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What Does The Bible Teach On Excommunication?

What does the Bible teach on this subject? Did Jesus Christ authorize “marking” and “shunning?” Should smokers and makeup wearers be categorized alongside murders, adulterers, homosexuals and liars, each stamped with the label “sinner” and cast out of God’s Church?

Churches that discipline by shunning base their practice on Romans 16:17: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”

When Paul wrote, “mark them which cause division and avoid them,” did he mean to completely avoid them? Were their names to be announced before the church? Was anyone who chose to associate with them also to be “marked” and “avoided”? Just what did he mean?

Let’s note several points about Paul’s statement.

First, the word “mark” in Romans 16:17 is translated from the Greek, skopeo, which means “to look at, behold, watch, and contemplate used metaphorically of looking to” (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of the New Testament Words, p. 715).

The word skopeo is again translated “mark” in Philippians 3:17: “Brethren be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example.” The “mark” in this sense was those who followed the apostle as he followed Christ. Of course, they were not labeled or branded; there was no formal “marking” of these individuals. Paul merely meant that such Christians should be noted for their good deeds, that their examples should be followed.

In II Corinthians 4:18, the word skopeo is translated “to look at”; “look on” in Philippians 2:4; and “take heed (that); in Luke 11:35.

Obviously, to “mark them which cause division” does not mean to place a special identifying label on them, as God placed a “mark” on Cain, but means simply, as the Revised Standard Version says, “to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties” “Take note of” merely means to “be aware of,” as anyone in any situation, church, business, social, etc. would want to be aware of potential problems so that he could avoid them.

Another often overlooked point is the fact that Paul’s letter to the Romans was not a pastoral epistle, but was addressed to “all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7) the local, lay brethren. Paul said, “Now I beseech you brethren” not, “I beseech you ministers” “take note of those who create dissensions.”

There is no “command” to the ministers to tell the lay membership who is to be “marked” and avoided. Each individual member must judge for himself in such matters. Furthermore, the passage does not say that those “noted” should be “excommunicated” or “shunned.” It doesn’t even say that they should be forbidden to attend church services! It simply says that members should take note of the division makers, and be careful to avoid getting involved with, or in any way demonstrating support of, their division-causing activities.

Some are quick to point out that “mark and avoid them” are commands of God, and back up their position with additional commands such as II Thess. 3:14: “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.” However, those who are so quick to point out these “commandments” seem to feel that numerous other passages are not as much “commands of God” as the “marking” and “avoiding” scriptures. Verse 15 says, “Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish his as a brother.” Is “have no company with him” more of a “commandment of God” than “admonish him as a brother”?

It is utterly impossible to “avoid completely” and “admonish as a brother” at the same time. Obviously, Paul’s instruction to “have no company with him” does not mean that all communication is to cease.

Notice Gal. 6:1: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” Is this passage not just as much a commandment of God inspired of the Holy Spirit as any other instructions in the New Testament? Or is it more important to “mark” and “avoid” than to “restore” an erring brother?

How is it that a church leader can greatly emphasize the passage which says “avoid them,” while neglecting the admonitions to “restore such an one” and “count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother”?

Jude wrote: “And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 22-24). Does the God who “so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) and the God who “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (II Peter 3:9) place greater importance on “marking” than on rescuing the wayward brother?

Religious leaders (particularly those obsessed with their power) would do well to carefully study Ez. 34:2-4. “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy, and say unto them, thus saith the Lord God unto the shepherds; Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock.”

“The diseased (the erring brother, the spiritually infirmed) have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which was sick, neither have ye bound up that which was broken, neither have ye brought again that which was driven away, neither have ye sought that which was lost; but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them.”

Some shepherds disfellowship persons for sins and spiritual problems, but never make any efforts whatsoever to restore such persons to a state of good spiritual health and well-being.

If the power-wielding shepherds described by Ezekiel would carefully pay attention to what God says about them, perhaps they would experience some of the fear they seem to enjoy instilling in others. Notice what God says: “Thus saith the Lord God: Behold I am against the shepherds; and I will require my flock at their hand, and cause them to cease from feeding the flock; neither shall the shepherds feed themselves any more: for I will deliver my flock from their mouth, that they may not be meat for them (Ez. 34:10).

The shepherds who please God are much different from the shepherds of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Read Peter’s instructions to the true shepherds (I Peter 5:1-4). How incredible that some shepherds can read such passages, and somehow still find a means of justifying their actions.

Some point to Matthew 18:17 as biblical authority for excommunication and shunning “but if he (a sinning brother) shall neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” The Jews of Christ’s day did not socialize with publicans, and did not have spiritual (religious) fellowship with the heathen. To treat someone as a heathen man and a publican, then, it is claimed, is to have no fellowship with him at all.

But remember, Jesus Christ is our example. So to understand what He meant when He said “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican,” we must look to Him, to see how He treated publicans and heathen.

Notice Matthew 9:10-12 “And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it they said unto His disciples, why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, He said unto them, they that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”

Christ Himself associated with publicans and sinners. He befriended harlots, thieves, and corrupt businessmen, but did not support or approve their activities. Rather, He admonished them to repent, to “sin no more.”

So, does “let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” mean to “completely avoid,” or does it mean to avoid getting so involved that troubles emerges? Should the ministry (and remember, Matt. 18:17 was directed to the ministry) completely avoid “marked” individuals, or be a “physician” to the spiritually sick?

Read the entire 18th chapter of Matthew, and note that the main message of the chapter is forgiveness of sins, the importance of the “little ones” in God’s Church, and the care one should take in avoiding offences. “Woe unto the world because of offences,” Jesus declared: “for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence comes!”

In many situations, the best way to thoroughly offend someone is to shun him. When a person is spiritually “down,” one of the surest ways a minister can offend him is to excommunicate him. Anyone should be able to see plainly that all spiritual diseases do not respond equally to the same medication, that disfellowshipment is not the ultimate solution to the problem of sin in the church!

Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd to whom all other shepherds are to look for an example. Read Matthew 18:11-14. The forgiveness of sins, avoidance of offending the “little one,” and restoration of the sinning brother, is the context in which vs. 15-17 should be understood.

But is there ever a time for disfellowshipment? Are there Bible examples of disfellowshipment in the New Testament Church?

The Bible does not authorize shunning (in the sense of total avoidance) as a means of discipline in the church, but we do find examples of disfellowshipment. However, these disfellowshipments occurred only in extreme cases. Paul instructed the Corinthians to “put away from among yourselves that wicked person” (I Cor. 5:13). The “wicked person,” in this instance, was an incestuous person who was having an illicit relationship with his father’s wife.

The Corinthian brethren knew what was taking place, but continued to fellowship with the fornicator, nevertheless. Probably, they even broke bread and enjoyed fellowship in the sinner’s home, where the sin was taking place, and acted as though nothing was wrong. Such behavior, of course could only encourage the spread of sin within the church, and give sinners license to go on sinning.

Paul wrote, “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” In other words; “Give such a person over to Satan (since he insists upon yielding to Satan’s way) by discontinuing fellowship with him. Perhaps such action will help him to see just how shameful his sin is, and lead him to conquer his fleshly nature.

The fornicator was disfellowshiped. But before adopting a position based on this example, at least five factors must be considered.

  1. We must not assume that to “deliver such an one unto Satan” means to completely discontinue communication with the individual. As we have already seen, “restore such an one” and “admonish him as a brother” are just as much a part of the inspired Word of God as any other passages. Obviously, one cannot “restore” or “admonish” unless some amount of communication is maintained.

  2. The fornicator’s name was not mentioned. So public name-calling (public character assassination) cannot be supported by the account. (That’s not to say that there is never a cause for publicly naming certain individuals).

  3. The local, lay brethren were to “deliver such an one unto Satan.” The epistles to the Corinthians were written to the church of God which was at Corinth, “to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (I Cor. 1:2). Although it was Paul who gave the instructions to “put away that wicked person,” the responsibility of disfellowshipment rested upon the shoulders of the individual lay members.

  4. The particular sin in the account was not just any sin; it was “fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife” (I Cor. 5:1). Such a sin can hardly be compared with chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes.

  5. The fornicator’s sin was not secret, but was known by all. Hence, his sin, especially because it was acknowledged and accepted, was far more than a personal matter. If affected the whole Church, and would have ultimately led to the means by which sinning could be justified (“If he can do it and get away with it, so can !”).

Paul says, “if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (I Cor. 5:11). These are not occasional sins of weakness, but are on-going, unrepented sins which are detrimental to the church.

It should be noted that disfellowshipment is not the solution to every problem in the church. Though it worked in the case of the Corinthian fornicator (see II Cor. 2:6-8), disfellowshipment, in many cases, will only compound the problem, driving the sinner further from repentance.

In I Timothy 1:19-20, we find another example of disfellowshipment. “Hold faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck: Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

Here, again, we have an extreme sin, a faith-destroying sin which was potentially destructive to the Church. Little more than this can be derived from the passage. The circumstances are not revealed, and the sin, though called “blasphemy,” is not specifically identified. Moreover, we do not know how many people were involved, nor do we know how much time Paul spent trying to show Hymenaeus and Alexander the error of their ways.

To the minister, Titus, Paul wrote, “A man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject” (Titus 3:10. The word “heretic,” in this passage, is the same word translated “sect” in Acts 5:17 and Acts 15:5 the sect of the Sadducees and the sect of the Pharisees means sectarian.

Can a Christian who fellowships with other Christians regardless of organizational affiliation rightly be called a sectarian? Of course not! Sectarians are those who separate themselves (see Jude 9), as did the esoteric Jewish mystic cults of Paul’s day, claiming to be the “one and only” true body of believers, who, as Diotrephes, “forbiddeth them that would” extend the right hand of fellowship to those not of their own secret society. After two admonitions, Paul says, the sectarian should be rejected (The Twentieth Century New Testament says, “have nothing more to say to him”).

It is clear that all sins do not warrant disfellowshipment. John said, “If we say that we (Christians) have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Paul rote, “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

“But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:22-25).

Christians sin! Even Paul and John, apostles of Jesus Christ, occasionally slipped and committed sin! Obviously, all sin does not warrant disfellowshipment. Sins which are extreme, which adversely affect the church, which are committed habitually without evidence of repentance, only those sins sometimes necessitate disfellowshipment.

In II Thessalonians 3:6, 14 we read: “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us. And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed.”

What did Paul mean by “walking disorderly”? What was the “tradition” to which he referred? Notice verses 7-11: “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.”

Paul taught, by example, that working for a living was a virtue, that each should work with his own hands, and not permit occasion to the temptations offered by idleness. This was the “tradition” to which he referred. Those who “walked disorderly” were those who did not work, but spent their time minding other people’s business.

Paul was simply saying, “Don’t let these people mind your business. Stay clear of them and their gossip, and don’t let them ‘leech’ off you.” Actually, nothing is said here of someone being “put out of the church.” And total shunning is out of the question, for Paul wrote, “Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (v. 15). Further we again find the burden of responsibility upon the shoulders of the lay membership, “Now we command you, brethren.”

The Kingdom of God belongs to “the merciful” (Matt. 5:7) and to “the peacemakers” (v. 9). Mercy is one of the most basic elements of Christianity, and means “1. Kind or compassionate treatment of an adversary, prisoner, etc. in one power. 2. A disposition to be kind, forgiving, or helpful.” And a “peacemaker” is one who makes every effort to be reconciled with his adversary.

Jesus Christ taught much about love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and patience, but had little to say about disfellowshipment. He stressed the importance of forgiveness, and outlined the steps one should take in restoring an erring brother.

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, James wrote. “Brethren, If any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).

Clearly, the Christian’s responsibility is to extend love, mercy, and forgiveness to all, whether church members in good standing or erring brothers. The most effective means of dealing with sin is not by disfellowshipment and shunning, but is through love. For “love covers a multitude of sins,” (I Peter 4:8).

 
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