‘Excommunication’ is an act of ‘discipline’ and it is a judgement made by an ‘official’ (eg a priest or a pastor) against a church member. ‘Disfellowship’, however, can include this ultimate punishment (In reality, it is likely the action is one arising from a pastor’s anger, so, really, it is a personal punishment), but it can encompass far more.
People can be legitimately cast-out of fellowship for something they continue to do after receiving several warnings (see later notes); they can be kicked out at the whim of disgruntled church leaders; or forced out by the unfriendliness or animosity of churchgoers; they may be forced to leave because of bad teaching or spiritual deadness; they may leave for personal but unwarranted reasons, and so on. Thus, disfellowship can be applied either by oneself or by others. (See my book, ‘The Left Boot of Fellowship’, based on my PhD dissertation).
Nowadays, denominations might be the instruments or causes of disfellowship. Very few local churches will actually disfellowship a person, even if they ought to do so Biblically. The most stringent denomination appears to be Roman Catholicism, which will excommunicate its members when necessary.
Apart from matters of morality and other issues of a glaring nature, it seems the vast majority of Christians are ignoring, or, are blind-to, a rampant form of disfellowship. That is, literally thousands of sincere Christians are forced to move from their local churches to attend other local churches, for genuine reasons.
Often, though this migration appears to be legitimate, it remains unrecognized for what it really is. People are accused of being ‘spiritual gypsies’ or, they are scorned because it is assumed they are “looking for the perfect church”. The truth is much closer to home! Many folk leave – usually quietly and without fuss, but often under a cloud of suspicion – because they feel forced to do so. They may have had enough of the falsity of the people within the local church, whose actions or words are so marred by sin, that it is impossible to stay amongst them. Or, the pastor is a tyrant, who must have everything all his own way, or he lashes out verbally. There can be other reasons.
If such was the experience of just one person, then an onlooker could be justified in being wary… but this is the active experience of thousands every year in the West. I know of entire congregations who have left local churches to attend others, but it was all done in secrecy.
Sadly, many good folk, harmed by others, never attend another church in their lives. I was told of one old lady, living alone in a remote house in the highlands of Scotland, who has not been visited by those she left and she is still treated with vile bitterness, over 30 years after she was forced out of her local church! It is a fact that when someone leaves a local church, he or she will be shunned in the street by many of the members who remain in that church.
I left a certain local church (for legitimate Biblical reasons) some years ago. Though my case was biblical, when I was walking with my wife in a park, I was totally shunned by the pastor and one of his deacons! It was an incredible scene – two Christians with such bitterness, that they openly show hatred for other Christians! This is common today and there is no evidence of Christian love.
Rather, what is in evidence is the callous disregard for proper Biblical principles, the disregard for legitimate discipline (of both ‘members’ and pastors/officers), and the widespread bitterness people show toward others, simply because they have left their local church. Love for the Brethren is absent.
Basically, many Christians are not interested in what God says in His word about this. They simply want to express their own anger, bitterness or personal opinions! In the process they hurt so many folk and bring Christianity and the Church into disrepute.
If the reader is one of those who has suffered badly at the hands of other Believers, let them remember that God sees it all. He judges the living and the dead, the Believer as well as the unbeliever. He knows when a Believer has been maltreated! Bear in mind that where “two or three” are gathered together, there is the Church of Jesus Christ. If you can only meet in your living room, that is fine. And if you cannot find others of like mind, just pray and study alone – God understands and He will be with you. If there are less than “two or three”, it does not matter, for you are still a member of the Body of Christ, the Church! Nothing can alter that fact. If you left your local church for a legitimate reason, then the Lord will see you through. And even if you did make mistakes, or committed deliberate error, that is no reason at all for other Believers (pastors or others) to treat you shabbily with hatred.
There is a biblical /process’ to disfellowship. The first step should, wherever possible, be private, between a mature Christian or pastor and the one being disciplined. The aim is to encourage the offender to repent and change their ways. If he does not listen, the original one giving counsel should take along a few elders. The offender is then asked to repent and change. If this personal approach has no effect, the matter must be brought before the whole church, when the case is reviewed and the person is warned that non-compliance (with scripture) will result in casting out from fellowship.
The reason for the action must be based solely on biblical principles. At no time may the offender be treated with hatred or anger. When cast out, the person cannot attend that local church, but other members can respectfully greet him in the street with an ‘hello’, etc., but not with social discourse. He must, then, be shunned, until and if he repents and seeks re-admission to the fellowship. That, then, is disfellowship. (Note that some sins are public and even shocking. In such cases there must be instant disfellowship).
If he repents and is taken back it will be for a trial period (as per Knox), during which time he will be observed, to see if he genuinely has changed. Only after that period is he allowed back with full privileges (e.g. take communion, etc).
God does not sleep. He will repay the wrongdoers just as He will be loving to those who were wronged.
Pastors are respectfully requested to search their hearts carefully, with honesty. If some leave the local church for which he has a pastoral duty he ought to remember several things:
- The local church is not his. He is not a manager or owner. It belongs to Jesus Christ.
- A pastor is not a ruler. He is a spokesman for the Lord, an under- shepherd, not for himself. Thus, he should not feel personally insulted!
- If he is true to His Lord, lives his life in sincerity (we all make mistakes and we all sin), has a love for those in his care, and he teaches only what God gives him to say, then if some decide to leave, he must be totally frank about the issue.
Firstly, he must find out why the person left. If he/she left because of some fault in him, then the pastor must change (whether or not the one who left will return). If the person left for an unwarranted (non-Biblical) reason, then the pastor must point this out in love and must leave it to the other person’s conscience.
Secondly, the one who has left must not be victimized or abused. If he has done wrong, he must be prayed for, not treated with hatred and bitterness.
(Be advised that this article is not concerned with the ‘disfellowship’ actions of cults such as Mormon and JW).