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Church Discipline and Social Media (i.e. Facebook)

The idea of excommunication is sobering to me. It is rarely practiced and very few people have faith in the process. When we are about to practice church discipline on a person who has already abandoned the church I am often asked why we even bother going through the motions. “What difference will it make in their lives?”, they ask.  I would suggest that a few of the reasons for this lack of faith in God’s process  are as follows.

  • Pastors lack the courage to follow through with a biblical and formal excommunication because so many other pastors in town will accept the excommunicated member without so much as pretending to do an investigation into their reasons for departing the previous church. Pastors seem to be the first to assume that they are the only reasonable leaders around and they easily buy into the notion that that the case of the disgruntled former members of the other church was severely mishandled.
  • The Temptation of the Pile-On. Pastors sometimes lack the conviction to act so forcefully on the basis of one obstinately held sin. Thus, they find themselves wanting to build a case against the obstinate person and suddenly find themselves feeling icky. The icky feeling is simply because they have succumbed to the temptation of the Pile-On and feel like they cannot move forward unless they overwhelm the “jury” (the local church) with an onslaught of damning evidence against the obstinate and unrepentant church member. Consequently, they lose their sense of peace. This is as it should be. Confident and biblical men don’t need to pile-on evidence. They simply take it as a matter of faith that the one clear, biblically-definable sin combined with obstinate refusal to repent is sufficient enough for excommunication.
  • The fear of interfering with Christian social life. Contemporary social life is so shallow and superficial that we don’t really have categories of social interaction. I have over 800 “friends” on Facebook. But are they really friends? We can find ourselves chatting with people we would normally never think of, much less fellowship with, on Facebook. The superficiality of it is probably mostly benign, but what about facebooking with people who have been excommunicated out of the church?

I don’t know the answer.

One of the most helpful things I’ve read on church discipline (and I’ve read a lot lately) is from William Ames’ (1576-1633) The Marrow of Theology. I wonder how this would fit with contemporary superficial socializing with technological media?

An obstinate sinner cannot be separated from the faithful unless the faithful be separated from him, and this produces a salutary sense of shame, 2 Thess. 3:14.  Those who are lawfully excommunicated are to be avoided by all communicants.  This refers not to moral and other necessary duties, but to those aspects of social contact which presuppose acceptance and inward familiarity. Speech, prayer, farewell, entertainment, table, are denied.

Does church leadership dare to ask their congregants to defriend on Facebook the excommunicated member?

I think people of faith are willing to ponder the hard realities of their convictions.

But one more thought. I think people have little faith in the process because it is entirely spiritual. Ames is particularly helpful here, especially when one considers the era in which he lived.

[Excommunication] pertains to all those, and only to those, who have the right to partake of the sacraments.  To such people it applies the will of God, i.e., those means of spiritual reformation which Christ alone has given to his churches, 2 Cor. 10:4. Therefore, punishments and pains of body or purse have no place at all in ecclesiastical disciplines.

In other words, the person who asks, “What will it matter to them?” is demonstrating a lack of faith and conviction that our battle is spiritual and we do not wrestle with carnal means.

12 Responses

  1. Why would it matter if I chatted on facebook with someone who had been excommunicated? If I am to treat them as unregenerate, I would chat with unregenerate people on facebook. It’s about the sacraments. It’s membership in the visible Church. It’s not about shunning.

    The churches that would accept a member who had been excommunicated and not restored by another church are doing it wrong.

  2. I’m inclined to agree (and have actually practiced that way, but it is more than just the sacraments. That seems pretty reductionistic to me in view of the language of 1 Corinthians 5 which says “not to associate with anyone who bears the name of a brother and…… not even to eat with such a one.”

    As abhorrent as “shunning” is to our modern ear that expression plus others in the NT that say “avoid” etc. are pretty hard to reduce to asking them to not partake of the sacraments, especially when experience proves that they wouldn’t be interested in partaking anyway.

    Ames was on to something, I think, when he said that an obstinate person cannot be separated from the people unless the people be separated from him.

    Interestingly (and I’m not making a judgment call on this, just fyi) Ames suggested (400 years ago) that there were two levels of excommunication. Barring from the sacraments was the first and milder level. Banning from church and “separation” in every area except that which was moral and necessary was the next level.

    Bottom line, it seems like Paul is saying more than just reduce him to “unsaved” status because he actually encouraged people to eat with the unsaved. If they called themselves brothers but did not repent they were to be shunned. Unsaved, on the other hand, were not to be shunned.

  3. I was given good advice by a pastor friend when one of our mutual friends was excommunicated (we all three attended different churches states apart). He challenged me to continue to interact with this one, but to, in every interaction, either expressly call or implicitly encourage the excommunicated one to repent.

    He eventually did, btw. Praise God.

  4. Bob,

    Thanks for addresing one of the most difficult areas of church doctrine. It seems to me that the issue revolves around the professed status of the ex-member. If he drops his profession of faith, and no longer claims to be a Christian, he may be treated like we would treat any other unbeliever. He may attend church, but enjoy no benefits of church membership, including participation in the Lord’s Table. If, as is more common, he continues to insist that he is a Christian, he must be shunned and shamed until he repents, or until he relinquishes his claim.

    I think this is the distinction Paul makes in I Corinthians 5:11, the “so-called brother.” He claims to be a brother, and wants others to endorse his claim. His unrepentent sin excludes him from that claim, and the church must enforce the dinstinction until his true status is clarified for all to see.

    Warm regards,
    Greg Barkman

    • I agree that the issue revolves around the profession of the person in question. One of the difficulties of hyper-autonomy is that the pride and sense of superiority churches have other other churches often causes them to dismiss the disciplinary efforts that they are making toward a person. Good solid Calvinistic Baptists, for example, may disrespect a local church’s discipline toward one of its members because it happens to be Pentecostal.

      Several times we have had people come who were disciplined out of other churches. As soon as we found out we gave the benefit of the doubt to the church, despite our theological differences, and in every case it ended up justifying the churches ultimate decision though often there were instances of mishandling. Mishandling doesn’t negate the mission though.

      Just rambling! Thanks for the feedback!

    • Ahh. That makes all kinds of sense. Thanks for the clarification. You’re right–if the point of excommunication is making distinctions about the visible Church, then I can see how the necessity of repudiating professed membership is a different matter from just denying the sacraments. In that case we’re onto “apostate” territory, which makes the “shunning” aspect fit. I get it now.

  5. In Ezekiel our God says that every time He brings His Word to Israel, that because of their idolatry, He will speak to them in light of that idolatry. No revelation without confrontation. Every time they seek a Word from the Lord, that word will be laced with “have you repented of your idolatry yet”-speech.

    There is the sense I think that if a so-called brother remains persistent in a sin which brings excommunication, then our highest commitment to them (if we are of the church which is disciplining them) is to bring up their need of repentance in our every conversation with them, or we ought not converse. FB does change this drastically–I recall some similar discussions when email came out.

    • Sam,

      Do you have a specific reference in mind or is that the understood theme of Ezekiel? I think that is a significant point you make and would like to ponder on it a little bit more.

  6. Oops, somehow did not see that d4v34x said the same.

  7. It absolutely takes faith, and I think unfriending from Facebook is appropriate. The severe disfellowship is God’s means of bringing that person to the realization of how serious his sin is.

    It takes faith because the natural human response is to think of it terms of “what if it was me? I wouldn’t want everyone out of my life”. Many church members think that their being in contact with the excommunicated as a way of “befriending, loving, being kind to, etc…” will be more effective in getting them to repent and come back than to totally cut him off. I never hear biblical arguments AGAINST excommunication, I always hear rationalization, pragmatic arguments for why it shouldn’t be done. We do lack faith in God’s ability to work in a persons life apart from us. We always want something to do with it so we can get some of the glory.

  8. Bob,

    We had a situation many years ago where a man came to us who had been disicplined by another Reformed Baptist Church. We worked with the situation for nearly a year, and finally received him. The deciding factor was that the other church refused to sit down with him and us, and allow us to question him and them together. We believed the Bible principle of allowing the accused to confront his accuser in the presence of witnesses was the key.

    Happily, we have had more recent relationships with the same church that were more satisfactory. The point is that there is such a thing as unscriptural discipline and just because a church disicplines someone does not necessarily mean we are bound to honor it. If we have questions, we are bound to investigate it thoroughly and graciously. Ultimately, we must make our decision based upon the truth as best we are able to understand it.

    Absence of church discipline is the bigger problem in our day, but abusive church disicipline is another problem, and I don’t think we are required to honor another church’s abusive authority.

    Warm regards,
    Greg Barkman

  9. I recently had cause to review the PCA Book of Church Order on discipline. It sets up an extensive judicial system, complete with a three-tiered appeals process, for church discipline cases. Overkill, perhaps, but usually too much process is better than too little.

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