The modern Church tries to be open to as many as possible, in order that as many as possible might hear the Gospel. Jim Belcher has written about a model of the Church not as a fenced enclosure but as a waterhole in the desert. But you have to do something when the barbarian hordes on horses come over the horizon. I believe there are two ‘fences’ that are necessary within the church. One is around the Communion Table. No Reformed person really dissents from this one. We have an announcement each week that while all are welcome in the service, the Table is for believers, not searchers. That is Biblical and supported by Paul in First Corinthians.
The second is a little more pragmatic; there is an argument for a ‘fence’ around those activities and small groups of the Church that include children. For example, maybe a group of young families do not think it prudent for a gay man and his partner to attend their church small group that includes children; not because they want to show ill-will to them as they are made in the image of God, but because as parents they know (a) their kids want to keep their options open, (b) are attracted to things that have a great big NO on them, and (c) are attracted to things that buck the status quo and will upset their parents [to name only three reasons]. I think, in our culture which is very protective of children, that this second ‘fence’ is an acceptable one.
But what about the specific reasons for barring people from the Table, or maybe also the family oriented portions of the Church as well? We are all sinners, of course; while we need to hear a lot more about ‘holiness’ in the church than we do, holiness is not perfection. St. Paul suggests rather that certain blatant defiances of Christian standards should be the grounds for excommunication. The most notorious one, and the one that Paul actually had to deal with, is the guy who was sleeping with his stepmother. Following Paul’s direction, the church put him out, and according to Second Corinthians he changed his way of life and was restored.
So there are some specific activities that should lead to a barring from the Table, being aware [in my belief] that there is no judgment of the person’s eternal salvation involved, but the person is being removed from the visible institutional Body of Christ.
- Cohabitation. It is said that the majority of couples in America that get married are already ‘living together’ in a full sexual relationship beforehand. The Church has always held that moving in together should be at the time of the wedding. Couples known to be cohabiting should be barred from the Table. And those that ask for a church wedding should be asked to live separately until the wedding. [There may be a question as to whether a ‘state wedding’ is adequate, or a ‘church wedding’ is required. The standards for the two are very different. This is a bigger issue when it comes to divorce and remarriage.]
- Fornication. This is a little harder to enforce when there is not cohabitation, but at the very least those who boast of their sexual exploits openly should be excommunicated until they repent.
- Note that I do not suggest necessarily that ‘becoming pregnant out of wedlock’ should be automatic grounds for excommunication. There has been fornication, of course, but (a) only women become pregnant, and (b) fornication results in pregnancy in only a minority of cases, and special punishment should not be inflicted on those who ‘got caught’ compared to all those who didn’t. What can be asked of the young lady in question is either (a) marry someone, or (b) surrender the child for adoption, by the time of weaning; single parenting is not a desirable thing.
- Civil law recognizes divorce on demand. Under canon law, however, the session or presbytery [or if you’re not Presbyterian, whatever your equivalent is] needs to examine each case of divorce or separation and decide whether a canon law dissolution should be granted. If someone abandons a spouse and then either civil-marries or cohabits with another partner, and the session has withheld a canon law dissolution, that someone should be excommunicated.
- Same sex civil ‘marriages’ and ‘relationships’ are not recognized under canon law, and are to be treated as cohabitation or fornication. Note: (a) believers are free to take any political position regarding civil ‘marriage’ for those outside the church. It is heresy to demand that such ‘marriages’ be recognized under canon law within the church, and (b) persons of homosexual inclination are not automatically barred from the table. They are expected, however, to manage their temptations in the same way that heterosexuals are. They should perhaps be encouraged, if possible, to marry ONE person of the opposite sex; this is not the same as changing to a ‘heterosexual orientation’, which doesn’t really work. You only marry ONE person of the opposite sex, anyhow.
There are lots of sins that are not sexual that need to be treated just as seriously: “Idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, . . .” (Galatians 5:20-21) and elsewhere, “greed, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5). It’s not quite as easy as it is with sexual offenses to come up with a list of specific acts that are ‘blatant defiance’ but sessions do have to take these seriously. We are not, and should not present ourselves to the world as, primarily obsessed with sex. However, it is a fact that that Roman Empire culture and ours differ most radically from the Christian ethic in regards to sex, so conflict will be inevitable. In dealing with some other traditional cultures, what we have to confront is different; the confinement of women, the blaming of women for any sexual temptation of males, the near validation of rape in some circumstances, etc. So perhaps Christianity turns out to be sort of a ‘middle path’ after all.