In Reimagining Church (2008), I briefly discussed the topic of church discipline. Recently, someone asked me to expand what I said about the topic, asking for my opinion on how church discipline worked in the early church.
I’ve already dealt with the first half of this question in another post. See How (Not) to Correct Another Christian.
Excommunicating a genuine Christian is a “horrible” experience. I say horrible because excommunicating a true believer (putting them out of a local assembly) is one of the most horrendous, heart-wrenching, dreadful things that can happen to a person.
Anyone who is involved in excommunicating someone (who has half a heart, that is) doesn’t want to be involved in the process.
Excommunication is discussed in several places in the New Testament. So it’s not an issue that can be conveniently ignored.
Matthew 18:15-17: 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.
1 Corinthians 5:4-12: 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 . . . Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people . . . “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Romans 16:17: 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.
Whether you are part of an organic church or an institutional church, someday your church will have to bite the bullet and excommunicate someone for unrepentant sin.
Thankfully, in over 30 years of been a Christian, I’ve only seen four cases of excommunication.
In all four instances, a member of the body was persisting in one of the transgressions that Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.
All of the sins listed in that text are community destroyers. Thus, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5, if the problem is ignored, the entire body will become infected because “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.”
In each of the four cases I’ve witnessed, an individual who was sinning against the body refused to stop. They were approached privately as Jesus taught in Matthew 18.
When the person refused to heed the correction of the one individual, two or three witnesses were brought in to bring the same correction to the person.
When their correction was refused, a process of two or three — and sometimes more — continued, pleading with the person to repent.
Sometimes this went on for a period of months, because the churches involved were incredibly patient and desperately wanted to see the person repent. I commend this approach. We’d want the same kind of forbearance if we were the sinning party (Matt. 7:12).
Finally, when the person stubbornly refused to stop sinning after countless attempts to bring them to repentance, the church disfellowshipped them.
Recently, Bart Breen wrote a stunningly powerful article on the topic of excommunication for House2House Magazine.
It’s perhaps the best article I’ve ever read on the subject, as it touches on a major problem in the body of Christ today concerning this issue.
I don’t recall ever seeing the issue that Bart tackles addressed by anyone before.
Consequently, I highly recommend that you read it. Click the link below.
“The Lost Practice of Church Discipline” by Bart Breen