September 20, 2004
Persona non grata

I have my computer back, but I seem to be coming down with a cold. So I don't know what the immediate posting future will hold. But over the weekend I've been pondering some posts dealing with the question of when, if ever, Christians should shun certain people. I started a post trying to tie them together but it was getting too ungainly so I'll just blog about this one by Jonathan Marlowe.

Jonathan is wondering if Methodist politicians should be kicked out of the UMC if they refuse to repent their sin of supporting the Iraq war. It's an interesting question partly because most liberal Christians seem to see excommunication as a conservative thing. Yet we all know behaviors that we find simply intolerable in others, and call into question your fellowship with them. Is it acceptable, then, to end it?

Jonathan points to Matthew 18, particularly verses 15 to 18:

‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The next paragraph adds this tidbit, however:

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

As far as I can tell, there are two different ways to resolve this apparent contradiction (apart from the Higher Critical approach that Jesus didn't actually say both of them). One, you shouldn't actually forgive someone unless he asks for it, and the earlier case describes and unrepentant sinner. Two, forgiving someone does not necessarily mean keeping them in the church.

I've heard a lot of Christians argue for the former, although for me this is somewhat at odds with the fact that Jesus forgives a number of people who don't actually ask (such as the paralytic in Mark, the woman taken in adultery, or the soldiers hammering him onto the cross). It's also interesting to think about what Jesus means by "let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector." Those two types were exactly the sort of people that Jesus was criticized for fraternizing with. So the actual gist of the passage is rather ambiguous.

The crux here is the church's policy towards both insiders and outsiders. Way back in a comment to this post Telford characterized it as: "To outsiders, mercy. To insiders, discipline. Thus, to both, salvation." As I've read more of the New Testament I've seen reinforcement for this, including from Jesus himself. He was forgiving with those who "know not what they do," but he was less patient with people who should know better, such as religious authorities who thought he was a fake. Still, the promise of forgiveness is always there, for both camps.

But even within the church, the idea of booting anyone out is controversial these days. After all, Jesus welcomed all those sinners to his table, so some have argued that denying communion even to non-Christians is not in his spirit. Are there ever conditions where the church should say no?

I have to admit, I've considered this issue on different occasions, discussing the cases of Andrew Sullivan, John Shelby Spong and others, and I haven't been totally consistent about it. I think that ultimately it comes to a question of whether you consider the church to be like a family, where you are bound primarily to a group of people whom you're pretty much stuck with, or an activist group where you come together to serve a set of beliefs, and so anyone who disagrees with those beliefs has no place there. Of course Christianity is a belief system, and you have to believe certain things to belong to it. But pretty much through its whole history the bishops and theologians have been arguing, and indeed, most dogmas and doctrines seem to have been decided in just that way. So it doesn't seem true to the tradition to say, agree with us on everything or hit the road.

At the same time, it's worth pointing out that families sometimes disown their members. This can happen for bad reasons (let's not get started on "honor killings"), but it can occur even in the most tolerant families. After my discussion about hell my mother remarked to me that, if she accepts the premise of a God who is like a parent, she can sort of understand damnation. Most parents love their children and would readily die for them, but every once in a while a child turns to something so evil, and is so immune to reasoning, negotiation or wheedling, that a parent finally has to withdraw contact, and act as if he has no child. It is not that love ends, but that further efforts would be futile and perhaps destructive.

It was interesting to hear my mother say this, because she is, by nearly anyone's standards, a very lenient and tolerant parent. I've never found, and hope never to find, where her breaking point is. But even she knows she has one.

I think that if churches are going to go the excommunication route, it seems more consistent with the Bible to approach it that way -- as a painful, reluctant last resort -- than with the almost gleeful "don't let the door hit ya on the way out" attitude that some seem to take over these divisions. Repeatedly we're told, in stories such as the 99 sheep and the prodigal son, of how much more heaven rejoices when the sinner returns than when people stick to the straight and narrow their whole lives. We are not told that the angels sing when you cast someone out of your sight rather than put up with their sins anymore. It may sometimes be necessary, but it's a tragedy nonetheless.

Posted by Camassia at September 20, 2004 06:31 PM | TrackBack

Have Methodists ever excommunicated anyone? Did the UMC's bishops say that their statement on the Iraq war was binding on all Methodists? Do they even have the authority to do that? My own church's (ELCA) beliefs are so vaguely-defined, it's hard to imagine what would put someone beyond the pale.

This shows one of the problems with the idea of excommunication, I think; we (meaning we Protestants) can't agree on what beliefs and/or practices are essential to the faith, and so have a hard time defining what puts someone outside of that consensus. And the temptation will always be to define our pet political views as "essential." My own personal inclination, I think, would be to regard historical essentials of the faith to be non-negotiable (divinity of Christ, the Trinity, etc.), but allow for greater latitude on moral questions, especially where that involves applying moral principles to concrete issues like a particular war.

Posted by: Lee on September 21, 2004 06:33 AM

But pretty much through its whole history the bishops and theologians have been arguing, and indeed, most dogmas and doctrines seem to have been decided in just that way. So it doesn't seem true to the tradition to say, agree with us on everything or hit the road.

That comment brought to mind this essay by Umar F. Abd-Allah;

...When focusing on the diversity of religious predicates, we might ask: “Does anyone worship the same God?” Can any faith or its followers sport an essentialist label? Which religion can claim to have held a monolithic theological view even within its creedal schools? Hillel and Shammai—the sagely Pharisaic “pair”—sat together at the head of the Great Sanhedrin but posited sharply divergent visions of God’s character and actions. The Alexandrian Fathers and their counterparts in Antioch were not always affectionately immersed in Christian fellowship. For that matter, earlier Jews and Christians not only differed from their Hellenistic brethren on how they viewed God and Christ but held jarringly different notions of the basic structure of reality...

Posted by: Jake on September 21, 2004 10:50 AM
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