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Question and Answer

Should we shun excommunicated family members?

Question:

It is a delicate situation when part of a family is in good standing in the church and part of the family has been excommunicated. How ought the church members treat their family members? Matt. 18 says, "And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." How does this apply? Surely we should not shun family members. Should the church members refuse to attend family functions with their excommunicated family members?

Answer:

You are right that this is a tricky, delicate matter! Let me sketch out some points which may apply.

For one, treating someone as a "Gentile and tax collector" doesn't mean that we have nothing to do with them. If that were the case then all Christians would have avoided any contact with Gentiles and how could they have evangelized them or even done business with them? So I think that the basic idea Christ has here is that we no longer treat the disciplined, excommunicated person as a Christian brother or sister. It does not mean avoiding family gatherings where that person might be, but instead of asking them to "pray" for something, make telling them of Christ the key object of conversation. They are "outside of Christ" having denied him (as demonstrated by the church's discipline) so they need to come to Christ. And though they may respond that they "know all about Jesus and don't want to hear about it anymore," in actuality they don't really know about Jesus or about their sin by the Holy Spirit's work or else the Spirit would be drawing them to Christ. If they evidence that they are sick of hearing about Jesus so "don't you dare bring him into the conversation," you can respond that Christ is so central, so important, to how you understand yourself and your life that they are asking you to be false to yourself, untrue to who you are as a child of God. You can certainly listen, ask questions, clarify any misunderstandings they have, and try, if you are able, to direct them back to the Savior. Make Christ and the gospel the "offense," not how the church handled the discipline.

Secondly, how you treat the excommunicated person is being observed by others as well. If you shun them or avoid them or treat them as pariahs, what does that communicate about the gospel? Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners and he sought out the lost (read Luke 15), so we cannot and should not avoid those who are without Christ because some of those who watch us may be drawn to Christ when they see the love of Christ displayed in and through us.

Thirdly, church discipline always has a redemptive goal so that the disciplined one might be restored to Christ's and the church's fellowship. The OPC's Book of Discipline says "These censures shall always be accompanied by prayer to God that he may graciously use the discipline for the restoration of the offender, the edification of the church, and his own glory." Look at discipline, and help others to see it, as a mercy of God through the church, God calling sinners to be reconciled to himself and to his people. Very few people understand church discipline today and so there are many misconceptions about. Ask your pastor or your elders for books or articles on church discipline so you can explain it to others and see it as an opportunity to announce the gospel that Christ has come to reconcile rebels to a holy God at the cost of his own blood and we are now God's children through Christ's death on the Cross.


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