Should You Excommunicate Someone Who Joins an "Open & Affirming" Congregation?
Jenny had been a member of your church for a short while. She quickly showed herself to be a bright, friendly, and sensitive woman. Still, even as you tried to welcome her into the church family, there always seemed an edge of discomfort. She loved the caring community, the intentionality, and the quality of the teaching.
But the clarity of some doctrinal lines seemed to make her uncomfortable. So it really didn’t come as a surprise when you got an email from her one day, saying she’d decided to resign and join another church in town. Her email was kind. She’d been visiting there for a while, she wrote, and felt it was more her kind of church—more welcoming and inclusive.
But here’s the trouble: you know it’s an “open and affirming” church, that it teaches Christians can engage in unrepentant sin, particularly homosexual sin, and still inherit the kingdom of God.
And it gets even more complicated. In a follow-up email, while admitting to some growing confusion, Jenny still says she personally thinks that active sexual sin, including homosexual practice, is unbiblical. But she feels this is a point on which she and others in the church can “agree to disagree.” It’s not like there’s anything in their official church documents about it either way. After all, there are so many other good things about the congregation, and they do hold to the basics of the gospel in their statement of faith.
WHAT SHOULD WE DO?
So what’s the problem? Can’t you just let her resign, if not with your full blessing, at least without comment? Isn’t that the wise, tolerant, and loving thing to do? Wouldn’t it be judgmental if you did anything else?
Some of the hardest choices a pastor will make involve knowing when to lead in the hard and loving direction, even though you know you may be widely misunderstood and even misrepresented. Dealing faithfully with a departing member intending to join a gay-affirming congregation may be one of the most striking examples of this. I can think of few scenarios that will put our courage to love to a greater test. And if our culture continues in a similar direction, then it’s a challenge more and more of us will likely face.
NOT JUST HOMOSEXUAL SIN
To be sure, this would be a problem any time a congregation affirms any sin and encourages their members not to repent of it. However, in this article I’m focusing on homosexual practice—not because Bible-believing Christians are fixated on it, but because Bible-denying congregations are strangely obsessed with encouraging it.
There are so many other sins to which we could apply these principles. But I’m not aware of any significant groups calling themselves Christian churches that encourage members that it’s okay to worship pagan idols, or to commit adultery, or to steal from others, or to be greedy, or even to get drunk (1 Cor. 1:9–10). If they did, then we could talk about those matters too, and all these same arguments would apply. But alas, we have to deal with reality as it comes to us, and encouraging homosexual sin is the main way Bible-denying churches openly contradict God’s moral teaching while still wanting to claim the name of Christ followers.
So we face the task given to us, needing to mentally tar the ark of our resolve before the flood comes. If we really love this departing member, and if we intend to love those whom she would mislead, our way forward will often be both clear and difficult. I’m not saying there’s a single right approach. There will be mitigating circumstances based on the maturity of your congregation, the maturity of the departing member, and other factors. Nonetheless, as pastors we need to say and do something.
So, what should you say to Jenny? Two points in particular seem important to stress.
1. If you join a congregation that approves of homosexual practice, you will help to deceive others about who will and will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10)
Joining a local congregation connects us to others in a lot of ways. One of those involves our entering into a corporate affirmation of our fellow members’ professions of faith. In essence, bringing a person into membership means we’re telling him or her: “based on what we see of your repentance and faith, we believe you’re going to inherit the kingdom of heaven and be with God forever.”
Furthermore, by joining a church, we formally declare our agreement with a church’s doctrine and practice. We are saying, “What this church teaches is true!”
Certainly, our knowledge is imperfect, but when based on Scripture, this corporate affirmation of individuals can be a powerful encouragement for each of them to persevere. Likewise, by adding our signature (so to speak) to a church’s statement of faith, we strengthen its corporate witness.
But what if God, in his Word, declares unambiguously that someone intent to live a certain way will not inherit eternal life, yet we willfully tell them they will? What if we insist someone is on the road to heaven, when God explicitly says they’re on the road to hell? What could be more evil and unloving than encouraging someone to continue ignorantly toward their soul’s eternal destruction?
Imagine a fork in a mountain road. The road to the left leads to safety. The one on the right leads to a sudden curve onto a broken bridge, over a massive gorge, and a certain plunge to destruction. But some kind person had put up a large warning sign—“Danger! Wrong way! Bridge out ahead! Take the left-hand road ONLY!” Now imagine joining a group of friends to remove that sign, and replace it with one that read, “Both roads go the same way. Pick either, and enjoy your drive!”
You could say that you personally still prefer the road to the left. You might even take it yourself. But by joining with the group who removed the warning you’d be luring people to destruction. This is what someone does when he or she joins a congregation that affirms members in their sin. Like the unfaithful watchman of Ezekiel 33:6, that person will share the blame for teaching lies and when other members fall.
2. If you join a congregation that approves of homosexual practice, your encouraging approval may be worse than “merely” committing the sin yourself. (Romans 1:32)
Most of us naturally assume that doing something sinful is worse than “just” approving of other people doing it. But God’s Word presents a different picture. Yes, to sin oneself is wrong. But to encourage others in sin may be even worse.
Perhaps a simple illustration will make this obvious. Consider a person whose life has been wrecked by drug abuse. They’re given over to getting high and have lost their job, family, and joy—and they know it. So they tell as many people as they can, “Stay away from this stuff. Don’t you see what it’s done to me? Don’t touch drugs.” This man or woman may still be sinning in their own intoxicated self-destruction. And yet, we see a spark of common grace in their heart-felt warning.
But what if that person sees the emptiness of their way of life and doesn’t warn anyone? What if, instead, they try to entice others to join in? That’s much worse, isn’t it? They want company in their sin, and they sinfully want others to join their flood of dissipation. Such a state is worse than our first example, but there’s a worse case still.
Imagine a person who has seen the devastation of drugs and has no taste for it. They wouldn’t dream of touching the stuff. But whether from malice or moral confusion, or even (God help us) simply to avoid the ire of their drug-dealing neighbors, they encourage a child to plunge into a life of sin they themselves would never entertain. They encourage the child on down the road, they cheer them on to destruction, while themselves standing at a safe distance—or so they think.
Isn’t this the worst case of all? To approve and encourage other people’s sin is a low moral state indeed. The theologian Charles Hodge described this with chilling sobriety: “This is the lowest point of degradation. To sin, even in the heat of passion, is evil; but to delight in the sins of others, shows that men are of set purpose and fixed preference, wicked.”
There’s nothing morally “mere” about affirming someone else in their sin. Such an action is a near total failure of love, an evil of satanic proportion. The old British pastor, William Gurnall, describes this danger well: “O take heed of soliciting others to sin. Thou takest the devil’s office, as I may say, out of his hand. Let him do it himself if he will. Make not thyself so like him. To tempt another is worse than to sin thyself.”
In short, that’s what our fictional church member, Jenny, is in danger of doing. Jenny doesn’t have to be openly recruiting for iniquity to be an agent of temptation. She approves of sin by joining a church that approves of sin. She gives her assent to their agreed-upon understanding of what constitutes the kind of life that reflects both true conversion and the fruit in keeping with repentance. When the lifestyles in view are biblical, this encourages others to walk in a certain direction for their good. But when the lifestyle flies in the face of Christian repentance and faithfulness, we become cheerleaders for damnation.
As is so often the case, it’s finally from the lips of Jesus himself that we receive the most bracing teaching on this matter. Gentle Jesus, so meek and mild, does not mince words about the danger to those who encourage others in their sin.
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.” (Luke 17:1–2)
This is a serious matter because Jesus our Lord takes it so seriously. After all, Jesus loves all his children, and if we love our church members, we’ll never let them march unwarned toward such a dreadful fate.
Jenny may genuinely fail to understand the danger. Jenny may really not see that by joining a congregation that affirms homosexual sin she is actively encouraging members caught up in sin not to repent. So if we love her, we will instruct, implore, and warn her. We will, in love, use all the means God has placed at our disposal to wake her to their danger and warn her against becoming one through whom temptation to sin comes. We will do this even if it means finally excommunicating her from our church, rather than allowing her to resign to such a fate in good standing.
NOT HARSHNESS, BUT LOVE & HOPE
And we approach all of this not with harshness, but with love and hope. We have the gospel hope that the Apostle Paul highlights so clearly in 1 Corinthians 6. After listing examples of those who won’t inherit God’s kingdom (including those given over to homosexual practice), he continues with a wonderful note of grace: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
No sinner is beyond Christ’s grace—we weren’t, and neither is anyone else. Such were some of us.
Far from standing in judgment, we stand with the biblical writers as fellow refugees fleeing the sexual lies of a fallen world, inviting fellow sinners to forgiveness and safety in Christ. Many of us as pastors get to shepherd men and women who have left the emptiness of homosexual sin and found joy and forgiveness in Christ. Because we love them, and everyone who might join them in Christ, we don’t want anything or anyone to hinder conviction and repentance. And so it’s this love that compels us to speak honestly and deal resolutely with a member who would hide the hope found in Christ by lying about the need for repentance.
Let me be candid: what I just said will almost certainly be misunderstood in light of the wider culture’s present confusion about love and tolerance. And if we pursue this action, we must certainly be especially kind and careful, wise and patient.
Plus, I am not recommending a one-size-fits-all policy. Every such situation must be handled on its own merits.
But Jesus loves his children—and he is jealous to keep them. So as we act with faithful love to warn and protect our members, we do so in confidence of Christ’s love and protection for our own flock. Even as others may berate us as unloving, we can press on in confident hope of our true master’s final vindication and approval. What else, after all, is a faithful watchman to do?