Social distancing as church discipline

socialdistancingRecently, I’ve had a couple of discussions about the meaning & application of church discipline in 1 Corinthians 5. Of particular interest was v11: But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler– not even to eat with such a one.

What follows is an edited bit of email correspondence on the subject.


The practical application of church discipline, particularly after someone has been excommunicated, is a significant challenge. . . .

Church discipline is the means by which a church recovers a straying member. When correction & recovery becomes impossible (serious, unrepentant sin), a church will remove a member to publicly declare that, absent repentance, the wayward member is no longer considered to be in the faith. Even in the worst cases, the goal of excommunication is redemption, not judgment (1Cor 5:5).

On attending services – This provision is not about remaining friendly but about allowing a presumptive unbeliever to sit under the preaching of the word. I would allow [Bill] to sit in on a service in the same way that I would allow any other unrepentant sinner to enter our gathering (1Cor 14:24-25). While I would consider him to be an outsider (Mat 18:17), is there a better place for this man to be than sitting under the authority God’s word?

On not associating – Wise application on this point can be tough, especially since there’s debate over interpretation. I think we need to start with the broader context which is Paul’s shock that the Corinthians are tolerating flagrant, unrepentant sin as if they’re big enough to handle it (1Cor 5:2, 6). In that light, Paul’s instruction to “not associate” and “not even eat” with the individual is an especially strong response to the church’s inaction. That said, I don’t think Paul is simply writing for rhetorical effect, I think he means what he says. But what does he mean?

  1. Option 1: total separation– on this view Paul means that whether inside or outside of the church gathering, Christians are to have no contact with the excommunicated member. Your break off all contact/communication.
  2. Option 2: congregational distancing – on this view Paul is instructing the corporate body and he means that the gathered church is to separate from the excommunicated member. This would include the fellowship meal of which communion was a part.

My view is closer to Option 1 but I would leave room for personal interaction so long as my interaction was for the purpose of communicating my sorrow and their need for repentance.

Having said all of that, the practice of excommunication is a challenge for three reasons. First, a local church needs to nail down what they understand the Scriptures to teach concerning church discipline and that’s hard because of the interpretive issues with the text and because no two cases are exactly the same.

Second, the pastors need to clearly communicate to the body in every scenario so as to minimize misunderstandings. [I take it that excommunication is a decision for the church to make (Mat 18:17) but pastors will lead the body through the process.] For example, what do the pastors mean if they were to encourage the body to “reach out” to the excommunicated—have them over for dinner? check in with them over a cup of coffee? contact them to let them know I’m praying for them?

Third, even if there is clear teaching & communication on the case at hand, members have the challenge of wisely responding to a host of situations/tests/opportunities that will come to them as they move forward. Life won’t be simple and neat––especially for those who previously enjoyed a close relationship with the former member. . . .