Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 21, 2007

Expulsion before admonition?

A friend asked me recently whether I thought there was ever warrant for immediately removing from the church the perpetrator of a heinous sin.  That is, without the “usual” steps of personal confrontation, confrontation with witnesses, and “telling it to the church” (Matt 18:15-17).

This has historically been the practice in certain Baptist, Anabaptist, Mennonite, and other fellowships, and is practiced today at times. Scripturally, support for this practice has been found in 1 Cor 5: Paul does not instruct the Corinthian church to admonish the immoral man, but repeatedly commands his expulsion from the church. Proponents of immediate expulsion might also argue that the purpose of initial steps of confrontation is (at least in part) to confirm the offense, and this is unnecessary when the offense is public knowledge (e.g., as in 1 Cor 5:1). Practically, they consider the practice to be necessary at times in order to safeguard the testimony of the church.

I think, however, that it is more likely that Paul would not enjoin expulsion without admonition, even in the case of sins which would be considered more serious, or sins which are public knowledge. Several factors point that way, in my estimation.

1) Gal 6:1 is a text which speaks of a brother who is overtaken in a sin (this is a more likely interpretation than seeing the brother as overtaken by the sin: the point is that he has been discovered in it). Given that the envisioned scenario is someone being “caught” in a sin, any “process” of church discipline is obviously just beginning. The instruction for “those who are spiritual” is that not that they immediately expel such a person, but that they restore him or her.

Some argue that only “minor” sins are in view in Gal 6:1, but the context does not support that argument. In Gal 5:13 – 6:10, Paul is discussing life in the Spirit over against life in the flesh, particularly in the setting of the community of believers. The confrontation of 6:1 is to be done with “meekness”  (prauths), an echo of that fruit of the Spirit in 5:23. The sin that is being confronted (and, note, it is “any” (tis) sin) is no doubt echoing the list of the “works of the flesh” in 5:19-21, a list that includes such sins as witchcraft, adultery, and . . . fornication (porneia).

It seems, then, that Gal 6:1, in context, indicates that even sins such as porneia (cf. 1 Cor 5:1) ought to be approached with an eye to restoration.

2) On the one hand, the testimony of the church is indeed a concern when the need arises for confrontation of sin in the church. The purity of the church is certainly an emphasis of Paul’s in 1 Cor 5. As well, arguably, 1 Thess 4:11-12 has the church-discipline-worthy offense of freeloading in view (cf. 2 Thess 3:6-12) as Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to “behave with propriety toward outsiders.”

However, maintaining the testimony of the church in regard to its purity is not the only point of church discipline. More often than referencing the purity of the church in disciplinary texts, Paul speaks of the restoration of the offender. Restoration is even involved, arguably, in 1 Cor 5 (although there it is in view as subsequent to expulsion): expulsion of the offender is to take place “in order that his spirit may be saved in the day of Christ Jesus” – something which assumes repentance and restoration.

3) Surely, the testimony of the church involves both love and purity. Saying that immediate expulsion safeguards the church’s testimony is not saying enough. Without question, the church ought to have a testimony as a pure community. But the church ought to have a testimony as a loving community as well. A proper methodology of church discipline allows for both. Loving restoration is the goal both before (Matt 18:15-17) and after (2 Cor 2:5-11) expulsion, but if the offender refuses to repent, then the offender ought to be expelled for the sake of the purity of the church (and for the sake of his own repentance as well, 1 Cor 5:5).

4) Although it may seem as if a person’s offense is clearly established, a person ought to have to the opportunity to respond to the charges made against him or her. Immediate expulsion lends itself to not allowing that opportunity.

I can think of counterarguments for each of these points, but the combined weight of the points as they stand causes me to reject the practice of immediate expulsion without admonition, even for “heinous sins.”


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