Q: Are Christians to “shun” fellow believers who live in open sin?

The word excommunication has a medieval ring to it, but is there still a place for a rebellious Christian to be banished from the flock?

There’s a rather tricky irony which exists in the Church! We’re supposed to be very friendly and outgoing with secular sinners we know – but we’re told in the Bible to cut off a fellow believer who persists in certain immoral deeds. That seems backwards – so what’s the difference?

There are two powerful realities that exist within each of us. The first is that it’s dangerous to be around sin. When you place yourself in an atmosphere where lying is common, where obscene language is the lingua franca of the marketplace, where gossip and sexual peccadilloes are freely traded, and where godless attitudes prevail, it has an inward impact! It’s amazing that Jesus Christ, with his holy unfallen nature, could hang around with twelve cursing fishermen and embrace brazen prostitutes without become sin-polluted himself. But it’s a herculean challenge for us to be “in the world but not of the world.”

This is undoubtedly why Paul warns his fellow Christians that in the major relationships of life – marriage, a work partnership, close friendships – we should not be “yoked” with a non-Christian (II Cor. 6:14). The world views are simply too different, and the possibility of being dragged into apostasy too real.

Despite the risks, though, we’re told as a Church to go ye into all the world. We’re supposed to invade every sinful culture on this planet and take Jesus to the struggling sinners we find everywhere. Jesus scandalized the religious world of his day by going to parties populated by thugs, tax cheats, and hookers. “The healthy don’t need a doctor,” he explained. “I came to seek and save the lost.”

The second reality, however, is that the Christian church – as a corporate body – has to send a clear signal to the world that holiness and sanctification are important and that Jesus Christ is fully the “Lord” of our lives. The Christian experience is one of obedience, and a watching world takes notice of our testimony. This is why Paul had to send a scathing letter to a church in Corinth where key members were brazenly practicing incest! A man was sleeping with his stepmother, and was essentially boasting that – because of Calvary’s gift of grace – all was well!

You are proud! Paul scolds the leaders of the church in I Corinthians 7. Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord. (The expression “hand him over to Satan” simply means to expel him from the holy circle of the church until he repents.)

Now comes the tricky part. In verse 9, Paul explains himself: I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of the WORLD who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. We’re surrounded with people for whom wickedness and flouting the law are their daily way of life! They haven’t been saved yet. To isolate ourselves from every single one of them, one version suggests, we’d essentially have to go live on Mars or the moon. This doesn’t undercut the Bible’s instructions about establishing close alliances with people who are living steadfastly in their sins.