Confronting discipline is uncomfortable. Walk by a person in the process of getting a traffic ticket. It’s awkward. Some pretend to be invisible. Others look with curiosity until the unfortunate driver sees them, then hurry away. In that situation, I often find myself feeling indignant towards the police officer and a vague sense of comradeship with the chastised driver. I could be them. Even police officers speed frequently. Let those with no traffic sins cast penal fines.
Some of my recent theological discussions have paralleled those encounters. In dialogues focused on Paul’s epistles and the various creeds of the Church, the doctrine of excommunication, (otherwise known as ‘the ban’), has raised its hoary head. Usually, it met general balking and confusion. The main questions circulating were, “What is it, why is it, and how does it affect me as a twenty-first century American Christian?”
While excommunication varies slightly by denomination, it was traditionally practiced by both Catholic and Protestants churches. The general idea even remains within the congregationalist (evangelical) tradition: if a church member continues in sin despite prior admonishments, they are to be avoided by the general congregation until they repent, at which point they can re-enter the community. Excommunication does not mean the individual in question has been stripped of her Christianity, though often misunderstood to be just that. Nor is it ‘the silent treatment.’ If someone from a different city visits your town, you still talk to them, but don’t consider them intrinsic to the community. Likewise, an excommunicate is still part of society, but is temporarily exiled from their church body.
Various churches have had these things to say about ‘the ban':
Anabaptists, Schleitheim Confession: “The ban shall be employed with all those who…are called brethren or sisters, and yet who slip sometimes and fall into error and sin… The same shall be admonished twice in secret and the third time openly disciplined or banned… But this shall be done…before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.”
Anglicans, Thirty-Nine Articles: “That person…ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful, as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance…”
Reformed, Westminster Confession: “Church censures are necessary, for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brothers… For the better attaining of these ends, the officers of the Church are to proceed by admonition; suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season; and by excommunication from the Church; according to the nature of the crime…”
St. Paul, in his second letter to Thessalonica, says something similar. “As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good,” Paul says. “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.” Paul seems to be speaking from a strong sense of unified community. If standards of the community are violated, then for the sake of the community’s preservation, the offender should be extracted until they are willing to act within the community’s standards.
This seems reasonable. So why do many instinctively recoil from the practice? I suggest it is because of the same reason that I immediately side with the ‘ticketed’ and not the ‘ticketer’. Rather than seeing a traffic fine as what everyone deserves when they speed, it can seem like the fate of one unlucky fellow who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The violator becomes the victim.
The same applies to excommunication. Yet the ban is not the actual removal of someone from the community, but the physical recognition (via separation) that they have already, in an important sense, removed themselves.
For example, imagine showing up to the office wearing a bathing suit. The likely response would be, “Go home, come back when you’ve got the proper clothes on.” But, other than in a strictly physical sense, the discipline did not actually cause removal from the office community—that happened when the standards were violated. The separation was simply the response.
Most churches in America do not practice excommunication. Frankly, for many it is not practically possible—our church communities are not intimate enough. My church wouldn’t know if I was a habitual thief or if I was a perpetual drunk six days a week. But that does not undermine the relevant truth of the albeit disconcerting practice.
Seeing someone being ticketed is uncomfortable because I know it could just as easily be me. Similarly, the reason excommunication is uncomfortable is my knowledge that I fall horribly short of how a Christian is called to live. A ticket, thankfully, does not strip one’s license away, and excommunication does not remove one’s justification through Christ.
Still, I excommunicate myself every day from the community of believers, with or without it’s being noticed by anyone else or myself. And yet the gospel remains, and remains as this: in the cross, we find a bridge that perpetually reconciles us in our self-extrication to the unified body of Christ. In the cross, we have a constant means of regaining communion with God and community. In the cross, we can come back to the home we never truly left, like a runaway child who, returning home, knows the house key will still be underneath the flowerpot on the porch, unmoved, constant.