Last year I addressed the topic of shunning fellow Christians in an article titled “Should we shun Christians that we believe are living an immoral life?” The crucial excerpt comes in Paul’s comments on church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. The essence of his directive is summarized in verse 11:
“But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”
This topic returned to my mind a couple weeks ago when Michael Brown posted the following short (i.e. three minute) video:
I have a few additional thoughts to add to my original article here.
First, churches today are often reluctant to exercise any sort of discipline among members, and there are several reasons for this. To note one, many churches have committed to an overly consumerist and seeker-sensitive model of church, and that makes it all the more awkward to call people to account for bad behavior: you don’t want to alienate the customers. That said, even commercial establishments have rules like “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”
Second, if you think about it, this is a shockingly harsh teaching. Paul insists that we ought not even eat — and thus have no fellowship — with the person who is being shunned. So imagine, for example, that Dave left his wife for another woman and he has been expelled from church. A few months later you run into Dave at the mall. He seems delighted to see you and he asks you out for coffee. As Paul would have it, you need to refuse the invitation. Until Dave repents of his sin you can have no social interaction with him. Indeed, at most you might exchange a perfunctory greeting before you insist that you need to be on your way.
(Note as well that Paul does not provide any allowance for familial exceptions. So even if Dave is your brother or son, you still need to shun him.)
This leads me to the third point: as Brown notes, Paul intends this hard teaching to be redemptive. The justification for absolute shunning is not a deontological absolute. That is, it is not an inviolable moral law that one always ought to shun the Christian engaged in habitual sin. Rather, the justification for the principle is consequentialist in nature: one shuns based on the belief that doing so will make it more likely that the individual will thereby repent.
This may be the case in some instances, but is it always the case? Or could there be instances where shunning actually alienates a person further and makes it less likely that they shall repent? I can think of real life instances where it appears that shunning only served to alienate and embitter a person against the community of faith further. And if that does occur, then it is an open question whether one, in fact, ought to shun in a given circumstance.
Finally, are we willing to apply this principle consistently? As I’ve noted before, Jesus appears to teach that those who divorce and remarry for any reason other than porneia (i.e. “marital unfaithfulness”) are not in a legitimate conjugal union. Rather, their relationship with their new “spouse” is tantamount to an ongoing situation of habituated adultery. And that means that those couples in your church who are divorced and remarried for any reason other than marital unfaithfulness are prime candidates for shunning until they leave their (illegitimate) current spouse.
Who is willing to carry out that shunning? Who thinks that doing so would be, in any way, redemptive?