Question: "What does the Bible say about shunning?"
Answer: To shun is to deliberately avoid or keep away from something or someone. In the Bible, the word shun is applied to evil. The Lord said that His servant Job was “blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Job himself confessed that “the fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). The Bible advises us, “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil” (Proverbs 3:7-8). “A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil” (Proverbs 14:16). So, shunning evil is good.
But what about shunning people? Certain societies (such as in Bali) and religious groups (such as the Amish) practice shunning as a means of punishment against those who are considered traitorous, sinful, or apostate. Normally, the ostracized person has broken a taboo or in some way violated an established standard. The group issuing the sanction refuses to associate with the shunned person, sometimes even refusing to acknowledge his or her existence. Some cults use the threat of shunning as a tool of spiritual manipulation. Some (but not all) Mennonite groups shun an excommunicated member for life and consider him lost and without hope of salvation, regardless of his association with other churches. Does the Bible say anything about this type of shunning? Is there any justification for the practice of shunning a family member or church member?
While shunning often connotes legalistic tendencies, there is a proper place for breaking an association. The Bible teaches excommunication as a form of church discipline. In 1 Timothy 1:20, the apostle Paul said he had handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. The two blasphemers had been excluded from the church. Out in the world, away from the church, they would be open to the full force of the god of that worldly system. In 2 Timothy 2:17–18, we discover what these men did to warrant expulsion from the church: they had denounced the physical resurrection and were dividing the church by teaching an early form of the heresy of Gnosticism. This was no misdemeanor or petty sin. Such drastic action as excommunication is always a last resort and is never taken lightly.
First Corinthians 5:1–5 also uses the expression “to hand over to Satan” concerning a man in unrepentant, flagrant sin. In verses 12–13, Paul indicates that such discipline is meant for church members, not for the outside world: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’” Verse 11 says that, in cases of blatant sin, believers must disassociate themselves from the erring brother or sister (see also 2 Thessalonians 3:14).
The goal of excommunication is restoration (Galatians 6:1). Being officially ostracised from the church, the sinner might be brought to repentance. If either Hymanaeus or Alexander later realized that he had sinned against God, he could repent and come back to the church for forgiveness and reinstatement. The same was true for the man in the Corinthian church—in fact, he later did return and was restored (2 Corinthians 2:6–11).
Jesus had this to say about church discipline: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses even to listen to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). Again, we see that excommunication is a last resort, after repeated warnings (cf. Titus 3:10). Jesus’ command to treat an intractable offender as a “pagan” or a “tax collector” means simply to consider such a one as unsaved. How are we to treat the unsaved? With love and grace. They need to be evangelized. We are to love even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).
Some denominations use passages such as 1 Timothy 1:20 as justification for shunning any member of their group who has been expelled. After being cast out of the congregation, he is utterly ignored. This happens even to family members who have been expelled. Parents will no longer communicate with their children, with their own biological brother and sisters or even with their own spouse. This results in the breaking up of families. Such actions are not condoned by the Bible. To remove someone from the membership roll of a church is not the same as shunning him. Close fellowship may be broken, but we are not commanded to break all ties with those in sin. We never get to the place of “writing someone off” for good.
“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). That is how the church should deal with those who are subject to church discipline. The purpose of the discipline is to prompt repentance and, ultimately, to reunite our fallen brother or sister with the church body.
Scripturally, excluding a person from the church is preceded by admonition and counsel; it is only employed in the case of bona fide heresy, obdurate divisiveness, or sexual sin; and it is a last resort. After excommunication, the relationship between the former member and the church naturally changes; however, the church still has the responsibility to pray for the one being disciplined and to extending forgiveness when repentance is evident. Shunning, as defined by a refusal to speak to someone or by a total severing of all ties, goes beyond what the Bible advocates.
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