This is a literature study, where we seek a balanced view of shunning and ecclesiastic discipline as it is presented within the protestant canon of the holy scriptures. We discover that shunning decided by a congregation’s leaders, and disfellowshipping (excommunication) should never be combined as means to protect the spiritual integrity of the congregation. Shunning should be applied towards insincere members, but towards former members only at the sole discretion of the person who performs the shunning.
1. Schoolyard case
When one child in the schoolyard has been abused by another child, the victim usually shuns the offender. The offender then proceeds to the next victim, who gets abused and starts to shun the offender. After a while, seeing what happened to the first few victims nobody want to be next so everybody shuns the offender, who starts to cry. If the offender is left alone for a decent period of time, he/she will come back with a better attitude and only rarely abuse other children again.
Instead, a teacher comes by, asks what happened and is told that the offender is getting shunned because he/she abused people. The teacher replies that shunning is not okay in this school and that everybody are individuals who need love and need to feel included. She reproaches particularly the victims and teaches them about forgiveness and about the Creator who lets his sun shine on both good and bad persons.
Being thus deprived of shunning as a means to avoid abuse, the children are in dire need of alternative strategies. Two days later there are some 5-50 gangs formed, each led by an offender. These will be constantly involved in retribution attacks against each other in order to limit what the various offenders may do to the members of other gangs.
The shunning will continue, however, in a new, not necessarily conscious form. Instead of shunning offenders, some will shun victims, some will shun teenagers who look bad, some will shun people they do not understand and most will shun those who they believe the gang-leader would not want them to associate with. This stupidity never reach perfection, but approaches perfection asymptotically as the children reach mature age.
As Christians however, we may simply follow Yesus’ advise and ”turn around and become as young children”. (Matthew 18:3)
2. Congregation case
Does not the decision to shun somebody constitute judgement? Yesus said:
Judge not, that ye may not be judged,
for in what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged,
and in what measure ye measure, it shall be measured to you.
Yes, however this serves as a qualification to the principle of shunning – we should not do it too much. Look at Luke 6:37.
And judge not, and ye may not be judged; condemn not, and ye may not be condemned; release, and ye shall be released.
This is parallell to Matthew 7 and follows after the golden rule. Actually, it is an application of it.
When we shun somebody, if they are aware of why we shun them, they may quit abusing in order to be readmitted if they feel our measure is appropriate. But if we shun lots of people with seemingly no good reasons, they will shun us in return.
Also, we should not convict people until we understand their circumstances, and particularly not if our verdict serves no purpose with regard to preserving justice and peace. (James 4:11, 12) For example, watching the news on TV you might have a lot of opinions about people who committed violent crimes, but you do not know their circumstances, and this is the time to pause and reflect because what did our lord say? ”In what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.” It is inconceivable until it happens.
Let us look first at 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-15, NW:
Now we are giving you orders, brothers, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to withdraw from every brother walking disorderly and not according to the tradition you received from us. For you yourselves know the way you ought to imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you nor did we eat food from anyone free. To the contrary, by labor and toil night and day we were working so as not to impose an expensive burden upon any one of you. Not that we do not have authority, but in order that we might offer ourselves as an example to you to imitate us. In fact, also, when we were with you, we used to give you this order: ”If anyone does not want to work, neither let him eat.” For we hear certain ones are walking disorderly among you, not working at all but meddling with what does not concern them. To such persons we give the order and exhortation in [the] Lord Jesus Christ that by working with quietness they should eat food they themselves earn.
For your part, brothers, do not give up in doing right. But if anyone is not obedient to our word through this letter, keep this one marked, stop associating with him, that he may become ashamed. And yet do not be considering him as an enemy, but continue admonishing him as a brother.
These are instructions for shunning (red cursive).
”that he may become ashamed” requires that the brother in question is being informed of the reasons why he gets shunned.
In 1 Corinthians, we find a case of fornication of a kind alien even to ”the nations”, that is to people who were bound by less strict laws about relations than the Jews were. We read in chapter 5 (my paraphrase):
Actually, whoredom is heard of among you, and such whoredom as is not even in the nations, namely for someone to have his father’s woman. And you were emboldened and did not rather mourn, so that he who contrived this act could be taken from your midst since I, though physically absent but present to the spirit, already when present judged this deed in our lord Yesus’ authority, you being gathered, and my spirit with our lord Yesus’ power.
Hand such a one to the adversary, to destruction of the flesh, in order to save the spirit in the lord’s day.
Your keen delight is an issue. Do you not know that a little sourdough ferments all dough? Clean off the aged sourdough so that you may become a new dough, new as in being unleavened, for our passover – Christ – was slain for us, that we celebrate, not in aged sourdough, nor in desperation and evil but in unleavened sincerity and truth.
I wrote you in the letter not to mingle with unfaithful ones – not all of this society’s unfaithful, the avaricious and robbers or idolaters, meaning you would have to exit society. Now, however, I write you not to mingle with whoever called ‘brother’, being unfaithful, avaricious, idolater, oppressive in words, drunkard or robber, nor to eat with such ones.
For who am I to judge outsiders? Do you not judge members? But the outsiders God judge. Lift out the evil from your own vicinity.
Notice how this is about a person who shows no remorse but stays in a permanent sexual relation with, probably, his stepmother. If, to the contrary, it was the first serious transgression from an otherwise sincere brother or sister, the destruction-of-the-flesh part would be replaced with the instruction in Galatians 6:1, YLT:
Brethren, if a man also may be overtaken in any trespass, ye who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering thyself — lest thou also may be tempted
The practice of disfellowshipping is not clearly described in the scriptures, but Matthew 18:15-17 is sometimes cited.
Moreover, if your brother commits a sin, go lay bare his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take along with you one or two more, in order that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he does not listen to them, speak to the congregation. If he does not listen even to the congregation, let him be to you just as a man of the nations and as a tax collector.
This follows on the parable of the lost sheep. It suggests a procedure for solving matters between two members of a congregation. The word for congregation is ἐκκλησία in Greek and ܥܕܬܐ in Aramaic. We cannot know if Yesus was speaking about the Jewish congregation or of a Christian congregation which was about to form (Matthew 16:18). But we see that there is a trend of bringing more and more people, to convince the sinner. First, two persons meet, then three or four, then the congregation which we consequently expect to be made up of substantially more than four persons.
Matthew may have written in Hebrew but no Hebrew text has been preserved. Franz Delitzsch is one of many scholars who have attempted to reconstruct a probable Hebrew text, and in this verse he has הַקָּהָל (Ha QaHaL) for the congregation. This word was used about the whole group of Israelites who left Egypt with Moses, for example in Exodus 16:3, YLT:
for ye have brought us out unto this wilderness to put all this assembly to death with hunger
QaHaL does not limit the possible size of the group the issue could be presented to. It is frequently used about large crowds, so if a Christian requests his/her issue be put before an entire congregation, rather than just a small group of priests, rabbis, deacons or elders, Matthew 18 quietly agrees.
For another interesting detail, the last ”you” of the citation from the New World Translation above, is singular in both the Alexandrian and the Byzantine text-forms:
εστω (let him/her be) σοι (to/for you) ωσπερ (just like) ο εθνικος (the foreigner) και (and) ο τελωνης (the taxman)
This means, the victims among us, are the ones who will treat the offender like the Jews treated foreigners and tax collectors. Those of us who are not likely to become victims, or who do not know what happened, hearing two contrasting stories, may chose to maintain an exchange of views with the accused, and to pass no judgement until we have heard the case. To enact someone else’s readymade verdict will not free us from responsibility for the accuracy of the judgement.
4. Systemic effects
The pain of being excluded from a fellowship, is not always due to the friendly atmosphere or spiritual nutriment within it, but in the case of someone who has worked hard in a congregation’s programme of service, it may be caused by the gradual realization that the hard work has not benefitted God at all, but has generated money, fame, power or some other reward to figures in that organization’s top.
With this in mind, we should be aware that the fear of causing a crack in the glass house will be an extremely powerful force that will keep members from even making suggestions that could improve the church or its doctrine. In other words, the denomination is as stuck as its members, save for whatever changes may be introduced by its leaders. As a consequence people will struggle to become these leaders instead of doing good deeds.
Also some depend financially on other members and might get evicted if they get excommunicated.
Something to this effect was the reality of first century Judaism that Yesus was born into. In John 9:17-23, NKJV, we read about a blind man who was cured:
They said to the blind man again, “What do you say about Him because He opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
But the Jews did not believe concerning him, that he had been blind and received his sight, until they called the parents of him who had received his sight. And they asked them, saying, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?”
His parents answered them and said, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; “but by what means he now sees we do not know, or who opened his eyes we do not know. He is of age; ask him. He will speak for himself.”
His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
In the end, they could not make this young man pretend that he was not cured so they cast him out.
This fear appears again in John 12:42,43, NW:
All the same, many even of the rulers actually put faith in him, but because of the Pharisees they would not confess [him], in order not to be expelled from the synagogue; for they loved the glory of men more than even the glory of God.
It is time to recall Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, 5:11, NW:
But now I am writing you to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man.
Shunning is applied to persons who are called brothers (or sisters), not to outsiders. Is this important from a systemic perspective? Oh yes.
If disfellowshipped/excommunicated persons are shunned, there is no feedback to the remaining members within the congregation. This means the congregation’s leaders can sell them any gossip.
Shunning, if used wisely, is an essential and powerful tool to keep a congregation morally sound and free from conflict. If used deceitfully, it is the opposite.