Christian Conscience: The Argument Against Ex-Communication
As part of the make-up of our human and spiritual psyche, conscience can be a bitter sweet experience: it can enrich or impoverish us, it can give meaning to our deepest understandings; it can define our relationship with others, and draw us into struggles that may strengthen or crush us. There have been times in our human history when we can point and say: ‘How different could it have been if good men and women of conscience had acted?’ and indeed, we can also say how much richer the world has become when good men and women have spoken out and acted, even when the cost of doing so has been the paying of the ultimate price.
In the secular world, it is far from easy as Christians to square our consciences with the material world in which we live – it can be a daily battle. And in the great debates of mans age, from the death penalty to war and social injustice – including in previous centuries, slavery – Christians have been found standing on both sides of these struggles, each one holding true to their conscience.
When Peter and John stood before a judicial body, made up from the most respected members of their life long religion, they faced that same ultimate struggle: to hold true to their consciences in face of authoritarian pressure.
‘…Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4:19-20 NIV)
Throughout the history of the Christian church, theological and ideological differences have arisen between members of the body of Christ, from the very earliest days when some Christians chose to enter the lion’s den and still other Christians argued against doing so; from Peter and Paul, from the Catholic and Anglican split, and through all the various denominational schisms that have arisen over the course of more than twenty centuries, Christian men and women have struggled with their consciences even against the church they loved.
The matter of ex-communication (or dis-fellowhsipping or shunning as it also termed) is one such matter of conscience that all Christians must look into their hearts and prayerfully consider. For it is my contention that when the church as a whole considers employing shunning, in whatever form, of individual members on issues of theological or ideological difference, or over matters of conscience, then the church takes a step down a very dangerous path indeed, and one that it would take at its own peril.
In his article ‘Ex-communicate Pro-Abortion Church Members’, Don Costello stands strongly with his conscience, and for that I must commend him, for too few people – even within the Christian church – are brave enough to do so. Mr Costello’s view, however, is an absolutist view of a black and white world which I do not recognise, nor live in. For whilst I personally do not believe in abortion as a choice I could consciously make for myself, I also recognise that life is not as simple as perhaps Mr Costello would like it to be.
I am going to present two scenarios, which, though involving fictional persons, are based on real events that have happened within the lives of many of Gods anonymous children and will happen, at some point, again.
case 1: A young married couple discover they are expecting their first child; at the same time, they also discover that the young wife has a serious cancer. They can delay treatment, so that the child may be brought safely into the world, but at the cost of the mothers’ life – leaving child without mother and husband without wife. Or they can terminate the pregnancy, so that the cancer may be treated and woman can go on to be a mother to future children.
case 2: A young fifteen year old girl has been violently gang raped, and discovers afterward that she is pregnant. Already emotionally and psychologically damaged, she can indeed carry the child, perhaps giving it up for adoption – but the brutal circumstances of the pregnancy is creating self-harming behaviour and she is threatening to commit suicide. Supposing she has the child, and gives it up for adoption - what of the child in future years, when it wants to know who its parents are – who its father is? What further damage will be done then?
In his article, Mr Costello correctly identifies that, as Christians, we live neither under the old covenant or the theocracy of old Israel. Should it be that, in the course of my Christian life, I find myself ministering to that young couple or the teenage girl, what would I do? Certainly I would listen to them, pray with them and search the scripture with them. Certainly I would hope that they would choose the child’s life. But if they should choose, after all that, termination: I would most certainly not condemn them as “…sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the whore…children of transgression, a seed of falsehood.” (Isaiah 57: 3-5). I would stand by them in their decision – even if it meant being shunned or ex-communicated by my church for doing so.
As Charles Davies, Catholic theologian and former priest points out: ‘…Christians for whom doctrine is distorted into prejudice and who are rendered tense and fearful, cannot love as they should. They are without the full basis of Christian truth for their love.’* The absolutes that Mr Costello seeks do not in any event exist, and in trying to establish them our view of Gods world is constricted and our ability to understand His guidance diminished.
Consider for a moment how often the guidance of God in the new covenant seemed to be ‘against’ the rules and laws of old covenant. In John 7:53 – 8:11, this is demonstrated very clearly. The teachers of the law bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. ‘In the law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?’ (NIV). Initially Jesus says nothing, and ‘started to write on the ground with his finger.’ But the teachers of the law persist, for they are eager to trap him. ‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Of course, none of the teachers can honestly say that they have not, indeed do not, sin and all of them retreat, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. ‘…neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ There is, it seems, a difference between man’s view of this situation and God’s view.
God is asking us to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves, and each other. Matthew 7:2-4 (NIV) ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?’ He is seeking that we understand not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law.
Suppose then that the church seeks to employ the policy of ex-communication or shunning in some form? What would be the eventual outcome of a group of men deciding on which doctrines we must all agree in order to be a member of the church? We would most certainly have regressed to a situation not unlike that which existed before Jesus came to us where people would be ‘…held by an institution in which they have no real part or say, and cannot be themselves…’; and where ‘…questioning institutions is synonymous…with attacking God…Actually they [the institution] are protecting themselves, their view of the world and their sense of security. Their religious institution has given them a sense of purpose…any perceived threat…is a threat indeed.’ (Daniel Taylor**).
In other words we would begin to tread a dangerous path, where church becomes something other than the home of the Christian family. Indeed, when one Christian questions another Christians’ devotion, love and integrity to God then harm is done not only to the individual so accused, but to the unified spirit of the body of Christ. And in the end, it is not within man’s authority to do this: compare Romans 14:10-12, Romans 2:6-10, 1Corinthians 4:3-5 and Matthew 13:41-43.
There have, and no doubt will always be differences in interpretation both theologically and ideologically within the church: try and count for your self the number of denominations existing within the body of Christ. And it is for the churches to work through those differences, finding unity where possible and seeking always to foster a genuine sense of mutual understanding: for we are all one in the body of Christ.
8 November 2005.
*Charles Davies A Question of Conscience (Hodder & Stoughton, London 1967)
**Daniel Taylor, PhD The Myth of Certainty (World Books, 1986)