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The House Church Network: Dedicated to Kingdom Expansion
  Should the Church Excommunicate?

This week's question comes from a devoted reader on the West Coast my mom in California. She writes "Does a church have the right to expel a member because of a rule infraction?"

There's only two possible answers to this question yes or no and scripture can support both of the answers. In the end it's going to be up to the local church governing body, hopefully spiritual leaders, to make decisions based on their understanding of scripture. In a litigious society the practice of shunning, excommunication, and expulsion of church members is a serious undertaking and those churches practicing these strict church disciplines must be wary. But there is scriptural support for their stance.

Does the church have the right to expel a member? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of the church and its responsibilities. In 16.19 Jesus says to Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." If this command was not given to Peter as an individual, but as a representative of the church (cf. Matthew 18.15), then clearly the church has mega-responsibilities to the body, including the right of casting out those "it sees fit."

Further, if the church is likened to the body of Christ, as it is in 1st Corinthians, then a proverb of Christ's may well fit: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell" (Matthew 5.29-30). Certainly the metaphor may support the removal of a diseased part of the body to save the whole; i.e., the expulsion of a member for the sake of the whole church. (For an example of this in practice, a quick perusal of 1 Corinthians 5.1-5 proves illustrative.)

On the other hand, the tenor of scripture seems also to prohibit the church from such severe actions. In the above account regarding Peter and the keys to the kingdom, the gospel writer tempers the rights of the church against its responsibilities. "Then Peter came and said to him, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times'" (Matthew 18.21-22). Further, in the Lord's prayer Jesus implies that divine forgiveness is based upon temporal forgiveness, "Forgive us our wrongs, as we forgive those who wrong us" (Matthew 6.12). Thus, it seems if the church is to be in the image and likeness of Christ, then it may not hold grudges nor be unforgiving/intolerant of one who errs.

Too, the metaphor of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 indicates each part of the body are important, no matter how insignificant. But Paul goes even further, "The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable" (1 Corinthians 12.21-22).

Finally, in Matthew 13.24-30 Jesus shares a parable about a wheat field. In the spring the seed was planted, but one night an enemy sowed weed-seed in the field. As the wheat seed sprouted, so did the weeds, and the field hands inquired of the owner about removing the weeds. The owner said, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn'" (13.29-30).

So should the church be about the expulsion of members? It's a tough call. Scripture advocates the protection of the church against those who would cause harm to the body. On the other hand, any protective measures must be weighed against the hurt these measures would cause. May God be with, and have mercy on, those who must make these decisions.

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