Shunning in Church life

shunning I thought it would be a good idea to revisit this whole theme of exclusion and shunning by churches. A reason for writing this present blog post and giving this topic some further discussion is that my previous contribution on this subject is reported to be the first discussion that appears in a Google search combining the words ‘church ’ and ‘shunning’. This fact both surprised and alarmed me. Is this blog really a key source of information and discussion that wants to take seriously the topic of shunning as it is practised in churches?

Another interesting fact that has been shared with me is that shunning, when looked at from the perspective of the church leader who practises it, is simply described as church discipline. Just as some church leaders parade their authority and power to their followers by endlessly quoting a few scriptural passages, so I discovered that church discipline is a process exercised in accordance with Matthew 18.15-18. In this passage, we read of the way in which an erring brother is to be corrected and if necessary excluded because of his obstinate state of sin. The passage is not without its problems from a critical point of view. Tax gatherers, who are mentioned in the passage as being somehow beyond the pale, are, in other parts of the Gospels, often the object of Jesus’s special concern. Also, we have a parable teaching the unlimited forgiveness of God coming immediately after this legalistic section.

This juxtaposition of an apparent command to discipline an erring disciple alongside a parable about unlimited forgiveness is no coincidence as far as I can see. The author of Matthew’s gospel surely means us to understand ‘church discipline’ in the context of God’s generous love and forgiveness. The practitioners of this harsh process of shunning and exclusion today seldom give any hint that they have attempted to put any forgiveness into practice. They do not appear to have even noticed that Matthew 18 overall is far more about generosity and unlimited forgiveness than a brutal exercise of coercive power. The word ‘brutal’ is probably the best word to sum up the effect of excluding and expelling a church member from their social, spiritual and emotional home to which they may have belonged for many years. The cruel and barbaric practice of ‘dis-fellowshipping’ or ‘disconnection’ is likely to have such a profound effect on its victims that they are never heard because the ‘treatment’ has left them mute and powerless. We also wonder how the enlisting of an entire congregation to enforce this exclusion of the ‘guilty’ person is going to do anything to promote the Christian virtues of love, generosity and forgiveness. In short such drastic cruel and inhumane treatment of another person by a Christian leader has very little to do with Matthew 18 or anything recognisably Christian.

There are three further observations about power that I want to make when looking at the process of shunning by a church leader of an individual. First of all, we have noted the incredibly cruel use of power by depriving a person of access to old social and spiritual networks. In addition to this the individual is being effectively told that without the ‘covering’ of the pastor, this ex-member is cut off from the promise of salvation. In short they are being condemned to damnation and eternal punishment. The second aspect of the power abuse which is present in every act of shunning, is the way that the entire congregation is brought into the process. Each member of the congregation is, in effect, ordered to withdraw their affection from the targeted person whether they wish to or not. Another way of putting this is to say that the pastor has ordered them to hate a named individual who may or may not be guilty of a serious offence. The examples that have come to us from the detailed report about Peniel, Brentwood certainly suggest that many shunned people were guilty only of questioning the leadership or refusing to obey some arbitrary command. In other words the Peniel story suggests that shunning or exclusion is used as a weapon of control by leaders who desire total domination of their congregations.

The third part of any act of shunning is the effect on the targeted individual. In many or even most cases the targeted person will feel the weight of shame so severely that they will be unable to be able to hold their head up or face their persecutors. Shame and the weight of a condemnation to a social death is a very heavy burden for anyone to bear. Very often a church, particularly under an oppressive leader, will have no process for launching any kind of appeal against the punishment that has been meted out. As we have seen often in this blog, the situation in many independent fellowships is that the minister or pastor is answerable to no one except God. Since he believes that God gives him direct guidance, he will be unable to contemplate any reconsideration of a judgement that he has made. The power imbalance that exists between the victim of shunning and the leader makes any comeback by that victim almost impossible. In most cases they are psychologically and socially destroyed.

The communication with me about the subject of shunning has allowed me a measure of encouragement for the work of the blog. The fact that my earlier article on shunning in the church appears right at the top of a Google search has allowed me to believe that I must continue to write on these topics in spite of minimal support or interest in these areas of church life. Many Christians appear to be blind and deaf to the suffering of countless people who have become the victims of narcissistic tyranny by some Church leaders. As long as this blindness continues the blog will remain important. There has to be one small corner of the internet where these important issues are talked about and exposed. To misquote the old saying, Evil flourishes where no one wants to admit it exists. Anyone who reads, comments and thinks about these issues will do a little to help the process of bringing light into dark places.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Shunning in Church life

  1. What a splendid (ghastly) cartoon!

    It’s perhaps worth emphasising as you mention that many others beyond the most directly affected people must have been brutalised by this practice. The family members for example who have been ordered to cut off the one they love or else follow them into the wilderness must have also suffered, sometimes horrifically too, by the terrible choice foisted on them, whether they have ultimately prioritised obedience and church membership or loyalty to the outcast.

  2. Yes Haiku, the cartoon would have deserved an entire blog post on its own. One wonders whether the desire to be pure and clean in church matters has a touch of OCD about it. You are right to point out the plight of the wider family. This is particularly acute in cultic groups like the Scientologists and JWs. I mentioned once the story of a JW funeral when the escapee JW was treated appallingly by the family who had remained.in. It takes a lot of energy to hate like you are required to in some religious groups!

  3. I had an interesting conversation today. The connection with shunning in my tiny mind, is that the lady I was talking to said her mother had shunned her. And, I think, her four siblings. Sometimes for a few hours of silence, sometimes for days. She had a long history of being abused, and this was just one example. She discovered by doing her family tree, that the grandparents, on both sides, unbelievably, had also abused their offspring, this woman’s parents, and she and her brothers and sisters. What is interesting from the point of view of this blog, is that she was brought up in an allegedly Christian home, and still is a believer. (Me and God are fine, she said) Her problem was that she feels physically sick when she walks into a church situation. Not, I think, the building, since it was in a church building that we met and talked. She insisted, with good reason so far as I could tell, that she was over it now, and had a life, not totally problem free, but generally good. But plainly still needed as I put it to her, to “keep fit”. I hope she took up my suggestion to see her new doctor and bring him up to speed, and perhaps seek some healing prayer from a new church. So far as she could tell, all the family members who carried out abuse, had themselves been abused. And, though we didn’t explore this, all within a church context. Only a slender connection to your article, I’m afraid, Stephen.

  4. I’m so glad to see you address this topic. In the States, there’s even a term: “I’ve been Matthew 18ed.” It’s a process of getting rid of the people that you don’t like by declaring them non-Christian, to either throw them out of some church related venture or to get around Paul’s imperative to keep disagreements between Christians out of Caesar’s courts. A dear friend of mine was “Matthew 18ed” out of her homeschooling co-op because she sat in the car while ill while her daughter played volleyball. The church convened a meeting and voted her out of the co-op.

    There is also the question of whether this is a process that is meant for people with whom you know and love in real life to restore fellowship or cause to create drama on the internet with someone who is essentially a stranger. It’s become a proof text for much that reaches far beyond what I see as the original intent.

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