Excommunication: the grace of the Father
“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you…Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor 5:1-5)
Dealing with Christian folk in wilful sexual immorality, bitterness, refusal to reconcile with a brother, gossip, crooked financial dealings and the like, this scripture has very much been on my mind. Our native response to language about delivering someone “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” is likely to be either incomprehension or repugnance. Incomprehension because we have neither been taught about nor witnessed godly discipline at this level, or repugnance at what seems like un-Jesus like bullying. Paul is talking about excommunication, the Corinthians are “not even to eat with” Christians who are “guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler” (1 Cor 5:11). To modern people this makes the Early Church look like a cult; but within the New Testament such discipline never comes across as harsh but as part of what it means to belong to a very special family. Church discipline is not a penal exercise but a manifestation of the love of God the Father which holds everything together, forever. One thing is certain; unless this sort of discipline is recovered it is impossible to imagine a mature Church in Australia today.
A root cause of the discipleship crisis today is the absence of loving spiritual fathers/mothers. Much of this has to do with a confusion about acceptance. Hebrews defies the understanding of our permissive culture in saying, “have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.’” (Heb 12:5-6). The author of Hebrews is a mature spiritual guide who understands divine discipline as an encouraging sign of our acceptance by the Father, because the pain punishment brings is a manifestation of love (vv. 7-11). Pain is pain, whether physical, emotional or relational. The text makes this very clear by employing a word for “chasten” which was also used to describe the flogging Jesus endured on the way to the cross (John 19:1). Such “tough love” fulfils the messianic prophecy; “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him” (2 Sam 7:14-15). Jesus himself did not sin, so the scourging which fell on him was a discipline received in our place. The mystery of the cross alone opens up to us the gracious riches of excommunication.
The Destruction of the Sinful Nature
Satan becomes God’s instrument to destroy the power of the sinful nature in the excommunicated believer solely because such destruction has already taken place in the cross; “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” (1 John 3:8). On the cross Jesus took all the satanically inspired accusations, reviling, and torments deserved by a guilty humanity, carrying this pain and punishment outside the experienced presence of the Father’s love (Mark 15:34). Yet all the while as the Son of God he was “in the Father” and the Father was in him (John 14:10). Restoration to the Father, by resurrection, was the necessary outcome of Christ’s obedience (Rom 1:4). It was through such devil-inspired suffering, in obedience to the Father, that Christ turned the power of Satan for our good. Jesus still possesses such transformative authority over the devil’s designs today (John 13:27). Knowing this is the key to unlock the discipline we need.
Paul reports that he carries in his flesh “a messenger from Satan” that causes tormenting pain; for him this is not a source of shame but boasting, for it is a discipline on his life causing him to more closely depend on Christ (2 Cor 12:7-10). The apostle is certainly not an excommunicated believer, but he knows just how God’s wisdom uses the devil to turn us to Christ. Even more intimately, just before speaking about his authority to excommunicate wilfully sinning believers the apostle makes a pronouncement pivotal to the modern church’s recovery of this means of grace; “For though you have countless guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (1 Cor 4:15). It is not as a “guardian” of Church morality that Paul administers punishment but as a father whose sole authority is the gospel of Christ (2 Cor 10:1-6). He is a man of faith unafraid to deliver erring spiritual children to the devil because he knows that as they are men and women still “in Christ” they are not outside the ultimate protection of their Father. They may need, like Christ crucified for them, to endure satanically inspired accusations, reviling, torments and punishment outside the experienced presence of the Father’s love, but this will assuredly lead them as true children of God back to the Lord and the security of his Church. This teaching is true, but its practice depends upon a recovery of apostolic faith in the power of the cross over all things demonic. Such a faith release requires a revelation of the complete triumph of the Father-Son love in the power of the Spirit.
Moralistic bullying of controlling church leadership has no future in a permissive culture where people shop for a congregation to satisfy their felt needs. Yet because such permissiveness cannot instil the holy fear of the Lord which is an absolute prerequisite for deep intimacy with God deep down true believers know they need a different sort of Church family than the average (Prov 9:10). Such forever-family churches must be grounded in an apostolic faith gutsy enough to embrace the grace of excommunication. This requires the recovery of a different sort of leadership than that extolled so commonly today. We desperately need a restoration of spiritual fathers/mothers who understand the divine dynamics of discipline. These can only be men and women who have personally learned to live in the way the Father dealt with his obedient Son by cross and resurrection. We need a restoration of the gospel in Church to create a forever-family atmosphere where the keeping ways of the “Holy Father” are accepted as true and good (John 17:11). Despite the blasé ways Christian leaders talk about “God” today, the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” I know, and I know no other way to put it, is an impossible person to deal with. He cannot be reasoned with, bribed, manipulated or in any way ordinarily influenced. I have found he loves us most powerfully in the midst of our utter incapacitation. This is the inner secret of the cross and of the grace that visits an excommunicated and demonically oppressed sinner turning them back to Jesus. With so many authentic Christian leaders in our city feeling overwhelmed at the moment, I am anticipating a seismic shift in the way we do Church. One built only on the foundation of Christ-crucified.