Posted by: sean | March 29, 2009

The Only Weapon of the Church

The following was excerpted from Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008) pp. 286-287. Used with permission from Chris Haw.

What to Do with Kings Gone Wild?

excommunicate (eks-kuh-myoo-ni-keyt), v.
“to exclude a baptized Christian from taking part in communion because of doctrine or moral behavior that is adjudged to offend against God or the Christian community”

…Since one of the most precious treasures of the church is the gift of community, one of the most powerful disciplines of church is isolation from community, the denial of communion. Excommunication has a harsh ring to it. It conjures up visions of judgmentalism, exclusion, cultlike weirdness, and political incorrectness. It has been deeply distorted and abused in church history (even in recent church history–like when the Baptist congregation in the South tried to excommunicate church members who did not vote for Bush). But compared with preemptive bombings, state-sanctioned execution, and sending folks into lifelong exile in places where they’ll die alone, the church’s most extreme act of discipline–excommunication–seems quite tame and reasonable, even redemptive when properly understood. The need for some sort of restorative justice is particularly urgent when we consider the scandalous sins of leaders within the church in both recent and ancient history. This era of sloppy Christianity and timid politeness demands that we rediscover this hidden treasure, which has led to the restoration of even the worst backslider, the most dangerous heretic, or the most influential hypocrite who might otherwise threaten the health of Christ’s body in this world.

In 389 there was an uprising in Thessalonika that resulted in the death of the Roman army commander stationed there. Emperor Theodosius a practicing Christian, gave the brutal order for a general retaliation in which seven thousand Thessalonians were herded into the imperial games and slaughtered. Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan and the emperor’s pastor, wrote a beautiful letter to Theodosius articulating a deep longing for reconcilliation and expressing the firm resolve to exclude him from communion. Ambrose expressed painfully his obligation to excommunicate Theodosius, for to allow him to participate in the liturgy and in communion without reconciliation would be a sign of contempt for God. Ambrose met Theodosius at the door of the church and forbade him to enter, saying, “Submit to the exclusion to which God, the Lord of all, wills to sentence you. God will be your physician, and God will give you health.” The emperor did penance for eight months, then offered a public confession before the people during the Christmas celebration of 390, whereupon he was reconciled to the community with a grand celebration.

One thing that became clear to me (Shane) when I was in Iraq is that what’s at stake today isn’t just America’s visibility and reputation but Christ’s reputation and the identity of the Christian disciple. I hear Iraqi people, even Iraqi Christians, call the leaders of the US “Christian extremists” in the same tone that we hear people in the US talk about “Muslim extremists.” One Iraqi woman said, with tears in her eyes, “Your government is declaring war and asking God’s blessing, and that is the exact same thing that my government is doing. My question is this: what kind of God would allow this?” She found herself quite distant from that God, and she went on to say that she had been to America and met so many beautiful Christians who had an incredible faith, much more healthy and vibrant that what Iraqis saw on the news. She knew that our Christianity has more to offer than the violence they saw, and she ended the conversation longing for that Christianity, saying, “What ever happened to the God of love and the Prince of Peace?”

So the public confrontation of public figures who have visibly misrepresented Jesus is an important practice of our faith. It is a way of saying, “When you do that, it’s not just your reputation that is at stake, but mine…and our God’s.”

Excommunication is never to be imposed on people outside the covenant of Christian faith, and it is never to be used to expose private sins. Scripture gives clear guidelines on how Christians are to restore someone who is living in ways that hurt themselves or others. We are to talk with them one on one. If that doesn’t work, we are to talk with them before a small group of caring friends. If that doesn’t work, we are to bring it before the community of grace to try to figure out how best to love and support the fellow struggler. However, for those in public positions whose acts affect an entire population, their confession and reconciliation should also be made public. More is expected, which is no doubt why Dr. King’s harshest words in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” were written to the clergy, of whom he expected much more, and likewise why Jesus reserved language like “brood of vipers” for the religious and political elite, not the folks who were floundering in their brokenness.

The excommunicated have already put themselves outside of the body. Excommunication is less of a forced isolation than a recognition that a member of the church has already isolated themselves from the community; they have stepped outside of the teaching of Christ. If a Quaker joins the army, she’s chosen not to be a Quaker anymore. And of course, in the case of the church, discipline is critical not only to protect the person “in sin” and others from the ill-effects, but also to protect the identity and credibility of the community. The beautiful thing about the church is that we are people of grace, and mercy triumphs over judgment. So excommunication is never the end we hope for.

Excommunication at least temporarily and provisionally makes clear what is and is not the body of Christ. It’s a quarantine of sorts, isolating a part that has grown sick to restore it to health and save the body from infection. This discipline has its roots in Old Testament concepts for maintaining the identity and purity of a people set apart as a visible sign of God’s salvation for the world. It’s helpful to see it as a way to quarantine someone whose unhealthy patterns endanger the health of the larger body, just as Jesus often described sin as an infection or as yeast that leavens the whole batch of dough. But the promise is that we have a Physician.

Repentance and confession safeguard the witness of the church. Paul warns that it is a desecration of the unity of the body when the well-fed come to the communion table with the hungry, or when the tortured and the torturer drink from the same cup. It’s no wonder Jesus prays that we would be one as God is one, right after warning that the world will hate us and the things we stand for.



  1. Excellent post.

    I may have to reference this post in an upcoming post on my blog on a similar subject. Although I will have a more provocative title to hammer the point home.

    Once again, I enjoy the meaning in the message you give here.

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