Rethinking Church Discipline & Excommunication

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 being 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. Here it is:

The Lost Practice of Church Discipline: What All Christians Need to Know

by Bart Breen

I remember well my days of pastoring and working in a denominational district office. Back then, I would get the occasional call from a pastor or church leader asking for a reference concerning a former church member or adherent.

In some cases, they would ask for a letter of recommendation assuring their staff that this person (or family) had been members in good standing and weren’t subject to church discipline. They especially wanted to know if the person or family in question had a reputation of trouble-making.

The practice of “letters of commendation” is thoroughly biblical. In the New Testament era, if you relocated from one church to another, a “letter of commendation” went ahead of you. That letter was to inform the church to which you were relocating if you had a “good report” or if you had a “bad report.”

Many organic and simple churches do not follow this practice at all, even though it’s wholly biblical and rooted in practical wisdom.

For example, let’s say that someone from church A (whether an institutional church or not) is excommunicated by the church for gross unrepentant sin. Of course, “unrepentance” means the person doesn’t acknowledge his or her sin and they don’t stop committing it. In fact, they may even justify it.

So the person is excommunicated from church A as Scripture teaches. Let’s assume that this is a thoroughly legitimate excommunication. The entire process of Matthew 18 has been followed. The person was approached in private, but they refused correction. They were then approached with 2 or 3 others in the church (perhaps on multiple occasions), and they still rebuffed the correction.

Only as a last resort, the person’s sin was made known to the church and they were asked to leave the fellowship as both Jesus and Paul both taught (see Matt. 18; 1 Cor. 5; Rom. 16).

This person, having been excommunicated, relocates to attend church B. Church B is completely unaware of this person’s past sinful behavior and excommunication. So church B gladly receives this individual into their fellowship.

In some cases, the excommunicated person may bad-mouth church A, complaining of being “mistreated,” spinning the truth to suit his or her own purposes.

Church B, unfortunately, never thinks to call church A to find out what really happened and hear their side of the story.

This scenario is more common than we might want to believe.

Unfortunately, many people who gravitate toward simple forms of church have had negative experiences with institutional churches and sometimes other simple forms of church. Sometimes those negative experiences were because of dysfunction or high-handed hierarchical control on the part of those churches.

But others times, it’s not that at all. The reality is that the person was disfellowshipped due to a pattern of causing division or other unrepentant sin.

In the first-century church, letters of commendation — recommending a person or warning others against them — were not just a matter of “protocol.”  It was crucial and sometimes a matter of life or death. A good example of this was Saul, before he was known as Paul, who had a reputation of scourging the church of the living God.

Saul actively hunted down believers in Christ to imprison them and even stood by approving in the case of public executions (Acts 8:1-3).  As we know, this same Saul later became integral within the body of Christ as a leading member, teacher, and preacher of the gospel to the Gentiles.

There was an extended time, however, where the Christian communities had to transition from justified fear and caution to unrestrained acceptance and trust.

This didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen without cautious “baby-steps” that were facilitated by already trusted men within the body who placed their reputations and lives on the line to vouch for Saul and assure others that a genuine change had truly taken place in his life.

Barnabas ended up being the key to Saul becoming Paul, enabling Paul to enter into the local churches with open arms. Barnabas was known and trusted by all within the Jerusalem church as a man who evidenced the fruit of the Spirit.

After Saul’s experience on the Damascus road and an extended time of retreat where he came to know Jesus personally, Saul returned to Jerusalem and sought to meet with the believers there, including the apostles.

Before Paul could be accepted by the church, it took Barnabas’s testimony to assure the church and the apostles that Paul was “safe” to God’s people (Acts 9:26-28).  It was only because of the personal relationship that Barnabas had developed with Paul that the concerns of the Jerusalem church were overcome and Paul was able to receive an endorsement from the apostles.

Paul understood the importance of being vouched for in this regard and he practiced the same in his subsequent ministry. Paul would commend people to local fellowships who were coming from other fellowships. In other cases, Paul would warn people against those who had a history of divisiveness. (See 2 Cor. 3:1-3; 1 Cor. 16:15-18; 2 Cor. 8:16-24; Eph. 6:21-22; Col. 4:7-10; Phil. 2:19-30; 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10-11; 1 Thess. 3:2; Acts 15:22-27; Rom. 16:1-2; Acts 18:27 for both examples.) Philemon is a positive letter of commendation on behalf of the runaway slave Onesimus.

To repeat, Paul would warn others against people who sought to do him harm by maligning him and thereby hurting the churches within his care.

Paul understood that there was forgiveness and restoration available to those who attacked the Lord’s servants, but only when true repentance was evidenced. Nobody knew that better than him, since Paul attacked the church and was later forgiven and received after his repentance.

Until there was a time of repentance, however, Paul knew that those who sought to make a name for themselves at the expense of others to promote their own teachings and establish their own name were a deadly threat to young fellowships and new believers.

Repentance means a change of actions. And it’s evidenced by an apology to the offended parties and a change of behavior over a sustained period of time based upon a change of mind or heart. It’s not just a show of regret, emotion or lip-service.

Paul sometimes even named names and made public warnings as evidenced in cases like Alexander the Coppersmith (2 Tim. 4:14-15). Paul also referenced a group known now as the Judaizers who would follow him into places he previously ministered, slandering him with lies and false reports, attempting to draw Gentile converts into their legalistic practices (Gal. 1:6-7).

By their very nature, organic fellowships and simple churches seek to establish deeper fellowship, interaction and trust without hierarchies and formal policies.  Because of that, however, they are particularly susceptible to people who have been excommunicated by other fellowships because of a history of quarrelsomeness, contentiousness, divisiveness — and other serious sins condemned in the New Testament.

Do not discount or neglect the wisdom of the early church as demonstrated by Paul in looking for commendations from others who are known and trusted. By the same token, do not discount the warnings of others about a person if those warnings are current and from multiple credible sources.

When a local fellowship or a group of leaders has excommunicated someone for serious and ongoing unrepentant sin, the body of Christ has spoken. Therefore, for a church or individual to receive the person who has been excommunicated by a local fellowship or group of leaders on biblical grounds is received into fellowship, it’s a denial of the oneness of the body. More seriously, it’s a denial of the voice of Jesus on earth.

Only when the people who were involved in the excommunication can verify true repentance can fellowship can be restored to the individual.

To ignore this principle is to invite the enemy “into the camp” and he will use it to wreak all sorts of havoc and confusion among Christians.

If we are going to take the New Testament seriously about how we are to gather, we must also take seriously the principle of the oneness of the body of Christ, and this includes the practice of letters of commendation — both of positive recommendations and of warnings.

Of course, warning letters are sometimes bogus and written by people who have a sinful agenda. Here are some of the marks of a false warning:

1. It’s written or headed up by one person.

2. The accusing person has never gone to the individual they are accusing privately to hear the person’s side of the story (per Matt. 18).

3. The accusing person has not brought others to go to the individual privately (per Matt. 18).

4. The accusing person has no relationship with the person they are accusing, but are deriving their accusations from second, third, and fourth hand sources and there is a discernable hidden agenda present.

Such letters of warning should be ignored out of hand. They are virtually always written by someone who is seeking to smear another person and are driven by evil motives.

On the other hand, if a letter of warning is signed by multiple credible witnesses and those witnesses followed the process of Matthew 18 — privately pleading with the person to repent, taking others to do the same, and then finally, taking it to the church — then such letters should be seriously heeded and taken to reflect the voice of the body.

Without evidence of an offending person’s changed heart and changed behavior, reconciliation with those who have harmed others in the past leads to “leavening the whole lump” and defiling others with sin. This is why the practice of excommunication — as gut-wrenching as it is — was practiced in the first century churches.  Restoration of the individual was the goal but not at the price of quarrels and division within the body as a whole.

Apart from the work of Christ in our midst and within the members of His body, the past is a good indicator of what might happen in the future. Only when the past has been dealt with by true repentance is it gone forever, never to be mentioned again.

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Comments

  1. Steve C says

    Hi Frank. I posted a Scriptural question here last week. It showed up for a day and then disappeared. I never received a response. Can you please explain.

  2. Marge says

    I just have a question. How do you feel about church membership? Does the NT teach this? I question it being biblical but everything I read on it seems to uphold it based on “how do you discipline someone who is not a member?”

  3. Frank Viola says

    Ryan: I have to wonder if you even read the article. Bart is referring to what the New Testament calls unrepentant “sin” and nothing else. Read the list at the end of 1 Corinthians 5 for examples: slander, fornication, etc.

    You are reading into the article things that simply aren’t there.

    For instance, Bart is NOT speaking of someone who has been “excommunicated” because they were challenging a pastor over doctrine or practice. There’s not a hint of that in the article, so why are you even bringing it up?

    I’m not exactly sure why, but you are arguing against a straw man. Try reading the entire article again *without* the lens of any past hurts you yourself carry.

    Bart is speaking of one aspect of church discipline that’s often neglected today. He’s not addressing the abuses that go on under the guise of “church discipline.” That’s a different matter altogether.

  4. Nathan Cochrane says

    Thank you for your post. One of the best teachings I’ve heard on discipline was a recorded plenary session in which xxx talks about discipline, which I believe is still located on xxxx.

    Your statement, “…an abusive pastor has no power” is assuming. I know that Bart is addressing a biblical New Testament context, but that’s not where many people find themselves. Even in healthy institutional churches, there is a very real power differential between the person who holds the office of pastor and the person who does not (I also understand that the reverse is also true). Sometimes the power differential is based upon personal power rather than a positional power of authority. The average Christian is not educated enough in scripture or in psychology or sociology to protect himself or others from the sort of abuse that many have experienced. Christians are often left with having to sever real meaningful relationships with a body to avoid an abusing relationship because structurally or functionally there is no way to bring correction. I think this is the case when we are dealing with master manipulators.

    Your thoughts?

    Respectfully,

    Nathan Cochrane

    • Frank Viola says

      Nathan: I’ve heard dozens of “teachings” on “discipline” and Bart’s is by far the best. What I think about what you’re saying is simple this. Bart is speaking about a very neglected aspect of church discipline. He’s dead on about it and the NT is quite clear on it as well. If he were speaking about “abusive pastors,” he’d no doubt talk about that very thing. I address the latter in “Reimagining Church” and the whole doctrine of “covering” which perhaps you’ve read.

  5. Ryan A says

    There is a lot I take issue with this post and Bart Breen’s article.

    It can be used to affirm and validate highly manipulative leaders to control their followers and does not make allowance for the fact that abusive churches exist — even organic ones — and when pastors have been confronted multiple times for sins and refuse to repent, in the organic model they can basically do whatever they want. There being no safeguards for the average believer, but plenty of leeway for the worker/apostle/leader, I can confidently say your “Rethinking Discipline” needs more thought, otherwise you enshrine abusive pastors everywhere.

    • Frank Viola says

      You are assuming too much here and I have to diverge with you.

      First, Bart is explaining what Scripture teaches. Period. He makes clear that we’re dealing with *real* unrepentant sin, not something assumed or made up.
      Second, what Jesus and Paul taught apply to all churches, traditional, organic, house/simple, liturgical, etc.
      Third, if one follows what the NT teaches here and what Bart explains, an abusive pastor has no power. He can’t unilaterally excommunicate someone.

      In fact, people who know the pastor and his abuse can confront him according to these principles. That includes the members of the congregation.

      All Bart has done is explain what the NT clearly teaches on this subject, and if one wants to take issue with what Jesus and Paul taught, so be it. But I believe they were correct and Bart’s main point about receiving people who have been disfellowshipped for unrepentant sin after many attempts to bring them to repentance causes many of God’s people to be corrupted and defiled.

      Keep in mind that I’m the guy who wrote “Reimagining Church” which deals with heavy-handed leadership. Bart’s article in no way justifies or aids this. :-)

    • Bart Breen says

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks for the comment.

      There are a lot of things in the Bible that can be used and are used to justify abusive practices in church settings. That in and of itself doesn’t invalidate the application of scripture in the context of love between brothers and sisters in Christ as they seek to grow and mature spiritually both as individuals and collectively in the context of a local fellowship.

      I knew when I wrote this article that there would be warning signals going off for many people. There are for me as well. As I stated in the article, there are many people who have come to organic and simple church from personal bad experiences where “church discipline” has been used to justify power and hierarchy rather than promoting relational restoration with God and one another.

      Rather than enshrining a principle that accepts every action of other fellowships in regards to discipline, what I’m attempting to show from Scripture is that there is a relational basis for using care in receiving people from other contexts without being aware of past issues of discipline and conflict and then exercising wisdom and discernment in welcoming people in without addressing such situations to know whether are open issues. As the article notes, not all actions or warning from other fellowships are necessarily legitimate and may in fact represent abusive hierarchy or a crass use of power that looks very little like Christ and His love for others.

      It’s impossible in an article of short length to exhaustively address all situations or to create a “how to” manual on what to do or not to do. Further, that very approach would belie the underlying dynamic and principle of love, grace and relationship comes in a fellowship that operates more in the realm of informal leadership than formal leadership.

      That said, my concern is that many organic and simple churches appear to my observation and experience to have missed that there is wisdom in Scripture with regard to the exercise of discipline in the positive sense of the word to guide one another to living in peace with one another, including our relationships from the past in churches whether those churches themselves are organic, simple or even institutional churches.

      Failing to do this can lead to disruption in our fellowships and it also misses the opportunity to be agents of change and redemption in seeking to restore relationships. In the case of disfellowship and excommunication however, where the issues were legitimate grounds for such an action in the past, there’s a strong warning signal that there is an unrepentant heart at work that doesn’t receive correction and this is unlikely to change just because the context of one fellowship as opposed the former has changed.

  6. CatherineS says

    I have a lot of respect for Bart and his willingness to speak out on thorny issues for the good of the Body of Christ. I guess the negative responses to his article shouldn’t have surprised me. This is an extremely difficult issue, one that should never be taken lightly, something even the most mature and experienced believers shouldn’t ever want to be involved in, and felt by too many believers to go completely against the grain of an expression of love and that it’s setting ourselves up as judges. The truth of the matter is that being willing to attempt to restore another believer who is in sin is a very high expression of God’s love for both the person who is sinning as well as for the Body. However, the average believer isn’t even comfortable with — or willing to follow — the most basic steps in Matt. 18:15-17. So, rather than face the prospect of wading through the morass of unrepentant sin and possible excommunication, they’d leave the church group or ignore the sin and hope it goes away, thus letting the poison continue to infect the body of Christ. I hope never to see it, but we’re only fooling ourselves if we think that the Body won’t be harmed if we close our eyes to the regrettable fact that there ARE times when church discipline is required.

  7. jerryvi says

    Great article. Having pastored in one setting for 17 years, I have never had an occasion where the conflict was able to be dealt with in accordance with Matthew 18. The usual pattern has been that the divisive person launches the verbal attacks, builds their case, poisons the atmosphere and then launches the final attack against the pastor and leaves the church.

    Would love to have had the opportunity to engage in the “confrontation without condemnation” that Matthew 18 describes.

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