>How Do We Expell the Immoral Brother?

Posted: 23/03/2010 in church

>It has been a few weeks since I’ve blogged. I guess, I can do the standard blogger apology now: sorry for being so absent. That’s just the way it works. School has kept me busy and I have been at a loss for inspiration of what to write, until last night.

I have been thinking lately about the following: when is a church justified in excluding someone from fellowship? This means no longer associating with them. It is spiritual and social ostracization of an individual from Christian fellowship. Most of you reading this are Christians who attend a church. What would you have to do that is bad enough to get kicked out? What could someone do in your church that could get them expelled?

The difficulty of this matter is reconciling two passages of scripture. I hate quoting verses in isolation from context, but here goes.

9I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people;
10I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.
11But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one.
12For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church?
13But those who are outside, God judges. REMOVE THE WICKED MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. -1 Cor 5:9-12 NASB

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
10If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us. -1 John 1:8-10

The first verse, I never expect to hear when I go into a church service. The second verse, I am used to hearing. It is usually quoted in Lutheran liturgy just before the communal prayer of confession. If I heard that first verse, I would be a little cautious of the church I was in. Here are my concerns:

Most importantly, every person in a Church (including every Christian) is now and will always be a sinner; forgiven sinners, but sinners nonetheless. Every person in a church is already guilty of covetousness and idolatry. Many other –especially those in brother’s recovery ministries- are drunkards and revilers. Everyone is already guilty of being a “so-called brother” as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians.

This creates a serious problem: who is qualified to judge when someone else should be excluded from fellowship? At what point has someone sinned in such a way that he cannot receive the grace of the Christian community? Consider this: I think most Christians will recognize that there is such a thing as “diminished capacity” when it comes to sin. Someone may sin, but this sin may not be out of malice or a purely volitional desire to defy God. Someone may sin due to emotional hardship. The drunkard may be angry over the loss of his job. The swindler may be acting out of his need to get food. Just watch a season of Lost, and you’ll see that people aren’t always fully culpable of their bad behavior.

It is precisely because of this diminished capacity that a priest, when hearing a confession, does not accuse the penitent of sin. The penitent accuses xomself* of sin. Only the sinner can know xois own inner state well enough to know that he is fully culpable of sin. If we are thinking of expelling the immoral brother, than we have a serious problem. We assume that other Christians know the sinner’s state-of-mind well enough that they can exclude xom from fellowship. Wouldn’t there be some hypocrisy in doing so?

I also see a serious and insurmountable interpretative problem with 1 Cor 5:8-12. Anytime we read an epistle, it is important to remember that it was written at a specific time, to a specific audience for specific issues. Paul’s epistles are not some kind of law book that was written yesterday. This doesn’t mean that the epistles have nothing to say to us, but it does mean that if we don’t first get a hold on what they meant to original audience, we will likely distort the message by reading our own world into the letters.

In 1 Cor 5:9-12, Paul refers to the letter he wrote to the Corinthians prior to 1 Corinthians. He refers to a letter he wrote to Corinth, but that we do not have today. Whatever was in that letter, might’ve shed some more light on what was going on in Corinth and who this individual was that was being so immoral. Who was this the immoral brother? What did say and do? How did Paul understand what was transpiring? Did Paul have any personal interactions with him? Did Paul himself recognize the difficultly of one sinner judging the other? That letter is no longer with us, sadly.

It is like reading someone else e-mail conversation, in which two small businesses owners discuss negotiate an important purchase, but we have only the forth and fifth emails. We are completely ignorant of what the deal is and why it is important and possibly who is even selling.

It seems that anytime we even consider that we feel we need to expel the immoral brother, we face at least two problems. How do we know when one person’s sin is enough to make the worthy of expulsion when all Christians do things that are sinful? Also, we have to admit that when reading 1 Cor 5:9-12 there is a significant and likely relevant amount of information that we do not have access to. This makes fully understanding what Paul was insisting on difficult to get a full grasp on. We cannot fully understand the background of the passage.

When and how do we know when we should expel the immoral brother?

*I bemoan the fact that the English language does not have a gender neutral, third person, singular pronoun. I use xo, xom, xois as anyone might use she, her, hers or he, him, his when a gender neutral pronoun is needed.

  1. Daniel says:

    >I'm not even going to pretend to begin to have a good answer to this, but I think that if a brother persists in sin, and I think persistent unrepentance is the key here, after we have come along side him and tried to help him, there will come a point when he may become a cancer to the body and it would be better to disassociate with him. This is not to say that he must be permanently outcast. I see it more like "Hey, you need to think long and hard about what you're doing with your life, and if you make the decision to be repentant, you're welcome back, but not until then." The hard part is to do this in love, because we're shouldn't be trying to burn bridges and push him away. He should feel like he will be welcomed back with open arms if he gets his head on straight. I do understand that even if we do this in love, it won't appear to be loving to him, but hopefully he would see the true motive if he decides to repent again.I have observed that most people that uninterested in repentance do not want to hang around the church very long as they end up feeling guilty when they come. In that case, they disassociate themselves, and we don't need to do that.

  2. Brannaghwoo says:

    >I loved reading this. IMHO, forgiveness is not trust, and although I think we should continue to forgive we many never trust the individual again, especially to be any position of authority. To expell someone from chuch…I don't ever agree with that, but to personally be in a close relationship with someone who "persists in sin"…I'm not so sure I'm strong enough to keep it from affecting our friendship…

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