Christians disagree on a range of important ethical issues. Consider, for example, the fact that some Christians accept just war theory and believe that the call to follow Christ can be reconciled with the call to fight and kill state-enemies. Meanwhile other Christians disagree in the strongest terms whilst emphasizing the call to follow Christ entails a radical disavowal of violence, state-based or otherwise. And yet, despite the deep divide, most Christians agree that supporters of just war theory and supporters of pacifism should still break bread together in common Christian fellowship. Despite the deep ethical fissures that divide them, Christ still unites them.
But not all ethical issues are like this. Sometimes Christians take a stand on a moral issue which other Christians believe is so radically counter to the call of scripture and Christian discipleship that they can no longer share common Christian fellowship.
I thought of this the other day as I was listening to a recent address by Reformed Baptist apologist James White who provocatively denounced the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church as a “church of Satan.” While White didn’t unpack all the implications of that incisive rhetorical barb, I took the main point to be unequivocal: Christians ought not share fellowship with members of the MCC.
One might think that James White is taking his cue from Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 when he addressed a man living in an apparently incestuous relationship: “A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.” (1 Cor. 5:1) Paul’s response is unequivocal. He advocates expulsion and shunning. But his punishment is not limited to this offender. Instead, it encompasses a number of offenses:
9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 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.
12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
Let’s consider two examples of the Christians Paul argues that we ought to cast out and shun: the “greedy” (or covetous) (Gk. pleonektes) and the “drunkard” (méthysos).
The problem with this advice begins with the fact that Paul never specifies how greedy or how much of a drunkard one would be before they are cast off and shunned from the community. One might assume that Paul is thinking of a particular lack of repentance in the individual. Thus, the person who cavalierly gets smashed every weekend without apology should be cast off. But we might continue to extend grace to the alcoholic who falls off the wagon regularly and then cries out in regret and a call for repentance.
I’m sympathetic to that advice. Though one might surely wish that Paul had qualified his directives in this way. One can only imagine how many tortured habitual offenders have been cast off and shunned over the years in a way that only serves to secure their death spiral to destruction.
But a problem remains even with the qualified advice. The unrepentant drunkard and the repentant drunkard are not two distinct categories. Rather, there exists between the two a spectrum of repentance, rationalization, self-justification, delusion, etc. So how far down the continuum toward unrepentant habitual sinner must one be before they are cast out and shunned?
The problem, in short, is that the offense — unrepentant habitual sinner — is a spectrum but the punishment — cast off and shunned — is all-or-nothing. You don’t punish a moderately repentant habitual offender with a moderate expulsion and shunning. You either shun them or you don’t.
And we haven’t even yet considered how to apply this to greed. After all, who in our modern western churches isn’t rationalization some degree of unrepentant covetous behavior?
All this leaves us with a troubling lack of clarity regarding how to apply Paul’s very practical directive in our Christian communities.