Church is the communion of believers. Can any authority separate one from the status of being in communion with God through Jesus Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit? The possible answer could be “no”. However, each believer is meant to be a born-again Christian who is in the pursuit of their calling to live holy and stay faithful in the race that is set ahead of them.
To maintain the serenity and seriousness of Christian fellowship, and to help the backsliding believer, church has formulated certain criteria of discipline by keeping the grace of God, the counsel of scripture, the life of the early church and its context in consideration.
Amongst many disciplinary procedures, excommunication is considered as the final act of discipline. Excommunication has multiple facets of expression. In this article, we will discuss how excommunication is used by church to help the backsliding believers come back into the communion of God.
Michael A. Milton defines excommunication as the relentless expression of church discipline. However, he explains that this punishment is not an act of retaliation, rather a process of reconciliation. The sole purpose of excommunication is to make the unrepentant believer to reflect on the seriousness of the church’s stand on sin, need of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.
Being set in isolation or being excommunicated was one of the many forms of corrective measures used by Israelites from the Law of Moses. The prophets were advocates of the Law and the Levites looked after the practice of the Law in relation to isolation from temple and social concerns. Isaiah 38:22 holds that entry was denied into the temple and the community for the people who were affected by leprosy and were considered unclean which resulted in the excommunication. However, they were allowed into the temple and the community when they were healed and examined by the priest.
It is found that there are twenty-four acts of offence which resulted in various levels of excommunication. The Jewish excommunication was threefold. The first excommunication was of thirty days which was pronounced when the convict failed to appear in court; a relaxation of thirty more days was given. If the convict still remained absconding from the court, he was penalized with the second excommunication with stern penalties attached. The third and final level was a complete excommunication.
In Luke 6:22, when observed with the Jewish legal practice of excommunication in the background, it can be assumed that Jesus was referring to the three-fold level of excommunication. “Blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.”
The foundations of the Christian practice of excommunication are said to be derived from the teachings of Jesus Christ which are found in Matthew 18:15, 18, which were seen advocated and encouraged by Paul.
After a brief understanding of excommunication in general and specifically in Christianity, can we say that excommunication is scriptural discipline of the church? The answer could be a certain “yes”. If the purpose of excommunication, which is to bring back a leader into re-communion, is not served, then it needs to be scrutinized.
The phrase “to hand over to Satan” in 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Tim 1:20 were considered as general expression of speaking about church discipline during the apostolic era. The primary purpose of excommunication was to help the disobedient believer to know the seriousness of life with Christ and His body. The former text denotes excommunication is to help the spirit of the believer on the day of the Lord and the latter was to help people not to blaspheme. The phrase “handover to Satan” is an expression of handing over to the world, which was Satan’s sphere, but not to completely cut away from the communion of believers. Excommunication was a time of solitude where the disobedient believer had a chance to ponder upon their life with the Lord and repent, recommit his life to Christ.
William Smith gives four-fold purpose of the act of excommunication.
- The faithful practice of the church is to correct the defiant souls.
- Holy, healthy and spiritual wellbeing of the church is dependent on corrective measures such as excommunication.
- Excommunication as a disciplinary act becomes pivotal in maintaining, conserving the honour of Christ.
- Excommunication being commanded by God makes it an unavoidable act to be practised.
Factors affecting the plausibility of Church discipline
Is the act of excommunication or any other church discipline possible in today’s church? Let us examine a few reasons why it is difficult:
Unaccountability: Today’s generation is not ready to be accountable to one another. Being not able to submit to a spiritual authority is also the result of not wanting to be accountable. As a result, helping a believer in disciplining their lives through disciplinary measures is not easy.
Multi-denominationalism: Early church did not have the problem of denominationalism and multiple churches which allowed the church leadership to monitor the life of the believers and take measures to help them to stand firm in the Lord. As of now due to multiple churches and denominations in a given place, believers have freedom to change from one church to the other when they are questioned.
Commercialization of ministry
When church and the ministry are commercialized, scripture is no more considered foundational and pastoral care fundamental to its life. Scripture is replaced by motivational sermons and pastoral care by passive and non-corrective attitude towards sin.
Apart from the above, there are many other factors such as virtual churches and postmodern mindset among others that affect the plausibility of church discipline. However, there are many churches that continue to hold the seriousness of the scriptural and spiritual life of their community. It’s a sign of growth in a church where excommunication as a disciplinary act is reduced progressively. Let us, the Church, bride of Christ, pray that all of us would abide in him to avoid the unpleasant act of excommunication amongst us. On the other hand, let us be cautious of not counting the grace of God void in disciplining the unrepentant believer in helping him/her from backsliding and also keeping the serenity of the church at large. As we have understood that the purpose of the act of excommunication is re-communion.