Have you ever experienced it? Being shunned, I mean? Perhaps you have seen it in an Amish movie, but have you seen it in the Christian world? It shows up in two distinct places in some cases:
The story usually goes this way…someone decides that certain standards that their family held are not what the Lord actually asked of them in Scripture and they make changes. Most would call this a mature step as each person must individually seek the Lord and make relationship with Christ personal. Plus, in matters not addressed in Scripture, this move is actually exercising our own priesthood as a believer as told us in God’s Word. The problem comes when some members of the family take exception to the changes. In many sad cases, the relationship becomes strained. In a few isolated cases, the relationship is ended. The person is shunned until they repent of the changes they have made. In every case I am personally aware of, discussion is shortly limited to complete agreement or the discussion is over. Logical arguments are not accepted and biblical ones are belittled and ignored.
In this case the shunning may be over standards, but it is more likely a case of not submitting to the pastor’s overreaching demands. While there are situations where church members disrespect and try to manipulate the pastor in their own shameful power play, I speak here of cases where pastors misuse their power in turning the church into their personal kingdom (I say that as a pastor who believes the pastor is the first authority under Christ in the local church). Someone wouldn’t mindlessly accept the increasingly unbiblical demands of the pastor and then are pushed out the door. Usually this expulsion is followed by a smear campaign, sometimes accompanied with a tirade from the pulpit, and ended with incredible pressure on the whole congregation to break fellowship and have no contact with the lambasted person under fear of similar repercussions.
The pain is disgraceful and horribly out of place among God’s people. In the cases involving family, holidays and family gatherings are smashed, relationships gutted, and hearts broken. If the case involves parents, you have the added devastation of the cry of every heart to be accepted by parents. If it involves the church, there are all those awkward encounters around town.
I have written on standards, soul liberty, and pastoral abuse from several angles on this blog, but in this matter of shunning I particularly ask us to look at the Bible together. Can you find verses that champion shunning? Some may cite separation verses but none of them are ever prescribed to be used in such cases, and there is not a shred of evidence that they are to be carried out this way.
Where really is there even a story in the Bible of shunning in this way? There is the shunning of Absalom by David after Absalom killed Amnon. That wasn’t even over something as minor as a standard, but actually a horrible and serious matter. David would not speak to him in any way–it was a complete shunning. Come to II Samuel 14 and we find a woman of Tekoah who the Bible presents as a heroine for getting David away from his ridiculous shunning. It caused deep problems too. David, I believe, had great regret over this when Absalom died. Check out David’s emotion in II Samuel 18: 33, “And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” How catastrophic when life is over that the tale ends so tragically. This Bible story is not exactly a ringing biblical endorsement to the shunning that some practice.
It is not the glory of God that is honored in shunning, but the basest of unchristian behavior. A complete shunning is not called for in the Bible. Please do not cite the church discipline verses in I Corinthians 5 where the context is the Lord’s Supper and the putting away is in regards to churching someone over horrible sin–in that case incest. Even in the case where church discipline must take place, the shunning I described above is never told to us as something to do by the Lord.
Believe it or not, the doctrine of eternal security can be brought into the discussion. J.I. Packer once said, “What sort of father is it who never tells his children individually that he loves them, but proposes to throw them out of the family unless they behave?” He wasn’t writing about shunning, but the way God treats His children should demonstrate how to treat children, even erring ones. Does God cast you away when you err? While the Lord is always right, we are not. So does pushing someone away for a difference of opinion seem right when there’s some possibility that we are wrong? That is really self-apparent, isn’t it?
Instead of shunning, I believe we should hold the shunners accountable. The weight of Scripture is against them as is the guilt of hurting fellow believers whether family or fellow church members. We can’t make any person do anything, but we can avoid shunning ourselves and love those who have felt the blows of the heavy hand of shunning.
This was originally IBTR #23. Find all articles in that series here. My experiences come primarily from my background as an Independent Baptist, but I have learned through a great deal of interaction with others that this problem is in many branches of Christianity.