A Brief Word on Abortion and an Explanation of Church Discipline

The National Post has an interesting article on the policy of the Catholic church with regards to abortion. The Catholic church will excommunicate anyone who procures an abortion. The article mentions the fact that there has been debate as to whether or not this practice should be extended to those who legalize abortion or assist the woman. As far as I am concerned, the answer should clearly be yes. You cannot excommunicate the woman who had an abortion but let any accomplices go scot free. It would be hypocritical. I would also be interested to know what, if any, mitigating circumstances the Church puts on this policy. For example, I find it hard to believe that the Catholic church would excommunicate a woman who needed an abortion to save her life. But, I am not a Catholic. If anyone has any comments on this, I'd be interested in hearing them.
I'd like to make a few comments on excommunication. The Reformed Church also conducts this practice. It is the last step of church discipline. When people unfamiliar with the practice hear the word excommunication, they often jump to the wrong conclusion. They immediately envision inquisition-like behaviour, shunning, and people who are being inappropriately judgemental. While I am sure this has happened in the past, I am also sure that it is rarely the case. Furthermore, even if a denomination does not formally conduct the practice of excommunication, most Christians would admit to practicing it in some form with believers who go astray.
Let me explain.
Church discipline is a multi-step process based on Matthew 18 and other Bible passages. It begins when one believer is caught in some sin by another believer. That individual should go to the offending member and tell them to repent of their sin. There are many ways of going about this. Parents discipline their children. Spouses encourage each other to behave properly or they might have a fight or discuss the matter until it is resolved. Friends sit each other down and "set them straight." Since everyone will deal with sin at some point in their lives, everyone will deal with this step. In a best case scenario, the matter will end with the first step.
However, if the offending member refuses to repent, then a second or third individual is to be brought as a witness. It could be that the situation has been entirely misunderstood and no sin was committed. It could also be that the offending member is genuinely hard-hearted and refusing to repent. If the matter cannot be resolved, then the leadership of the church must get involved. Depending on the situation, this may or may not mean that the entire church will find out. Often, however, the matter never moves beyond the knowledge of the church leaders. If the Church leaders cannot convince the offending member to repent of their behaviour, then discipline will move to the last step, that is the act of excommunication.
Excommunication itself, that is the act of withholding communion, will draw only one of two opinions: that it is either a good thing or that it is not. It is unlikely that you would find someone who has no opinion on the matter.
The practice of withholding communion follows from 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul instructed the Corinthian church to expel a sexually immoral man. This is generally interpreted to mean that an unrepentant individual who claims to be a believer must be treated as though they are not a believer. Note that excommunication it NOT shunning, although it did take that form in the past. Christians are NOT supposed to cross to the other side of the street or refuse to speak to the offending member. Excommunication means that the unrepentant member is not to participate in communion and their fellow Christians are to witness to them and call them to repentance. Depending on the circumstances, some Christians may refusing to attend a gathering hosted by the individual. Christian parents may, if the situation calls for it, expel an unrepentant child from their home.
Before anyone reacts in shock and asks "How could anyone do this?" let me just say that such an action is very difficult. No parent ever does this on a whim. It always causes a great deal of heartache and takes an enormous amount of intestinal fortitude and spiritual strength.
Excommunication is not intended to be permanent unless the unrepentant individual wishes it to be so. When someone repents, they are to be accepted back. The same immoral man from 1 Corinthians 5 repented and Paul instructed the church in 2 Corinthians 2 to receive him back. We are also given the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 as what will happen if a repentant individual is not forgiven by their fellow Christian.
Church discipline is not something to be taken lightly. As far as I am concerned, and I know some will disagree, it is simple-minded to immediately accuse any church who performs discipline as being "judgemental" or "Pharisaical." To be honest, given the state of some churches, I think that more discipline is needed and not less. If more churches correctly practiced Biblical discipline, we would have less churches who think it's ok to ordain or marry gays, or that it's acceptable to preach the Jesus is not Divine, but just a "good guy."


Shane said...

As long as people equate excommunication with the cutting off of communication, it will continue to be a black eye on the Catholic church and any other denomination that practices it.

That is why your words on the form it should actually take are important. When the Bible says, "treat them like an unbeliever", this must be understood that Christians are supposed to love their neighbour as themselves, and love their enemies. I belelieve that I can state categorically that shunning is not an outworking of love, and hence any Christian who practices it should be called likewise to repentance by their fellow believers.

Having said all that, not being Catholic or Reformed, I would point out that the theology behind excommunication is deeply flawed, as it assumes that one must be in "communication" with God ONLY through the mediation of the church, the priest, the intermediary for God. Biblically speaking, there is only one mediator between man and God, and that is Jesus Christ. Communion is not a holy rite that somehow conveys righteousness. It is a practice to identify with Jesus, instituted as a remembrance. If you have unresolved sin, you are to voluntarily abstain from it - does this mean that all who have unresolved sin are damned until they can take communion again? No. That would send a lot of otherwise righteous followers of Christ to hell, simply because of an accident of the timing of their deaths, and that ain't right.

Mark said...

Good job on the topic of discipline with the Church, Ruth.

Having served and continuing to serve on a church board of deacons, I have to say discipline is the most difficult of tasks to conduct, especially in accordance with Biblical mandates.

You are correct to emphasize the process. Excommunication is the last step when all other efforts at reconciliation have failed. And that is what the previous confrontation and confession steps are aimed towards -- reconciling the brother or sister and healing whatever wounds may have resulted from their/our sin.

The main problems people have with church organizations is the concept of spiritual authority and accountability. The Bible is quite clear, however, that in the Church there is a spiritual hierarchy and that elders have a mandate to reprove believers. Accountability is also highly emphasized; people cannot claim to identify with Christ yet live indifferent to His commands.

Ruth said...

...the theology behind excommunication is deeply flawed as it assumes that one must be in "communication" with God ONLY through the mediation of the church, the priest, the intermediary for God...
Yikes! No, this is not the assumption at all. Read 1 Corinthians 11.
27 Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.
28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.
29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.
32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So, barring someone from communion is both for the protection of the church (especially those who know about the sinning individual) and to prevent the erring one from further bringing judgement on him/herself.
I'd also like to point out that if the last step of discipline occurs, then it means that the individual has been out of communication with God for quite some time.

Charles said...

Ruth. If you read this comment, could you let me know a couple of things about the Christian Reformed Church. My wife and I are of the reformed faith and are having a difficult time finding a church in the Trenton Ontario area. We are both from a baptist background(Calvanistic,Reformed,Doctrines of Grace,etc.) I have a friend in Oshawa who is with a Christian Reformed church but told me to stay away from most Christian Reformed churches because they are starting to embrace theology and doctrines that are outside of the normal reformed faith,ie: woman pastor,gay marriage,lax disipline etc. If you could discribe the church you go to and the federation you belong to ie:Christian Reformed Church of Canada or what ever. I will understand if you don't have time to reply but it would be appreciated.Thanks Charles
Also, I understand the Christian Reformed Church is mostly Dutch speaking Canadians, but is it normal for British decended Canadians to go their too?

Ruth said...

That's true about the Christian Reformed Church, sadly.
There is more than one type of Reformed Church. The one I attend is under the United Reformed umbrella. You can find out about the URC here. The one my in-laws attend is under the Free Reformed umbrella. You can find out about the FRC here. There is also a Netherlands Reformed Church of Canada, which is not the same as it is in Holland, and the Canadian Reformed Church. None of these branches allow women in office, they do not marry or ordain gays and are not lax in discipline. Differences between the three churches center around open/closed communion tables and minor differences of interpreting certain things such as what songs can be in the hymnal. Currently, the Canadian Reformed Church and the United Reformed Church are discussing the possibility of merging their two denominations into one.
Generally speaking, it can be said that most people in a Reformed Church come from a Dutch background. Non-Dutch members (such as myself) usually marry in. However, services are conducted in English and no one is going to tell you not to come because you aren't Dutch. Far from it!
Let me know if you have any othert questions, and I will try my best to answer them.

Anton said...

I should also point out for those that are unfamiliar with church discipline that it is not exclusive of civil discipline. If the sin that a person is accused of is also a crime (child/spousal abuse etc) the church is also obliged to contact the proper civil authorities. So in the case of clergy molesting boys it's not all a "hush hush conspiracy".


Charles said...

Thank you for the information Ruth.The Trenton/Belleville area of Ontario is completely empty of Traditional Reformed Churches.My wife and I attend in Trenton but it is such an Armenian display of ignorance that we go home scratching or heads as to why we attend when in the end the only one who seems to get glorified are the performers not God.We have just moved here and in my six or eight months of searching have come to the conclusion that Trenton is just as in need of a church as some Middle East city.

Ruth said...

What branch of Baptist Church are you attending? There is more than one and some are more Calvinistic than others.

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