Mailbag #43: Relationship to Excommunicated Members; Baptism & the Developmentally Disabled
How does your church care for an excommunicated member when that person turns up at one of your church services? How do you as a pastor handle it when an excommunicated member of somebody else’s church turns up at your church?
—Zem, United Kingdom
First of all, praise God for either situation. When our church acts to excommunicate someone from membership, the elders will remind our members that we hope the individual will continue to attend the public gatherings of the church. In fact, there is no place we’d rather them be than sitting under the preaching of God’s Word.
Remember, the church possesses a declarative authority of binding and loosing. It does not possess the coercive authority of the sword over physical bodies and geographic space, like the government possesses. To excommunicate someone is to make a declaration. It is not to remove someone forcibly from your public gathering.
The main exception to this would be when a person is some type of threat to your church that would involve the state’s authority. We once excommunicated an individual for physically assaulting members. This situation involved a restraining order. So, no, he was not welcome to attend, at least so long as the restraining order remained in effect. Now, I can imagine situations where, due to person’s divisiveness or unruliness or the emotional trauma their presence would cause to members of the church, you as an elder might exhort a person to attend elsewhere. But this would probably be an informal and interpersonal action by the elders, not a congregationally mandated action.
So, big picture, ordinarily, you want excommunicated people to attend in either scenario described in your question. If it’s someone that we excommunicated, we would have taught our members that their relationships with the individual should change. Members should be civil and kind, of course, but they should no longer casually spend time with the individual making jokes or talking about football. Rather, any conversations they do have should be about encouraging the individual to repent.
If it’s someone that I as a pastor happen to know another church excommunicated, again, I would ordinarily welcome the individual to attend (though with the same exceptions noted above). If I perceived a threat to my flock I would warn them, of course. But if I don’t perceive an immediate threat, then I might not say anything and just keep my eye on the situation. Remember, we want everyone to hear the preached Word. And—who knows—maybe my church will offer a temporary and useful spiritual way station. Perhaps the individual will be able to hear with fresh ears exactly the thing he or she needs to hear in order to reconcile to his or her church.
Now, if that person’s presence extends into weeks or months, I will probably speak to them so I can understand their perspective about what happened. If I felt the individual was in the wrong, I would tell them that they needed to reconcile with their church. If I felt their former church was in the wrong, I would encourage them to consider joining our church. (Remember, I’m a congregationalist who believes each church possesses independent authority.) If the person did actually apply for membership, we would almost necessarily contact the person’s prior church and have a number of conversations on both sides in order to have a better sense of what happened. Then we would make an independent judgment.
There’s probably more caveats and qualifications needed, or scenarios to be envisioned, but I hope that gives you a broad outline.
I work with people with developmental disabilities so, naturally, a question arises concerning their relationship to the church. Can a person who wants to be a member of the church but is functionally at the level of a child be baptized? And, if not, doesn’t that signal that we do not think their faith is genuine? The problem is aggravated if the church practices closed communion, for this places the person with disabilities forever on the outside, watching the cup go by week after week. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Going back a couple centuries, Baptist pastors would refer—in their tender way—to the category of “infants and idiots.” Early nineteenth-century pastor J. L. Reynolds, for instance, argued that “Infants and idiots are not moral agents; Christianity therefore demands nothing at their hands. They may—we believe they do—share in its benefits; but they do not come within the sphere of its requisitions. No Christian duty is enjoined upon them, for the obvious reason that they can perform none. The gospel does not require a natural and physical impossibility.” In other words, he’s saying, we should care for such individuals, but we should not bring such individuals into church membership (through the ordinances) and so require anything of them.
Now, I am certainly not recommending we adopt this older lingo! But I do think this little paragraph offers a clue about how to proceed. Our modern language of “developmentally disabled” or “mentally handicapped” or “emotionally disordered” is vague and broad enough that it makes answering your question difficult. Best I can tell, the criteria we should be interested in is “moral agency,” to use Reynold’s phrase. An infant is not yet a moral agent. You do not hold a six-month-old accountable for his or her actions in the same way you do a six-year-old. If a person’s handicap is so severe that you feel unable to affirm moral agency in general, you probably should not receive him or her into church membership or the ordinances. Understand, I am talking about something pretty severe here. Maybe the person cannot speak. Maybe you can make little to no sense of what they do say.
The point is, church membership is a congregation’s word of affirmation about a person’s profession of faith. To receive someone into membership and the Lord’s Table through baptism is to say, “Yes, you are making a credible profession of faith.” Which means, you should receive into membership and the ordinances anyone who makes a credible profession of faith; and you should not receive anyone who doesn’t.
One of the most encouraging relationships of my life was with a man who has severe autism and other developmental disabilities. You don’t always understand the things he is talking about, and it’s an understatement to say that he is socially awkward. But he loves Jesus and the gospel with a purity of heart that I envy. I devoted a couple of pages to him in my book Reverberation in the chapter on singing. And, goodness, does he love to sing songs about Jesus! So, please, accept him into your church’s membership before you accept me.
Bottom line: I do have a category for people we would not receive into membership, but I think that bar is pretty low. I pray God gives you wisdom.