Several years ago I began leading a midweek study through the book of Matthew. I don’t know why I chose Matthew; I think it had to do with getting a new commentary. Something important like that. Whatever the reason, we’ve been reading, studying, and dialoguing through this book for years now. I’ve realized that one of the daunting tasks of going straight through a book is that you can’t skip through the parts you don’t want to address. The parables, though punchy, are fun to teach. Divorce and remarriage isn’t. Then there is excommunication. As in, telling someone they aren’t welcome at your church anymore. If you don’t go to Westboro Baptist, you probably haven’t heard a sermon series on this one. But it’s right there in plain sight in Matthew 18.
“If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Mt. 18:15-17)
In the class, we dealt with this in detail. Here, for the sake of time, I just want to talk about this final part – “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” It’s important, of course, to remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors (Matthew was one!). But we can’t just focus on that because, I’m afraid, we’ll miss the point. Matthew is saying, if they refuse to deal with their sin, they aren’t in the family anymore. Tough text.
Excommunication is, admittedly, pretty extreme. There is only one instance in the New Testament where we actually see this happen.1 Unfortunately, it has certainly happened more than once throughout church history and has happened abusively. But just because it was abused, does that mean it should never happen? I sat with this question for a bit. There was no voice from heaven providing insight. I did think about a tv episode I had recently watched, though.
(Spoiler alert – if you haven’t finished Broadchurch season 2, you might not want to read the rest of this)
Broadchurch is an amazing show, but difficult, too. It’s great because it’s a well done suspenseful murder mystery. It’s difficult because it’s about the murder of an 11-year-old boy. The child’s murder took place in a small coastal town, and because it’s a small town, you get to know all of the characters really well. Character development is the show’s genius. Throughout the first season, you continue to wonder who committed this horrendous act. At the end of the season you finally, and shockingly, discover who committed this murder: Joe Miller, the husband of one of the two detectives trying to solve the case.
Season 2 ended up being as intriguing as the first. In this season Joe Miller, the murderer, decided to change his plea from guilty to not guilty. It absolutely devastated the community. One of the characters that I love is the priest, Rev. Paul Coates (pictured above). We watch Coates as he tries to provide pastoral counsel to Joe Miller. He really struggles with this as he feels he is betraying the community but, he also feels that it is probably part of his vocation. He tries to offer mercy to Miller while simultaneously attempting to persuade him to plead guilty. Throughout the season it becomes clear that Joe Miller is driving a wedge throughout this previously close-knit community. Through a series of unfortunate events, Miller is finally declared not guilty. The final episode of the season is absolutely fascinating for our purposes. We watch as Miller ends up being kidnapped by some of the men in the community. You get the feeling that they are going to kill him. They don’t. Instead, they bring him before those in the community who were intimately involved: the murdered boys parents, Miller’s wife, and the priest. They are all there to confront him and to banish him from the community. Interestingly, the priest takes on a major role in this scene.
The confrontation is hard to watch. Miller is visibly shaken by what is happening. At one point, with tears in his eyes, he says, “I’m sorry!” But his wife says, “You’re not sorry! If you were sorry, you’d have pleaded guilty.” The truth is, he was more sorry about what was happening to him than what was happening to the community. As the confrontation scene ends, we realize that the priest has made arrangements for the man to be taken away. Miller is banished. The community, finally, stands silently together.
This is excommunication and, it is hard. But sometimes it’s necessary, too. Here’s the thing, this man was toxic. His unrepentant presence was slowly killing the life of the community. His confrontation, and ultimately his departure, brought some semblance of healing. This is church discipline. It’s not punishment. It’s not spite. It’s the rare act removing a person that is destroying the community and is unwilling to stop.
Still, there is a difference between Jesus’ Church and Broadchurch. In Broadchurch, when Miller was leaving the community, his wife said, “you are dead to us.” There is a way, I suppose, that an excommunication says something like this – you are no longer one of us. But at the very heart of the church is the belief in the resurrection of the dead. This is also the heart of church discipline – the hope of resurrection for those dead to the community.
1 1 Corinthians 5:1-13
*image source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/533676624567148807/