Excommunication is one of the most misunderstood elements of our faith. Many today imagine that the Church takes some sort of perverse glee in kicking people out, but that is not at all the case. Excommunication is always a sad event, a last resort when nothing else will work, and it is never intended to shame or demean anyone. Rather, it is supposed to show obstinate, uncontrite sinners the error of their ways so they can repent and rejoin the Church.
And we can see this if we look at what the New Testament says about the practice. We only find excommunication in a couple of passages, but those few references to it are very important for understanding why the Church sometimes cuts off communion with some of its members.
Gentiles and Tax Collectors
First, let’s look at what Jesus said about it. In the Gospel of Matthew, he gives a short teaching on how to deal with a Christian who sins grievously and refuses to repent (Matthew 18:15-17). He tells us that we should try to win this person back, but if all our efforts fail, we should “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 15:17).
Jesus addressed this teaching to his disciples (Matthew 18:1), who were all Jews, so to properly understand it, we need to know how first-century Jews viewed Gentiles and tax collectors. Gentiles were non-Jews, so they weren’t part of God’s chosen people. Similarly, tax collectors, while Jews, were also often considered outside God’s people because they were seen as sinners. Much like some people view law and politics today, tax collecting was viewed by many first-century Jews as a stereotypically sinful profession. Not only did many tax collectors take more money than they were supposed to (and they kept the profits), but they also collected taxes for the Romans, the oppressors of the Jews, so they were viewed as traitors to their own people. As a result, even though they were not Gentiles, they were nevertheless seen by many of their peers as outside the community of God’s people.
From this, we can see that Jesus is essentially telling us that if members of our Church remain obstinate in their unrepentance, we should kick them out. However, there is another nuance here that we need to be aware of. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he reached out to sinners, including tax collectors, to bring them back to God (for example, Matthew 9:9-13), and after he died and rose from the dead, he commanded his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Consequently, we can see that when he tells us to excommunicate unrepentant sinners, he doesn’t intend for them to remain outside the Church forever. No, the point is to show them the error of their ways so we can eventually win them back, just like he and his disciples did with Gentiles and tax collectors.
Destruction of the Flesh
And we see something similar in a passage from one of St. Paul’s letters. In First Corinthians, he writes about a person who has committed a grievous sin and refuses to repent, and he says, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:2), a clear reference to excommunication. He then goes on to describe this punishment in strange terms:
“When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” (1 Corinthians 5:4-5)
For our purposes here, two things in this passage are important. First, Paul describes excommunication as delivering someone “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” and secondly, he says that it is for the sake of saving the person’s soul. The second element is easy enough to understand. Like we saw in Jesus’ teaching on the subject, excommunication is not simply punitive; it is restorative as well. It is supposed to show people just how badly they’ve sinned in the hope that they will repent and rejoin the Church.
However, the first element, delivering the person to Satan so their “flesh” may be destroyed, is much harder to understand. It sounds really spiteful, perhaps even violent, but it is not nearly as bad as it seems. St. Paul describes people who are excommunicated as given to Satan because they are much more vulnerable to his attacks outside the Church (for example, they no longer have access to the sacraments, which are a great help in resisting temptation). So far so good. But then we come to the really weird part. What does it mean for excommunication to be “for the destruction of the flesh”?
The key here is to understand how St. Paul uses the word “flesh” in his letters. He often uses it to refer to our sinful, fallen nature apart from God’s grace (for example, in Romans 8:4-9, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3), and that is what he means here as well. He is saying that excommunication is ultimately supposed to get people to repent and come back to the Church, thereby destroying their sinfulness (their “flesh”) and restoring them to grace.
Restoring the Sinner
From these two passages, we can clearly see that excommunication is not something we should glory in or view as a victory for the “good guys.” Rather, it is always a sad occasion, and its purpose is always the restoration of the sinner. We should pray for people who are excommunicated and hope that it does its job of making them realize the gravity of their sin, bringing them to repentance, and ultimately leading them back to communion with God and his Church.