Jesus died “for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV). However, not everyone is aware of this truth. Because of this, the church has been given the mission of presenting the gospel to everyone (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15). The followers of Jesus are to share this message and extend an invitation to others to receive salvation, which is only found in Jesus (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Those who believe the message and put their trust in Christ are saved, that is, they become Christians. In their new status as children of God they are now to be “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14). Once they become believers the Lord adds them to the church (Acts 2:47).
The message of Jesus is a message of love and the people of the church should be loving as well. In fact, outside of some church buildings there are signs that say ‘All Welcome’. These words can be helpful in making those who do not normally attend church feel comfortable enough to enter and attend a service. As believers we are called to gather people and make disciples (Matt 28:19). But is there ever a time when the church can, and should, put a person out? Is it ever right for the church to exclude someone from congregational life? If one of the members of the community of light succumbs to darkness can such a person be expelled from the community? Is the church authorized to do this, and if so, on what grounds? In other words, can a church excommunicate one of its members? Fortunately the Bible addresses these questions and the answer is yes.
I know that this topic may make some people uncomfortable and I understand why. I was once part of a church in which steps were taken in an attempt to expel one of its long-time members. This is a difficult topic, but it is a biblical one. I believe the longest text in the New Testament that deals with this subject is 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter Paul addressed a case of sexual immorality. This is a problem that is still with us today even in the church. I am sure that there are a significant number of pastors who have become aware of cases of sexual immorality in the lives of some of the people in their congregations. All forms of sexual immorality are sinful. However, the one Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians 5 was particularly disturbing. A man in the Corinthian church was having sex with his father’s wife; this seems almost unfathomable; Paul said that not even pagans put up with that kind of behaviour (1 Cor 5:1). After hearing about this case he addressed the situation. He did not just let it go or say, “who am I to judge?” or, “whatever takes place between consenting adults is fine”. Not at all, he directed the church to expel the man (1 Cor 5:13). There are reasons for this.
The first reason is that God has standards. Adultery is not holy. God specifically included a prohibition against it in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:14). Jesus also addressed it (Matt 5:27–28). Later in 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 Paul wrote about sexual immorality and referred to it as a form of wrongdoing, something that characterizes the life of the unregenerate, not the Christian. In fact, he says that such behaviour can keep one out of the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9).
While a person who commits sexual sins “sins against their own body” (1 Cor 6:18 NIV), there are other issues to consider. In addition to sinning against God this man sinned against his father and his father’s wife. He was also a bad example to others in the church. Later in 1 Corinthians Paul wrote, “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor 15:33 NIV). This is certainly true. If Revelation 2:20 is to be interpreted literally we have a text that shows how one person’s influence can lead others into sexual immorality. In this verse we read about a so-called prophetess named Jezebel whose teaching misled the Lord’s people into sexual immorality. I believe Paul had a similar concern in the case in 1 Corinthians 5.
Excommunication is biblical and is appropriate in certain situations. However, it should be exercised with great caution. A church should not use it to drive out a person that they don’t like. The grounds for expelling someone need to be biblical. It should also be noted that excommunication should not be used with reference to any and every sin (it was not in the New Testament). If everyone who sinned were expelled from the church there would be nobody in the church, because every one of us has sinned (Rom 3:23). Sexual sin is not the only case in which excommunication can be implemented. It can be used for less shocking sins as well. If you Google “biblical texts that speak about excommunication” you will find others. A common thread that ties some of these offences together is that they can have a negative impact on the life of the church body. Lastly, and this is so important, though excommunication is a painful form of discipline, its ultimate goal is the salvation of the individual. You can see this in 1 Cor 5:5 where Paul wrote: “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.” Excommunication is biblical but it should be used sparingly, lovingly and wisely when one of the members of the community of light succumbs to darkness.