Shunning: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By David Servant

Shunning another human being may seem like an archaic practice in our day of inclusivity and tolerance. Shunning is, however, an undeniably biblical concept. Jesus instructed His disciples:

Article Title, "Shunning: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly"

If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 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 (Matt. 18:15-17; emphasis added).

Similarly, the Bible contains these instructions by Paul:

It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.

For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus….

I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler — not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 9-13; emphasis added).

So, when it is appropriate, believers should practice shunning. But when is it appropriate? Not all professing Christians agree on the answer to that question. So I’m going to do my best to identify shunning that is scriptural, unscriptural, and very unscriptural—the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

Good, biblical shunning only targets those whom Scripture identifies as being deserving. Considering the two biblical passages we just read, it seems safe to say that deserving people are those who (1) are guilty of a very grievous sin, (2) are inside the church and profess to be Christians, and (3) are unrepentant. Let’s consider each of these three.

Requirement #1: Guilty of very grievous sin:

Although there is familiar Christian cliché that says, “All sin is the same in God’s eyes,” clearly, that just isn’t true. All sin is grievous in God’s eyes, but some sins are more grievous than others. The most grievous sins identify one as an unbeliever, even if he/she claims to be a believer. Note Paul’s words:

I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one (1 Cor. 5:11, emphasis added).

Paul indicated that immorality, coveting, idolatry, reviling, drunkenness and swindling, if unrepentantly practiced by a professing believer, mark him as a “so-called brother.” He is a phony Christian, and thus true Christians should not associate with him.

A few sentences later, Paul further elaborated on those grievous sins that mark false believers:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor. 6:9-11, emphasis added).

It could not be clearer. Those who practice the very grievous sins that Paul lists “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Therefore, such grievous sinners are not born-again, heaven-bound believers, but unregenerate, hell-bound unbelievers. If they profess to be believers, they are deceived or liars—both good reasons why true Christians should shun such folks, to hopefully help them wake up from their self-deception, that they might repent and become true believers. In such a case, shunning is actually a means of evangelization. Salvation was certainly Paul’s ultimate hope for the immoral Corinthian man: “Deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5; emphasis added).

Again, all sin is grievous in God’s eyes, but some sins are more grievous than others. Falling asleep during a good sermon may be grievous to the Lord, but thankfully you won’t find it in Paul’s “exclusionary list”!

Keep in mind that the Corinthian church—to whom Paul wrote his instructions about shunning a certain man—was full of troubles that all had sin at their core. There were quarrels and division, lawsuits between believers, marital disharmony, inconsideration and drunkenness during the Lord’s Supper, misuse of spiritual gifts and false teaching. Yet Paul only called for the excommunication of one person in the entire Corinthian church, one who was guilty of a very grievous sin. That person was apparently living in a sexually-immoral relationship with his stepmother. We don’t have any details beyond that, but Paul indicated that it was a degree of sexual immorality that did “not exist even among the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 5:1).

This again makes it crystal clear that shunning is reserved for the most grievous sins, sins that mark one as an unbeliever.

It is possible, of course, for a true Christian to fall into any of the grievous sins in Paul’s exclusionary list. We all have a free will. If a true Christian does fall into any of the most grievous sins, however, he will sense an immediate and immense degree of guilt, and he will likely confess his sin and repent soon after. If he does not, and his sin becomes known to a believer who loves and confronts him, he will likely repent then, or at least by the third step in Jesus’ three-step confrontation process that we read earlier. And if he does not repent after that third step of all-church confrontation, it would seem very likely he is not a genuine believer in Jesus.

Requirement #2: Inside the church and professes to be a Christian:

Paul clearly stated that we are not to shun those outside the church—that is, sinners who don’t claim to be Christians—otherwise we’d have to leave the world (1 Cor. 5:9-10). Our responsibility is, however, to judge those within the church:

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

If the immoral man in Corinth had been outside the church, Paul would not have even addressed his specific situation in his letter to the Corinthians. The whole problem is that he was inside the church, professing to be a believer. He was an outsider posing as an insider.

Regarding Jesus’ three-step confrontational process we read earlier, note that Jesus said, “If your brother sins.” Jesus, too, was obviously addressing the issue of sin inside, rather than outside, the church. His instructions, however, address sins committed, for the most part, by true believers rather than by phony believers, which Paul addressed.

Requirement #3: Unrepentant

It goes without saying that we should never shun sinners who are repentant. We should imitate God, and He certainly doesn’t shun those who are repentant. As David prayed in Psalm 51 (after committing adultery and murder):

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise (Ps. 51:17).

And as God Himself said through Isaiah:

But to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word (Is. 66:2).

Paul similarly wrote to the Galatians:

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted (Gal. 6:1).

Jesus made it clear that, if a confronted brother repents at any point in the three-step process of confrontation, he should be forgiven and restored. The goal, from beginning to end, is reconciliation and restoration.

Why Shun?

Biblical shunning is (1) a natural response to the gospel and (2) an act of love towards God and others.

If I believe that the gospel transforms sinners, how can I explicitly or tacitly affirm the salvation of those who have not been transformed? If I affirm the salvation of those who have not been transformed, I deny the gospel I claim to believe.

And just as is the case with all of Jesus’ moral imperatives, His instructions regarding shunning are simply a specific application of the two greatest commandments, namely that I love God with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself.

If I love God, I certainly don’t want to misrepresent His message to the world or deny its power. Rather, I want to work with God in bringing others into a right relationship with Him. If I don’t shun those who blatantly misrepresent His message by a lifestyle of grievous sin while claiming to belong to God, I don’t love Him as He deserves.

And, if I love others as I love myself, I will shun professing Christians whose lives contradict the gospel, both for their sakes and for the sakes of all the unbelievers who are observing them. I would never want to affirm the salvation of those whom the Lord condemns, lest I strengthen them in their self-deception as well as help mislead unbelievers who are observing them. The truly loving thing to do is to confront those who are self-deceived, and if they do not repent, shun them, clearly communicating to them, and unbelievers who are observing them, that I don’t accept their testimony, because it contradicts the Word of God.

All of this being so, every true Christian, motivated by love for God and others, should shun professing Christians who are unrepentant fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers and swindlers. Our hope is their repentance and salvation.

More Characteristics of Good Shunning

Good shunning, which is always motivated by love, should be done with caution. Shunning is generally a last resort that occurs after confrontation. Grievous sinners should be given opportunity to either vindicate themselves or genuinely repent. Thus the reason for Jesus’ instructions for a three-step confrontation process. Love is the guiding principle from beginning to end, which is one reason the first confrontation is private and second confrontation includes only one or two others. The idea is to keep our brother’s reputation untarnished as we seek his restoration. Love cover sins (Prov. 10:12, 1 Pet. 4:8). It does not relish in exposing them.

But why did Paul not instruct the Corinthian believers to follow Jesus’ three steps of confrontation regarding the immoral man in their midst? I assume it is because Paul believed that Jesus’ words did not apply to the Corinthian situation. And why is that? I suspect it is because Jesus’ three steps are applicable only to actual believers, and particularly to believers who have committed some personal sin against another believer. Remember Jesus said, “If your brother sins.” A variant translation is, “If your brother sins against you” (Matt. 18:15, emphasis added). The context certainly supports the idea of a personal offence, since the first confrontation prescribed by Jesus is private, and the outcome might potentially be, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt. 18:15). That is, you and your brother are reconciled.

Such personal offenses, of course, are not of the grievous nature of those sins Paul listed that betray one as a phony believer. However, if the offender stubbornly refuses to repent at the confrontation of the offended brother, his one or two proponents, and finally the whole church, his sin has escalated into something much more grievous to the Lord, and one that deserves shunning. Perhaps he, too, has exposed himself as a phony believer by his resistance to the entire church.

Regardless, such a one should be treated as “a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). What does that mean? Personally, I find it difficult to believe Jesus meant we should treat those we shun with contempt in light of the fact we are commanded to love everyone, plus the fact that God loves (and Jesus died for) all Gentiles (not to mention the fact that the only Gospel author who recorded Jesus’ instructions regarding three-step confrontation was a former tax collector). I would prefer to think Jesus meant that we should treat those we legitimately shun as people who need to be evangelized. Although we should not eat with them (perhaps a reference to eating the common meals called “love feasts” that were shared by believers; see Jude 12), that does not mean we should never speak with them. Again, shunning is all about love, a true love for God and man.

In the case of the immoral Corinthian man, he was not, in Paul’s mind, a brother who deserved to be confronted for causing a personal offence. Rather, he was a “so-called brother” whose grievous sin marked him as an unbeliever, a “wicked man” (1 Cor. 5:13).

Bad Shunning

The most common form of bad shunning is when there is no shunning at all. Many churches that pride themselves for their “love” and “inclusivity” would never “pass judgment” upon those within their midst who unrepentantly practice the most grievous sins. The church is a hospital for sinners, they claim, and not a sanctuary for saints. And did not Jesus tell us not to judge, lest we be judged?

Of course, hospitals exist to cure sick people, not just house them. The true gospel cures sinners very quickly of the most grievous sins!

And Jesus’ words about judging have nothing to do with pretending to not see what is obvious and not caring about people who are heading for hell who think they are on the road to heaven. We are supposed to be “fruit inspectors” according to Jesus (see Matt. 7:16-20). Again, biblical shunning is all about loving God and others. And Paul could not have made our responsibility clearer:

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves (1 Cor. 5:12-13).

Another form of bad shunning is what could be called “doctrinal shunning.” Tragically, there are many Christian tribes and individuals within Christ’s body who are at doctrinal war with each other, while Jesus—whom we all claim to serve—prayed that we would all be one, so that the world would believe that God sent His Son (John 17:21).

Of course, doctrinal essentials, such as the deity of Christ, His death and resurrection, salvation by grace through a living faith, and so on, cannot be compromised. But let’s face it, doctrinal wars today are waged over non-essentials by armies of Christians who agree on the essentials.

Going back to the Corinthians, they were succumbing to a form of doctrinal shunning. You may recall that they were dividing into factions based on who their favorite teachers were. Division is a form of unbiblical shunning. “I don’t agree with you, so I will no longer fellowship with you.” I have experienced doctrinal shunning during my Christian life more times than I can count. Worse, it is done by Christian leaders who are setting an example before others.

If anyone believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and gives evidence to their faith by active obedience to Christ, that person is accepted by God, and that person should be accepted by me. If God can tolerate people’s goofy doctrines, so should I. Jesus commanded us to love one another, and we should love one another enough to discuss and even debate our doctrinal disagreements. If we don’t agree, however, love should continue.

The underlying problem that is revealed by all our doctrinal wars is that so many of us are convinced that right doctrine is paramount. We think Christian maturity is measured by one’s breadth of biblical knowledge. But the truth is, the all-important thing to God is right living. He measures maturity by the depth of one’s devotion—and the height of one’s obedience.

One final form of bad shunning occurs when shunners are self-righteous. None of us has the right to point out the spec in another’s eye while a log is lodged in our own. (In fact, I think God uses other people’s specs to help us realize our own logs!) This is another reason that shunning is reserved for those who practice the most grievous sins that mark them as unbelievers.

Ugly Shunning

The worst kind of shunning is that which most blatantly disregards the biblical principles that should govern it. Ugly shunning occurs, for example, when the wrong people are shunned, so that shunning actually becomes persecution against the righteous. Ugly shunning also occurs when shunning is not done from a true motive of love for God and for others, and it thus violates the two greatest commandments.

Let me share with you an example of ugly shunning of which I am all-too familiar.

There is a church near me that was started decades ago by an articulate and persuasive pastor who was able to convince himself that his church was following the New Testament pattern more than any other church. He eventually convinced his followers of the same, and by combining personal prophecies with an emphasis on submission to “God-ordained leadership,” he gained a very unhealthy control over his congregation. Devotion to him became the equivalent of devotion to God. Anyone who left his church “left the kingdom.” Any questioning of the pastor’s authority or deviation from the “divine order” was quickly dealt with via excommunication, followed by requisite shunning by all other church members.

In many cases, families were broken up, as some family members were excommunicated and shunned, while other family members amazingly remained loyal to the pastor. This was justified by misusing scriptures about devotion to Christ over family and by twisting the Bible’s instructions about shunning.

Those who were excommunicated were, most often, not grievous sinners posing as Christians. Rather, they were lovely, devoted followers of Jesus who simply woke up to what was happening in their church and began to ask questions. I have dear friends whose godly consciences drove them out of the church, but whose adult children—who remained in the church—broke off all relationship with them, forbidding them from even seeing their own grandchildren.

Not surprisingly, the pastor became quite wealthy from the mandatory tithes of his followers, and he eventually retired after installing his son as the senior pastor, and he has since lived quite comfortably in another state. I would not want to be Him when he stands before Christ.

Another Tragic Example

I have served in vocational Christian ministry for 40 years, and I have traveled to 80 nations teaching the Bible in churches and to groups of pastors and other Christian leaders that are associated with many Christian groups and denominations. In those 40 years, the most tragic example I’ve witnessed of ugly shunning is that done by the Amish, who are generally good people, but who have hundreds of made-made rules that govern every aspect of life, down to hair styles and shirt buttons, and who would excommunicate and shun any member who would chose to deviate from those rules to the slightest degree. This is, of course, not biblical shunning for grievous sin, but man-made shunning for breaking man-made rules.

But much worse, whenever anyone within some Amish communities comes to a living faith in Christ, is born again by the Holy Spirit of God, becomes a child of God according to Scripture (see 1 John 3:1-2) and begins to talk about it, they are excommunicated and shunned, even by their own family members. Think about how utterly tragic it is when a group that professes to be following Christ excommunicates and shuns any who experience what Jesus said is essential to see or enter the kingdom of heaven (see John 3:3-5).

This, again, is not biblical shunning. Rather, it is more accurately described as biblical persecution by the world against believers. If there is one thing that marks one as being “of the world,” it is that they are against born-again followers of Jesus and persecute them. Jesus said to His disciples:

If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you (John 15:18-19, emphasis added).

Similarly, the apostle John wrote:

Do not be surprised, brethren, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life [another way of saying, ‘We know that we have been born again’], because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:13-15).

Again, being against those who have passed from death to life, persecuting them, and trying to persuade them to abandon their faith is a sure sign that one is “of the world.” Shunning someone who is a born-again child of God and following Christ—with the hope of having them renounce their Savior and return to following man-made rules and ignoring much of what Christ commanded—is not an act of love, but rather of hatred, and hatred is a form of murder.

The original Amish all believed that no amount of good works could save anyone, but that anyone could be saved by repentance and faith in Jesus (who is the only Savior), and they boldly proclaimed the gospel to everyone. Because of it, they suffered relentless persecution from the world. Tragically, modern Amish people have now exchanged places with the world. They are no longer persecuted, but now are persecutors. They persecute those who follow Christ, even when those followers are their own flesh and blood.

Such shunning of family members is in some ways worse than the practice of fundamental Muslims who murder their own family members who become Christians. At least those Muslim murderers put an instant end to their Christian family members, sending them to heaven as martyrs, whereas the Amish torture their family members for the rest of their lives, socially and emotionally murdering them every day. Worse, while Muslims kill their Christian family members in the name of Allah, the Amish emotionally and socially murder their Christian family members in the name of Christ! How the angels must weep!

For these reasons, I suspect those among the Amish who have been excommunicated and shunned because of their faith in Christ will receive greater reward in heaven than those who have been martyred by their Muslim families. Their suffering is even greater.

And where will Amish people stand when they appear before the judgment seat of Christ—the One who once said to a very religious man named Saul, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Can you imagine being identified for a lifetime with a group that persecutes anyone from their midst who, through a spiritual rebirth has, like the original Christians (and the original Amish), becomes one spirit with Christ (1 Cor. 6:7)? When Amish people shun family members who have been born again (and who thus are members of Christ’s body and temples of His Spirit), they shun Christ! This is a great tragedy.

An Amish Objection

“But we shun our wayward family members because we love them. We want them to return to their Amish roots so they won’t go to hell, but to heaven,” many will no doubt say.

This misguided love underscores the heart of the problem. Amish people who have been born again have returned to their Amish roots…that is, their original Amish roots. When modern Amish beg their “wayward” born-again children to return to their Amish roots, they are actually begging them to forsake their Amish roots and return to a gross perversion of the original Amish faith, one that has become a hope-less religion of man-made rules that contradicts the gospel of Jesus Christ that was treasured by all the original Amish.

The original Amish believers—during the time of Jacob Ammann and for many years after—believed that salvation was by grace through faith, and not a result of works, and that being born again by God’s Holy Spirit was the normal and expected experience of every true Christian. They all believed that those who believe in Christ have their names written in heaven, and that as long as they continue to believe in and follow Jesus, their names will not be erased from the Book of Life. So the original Anabaptists and Amish were not “hoping they would be good enough to get to heaven.” Rather, they knew that for them, being sinners, it was too late to be good enough to get to heaven by their own works, which is the reason Jesus died on the cross for our sins, and the reason that salvation is by grace through faith. They believed Jesus’ most well-known promise: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And they were obedient to Christ’s commandments (not manmade rules), because they loved Him and were empowered by His Spirit to be holy.

All of my claims above can be proved by reading the 1632 Dordrecht Confession of Faith, to which every Old Order Amish group subscribes.

How I pray that my words will not be taken in offense by any Amish readers, but that they will be taken to heart and pondered. They have been written from a sincere concern and love, similarly to the sentiments expressed by the apostle Paul:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Rom. 10:1-4).

I have attempted, as Paul said, to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) to my Amish readers, and so I ask with Paul, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth? (Gal. 4:16). I hope not!

And to all other readers, let us, as Christ’s obedient disciples, lovingly practice biblical confrontation and, if needed, biblical shunning, all in the hopes of God-glorifying reconciliation and restoration. — David