Church Membership and Excommunication
So this scan of an excommunication letter has been making its’ way around the internet for the past few days (literally – gone viral in 24-48 hours).
What’s interesting is the responses I’ve read to it. Having been close to most of my pastors in my life, this letter isn’t a big shock to me – but apparently, even to some professing Christian folks, this letter is (supposedly) rude, shocking and unexpected.
I’ve commented a few times: the only people whining and complaining about the letter are people whose churches don’t practice church discipline and/or they haven’t read their bibles. I have no idea on what has happened on ‘both sides’ of this particular issue, nor am I writing to address that….just to comment on the content of the letter and whether or not it is biblical or not.
It is. Plain and simple.
American individualism and charismatic spirituality have made church-hopping and a low view of church membership commonplace. Don’t like church A ? Disagree with the pastor ? Don’t like the music, advertising, marketing of your church and think they could do more ? Leave and find one that fits you. After all, church should affirm you and all that you believe. The church growth movement (purpose driven church, becoming a contagious Christian, etc….) have only reinforced this mentality into the minds of the culture, even among Christians who appear to be biblically solid in every other area of their polity.
A few questions came up on one message board related to this letter.
1. Usually, when people walk away from Christianity, some people cite 1 John 2:19 and say the person was never really saved to begin with. If this person was never “saved” in the first place and has forsaken the fellowship together with other believers, how can Pastor Shade in his letter, exhort this person to “…turn away from your self-destructive path and turn back to Christ as your Lord and Savior.”
Because that’s what the Pastor’s job is – to call people to repentance (Acts 17:30-31). The gospel is not just for the unsaved, but for believers as well and a good pastor constantly points his sheep to follow and serve Christ and turn from sin. A question like this usually treats the gospel as a message only for believers and repentance as a one-time event. Scripture doesn’t.
2. In your two posts (see 121 and 135) you seemed to intimate that there were three groups of people – the non-elect outside of the church, the unsaved in the church (who might or might not be elect) pretending to be saved and the elect. Would you say this person to whom this letter is addressed to is “elect”, “almost elect” or “might be elect”? I would think that you’d say this person is definitely not elect since the elect can’t/won’t turn from fellowship with Christ.
I would say it to someone who once associated themselves with the covenant community and made vows before many witnesses and God that they would do all the things contained in the covenant. This isn’t an ‘election’ issue. A pastor is not called to ‘preach the gospel to the elect’. Further, there is no ‘almost elect’.
As for you saying the person isn’t elect…well….they’re not dead yet, so no one can say this with certainty – hence the call to repent and the invitation and opportunity to return. I’ll go into detail on this in another answer below.
BTW – this isn’t a ‘reformed’ issue. One of my old churches (which is dispensational and moderately Arminian) and my old pastor would’ve handled this issue the exact same way with virtually the same language. It’s a biblical issue, not a reformed issue. The problem is that the reddit reader who originally posted it don’t understand church membership or church discipline.
3. If he’s not elect, how can he be restored to Christ’s body? Are you saying that Christ has parts of his body that are NOT elect?
In the second link provided above (135) I talk a bit about what happens when a believer hears the warning passages in scripture versus an unbeliever. An unbeliever hears the warning passages and ignores them, refuses to repent and walks further away from Christ. A believer hears them, is convicted by the Spirit of God and turns (repents). It may not happen on the first time they hear a call to repentance or the second, but it will happen. 1 John 3:9-10 is a guarantee of this.
4. Pastor Shade said, “By this excommunication, we are declaring that you are no longer part of the company of the saved”
This would hold to what you and Ricky describe as people being a part of the “visible church” but not a part of the “invisible church”? Or do I have that backwards? But then this would again mean that this person is not “saved ” or “elect” in the first place, but only in the “company of the saved” but not “actually saved”, right?
Church has that right (Matt. 16:19, 1 Cor. 5:1-11) given by God. If they repent, great and praise God. But read closely – you are no longer part of the company of the saved (the visible church). Is it possible he’s saved and going through a period of rebellion ? Yep. But scripture only knows of Christians who are part of a visible local body.
Ever seen an arm by itself ? Ever seen a toe live on its’ own ?
So declaring dude to not be a part of the company of the saved is saying “you’re cut off from the body. There is no life outside of the body. Come back, or die.”
5. Can God’s “elect” be turned over to satan for their destruction? I think your answer would be a definite “no” on that one, but I just want to be sure…
That’s what excommunication is. Why would my answer be a no when that’s the very language used in 1 Cor. 5 to describe the man who was kicked out ? The good thing is that in 2 Cor., we find that he has repented and been restored to the body.
To be more specific, excommunication is both an act of love and of discipline – love for the body to keep them from the leaven of professing brothers and sisters who continue to sin openly (1 Cor. 5). A little leaven, leavens the whole lump. Being placed outside of the covenant community, outside of the fellowship and accountability of the saints, it is hopeful that the person excommunicated will, like the prodigal son, find himself eating with the pigs and come to his senses and turn.
All that said, the tone and the content of the letter is both serious and loving. It amazes me (okay, it really doesn’t) that folks are up in arms over the fact that:
1. Dude has been repeatedly called and asked to return to fellowship – both in letter and in word (personally). He has ignored these repeated calls to repent.
2. The session (not the individual pastor) made the decision, not the senior pastor. For the non-reformed – scripture does NOT teach that ONE pastor/elder/bishop is to rule over a church and everyone falls under him. What scripture DOES teach is multiple elders at each church, all equal in power though differing in role (teaching elders and ruling elders). So that means that multiple people made a decision – not one person.
3. Matthew 18 seems to have been followed according to the letter. ‘Let him be as a heathen and a tax collector’ means that you do not treat him as a part of the covenant community. You pursue him to repent and turn from sin, but you no longer consider or treat him as a Christian. Look at the passage carefully:
Matthew 18:17 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.
Remember the context – a Jew would understand that a Gentile and a tax collector were NOT to be treated as the people of God. Gentiles were outside of the covenant made by God with His people and tax collectors were people who were considered traitors (specifically if they were Jewish tax collectors – robbing their own people to pay the pagans and make themselves rich). In that aspect, an excommunication ruling (specifically in this case as laid out in the letter) indeed does say ‘based on your actions, we are declaring you not to be a Christian’. What that entails is not a wish for the man to go to hell. Rather, there is an open door and opportunity to repent – an encouragement even.
Only American individualism and biblical ignorance can find problems with this letter. Of course, if someone has a case (a biblical case) against the content of the letter, I am more than willing to both listen and if necessary, retract everything posted here. Otherwise, this stands.
Pray for the elders at CRC, as I’m betting pastor Shade’s e-mail has been overrun with folks blasting him and their church over the letter. American Christianity is way overdue for a biblical primer on biblical church discipline. The fact that so many churches have so many morally failing pastors is due in part to the fact that church discipline is not practiced (under the guise of ‘grace’). This lack of holiness is part and parcel of why the church looks more and more like the world in the US – self-absorbed (and catered to by the Osteens of the church world), self-concerned (and catered to by the Rick Warrens’ of the church world) with little concern for anything else other than making a better ‘me’ and living in ‘prosperity’ (catered to by the Jakes, Myers, Copelands and Hinn’s of the church circuit).