Expel the Wicked Man

By Tom McGovern


It is unfortunate that there are times in church life when a case of sin requires the expulsion of an individual from the fellowship of the church. If a person who has been involved in serious sin refuses to respond to the various attempts at reconciliation outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, the church is left with no choice except to regard that individual as "a pagan or a tax collector".

I was, for nearly 30 years, a member of a cult group (Jehovah's Witnesses) that carried the concept of church discipline to abusive levels. Persons who had fallen into sin were tried before closed-session "judicial committees" and expelled, or "disfellowshipped" from the organization for a variety of offenses, some solidly biblical, others much less so. Members were absolutely forbidden to speak with those who had been expelled; not even a simple "hello" or a word of encouragement was allowed. Even dearest friends and close relatives had to be shunned. Worse, even persons who had left the group voluntarily were to be treated in exactly the same manner as those who had been cast out. This condition would continue throughout one's life and disfellowshipped persons would be permanently shunned unless they applied for and received reinstatement to the organization from the same committee of elders who had disfellowshipped them in the first place.

What is even more unfortunate is that practices such as these are not entirely confined to cult groups. There are church groups that are absolutely orthodox in their theology who nonetheless engage in such high-control tactics.

Generally, groups that require such shunning of former members rely upon a small handful of texts to support their position. We turn now to an analysis of those texts in order to determine what the Scripture actually requires with regard to those who have been excommunicated from the church.

Matthew 18:17

"... if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

After outlining the progressive steps for church discipline, Jesus discussed the treatment of one who did not respond with repentance at any point in the procedure. If the sinning individual was still impenitent after being admonished by the church as a whole, he or she was to be regarded as "a pagan or a tax collector". There has been some controversy over these words. The fact is that not everyone in first-century Judea treated pagans and tax collectors in the same fashion. The argument is sometimes made that the religious leaders of the time, particularly the so-strict Pharisees, utterly shunned Gentiles because they were not of the chosen people. Likewise, tax collectors were regarded as collaborators with the Roman government against their own people, and were also avoided socially. Those who favor extreme shunning argue that Jesus was encouraging such a Pharisaical attitude.

However, it must be pointed out that Jesus was not addressing the Jewish religious leaders. He was speaking to His own disciples, who might be expected to follow His example. Jesus did not shun pagans and tax collectors; rather, He displayed the love of God toward everyone He encountered. In fact, Jesus was known to dine with tax collectors and was criticized by those very religious leaders for doing so (Matt. 9:10, 11; Matt. 11:19). It hardly seems reasonable that Jesus would so often condemn the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and then hold them up as examples for His disciples to follow. There is no support in this verse for the contention that Jesus was instructing His disciples to enforce an extreme sort of shunning upon those who would be excommunicated; rather He was telling them to treat such persons as they would anyone else who was not a Christian.

1 Corinthians 5:11

"But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat."

Here Paul lays down a general rule for dealing with an individual who engages in scandalous sin within the church. The specific case at hand was that of a man who was engaged in an immoral affair with his stepmother. Rather than mourning over the sin that had infested their congregation, the members of the church were patting themselves on the back, probably congratulating themselves for their "tolerance". Paul writes about how sin should be dealt with in order to bring them to their senses.

There are a few points that stand out immediately about Paul's command. First, the person to whom this procedure is applied must be one who "calls himself a brother". In the immediately preceding verse, Paul had specifically said that he was not talking about non-Christians who were sinners, since to avoid such persons, one would actually have to "leave this world". It would seem, therefore, that one who actually left the church would not need to be shunned for the rest of his or her life, unless he or she continued to identify with the church in a public manner. The object of church discipline is to bring about repentance which results in reconciliation of the sinner both to God and to the church in renewed fellowship. If the person leaves the church completely and begins to live as a non-Christian, there is no point in perpetuating punishment indefinitely; rather he or she has indeed become as a "pagan or a tax collector" and is subject to evangelism as would be any other unbeliever.

What is lost through excommunication is, not the simple courtesy of normal human interaction, but spiritual fellowship. Saucy defines church fellowship as "one way God has ordained for the believer to give himself to the Lord and fellow believers and to get from them that which is necessary for spiritual edification." [Robert L. Saucy, The Church in God's Program. Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1972, p. 102.] True Christian fellowship involves more than coffee and conversation; it is a spiritual relationship that involves believers in each other's lives and in the life of God. It is that relationship which has been broken by sin in the case of an excommunicated person. That is the level at which the believer must "not associate" with a church member who persists in sin. A simple greeting or normal conversation would not fall under this classification.

Another point in Paul's command that stands out is the use of the present tense. Paul says not to associate with "anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy," etc. This would seem to rule out shunning such an individual forevermore. If the person caught in sin abandons his or her course, there is no reason why he or she should not be received back into fellowship. Paul mentions no organizational procedure or secret committee meetings for the purpose of reinstatement; rather Christians should be eager to welcome back into their midst a sinner who repents.

In fact, it appears that this was the case with the man who had the affair with his stepmother. In his later letter to the same church, apparently in reference to that same individual, Paul writes, "The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient for him. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him" (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Again, the goal of church discipline is seen to be, not punishment, but repentance. Once the man had repented, he was to be accepted back into fellowship without delay.

Another point that becomes evident in the quotation from 2 Cor. 2:6-8 above is that shunning was not enforced as mandatory upon members of the church. Individual members were to make their own decisions about withdrawing fellowship from the excommunicated man. Paul refers to punishment being inflicted by "the majority", not by all. Apparently some did not cooperate with the church's decision, but there is no indication that they were themselves disciplined for not doing so.

Finally, Paul admonishes that Christians do not even eat with such a man. It is unclear whether this is a reference to the Lord's Supper, to the "love feasts" that were held as church functions among first-century Christians or to normal social dining. The latter, however, seems unlikely, since Jesus Himself ate socially with sinners and tax collectors (Mark 2:16), and that is exactly who He said excommunicated persons should be treated like. Certainly one who has been excommunicated from the church would not be allowed to partake in Communion, so that is a possible meaning for Paul's statement. However, the most likely reference would seem to be to the "love feasts", official functions of the church at which spiritual fellowship would certainly be encouraged. That represents precisely the sort of fellowship that would be withdrawn from the unrepentant sinner.

Comparison of this text with 2 Thess. 3:14 makes it clear that Paul did not intend that the sinning brother be cut off from all contact. There, Paul writes: "If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed." The Greek word for "do not associate" in this verse (sunanamignumi) is identical with the word rendered "not associate" in 1 Cor. 5:11, indicating that the action to be taken is the same. However, in 2 Thessalonians 3:15, Paul goes on to write, "Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother." Love and compassion are the watchwords; the object is to reconcile, not to punish.

2 John 9-11

"Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds."

This text is a favorite among those who favor extreme forms of shunning because it appears to forbid even the saying of a greeting. However, there is nothing in the text that associates this command with church discipline, nor is John here discussing treatment of an excommunicated person. The reference is to one who "does not abide in the teaching of Christ". Of course, some groups also disfellowship for "apostasy", which they define as any deviation from the group's official teachings.

The historical context of 2 John was one that involved many house churches. Most Christian groups in that time met in private homes, whether because of the small size of the group or the fear of persecution, or both. Itinerant teachers would travel from church to church offering instruction in the faith and receiving their support from the churches. Unfortunately, not all of those teachers were absolutely orthodox in their teaching; in particular, some had succumbed to the heresies of Gnosticism. These are the ones to whom John had referred earlier in verse 7: "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist." 

So John was admonishing the Christians who were meeting in house churches to test the beliefs of those offering themselves as teachers. If their doctrine was not sound, they were not to be received as teachers into the homes of believers where church meetings were being held. Likewise, the members of the house churches were not to offer a "greeting". The King James Version of the Bible translates the Greek word chairo ("greeting") as "God speed". To offer a "greeting" of this type was to wish God's blessing on the life and work of the one receiving it, and this would obviously be inappropriate for a believer to offer to a false teacher.


It is apparent from this brief examination of much-abused texts that there is really no warrant in Scripture for the extreme shunning of one who has been expelled from the church because of unrepentantly pursuing a course of sin. It must always be remembered that the primary purpose of church discipline at all stages -- even excommunication -- is to reclaim the sinner to fellowship. A person who has been expelled from church fellowship is to be denied Communion and participation in other spiritual activities of the church. However, there is no objection in Scripture to extending normal human courtesy and compassion, and certainly no prohibition against a simple "hello". The words of Galatians 6:1 are very germane: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted."


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