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:
An uncritical and irrational adherance to the “letter” of Scripture at the expense of its “spirit.”
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.