When I get questions from readers, I usually respond privately. I received an interesting question this week and rather than respond privately, I decided to turn the response into a blog-posting, as the question is likely to be of interest to others.
In a nutshell, the question is, “When, if ever, is shunning of a brother or sister in Christ appropriate?”
What is Shunning?
If we are going to discuss the propriety/impropriety of shunning, it seems prudent to define what it is we are even talking about. And while we are talking about talking, that can be one of the forms of shunning – refusing to talk to another person, even when that person is in the same room with you.
Cassie, would you please tell Janelle that I’m not talking to her.
Shunning is avoidance taken to the extreme. It is a conscious decision to refuse to accept or to engage. It can even be so extreme as to refuse to acknowledge the existence of another – sometimes referred to as “ghosting.” This is what we see with a parent who becomes so displeased with their own child that they cast them from their home saying . . .
“I have no son.”
“I have no daughter.”
Shunning is more than just a social or physical distancing. There is a psychological component to the act, thus the shunning carries a highly manipulative character with it. In shunning you, I am punishing you, or attempting to persuade you to a new understanding or new action. I am hoping to force you to do something or to stop doing something.
Shunning can be an individual act, or it can be done as a group.
Consider a boycott. We, as a group, can choose to boycott a specific business entity or a media outlet because we disagree with some public stance they have taken. We are punishing them for their action by spending our earnings with a competing business, one with whom we are better aligned ideologically.
Religiously, groups will shun individuals who have violated the tenets of their faith. Amish and Mennonite communities are well-known for shunning those who refuse to adhere to the standards of their communities. Roman Catholics use excommunication as a disciplinary measure or ecclesiastical sentencing in a way similar to shunning, but formal shunning is more severe than excommunication.
Cults and secret societies sometimes employ severe forms of mandated shunning in order to ostracize members from their families as a means of coercion and control. Or in the case where an entire family joins the cult all contact with external society is cut off as the family is sequestered and ostracized from everything familiar and they are programmed to willingly renounce their former lives.
Taken to the extreme, I have witnessed entire church bodies shunning each other. One church will draft a formal letter to another church announcing their intent to “disfellowship” the other body because of some theological position held by the offending church. This strikes me as rather absurd, but it does happen.
Is Shunning Biblical?
Now that we have a working definition we should ask the question, “Is shunning a biblical practice?” The frustrating answer is, “Sometimes it is called for – other times it is not.”
Job quotes God as saying the shunning evil is understanding
And he said to the man, “The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.” – Job 28:28, NIV – 1978
Before all the horrific events began unfolding for Job, God described him to Satan as “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”1
Proverbs hints at the idea that arrogance and shunning evil are antithetical to one another, using a “don’t do this but rather do that” presentation.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil. – Proverbs 3:7, NIV – 1978
Later, wisdom and shunning evil are seen as partners.
A wise man fears the LORD and shuns evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless. – Proverbs 14:16, NIV – 1978
So biblically speaking (I love that phrase) shunning evil is a good thing. None of us are surprised by this.
But what does the Bible have to say about one person shunning another, or a group shunning an individual? And isn’t this rather legalistic? Judgmental? Manipulative?
It certainly can be any or all three of those. Yet there is a biblical call for withdrawal from another person when the circumstances warrant it. And you may be surprised at what scripture says warrants such shunning.
I have written to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. With such a man do not even eat. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, NIV – 1978
That is strong language!
Greedy? Greedy people . . . we are not to associate with greedy people. Immoral? Our world is shaped by and built atop industries of immorality. Idolatry? It is ubiquitous. It threatens our thought-life day after day. All of this is why the apostle Paul says we would have to leave this world to get away from that.
But these things are not to be tolerated in the body, the church, the fellowship of the called-out – the separated.’ The purpose of this withdrawal from such people is twofold:
- It is for the person’s own good.
- It is for the purity of the body of Christ, the church.
Setting the Context
In the church at Corinth, there was a man who was sexually involved with his stepmother and apparently, he was pretty public about it. Rather than be shocked and dismayed by this, the church in Corinth was kind of proud of it. They thought it made them look hip, cool, and progressive. They were on the cutting edge!
That’s not how Paul saw it.
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and sexual immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, namely, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst. For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to turn such a person over to Satan for the destruction of his body, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord. – 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, NASB
So there is great concern for the man who is drowning in sin and refusing to repent. But there is also concern that we not allow shame to come upon the body of Christ, and sadly, churches around the globe have abandoned this ideal.
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. – 1 Corinthians 5:6-7a, NASB
And then Paul thunders out the imperative . . .
REMOVE THE EVIL MAN FROM AMONG YOURSELVES. – 1 Corinthians 5:13b, NASB
Similarly, Paul told the church at Thessalonica . . .
In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you brothers to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6, NIV – 1978
Idle? Or some translations may say, “disorderly” or “unruly.”
But why? What’s the purpose of such an instruction? Paul tells us just a few verses later.
If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6, NIV – 1978
And it is not just Paul saying these things. Jesus has something to say on this as well. Last week, we noted that Jesus taught us to go to those who have sinned against us, to show them their fault, and if they repent, rejoice that we have gained a brother or a sister in Christ.
But what if they don’t repent? What if they refuse to listen?
But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:15-17, NIV – 1978
I submit to you that the goal is always restoration. God says, “Return, you faithless sons, I will heal your faithlessness,”2 so there is always a goal of repentance and recovery. The hope is always the “coming to their senses” of the one ensnared in sin. Consider the Luke 15 parable of the prodigal son as an example of extreme forgiveness and full restoration.
What then of Jesus’ statement above that we treat the stubborn offender as a a pagan?
How are we to treat the unsaved? How are we to treat the pagans? How are we to treat our enemies? How are we to treat everyone?
We treat them with love and with grace.3
Recall from last week how we saw in Galatians 6:1 that anyone ensnared in sin is to be “restored gently” by those who are spiritual. And note that this person has not been pushed out of the fellowship. Excluding a person from the fellowship in the body of Christ is always preceded by intervention, admonition, and patient instruction.
And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone. – 1 Thessalonians 5:14, NIV – 1978
Shunning, withdrawal of fellowship, excommunication – whatever we call it – this disciplinary measure is one that is carried out in extreme cases of verifiable heresy or blatant, unrepentant sin. It is an absolute last resort action carried out only after every other possible attempt at reconciliation and restoration has failed.
When this occurs, the body of Christ has a sacred responsibility to pray for the restoration of the one being disciplined. This does not mean we “ghost” the person, never speaking to them and pretending they do not exist. Such a practice is both unloving and unbiblical. We speak to them and interact with them in such a way as to bring about their reconciliation if at all possible.
1. Hebrews 5:1
2. Jeremiah 3:22a, NASB
3. Matthew 5:44