Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Lost Practice of Christian Shunning

While certainly affirming our Lord's teaching to go out into the highways and by-ways to seek the lost and of being a light to the world, have you ever run across a situation where you simply cannot put yourself in the presence of a particular individual(s) because of the lifestyle they choose to live? People whose manifest and unrepentant sins are so scandalous that you believe it would be spiritually damaging for you or your family to engage with them in any way? People whom you basically shun or shut out of your daily life intentionally?

We all have these people - and maybe you feel a little bit bad about your approach to them? Maybe you feel conflicted. After all, you remember the "sinners and tax collectors" stuff from the New Testament and the "who is my neighbor?" stuff and you wonder whether it is really just to simply exclude a person from your life because of their sins. After all, you were a sinner and God did not exclude you.

My friends, this is not a happy-clappy blog, and I am not going to go into a moralizing lesson on how we ought not to shun these people. In fact, I am going to suggest the opposite: that your guilt is misplaced and that you are right to shun or shut out manifest certain sinners from your life. In fact, the Sacred Scriptures not only allow for such shunning, but positively command it in certain circumstances. Let us take a look and the long-neglected practice of Christian "shunning".

First, let us recall Matthew 10:12-15:

"And when you come into the house, salute it, saying: Peace be to this house. And if that house be worthy, your peace shall come upon it; but if it be not worthy, your peace shall return to you. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet.  Amen I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city."

The only sin or evil that is mentioned here is the refusal of a person or persons to listen to the Gospel or be willing to receive a Christian in order to hear the Gospel. If this occurs, Jesus commands the disciples to "shake the dust from your feet"; in New Testament era jargon, this reflects a demonstration of repudiation or separation. Pious Jews used to do this after passing through a Gentile city to demonstrate their repudiation of the Gentile customs they had to endure whilst in a city on business. The command of Christ to do this signifies that the believer repudiates the unbelief of the infidel. But not only is the unbelief repudiated, but the believer must physically separate himself from the presence of the obstinate infidel by "going forth out of that house or city"; St. Paul and Barnabas do just this in Acts 13:50-51 after meeting hostility in Pisidia. They shake the dust off their feet and move on to another city, leaving the unbelievers to themselves. 

Note also our Lord not only commands repudiation and physical separation, but pronounces a woeful judgment on the unbelievers.

This is not shunning in the positive sense of a believer refusing to see a scandalous sinner; rather, it is the believer removing himself from the presence of obstinate unbelievers. But the principle is introduced that a physical separation from an obstinate infidel - and that word obstinate is key  - is sometimes necessary.

Jesus also discusses shunning in Matthew 18:15-17:

"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

First, note that this is applied to "your brother"; i.e., another member of the Church. That this is evident is denoted by Christ's reference to "the Church" as the authority the two brethren can take their problem to. If the errant brother was not also a member of the Church, why would the Church have jurisdiction to hear the case? So Christ applies this teaching to other Christians, not unbelievers in general.

Second, the obstinacy of the brother who refuses to listen "even to the Church" merits shunning. "Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" means shun him; it is common knowledge that pious Jews shunned the company and homes of Gentiles and tax collectors, and Jesus' admonition is that one remaining obstinate in his sins is to be shunned by the Church.

Let us go on to 1 Corinthians, where we see St. Paul has taken the concept of physical separation in cases of obstinate refusal to listen and applied it to cases of sexual immorality within the Church:

1 Corinthians 5:19-13

"I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.

Like in Matthew 18, we see the practice of shunning being invoked to deal with cases of obstinate sin within the Church. And in case Jesus' teaching was not clear enough, St. Paul goes to lengths to explain that he is not suggesting that Christians separate from the sinners of the world - for to do that, one would need to leave the world! On the contrary, it is those who call themselves Christian yet persist in sin who must be shunned. Notice also that, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world, St. Paul assumes that Christians are discerning, judgmental people: "Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?" 

But why do believers in obstinate sin -sexual immorality in this case - deserve to be shunned? Why not extend this to unbelievers as well? After all, sin is sin and scandal is scandal, right?

Well, not really. Adultery is always scandalous, but when adultery occurs in the case of a Christian it is especially scandalous because the Christian ought to know better. This is why St. Peter admonishes, "let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker" (1 Pet. 4:15), and also why Jesus warns that a Christian who falls into grave sin is in a much worse state than a sinner who was never in a state of grace to begin with (cf. Luke 11:23-26). In other words, there is particular scandal about obstinate sin or unbelief when one should know better. "If your eye is unsound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the very light in you is darkened, how dense is that darkness! (Matt. 6:23).

Note that Paul recommends a very strict separation in the case of these obstinate sinners. We are not to "associate" with these people - and as if to make sure we understand how serious Paul is, he specifies that we are not even to eat with such people. He goes on to quote Deut. 17:7, which says "purge the evil from the midst of you" and has reference to the execution of the death sentence against Israelites guilty of worshiping other gods. Given this, it would be difficult to argue in context that Paul's admonition to shun sexually immoral Christians is not meant to be taken literally. This also demonstrates that Paul is not referring to a juridical excommunication - although excommunication is a kind of formal shunning on the part of the whole Church. Rather, he is referring to the way individual Christians are to treat other individual Christians who are habitually sexually immoral.

Finally, let us turn to 2 John 1:7-11 for the next development of the practice. Christ has given us the principle that obstinate unbelievers ought to be separated from, as well as members of the Church who are obstinate sinners; St. Paul uses the example of habitual sexual immorality among Christians as an practical example of Christ's precept and goes to great lengths to state that the separation should be total - we should neither "associate" nor "eat with" such person.

St. John the Apostle applies this to not only immoral Christians, but heretical Christians as well. Let us turn to 2 John 1:7-11:

"Many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist! Be on your guard, so that you do not lose what we have worked for, but may receive a full reward. Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person."

St. John is speaking clearly of doctrinal deviations, for he references anyone who "does not bring this teaching." In other words, heretics, those who obstinately refuse to "abide in the teaching of Christ". We are to neither welcome these people nor even let them into our houses. Like St. Paul, St. John advocates a total shunning of the heretic. But unlike Paul, John gives the rationale: "To welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person."

This is an important point. Even if we personally disagree with homosexual acts, if we welcome a practicing homosexual who professes to be a Christian into our homes, we are in fact affirming his wicked lifestyle and thus sharing in his evil deeds. Remember, one of the traditional ways of partaking in the sin of another is by silence. Receiving one into the house signifies a kind of silence regarding the person's errors; unless of course you are visiting with the person for the express purpose of calling them to repentance - the correct context in which to understand Christ's eating with tax collectors and sinners, by the way - but the problem is too many people fraternize with heretical or immoral Christians whilst simultaneously keeping silent about their immoral lifestyles. They thus refuse to perform a spiritual work of mercy while affirming the sinner and thus sharing the guilt of their sins.

On the contrary, shunning is a type of admonition of the sinner, a kind of call to repentance by avoidance of physical communion - symbolizing that the obstinate sinner has broken communion with God and the Church. It is like a personal-social boycott against sin, and as such is actually a spiritual work of mercy.

By the way, St. John does not say this practice applies only to really bad heretics, but to "everyone" who does not abide in the teaching of Christ.

In St. John, we see the kernel of the traditional understanding of the relationship between "heresy" and "obstinacy"; heresy is defined as a kind of obstinate, inflexible refusal to believe or "abide" in sound teaching. The heretic and the habitually immoral Christian are to be shunned because their obstinacy is a scandal and to continue to commune and associate with them as if nothing were wrong would be to make us complicit in their sins. This is why St. Athanasius refused to receive communion with Arius and why St. John the Apostle removed himself from a public building when he learned a notable heretic was inside (St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III.3.4).

So what sorts of practical conclusions can we draw here?

First, there are appropriate situations for actively shunning the company of other people. Who? According to the New Testament, other Christians who are obstinately living in sin, especially sexual immorality, as well as heretics. We do not go out of our way to avoid the sinners of the world - those folks are targets for conversion and anyhow its impossible to get away from them ultimately. But we do expect a certain degree of behavior and fidelity "on the inside" of the Church, to use St. Paul's language. Those Christians who obstinately refuse to maintain it ought to be avoided. What sorts of people in your life fit this description?

Second, that this shunning is physical and total - refusal to associate with, eat with, or even greet these people. How would this look in your life were it put into practice?

Third, that refusal to do so in fact makes us guilty of these people's sins. It is not an act of Christian charity to invite your lesbian niece and her girlfriend over for Christmas dinner while not saying anything to them about their sin. In fact, to do so would make you guilty of sharing in their sin. Examine your conscience here.

Fourth, in all these cases, Christ, St. Paul and St. John are all more interested in preserving the integrity and sanctity of the faithful believer than worrying about the feelings of the obstinate sinner being shunned. So should we.

Fifth, we need to keep this teaching in proper perspective. After a person repents, we are to welcome them back joyfully (cf. Luke 15:7, 2 Cor. 2:6-11, Luke 15:22-24). Furthermore, this cannot be used as an excuse to avoid evangelism. As we said above, this teaching clearly applies to those called by the name of Christ, not unbelievers in need of Christ.

Finally, it is not arrogant judgmentalism or Pharisaism. St. Paul himself affirms that it is our business to judge those "on the inside." Still, such judgments should be made in humility, not out of a sense of superiority.

So do not feel guilty that you did not invite your lesbian niece and her girlfriend to the family party. Put away your nagging questions about whether you ought to attend the third marriage of your Uncle Gary. You are doing the correct thing by shunning these people. To do otherwise is to affirm their evil deeds and partake in them. There is a place for shunning in Catholicism, and if we weren't so paralyzed by seeming judgmental or harsh, we would realize it.

"So shall you purge the evil from your midst." ~Deut. 17:7

26 comments:

Loneliest Place in Rome said...

Absolutely awesome. Thank you.

I'm an Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Brother Boniface. Just when ABS thinks you can;t do any better than you vein the past, you go and totally redeem yourself :)

Kudos!!! This kick-ass and it is certainly correct

Anonymous said...

Beautiful...well said. About time we put this into concrete practice. It is LOVE to shun those in obstinate sin...for it helps wake them up to the reality that they are separate from God...and will be eternally so (and in eternal hell fire) if they do not repent and turn from their sin. God bless you~

Lee said...

Personally I am convinced that our failure to charitably shun our fallenaways has contributed greatly to the mass falling away from the faith that we see around us. Inviting the atheist uncle and the lesbian aunt to Christmas and Easter celebrations- or the Fourth of July for that matter-is completely nuts. For one thing, it is offensive the the Holy Spirit in itself when we show honor to the enemies of the Cross and of Christ. Secondly, it indicates to the younger members of the family that we are not serious about the commands of God and the discipline of the Church. Thirdly, the atheistic uncle and the lesbian aunt are evangelical in their own way and will use the opportunity to advance their cause. Your atheistic brother is sitting in a corner with your eldest son talking most intensely with him. What is he saying? Perhaps you will get an idea when your son leaves the Church. Your daughter has developed an affection for her lesbian aunt, though at her age she has not the slightest idea what a lesbian is. Nevermind, she will. In my opinion it is these bonds of affection that are most dangerous. After all, how serious is this business about Heaven and Hell, for Uncle Jack is very open about his unbelief, yet he has not been called to account. He is very friendly and winsome and witty, and a neurosurgeon to boot. Now that you've invited your lesbian sister-in-law for these family gatherings and have permitted the friendship between her and your daughter, what can you say when she comes by to take your daughter out to get her ears pierced? And when your children fall away from the faith you will complain to God and say, "We did everything we could!" There is no arguing. You did a lot. You took them to Mass every Sunday, had grace before meals, sent them to Catholic school, were careful about the media allowed in your home and often said the family Rosary. Yet, on this one, critical point out of both cowardice and false charity you were disobedient to the Spirit of Jesus Christ and handed your children over to the enemy on a silver platter.

Because I was the eldest son sitting in the corner with the atheist uncle, I fell away, but through the prayers and sacrifices I came back. For that reason, however, the enemies of Christ and the Church who also happened to be siblings had very little access to my children over the years. It was very painful all the way around- and for decades. Yet, in their mid-thirties they still practice the faith and my daughter is a contemplative nun. Had we been "kind" and "loving" and "non-judgmental" we would never have had this happy result.

Thank you so much for what amounts to a biblical theology of "shunning." it is invaluable, and needs to be widely circulated.

Marietta said...

Great article. Please send it to the Pope. He needs it.

Nate C said...

Best blog post I have had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

FANATIC!!

GET A LIFE.

INSTEAD OF THINKING OF SHUNNING PRAY FOR YOUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS.

SOME OF YOU BADLY CALLED "TRADITIONALIST" SHOULD BE BETTER CALLED FANATICS WHO THINK ONLY YOU ARE GOING TO HEAVEN.

SHAME OF YOU FOR EVEN CONSIDERING SHUNNING AS A WAY TO BRING BACK THE SINNER.

I ASSURE YOU YOUR THINKING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CHRIST OR CHRISTIANITY AND MUCH LESS CATHOLICISM.

I AM A CATHOLIC AND I DO SPEND A LOT OF TIME CRITICIZING THE LIBERALISM IN THE CHURCH BUT I WILL NOT GO TO THE EXTREMES SOME OF YOU FANATICS WHO SECRETLY FOLLOW THE SSPX AND THEIR CLOSE MINDED THINKING FOLLOW.


"The Lost Practice of Christian Shunning"

YOU ARE SICK!!!

Anonymous said...

I can't believe you are allow to have a blog.

Boniface said...

Hey anonymous "ALL CAPS' commentator;

Instead of presuming you know about who or what I "secretly follow", why don't you offer something constructive by giving us an alternate exegesis of the biblical passages I cited. If these Bible passages ("do not welcome him into your house"; "do not greet him"; "do not eat with such a person," etc) do not imply what I am suggesting, please tell me what they do mean.

Anonymous said...

Boniface you're an idiot!

Boniface said...

Well if so please enlighten me and exegete these passages for me. I am dying to know what your interpretation is. If "don't let them into your house" is not to be taken literally please share with us what my means.

Anonymous said...

If you shun a transgressor you have written them off and broken all communication. What incentive have they from you to amend their ways? None.
Christ said if I am not mistaken that he would abandon 99 sheep to go find a single lost one.
Your "shunning " proposal flies in the face of that.
.

Boniface said...

Anonymous,

But it was Jesus Christ Himself who told us to treat obstinate sinners who refused to listen as "tax collectors or Gentiles." Clearly Jesus did not think this command contradicted His statements about finding the lost sheep.

The difference I think is in the obstinacy of the sinner.

But, if I am wrong, please tell me the correct way to interpret Matthew 10:12-15, 2 John 1:7-11,1 Corinthians 5:19-13 and Matthew 18:15-17.

Lee said...

Boniface,

In your strong support, here is Newman's "Sermon for the Feast of St. Barnabas": http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume2/sermon23.html

I'm an Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

Dear Brother Boniface. The anonymous comments are hysterical but they do illustrate the absolute hatred of masculine Catholicism

Truthseeker said...

I don't doubt that if any only did post a compelling reply to Boniface he would delete it or simply never publish it in the first place. He has a history of doing this....

I'm an Amateur Brain Surgeon said...

If you shun a transgressor you have written them off and broken all communication. What incentive have they from you to amend their ways? None.

There are not a few people who think themselves more influential than the Grace of the Holy Ghost.

Anonymous said...

Isn't shunning what you people do anyway?

Emily said...

Thanks for this. I distinctly remember being chewed out on a Catholic forum for suggesting that heretics are a danger to all souls and that a smaller community of devout Catholics is healthier than a larger one filled with Catholics who pick and chose which teachings they want to follow. I believe a big part of the problem is that priests are afraid to condemn sin during their homilies for fear of driving people away. To suggest that maybe the Church is better off without these people was met with so much anger and harassment that the thread had to be closed. One of the commenters cited the missing sheep parable as anonymous above did...I am under the impression that the proper interpretation according to Catholic sources (St. Hilary, St. Bede, St. Gregory...) is that the lost sheep is symbolic of all of mankind after the fall, not of some individual heretic/unrepentant sinner who left the flock of sinless Catholics (as if such a thing exists). The 99 righteous who have no need of redemption are the angels.

Perhaps consider moderating comments to ensure polite, respectful discussion. Practically all of the people who commented in disagreement had nothing insightful to say about the topic, and reading all these rude comments and insults from people who claim to be Catholics is, in a word, shocking.

Quovadis7 said...

Boniface, I'm with you 100%.

However, the vast majority of our Catholic hierarchy appears not to be....

In my view, in an official capacity at least, Catholic tolerance toward sin, evil, dissent, and error - i.e. the outright rejection of "Christian shunning" - was promoted by St. Pope John XXIII himself. In his opening speech at the 2nd Vatican Council, he emphasized:

"But today we prefer to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. We meet the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of our teachings rather than by condemning others. In fact, error today is so obvious when it emerges that people themselves reject it. "

And, our present Holy Father is also quite reticent to condemn at least some obvious and gravely evil acts (recall his famous "Who am I to judge?" statement after the most recent World Youth Day in Brazil)....

So, for much of the past 50 years, it seems quite clear to me that our Catholic leadership has consistently and vigorously rejected the premise of your insightful blog post. The scathing criticisms from your anonymous commentators merely confirm that Catholics have been strongly urged over that period to reject "Christian shunning". From their spiritual guidance, it seems that our Catholics leaders could really care less how much one can find as support the inspired words recorded from Our Lord Himself and His Apostles on this subject.

What is a Catholic, who is striving to be faithful and holy, to do?

As you have already experienced in the comments above, for us to embrace "shunning" is to be tagged with the moniker of being disobedient to the direction (and the implied commands) of those in rightful spiritual authority over us. See our obligations as defined by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical "Diuturnum Illud", paragraph 15:

"The one only reason which men have for not obeying is when anything is demanded of them which is openly repugnant to the natural or the divine law, for it is equally unlawful to command to do anything in which the law of nature or the will of God is violated."

Would the act of embracing and practicing "Christian shunning" meet the criteria of Pope Leo XIII for legitimate disobedience, or would it be an illegitimate act of willful disobedience to the recent guidance, direction, and commands of our rightful Catholic spiritual leadership?

Pax et benedictiones tibi, per Christum Dominum nostrum,

Steve B

Lord of Bollocks said...

Dear Brain Surgeon and Boniface (as an aside, I don't know why you would name yourself after such a worldly and disastrous pontiff),

I came from a traddie church where shunning was not only practiced, but the norm. Never again have I encountered such a cesspool of unchristian backbiting, gossip, and namecalling. For any mainstream trad groups to practice this would be disastrous.

Trust me, there is nothing "masculine" about mantilla clad churchladies dressed like Laura Ingalls (great Protestant fashion sense right there) sniping snide comments with the look of a Hollywood movie governess while the whipped and emasculated husbands go along, fearful of their harpy wives. Nothing in that last sentence was hyperbole or exaggerration.

Consider this. How many of the early Christian converts in apostolic times must have led immoral and deviant lives? How many of them probably still struggled after conversion (a vice doesn't just go away overnight)? We are in a pagan era unheard of for 1700 or so years. Shunning is about the last thing that should be on the table, considering all the sinners that need to be rehabilitated and brought into the fold in charity. Allowing shunning will, in practice, encourage traddies to implement it to anyone with the slightest public shortfalling without even attempting to resolve the problem through other means. Such is human nature.

And, honestly, the ability of the pastor to ban problematic people from the church makes shunning entirely redundant. These sort of things should be handled ultimately by the pastor, if anyone.

Boniface said...

Lord of Bollocks,

If you believe my position to be incorrect, please provide an alternate exegesis for the biblical texts I cited and how they ought to be applied today.

Lord of Bollocks said...

Dear Brain Surgeon and Boniface,

I grew up to a church where shunning was the norm. I am since glad to be done with all the unchristian nastiness, backbiting,and gossip. To implement this in a mainstream respectable traddie church would be ultimately disastrous.

There is nothing "masculine" about mantilla-clad churchladies - their scowling faces eerily resembling a Hollywood governess - making snide comments at people they deem unworthy ("Your dress is AT the knee?! Modernist!!!") and driving people away as the emasculated and whipped husbands nod along, frightened of their harpy wives. Nothing I just said is hyperbole or exaggeration.

Consider this: how many deviants and immoral people probably made up the converts to the faith in apostolic times? How many of them likely still struggled (confession was public and vices don't just go away overnight) long after their conversion? We are in a pagan era unprecedented for at least 1700 years. How many sinners need to be brought into the fold and charitably rehabilitated? Shunning should be the last thing on the table right now. Traddies will use it as a first recourse to root anyone they see as "imperfect" (one wonders sometimes how many stones would have been cast if Christ had said "let he of you without sin cast the first stone." to a group of trads).

Furthermore, the fact that a priest can ban someone from the congregation makes shunning entirely redundant. Fr. Schell - who kept the Latin Mass and the faith alive in the diocese of the public apostate Roger Mahoney - had a good philosophy: "If you have a problem with someone take it up with me."

To advocate this practice is to miss the point.

Lord of Bollocks said...

Boniface,

By immersing yourself in the letter of the law, you miss the point. A common error for recent Catholic of the Roman tradition.

Note how in Matthew 18:15-17, shunning is the last recourse of action.

There is a right time and circumstance for "shunning" but it should only be used as an absolute last resort and on the initiative of the presiding pastor.

Overall what I'm more bothered by is that, of all things we could be discussing, why is this a priority? I have seen what happens when ill-educated trads implement it. The consequences are horrific.

Boniface said...

Bollocks,

While I concede that the situation envisioned in Matthew may be reserved to the pastor, 1 Corinthians and 2 John are clearly directed to lay people.

Sounds like you do not deny the practice, only stress that it should be a last resort and not had recourse to lightly. I would not disagree with that.

Lynda said...

Shunning is done for the good of the soul of the person shunned and the souls of those who would otherwise be scandalised by his public sinning. As taught in the Faith, it follows from ones duty to love others.