The practice of excommunication, with or without shunning, is not unique to Anabaptist churches, but seems to be most commonly practised among churches with Anabaptist roots. Excommunication is considered an ‘ordinance’, or ‘authoritative law or decree’, given by Christ and the ‘holy Apostles’, as Menno calls them, for the ‘church’.
Because of how frequently this ‘ordinance’ is abused, it is easy to simply turn the other way, and not even try to understand it. Tragically, in my own experience and that of my years in the conservative Mennonite churches, I saw this practice abused in most vile ways. One man in his sixties, or thereabouts, was excommunicated for listening to radio, but the lead minister, who later became the bishop, carefully covered for his son’s immorality, when it was discovered that the son had sexually violated numerous youth.
While the devastating reality is that his son had been dreadfully violated by a man in his late twenties or thirties–I cannot recall his age accurately–it was an imbalance to excommunicate one man for breaking a man-made law, while harbouring another who sinned outright, and directly violated God’s law. Over the span of several years, numerous members were excommunicated for violations such as bad attitudes, listening to instrumental music, watching tv, and various other ‘sins’, all while the young offender, and others like him, were protected.
For this reason I still find it hard to trust anyone on the topic of church discipline and excommunication. Every church I’ve had connections to, who exercised any form of the ban, did so with this same level of corruption at some level of leadership. Having said that, I am very aware that only some leaders knew about the corruption, and they intentionally withheld that information from other leaders, or misrepresented it. There are good leaders who try to do the right thing, and are not always well informed.
For years I skipped over Menno’s writings on the topic, and anyone else’s, for that matter. It all seemed to have become a perverse power trip in the hands of the wrong leaders, and hearing it from our ‘founding father’, as Menno was often referred to, didn’t appeal to me. What I read and understand in the Bible is a far cry from anything I’ve ever heard taught on the topic, and ultimately it is God to whom I give account for what I believe. Not a religion, denomination, or culture.
Recently, though, something drew me into this section of Menno’s writings and I was quite intrigued. He is completely on target in some areas, and as far off base as anyone I’ve heard before, in other areas.
The most disturbing of beliefs, in my opinion and understanding, is the notion that an excommunicated spouse needed to be shunned by the other spouse, and the family. That view quite stunned me. Menno goes to great lengths to prove and convince his readers that it is not only in the area of spiritual ‘communion’, or the ‘breaking of bread’ that Paul commands the church to break relationship, but to very literally not speak a word to the person excommunicated, in conversation, beyond an ordinary greeting of ‘good morning’, or the like.
Taking this to the extreme of applying it in marriage, based on Menno’s article titled ‘Excommunication’ as well as ‘Questions and Answers’, then anything beyond common greeting and politeness would end with the excommunication of either spouse, leaving no room for marital intimacy, deep communication, or eating together. And that is precisely what I understand him to promote.
Whether many Anabaptist churches still take it to this extreme or not, I cannot say, but that directly collides with Paul’s command in Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 7:5
New King James Version (NKJV)
“5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Menno’s extreme views on excommunication here, and Paul’s teachings cannot both be accurate. Since one is the scripture speaking, and the other is another individual’s interpretation of scripture, I take the former at face value, and assume the latter is missing something.
By comparing scripture with scripture, it is clear that there was a misunderstanding of excommunication as Menno taught it in relation to marriage, but in other areas he was more biblical than any church I’ve ever known, who use the ‘ban’.
Menno quotes a lot of scripture throughout his writings, but rather than coming across as though he is ‘comparing scripture with scripture’, it seems as if he is using scriptures to endorse his particular view points. Viewpoints which he seems to sincerely believe are the most accurate interpretation of the intended message.
In studying further, and looking deeper at Menno’s use of the ban, these extreme views are brought into balance somewhat in his caution about using the ban. It seems he did not carelessly or casually use the ban for things that were not scripturally wrong, or sin issues–there is no indication anywhere that he would do so. And if someone disagreed in this area of shunning in marriage, and a spouse would not agree to treating their excommunicated spouse with extreme shunning, he extended grace.
In explaining this, he encouraged the church to be aware that not all commandments are equal, and a misinterpretation–or what I would call a disagreement with his viewpoint–should not be viewed with the same harshness as murder, adultery and other ‘abominable works of the flesh’.
In this way, it seems, Menno differentiated between ‘sin’, and interpretation of ‘ordinances’. While strong, and very black and white in his views, when the issue presents itself in real life, his ability to reason through it is obvious. He doesn’t want to wreck marriages, and the strong tone in his writing becomes more mellow.
In my next blog we will explore further Menno’s views on Excommunication, with one view, in particular, that was pleasantly surprising. A view that, if we lived by it today, would give the Mennonite church permission to make confessions without fear of discipline. Many of the confessions I hear, day to day, from clients, would not be hidden so long, if fear of harsh discipline was removed…
… Be Continued…
Return to first post in Sexual Abuse Series
Return to First Post in Spiritual Abuse Series