Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Disfellowshipped?

Were we disfellowshipped? My husband and I had this discussion the other day.

No, we were not excommunicated as a result of disciplinary proceedings for unrepentant sin in our lives.

We left when it became obvious that the intent of the leadership was not honest and mutual reconciliation.

We were told that we could not leave. Apparently our leaders didn't get the memo that the relationship was voluntary.

Technically, it is not being disfellowshipped if you leave voluntarily, but the end result is the same - severing of relationships.

Because of the leaders fear of what we might reveal, there was social pressure for the congregation to not associate with us.

So yes, our fellowship with our church family was broken. In that sense, we were disfellowshipped.

Recently, I ran across this quote by Alan Roxburgh:

"I spent almost twenty-seven years in a denomination. I thought I ‘belonged’ to the tribe over that time. In recent years I was in situations where I realized that if you didn’t fit the narrative a process of exclusion ensued. None of it was out loud or direct but, nevertheless, it happened. The details don’t matter as much as the kind of questions that began to form for me. I wondered what kind of tribe had I belonged too for so many years that could so easily exclude? What are the actual, operative theologies at work among such a group (theologies that I had shared in one form or another)? But much more critically, what is the understanding of God and the other that permeates a Christian narrative that can easily put the other outside?"

Is exclusion ever valid or necessary?

Ron Shaw at A Hopeful Heretic has blogged about the disciplinary aspect of excommunication or disfellowshipping. He refers to it as The Nuclear Option for Spiritual Formation.

In an extremely thoughtful post, based on I Cor. 5, discussing the biblical validity of this practice and the resulting fallout on the community and relationships, Ron says this:

"Make no mistake about it, this practice is to spiritual formation what nuclear bombs are to diplomacy. Everybody loses when a church gets to this point with a member of their fellowship."

I have witnessed this practice at least four times at my CCLB - CRAZY Church Left Behind. These real-life scenarios definitely contribute to my feelings about this topic.

I have given my initial response in the comment section, which is followed by further insightful comments from Ron. I would be very interested in reading about your experience, your understanding of this passage, and your views about the practice of excommunication. Please join the conversation at Ron's blog.

18 comments:

Robbymac said...

I'll drop by Ron's blog and have a look-see, but off the top of my head, here's a "real, live" scenario we had to deal with in the late 90's:

Simply put, a pedophile became a Christian, pronounced himself "delivered" and promptly started showing up at our high school youth group (I was the home group leader).

Said pedophile was in his mid-30's and would prowl around the kitchen, muttering to himself and banging on cupboard doors during worship, or leering at the girls and trying to initiate one-on-one counselling times with them.

All in the first two weeks of him being there. He absolutely refused any kind of input about the fact that (A) he was WAY too old to be in this group anyway, and (B) that there was anything wrong with his behavior, or (C) that he was in flagrant violation of his probation order by being within a hundred yards of teenagers.

So, while some may be appalled to hear me say this, I "went nuclear" on the guy.

A very different situation to your CCLB scenario, I agree, but we need to carefully think through some of the implications of inclusive theology. There will have to be some limits. What limits? Who decides? Who enforces?

So, while I lament and abhor the kind of controlling, manipulative stuff that happened at your CCLB, I would like to suggest that sometimes, in special circumstances, YES exclusion is both valid and necessary, in order to keep the safe place, a safe place.

grace said...

Robby,
Good point. I would have agreed with you in this situation. Sometimes exclusion is necessary for the safety of the group. According to Ron's post, sometimes exclusion jeopardizes the safety of a group.

To be honest, since my experience is pretty sanitized, I have trouble imagining all the possible scenarios that could stretch the limits of inclusivity.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this. It is helpful to get a bigger perspective.

Rhonda said...

it seems like shame and secrecy is what keeps people in a crazy environment.
At least it did us, for a while...

And then it seems like these two elements are what keeps a lot of people from speaking out.

Weird cycle.

sonja said...

Well ... I've got two comments ... one for RobbyMac and the other about the post in general.

First ... Having spent many years volunteering in youth ministry as well, I think the church that your home group was a part of had the responsibility to step in and help you with that situation. The pedophile could have been included in the larger body while being very properly excluded from that group where he did not belong and was likely to cause harm. The church community was not protecting its children in that instance ... I think you're correct, there are special circumstances. IOW, a lying unrepentant pedophile cruising for fresh territory doesn't get to use your teens under the guise of inclusivity. We're to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, remember. This is why these sorts of things ought not to be dealt with as "policy" but relationally, as I think I've seen you mention elsewhere. And it sounds as though you ... err ... did that ;-) .

Second ... There is a fine line between being disfellowshipped (kicked out) and having an atmosphere being so poisoned against one that it is no longer safe for you spiritually, mentally or emotionally. It's sorta like, "You can't fire me ... I quit." or rather, the reverse of that. So what do you say? The quick and easy line is "We left because it was no longer safe there." People hear that and interpret it as, "Oh, you were kicked out." Well, not exactly. But the details are too complicated and messy and really not that important. But being unwilling to carry secrets anymore requires that you leave. I think that's really what it boils down to.

Bruce said...

We aren't disfellowshipped so much as we are now disowned. We started a singles Bible study when we were members of the church and received little support from the staff. It has been a good group over the years with God bringing to us the people we need to minister to. After we started looking for another church one of the staff members (actually a junior staff member) called a couple of the singles who still attended the church and basically told them they need to leave our group and come start a group that would be "official." When they refused this person told them fine, then there would be NO singles group at the church unless someone came to him to "prove" there was a need! I guess he wants them to beg also.

My question: why can't we all just play well together?

B~

Rick said...

I like the "disowned" comment. For us, my first thought was that now that we're no longer a part of the fellowship, it was the geography that held us together in the first place. If it wasn't real community, then it was just the coincidence that we were in the same place same time each week that kept us "together" - and now that we didn't cross paths, it was too much work for anyone involved to have a proper relationship from their side. This has happened a couple of times - and the feeling is more disowned than anything. But if now disowned, then how much "ownedd" were we really to begin with?

Kelly said...

Something that hits me between the eyes regarding this particular issue is the way that so many Christians simply believe that there is a "definitional Christian." For instance, you are a "good Christian" if you a) go to church, b) serve in church, c) say the right things, d) do the right thing... etc. If someone isn't (or is incapable of) measuring up, this "disfellowship" happens to them even while attending the church. All interactions become based on "fixing" the person who "needs to be ministered to," whether that means discipleship or a depression group or counseling or whatever they feel will help the person the most.

So the "non-good Christian" who is human and genuinely desires God is cut off from true fellowship with others who want Him too because the focus is so much on what the "good Christian" is that people cannot see people beyond that. I don't think that churches intend this--we're just all so conditioned to know what "the right thing is" that we don't even think outside that box! We're like sheep!

Oh wait... ;-)

Erin said...

Another great conversation starter, Grace.

The thing that comes to mind - kind of off on a tangent - in some ancient cultures (and maybe some that still exist?) when a person had committed an unforgivable act, that person became "dead" to the village. In other words, they still lived, but were not allowed to live among the rest of the village, no one was allowed to speak to this person or acknowledge their existance, or speak their name.

On some levels, I equate this with being "disfellowshipped" in the church. Phone calls and e-mails aren't returned; one is not acknowledged in the grocery store by those one once called "friends".

"Death by ignoring." As if.

That such a crazy practice would still exist, in churches, no less, drives me bonkers.

Jeff said...

Grace,

Another great post. Thanks. I posted further discussion at a post entitled Exclusion and Embrace.

Let me qualify my comments by saying that I'm not siding with unhealthy or controlling leadership's common practice of excommunication for petty reasons.

Again, thanks.

Bob said...

Grace,

I continue to be horrified by your church experience.

Jeff Greathouse said...

My sad story of disfellowship is the following:

I was part of ____________ for 20 years. I was baptized with them, I went to their colleges and seminaries.

I served as a minister with them for 7 years.

I then served in another denomination for 3 years.

I wanted to enter the service as a chaplain and the church I was with for over 20+ years would not endorse me or fellowship with me because I served at X denomination for 3 years.

KJKEB said...

Grace,

I am an infrequent reader of your blog. But I have looked at it from time to time. I have always found it interesting and insightful.

I will not share any of the details of my situation. But suffice it to say when the pastor has poisoned the few who surround him and even the ushers refuse to make eye contact with you as they walk down the aisle, you have been disfellowshipped and it is time to move on.

However, we need to make sure we separate out church discipline issues from incompatibility or irreconcilable differences.

I will pray for you as God brings you to my mind as you go through this difficult time.

~Kevin

just me said...

I'm actually wrestling with this issue but from a totally different vantage point. My daughter who just turned 18 and moved out is now living with her boyfriend. If we still belonged to our CLB she would have had "church disipline" levied against her. (It wouldn't have mattered to her as they had not embraced her for years and we required her attendance as part of the family till she turned 18.) But it would have made for a very sticky situation for us as her parents and her other grown siblings.

Now, although we no longer have to worry about what the church does, it still leaves us wondering what to do as family and friends.

The prodigal son was an easy case in that he did not return home until he was ready to repent. But what if he had been close enough to come home and do laundry. Would Dad have let him?

Right now we are siding on the grace side and not the disfellowshipping side. But it is hard to know what is right.

Former Leader

Anonymous said...

God put me on the board of a church about the same time that we had to excuse the pastor from ministry for his in appropriate friendship with his best friends wife. She went on to divorce her husband and our former pastor and she were later married.
The whole thing made me sick to my stomach. These people were my friends. I loved them. I cried like a baby in those meetings, wondering why God would put me there at that time as I was so overwhelmed with sorrow that I was ineffective anyway.
There are two sides to this issue and no one is the winner. Where there is no repentance, and sin remains unacknowledged, unity of the Holy Spirit is broken.
We all suffer. We suffer because we love and in doing that we are more Christ-like than ever before.

PJ said...

Grace, thanks again for your great willingness to share. I understand too this disfellowshipping. In our case it's not the outright "don't talk to them," but its the innuendo of "spirits" that will get on you if you associate with them. It becomes crazier and crazier.

This past weekend was our first anniversary away from our CLB and on my blog I've been trying to list lessons I've learned over the year and one of those lessons was about learning who our friends truly were. That was a treasure in the darkness of the past year. It is hard to see it, but it is worth it in the end. Thanks again.

grace said...

Great comments everyone!

Rhonda,
Shame and secrecy are symptomatic of a toxic culture, but they also tend to perpetuate the problem.

sonja,
I thought of that line also - you can't fire me, I quit. In our case it was - you can't quit, we want to control you.
I agree with your bottom line of leaving because of being unwilling to carry the secrets any longer. However, in not explaining, we allowed the secrecy to continue because, as you said, the reality was messy and complicated and ugly.

Bruce,
That's a very good question, and why, after fellowshipping with you for many years, would this church not trust and welcome your input into the lives of "their" people?

Rick,
Another good question that I've asked many times. What is the quality of relationships that can vanish so quickly? How can we believe we are experiencing real community if it is completely dependent on our membership in a particular group?

Kelly,
I wonder if the person who doesn't measure up feels that they are experiencing fellowship in the process of being "fixed." Hopefully we can come alongside to serve and encourage without condescending. Ideally, we would get away from the idea that some of us have it all together and instead value the contribution and gifting of each person.

erin,
Yes, death by ignoring, makes me want to slap someone (nicely) and say, "can't you see how NOT christian this is!"

jeff,
Thank you for the link. I hope that others read what you have written. I've been seriously thinking about it, specifically in regard to our situation.

bob,
At one time, it all seemed so normal. I read your post this week about your CLB, and I agree that ideally we would have that kind of openness and ongoing relationship. I think it is power and politics that often prevent real relationships from functioning as they should.

jeff,
Oh brother! Is it worth pursuing or appealing this decision?

Kevin,
Very true. It took me a long time to accept the reality of incompatibility. I believe very strongly in reconciliation, especially among believers, and I could not understand why our situation didn't work.
I agree that this is different than disciplinary proceedings. The way I posted lumped both ideas together. I also struggle with the idea of exclusion as discipline, which I explained further on Ron's blog.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

just me,
I am sure your situation is very difficult. As a parent, it is sometimes difficult to allow our kids to experience the full extent of the consequences of their behavior. At times, it is merciful to intervene; but at times, it is enabling and harmful to their growth. How do we know except for wisdom from God?

When I still don't know, I guess I would rather err on the side of grace. In my opinion, grace continues to love without condoning the behavior, because that isn't loving either. It isn't easy, is it? Especially when you are dealing with defensiveness and guilt also.

anonymous,
What you shared demonstrates why it is so important that we approach these issues with real relationship. How can we appropriately deal with the sin issues unless we truly love the people involved. In that case, our hearts are broken for the suffering that sin causes. As you said, real fellowship is broken, whether or not we cast that person aside.

pj,
I had a lot to learn about relationships, realizing that I had also participated in allowing my relationships to be centered completely around the church organization. I would not have believed the relationships were mostly shallow had I not experienced the disfellowshipping.

It is a great idea to make note of the lessons learned in this process. Honestly, I think that I have learned more in the last 3 years than I ever wanted to know. ;)

Jeff Greathouse said...

Grace:

For me, no.

I shook the dust off of my feet and kept on doing ministry in the context where God has seemed to cultivate a path.

travis said...

Love the honesty in your words! Thank you for sharing!