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Saturday, April 25, 2015
A Biblical Survey of Excommunication
It is one of the oldest known practices in Biblical Christianity. In fact, our first parents were the first human beings to experience it. It is part of nearly every covenantal arrangement God has made with man. In fact, the only covenants that did not include it were those that involve only unconditional promises from God, such as the Noahic covenant where God promises never to destroy the earth with water again. This practice is the bedrock of ensuring that the people of God are not confused with the people of the world. Only in modern times has it become unpopular and obscure. If the Church is to continue to thrive and grow in her faith, she must renew this practice. I am talking about the practice of excommunication.
Adam and Eve
“So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24) Our first parents were themselves subjected to excommunication by God after they broke the covenant and chose to live and think independent from their Creator. From the very beginning, submission to the authority of God reflected in honoring and keeping the commandment was necessary to enjoy fellowship within the framework of covenant arrangement. Man rejected that concept and hence, fellowship with God was broken and as a result sin and death entered the world and man found himself excommunicated from God and paradise.
“But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” (Gen. 17:14) According to the sign of the covenant, which was part of the covenant itself, if a male refused to be circumcised, he was excommunicated from the community. Why? He was guilty of breaking the covenant. Covenant-breaking serves as the basis for excommunication in both the Covenant of Works with Adam and now the Abrahamic covenant as well. This points to a long and deep history for the concept and practice of excommunication.
The Sinaitic Covenant
“Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or who slaughters it outside the camp, and has not brought it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord before the tabernacle of the Lord, bloodguiltiness is to be reckoned to that man. He has shed blood and that man shall be cut off from among his people.” Lev. 17:3-4 Here we see excommunication practiced even in the Old Covenant. This is one of several examples of the practice under Jewish law. The concept of separating the obstinate from the covenant community has a very long history indeed.
“Nevertheless many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (Jn. 12:42) Here we see the practice of excommunication continuing even in Jesus’ day. Apparently, the Jewish leaders would excommunicate anyone that confessed belief in Jesus Christ. The practice is not only ancient, going back to the very beginning, it seems unbroken up to this point.
The New Covenant
“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:17) Here we see that excommunication is a commandment expressed and extended to the covenant community by Christ Himself.
Excommunication in the New Covenant arrangement, according to Scripture, is not merely a good practice, but it is also a direct command from the lips of our Lord Himself.
I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:5) Here we see the apostle Paul, speaking with apostolic authority, commanding the Corinthian community to take swift action to excommunicate a man that had taken his father’s former wife for his own. This was an act of incest that is strictly forbidden by divine law and Paul’s action is both swift and severe. They are excommunicated from the community immediately.
“Among these are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme.” (1 Tim. 1:20) Paul is once again involved in the excommunication of two men because of their refusal to receive apostolic instruction with all humility. Perhaps Hymenaeus and Alexander thought that everything was just a matter of interpretation and Paul’s instructions along with the gospel records were not really binding. It seems they discovered that Paul’s teachings actually were binding. In fact, they were binding enough that they found themselves outside the covenant community and perhaps outside the covenant itself.
“Reject a factious man after a first and second warning, knowing that such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10) A factious man is similar to the Rob Bells and Dans of the world. These are men who come along and decide to turn Christian orthodoxy upside down and reject what has been received and taught authoritatively for years now in the covenant community. Such men are to be identified, their sin and error pointed out, and rejected from the community.
Only in recent times have many communities of faith lost their way in terms of the doctrine and practice of excommunication. There is no one variable upon which this error predominantly rests. Rather, there are a number of contributors. We begin with a flawed view of God, His righteousness to be specific, a low view of sin, a casual attitude toward religion, a postmodern way of life, and an autonomous approach to the Christian life, the Christian community, and the Christian Scripture. These and many other factors have contributed to a near extinction of a practice that is designed to honor God before the world by insisting that those who bear the name of Christ do so with honor, with dignity, and with all soberness, understanding the rich and privileged position they have within the covenant community.