The Merciful Act of Excommunication

Whether cohabiting couples, out and proud gays, “social” alcoholics, serial monogamists, or persons engaged in any one of the number of socially acceptable sins, they are members in churches—maybe yours—who have gone unchallenged for behaviors and lifestyles that are incongruent with Scripture and Church teaching; and many are in leadership roles.

Most egregious are Catholic and other Christian public officials who, in open defiance of plain and unambiguous Church teaching, not only support abortion but vow to use the full force of their office to undermine and remove any protections to the unborn. If the unapologetic promoters and enablers of the wholesale taking of innocent human life are not excommunicable, no one is. 

Those who claim otherwise, suggesting that to deny communion to unrepentant pro-choice politicians is to act like a politician rather than a pastor, have it exactly backward. It is the pastor who continues to administer them the Sacrament that allows his pastoral care to be influenced by politics, both outside and inside the Church.

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According to a recent Pew Center poll, about one-half of self-identified Christians, including 55 percent of Catholics, say that abortion should be legal in “all/most cases.” What’s more, over one-half of the nearly one million abortions per year are performed on self-identified Christians, and 24 percent on Catholics. Thus, the pastor who considers bringing a prominent public figure under Church discipline knows that he risks offending and alienating a large swath of his parish.

The possibility that such actions could lead to further hemorrhaging in a Church that has already experienced a 20 percent decline in membership since 2000 is certainly not lost on Pope Francis. Rather than speak with moral clarity on the issue, the pope, in characteristic ambiguity, has suggested that those who would excommunicate the unrepentant are acting Pharisaical by placing adherence to Church doctrine over the law of mercy. 

But discipline and mercy are not at cross purposes as the pope and others seem to think. To the contrary, the law of mercy demands Church discipline up to and including excommunication for the willful and unrepentant offender of Church doctrine. It is a principle rooted in Genesis.

After Adam and Eve sinned, God could have executed them immediately in accordance with his justice. Instead, he granted them a stay on their execution by removing them from his Presence and the Tree of Life with the hope of redemption and re-fellowship, thereby exercising justice mercifully.

He acted similarly with the Israelites. Rather than obliterate them eternally for their disobedience and unbelief, God, as the apostle Paul explains, broke off their “branch” from the “vine” so that their envy over His blessings on the Church will bring about the repentance and re-grafting prophesied by Isaiah.

In the Church age, Jesus told His disciples that even a fruitful branch needs to be pruned of its dead and dying members to remain healthy and fruit-bearing. Thus, he charged them to “rebuke a brother that sins” and gave them the authority to “bind and loose”—that is, the divine sanction to receive forgiven sinners into the Body of Christ as well as remove those who by their beliefs and behaviors have put themselves out of communion with God and His Church. 

The vicar who neglects his duty to “loose” is not faithfully representing Him who said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.” Someone who didn’t neglect it was Paul, who had some sharp words for a congregation that did. 

It had come to Paul’s attention that the church in Corinth was ignoring an occasion of grave sin in its midst. Scolding the assembly for its moral complacence, Paul ordered the expulsion of the offender, warning, “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?” 

Paul’s concern was for the community. Sin, like a virus, infects its host to replicate and propagate out to an ever-increasing circle of victims. By failing to discipline the offender and address his sin, the church had put the whole congregation at risk of sin’s corruptive influence. To halt the viral spread, the extreme measure of dismembership had become necessary.

But Paul’s concern was also for the offender. While Paul’s instruction to turn him “over to Satan” seems to contravene that supposition, his explanation, “so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord,” indicates his hope that excommunication would bring the man to his moral senses and, like the wastrel son in Jesus’ parable, lead to repentance and restoration.

On another occasion, Paul told his spiritual son, Timothy, who was pastoring a church being corrupted by false teachings and immorality, how he had delivered two men “up to Satan” who had “shipwrecked their faith.” This was done, he said, that they “be taught not to blaspheme.” Again, Paul’s utmost hope was that expulsion would lead to restoration. As he instructed the Galatian believers, “if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”

Paul also warned the church in Thessalonica not to associate with anyone that refuses to obey his teachings—not so they would feel condemned, but that they would feel ashamed. Paul went on to say that the church should treat such people as brothers—that is, like estranged family members with whom one hopes to be reconciled.  

As taught by Jesus and practiced by the early Church, Church discipline, including excommunication, is essential for the spiritual welfare of the Body and its members—especially, the “unhealthy” ones. When acted out of devotion to the highest good of others, it is the essence of love, the heart of all faithful pastoral care.

The unrepentant sinner who presents himself before the Communion Table does so, in the teaching of Paul, in an unworthy manner. The pastor who administers him Communion in full knowledge of his spiritual condition is not only guilty of complacence, cowardice—or worse, indifference—but shares in the guilt of “sinning against the body and blood of our Lord,” bringing divine judgment on both of them. 

When the beliefs and behaviors in pews are no longer concerns of the pulpit, the Church has become just one more organization in the marketplace of social services vying for a share in the “spiritual-but-not-religious” set. The church that shrinks back from the mercy of excommunication makes itself indistinguishable from any other do-good group that has neither calling nor concern for the moral welfare of its members.

Given the sustained rise of the “nones” over the last decade or so, the percentage of churches that might fit that profile is sobering. I am reminded of what churchman Joseph Milner had to say about the moral slide of Great Britain in the 18th century: “It is an affecting consideration to reflect what a number of clergymen there are…[without] any concern for their own salvation or that of the flocks committed to their charge.” 

[Image: Excommunication scene from Becket (Paramount Pictures)]


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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