Why Churches Should Excommunicate Longstanding Non-Attenders

Article by Alex Duke, editorial manager of 9Marks (original source here).

A few years back, I heard about a church that had grown concerned about their bloated membership. After years of lackadaisical accounting, the number had become unwieldy, even disingenuous. Their “official” membership tallied more than twice the average attendance—doubtlessly inflated by the dead, the derelict, and the well-intentioned-but-never-there.

This discrepancy obscured the church’s identity.

So they came up with an idea: let’s just zero out the membership and, over the course of time, let those who are still around re-up their commitment and re-join the church.

This approach, they thought, would slay two giants with one smooth stone: first, it would enable the church to reach out to everyone on their list and hopefully reanimate for some the desire to gather with God and God’s people. Second, they’d finally know the souls over which they were to keep watch, the individuals for whom they would one day be held accountable.

So over the course of a few months, they reached out to everyone and let them know of a date in the future when all who were willing would re-dedicate their spiritual oversight to this specific church. For many, this was a no-brainer; they’d never stopped attending. For others, God used the correspondence to pry them out of their apathy and into the pew.

But for some, the letters were returned to sender (or were ignored), the emails bounced (or were ignored), and the pleas for reunion fell on deaf ears, if they fell on any ears at all.

And so, before long, their covenant with this church was deleted with a keystroke.

THE GOOD NEWS

Though full of good intentions, I submit that what happened at the church above is pastoral malpractice. It flips Jesus’ “Lost Sheep” parable in Matthew 18 upside-down: “If a man has 100 sheep, and 99 of them have come back, does he not stay with the 99 and leave the one alone?”

It’s good to have a more accurate membership roll. But it’s best to pursue these non-attenders toward a specific end: removal if they’re attending another gospel-preaching church, restoration if they’re happy to return, and excommunication if they’re either unwilling to attend church anywhere or unable to be found.

In fact, I want to up the ante a bit: pursuing longstanding non-attenders—I don’t mean inconsistent attenders, but those who have been wholly absent for several months or even years—and excommunicating those they can’t find is a mark of a healthy church. Of course such pursuits can be done poorly and with a heavy hand. But this abuse should make us cautious and careful, not convinced the better choice is to do nothing.

This practice is entirely in accord with the Bible’s teaching on what a church is, what a pastor is, and what biblical love is. Even if the non-attender has no idea any pursuit or eventual discipline is happening, the church’s act appropriately warns those who are present about the dangers of pursuing the Christian life outside a local church.

BIBLICAL PRECEDENT

With feathers sufficiently ruffled, let me provide a biblical rationale.

Text #1: Matthew 18:10–35

It’s crucial to understand the context of Jesus’ foundational teaching on church discipline in Matthew 18:15–20. As one pastor put it , “In the Bible, church discipline is a rescue operation.”

What precedes this bulk of teaching is the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus wants to put us in the sandals of a shepherd with 100 sheep in order to illustrate God’s pursuing love for his people. And yet, the parable raises a question: what do we do if a stubborn sheep refuses to come back?

The answer to this question comes in the next block of teaching: we pursue him, and if he persists in his departure, then we cast him out, treating him like a pagan and a tax collector. In other words, our relationship to the departing sheep essentially changes.

Excommunicating someone who has completely stopped attending is, in effect, giving them what they’ve asked for. It’s letting go of the rope they’re trying to pull out of our hands. It’s not forcing them to remain bound when they don’t want to be. At the same time, it’s also refusing to let them force us to declare them a “Christian in good standing” when, in good conscience, we don’t feel like we can.

For those reading closely, this raises another question: what if the sheep comes back? Jesus seems to answer that question with another parable, this one concerning an unforgiving servant (18:21–35). The point here is simple: we forgive those who have sinned against us. Why? Because we’ve been forgiven by the God whom we’ve sinned against, an offense far more severe than whatever slights we’ve endured.

In other words, pastors—no, in other words, churches—we quickly and gladly and wholly forgive returning and repentant sheep because we know we ourselves have strayed and, if not for God’s tether on us, we’d stray again and again, farther and farther. Mirroring David in Psalm 23, this hymn describes the lot of us:

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home rejoicing brought me.

— “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (Henry Williams Baker, 1868)

In summary, Matthew 18 teaches us both the foundation and trajectory of church discipline: we pursue straying church members because God pursues his lost sheep, even if it’s “just” 1 of 99. Sadly, this will occasionally result in exclusion because some lost sheep intend to stay lost. We will give them what they ask for and let them go, but we will insist on speaking honestly as they do.

Happily, however, lost sheep have a way of coming back—and when they do, we should forgive them swiftly and completely because God in Christ has forgiven us swiftly and completely.

Text #2: Hebrews 10:23–25 [1]

Here are the verses in question:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

The author of Hebrews has two commands for us. The first is in verse 23: hold fast to the confession of our hope, a confession he’s just spelled out for us by extolling what Christ accomplished for us as our high priest. This command is rooted in the faithfulness of God (verse 23).

Thankfully, the second command—stir up one another to love and good words—is accompanied by an immediate application. How do we do this? Simple: we keep on meeting together. Why? Because we can’t encourage someone we never see. Again, the author roots this command and its application in a promise: we gather and encourage and spur on because we see Judgment Day drawing near, when our faithful, promise-keeping God will return and we will gather with him, forever.

Though he wrote nearly two millennia ago, the author of Hebrews seems familiar with our modern predicament. Did you notice? “Not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”

It is indeed the habit of some Christians to neglect meeting together. In doing so, they miss out on encouragement; they miss out on being spurred on to love and good works. But that’s not all: their vantage point on God’s work in the Christian life shrinks, their confidence in their confession of hope wanes, their memory of God keeping his promises fades, and their once clear-eyed vision of the coming Day of the Lord blurs to black.

Speaking of, did you notice how severe this warning is? The Day of Judgment? Explain to me, then, how removing someone from membership is too severe. Imagine a non-attending “church member” arrives at Judgment Day and is told eternal judgment awaits. At this moment, how “loving” will that church seem who did nothing, or who quietly deleted his name from a computer? Will he not be right to be angry at that church: “Why didn’t you warn me?”

In fact, our small, two-dimensional pictures of removal now may be the most loving thing we can do because they warn people of the potential permanent reality of removal to come.

These verses in Hebrews let us pursue non-attending members with our Bibles open to a chapter and verse, rather than a list of well-intentioned, thought-through suggestions. We can point not only to a violation of a biblical command, but also to the God-ordained benefits they’re missing.

Text #3: Hebrews 13:17 (Acts 20:28)

As he approaches the coda of his correspondence, the author of Hebrews exhorts his audience:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

A few verses earlier, in verse 7, these leaders are described as those who “spoke to you the word of God.” There, we’re told to imitate these leaders’ faith, and consider the outcome of their way of life.

One implication of these verses is that church leaders (pastors, elders, etc.) are to live amidst their people such that the ways and outcomes of their lives can be considered and therefore imitated. Any elder who lives in an ivory tower, above and away from his people, is living below his station. Thundering commands and exhortations from the clouds, this so-called elder doesn’t realize his people can’t even hear him. He’s talking to himself.

This should be instructive. A church member who only hears from their pastors when they’ve done something wrong—like, say, not attend church for a year—offers a reasonable (though not foolproof) objection when they ask, “Well, where were you when the stuff that caused me to leave happened?” It’s simultaneously easier and more effective to pastor someone on their way out the door rather than someone who’s already left.

Though important, let’s ignore the command to obey our leaders and instead focus on why we’re told to do this. We’re to obey our leaders—assuming they’re joyful and not grumbling, qualified and amidst their people—because one day they will give an account for us.

This is an elder’s unique calling. On the Last Day, they will give an account for every member placed under their care. To state the specifics of everything this means would state too much; we just don’t know. But at the very least, if you’re an elder at a church whose membership roll has no bearing in the reality, then you should wonder what this means for you. If you’re leading a church that has assured, through baptism and/or membership, hundreds or even thousands of people that they’ll spend eternity with Jesus, but you’ve absolutely no idea where they are, then you should at least wonder what this means for you. Perhaps you should also start to worry.

Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders come to mind: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28).

There’s never a moment when an elder can say about a church member: oh, he’s not my responsibility anymore. Why? Because our Lord charges them with paying careful attention to all the flock—whether they’re there or not, whether they want to be cared for or not.

Every single member of any local church should be precious to its leaders because it’s precious to its God. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. After all, look at her purchase price.

PRACTICAL STEPS

The biblical case is clear. We pursue absent church members for at least three reasons:

1. God pursues straying sheep.
2. We’re told not to forsake gathering with our brothers in sisters. This is not an optional command.
3. Our elders will give account to God for every single person placed under their care. There are no exceptions.

But who cares what the Bible says if there’s nothing in the life of a church to make this course of action plausible? In an effort to fix this, I’ve listed a few plausibility-building steps below.

1. In your church covenant, add a line or two that mentions what members should do when they leave.

My former church used this line: “We will, when we move from this place, as soon as possible, unite with some other church where we can carry out the spirit of this covenant and the principles of God’s Word.” Brief, general, and to-the-point—that should be the goal.

Of course, the words in your church covenant won’t matter if it just gathers dust. So use it: in membership classes, when you take the Lord’s Supper, before you begin members’ meetings, periodically in your sermon application.

2. Teach your members about their God-given authority and responsibility.

Church discipline both begins and ends with individual members exercising their God-given authority and responsibility. Thankfully, the process usually stops after Step #1, when Member A gently confronts Member B and Member B responds in gratitude and repentance.

But on those unfortunate occasions when a sinning member remains unrepentant, it’s important to underscore the whole church’s involvement. A steady diet of teaching on this will help people see that here’s also no reason for them to ever say a church member is no longer their concern. The reclamation of an absent member is a congregational project, not just for those who are paid or elected to care.

3. Don’t be territorial.

I’ve often heard that excommunicating non-attending members is spiritually abusive, that it’s evidence of a territorial ungodliness and a lust for market control. This is perhaps true in some cases, but not necessarily so.

In fact, a charge like this simply won’t stick to churches and pastors that are known for their big-heartedness.[2] So, regularly send members to help other churches. Share your pulpit. Plant churches without your particular branding or ecclesiological imprimatur. Pray for other churches publicly. Don’t be a denominational shill. Build cooperative friendships across racial and theological lines.

4. Forget good intentions; depend on specific policies and processes.

As Don Carson once said, “No one drifts toward holiness.” Similarly, no church drifts toward health. This is why we need extra-biblical structures and processes that attempt to reflect and enact biblical teaching.

Membership classes, lists of members, a defined length of absence before someone is pursued—none of this is in the Bible. Instead, they’re attempts to distill the wisdom of the Bible into prudential processes.

It doesn’t matter how much you care about this in your heart of hearts if there aren’t any practices to back your conviction up. In pastoral ministry, there will always be something more pressing than, “Reach out to Member X whom we haven’t seen in six months.”

These issues are categorically non-urgent, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. So think through policies and best practices that will aid in this endeavor. Modify them to fit your context, and trust the Lord will bless your preparation.

5. Teach on the derivative authority of the church.

Your church and its members have real, God-given authority, which means we must exercise it soberly and carefully. Passages like Matthew 18:15–20 and 1 Corinthians 5 are clear: the decisions we make when we gather mean something.

But we must never forget: our authority, though derived from the Lord, is not analogous to his. To miss this is to make the mistake of the Roman Catholic Church. Instead, when we teach on the church’s authority, we must stress that it’s real, but it’s also derivative and limited and errant.

Perhaps that member you can’t find and haven’t heard from moved last-minute and, as we all do, forgot to tell anyone. Perhaps they’re gladly serving in another church across the country. I’d guess these situations will be the minority, but they will happen, which is why we must constantly teach both ourselves and our people that an excommunication for non-attendance is not a declaration that Member X has been cut off from the Lord. It’s simply a declaration that, despite our best efforts, we don’t know where he or she is, and therefore must withdraw our affirmation.

CONCLUSION

I’ve never met a growing and mature Christian who doesn’t regularly attend a gospel-preaching church.

On the other hand, I’ve met dozens and dozens of professing Christians who never (or sparingly) attend church. Their lives are an experiment in spiritual subsistence farming. They’re not living in open immorality, but their confidence in their own profession of faith wavers by the day, as their last time regularly in communion with God and under the preaching of the Word floats further and further away. They’d probably never admit it, but they’re becoming incredulous even at themselves.

I suppose I could have said this earlier, but I used to be a member of the church I mentioned at the beginning. Years later, I remain deeply grateful for it, as God saved me there and discipled me under its faithful ministry.

And yet, I struggle not to be frustrated. As I type this, so many faces flicker in my mind, faces of friends who attended church with me. We went to youth group together, to summer camp together, to accountability group together. We were young and mischievous and stupid, but we were also trying to become serious, mindful, and genuine Christians.

Then college came, and our lives meandered. Some went here; others went there; still others went nowhere. Sure, they started at one church, and then another, and then another. But after a while, their erratic commitment became non-commitment, and their non-commitment became lethargy, and their lethargy became paralysis, and their paralysis eventually started to look like death—that flicker of mindfulness snuffed out through well-intentioned inattention. As the years have passed, I wish I’d said more about this to them.

Once upon a time, all these friends’ names were on a list that said they’d spend eternity with Jesus. More than a decade later, this fact might seem incidental, detached from any substantive evidence, dismissible on a technicality or the statute of limitations.

But that’s wrong. Every name was written down on purpose—the result of a sober-minded decision that Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the Living God, their Lord and Savior. This decision preceded a baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t know if any of these guys got a letter or an email, and if they did, I don’t know if they ignored it. But I do know what happened next: their covenant was deleted with a keystroke.

Oh, how I wish someone had warned them what that meant.

[1] On “meeting together” see Sam Allberry’s Why Bother With Church? or Mark Dever’s talk “ Reasons to Join a Church,” currently available on Ligonier’s website for $2.

[2] It will still convince those who have no desire to be unconvinced.

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