The foundational instruction for church discipline is found in Matthew 18:15–17 where Christ guides His disciples on the levels of disciplinary actions against transgressors in the church. The first level is personal confrontation when a believer confronts another on his/her sin; if this fails, the believer is to take two or three others for a group confrontation; if this also fails, the third is corporate church discipline, failing which the transgressor is to be regarded as no different from worldly sinners or unbelievers. Traditionally, throughout church history, excommunication chiefly involved excommunion or barring the excommunicate from participation in the Holy Communion. A key scriptural ground for it is the instruction given by Paul to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 5. The Corinthian church was being lax on a certain individual engaged in sexual immorality with his stepmother. Paul instructs the church to hand over this person to the devil (v.5) and not to company with him or even “to eat with such a person” (the word “such” including a list—“sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner”, v.11).
But then, we face a problem. One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot, was a thief (John 12:6); however, there was no level one or two or three discipline applied to him. Judas was not excommunicated. In fact, he was neither excommuned but had the privilege of receiving bread from the hand of Christ at the Last Supper (John 13:25–26). Of course, the Bible tells us that Satan entered Judas as soon as he received that piece of bread (John 13:27), so the piece of bread only brought damnation rather than salvation (1 Cor 10:29). But, why wasn’t Judas ever confronted in the first place? Also, if he were confronted and handed over to the devil before “Satan entered” him back in Luke 22:3, would that help to save his spirit on the Day of Judgment (1Cor 5:5)? Or, does it mean that he, in fact, was delivered by Christ to the devil and that his eventual remorse and confession of sin were redemptive in the end?
Well, Judas’ failure to seek forgiveness and his suicide by hanging prove that his remorse was not really redemptive. He realized that he betrayed “innocent blood”, but never that he betrayed “Christ, the Son of the Living God” (a confession fundamental to the Church, Matt 16:16–18). Also, he did not believe in the Lordship of Christ. He despised Mary’s anointing of Christ in John 12 contending that it was much worth spending the money on poor people. And, towards the end his view of Christ was not accurate. When all the disciples at the Last Supper were addressing the Lord as Lord (kurios) indeed, he addressed Christ as Teacher (rabbi) (Matt 26:22, 25). He was personally alienated and uncommitted to Christ. His suicide only proved that he had no understanding of the significance of forgiveness and redemption and favoured death rather than dealing with his guilt. In their article, ‘Shame, Guilt, and Suicide’ (Suicide Science 2002), Mark Hastings, Lisa Northman and June Tangney point out that guilt (which is personal) is focused on remediable behaviour and, therefore, is often directed towards reparation. However, shame (which is social), involves feelings of being diminished, powerless, exposed, and worthless. Judas seemed to have good rapport with the Jewish leaders when he volunteered to betray Jesus; but, now they had no use for him. He had also fallen in the eyes of the disciples. So, probably, it was demonic and worldly shame rather than true guilt that drove him to suicide.
This turns us back to the previous question: Why wasn’t Judas ever confronted in the first place?
First, there is no indication that Judas was even saved, though he was one of the twelve. Being one of the twelve did not necessarily mean “being saved” in the pre-crucifixion period. Jesus told Peter that he had no part with Him unless He washed him (John 13:8) and then remarked that they were clean, though not all of them (John 13:10). In His prayer, He referred to Judas as the one “doomed to destruction” (John 17:12).
But, that does not mean Jesus never corrected Judas. Jesus, for instance, told him to leave Mary alone when Judas objected to her anointing Jesus with expensive oil. Jesus did let Judas know that He knew what Judas was all up to. He even told him to do what he was about to quickly (John 13:27). Also, the words and works of Christ were convicting and cleansing (John 15:3, 22). Thus, it would be altogether wrong to say that Judas never had encountered Christ’s scrutiny and correction.
Finally, Jesus foreknew the doom of Judas. He saw who he was and what he would do and told Judas that. Jesus let Judas betray Him, which is paradoxical. Deception is not really deception when one is aware of it happening. Jesus knew what was happening. But Jesus let that happen to Him because there lay the crux of the story of atonement: that God through the cross allows humanity to either reject Him or to become one with Him. Judas also got the choice; in fact, all the disciples got that. The other disciples turned to Christ becoming one with Him. Judas turned away from Christ becoming one with the world.
Thus, in the pre-crucifixion era, when the church as a physical body did not yet come to be, there was no question of church discipline. But that did not mean that Judas did not receive correction from Jesus in the same way that other disciples did. Jesus did correct Judas’ wrong thinking. Jesus also revealed to Judas and other disciples what they were going to do and they all had the choice to choose Christ or reject Him. Later, when the church would come to be, she would confirm the elimination of Judas the betrayer and the finalization of the number of the twelve (Acts 1).
This, eventually, leads us to the final question. What does the participation of Judas in the Last Supper signify? Doesn’t this seem contrary to what church discipline and excommunication has been understood traditionally in many churches throughout history?
In Judas’ case, his sin was not yet a public issue calling for corporate discipline in whatever sense that might be understood in the pre-crucifixion context. In fact, none of the disciples could claim moral purity. They were all going to forsake Christ. Peter would deny Him thrice. But they all partook of the First Communion that foreshadowed not only the death and resurrection of Jesus but also the identification of each disciple with the body and blood of Christ. Some became His body, but Judas became guilty of His blood. Yet, none of them could say that Christ did not tell them all and also reveal what they would do.