A small but growing portion of evangelical churches practice shunning and expulsion as a routine part of a common life which increasingly emphasizes discipline and conformity.
Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal reported on January 18 about the practice. These pastors and congregations attempt to apply Matthew 18:15-1. When they hear of a person who is accused of sin, either by confession or through the report of another, the person is confronted in private and then publicly castigating and possibly expelling the person if they do not repent. But in modern times churches that follow this practice face controversy, rebellion, and even lawsuits.
Scholars estimate that 10% to 15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice church discipline -- about 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. congregations in total. Increasingly, clashes within churches are spilling into communities, splitting congregations and occasionally landing church leaders in court after congregants, who believed they were confessing in private, were publicly shamed.
a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders.
The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
Some members who have been expelled have pushed back, sometimes through the courts.
In the past decade, more than two dozen lawsuits related to church discipline have been filed as congregants sue pastors for defamation, negligent counseling and emotional injury, according to the Religion Case Reporter, a legal-research database. Peggy Penley, a Fort Worth, Texas, woman whose pastor revealed her extramarital affair to the congregation after she confessed it in confidence, waged a six-year battle against the pastor, charging him with negligence. Last summer, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed her suit, ruling that the pastor was exercising his religious beliefs by publicizing the affair.
Courts have often refused to hear such cases on the grounds that churches are protected by the constitutional right to free religious exercise, but some have sided with alleged sinners. In 2003, a woman and her husband won a defamation suit against the Iowa Methodist conference and its superintendent after he publicly accused her of "spreading the spirit of Satan" because she gossiped about her pastor. A district court rejected the case, but the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the woman's appeal on the grounds that the letter labeling her a sinner was circulated beyond the church.
Within the congregations that practice expulsion and shunning, there is no general agreement on how it should be carried out, says Gregory Wills, a theologian at Southern Baptist Theological seminary. He says that some pastors remove members on their own, while other churches require agreement among deacons or a majority vote from the congregation.
Read: The Wall Street Journal: Banned from Church