Joe Biden was denied communion when he tried to receive it back in October at Saint Anthony Catholic Church in Florence, S.C. The Catholic priest, Fr. Robert Morey, denied the former vice president on the basis of his public support for abortion rights, which are in clear contradiction of the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is not an isolated incident. Catholic bishops across the United States are cracking down on Catholic politicians who claim to be pro-abortion.
The canon law of the church is pretty clear that the bishops are within their rights to do this. But, there’s a broader Biblical principle that I think a lot of evangelicals at John Brown University could learn from: the church should use its authority to disciple people, even if that means excluding them.
Something I hear a lot at JBU, especially from ministry majors, is the support for a church culture of “seeker sensitivity,” or that the church should be “seeker sensitive” or “nonjudgmental” and accept all who come to it.
What I mean by seeker sensitivity is that it’s more of an attitude towards ministry than a particular set of beliefs or practices. It’s about making everything in church oriented towards the unchurched people. For example, seeker sensitivity is avoiding complicated parts of the Bible (like Job) to focus on preaching a light-hearted message of God’s love, or avoiding Biblical imagery that would make modern day Americans uncomfortable, like the kingship of Christ or the servanthood of believers.
Obviously, the church should be open to different kinds of believers, and to be perfectly fair, this viewpoint is often developed in reaction to a fundamentalist, closed-off church culture. I’ve heard stories of people being excluded from churches because they were struggling with particular sins like homosexuality. This type of church culture should be condemned.
However, a distinction needs to be made between telling somebody to leave the church permanently and excommunicating them. Excommunication is never permanent; it only requires repentance and reconciliation on the part of the believer.
The church is delegated special teaching authority. As St. Timothy writes, “The household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). St. Paul also writes, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The church as a body possesses the teaching of the apostles. So, like the apostles, it has the right to correct people and congregations.
In the early church, the catechumens (people who were being instructed in the rule of faith to be ready to receive baptism) worshiped together with the body of believers but were dismissed when it was time for the Eucharist. The reason for this was that the earlier church believed someone had to be a baptized believer to receive the body and blood of Christ, and many denominations still teach this today. Holy communion was for the body of Christ alone.
The point I want to drive home is that evangelicals could learn from the hardline the Catholic Church is drawing with communion. The Anglican prayer of Humble Access, which we’d pray before receiving, says, “We do not presume to come to your table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own goodness, but in your all-embracing love and mercy. We are not worthy even to gather up the crumbs under your table, but it is your nature always to have mercy.” Participating in the body of Christ is not your right as a Christian but a privilege, and privileges can be revoked depending on behavior.
But more importantly, excommunication is fundamentally an act of love on the part of the body of believers and the individual. If you truly love someone, you don’t let them continue in sin, for it literally risks their mortal soul and salvation.
(All Biblical quotations are from the RSV)