John the Baptist warns that lines are going to have to be drawn!
A great deal is being said and written these days, in both Church and wider society, around the theme of Inclusion/Exclusion. The unwritten assumption is that Inclusion =good and exclusion = bad. I can think back to my days as a Headmaster when I felt it necessary to exclude a pupil from school. It was a rare event, but in order to protect staff, other pupils and the School’s reputation I felt obliged to take that drastic step. It probably signalled bad news to the pupil excluded and the parents concerned, but for many others it was seen as good news – a thoroughly bad influence in the school was dealt with for the greater good of many others.
Inclusion/Exclusion has at least two sides, and its impact depends on from which side you approach it. Historically, ‘Excommunication’ was the response of the Church to evil behaviour or wrong belief. It meant that a person was to be excluded from sharing the bread and wine in communion, and often from attendance at services of worship. It was a process of maintaining good order in the life of the church and of holy living by those who claimed to be Christian. Along with that however we have to balance the notion that we are all sinners and fall short of what God wants. Hence the drawing of lines and boundaries for both belief and behaviour is itself divisive. How can I, a sinner, possibly draw a line that excludes other sinners? Church constitutions have wrestled with this over the years. I have read one such church’s response that goes like this:
In the case of doctrinal heresy, gross and flagrant violation of Christian conduct such as the Scriptures forbid, or when members wilfully choose to exhibit hateful, harassing behaviour or attitudes toward any individual, members are subject to discipline. After Biblical counsel by the Pastor the accused may, upon recommendation of the Pastor, and Deacons, be dismissed from the membership of the church by a not less than 80% vote of those members present at a business meeting.
Persons who have been disciplined but who demonstrate a genuine attitude of repentance may be restored to membership in accordance with the regulations which govern the reception of members.
Cases of such magnitude as Child Abuse in the congregation might even have to be reported to a civil authority such as the Police as well as be dealt with through some form of church discipline. Lines are drawn by society as well as by the Church!
In the readings for this coming week we look at some of the passages of Scripture that have a bearing on the issue. They don’t make easy reading, but they do paint a picture of boundaries that must sometimes be drawn.