Church Discipline And Excommunication

Church Discipline And Excommunication

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named amongst the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, 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 a one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” (1 Corinthians 5) 

            The church at Corinth had many problems within the body, but among the worst was the worldly wisdom that embraced immorality as good. It was heard everywhere (As Paul said, it was commonly reported.) that there was a man who was sleeping with his stepmother, and the church was swollen with pride that he had done such a thing. It is into this situation that Paul wrote to call the church to mourn, repent, and to deal with the matter in a godly way.

            Paul’s command to the church was that they should excommunicate[1]the sinning brother. His instruction was that they were to deal with this when they met together as a body (:3-5). Excommunication, or the withdrawing of fellowship, is to be an act of the body of Christ and not simply done by the pastor. This act is described as the person being put away from among the body (:2,9,13). The one under church censure was to be excluded from the Lord’s Supper (:11), and from the company, or fellowship, of the saints (2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-16). 

            What sins are worthy of excommunication? The apostle lists several: “I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, 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 a one no not to eat.” (1 Corinthians 5:9–11) Again, he told the Romans, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.” (Romans 16:17–18) Likewise, he told Titus, “A man that is a heretick, after the first and second admonition, reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.” (Titus 3:10–11) The sin may be that of immorality, as in 1 Corinthians chapter five, or it may be doctrinal divisions as in Romans chapter sixteen, or possibly a generally divisive person as the heretic (schismatic) person who is mentioned in Titus chapter three. All of these things introduce sin and disruption into the body of Christ, whereas excommunication is the church pursuing holiness together, and thus peace (See 2 Thessalonians 3:16in context.).

There is a goal to church discipline, and that is that the work of Christian discipleship would be accomplished. Discipline is not about punishing and harming those with whom we are angry, but about leading them back to Christ. The Thessalonians were told that they should withdraw fellowship from the sinning brother that he would be ashamed (2 Thessalonians 3:14-16). Shame has a goal, and that goal is repentance (Psalm 83:16-18;2 Corinthians 7:7-12). The one under church censure is to be treated as one who needs the gospel (Matthew 18:15-20), though he is to be warned as we would warn our brothers whom we love. Paul also states that this is so that the spirit of the man would be saved at the judgment (1 Corinthians 5:5). This simply means that it is for the purpose of bringing the sinning one to repentance. If he is truly saved, he will repent and demonstrate it. If he is not saved, we long for him to repent that he will be saved. As the sinning brother is living as though he were not converted, we must treat him as such, have no Christian fellowship with him, and call him to get right with God through repentance and faith.

Excommunication also has to do with the holiness of the church. Sin is likened to leaven, or yeast, which works by means of corruption and spreads throughout the body (1 Corinthians 5:6). Excommunication is the purging out of sin that the body might be holy.

            It must be emphasized that the action of excommunication can never be one that is done in wrath or bitterness, “for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20) This is an act of love. We are never to treat the erring one as an enemy, but as a beloved brother who is to be warned and called to repentance (2 Thessalonians 3:14-16). If he repents, he is to be warmly received and given grace and forgiveness, thus confirming our love for him (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).

            What is the process that should be followed in excommunication? While Paul simply mentions that the Corinthian church should carry out the sentence as a body (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), should we simply excommunicate a person without warning? Is that the way to treat one whom we should embrace lovingly as a natural brother (2 Thessalonians 3:14-16)? Is that how we would desire to be treated (Matthew 7:12)? Should we not strive in every way possible to call the sinning person to repentance, longing to avoid the extreme measure of excommunication? Note that Paul said that the divisive person should be warned twice before being rejected (Titus 3:10). Surely we should in most cases actively seek the repentance of this person multiple times before we withdraw fellowship from them.

            Another thing that is important is the principle of truth. We must not simply proceed to excommunication because of something that is not verified. It is by no means loving to receive a false report: that is the mark of sinful and foolish people (Proverbs 10:18;17:4). Note also that God hates perjury (Deuteronomy 19:15-21), and calls us to pursue the truth by means of faithful witnesses (Matthew 18:15-20). It is far better to have the charges of immorality, false doctrine, or divisiveness established in the mouth of two or three witnesses than to deal with any sort of “He said-she said” report. We always need to pursue the truth, and pursue it in love.

            When multiple loving efforts to reclaim our sinning member have failed, the church must with grief withdraw fellowship from him (1 Corinthians 5:2). This should typically be done in regular business meeting of the church. This will possibly help prevent accusations of the action being pursued in secret or in a sneaky manner; as all members of the church should know when the regular business meeting occurs. This should also be an action that is taken by the whole body. Though a simple majority vote will certainly pass, it is preferable that the vote be a unanimous vote. The church certainly needs unity in such a troublesome time that requires them to excommunicate someone they love greatly.

            Finally, let us always remember that we should pursue holiness and love in all things. Never should we act hastily, but proceed with charity and seek to lovingly be a blessing to the one who is in sin. That is our calling as the body of Christ.


[1]excommunicationExclusion from the community of the faithful or particularly from the Lord’s table because of an error in doctrine or lapse in morals or both.Kurian, George Thomas.Nelson’s New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.