This article was prepared upon request for information on the practice of excommunication. An attempt was made to answer all the questions posed, but no practices were mentioned except those that are known to have occurred on multiple occasions. The authors have taken the liberty to include mention of “restoration” to balance the negative aspects of excommunication. We caution readers that this article is limited to regions of the authors’ greatest familiarity – North America. Also, the practices mentioned are not unanimously endorsed by the ministry in any region, even where excommunications are considered commonplace.
In the Two by Two fellowship, the word “excommunication” is rarely used. Though this is true, it does not mean that excommunication is uncommon. In fact, it has been practiced for a long time.
According to the dictionary, a person who has been excommunicated has been (a) ejected; (b) excluded from sacraments; (c) deprived of membership in a church; or (d) banished by the clergy or church organization. It is a pronouncement of condemnation, whether tacitly or otherwise, and it has been practiced within the group in all its forms. Depending on the region and the personalities involved, excommunication may even be a “common” practice.
THE PRESENT PRACTICE
Probably the most common form of excommunication occurs when someone is “asked to stop taking part” (in meetings). It is understood that he also should exclude himself from the sacraments, and therefore he is excommunicated. In some regions, it is also common to refuse to allow individuals to “begin” taking part in fellowship. The ministry declines on occasion to offer an invitation to come into fellowship for the express purpose of preventing certain ones from accepting. Others are advised individually by a minister that they may not make a profession at all.
On rare occasions, individuals are ejected, and ministers and elders have been known to stand guard outside the meeting home to prevent their return. Also, on rare occasions, individuals are banished – expected not to communicate in any way with others of the fellowship. This judgment can be the most difficult to enforce, however, because it requires the cooperation of all the members of the fellowship to be effective – and some choose not to cooperate.
CAUSE FOR EXCOMMUNICATION
One of the problematic aspects of excommunication is the reasons for which it is practiced. It is probably used in all parts of the world in cases of sexual immorality and corruption in business dealings – though there have been notable exceptions even for these reasons. It is commonly used against both ministers and lay people because of disputes on doctrine.
People have been censured for the types of entertainment they frequent and have in their homes (including sports), for the people they maintain friendships with, for marriage to people outside the fellowship or who were previously divorced, and for inappropriate appearance (hair style, clothing style and color, etc.) Some have been excluded from fellowship for fraternizing with others who have been excommunicated, and still others because it is believed that they have lied about something. The practice is not mandated for any of these offenses, however, and its use may vary drastically among the ministers in any given country or state. In cases of this nature, excommunication probably is one of the most arbitrarily used actions of the ministry.
There may be a reason that excommunication is not universally mandated for any of the above offenses. When questioned on inconsistencies in policy, the reasoning frequently is that (a) the excommunicated person has disobeyed a prior directive from a minister, or (b) he is being made an example of because his offense represents a “troubling trend” among the lay people. When persistent about inconsistencies, one is frequently told that others “should have” been punished for the same offense. It is not unheard of for a minister to admit that it is practiced to control the laity.
HOW EXCOMMUNICATION IS CARRIED OUT
Excommunication is usually carried out by the ministry, but there is documentation of excommunications being carried out by an elder – undoubtedly with the approval of some minister. It may be accomplished by a variety of methods. The receipt of a letter appears to be a common method. The reason for one’s exclusion is usually included in the letter, but it is most often couched in terms that are not specific. This method may be preferred because it avoids the possibility of an unpleasant confrontation with the person being excommunicated.
Occasionally one will receive a phone call, and occasionally a visit in which the decision of the ministry is announced. It is not at all unusual for the announcement to be the first indication the expelled person has that the decision is being made about him. Excommunication rulings have very rarely been rescinded, and even when they are, the excommunicated individual does not necessarily accept it. Otherwise, there is no known recourse for any individual who has been excommunicated except the route of a plea for restoration.
WHAT DO THE EXCOMMUNICATED DO?
Some who are excommunicated disappear and make no further contact with anyone in the fellowship. Some of them decide they want no more contact, but many are so devastated by the experience that they do not have the emotional strength to pursue any further contact – for the rest of their lives. Some of them explore other churches, and some remain permanently unaffiliated with any religious fellowship.
Those who have family or close friend relationships with others in the fellowship are most likely to maintain contact following an excommunication, and they are the ones who are more likely to be restored to fellowship at a future date. Some are finding a great deal of help and fellowship with some of the support groups of ex-members that are now well established on the Internet. The ministry normally shared very limited information concerning excommunications, so those who disappear are frequently believed to have chosen to do so on their own.
Some excommunicated people are simply expelled. Frequently, though, they are given conditions on which they may be restored to fellowship. What they should expect above all else is that they will not be approached by the minister who excommunicated them with an offer of restoration. It is virtually unheard of that the ministry will acknowledge any inappropriateness or error in any respect to an excommunication, and a request for an apology from the ministry will most likely aggravate the situation.
TERMS OF RESTORATION
As may be expected, the terms for reconciliation vary widely. They normally include repentance and confession, which sounds reasonable considering that excommunication implies condemnation. But even these become problematic because many who claim to have been falsely accused have accepted the injustice and apologized anyway because they see it as the only way out of their dilemma – a tacit plea bargain.
Other requirements specific to the individual are frequently dictated – some reasonable and some not. In recent years professional counseling has become a more frequent requirement, but one wonders about the competence of the ministry to recommend counseling. Some have been required to get counseling but are not informed of the kind of counseling to obtain. Some have spent thousands of dollars and ended with signed psychologists’ statements that they have no recognizable problem other than distress over their soul’s salvation. Then there are cases that defy explanation – like the man who was required to get married before he could return to meetings, this despite the fact that he was infected with AIDS. Incidentally, it is not known that any excommunicated person was ever restored to fellowship on the recommendation of a professional counselor, or as a result of judicial exoneration.
Despite the apparent severity of these measures, restoration is not necessarily out of reach for those who seriously seek it. Interestingly, there is a possibility that a person may relocate and be restored without full compliance with the original requirements put in place by the excommunicating minister. Some ministers admit this possibility, and others have been known to encourage it. It is most often encouraged in situations where the ministry is unable to deal with other lay people who are unwilling to reconcile with the person seeking restoration.
It is not recommended that anyone plan on this alternative because ministers have been known to forewarn other ministers about excommunicated individuals. Excommunicating ministers have also pursued those they have excommunicated, still demanding apologies, etc., after other ministers have seen fit to have those individuals restored.
In any case, there are scriptural solutions to this dilemma, and many (probably most) in the ministry appear diligent in seeing that these scriptures be respected.
In 2 John 7-11, John deals with individuals who do not confess that Jesus is come in the flesh.
7 Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is a deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. 9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teachings of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. 11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.
This passage has been used in some excommunication hearings in which the accused person was found in failure of some part of the teachings of Christ. When read in its entire context, though, this passage deals with those who do not recognize the Messiah status of Jesus, and are antichrists. The recommendation of John is understandable since the recognition of Christ’s Messiah status is the prime foundation of faith of the church.
Jonah 1:4-16 has also been used to justify excommunication. Jonah’s deliberate choice not to follow God’s call was endangering all on the ship, and that much is clear in the story. The parallel used is that an individual may be acting in such a way as to endanger the salvation of others in the church, so tossing him out is justified. However, one cannot ignore a few essentials about this story. For one thing, the ship members had confirmation from Jonah himself that he was the cause of the storm, and even then they were worried that they were tossing out an innocent not deserving of such punishment.
This is the challenge of the church in this or any age, that the offensive individual be the one to clarify that they are the cause of the problems. If not, it involves so much more judgment than humans can possibly administer properly. Jonah begged to be thrown off the ship, further providing proof that he was to be blamed. When blame comes from others but is not acknowledged by the “offender”, it indicates a lack of proof and that the accused does not even personally fully accept his wrong. In cases such as these, the church should continue to attempt to restore that person, though it does not.
PAUL’S WRITINGS ON EXCOMMUNICATION
Paul, in 1 Cor.5-8, dealt with a man found involved sexually with his father’s wife, and the church was doing nothing about it. He was concerned about this situation growing in the church and believed that casting the person out of the church would have his spirit saved. In this case, like Jonah’s case, the offending person was quite open about his activities and showed no interest in correcting it. Justification for this action would come by reason of the offender’s agreement with the existence of the fault.
Paul continued in 1 Cor.5:9-13 to describe the conditions of a person’s life that would warrant excommunication.
9 I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case, you would have to leave the world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
Anyone who would espouse these things as virtues would be worthy of excommunication. It is important to distinguish the difference between a person who has made an error, and those who have wantonly promoted these characteristics of behavior. Paul, however, later rethought his recommendation. In 2 Cor. 2:3-10 is a passage about a man who grieved many of the church and was censured. It is commonly recognized that it was the same man as in 1 Cor 5:8-10. Here Paul is urging forgiveness and love to that man, since the censure had caused much sorrow, which was about to swallow him up, and probably completely destroy his faith in Christ.
In the present day church, most excommunicated people express the emotion of sorrow or other similar negative feelings, and Paul himself saw the importance of love and restoration. This begs a question: should the purpose of excommunication be to produce sorrow, feelings of isolation, feelings of being unloved, worthless and unsaved? The fact is that it does create those feelings and in modern times it can be easily argued that it is an abusive action. Again, acknowledgment by the offender that his actions were contrary to God’s will and willingly done anyway could not possibly create a sense of abuse. Giving love and not abuse seemed to be Paul’s focus here.
EXCOMMUNICATION AMONG THE PHARISEES
In John 9:13-34 we read of a man who had been healed and was cast out of the Jewish church by the Pharisees. The Pharisees wanted to prove that Jesus was a sinner because of His works on the Sabbath, so they tried to prove that the miracle was not real. They called the blind-now seeing man a “disciple of Jesus”, yet claimed that they were “disciples of Moses”.
The man was finally convicted and cast out because, when he explained the reason for his faith, the Pharisees claimed he, a sinner, was teaching them and this was unacceptable. The leaders of the Pharisees may have been perfectly sincere, but since they were not involved in this miracle they could not believe it had happened.
This example shows that excommunication can be a practice of the self-righteous, denying that God can work with anyone at any time anywhere. Where a member of the church does not line up with some law, or expresses a faith that is different from the leaders of the church, the leaders cannot allow that and cast the person out. This is basically the practice of the power of human leaders over their followers. If the Pharisees had allowed the man to stay in the congregation, their positions of power would be perceived to have been undermined.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE FELLOWSHIP
It behooves the fellowship to take responsibility for what becomes of one another. Two premises demand it. One is that we are “our brother’s keeper”, and the other is that “fellowship is edifying”. These are scriptural admonitions, but people become complacent in this respect. Too often one learns what he could have done to sustain another after the opportunity has passed.
We do know that the practice of excommunication can get out of hand. In this century so many were excommunicated in some places for very questionable reasons that the ministry in other countries intervened – examples being Alberta, Montana, Australia and Sri Lanka. Many who had been excommunicated were invited to return, but the generation of their children was for the most part lost from the fellowship because of what they had witnessed of their parents’ experience.
The matter of our soul’s salvation is an urgent one. According to the scriptures, it is more urgent than the business of removing the “tares”. It is the business of Christians to tend to continuous restoration in each other, and it is most becoming of a fellowship that should be recognized by the love they have for one another.
By Bob Williston & Anonymous
June 19, 2000; Revised January 1, 2013