Crossing the T

Life at the intersection of Church and Trans with Rev. Allyson Robinson

Who would Jesus marginalize?

excommunication.jpgexcommunication.jpg 

Who would Jesus marginalize?  No one, of course.

But do we really believe that?  More importantly, do we really practice it?

The most effective means of marginalization is genocide, death being the ultimate form of powerlessness.  In societies where mass murder is prohibited or prohibitively costly, however, the powerful must resort to other methods to protect their power.  History shows that the means to be limited only by human ingenuity.  Justifications for marginalization, on the other hand, and particularly those that stand the test of time, are not so easy to come by.

To survey the means and methods by which human beings marginalize one another one doesn’t need to travel to Darfur or North Korea or Saudi Arabia, though.  In fact, one needs travel no further than the local middle school.  Middle schools may not be where we learn the art of oppression, but they are the place where we begin to practice it with the intelligence and organization of adults.  Ask any middle schooler, and they’ll tell you who has the power in their world, who doesn’t, and what the powerful do to keep it that way.

One of the most powerful methods of marginalization in this or any context is silencing.  The concept is simple.  Those in power simply ignore those they want to marginalize.  The “in crowd” refuses to relate in any way to the “outsiders,” as if they simply do not exist.  The result, in essence, is a kind of “genocide of the imagination,” and the psychological effects on those who are silenced can be devistating. 

My alma mater, the United States Military Academy, enforced its famous honor code through a kind of silencing until the early 1970’s.  Cadets who were determined to have violated the code were relationally isolated from the cadet community; no member of the Corps of Cadets would speak to the silenced cadet except in the performance of official duties.  The goal was to cause the silenced cadet to leave the Academy, thus maintaining a certain ethical purity among graduates, and the technique was so effective that only a small number of silenced cadets ever made it to graduation.  It is worth noting that silencing was used at West Point to guarantee other kinds of “purity” as well; many of the earliest African American cadets admitted to the Academy endured silencing for the duration of their cadet careers

Historically, Christians have practiced a similar form of discipline on members who have failed in some way to meet community standards.  Depending on your tradition, you may know it as excommunication, church discipline, removal from fellowship, or shunning.  The biblical justification for the practice comes from the apostle Paul.*

I am writing to you that you must not associate with any who claim to be fellow believers but are sexually immoral or greedy, idolaters or slanderers, drunkards or swindlers.  With such persons do not even eat.  What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside.  Expel the wicked person from among you.  (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)

Paul may be referring to this practice in 1 Timothy 1:20 as well, where he says he has “handed over to Satan” two men whom he accuses of rejecting the faith, so that they may be “taught not to blaspheme.”  Based on these texts, the church has used excommunication to protect the purity of the body of Christ and further the re-education of the wayward (and, occasionally, to silence dissent or protect its own privileged position) since its inception. 

Modern practices of excommunication vary by tradition.  As a Baptist deacon and pastor, I led churches to “remove from fellowship” members who refused to repent of what we deemed to be sinful behavior.  We removed their names from our membership roles and instructed our faithful members to distance themselves from them socially.  The results varied, but we felt ourselves justified by both Scripture and tradition regardless of the outcome.  Today, I find myself on the receiving end of the practice.  

When I came out as transgendered, a very small number of my old colleagues wrote to express that they would no longer fellowship with me until I “came to my senses,” recanted my heretical theological positions, and repented of my decision to live as a woman.  My family and I expected this and were not surprised when it happened.  I have been a little surprised, though, as I’ve read the responses in the evangelical blogosphere to Christianity Today’s recent article The Transgender Moment.  While most have agreed with CT’s basic theological position, some have found the magazine’s call for “biblical compassion” to be a dangerous concession and have in its place recommended the vigorous exercise of excommunication of transgendered people who will not repent.  It’s all causing me wonder about the effectiveness of the practice–and whether the example of Jesus supports the Christian practice of excommunication at all. 

In the context in which it arose, the force of excommunication was twofold.  First, because it meant ostracization from one’s temporal community, an excommunicated person was placed in grave physical danger.  In an environment where church and state are conflated, removal from the church means removal from the support structures of society.  Second, because church membership had soteriological implications, an excommunicated person was placed in grave spiritual danger as well.  In an environment where one must be a member of the church to experience salvation, removal from the church means removal to eternal damnation.

In the modern Protestant context, however, the conditions are somewhat different.  Because the church no longer controls society, an excommunicated person is no longer in danger of the physical impact of being socially ostracized.  On top of this, Protestant theology does not tie salvation to membership in any particular earthly church, so the spiritual dangers are also ameliorated.  Of course, being denied the fellowship of one’s church friends is painful, but for an increasing number of us, there is another church right down the street that stands ready to welcome us and offer us a new social network to replace the one we lost (thanks, ironically, to the ecclesiological developments of the Protestant Reformation).  Under these conditions, why should a person fear excommunication?  More importantly, under these conditions, what is accomplished by it? 

Recall that Paul offered two justifications for the practice–it protects the purity of the church and furthers the re-education of the wayward.  In an environment in which an excommunicated person can survive quite comfortably without the support of the excommunicating church, the second justification would seem to fall flat.  It can only be preserved if one imagines that God will somehow bring a supernatural judgment on the excommunicated by virtue of their excommunication alone, and real-world evidence would not seem to support such an assertion. 

That leaves preserving the church’s purity as the only biblical justification for excommunication.  The problem here is that the moral purity of the church has never been a material principle of historic Protestant theology.  Without delving into the various theories of justification, Protestants generally have believed Christians to be, in Luther’s words, “simultaneously saint and sinner.”  By implication of this doctrine, the church has never been, nor will it ever be, morally pure by virtue of its members’ actions.  The church’s purity is guaranteed by the righteousness of Christ alone.  One church member’s sinful actions cannot sully the church as a whole any more than another member’s just actions can make it more just.  Excommunication, therefore, cannot make the church morally pure. 

Above all this, we have to consider the example of Christ.  To whom did Jesus refuse his fellowship?  Though he was falsely accused of any number of crimes and misdeeds, one charge Jesus’ enemies made against him was absolutely and unequivocally true–he fellowshipped with tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus was infamous for the company he kept.  He habitually hung out with those who had been marginalized by the religious establishment because of their moral impurity, and he refused to apologize for it.  Judging by his actions, there is no reason to believe Jesus would have refused his fellowship to anyone, even self-righteous Pharisees.

What, then, remains to justify the modern Protestant practice of excommunication?  Two possibilities stand out to me:

  1. An uncritical and irrational adherance to the “letter” of Scripture at the expense of its “spirit.”
  2. A desire to silence dissenting theological voices and/or maintain the privileged position held by heterosexual men in the church for centuries.

The first is merely ignorance and can perhaps be excused.  The second is clearly sin and must be confronted.

For those who would seek to develop a methodology that is more faithful to both Scripture and our tradition, and which is also more relevant to the socio-cultural context in which we are called to minister, I offer the words of Tobias Haller as a starting point and guiding principle:

It is a terrible thing to “call evil good and good evil,” but it is only the latter that represents a sin against the Holy Spirit. So, if we are to err (as err we do), let us adopt the prudent practice of risking letting the guilty go free rather than making the innocent suffer.

*Some may argue that Jesus counsel for dealing with “your brother” who “sins against you” in Matthew 18:15-17 provides the basis for excommunication.  It seems to me, however, that Jesus is not establishing an instrument of doctrinal or behavioral accountability here.  He is teaching about restoring healthy personal relationships, whereas Paul in 1 Corinthians is clearly teaching about restoring ecclesiological purity.

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8 Comments»

  Dr. Jillian T. Weiss wrote @

I found your discussion of excommunication to be quite interesting, yet even more interesting to me was your introduction of two wonderful new words of which I had never heard: soteriological and ecclesiological. I love a good word.

  lucas wrote @

ally,
within the context of glbt issues i hear and affirm you loud and clear. however, i have two thoughts on this discussion of excommunication.

1) I know someone who is a sex addict who points to his excommunication as the turning point for changing his destructive behavior. He was eventually restored to the church and remarried to the wife that divorced him. Maybe it’s just a texas thing.

2) what are some things even you might be willing to excommunicate someone for? or if not excommunicate, find a modern equivalent. For example, someone who is causing harm to a community and posing a danger to children may have to be asked to leave.

maybe the question is whether excommunication should serve theological or relational purposes. throughout history it has served more to maintain purity of doctrine than purity of relationship and as you point out the intention of Jesus’ words are purity and reconciliation of relationships.

i guess i’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water, but certainly to ask what those words of Paul might mean in an entirely different context.

how do we hold the center of the Christian faith? how do we maintain a centered rather than bounded set?

excellent post!!

  Excommunication, Huh! What is it Good for? « my four walls wrote @

[…] 28, 2008 by lucas Allyson seems to think absolutely nothing (say it again). She has some excellent thoughts and analysis on the topic as practiced by Paul and as it doesn’t apply to our current context. I’ve […]

  Allyson wrote @

Lucas, your own formulation of the question gives me ideas about a possible answer. You asked, “how do we maintain a centered rather than bounded set?” Excommunication as we practice it is all about boundaries, isn’t it? When we remove someone from the church, we are placing them outside a boundary. I think you and I would both question the nature of that boundary, and whether our theology justifies its existence at all. (Or am I presuming too much?)

I think I’m willing to admit to the possibility of a situation in which a certain distancing, relationally speaking, is warranted. I would argue that distancing should take place gradually, and that we should create no more distance between ourselves and that brother or sister than is absolutely necessary.

A question I’m still pondering, though, is “Necessary for what?” In other words, what reasons or justifications are valid for intentionally pushing someone away? I’m not sure I have any hard-and-fast rules to offer here. I will say that I don’t think the alleged “purity of the church” (an imaginary construct as the excommunicators normally envision it) is a good reason to distance ourselves from others. I mean, how often do we hear that people don’t come to church because they don’t feel like they’re “good” or “holy” or “righteous” enough for it? If it’s not a good reason to keep them from coming in, then it’s not a good reason for us to push someone out.

  jdtapp wrote @

I think that disregarding a clear teaching of Scripture simply because you perceive harmful side-effects, or because some groups practice the teaching in a love-less manner is a dangerous thing.

You are correct that everyone in the church sins but are not excommunicated. Paul’s teaching on excommunication doesn’t seem to apply to them, but rather applies to those who have a lifestyle of unrepentant sin. This would jive with 1 John (1:6, 2:4-3:24). Those who do not adhere to sound teaching have some bad motives (1 Timothy 6).

The opportunity to repent is there for the person who is excommunicated. There’s no need for the person who is still in the fellowship to repent b/c he/she is enjoying the benefit of being a part of it. So, excommunication is a necessary step toward God-glorifying repentance.

If I may say so, you have chosen an un-Biblical stance on your sexuality and lifestyle. In light of this, it seems natural that you would need to question or ignore anything from Scripture that might call you to account– like the doctrine of excommunication.

(I know that last paragraph might sound harsh; I do sympathize with your transgendered situation. I have a friend who is a Christian pediatrician who has seen lots of transgendered babies. Some years ago we had a discussion on the issue. He reminded me that God is sovereign, no molecule in the universe spins apart from His will, much less a baby born with an uncertain gender. It is a tough life that these people have, but it doesn’t excuse them from following Biblical teachings. Just like a person born with a history of alcoholism in his family and who is raised in an abusive household himself doesn’t have an excuse to be enslaved by alcohol if Christ is his Lord by saying “but that’s just who I am, and who I was born to be.”)

  Allyson wrote @

jdtapp, so glad you dropped by. Thanks for your comment!

You highlight an issue that I’ve been meaning to write about here for some time–hermeneutics. After 30 years of reading and studying the Bible, nine years in the pastorate, and three years of seminary, I’ve reached conclusions about the Christian scriptures that are somewhat different from those you seem to be operating with here. To be specific, it seems to me that the doctrine of full, verbal, plenary inspiration is no longer tenable in the post-Enlightenment world. For that reason, I’m wary of any hermeneutic that is based on these doctrines. Though many theologians from all eras of church history have influenced my thinking here, I’d point to contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg’s views of Scripture as being very close to my own understanding.

Briefly, Pannenberg points to the gospel and its content as that which gives Scripture its authority (as opposed to any conventional doctrine of inspiration, which he sees as discredited by the Enlightenment). Thus, concerning statements of apostolic paraclesis such as those we’re discussing here, he states in volume two of his Systematic Theology, “Only insofar as they bear witness to this content [the gospel] do they have authority for the church” (463). This is, admittedly, a form of content criticism, with the gospel providing the norm against which all Scripture is judged and through which all biblical statements are interpreted. When operating from this perspective, questions of the modern relevance of apostolic practices become incredibly apt. Is the Pauline practice of excommunication in line with the gospel, or does it require reinterpretation? That is the foundation of my views as I’ve stated them in this post.

One of the most challenging issues facing evangelicals today, I think, is how to deal with Christians of other traditions who view the Bible differently. At the crux of the issue is this question: “Is literal interpretation of the Bible on every point necessary for salvation?” If not, on what points must one interpret literally in order to be saved? In other words, is a certain theology of Scripture soteriologically necessary? If so, then evangelicals must write off not only theological progressives/liberals like Pannenberg and me, but also most of the Patristic era church Fathers and Mothers, the entire medieval church, and most of the early Protestant reformers. I would argue that this kind of view actually derives primarily from a Donatist ecclesiology and only secondarily from any theology of Scripture.

I do hope your comment wasn’t just a “fly-by,” but that you’ll continue to share your thoughts on this and the other issues I’m raising here. I’d be particularly interested in your comments on my earlier post on the problem of pain as it relates to transgender people. God bless!

  jdtapp wrote @

Well, I’m a presuppositionalist who includes the importance of literalism in his hermeneutic. I believe Scripture is history and future revealed authoritatively, inerrantly, and infallibly by the One who spoke the world into being.

In a nutshell, I tend to lean towards the views of Scripture that magnify God the most . The larger, more powerful, and more sovereign He appears the more accurate I think the method of interpretation is. I haven’t studied theology for 30 years, but I enjoy reading the hundreds of years of study done by our predecessors.

I don’t understand how a doctrine cannot be “tenable” in a “post-enlightenment world.” I believe circumstances should be interpreted through the eyes of Scripture, and not Scripture through the eyes of circumstance.

You raise a good point about how the church should deal with these issues and those who believe differently, as it is indeed a challenge for our day. But, I think the Church has been dealing with issues of heterodoxy from the get-go with heresies like gnosticism.

That said, I don’t really know how to debate a Scriptural point with someone who approaches Scripture so differently.

  Allyson wrote @

Thanks for the response, jdtapp. It might surprise you to know that I both respect your doctrine of Scripture and consider it (for what my opinion is worth) to be internally consistent.

When people like Pannenberg (and myself) call the doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration untenable in the post-Enlightenment world, I think we’re trying to say that the results of historical criticism have shown it no longer to meet modern standards of rationality. When evaluated according to ordinary modern historical standards, we find that the letter of the text can no longer be equated with divine revelation.

The point, I suppose, is a very missional one. The truth of Scripture should be the goal of theology, not it’s undergirding assumption. On what other basis can we ask the world to engage Scripture? The presuppositionalist is required, in essence, to argue thusly:

1. Scripture is divinely inspired because it says it is.
2. Scripture is divinely inspired because we say it is.
3. Scripture is divinely inspired because God told me it is.

None of these, it seems to me, make very convincing arguments to a world without God.

As far as how to debate a Scriptural point…well, I don’t know either. Perhaps we should engage one another over Scripture in some way other than debate. For example, I wonder what you and I believe in common?


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