Excommunication is a bit of a foreign concept in the modern church. We tend to think of it as a punitive measure, the result of some egregious sin or disagreement that results in a parting of ways between an individual and his or her congregation. The general outline for the process of excommunication comes chiefly from Matthew 18:15-18, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Rev. Ross Engel clarifies the goal of this process in last week’s episode of Ringside, reminding us, “The goal is always the repentance of the sinner and his return into the arms of the church. [Excommunication is] that last step where someone is so unrepentant of their sin, that you tell them that their unrepentance has placed them outside of the Church.” Excommunication is an act of the congregation as a whole and a last resort, often after months to years of pastoral and community care and reconciliation. Therein lies the answer as to why we don’t see this happening more often. We often don’t do the community and trust building work on the front end as well as we should. So the to jump to excommunication ends up being nothing more than someone’s desire to wield the brutality of the Law to scare people and doesn’t fulfill the larger charge Christ gives us to restore the sinner to the church.
“Matthew 18 [is] one of the richest, most powerful texts driven for compassion for your neighbor that can be found in Scripture…It’s saying, if he doesn’t listen to you, bring somebody else. He doesn’t listen to them, bring somebody else. He doesn’t listen to those guys, then the whole freaking church shows up on their front lawn and does whatever it can to restore this person to the fellowship…that unrepentant person in your church, they’re the greatest…now go treat them like it. You bend everything for them,” Rev. Paul Koch emphasizes. This chapter of Matthew begins with the disciples asking Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” and the parable of the lost sheep, and ends with the parable of the unforgiving servant. The whole chapter is all about doing everything we can to reconcile the least into God’s kingdom.
The community of the church is more than just chatting with people over coffee and donuts each week. Formed around the Word and Sacraments, in the presence of God, our church communities are meant to be incredibly powerful forces of the gospel and bear a huge responsibility. When you join a church, you invest something of yourself into it. You trust that group of people to care for, love, and support you. You pledge to walk alongside them as they struggle and celebrate through life, together. You promise to hold each other accountable when you slip into sin, speaking repentance and forgiveness to each other whenever and however often is necessary. Those who may appear to be the weakest links among the fellowship are actually the greatest in our midst, and the church is to joyfully bend everything for them.
This article is a brief synopsis of one of several topics discussed on last week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, Rev. Paul Koch, and special guest Rev. Tim Winterstein from the podcast Saints and Cinema duke it out over whether we use excommunication enough, why people don’t want to join organizations anymore, viewing movies through a theological lens, and why there’s no “West” Wenatchee, listen to the latest full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “Saints and Cinema,” and for more from Rev. Tim Winterstein, check out his articles on the Jagged Word (The Ideal Viewer and one on his favorite movie Calvary) and listen to his podcast, “Saints and Cinema.”
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