How Should Christians Relate to Excommunicated Family Members?

Article
06.17.2014

How should Christians relate to family members who have been excommunicated from a church?

I want to suggest that Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 5:11 are not intended to rupture relations within the biological family, though that is precisely what they are intended to do within the spiritual family. Two scriptural lines of thought are relevant.

First, throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ call to a family-transcending loyalty notwithstanding, the overarching concern is to preserve the integrity and peace of the natural family for the sake of the gospel. To take just one example: the believing spouse is urged to remain with the unbelieving spouse if possible, for the sake of the unbeliever’s salvation. (1 Cor 7:12-14; 1 Pet 3:1-2). The context of 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that this “living with” includes sexual intimacy, which by anyone’s standards surpasses the intimacy of a shared meal. Typically we read these verses assuming the unbeliever has never professed faith, but there’s nothing in the text that demands that assumption. Paul’s instruction is equally applicable to the believer who’s spouse has apostasized. It just doesn’t make sense to read Paul to teach in that situation that they can have sex, but not a meal.

We could look at other examples, like Paul’s condemnation of those who don’t provide for their families, regardless of their status as believers, or the enduring obligation of children to honor their parents, regardless of their status as believers. The point remains the same. In the context of the biological family, such actions of love commend the gospel.

The second line of thought concerns the distinction the New Testament makes between the biological family and the spiritual family. Here, Jesus’ question about who is my mother and brother and sister is supremely relevant (Mk 3:33-35). In the Old Covenant, the biological and spiritual families were one and the same, at least to external observation. In the New Covenant, as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:29-34), the automatic, generational link between the biological and spiritual families is severed. Now, as Jesus points out, inclusion in the spiritual family of God is based on spiritual regeneration that produces repentance and faith. This produced all sorts of changes within the administration of the covenant that I don’t need to explain to my fellow Baptist Church Matters bloggers.

But one area that perhaps we have not considered fully is the biological family and discipline. In the Old Covenant, if a spouse or child sought to entice you to idolatry, not only were they to be stoned, but you were to cast the first one (Deut. 13:6-12). Originally, it was the father who circumcised his sons (Gen. 17). But in the New Covenant, it is not the biological family that baptizes or exercises church discipline, it’s the spiritual family, because spiritual relations are in view.

What does this mean for the wife who’s husband has been excommunicated? Unlike most everyone else in their church, sharing a meal with him is not primarily an expression of Christian fellowship, but of familial love and duty. She should certainly not treat him as if he were a Christian. But neither of them ever thought toast and coffee in the morning was about that anyway. On the other hand, she should now pray for him, not with him, and she should focus her concern and conversation on his repentance. But surely even that looks different when you’re with someone every day than it would for the pastor who bumps into him on the street. Isn’t this precisely what Paul and Peter were both getting at? Far from invalidating your marriage or requiring you to engage in 24/7 evangelistic conversation, unbelief in the home and marriage is a unique opportunity for the patient display of love and grace up close and personal.

If I were a particular kind of Presbyterian, who held to a highly objective structure for the covenant family, I could see arguing against table fellowship with an excommunicate inside the family. But as a Baptist and congregationalist, that sort of overlay is precisely what I want to avoid. Not so that I can keep the church out of my living room. But rather to make clear that my living room is not the church. I have obligations to both my biological family and my spiritual family. Sometimes, the same person will be a member of both families, sometimes not. But the obligations endure, and in both cases, they do so for the sake of the gospel.