Lately I have started to notice a word getting tossed around on social media, “excommunitweet.”1 As you can probably guess, this is when someone puts a post up on their Twitter feed bidding goodbye to someone that they believe has exited the fold of Christianity. The most famous of these was probably John Piper’s “Farewell Rob Bell” in response to the trailer for Bell’s 2011 book, Love Wins. Now, whatever you may think about this particular excommunitweet (or any specific excommunitweet), it still raises the question – what is the place of excommunication in the modern church?
I have to admit, part of me likes the term “excommunitweet.” It really does show a willingness on the part of contemporary Christians to bring traditional church practices into the technological sphere. So in that sense, well done! However, another part of me really dislikes the idea of excommunitweeting someone. Why? Because there was once a time when excommunication actually carried some weight, and the fact that excommunitweets have actually become a thing really shows how trifling and inconsequential the practice of excommunication has become. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. First let’s look at what excommunication was and where it came from.
The word “excommunication” comes from the combination of a couple Latin words – ex, meaning “out of,” and communicatio, meaning to be in community with someone. So basically it means to be excluded from fellowship with others, which was one of the most severe forms of punishment that the early church employed. This really highlights the communal understanding that Christians had when it came to how they understood their faith. You see, contrary to modern individualistic evangelicalism, traditionally it was believed that a person was a Christian by virtue of being part of the church2 (and not simply because they said a prayer once). Now, you may be asking yourself, what’s so bad about excommunication? Is that really the worst punishment they could come up with?
In order to understand the gravity of excommunication, you have to understand what it meant for early Christians to be part of the body of Christ. You see, the early church did not see themselves simply as a collection of individuals with common beliefs about abstract ideas living in a naturalistic world. Rather, they saw themselves as representatives of a spiritual kingdom living in a realm largely controlled by their enemy, Satan. Hence why New Testament writers refer to Satan as “the god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4), having authority over all worldly kingdoms (Lk 4:5-6), claiming that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19), who is ultimately behind all sin (1 Jn 3:8, 10-12; 4:3). Satan is a prowling lion (1 Pet 5:8), seeking to blind unbelievers and tempt people to sin (1 Thess 3:5; 1 Cor 7:5; 2 Cor 4:4; 11:3; Acts 5:3). So, when Christians excluded someone from the community of faith, they often referred to it as turning them over to Satan (1 Cor 5:1-5; 1 Tim 1:20; cf. Mt 18:15-20; 1 Tim 5:15). From an atheistic standpoint, excommunication may seem like the ecclesial equivalent of, “Well, you can’t come to my birthday party!” However, to early Christians exclusion from the church was one of the worst things imaginable.3
But all of this begs the question – what about today? Where does excommunication fit into church discipline today? The difficulty of this question is that, unlike the early church, there is a marked lack of unity among Christians in the modern world. If a church leadership decides to excommunicate someone from their fellowship, that person can simply walk down the street and attend the church service with the next congregation. Heck, even without being excommunicated people will often switch churches of their own accord.4 And even if you could keep lines of communication open within a denomination about who was in and who was out, once a parishioner jumps over that line between denominations (say from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist) they’re in someone else’s territory. What is more, trying to excommunicate someone for practicing what you see as a sinful lifestyle (e.g., homosexuality) might simply release him or her to find a community where their ways are accepted (e.g., the Anglican Church).5 How can you possibly have a coherent system of discipline when people can simply opt for a different flavor of Christianity? It really takes the chastising sting out of excommunication.
So now what do we do? Should we set up a worldwide system so that churches all across the globe can keep track of whom we should and shouldn’t be shunning? Or should we simply accept that pitiful (though sometimes scathing) comments over social media are all that we have now? For my own part, I honestly don’t have a good answer. One thing that keeps crossing my mind is to ask, what must Jesus think of our sorry attempts at church discipline? “Sorry Lord, I know you instructed us in the appropriate form of discipline within the church.6 But we kind of screwed that up with our tribalism and petty infighting.” It really is little wonder that church discipline so often ends up being ugly and virtually indistinguishable from forms of punishment elsewhere (e.g., name-calling, demonizing, witch-hunting). I mean, what else have we got?
To be fair, there is nevertheless a very real pain that comes from being pushed out of a community that you love and care about. Having been on the receiving end of getting forced out of a local congregation, I can attest to the very real pain that comes with that. However, this wasn’t excommunication in the proper, biblical sense. Honestly, it really added up to simple social exclusion. Painful, but not excommunication.7
So, unbelievable as it may sound, I honestly don’t have a good solution to the problem of excommunication in the modern church. So I leave it to you. Leave a comment below or shoot me an email, and let me know what you think. How should the church handle disciplinary situations today? Or feel free to share a time when you’ve seen the church handle discipline properly (or improperly).
1: This term was first used by Matt Archibold in a December 2012 article for the Washington Post.
2: Just FYI, when I am speaking of the Christian church in general or universally, I spell it with a lowercase “c.” I’ll capitalize it if I am referring to a specific denomination or congregation.
3: If you want a vivid example of this, read 1 Corinthians 5:1-5
4: You know, for better music or more V-necks or something.
5: This becomes really problematic when trying to discipline someone for doctrinal heresies.
6: Matthew 18:15-17
7: Meaning that it wasn’t seen (by myself or the church) as me being handed over to Satan and placed outside of the church universal, and there really wasn’t any understanding that I could come back if I changed my ways (or rather my theology).
8: P.S. – If I ever get excommunitweeted myself, I will favorite it and cherish it forever… sort of like an acceptance letter to Hogwarts.