I Won't Go With You
Excommunication as an Act of Love:
by Jon Dykstra2004
"You're kicking someone out of your church?"
It can be hard bringing friends into our churches - our music is slower, our benches are harder and our sermons are longer - but it gets harder still when a friend is brought the same Sunday an excommunication notice is read out. Excommunication is almost impossible to explain, because almost no other churches do it. It is a completely new thing to most people outside our Reformed churches, and on the surface it seems so harsh and uncaring. It seems mean.
The biblical basis is clear enough, Matthew 18:15-18 speaks of excluding an unrepentant sinner, from the communion of the Church: "Let him be to you as a heathen and a tax collector." 2 Thessalonians 3:14 even gives a clear reason for this exclusion: "do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed."
But the biblical explanation isn't very satisfying. Yes, that's what it says, but can that be what it really means? It doesn't seem to make sense. Wouldn't it be better if this sinning brother kept coming to church, and kept hanging out with his Christian friends? How can God's word act on his soul if we prevent him from even hearing it?
This is the sort of thinking that has eliminated excommunication in most churches, and delayed and lengthened the process in many of our own churches. There is always the hope that as long as the sinning brother keeps attending, something might change. This hope for change seems to disappear once they have been excommunicated, and so the process is dragged out as long as possible.
The pro-life explanation
I never fully understood the rationale behind excommunication until a Lutheran, in my university pro-life group, explained it to me. She didn't talk about excommunication though. Instead she talked about abandonment as an act of love. Our group was discussing what one of our members had gone through when her friend asked her to go with her to an abortion clinic.
"What could I do? She's my best friend, and she was going crazy. She needed me so I went with her."
"Did she know you were pro-life?"
"I told her."
"She knew you were pro-life and she still asked you to help her get an abortion? Does she know what being pro-life means? Does she know you think abortion is murder?"
"She needed me so she asked me. We're best friends!"
"Your friend asked you to help her murder her baby. Do you think she really understood what she was asking you to do? If she had really understood, do you think she would have asked you?"
"But she did ask...what else could I do?"
"You could have said no. You could have said, 'You know I love you, you know we are best friends, but what you are doing is wrong, and I cannot help you do it. You know I would do anything for you, but I will not do this. If you are going to do this, you will have to do it alone.' That would have given your friend - the friend who knows you love her dearly - something to think about. If you go with her, she'll never understand how serious abortion is. After all, her pro-life friend went with her. But if you refuse to help her, if her best friend abandons her, then she might just be shocked into realizing just how serious this is. Abandoning her gives her more to think about than accompanying her ever could."
Shock and shame
An unrepentant sinner is often an ignorant sinner. He doesn't see the need to repent and doesn't think his particular sin is a big a deal. That thought is confirmed when the church refuses to discipline him. There is no sharp break to snap the sinning brother back to his senses. Instead he'll probably start attending less and less frequently, and start making more and more friends outside the church. Finally discipline becomes impossible because the man no longer has any friends left in the church. Excommunication at this point is incapable of shaming him, because he doesn't care what the people in the church think.
But if we act while the church is still the focal point in his life, then the unrepentant brother will see the people he loves, and the people who love him, telling him they will not walk down the wide path with him. Then the brother will be left alone with his thoughts, left alone to evaluate his path. And Lord willing he will then be forced to see the error of his ways.
Excommunication does make sense, and we should thank God for it.
This article originally appeared in Reformed Perspectives Magazine. Jon Dykstra is editor of Reformed Perspectives Magazine.