The Purpose of Exile

Inviting others back to the table

But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is a sexually immoral person, or a greedy person, or an idolater, or is verbally abusive, or habitually drunk, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a person. 

~ I Corinthians 5:11, MASB

I’ve heard this verse more than once over my lifetime. I’ve heard sermons preached on it, I’ve read about it in Bible studies, I’ve heard believers talk about it, and I’ve even heard it espoused on internet message boards. It is in the Bible, so it is a principle that believers need to know. And there are times when we have to follow this command.

But what is the purpose? How long does it last? And what happens when you are the “so-called brother?” Why did the writer inspired by God, tell us to do this, and is it meant to be a life sentence?

I’ve heard it said more than once that the best commentary on the Bible is – as a matter of fact – the Bible. So let’s delve into this a bit. We’ll start with another well-known passage that those who know I Corinthians 5:11 have likely also read:

“Now if your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that on the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be confirmed. And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, he is to be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

~ Matthew 18:15-17

Let me start by saying that this passage is not – as I have heard it said – about lawsuits or work disputes. It is about sin. Sin in a fellow believer’s life. Let’s break down the process:

  • A private discussion
  • Several witnesses
  • The church (a body of believers)
  • The tax collector treatment 

It is a series of attempts to restore the sinful brother or sister. It’s not one-and-done. And there are fail-safes and second and third chances built-in.  But I want you to pay attention to a couple of keywords:

Go, Show, To

The initial one who rebukes goes to the person. He shows the person what they have done. Then, he goes back to the person with two or three. Notice it does not say “then the first guy has a discussion about it with two or three (or ten) on the phone, on Facebook, at the prayer meeting…” Those two or three go with him to the person who has fallen/sinned. They don’t take it to anyone else until it is time to go to the church. And even then, the church confronts the sinner.

Yes, people talk. And yes, sometimes what they have to say is both awful and true. And yes, it hurts to be terribly disappointed in that brother or sister of a longtime friend who has gone off the rails and made sinful, rebellious choices. But look at Matthew 18. If you haven’t talked to Suzie about her sin, but you just heard about it in a Facebook chat, then think carefully about your response to Suzy. And if Suzsy reached that final stage and she must be treated as a tax collector and Gentile…then it’s all in or all out.

But let’s go further. Why all this confrontation and shunning? Why the tax collector treatment? Again, let’s go to God’s Word, and in this case, let’s go up just a few verses in Matthew 18:

“What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains, and go and search for the one that is lost? And if it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven for one of these little ones to perish.”

~ Matthew 18:12-14, NASB

So why do you think we go through this process? Is it so we can permanently purge “the tainted ones?” Or might it be the process by which someone is confronted, is disciplined, and is left to deal with the Holy Spirit’s conviction…in order to restore them? Galatians can answer that question clearly for us:

Brothers and sisters, even if a person is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual are to restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you are not tempted as well. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks that he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting, but to himself alone, and not [b]to another. For each one will bear his own load.

~ Galatians 6:1-5

The overarching reason the Perfect One whose blood makes us the righteousness of God has for discipline is restoration. Redemption. Reconciliation. When we repent of our sin, He forgives and restores. I John 1:9 makes that clear for all of us. So with that in mind, what do we do when the brother, sister, or friend we deemed a tax collector repents? What do we do when the one we were not to have to dinner comes back to Christ, is redeemed, and God Himself restores fellowship with him or her? I suppose we should look at one of the most famous parables Jesus ever told:

“But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

~ Luke 15:22-24

When a son (or daughter) repents, humbles themselves, and returns to Jesus, it is cause for celebration. It is cause for reconciliation. Now, obviously, we are not required to reconcile and be best buds with an abuser, a violent criminal, etc. These are common-sense understandings, and, to be honest, red herrings to distract us from what God says in His Word.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

~ James 5:19-20

I know there were times in my own life when I “shunned” someone, thinking I was righteously protecting myself or doing what God said in I Corinthians 5. But the intent of those verses, as well as the other passages we’ve discussed, is to give the Holy Spirit room to discipline, convict, and draw. I have to confess, that there were times when what I was really doing was playing the part of the Pharisee in this parable:

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

~ Luke 18:10-14

Paul gives an example of the true goal of giving the Holy Spirit room to convict in II Corinthians 7. His first letter to the Corinthians was a pretty harsh rebuke of the many problems and sins within the church at Corinth. He didn’t mince words. Thankfully, there was repentance within the church. In his second letter, Paul writes this:

“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.”

~ II Corinthians 7:9-11

Paul didn’t shun the church or any of its members who repented. In fact, he made it very clear that he did not rejoice in their sorrow because he wanted them to sorrow, but because he wanted them to repent and be restored.  And look at the second underlined phrase: so that you might now suffer loss in anything through us. When we return to Christ, we also return to the family. The church. That means there is no more need to refuse a repentant brother at the table. No, that does not mean we need to become best buddies with an abuser or that we give unconditional trust to someone who betrayed us. But it does mean that we no longer have Biblical standing to shun Suzie’s ex-boyfriend who was a jerk or Tom’s daughter who used to be a drug addict. If the God who created all can restore fellowship, what justification do we have to keep a repentant brother or sister in exile?

So, as we see, it is not so simple as all-or-nothing forever. As we have seen in several passages now, the goal – the MOTIVE – for isolating a stubbornly sinful believer is restoration, redemption, and reconciliation. When the stubborn brother or sister finally repents with godly sorrow, the ministry of reconciliation is God’s command:

Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their wrongdoings against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

~ II Corinthians 5:18-19

This is something I never really thought about as a well-loved child of godly parents, an earnest high-schooler with a great youth group, a devoted college student and young adult surrounded by fellow Christians, and a newly married minister’s wife. I confess that I allowed myself at times to permanently categorize others who had fallen into particular categories of sins – namely, the ones I didn’t commit. The “big ones,” as it were. It wasn’t until I became more like the tax collector beating his breast than the Pharisee with the long list of spiritual accomplishments that I understood what the ministry of reconciliation really means. Or how hard it is to never be invited back to the table by people who formerly loved me.

I will never NOT regret and grieve over my own sinful corrupt choices. But I am thankful for the perspective it gave me on God’s mercy, my desperate need for grace, and the ministry of reconciliation.

I cannot express enough my thankfulness for my mother, my father, my children, Belinda, Sandy, Susan, Rebecca, Wendy…and all those people who have chosen to embrace the ministry of reconciliation toward me. Most of them knew me when I was “good,” when I was easy to share a circle with. And now, even after knowing the dark truths, they are still sharing that circle. Not everyone does, and not everyone will. I know that some have chosen to step outside that circle forever. And that is not my business, but the Holy Spirit’s.

My prayer is that we, the church, would remember the fate from which Jesus saved us. That we would remember why Matthew 18 and I Corinthians 5 exist. That we would remember how the Father embraced the prodigal son:

“But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, slaughter it, and let’s eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

~ Luke 11:22-24

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