Secondary disfellowshipping

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The New Covenant Scriptures tell us that we are to disfellowship people from our congregations, and that we should have nothing to do with such people. In my book, Due Process, A Plea for Biblical Justice Among God’s People, I argue that generally those things in the lists of behaviors in the epistles that say that those who practice such things will not enter the Kingdom of God. We are not have anything to do with such people. These standards track with the standards for death or exile as penalties in the Torah. (I Cor. 5:11, Gal. 6:19)

Matthew 18:15 ff. gives us the process and standard for such disfellowshipping of individuals. Also, when a congregation or movement goes heretical, there is an analogous application from Torah where a city is to be rejected by Israel if they become idolaters or refuse to practice justice and protect a capital criminal. This can also be applied to congregations in severe error, and I think should be so applied. Asher Intrater argues for this in the conclusion of his book Covenant Relationships.

In general a basic level of doctrinal and behavioral standards are to be maintained by congregational discipline and in my view, movement discipline. As I argue in Due Process, when there is such discipline legitimately applied, it is important that other congregations support it. This is the meaning historically of letters of transfer and recommendation. In my view, one of the clearest violations today is when a leader leaves his wife for another without biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Such a person should not be received soon in a ministry leadership role, and maybe never.

There are two points of special confusion. The first is how to treat people who one leader thinks another is in sin or doctrinal error when there is no process to confront the person, and to see that there has been a fair process to declare the person to be in sin or heretical. That judging leader announces his view without any due process. Every eldership has the right to initiate a process for any person or organization they deem heretical or in serious sin and can seek to confront such a person or organization on the basis of the evidence. Of course, they will only do so if such a group or individual may be affecting them. There is not enough time in life to confront everything that is off in the world. We have to limit ourselves to what is affecting us. However, a call for avoidance should not be simply by the decision of a person with no due process.

Secondly, what are we to do when there has been legitimate discipline and disfellowshipping, and another individual does not avoid that person, or another community receives such a person. Does this require a new process that will lead to rejecting the group or individual that did not embrace the discipline? Well, I believe that the individual or group should be exhorted to support discipline. I have sometimes done this successfully. But if they don’t, should they themselves come under a disfellowshipping decision? This is not mere theory. There are examples of individuals, congregations and denominations doing just this. I call this secondary disfellowshipping, and then even tertiary disfellowshipping where another group is disfellowshipped for not avoiding the second group. This has sometimes led to successive fragmentation and a definition of holiness that has produced very narrow insular groups. My view, as argued in Due Process, is that secondary disfellowshipping is not wise and is not enjoined in the Bible. It requires us to be engaged in more and more discipline, to follow up the person at levels that distract us from the work of the Kingdom. I believe that secondary disfellowshipping should be avoided.

We live in a complex global communication world. Every kind of mistake and error is magnified. False accusations are also magnified. Then some in reacting want to reject any that seemed to have any relationship with the one that was deemed to be mistaken in their own doctrine or application of discipline. Often that doctrinal error is not by the standards of what historically counted as heresy. Heresy is being redefined in more narrow terms as well. This is now especially the problem when there has not been due process in dealing with a situation. Such an orientation produces a narrow judgmental (condemning spirit.) The people given to secondary disfellowshipping can come to a narrow fundamentalism and defensive posture to others where no one is pure enough. They become heresy hunters and will turn on more and more people who do not measure up. I believe the history of such an orientation should be a warning to us.  

So let us enjoin basic doctrinal and behavioral standards, but let us do it in a way that does not lead to running after people and rejecting groups who do not enforce our discipline. Someday when we are rightly joined, a discipline decision will be embraced by all who are linked together.

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Dr. Daniel Juster, founder and director of Tikkun International, has been involved in the Messianic Jewish movement since 1972 and currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel, from where he serves and supports the Messianic movement worldwide. Dan was the founding president and general secretary of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations for 9 years, the senior pastor of Beth Messiah congregation for 22 years, and a co-founder of the Messiah Bible Institute in several nations. Dr. Juster serves on the board of Towards Jerusalem Council II, provides oversight to 15 congregations in the USA as well as overseeing emissaries in Israel and the Former Soviet Union. Daniel has authored about 20 books on topics ranging from theology, Israel and the Jewish people, eschatology, discipleship, and leadership.