A few years ago my husband and I attended a young adult church plant in the area. We loved the desire for authentic faith. The hip atmosphere. The coffee brewing in the background. We liked the emphasis on community. Then something happened. It, well, shocked me. The pastor stood up before the service started and announced that a person in the church was struggling with pornography and that he had been approached by himself and the elders and he would not admit his fault, it was ruining his marriage and his family and we were no longer to have contact with him. If we saw him in the grocery store we should be kind, but not seek him out.
He was being banished. (Those are my words, not theirs, and because it has been several years, nothing is in quotes because I can’t remember the exact words well enough to quote it, but this is how I remember it.)
At the time there was ABSOLUTELY discussion about it in the church. Sure, lots of people were upset. No one felt very good about it, whether they agreed with it or not. And at the time I remember thinking, this doesn’t feel right, but at the same time, I also admired the leadership for wanting to be Biblical in community. It seemed to me their hearts were in the right place.
Fast-forward to today. Jeremy and I have gone back to the Free Methodist Church (this is the denomination I’m ordained with) but a few friends still go to this other church. From time to time I hear of them banishing someone else. One person they banished was a longtime friend. This is when the banishing’s started to hit home for me.
Scripture says something to this effect in Matthew 18:15-18 that we’re supposed to remove the sinner….right? Maybe we should read it again….here’s what the NIV translation says:
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
What does it sound like to you? I don’t see “send him away,” do you? So what does it mean to “treat someone like a tax collector or a pagan?”
Well here are some questions I ask when I read this passage:
1. Who wrote it?
Matthew? Not totally certain here. But if it was Matthew here’s something ironic. Matthew was actually a tax collector before Jesus called him in to ministry? So when it says “treat” him or her like a tax collector, maybe it’s not really about “excommunicating” or “banishing” as it is about gentle prodding or continued encouragement? Jesus didn’t give up on Matthew because most tax collectors were corrupt back then.
2. How did Jesus then treat tax collectors or pagans?
Well, I just mentioned one above, but what about Luke 19:3-7:
“Then Jesus entered and walked through Jericho. There was a man there, his name Zacchaeus, the head tax man and quite rich. He wanted desperately to see Jesus, but the crowd was in his way—he was a short man and couldn’t see over the crowd. So he ran on ahead and climbed up in a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus when he came by. When Jesus got to the tree, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, hurry down. Today is my day to be a guest in your home.” Zacchaeus scrambled out of the tree, hardly believing his good luck, delighted to take Jesus home with him. Everyone who saw the incident was indignant and grumped, “What business does he have getting cozy with this crook?”
Does it look like Jesus banished Zaccheaus? Now, I know we want to say….well Zaccheus wasn’t a Christ follower? Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t? Maybe he was a new Christian still trying to figure out his way? It was the people who called him a crook, not Jesus. Jesus went and had dinner with this man. I have to think this did more for him than walking away from him. Banishing him from Christian community?
And pagans? Those who didn’t believe in Jesus. We like to think of pagan’s today as people involved in witchcraft. But basically, pagans in first century Christianity could mean a lot of different things, but mainly Greek mythology and the worship of many gods. Most of Paul’s writing is to help early Christians understand what it means to be a “christ-follower.” There’s a lot of confusion in the church as to what “Christianity” should look like. Paul was busy preaching good stuff. Pagan worship was spastic, whereas Christian worship had order (this is why Paul tell’s women to cover their heads….because they were thrashing around. He doesn’t mean it for all times….he just means for them to cool down….they aren’t to act like pagan worship…which they didn’t fully understand till he taught them). Pagan worship involved child sacrifice. Not good stuff.
Did Paul banish pagan’s? Did Paul banish new Christians who still had a LOT to learn? Not that I can tell? He certainly rebukes them, but he doesn’t stop giving them access to community.
What about Jesus? How did Jesus feel about people who didn’t know him or who needed guidance?
Mark 6:34 says this:
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
In fact, if you look at the gospels and the way Jesus lived, I think it’s interesting that Jesus was far more critical of those who were arrogant and haughty than the sinners.
He used gentleness, kindness and compassion with sinners. With the Jewish Pharisee’s he doesn’t necessarily rebuke their teaching, but it is a recurrent theme in the gospels that he challenges their behavior and haughtiness.
So here’s what I think. I’m not saying there is never a place to excommunicate someone from the church, but aren’t we all sinful? Seriously. Are any of us without sin ever? I’m still in process. I look at addictions, and I think, goodness sakes, how hard it would be to battle depression and alcohol. How sad is it that a man has grown up in such a perverse society that all his acceptance and self-worth is found through calling a phone number to hear a woman coo about his masculinity?
I’m not saying we should not ask someone to step down from leadership or maybe take a break as a member of a congregation for a time while they work through some deep stuff in their lives, but to remove them entirely? Send them away rather than shepherd them, comfort them, encourage them, help them see the truth? We are all on this journey called life. We are all “groaning in creation as we await our heavenly adoption” (Romans 8:22-23) Sure we have to be careful we don’t lead others in to sin, but aren’t there better ways than to say go away till you confess and clean-up?
We are meant to be in community and we live by Christ’s example. As far as the man I mentioned above with pornography addictions. Instead of removing him from community, maybe the right thing was to move his wife and child to a safe home while the men in the church continued to love and challenge him? We will answer someday as Christians to how we respond.
“‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
What do you think?