Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. 1 Timothy 1:18-20 (NIV).
If you aren’t familiar with it, to excommunicate someone is to cut them off from communing with the body of believers. It’s a harsh action, one designed to excise someone whose talk or actions are corrosive and threatening to the health of the church. But it wasn’t designed to be punishing. Instead, it was designed to instruct, to give someone over to the sins they seem to be choosing over communion with the saints. Some churches today still practice this kind of church discipline, and it’s supposed to be done in love, as a way to show the person the drastic and destructive nature of the things they are saying and doing.
Paul is talking about excommunicating Hymenaeus and Alexander. In the first days of the growing Christian faith, to be excommunicated was a desperate action. Theirs was a world of physical persecution and very real threat of death at the ‘righteous’ hands of ecclesiastical authorities (Jewish, Roman or Greek). To be consigned to that was a desperate thing. Paul did this because these men had crossed a line, saying or doing things that were blasphemous and intolerable. If they were allowed to continue unaddressed, it could have threatened the nascent church; some things are intolerable for a reason. Most important, Paul did it to teach the offenders so that they might turn and re-embrace the Lord.
Is that so different from firing a wayward employee? Or telling a friend “if you keep doing it, we can’t be friends.” It would be an awful thing to be ‘handed over to Satan’ to be taught a lesson, yet sometimes that’s what God may just call us to do. Just make sure it’s for the right reasons. Many years ago I watched a pastor excommunicate a member. I was a member of the church council and the pastor, the church leader, wanted a member excommunicated because the member was saying terrible things about the church, even demonic things. The thing about it was that the poor guy was schizophrenic and off his meds, yet the pastor insisted he was sensible and had his wits about him. We voted to excommunicate him (I voted no). That seemed like an abuse of excommunication. For this and other reasons, my family and I left the church a few months later.
I wonder if the man or that pastor ever turned to Jesus.
For further reading: 2 Timothy 2:17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 2:1
Lord, teach us to be wise with the powers of instruction that You give us.