Recently the Wall Street Journal had an article about how more churches are culling their flocks:

Her story reflects a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.

The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.

It’s odd to me that the article doesn’t seem to make any distinction between kicking someone out of the church for being a flagrant sinner and kicking someone out of the church for the sin of disagreeing with church leadership on procedural matters. What is really distressing is how some of these pastors don’t see a difference, either.

Some of you may remember the story of Walt. Walt was a friend of mine that had a relationship with a divorced mother. A long story short, though she was legally divorced she was not divorced in the eyes of the church. He was excommunicated and within months he took his own life. It’s difficult for me to read about these excommunications without thinking about Walt.

Churches are of course free to excommunicate those members that do not adhere to its beliefs. The Catholic Church can deny communion to pro-life politicians and it all makes a certain amount of sense to me. It’s one thing if someone sins and is repentant, but it’s another if they flagrantly sin or advocate views that are unholy in the eyes of the church. The existence of sin is one thing, but the embrace of it is another.

In that sense, it pains me to say that the church was within its rights to do what it did and on one level I can understand it.

It seems to me, though, that such a thing ought to be a last resort. Sin and redemption are par the course for Christianity. Walt was never given a chance to reflect and repent. Further, and this is where I see things very differently from a lot of more conservative churches, there are sins and there are sins. Walt’s only crime was sleeping with (not having sex with, only sleeping with) a woman whose divorce was not recognized by the church. In the greater scheme of things that has to count less than being a home-wrecker or supporting the legal sanction of 750k murders a year (which, if one believes that a fetus is a full-fledged human life as many churches do, a pro-choice politician is doing), isn’t it? Not in the eyes of a lot of churches, I’ve come to find out. A sin is a sin is a sin in the eyes of many.

It seems to me that if a church goes this route, there won’t be any perishoners left. That’s perhaps what disturbs me most of all. A lot of these are going to fall under “selective enforcement”. Is selective enforcement better than no enforcement? Maybe. The problem is that when certain types are targeted for enforcement. I remember reading a while back about a Catholic school that wouldn’t let a pregnant student walk for graduation… but they let the father. When it comes to sexual sins, we’re very frequently more harsh on the women than on the men. I’d imagine that rich and generous perishoners would be given the benefit of the doubt for their sins in a way that those that haven’t as much to give wouldn’t.

Some of the shunned people in the article had sins no worse than irritating the priest. There’s the woman that was shunned for “gossiping” and a lot of space devoted to a woman that disagreed with her pastor on a procedural matter. One wonders why the exiled wouldn’t say “good riddance”, but the nature of the separation is pretty unchristian in nature, to say the least.

Of course I come at this from an Episcopalian’s perspective, where church is more about brotherhood and community than it is righteous indignation.

Category: Church

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10 Responses to Modern Excommunication

  1. Peter says:

    It’s very trendy in America to rail on at great length about the evils of Islam (Little Green Footballs, anyone?) yet certain parts of Christianity can be pretty nasty and intolerant too. Yet few people seem to get worked up over that.

  2. Webmaster says:

    Peter – as bad as excommunication is, it doesn’t come anywhere close to daily Islamic behavior that the rest of the world got civilized enough to throw out long ago.

    With that being said, I’m reminded of the old phrase “love the sinner but hate the sin”, as well as “go, and sin no more.”

    I agree the treatment of Walt was horrendous – but so was their treatment of the woman. Frankly, a church that allows “divorce but not remarriage” is in a position of messing peoples’ lives up on a very weird principle; I wish someone had taken Walt’s photo, showed it to the pastor, and very pointedly told him of his responsibility for part of Walt’s death. Maybe it would have given him reason to think. Maybe he’s just one of those people who others ought to know better than to follow.

    On the flipside – there’s something to be said for societal shame for bad behavior as a corrective tool. I’m somewhat convinced that a lot of bad/destructive behaviors would be likely not to happen as often if society still attached shame to them.

  3. Abel says:

    I think what this really boils down to is the church’s view on repentance. We all make mistakes and are bound to violate the tenets of whatever faith we belong to. Most Christian churches have a method of confessing sins, receiving some sort of punishment, and then obtaining forgiveness. Christian churches who simply excommunicate members for an act without offering the sinner some chance to change and obtain forgiveness are, IMHO, wrong.

    However if members refuse to change his or her behavior after being confronted by a member the church’s clergy or are hell-bent on discrediting the church, then I would think that excommunication procedures are the way to go. I should say, however, that I strongly disagree with the public method of excommunication described in the article.

  4. Barry says:

    I’ve never heard of this practice occurring in any of the Protestant Churches, whether it’s called excommunication or shunning or whatever… Frankly it would be a quantum shift in policy if my Methodist church ever did anything like that for less than something truly heinous, and even then I think they’d use legal means.

    Do some church leaders, especially Catholic, believe that humans can ever stop sinning? That we ever stop, from the age of accountability till our death, sinning at least a couple times a day? Whether we’re the most pious member in good standing down to the laziest layabout Sunday-skipper, each is equal in the eyes of God. How is excommunicating supposed to help someone or help the individual church?

  5. Webmaster says:

    Barry – the point of excommunication is that it’s supposed to be for those who are (a) genuinely unrepentant and (b) deliberately behaving in a way as to encourage others to follow their lead. As an example, the Catholic Church has (very few times) formally denied communion/eucharist to politicians who consistently (and after a large amount of letter-writing campaigns and such) voted for legislation allowing abortion, which the Church considers the murder of the unborn.

    From the Point of View of the church, it’s in their best interest to remove those people’s influence as much as possible if they can do so.

    A reading of the WSJ article reveals an alternative explanation: some people, including people claiming to do the word of God, are just dicks.

  6. ? says:

    The Catholic Church can deny communion to pro-life politicians and it all makes a certain amount of sense to me.

    Third paragraph after the WSJ quote. I’m pretty sure you meant to say “pro-choice” politician.

  7. trumwill says:

    Most of the churches discussed in the article are in fact protestant. I think this is one of the differences between mainline protestants, such as Methodists and Episcopalians, and more evangelical sects.

    I agree.

    I agree with Web. This is all very different from the activities among many Islamic strains.

    Good catch.

  8. trumwill says:


    My biggest problem with “shame” as a motivator is that it is often inconsistently applied and when it is applied it is applied by those least vulnerable against those most vulnerable. The “shame” of promiscuity of women versus promiscuity of men is a pretty classic example, but within a church I can almost guarantee you that an active church member with deep pockets is far less likely to get a public rebuke than someone on the fringes.

    It is fair to point out that certain behaviors don’t harm the middle class and wealthy the same way that they do the poor, and that promiscuity disproportionately hurts women compared to men… but in my view that should make the rebuke of the former all that much stronger because they’re doing the damage and walking away unscathed while the latter is already suffering for their mistakes.

    At the same time, I don’t agree with the notion that we should not judge one another because any public action is subject to appraisal by the public. Insofar as we allow behavior that we consider to be immoral under the banner of freedom, we have to distinguish between good legal behavior and bad legal behavior. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this being done by religion institutions, though.

  9. Webmaster says:

    Insofar as we allow behavior that we consider to be immoral under the banner of freedom, we have to distinguish between good legal behavior and bad legal behavior. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this being done by religion institutions, though.

    Insofar as morality is almost inextricably linked with religion in the mind of most of the public, I have to wonder – who else do you have in mind for the job?

    Then again, I do agree with you that religion can be abused – the stellar example is the cult of $cientology, which bills itself as “the world’s most ethical religion” while neglecting to mention that their definition of “ethics” means “whatever makes money for the cult.”

  10. trumwill says:

    That’s a fair question, Web. Ideally, it’s something that we do on our own. We are just as susceptible to sexism, racism, and class-bias as institutions are, though, but individuals are easier to appeal to than institutions and individuals (one hopes) have more on-the-ground knowledge of situations than do religious leaders. I suspect that religious leaders are more likely to focus on those aspects more pertinent to church operations than general morality. Religious institutions expressing views on what is right or wrong is to be expected (that’s partly what religions are for, after all), but I’d prefer it leave the nuts and bolts on the personal level rather than calling specific individuals out in the middle of a sermon or banishing them from the church. I see a difference between a pastor condemning abortion from the pulpit and pointing out a perishoner as a sinner.

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