Question: "What is excommunication in the Bible?"
Answer: First, we should note that the Bible never uses the word excommunication. It’s a word that has been adopted by some religious groups, especially by the Catholic Church, to denote the formal process of removing someone from membership and participation in the church, from relationship with the church community, or, in the Catholic view, even from the family of God.
While the Bible does not teach that a Christian can lose his salvation, it does describe the process of church discipline in several passages. The final step of church discipline is excommunication—a removal from the local church.
In Matthew 18:15–17, Jesus teaches His disciples about excommunication. The Lord details a multi-step approach for responding to sinful offenses in the church community:
Step 1: Go to the person privately, tell him how he has sinned against you, and be reconciled if he is willing. If the offending person repents, no more action is required.
Step 2: If he won’t listen, go back with two or three witnesses to have the conversation again, establishing the facts and the evidence.
Step 3: If he still refuses to listen and repent from his sinfulness, bring him before the full church body and make the case against him.
Step 4: If there is still no repentance, the church is to excommunicate the sinner. Jesus’ words are “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17, ESV).
The Jews saw both groups Jesus mentions—Gentiles and tax collectors—as outsiders. Gentiles were pagan idolaters, and tax collectors were in collusion with Rome. In Jesus’ day, religious Israelites would not associate beyond what was strictly necessary with Gentiles or tax collectors. They would not have meals with them, for instance, or invite them to social gatherings. So, when Jesus says to view the unrepentant sinner in the church as “a Gentile and a tax collector,” He is instructing the church to officially and with clear communication stop having close fellowship with the unrepentant sinner; the sinner is to be put out of the close-knit community of Christians. This is excommunication.
What is the purpose of excommunication? The dismissal of an unrepentant, defiant sinner from the community of believers is not about public shaming or judgment. It’s about loving that person enough to do what is best for him or her and about doing what is best for the church as a whole.
We have an example of excommunication and its aftermath in two passages from Paul. A man in the church in Corinth was having sex with his step-mother, a sin so egregious “that even pagans do not tolerate [it]” (1 Corinthians 5:1). Paul rebukes the Christians in Corinth for accepting this man’s incest. Apparently, the Corinthians had misunderstood the grace of God so badly that they had come to believe all sin should be tolerated, maybe even celebrated proudly, as evidence of God’s grace and forgiveness (verse 2).
Paul says, “No way.” Sin in the church must be dealt with. He instructs the Corinthians to come together for the purpose of excommunication. The local body of believers was, under apostolic authority, to turn this man over to Satan for “the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:4–5). Evidently, in this particular case, there was a physical affliction of supernatural origin associated with the excommunication; it was excommunication with an added apostolic curse.
Scripture does not indicate that every excommunication is followed by physical consequences. The general principle, however, is that excommunication lets the sinner experience the full, painful consequences of his sinful choices so that he will repent, submit to God, and be saved from spiritual ruin. The motive for excommunication is not punishment or vengeance but reformation and spiritual health.
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians deals with the follow-up to excommunication. In 2 Corinthians 2:5–11, Paul seems to be talking about the very same person he had instructed the church to excommunicate. The sinner had repented, and Paul writes, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him” (verses 6–8). As soon as the excommunicated believer repents, he should be welcomed back into warm relationship with the church community. Once repentance has been established, the excommunication should be fully reversed. The goal has been accomplished.
So, who is eligible for excommunication? The Bible is clear that excommunication is only for church members (not unbelievers) and only in response to obvious and ongoing sin from which a person refuses to repent despite multiple exhortations: “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” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Five important things to remember about excommunication:
1. The Bible never instructs individual Christians to decide on their own or even in a small group to “excommunicate” another believer. Excommunication is meant to be a formal action taken by the local church as a whole.
2. Excommunication is primarily about relationship. Those in the church are specifically instructed to stop sharing meals with the unrepentant person (1 Corinthians 5:11), to limit their contact with him.
3. This process of excommunication is for believers, for those who declare themselves to have sincerely trusted in Christ for their salvation. Excommunication is the church’s response to one who says, “Yes, I’m a Christian, and, no, I will not turn from this sin.”
4. The process of excommunication is not meant for someone who admits his sin and is repentant but continues to struggle to break free of it. If a believer sins and, when confronted, says, “Yes, that was wrong. I’m sorry. I want to start again,” he is to be forgiven—even if he has sinned in the same way repeatedly (Matthew 18:21–22). In such a case, Scripture doesn’t suggest that person’s sin should be exposed to the full church as a kind of penalty, unless he chooses to reveal it himself.
5. The goal of excommunication is restoration. According to Jesus, the whole process of removing a member from the church is to be gradual, deliberate, and cautious. If at any point in the process the sinning person repents, then “you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15), and the fellowship is restored.