A Study on Excommunication
and Termination of Membership
The Church’s Responsibility
We have been reminded that it is the Church’s responsibility to preach the Good News of Christ crucified and risen again for the salvation of souls. While this is our primary purpose, such a summary is somewhat simplistic, since “preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15) involves many different aspects. In His second letter to Timothy Paul wrote about how the Word of God should be used and applied: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Church should use the Word of God for doctrine (teaching), but it must also be used to correct and discipline those who are wandering into sin.
Any breaking of the commands which God has given is called “sin”. And God is very clear about the result of sin: “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). This is not what God wants for sinners – which is why He sent Jesus into the world. Peter says, “The Lord is ... not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). The solution to the problem of sin is to turn from sin in repentance, trusting in Jesus who has paid the debt of our sin. (This can only come about through the work of the Holy Spirit by the preaching of God’s Word!)
God condemns sin, and He has called the Church on earth to condemn sin as well. The Law is necessary in our work of reproof and correction, not just the Gospel. During His ministry Jesus told His disciples exactly how they were to reprove sin in their midst: “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-18).
Correcting in Love
Jesus makes it clear in that passage that the purpose of pointing out the sin of our brother is to gain him (or her). Jesus Himself said that He came “to save that which was lost“ (Matthew 18:11). As Christians we should “love the sinner, not the sin”. As a church (and as individuals) we must condemn sin and work to lead sinners to repentance. We should do this because of our love for them, because we don’t want them to spend eternity in hell! James clarifies the desired result of such loving correction, saying: “Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). This is our desire for those who are being led away by sin, and is the reason we reprove sin.
Sin is Sin
The church which desires to follow this command of the Savior in the interest of the sinner, may be seen as “against” certain sins. In fact the church should be “against” all sin, not just certain sins! We are all full of sin, and any sin – “big” or “small” – can lead to eternal death. Paul wrote: “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). For this reason we should reprove all sin, and not just the “big” sins. It is not the type of sin that should be focused on but the sinner’s response to sin.
The last step of Christian discipline is to “tell it to the church” – and if the sinner refuses to hear the church Christ says “let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). This action is what is called excommunication. The word “excommunication” literally means “out of communion” or “out of fellowship.” Excommunication is the declaration that since the sinner has rejected to hear and heed God’s Word, the sinner is excluded from the rights and privileges of the communion of saints and has forfeited the pardon won by Christ. It is important to note that it is unrepentance that excludes a sinner from the communion of saints, not excommunication. Excommunication is simply the declaration of that exclusion – the severest preaching of the law – for the purpose of leading the sinner to repentance.
The severity of this declaration is described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:5: “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (cf. 1 Timothy 1:19-20). At conversion the sinner is brought out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Christ, but the reverse takes place through impenitence as the sinner again returns to the kingdom of Satan. Excommunication is to serve as a clear warning to the sinner, with the prayer that they will repent of their sin and be saved.
Termination of Membership
In many cases, a member who is receiving Christian discipline and is not repentant will remove themselves from the church, not willing to listen to the correction being offered. At times these members will also withdraw from fellowship (request a release from membership) in order to avoid excommunication. Those cases where the church is not able to carry out all the steps of church discipline but where separation does occur we call “Termination of Membership” (this also includes separation from false teachers, which is a different situation).
In those situations where unrepentant sin is involved – even if the member withdraws from fellowship and refuses to be corrected – the letter of termination should clearly state the danger of unrepentant sin, and the consequences of such sin before God. To remove themselves from this church and join another that is not aware of their sin, or accepts their sin, will not solve their problem. Paul wrote: “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19).
May the Lord give us all the strength to be faithful in this responsibility and offer Christian correction to those who sin readily and in love. May He also help us to gladly hear Christian discipline offered to us and lead us to repent of our sins – for the salvation of our souls!
Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew