In my first post of the The Exile Files #1, I outlined the agony of individuals choosing (or leaving) a church congregation in what is described as the new religious economy. As the market increasingly distributes religion, and we place emphasis on the individual as the spiritual self (religious identity), the stakes get higher, and the available worship options become overwhelming.
I want to acknowledge a common pastoral critique of damaging effects of “church-hopping” (a phrase used to show lack of commitment to community-building), but also add that a need for community seems in-built to humans, and happy congregants rarely continue the output the necessary energy to keep relationships and time commitments at multiple churches. The way individuals now move fluidly through church spaces is often a serious attempt to grapple with historical changes, and conflicting religious commitments.
Unfortunately, many pastors are unaware of the conflict lines that emerge from our ordinary, non-sacred spaces of gyms, local interest groups, workplaces and family homes. And we’ve moved from church pamphlets towards various identity markers (meaning aesthetics common to a group, whether short-sleeved checkered shirt, and WWJD bracelet, or bald head and expensive whiskey brand) as ways to construct (and reconstruct) Christian identity. But that also means that each individual creates themself religiously in the same way they use fashion or lifestyle. This was certainly not true in a medieval world, where group identity created self-definition.
In this post, I’d like to interrogate the practice of ‘excommunication’, meaning an intentional breaking of relationship between an individual and their community (usually done with intention of restoring them back into the faith).
The bible outlines guidelines for excommunication. If you’re interested, there is a good post on generally accepted interpretations here. But I’ve been thinking about our application of excommunication in an age of social media. My interest is the “lived experience” of church members and the way reconciliation processes work in a late modern or postmodern age. Here is a biblical passage where Jesus directly addresses interpersonal problems:
Matthew 18 :15 -17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”
I’ll just point out, this was in the context of a Jewish synagogue, in a Greco-Roman world. For the Greeks, rhetoric (or public persuasion) was such a high art form that the floor was usually left open for any member of the “church”. Debates were common, less like our emotionally-driven YouTube responses to grumpy cat and more like during the radio era; well-thought-out smack downs in front of a politely clapping audience.
Thus, Jesus could stand up and announce Isaiah 61 fulfilled (recorded in Luke 4) without causing too much trouble. In contrast, not many of us can walk up and gain the floor today in most Western (read tightly-controlled) church worship spaces. And, even if we did shimmy on up to the platform to declare a personal beef against another member, the odds are that a sound operator would intelligently mute the microphone once we started listing our deep hurts. The immediate twenty-first century example this scripture brings up is Ricki Lake. Not classy, not cool.
Honestly, I don’t personally know any Protestant churches that have recently excommunicated members. There was one quasi-excommunication I heard of in the case of a high-profile philandering pastor, but behind the scenes, I found out he was moved to a more rural location (luckily for him, with a waterfront view) and a network of mega-church pastors provided him “personal support”.
Maybe in this case the practical biblical interpretation was ex-communication from his regular Christian audience, I’m not sure. For outsiders, it initially came across as professional Christians hiding him, but he shot out onto a platform as soon as the social media furor died down. In the meantime, his audience had greatly diminished, which was, I guess, his atonement for sins.
For “normal” Christians, our application of this text tends to be self-excommunication, or self-exile. In the new religious economy, regular attendance in the church worship space serves as expression of commitment to a community, agreement with its pastors and leaders (and their collective values and morals). To attend regularly is to commit to uphold the community’s ethos, and therefore to attend irregularly can sometimes be an act of disorganization (like when my phone battery died this weekend) but can also be an act of non-commitment, or even an attempt to communicate dissatisfaction.
Should certain relationships, practices or ethics become troubling to a member, then self-excommunication, or the act of leaving the community is expected, and even encouraged. If my theory is correct, then this might be our actual application of the above passage in a social media age:
Actual Member Application: “If a leader misses the mark, falls below your expectation or acts against you – particularly when violating a value or moral you believe is scriptural – email the fault, between you and him alone. If he emails you back an apology you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, mention your issue to three or more people in passing that every charge may be tested by the thoughts of two or three committed members. If there is no change and the leader/pastor refuses to listen to these voices you hoped would complain on your behalf, then you have no choice but to slip quietly out of the church. And if he refuses to follow-up with an exit interview to hear your side of the story let the church become to you a tricky part of your history you seldom talk about.
But of course, here is the other side of that relationship transaction:
Actual Church Leader/Pastor Application: “If your member states that you’ve missed the mark or fallen short of their expectation and wants change more quickly than you can give it, ignore him, keeping the problem between you and him alone. Hopefully this issue will die down and become a non-event. And, if s/he figures out a way to adjust his/her expectations and co-exist within the community, you have gained your sister/brother. But if s/he does not listen, and you continue to hear rumors and swirlings that s/he is unhappy, send a message to her/him through his friends or a pastoral staff member he likes, in order that the issue might be sorted, or at the very least, every charge s/he presents may be refuted by the comments of two or three committed church members. If there is no change and the member refuses to be quiet about this issue even after hearing from the voices you gave permission to speak on the institution’s behalf, then s/he has no choice but to slip quietly out of the church. And if s/he does leave, let the member be to you as if they were never there, and remove them from the congregation’s oral history.
The Bible models a useful way of bringing a community into unity, through direct communication and channels of relationship, facilitated by both proximity and distance. And yet, in the example above, which represents decades of interactions I’ve seen as a church member and pastor, little reconciliation occurs.
The member generally appears at another church, with a history of negative interaction with pastoral staff who didn’t care about them.
And, the pastor is left smarting that a church member didn’t respect their authority, criticized their approach, and failed to stick it out for the long haul.
In most self-exile cases, the person has no future way to restore relationship, no dialogue occurs and the church community loses any and all vocal dissenters, which makes it all the more obvious when another one comes along. Short of pleading for unwieldy members to reconnect (generally when a pastor says this they mean coming back to listen to their sermons), the pastor has no recourse but to put the episode down to a bad microwave lasagne.
For this post, I chose not to present 4 easy steps towards change, because my fear is that we have not wrestled with how we do contextualize this scripture, or how we should apply these passages to communities of worship in a digital age.
But some of these questions are going to take deep, deep soul-searching work.
How do we deal with sin in the church today? How do pastors expect members to deal with very normal grievances that arise from walking together closely over years? How do members respond when pastors fail to meet their every whim and i-demand? How are pastors supposed to know when it’s a legitimate criticism, and when it’s just a run of the mill “you didn’t baptize my dog” complaint? How do we do this in a context in which we can simply press a button and “unfriend” someone forever?
No wonder we are left reeling from the pain of broken relationships. But Christianity in its truest form gives us vocabulary to talk about that pain, and even envisage a future.