Until very recently the weapon of choice to keep Christians in line used to be excommunication. In a small town nobody would sell food to an excommunicated person. But it is hard to think of cases where the weapon was ever wielded justly, let alone helpfully. And using excommunication to keep people of other denominations from the Lord's own table is the most insidious practice of all. I want to suggest that excluding people from communion is never right.
For a start nobody, but nobody, is too bad to take communion with us. Jesus sat down and ate with all sorts of unsavory characters. Which is why we say "God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy; he welcomes sinners and invites them to his table" (Canadian Anglican Communion Service). But what do we do when things get out of hand? If anyone is going to learn anything in a school there has to be discipline, and we are a school of the Holy Spirit. So let's take an extreme case.
Paul wrote "There is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found (permitted) even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife" (1 Corinthians 5:1). This person came to communion when he was obviously having sex with his step mother. The Greek and Roman world at that time was enthusiastic about every kind of sexual degradation. Only incest was viewed as a crime that had to be punished by the magistrates. It would destroy the family and undermine the stability of the Roman empire. So what does a church congregation do when one of its members is blatantly engaging in a criminal act?
Paul told the Corinthians to "hand this man over to Satan" (1 Corinthians 5:5). Which meant handing the person over to the magistrates for Roman justice. Here Paul is distinguishing the kingdom of the Messiah from that of Satan, "the god of this world" (2 Corinthians 4:4). There is nothing wrong with government, and Paul says it should be respected (Romans 13:1-7). The problem is that Satan is "a liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44), and he is able to corrupt every institution of our world with falsehood. Only in churches where the Spirit can do his work is God's truth made known.
So what Paul is saying is that when there is criminal activity the person must be handed over to the government authorities for justice to be done. In our day the government does not prosecute incest, but it has very severe laws against child abuse. In Canada, where there is even a suspicion of child abuse, we are required to alert the police. We are never meant to cover for criminal activity.
A few years ago The Kingston Whig Standard reported for weeks the case of a brilliant organist at St. George's cathedral who had for several years been sexually abusing the choir boys. In that terrible situation it seems the congregation was much too slow in reporting the case for investigation. The result was that dozens of boys, and their parents, were terribly traumatized before the man was arrested and imprisoned.
But even when someone is sent to jail we do not exclude them from the Lord's table. In the the chaplaincy of Paphos, where I served, one of the congregation had killed his wife in a fit of anger. When he was convicted of murder the Anglican Bishop of Cyprus would himself come down from Nicosia to share the communion bread and wine with this man in the jail. In England when a man was condemned to the gallows an Anglican priest was always required to be there and give him communion if he desired it. Even murder is no reason for excommunication. And throughout his long jail sentence for child abuse that organist, who had behaved so abominably, was regularly visited and given communion.
But what do we do with a member of our congregation who blatantly engages in behavior which is outrageous but not viewed as criminal by the state? We cannot hand such a person over to the police. What we do is to avoid associating ourselves with their behavior. Paul is quick to explain that this does not apply to people who make no claim to church membership (1 Corinthians 5:10). "I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother of sister who is sexually immoral (pornos means prostitute type behavior), greedy for gain, idolaters, revilers (abusive), drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one" (1 Corinthians 5:10). That means we do not join the person in immoral sexual behavior, or a shady business deal, practicing idolatry, or robbing a bank. Love does not require us to invite a regular drunkard or abusive person to dinner.
The advantage of this kind of discipline is that it is one on one. It encourages the person to see why we withhold our approval and won't join them in that way of life. It also gives the Holy Spirit time to effect the needed changes. And it certainly keeps us from the mistakes that church courts can easily make (they burned hundreds of women as witches, as well as a slew of saintly Protestant and Catholic martyrs).
The result of these two kinds of church discipline: either using the judgment of a civil court, or a one on one refusal to join with unacceptable behavior, is that no one is excluded from the bread and wine of communion. It is in the community gathered around the bread and the wine that the Holy Spirit reveals the Lord to us, effects the changes that are needed, fills us with the fruit of the Spirit, and gives us the gifts we need to function as members of the church body. Excluding individuals from communion makes that gracious work of the Holy Spirit impossible.
Sadly there are also Christians who excommunicate themselves by a misreading
of Paul's warning about eating and drinking "in an unworthy manner" and
the need to "examine yourselves" (1 Corinthians 11:27-28). A modern
equivalent would be a government spy infiltrating a Christian service to
record the names of those attending so they can be sent to a Siberian extermination
camp. If the only reason you have come to this service is to sell insurance,
or seduce one of the girls, better leave right now. But if you feel riddled
with guilt and failure, this is the place to be. Paul said "Messiah Jesus
came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost" (1
Timothy 1:15). That means all of us are welcome to the school of the
Holy Spirit, gathered around the table of the Lord, and if we stick around
here the fruit of the Spirit will grow in our lives, and we will find we
have a function as a member of the Lord's body.