We have been united as follows concerning the ban. The ban shall be employed with all those who have given themselves over to the Lord, to walk after [Him] in His commandments; those who have been baptized into the one body of Christ, and let themselves be called brothers or sisters, and still somehow slip and fall into error and sin, being inadvertently overtaken. The same [shall] be warned twice privately and the third time be publicly admonished before the entire congregation according to the command of Christ (Matthew 18). But this shall be done according to the ordering of the Spirit of God before the breaking of bread so that we may all in one spirit and in one love break and eat from one bread and drink from one cup.
A Controversial Issue
“I was banned by the church.” This is a statement that is very rarely, if ever, used. Lets face it, our culture leaves little room for such primitive views as the ban. The very idea of being banned by a church reeks of intolerance. If a church is bold enough to attempt such a thing today, it is quickly labeled unloving, unforgiving, and judgemental. If only we could go back to when the Schleitheim Confession was written. The idea of excommunication, or “the ban”, was normal then, so surely there was little opposition to their views…or was there?
It’s nice to think that there was little controversy over the second article in the Schleitheim Confession when it was written. However, a closer examination shows the exact opposite. At that time, the church was still dominated by Catholicism and the Catholic church certainly believed in church discipline, to the point of exercising the ban when necessary. Yet their approach stood in stark contrast with the radical reformers’ view of church discipline.
The Catholic church believed that church discipline should only be administered by high ranking church leaders, and that lay members should have no involvement in the discipline process. The radical reformers, on the other hand, believed that church discipline could not simply be a unilateral decision made by a group of church leaders. Rather they believed that, according to Scripture, the church as a body had to be involved in the disciplinary process.
What Does Scripture Say?
As has already been stated in the introduction to the Schleitheim Confession, the radical reformers had a very high view of Scripture. This made their approach to church discipline quite simple. They went to the Bible, read what it said, and applied it. So, what was their scriptural basis for church discipline and the ban?
The most influential passage in the radical reformers’ understanding of the ban is found in Matthew 18. The instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 were–and still are, for that matter–very straightforward and easy to understand:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector (ESV).
If the Bible is taken seriously, this passage needs very little exposition and has the same meaning for us today as it did for our forefathers. The application, however, is not so easy.
Putting it into Practice
Applying Matthew 18 is just as hard now as when the Schleitheim Confession was written. Nevertheless, if we view the Bible as God’s Word and our authority, we must apply this clear teaching of Scripture. So what does that look like? This passage outlines three phases to follow when a member in the church sins.
Phase one: if someone observes a sin in his brother, he should approach him privately. Perhaps the most obvious implication we see here is that if a sin is observed in a brother, we cannot go to our friends and tell them about it. Rather we are to go to the brother alone and confront him.
This is not done well in our culture. Let’s be clear, gossip is a sin and never helps a situation. The implied goal from this passage is spiritual restoration, and gossip never restores; it tears down. Instead, a spirit of humility, love, and gentleness must be shown by the one approaching the sinning brother.
The Truth in Love
This does not mean that we avoid speaking the truth. And, while there is no doubt that sometimes the truth hurts, we don’t use the truth as a two-by-four to smash sense into people’s heads. Jesus never backed down from the truth, but he also never beat the truth into anyone. It is not our responsibility, or even possible for us, to change a person, we simply present the truth in love and rely on the Holy Spirit to do the work.
The second phase is very similar to the first, therefore it is safe to say that the aforementioned principles apply. The only noticeable difference in this phase is that more people become involved; a few trustworthy members help to exhort the unrepentant individual. But this step is only necessary if the brother is unrepentant after being approached privately. If there is repentance, this phase is unnecessary. There is no need for anyone else to know.
Phase three is by far the most difficult. If, after phases one and two, the brother is still unrepentant, he must no longer be considered a brother. Rather he is to be treated as an unbeliever or, to put it a different way, he is to be “banned” from the church. This is the most extreme form of discipline that the church can give. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, the Apostle Paul describes this form of discipline as “handing him over to Satan” (1 Cor. 5:5). This is not something that is easy, but it is sometimes necessary.
The Purity of the Church
At this point one might be asking, “Why is this necessary? What good does it do to ban someone from the church?” The answer is found in 1 Corinthians 5. In this passage the Apostle Paul lays out clear instructions for church discipline and includes a metaphor that brings a great deal of clarity as to why the unrepentant sinner must be banned from the assembly of believers. “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened”(5:6-7).
The explanation of this word picture is very simple when taken in context. The Apostle Paul is, in essence, saying if you allow this brother to remain in the church, the church will eventually become completely corrupted from the inside out. This is why the ban is so important. If the church allows sin to go unpunished it will lose its purity.
The radical reformers understood the importance of keeping the church pure and spotless before God. They knew that since they had been washed by the blood of Christ they could no longer walk in their old sinful ways. Therefore, if there was unrepentant sin among them, it must be put away.
Following the Command
Church discipline is hard, unpleasant, and often very sad, but is clearly commanded in Scripture. It is a root of Anabaptist heritage that needs to be reclaimed, because without it the church will rot from the inside out. If the church is to remain pure, continuous unrepentant sin must be dealt with. Christians are called to walk in newness of life, both as individuals and as a church. If we have truly been washed in the blood of Christ, how can we possibly tolerate unrepentant sin within our members? May God give us grace as we apply this difficult but necessary teaching.
|Eddie Kinsinger and his wife, Stephanie, are currently living in Elnora, Indiana. He runs a small online business and is enrolled in a pastoral apprenticeship program under the direction of Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He enjoys sugar, with a small drop of coffee as a garnish, and is greatly annoyed when forced to write a bio–in the third person. He enjoys reading and good conversations with friends.
The Holy Bible ESV: English Standard Version: Containing the Old and New Testaments. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007. Print.
“Schleitheim Confession.” – GAMEO. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.
“Chapter 6 James II and the End of the Confession of Faith.” Confessions of Faith in Early Modern England (2014): n. pag. Web.