has been described in the following ways:
1. If I leave the church, I will be excommunicated and shunned by my own family and friends. And, at the end of my life, God will cast me into hell, as payment for having opposing views and understandings of the church and it's rules.
2. If I continue to live my life within the church and it's strict guidelines, my days will continue to look dark and bleak. So much so that the only way out; the only relief is to take my life.
Three Questions to Consider
- Does God give the leaders of the church full rights to establish any rule and regulation they want, and then force it on the members of the church?
- Does God, under any circumstances, allow church leaders the right to turn a member over to Satan and shun him or her for breaking a man-made rule?
- Is there a difference between a man-made rule, such as, "Thou shalt not drive a car" and a God made rule, such as, "Thou shalt not commit adultery?"
Surely every reader of this article would agree that God's rules, if broken, will carry consequences.
But what about man made rules? What if they are broken? Does God care? For instance, suppose I was an elder of the church and one day I came to you and said, John, from now on I don't want you to use any more power tools, including the chain saw, power drill and air nailer. Suppose that I would come to you a second time and say, John, from now on you are only allowed to wear certain colors of clothing; your shirt can only have three buttons in the front, no lay down collar, and no short sleeves.
- Kerosene lanterns on your buggy are ok, but no battery operated blinking lights.
- Phone shanty on the corner of your property is ok, but mind you, no phone in the house.
- You must shave your mustache off, however, the beard must go uncut.
- A couch in the living room is allowable, but it is against the rules to have a back or arm rests on the side.
- Running the washing machine with a gasoline engine is acceptable, but to do so with electricity is wrong.
One man might argue, but these rules are nothing more then little fences that keep us from loosing control and breaking God's commandments.
Another might respond, "well, I don't actually believe that keeping our man made rules will get us to heaven."
A good follow-up question might be, "so you don't believe that the rules will get you to heaven?"
No, he would answer.
What happens if one of the members refuses to keep the rules?"
In my lifetime and experience, the popular response would be, "well, then we as a church would have to take action. And if things did not turn around, we would need to eventually excommunicate and shun that member."
Excommunicate that member for what? For breaking a man made rule?
Until just a couple years ago, I did not realize it so much, but that kind of mind set is very similar to what was happening in the Jewish culture, during Jesus' time. Please allow me to explain.
The Jewish leaders created thousands of little fences in order to keep their people from breaking God's commandments. And in time, those little fences became more important than anything God ever said. In fact, Jesus clearly said to them, "...ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition." Let's read the whole passage.
For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And He said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. -Mark 7:8-9
We can read throughout the gospels and the book of Acts that these man-made fences would, in time, become the very reason why Jesus and the Apostles got excommunicated and shunned from the synagogues. In fact, these fences eventually became the very cause for why they died on crosses, got beheaded, were dipped in boiling oil and cast into the rivers.
Jesus had told His followers...
They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. -John 16:2
How desperately sad, that these leaders, who should have been studying and preaching God's Word, turned on their own flock and cast them out of their fellowship; not because they broke the commandments of God, but because they broke their own man-made rules.
Consider what happened in the situation, following this paragraph. Jesus is standing in front of Pilate with a crown of thorns on His head. He is being accused by His own people, who want Him dead! Notice particularly the part of the verse that is underlined.
When the chief priests [leaders of the synagogues] therefore and officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, Crucify Him, Crucify Him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye Him, and Crucify Him: for I find no fault in Him. The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law He ought to die... -John 19:6-7
In a nut shell, this is what they said; we [the synagogue] have our own set of rules; this man, Jesus Christ, does not measure up to those rules! Therefore, we want Him dead!
- Would Jesus measure up to our church standards today?
- What would happen if He attended our services next Sunday, and at the end of the sermon, He started healing people?
- Would He be allowed to preach in our church services, even if He was not chosen in a lot?
Chances are, if Jesus Christ came to church and was not dressed plainly or have His hair cut a certain way, He would be put in a different category immediately.
The church people might even start saying and hearing things like, look! He came to church without a hat! His suspenders are made out of elastic instead of denim. He's wearing a mustache! Oh, and did you hear what His name is? He claims to go by the name Jesus, and you know as well as I do, that is not a common name. My, how worldly! If He thinks that He will become part of this church, He's going to have to change His name to a more simple one, such as Eli or Atlee.
So when does it become right to excommunicate and shun a member of the church?
One thing is for sure, where there are people, there is sin and disagreement. It is bound to happen! Someone once said, if you do find a perfect church, don't join it, because the moment you join it, it will become imperfect.
To point fingers at another church member too quickly, is to forget the true statement that says, but for the grace of God, there go I.
Oh, you may not have a problem with lusting and you may never have come close to committing adultery, but possibly you have other problems, such as anger and bitterness.
Every person on the face of this planet has at least several weaknesses and if at the right time and at the right place, you will break every single time.
And why beholdest thou the mote [speck] that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam [plank] that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. -Matthew 7:3-5
Most of us would be wise to read and study the previous passage before we take any action at all. However, there are those times when a born again member in the church makes some very poor choices and get's tangled up in a sin, such as the ones we read about in Galatians 5:19-21 and a few other places in the New testament.
When that happens, I truly believe that we have to ask ourselves two questions before we as a church do anything with the erring member.
1st: Was this a one time sin or has it happened many, many times?
2nd: Has the person showed true sorrow for the sin which was committed, or is he or she filled with pride and doesn't care?
Let's just say that the person is truly sorry for the sin they committed. Note: True and complete sorrow cannot be faked. True repentance is so visible that you would have a hard time missing it.
What should the church do?
They have a member who has sinned a terrible sin, maybe it happened once and maybe it happened several times, however, the truth is, the sinning church member is very broken over his/her sin. S/he has wept bitterly and asked God and the church for forgiveness.
What should the church do?
Should they immediately forgive and forget? Should they forgive and still put the person through a period of excommunication and shunning?
Before either one of us answers that question, let's turn to the following Scripture passage for our answer:
And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? -John 8:3-5
Dear friend, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. And, oh did the power hungry church leaders come alive. In fact, they shouted for all to hear: Moses commanded us to stone people like this!
By the way, I should point out that this woman was most likely a member of the Jewish synagogue. One thing is for sure, she was considered by the leaders as one who should be living under the law of Moses.
Let us now turn and see how the Lord Jesus handled the matter.
...Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. -John 8:6-11
There are two things I would like to point out about the actions that Jesus took in the passage of Scripture we just read.
Jesus did not say, "woman, because of your sinful behavior, I am going to ask the synagogue to excommunicate and shun you for six weeks. During that time, we as members are going to watch you very closely to see if you are really serious about your sorrow and repentant heart.
Jesus did not condemn, or for that matter, even question her. What He did do is give the sinning woman a second chance.
Aren't you glad that we serve a God of second chances? But wait, our heavenly Father, according to the next Scripture passage, is about giving the sinner who repents many chances.
And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him. -Luke 17:4
Let's say that you caught a church member in the very act of sinning a great sin, similar to the one that we just read about in John chapter 8. And let's pretend also that, at this point, no one else in the church is aware of anything that happened. Just you and the sinning church member are the only ones that know. What should you do?
- Should you run and tell it to the leaders of the church?
- Should you start gossiping all over the neighborhood, letting everybody know what so and so is into?
- Should you forgive and tell no one about what you just witnessed?
Let's again consider the words of our Lord Jesus, as He sets some clear guidelines concerning these very questions.
Notice, there are three steps, that according to Jesus, you should take in dealing with the sinning church member.
[STEP 1] Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
[STEP 2] But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
[STEP 3] And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. -Mat 18:15-17
Wow! Could Jesus have made it any plainer then that? Three very clear steps in dealing with a sinning church member. Notice too, it is not until the last step in Jesus' outline that you take the sinful situation to the whole church. And if I understand Jesus correctly, it is only then that the church excommunicates and shuns the unrepentant sinner.
Let's please ask ourselves another question: according to Jesus in Matthew 18, would excommunication and shunning have been necessary if the sinning member had repented on step 1? Step 2? How the about step 3?
The answer should be obvious, but just in case it isn't, according to Jesus' own words, the sinner should not be excommunicated and treated as an unbeliever until all three steps have been completed and the sinner has still not shown any sign of sorrow or repentance. And, might I remind us all, it never works to do [STEP TWO AND THREE] before [STEP ONE], such as happens in many of the plain churches. Not only does it not work, it is not how God intended it to be.
In ending, I would like to challenge us both with two simple questions:
Is there a difference between man-made rules and God-made rules? Or do they, if broken, carry the same level of punishment?
Is it ever, under any circumstance Biblical to excommunicate and shun members for breaking a man-made rule?
-- Joe Keim
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