Category: Excommunication & Shunning

To shun is to deliberately avoid something or someone. In the Bible, the word shun is applied to evil. The Lord said that His servant Job was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Job himself confessed that “the fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). The Bible advises us, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7–8). “A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil” (Proverbs 14:16). So, shunning evil is good.

In religious and ecclesiastical contexts, shunning is a form of church discipline against a person who has violated church rules. Shunning involves a formal decision by a church that bans interaction with the person being shunned. The extent and duration of the shunning vary among the various groups that practice it. Shunning is often associated with Amish and Mennonite groups, but it is also employed by other churches. Certain cults and traditional societies (such as in Bali) practice severe forms shunning that can lead to whole families being ostracized from all aspects of society.

In Amish shunning, church members are not allowed to eat at the same table as those who are shunned, do business with them, or receive anything from them. Shunning is only applied to baptized, adult members who willfully violate their vows to the church. Non-members and those who never took the vows are not eligible to be shunned.

Although shunning is related to excommunication, the two practices are not synonymous. To be excommunicated is to lose one’s membership rights in a church; the excommunicated person may no longer vote in the church, teach a class, etc. Shunning goes beyond excommunication: to be shunned is to be denied personal interaction with church members even in social, non-ecclesiastical settings. It is possible to be excommunicated without being shunned. While shunning may connote legalistic tendencies, and shunning can be misused in spiritual manipulation, there is a proper place for breaking an association. The Bible teaches excommunication as a form of church discipline. Further, 1 Corinthians 5:11 refers to what can easily be interpreted as a form of shunning: “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.” In this context, Paul is dealing with a man involved in gross immorality (verse 1). The command is to excommunicate the man for his own spiritual good (verses 2 and 5) and for the church’s own purity (verse 6). The apostle’s counsel to “not even eat” with the man is based on two things: the man claims to be a Christian, and he is consistently involved in public, unrepentant sin (verse 11). After excommunicating such a person, the church must be careful not to give the impression that everything is all right. As long as an unrepentant sinner claims to be a child of God, he can have no real fellowship with the body of Christ.

Other passages of Scripture also teach excommunication and the breaking of close association (Matthew 18:15–17; 2 Thessalonians 3:14). However, besides the command not to eat with the man in Corinth, no specifics on the practice of shunning are given in the Bible. Even in 1 Corinthians 5:11, the extent of the shunning is not entirely clear: was Paul referring to the Lord’s Supper, which he discusses in 1 Corinthians 11? Was the command a cultural reference to showing acceptance and fullness of fellowship? In any case, it would seem that extreme forms of shunning, such as considering someone “dead,” utterly ignoring him, or refusing to acknowledge his existence, go beyond what Scripture commands. After all, Jesus said that, when someone is put out of the church, he should be treated as “a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). In other words, treat an intractable offender as an unsaved person. How are we to treat the unsaved? With love and grace. The “pagans and tax collectors” need to be evangelized. We are to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

The goal of excommunication and any form of shunning is restoration (Galatians 6:1). The purpose of any type of discipline is to prompt repentance and, ultimately, to reunite our fallen brother or sister with the church body. Being officially ostracized from the church, the sinner might be brought to repentance. When the man in the Corinthian church later realized that he had sinned against God, he repented and came back to the church for forgiveness and reinstatement. Fellowship with the Corinthian believers was restored (2 Corinthians 2:6–11).

Now listen carefully: Scripturally, excluding a person from the church is preceded by admonition and counsel; it is only employed in cases of bona fide heresy, obdurate divisiveness, or blatant, unrepentant sin; and it is a last resort. After excommunication, the relationship between the former member and the church naturally changes, and the “shunning command”—not to eat with such a person—may come into play. However, the church still has the responsibility to pray for the one being disciplined and to extend forgiveness when repentance is evident. Shunning, as defined as a refusal to speak to someone or a total severing of all ties, goes beyond what the Bible advocates.

:  Excommunication is the formal removal of an individual from church membership and the informal separation from that individual. Matthew 18:15-20 gives the procedure and authority for a church to do this. It instructs us that one individual (usually the offended party) is to go to the offending individual. If he/she does not repent, then two or three go to confirm the situation and the refusal to repent. If there is still no repentance, it is taken before the church. This process is never “desirable,” just as a father never delights in having to discipline his children. Often, though, it is necessary. The purpose is not to be mean-spirited or to display a “holier than thou” attitude. Rather, the goal is the restoration of the individual to full fellowship with both God and other believers. It is to be done in love toward the individual, in obedience and honor to God, and in godly fear for the sake of others in the church.

The Bible gives an example of the necessity of excommunication in a local church—the church at the city of Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). In this passage, the apostle Paul also gives some purposes behind the biblical use of excommunication. One reason (not directly found in the passage) is for the sake of the testimony of Christ Jesus (and His church) before unbelievers. When David sinned with Bathsheba, one of the consequences of his sin was that the name of the one true God was blasphemed by God’s enemies (2 Samuel 12:14). A second reason is that sin is like a cancer; if allowed to exist, it spreads to those nearby in the same way that “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Also, Paul explains that Jesus saved us so that we might be set apart from sin, that we might be “unleavened” or free from that which causes spiritual decay (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). Christ’s desire for His bride, the church, is that she might be pure and undefiled (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Excommunication is also for the long-term welfare of the one being disciplined by the church. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 5:5, states that excommunication is a way of delivering the unrepentant sinner “over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” This means that excommunication can somehow involve God’s using Satan (or one of his demons) as a disciplinary tool to work in the sinner’s life physically to bring about true repentance in his/her heart.

Hopefully the disciplinary action of the church is successful in bringing about godly sorrow and true repentance. When this occurs, the individual can be restored to fellowship. The man involved in the 1 Corinthians 5 passage repented, and Paul encouraged the church to restore him to fellowship with the church (2 Corinthians 2:5-8). Unfortunately, disciplinary action, even when done in love and in the correct manner, is not always successful in bringing about such restoration. But even when church discipline fails to achieve its goal of bringing repentance, it is still needed to accomplish the other good purposes mentioned above.

We have all likely witnessed the behavior of a young boy who has been allowed to do as he pleases with no consistent discipline. It is not a pretty sight. Nor is such parenting loving, for it dooms the child to a dismal future. Such behavior will keep the child from forming meaningful relationships and performing well in any kind of setting. Similarly, discipline in the church, while never enjoyable or easy, is not only necessary, but loving as well. Moreover, it is commanded by God.