16 April 2012

Shame and Shunning

Naughty children have heard from their disappointed parents the oft repeated phrase Shame on you! It expresses verbally what the disobedient feels internally and the public senses collectively. Blushing under that uncomfortable sensation evoked by a guilty conscience, the child averts his eyes from wagging heads. It is a deeply painful experience that is not soon forgotten. In fact, many adults can recall such experiences with vivid detail well into their later years.

As an attendant of guilt, shame exerts a powerful influence on the mind and heart. Adam and Even felt its sting and in vain attempted to evade its influence and conceal their guilt. Out of desperation they donned fig leaf loincloths, but it was a failed effort. The screams of conscience could not be quelled. The frown of God could not be hidden. Like a shadow, shame now became the constant companion of fallen human beings. David describes it as being covered with scorn and disgrace (Ps 71:13) or being clothed with dishonor (Ps 109:29). What an apt depiction of guilt’s accomplice! No child of Adam is immune from that painful inward sensation that chases every sin.

Because it exerts such a negative sway over one’s psyche, shame serves as a strong deterrent to sin. A man’s most vile and wicked desires are often publicly restrained for fear of falling into open disgrace. Does this not explain, in part, the reason why the Pharisees were like whitewashed tombs? (Mt 23:27). They feared public humiliation. Because of its restraining influence, shame has been applied by our infinitely wise God as a means of reclaiming His wandering children. For example, when the leadership of a church formally admonishes a disobedient member, it serves as a spiritual Shame on you! As a formal, public act of applying shame on the erring member, it exerts a heavy influence in the experience of the culprit. Other more severe measures, such as suspension from the Lord’s Supper and excommunication from the membership of the church carry with them more acute degrees of shame. These censures are applied in an effort to reclaim the disobedient member from the dangers of sin. By the Spirit’s power under God’s blessing such means are often effective tools in the loving discipline of God’s people.

Consequently, Paul writes in his letter to the Thessalonians, If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2Thess 3:14-15). He is referring to a disobedient member of whom the church is to take note. The apostle commands the church to distinguish the member for others to see. He is to be marked out. A.T. Robertson says it means to put a tag on that man. How this is done is not specified (e.g. by letter, public announcement, etc.). The point is that the church as the church must identify the offender so that all can take note.

Paul also requires the congregation to have nothing to do with him. The English translation here may be somewhat misleading. Literally it means do not mix up together with him or do not associate with him. It does not mean to shun all contact but to curtail certain expressions of fellowship, both ecclesiastical and individual. Such exclusion from ordinary associations might be an effective means of pricking the member’s conscience with shame’s painful inward sensation. In fact as the apostle makes clear, the church must disassociate from him that he may be ashamed (v. 14).

The next verse helps clarify the nature of this disassociation. Specifically, the congregation must not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (2Thess 3:15). In other words, he still must be looked upon and treated as a Christian, albeit an erring one. He is not an enemy, but a brother in need of discipline, care and oversight. Historically this has been understood as a justification for suspension from the Lord’s Supper (e.g. WCF 30.4). During such a suspension, the church does not associate publicly and formally with the brother, i.e. those who are spiritual do not testify and cherish their love and communion with him at the Lord’s table (cf. Gal 6:1; WLC 162). But the man is still considered a brother entitled to certain privileges not afforded to unbelievers. He is not totally ostracized from Christian fellowship. In other words, he is not shunned.

A family does not shun but trains a disobedient child. Within a familial context, discipline is never penal but always remedial. The aim should be to shape and restore the child, to guide and govern his behavior, so he can live within the family circle for the common good. Similarly, a church family is not to shun but train an erring member. As a means of grace its loving discipline should be designed to bring the member’s character and conduct into conformity with the will of Christ so he can serve the common good. If he remains impenitent, then the time may come when he is excommunicated and treated as an unbelieving outcast. But even then he should be viewed not as a lost cause to be despised and ignored, but as an object of pity, prayer and evangelism. No church has the right to prohibit him from public worship unless he poses a threat to the physical safety and well-being of the flock. The excommunicant needs to be in the pew so he can hear from the pulpit!

The verb translated have nothing to do with is used only three times in the New Testament (1Cor 5:9, 11; 2Thess 3:14). In each case the context is a situation of church discipline. Paul told the Corinthians they were not to associate with a professing Christian who is living in sin, and as he further explains they are not even to eat with such a one (1Cor 5:11). If a man is dogmatically impenitent, the church must put the mark of disgrace upon the unabashed member both officially and collectively. Hopefully he will be ashamed and, if possible, reclaimed for Christ. In such a case, both sacred and civil fellowship must be interrupted. By this impenitence the erring member forfeits participation in the Lord’s Supper. He also surrenders the normal benefits of friendship with other Christians. But notice, while ecclesiastical and social fellowship are curtailed, concern and contact are not totally withdrawn. He is the object of pity, not scorn. He must still be evangelized. The gospel must be proclaimed and he should listen!

We must also keep in mind that the severest of disciplinary measures is applied only in the case of impenitence. If the member remains unapologetically entrenched in his sin, then the censure of excommunication administered. But let’s be clear. It is a situation in which he exhibits no repentance – no sight and sense of sin’s danger and filthiness, no grief over and hatred of its evil, no turning away from the sin to God, no apprehension of divine mercy in Christ, and no intent or endeavor to follow the Lord Jesus (cf. WLC 76). When a professed Christian behaves like this, then (and only then) the people of God must officially and collectively apply even the severest means of God’s appointment in an effort to reclaim him (cf. 1Cor 5:5). Such a measure includes not only cutting him off from the visible community of faith, but also denying him the ordinary benefits of social discourse and friendship. The professing Christian who is notoriously guilty of sin must be shamed. Christians must not commune with him either at the Lord’s Table or in ordinary meals, which are an expression of friendship. Shame’s powerful influence just may divert him from the path of destruction and rescue him from the pains of hell! So the erring member is shamed both formally and informally by the church officially and by the members individually. There is no communion with a person who claims to follow Christ but clamors after Satan. Such a scandal must not be tolerated by the church of Christ. But again, this does not prohibit all possible contact. The excommunicant remains the object of pity, prayer and evangelism!

Moreover, if the member who has fallen into sin repents, then those censures which have been effective are to be withdrawn. The church is not permitted to take its pound of flesh! She is not entitled to punish a wandering sheep to gratify a sinful desire for revenge. She must keep in view the teaching of Paul who said Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1). Her treatment of repentant members should be a reflection of how they are treated by God: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1:9). Does there need to be proof of genuine penitence? Yes, for as John’s clarion call made clear, there must be fruit in keeping with repentance (Mt 3:8). But this must be sought with humility and a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1). Christ’s under shepherds must keep watch prayerfully in hopes of seeing those spiritual virtues and disciplines in the member’s life that are displayed in the lives of all the rest of Christ’s sheep (e.g. Gal 5:22-24). As spiritual leaders they must guard against applying overly severe and unwarranted measures simply because the member has erred. Some additional methods of accountability might be required, such as frequent counseling sessions or regular updates, but extreme measures akin to Roman penitence go beyond the biblical pattern. For instance, to demand compliance with a contract requiring a detailed history of past sins is not only unhealthy but unbiblical. If a man repents, why demand such a rehearsal of previous sins and failures? Where do we find this in the teaching of Christ? It is a man-made tradition. There is no scriptural warrant for such a vindictive measure.

In sum, shame exerts a powerful influence in a sinner’s heart and life. God uses it to curb sinful behavior and to reclaim wandering sheep. Through the instrumentality of His church King Jesus utilizes shame as a means of grace in rescuing erring members from destructive paths. In extreme cases, even the ordinary benefits of friendship are to be withdrawn in hopes of recovering the impenitent member from sin. But the church must not go beyond what Christ has commanded since this would be to usurp His authority as the chief Shepherd of the flock. Let us be thankful for the efforts and concern of faithful under shepherds as well as true friends who care enough to say Shame on you! If the Lord’s hand is heavy, then perhaps we will acknowledge our sin. Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered (Ps 32:1).