If it feels like excommunication, you are probably doing it wrong

At the start of the Coronavirus lockdown when we began discussing what we should do as churches, one of the main areas of debate was about whether or not we could and should still share the Lord’s Supper (communion). All sorts of reasons were given on both sides of the debate. As you know, I concluded that we could and should continue to take communion. Whilst I understand the motivation and concern to do things in an orderly way, some of the arguments against communion were more convincing than others.

However, one argument stood out to me as concerning. It was the suggestion that Coronavirus was a specific form of discipline on the church for our consumerism and individualism. Therefore, we should accept this discipline for the time being.

As I have explained in previous posts, the Bible shows that the whole of creation is currently under judgement. Therefore, plagues, natural disasters and war are all part of living in a fallen world. In that sense, we are living under judgement. Additionally, it is right to talk about the Lord’s discipline. Hebrews 12 talks about God disciplining us like a loving father disciplines his children. Appropriate discipline is a sign of love. Again, what I believe is that Biblically we see how God uses ur day to day normal circumstances and experiences to do this.

However, we do not have permission to second guess God and announce that something is a specific punishment on the church or society.  Furthermore, I am particularly concerned when the people who are quickest to announce punishment are church leaders who are able to insulate themselves against the worst affects of the virus. Further, the very people who are hungriest to gather for teaching and share in communion are believers who have experienced trials and struggles but also have learnt to trust in the goodness of God. 

Yet the idea seems to persist, not just that this is discipline but also that we should primarily see it through that prism of disciplinary language and experience so that even if this is not specific discipline, that’s how we are meant to see it. So, if we are experiencing the pain of isolation as we are unable to share communion and gather together, then this should give us insight into what excommunication is like and how it is used to discipline and bring back a longing for fellowship.

I really struggle with that.  Why? Because it still suggests that in effect the church is experiencing a form of punishment.  And again, I want to raise the challenge that the very people struggling the most with isolation are the ones who are most sensitive to God and to the body. The hard hearted and disaffected will be quite able to cope with a couple of months absent. They probably normally are skipping church this time of year for outings to the countryside and seaside.

I also struggle because this is language being used when we are still in the immediate aftermath of two recent scandals where high profile church leaders were reported for abusive and bullying behaviour towards their congregations and others.  One of the issues a number of us have raised is that that type of behaviour among individuals both develops in and helps to create an abusive culture. So, I want to suggest that in that if the language we most immediately draw upon to describe the current experience of the church suggests punishment, suggests that our whole congregations, godly prayer warriors, faithful survivors of abuse, passionate evangelists are being punished by isolation and starvation (of spiritual food) then we have got this wrong. 

Our concern at the moment should be “how do we feed the sheep and how do we protect the sheep” during this crisis.  This may be harder, more challenging for us but shepherds should have a concern to seek out and gather in scattered, isolated hungry sheep. Further, if the task is harder for us as pastors then before we announce discipline on our congregations maybe we should be consider that in the Hebrews 12 sense we are the ones most immediately needing discipline. Because if there is a slackness, if there is individualism and consumerism and particularly if there has been an unhappy and unhealthy culture, who should take first responsibility? Surely the answer is us.

My other problem with the obsession about specific judgement is that it suggests a very western-centric view of the world and the church.  So we are experiencing an epidemic which we lack the medical resources to fully combat. We are required to stay in a homes, a form of house arrest, there are police on our streets checking where we are going. Food products we were used to as basic essentials are becoming essential and there are queues at the supermarkets. There are restrictions preventing us from gathering in our church buildings.  These are unusual circumstances for us but if immediately we have to have special reasons for our experience then maybe we are forgetting that what is abnormal to us normal for many Christians around the world. Indeed the freedoms and the luxuries we have enjoyed make us historically and geographically the anomaly.

So, if there is something we might want to prioritise at the moment, it is seeing how these present circumstances can give us a feel for what the suffering, persecuted church have experienced on a daily basis for many years. May it produce a greater concern and love for the whole church, may it lead to a passion for world mission.

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