The keys of the kingdom have been entrusted by Christ to the elders of His church (Mt. 16:19). With these keys, the officers of the church have the power to retain or remit sins, to shut out the door to the kingdom or to open it up that any would enter (WCF 30.2). The first way of exercising this responsibility is through the preaching of the Word, which we have already considered. The second way is by practicing church discipline.
In Matthew 18, Christ lays out the ways in which the church should respond to obstinate sinners in its midst. If the man or woman does not respond to private admonition or confrontation with witnesses (18:15–16), then the matter is to be taken to the church (18:17a). And if the person refuses to listen to the church, they are to be treated as Gentiles and tax collectors—excommunicated from God’s people (18:17b). For “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:18, see also Jn. 20:21–23). This entire process outlined here would apply to private sins—“if your brother sins against you” (18:15). Regarding public sins, St Paul instructs Timothy to rebuke the person in the presence of all, so that observers would fear (1 Tim. 5:20).
This practice of excommunication is sadly neglected in today’s church. And when spoken of, those unfamiliar with the practice tend to view it as “unloving” or cult-like. Therefore, it would do well to touch on this important role of discipline in pastoral ministry and why it is an important and actually loving practice.
As we have seen in Matthew 18, there are degrees of church discipline which take place prior to the final disciplinary act of excommunication. These include private admonition, rebuke before witnesses, and suspension of the unrepentant from the Lord’s Supper for a season (2 Thess. 3:6, 14–15). Excommunication is not a light thing and is not meant to be rushed into by heavy-handed ministers and elders.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul refers to a man who was engaging in sex with his stepmother, which was “not even tolerated among the pagans,” and instructs the church to remove the man from among them (1 Cor. 5:2). He goes on to explain that they are not to associate with any brother or sister who is guilty of sexually immorality, greed, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness, or swindling (5:11). He then quotes Deuteronomy 17:7 saying, “Purge the evil person from among you” (5:13).
But for what reason is this removal to be done? Why should ministers and elders go through this hard process over individuals who often do not care? The Westminster Confession of Faith lays out multiple ends in view for excommunication: that the offending brother would repent and return, to deter others from similar sin, for purging out of the leaven that which would infect the whole lump, to vindicate Christ’s honor and the gospel, and to prevent the wrath of God from justly falling upon the church (WCF 30.3).
As the Confession states, the goal of excommunication is not the mere removal of the offender from the church, although that is certainly a reason in order to protect the purity of the church (1 Cor. 5:6, 11). But in terms of the offender themselves, the goal of excommunication is ultimately the restoration of the unrepentant sinner to God and the church again. We see this happen in 2 Corinthians, where St Paul encourages the congregation to forgive and comfort someone who was apparently excommunicated (2:6–8). The act of excommunicating a man or woman from the church is a clear declaration to the person that Christ’s church believes them to be living as a covenant breaker in unrepentant sin. This is to bring upon the person shame that can lead to repentance (2 Thess. 3:14). The man in 1 Corinthians was put out of the church and handed over to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). Calvin interprets this passage as the man being put outside the church (delivered to Satan) for temporal condemnation so that he would come to repent and be saved. And when a brother or sister repents of their sin and seeks reconciliation with the church, we should be excitedly eager to receive them with joy. As St Cyprian wrote,
“I wish all to be brought back into the Church: I wish all our fellow-soldiers to be contained within the camp of Christ and the mansions of God the Father… Those returning in repentance, and those confessing their sins with simple and humble satisfaction, I embrace with prompt and full delight.”
Without the goal of restoration in mind, excommunication can and will be abused by unjust and unloving men. Discipline that honors Christ must be exercised with a sober understanding of the severity of such judgment, and with a spirit of meekness and humility.
Find other posts in this series here.