Should unregenerate people in sin be excommunicated?

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Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
There is a strange situation where a member fell into sin, refused repentance, and before he could be excommunicated, claimed his profession had always been false--that he was not now nor had ever been converted. So now our elders want to simply remove him from membership without further censure. Is this normal in other churches? Is this how things ought to be? I would have thought that unrepentant sin in a member--whether he repudiated his profession or not--would be cause for excommunication. Sadly, our constitution (what we have in place of a BCO), is ambiguous about this.
The implication, if "we don't excommunicate unbelievers," is that the heretics we do excommunicate are blood-bought children of God, and remain so (clearly, since saints persevere). This seems to be a pretty shaky limb to be out on.
I'd be glad of Scripture support for either side.
Thanks!
 

Pilgrim

Puritanboard Commissioner
There is a strange situation where a member fell into sin, refused repentance, and before he could be excommunicated, claimed his profession had always been false--that he was not now nor had ever been converted. So now our elders want to simply remove him from membership without further censure. Is this normal in other churches? Is this how things ought to be? I would have thought that unrepentant sin in a member--whether he repudiated his profession or not--would be cause for excommunication. Sadly, our constitution (what we have in place of a BCO), is ambiguous about this.
The implication, if "we don't excommunicate unbelievers," is that the heretics we do excommunicate are blood-bought children of God, and remain so (clearly, since saints persevere). This seems to be a pretty shaky limb to be out on.
I'd be glad of Scripture support for either side.
Thanks!
I think there may be some disagreement on this.

If I recall correctly, there was (and perhaps still is) a difference of opinion in the OPC over the practice of "erasure," which is basically what you refer to with simply removing someone from membership. Some said that it is not legitimate and that you either transfer someone to a like-minded congregation or you discipline him. I was a member of an OPC congregation, moved several hours away, and eventually joined a Baptist church. I would assume that my name was simply removed from the rolls. That is what I requested when I was joining a Baptist church, and I never heard anything else about it once I notified the OPC pastor. And the pastor was a serious man who did not play fast and loose with procedure.

I am usually a stickler for all kinds of things. But for what it is worth, I would not be offended by simply removing this man's name from membership, letting the congregation know why, and praying for him. He is not even claiming to be a Christian at this point. I would put him in a different category than someone who has embraced Romanism, Oneness Pentecostalism, or Mormonism since those all claim to be Christian and are perhaps more likely to give both the public and other members the wrong idea. But if I'm wrong, it won't be the first time.
 
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VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
My first thought was 1 John 2:19:

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us."

Seems like writing them off in this circumstance seems straightforward.
 

C. M. Sheffield

Puritan Board Senior
My first thought was 1 John 2:19:

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us."

Seems like writing them off in this circumstance seems straightforward.
We should not conclude from the Apostle's words here that church discipline was not exercised. What he says here could just as easily be said of a those who were excommunicated by the church.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
We should not conclude from the Apostle's words here that church discipline was not exercised. What he says here could just as easily be said of a those who were excommunicated by the church.
True. I was wrestling with the idea that if they "made manifest that they are not of us", there wasn't jurisdiction, as it were.

But I forgot that excommunication is a formal recognition of that very thing.
 

Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
True. I was wrestling with the idea that if they "made manifest that they are not of us", there wasn't jurisdiction, as it were.

But I forgot that excommunication is a formal recognition of that very thing.
Thanks for replying. But were those who were not of them still claiming to be christians? I think this is the issue: we excommunicate heretics who still claim to be believers, though we don't consider them so. But what if someone was an heretic, and rather than face a judicial proceeding simply said, "My mistake, I guess I was never saved after all" Surely God will judge him at the last day for the damage his heresy did, but what does the church's inaction say to the victims of his heresy--to those who were led astray?
And what does the church say to the member who was robbed by another member who then repudiated their profession to avoid discipline. "Oh well, the magistrate will punish him, but we have no interest in even a word of public censure." Seems a little weak.
 

G

Puritan Board Senior
Yes. He likely took vows of membership, partook of Baptism, and partook of the Lord’s Supper. Excommunication would seem appropriate if he remains unrepentant. He may not feel his initial vows and participation were serious, but they are and unless repentant will also serve as judgment. Formal church discipline works on two fronts while having the goal of reconciliation:

1. Publicly promotes holy living and the purity of the bride to the individual and the rest of the body.

2. Publicly condemns public and blatant wickedness to the individual and the rest of the body.

I think “removing” from membership outside of death or transfer to another faithful body warrants formal excommunication, assuming the other steps prescribed in scripture have been taken. There is a blessing in carrying out formal church discipline that is often ignored. Likewise there is much harm done to the individual and the body when officers side-step, ignore, or try to take an “easier” path of making a deletion from a list on a computer. Membership vows and sacrament participation are much more than just making a typed list.
 
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Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
Unrepentant people should be excommunicated after other lesser methods of discipline have failed and the person remains unrepentant. We have excommunicated a few people for what is called contumacy because they refused discipline for their sin.

A lack of repentance is the only Biblical grounds for excommunication. Whether or not a person is regenerate is not for the Church to know, but we discipline based on a person's response to Church discipline. If they refuse correction then they are excommunicated. As Paul notes in 1 Corinthians, the purpose is the purity of the Church but it is also for the redemption of the sinner if, the Lord wills, the action is used to reclaim the sinner.
 

NaphtaliPress

Administrator
Staff member
I've never seen a satisfactory defense of a drop from the role in place of discipline; maybe someone can post some defense of it for this type of case. But it seems to me that an administrative drop is a clerical action or solution come about as a circumstantial matter in church government (WCF 1.6). This matter is not clerical but clearly one of discipline. While I couldn't recall and therefore did not find anything matching this, I did find this section in Durham on Scandal about censuring heretics who are not a member of a church.

What if he is no fixed member of any particular congregation?

(2) It may be asked, ‘What if the person is no fixed member of any particular congregation, who yet infects others?’ Answer. This cannot be sufficient to exempt from censure. Because [1], he is a member of the catholic church. Therefore censures must some way reach him. Otherways, supposing a man to disclaim all particular congregations, he might be a member of the church, who yet could be reached by no censure. [2] He might claim the privileges in any particular congregation, if he should carry fairly as he is a member of the church catholic. Therefore it would seem by proportion and rule of contraries, that presbyteries may reach him with their censures, if by his miscarriages he becomes offensive to the people. [3] We see that the Church of Ephesus (Rev. 2), judicially tried and censured those who called themselves apostles, who, it’s like[ly], being strangers, obtruded themselves under that title upon them, and so could not be accounted members of that church. And indeed, it is no less needful for the edification of the people of such particular congregations, and for guarding them from the hurt that may come by vageing persons, than that either they be censured somewhere by one congregation, or many, in associated church judicatories; or, at least that some public note and mark be put upon such, that others may have warning to eschew them, as the word may be taken [in] Rom. 16:17, 18 and 2 Thes. 3:14, which is there spoken of busy bodies and wanderers without any certain calling or station. James Durham, Concerning Scandal (1659; Naphtali Press, 1990), 194.​
 
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Alan D. Strange

Puritan Board Senior
@Ben Zartman

The member, as I understand you, Ben, is in the formal disciplinary process. If he remains impenitent, he warrants censure up to and including excommunication.

It is the case, however, that various of our denominations permit the local governing body of minister(s) and ruling elders, in the case of a repudiation of the faith, to remove that person from the rolls and record the circumstances in its minutes, along the scriptural lines suggested by Vic. There is a reason, and a good one, why sessions, consistories, spiritual councils, etc. have permission in their church orders either to file charges in such a case (denial of the faith) or to engage what the OPC calls "discipline without full process." I elsewhere defend this and don't intend to here.

Here's my point: the elders have discretion. None of us here know all the facts on the ground as does the local governing body. From just what you say, it seems that it might be best to proceed with the full-process discipline. But there is some reason that the elders believe the other course of action is preferable. I don't what their reasoning is here, precisely, nor do I know the facts of the case so that I can opine, "In this case, you must have full process and proceed to the censure of excommunication." My view is that your local governors may be acting appropriately in this case. Or not. I don't have enough information to make a judgment.

Peace,
Alan
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
Here's my concern regardless of the seriousness of departure (either from potential discipline or simply deciding to join another church). One aspect of church membership is demonstrating who is inside the fold. What does membership mean, in part, other than defining who is inside that number and who is outside? When someone disappears and is erased, I have no idea how to regard that person.
 

SeanPatrickCornell

Puritan Board Sophomore
I guess it's possible that my church is doing things all wrong, but what's the practical difference between "excommunication" and "removing from membership"?
 

Romans922

Puritan Board Professor
There is a strange situation where a member fell into sin, refused repentance, and before he could be excommunicated, claimed his profession had always been false--that he was not now nor had ever been converted.
He's a communicant member. He sinned, refuses to repent, claims he's an unbeliever.

He's guilty of the 9th commandment and whatever sin he refuses to repent of... No trial needs to take place, he's refusing a trial. He says he's guilty in other words. The censure is up to the Elders, which seems like it should be excommunication. Just removing him is not sufficient, he is a member and claiming to be in league with the devil. He should thus be cut off from the body.
 

JTB.SDG

Puritan Board Sophomore
Thanks for replying. But were those who were not of them still claiming to be christians? I think this is the issue: we excommunicate heretics who still claim to be believers, though we don't consider them so. But what if someone was an heretic, and rather than face a judicial proceeding simply said, "My mistake, I guess I was never saved after all" Surely God will judge him at the last day for the damage his heresy did, but what does the church's inaction say to the victims of his heresy--to those who were led astray?
And what does the church say to the member who was robbed by another member who then repudiated their profession to avoid discipline. "Oh well, the magistrate will punish him, but we have no interest in even a word of public censure." Seems a little weak.
Maybe it's different in a baptist church. For Presbyterians someone in this man's case is a true member of the church whether or not he's regenerate. Membership isn't based on being regenerate or not, because ultimately how are we to know; we can't see into anyone's soul. We judge by a credible outward profession and on that basis a person becomes a member of the visible church. Whether or not they are part of the invisible church remains to be seen. Claiming to be unregenerate doesn't negate his membership. We would excommunicate.
 

Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
Thank you all for the replies. I'm sorry I couldn't interact more yesterday: we lost power in a bad storm that blew though. Your answers have confirmed my thoughts, and given me more to think about. "In the multitude of counselors there is safety"
Thank you again.
 

RWD

Puritan Board Sophomore
We don’t want to play down membership. Removal from the roles (erasure) is tantamount to excommunication. Reason being, we should be in fellowship with a church that preaches the biblical gospel in order to commune at the table of our Lord.

That said, renunciation of the faith does not relieve the elders from their responsibility to excommunicate formally.
 

Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
I guess it's possible that my church is doing things all wrong, but what's the practical difference between "excommunication" and "removing from membership"?
The difference among my crowd would be that if the person tried to join another church and their elders reached out to us to ask about him, we would either say that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, or we would say that he had been a member in good standing and had been removed when he moved away or decided he wanted to find a church closer to his conscience. In one case we would warn them against him; in another we would urge them to accept him so he could be under care. Excommunication is also a judicial sentence which bars members from associating with the subject in order to put heat on him to repent. Removal does not carry that ban: we have several members who asked to be removed for various reasons, and since they are not under the ban, some remaining church members still associate with them.
 

SeanPatrickCornell

Puritan Board Sophomore
The difference among my crowd would be that if the person tried to join another church and their elders reached out to us to ask about him, we would either say that he was a wolf in sheep's clothing, or we would say that he had been a member in good standing and had been removed when he moved away or decided he wanted to find a church closer to his conscience. In one case we would warn them against him; in another we would urge them to accept him so he could be under care. Excommunication is also a judicial sentence which bars members from associating with the subject in order to put heat on him to repent. Removal does not carry that ban: we have several members who asked to be removed for various reasons, and since they are not under the ban, some remaining church members still associate with them.

I see. Our church removes members from the membership when they are excommunicated, but if a church writes to us about them we let them know their membership was terminated under bad circumstances.

At least, that's how I believe it is done.
 

Pilgrim

Puritanboard Commissioner
Maybe it's different in a baptist church. For Presbyterians someone in this man's case is a true member of the church whether or not he's regenerate. Membership isn't based on being regenerate or not, because ultimately how are we to know; we can't see into anyone's soul. We judge by a credible outward profession and on that basis a person becomes a member of the visible church. Whether or not they are part of the invisible church remains to be seen. Claiming to be unregenerate doesn't negate his membership. We would excommunicate.
I feel confident in saying that according to any kind of proper Baptist ecclesiology, he is a true member of the church, at least in the sense that he was admitted after having a credible profession of faith and having been baptized.

I think some of this may come down to what is meant by "excommunicate." I was assuming that it meant some kind of a formal trial. I agree with Andrew that no trial is necessary in this case. He has effectively pleaded guilty and excommunicated himself, and this should be noted.

Regardless, I think we are all in agreement that "removal" here isn't on the same basis as someone who was considered a member in good standing. In whatever kind of records that are kept, the reason for removal ought to be formally noted and announced to the congregation regardless of whether or not there was some kind of formal trial.
 

Ben Zartman

Puritan Board Sophomore
In our local assembly, we don't remove people who are under discipline--the only way out of discipline for unrepentant sin is to repent and be restored, or be excommunicated. At least, officially. But every case seems to have nuance which sends everyone back to scrutinizing the constitution and second guessing what should be clear courses of action. After the last couple of matters like this, I'm convinced we need a more clearly written document.
 
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