Please treat me like a real taxpayer: Shunning Part 2

I've loved and left two churches in my life. The first, the church I was raised in. The second, a home for 10 years, all of my adult life after coming back to the church after fleeing during high school and not returning until I felt obligated after having children of my own. Both churches practice "shunning", which Webster's defines as "to avoid deliberately, especially habitually", or "avoid", "dodge", "eschew" or "weasel out of". Societal shunning is the type practiced by churches: members who have supposedly stepped out of line are confronted, first by the person offended, then by a group, finally by the church, then barred from attendance, and eventually cut off from all association or friendships within the church membership (per Matthew 18: read interesting commentary on this passage here and here). The culmination of this passage on "church discipline" instructs churches to treat those excommunicated as "infidels and taxpayers" (i.e. Gentiles). In it's purest form, it forever damages the very relationships Christ instructed us to hold dear; in it's worst form, it allows pastors to discredit anyone who dare privately or publicly critique them.
Shunning rocketed me into a downward spiral that ended in the deepest depression I've ever experienced. The accusations made drowned out even the voice of the Word as I struggled to believe what God says about me, not men. I Corinthians 2:5 was deeply comforting: "That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." The refrain of Jason Gray's I Am New helped me block out the voices of the most ruthless accusers:

Now I won't deny
The worst you could say about me
But I'm not defined by mistakes that I've made
Because God says of me
I am not who I was
I'm being remade
I am new
I am chosen and holy and I'm dearly loved

Too long have I lived in the shadow of shame
Believing that there was no way I could change
But the one who is making everything new
Doesn't see me the way that I do 

Forgiven, beloved
Hidden in Christ
Made in the image of the Giver of Life
Righteous and holy, reborn and remade
Accepted and worthy
This is who we are now... 

So why am I sharing this story today? When you first find yourself being shunned, it's a wound so deep and so layered, it's almost impossible to talk about. Then too, you don't want to bring it up for fear of damaging any lingering friendships you still have hope for. When you're accused of gossip, the last thing you want to do is talk about anything. You install a triple filter system on your tongue, scrutinizing everything you say, pray, type. Because it is hard not to believe what is being said about you. You second guess everything you thought was true. It's been almost two years now, and I've felt the growing weight of this story God allowed me to experience and, I believe, wants me to share. I know there are others who've walked the same painful road, some who've hidden their wounds and their shame for decades. I want you - yes, you, hurting and discouraged redeemed sinner - to know you are not alone.

When I left my childhood church, I lost every friendship I'd made in the 15 years I'd attended. Every. one. The same thing happened, although more slowly and painfully, when we left our church of 10 years in 2010. Ironically, while my husband and I were accused of gossip and slander, the pastors who orchestrated the shunning process used not only the recent accusations, but also sought out information about a sin committed when I was a teenager to discredit us, as if God had done nothing to change me between age 14 and age 32.  Wrapped up in that story was the story of my abuse as a child. It felt like that abuse dagger was stuck in my side still, and maybe this time it would be there forever. It felt like the sins God had wiped from His memory were forever emblazoned on my forehead for all the world to see. How my sin of "gossip" - seeking counsel about a reference letter that made accusations about the causality of my choices and our health situations - counted, and their choice to spread stories of my life without me present did not, I will never understand.

Every morning, I got on Facebook to find a few more people had "unfriended" me (oh, for the pre-Facebook days when "unfriend" wasn't even a word!). After an initial onslaught of letters, messages, phone calls, and pleas for our repentance and return, some loving and some nasty, church members were eventually instructed not to interact with us at all, not even online - to unfriend us on Facebook, block phone calls, avoid us in public, and quit reading my blog and other online interactions. When I ran into former friends in the grocery store, some turned on their heal and walked in the other direction. It felt like a slow, 6 month long surgery done without anesthesia. At the end of it, I was paralyzed by the fact that a large number of people in our small city now knew details of my personal life that I had struggled to share within the intimacy of my own marriage.

Clearly, the Bible makes room for discipline of a willfully sinning member. Yet, in the harshest texts (primarily Matthew 18), the instructions are to treat that sinner as a "pagan or tax collector"; apologists point out that Jesus ate and conversed with and accepted hospitality from both (think Zaccheus). Pagans and tax collectors were only disbarred from the most intimate form of house church. Thus, a normal, although less intimate, amount of interaction is surely allowed within the scope of Scripture.

I found it easier to forgive what was done to us than what was done to our children. One by one, they lost every little friend they had, until it was just us - just them, their siblings and cousins. Never before have I been so thankful for the closer, unalienable ties of our close-knit extended families, who were as horrified by the treatment we received as we were. 

One of the few things that brought me comfort through this darkest and most difficult period of my life was reading the stories of others who had gone through the same thing. It made the attack feel less personal, and I was able to see things from my former friends perspective - they were just trying to obey their leaders. I think some of them grieved the process almost as much as we did. We weren't the only victims in the shunning process. The whole body of Christ suffered.

I opened God's Word to the story of David and Jonathan, and oh, how I hungered for a friendship like that! Jonathan, forced by his own father to expel his best friend David from not only the temple but the kingdom, fasts for days, escapes the castle to bring food and weapons to his friends, and weeps endless hours over the fracture in their relationship. Eventually, Jonathan dies in battle alongside his father, and David's grief is boundless. Here indeed, is a friend who loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17). Why was there not even one good friend in the church we left who came after me to bring me food and weep with me?

I read several books that helped me through this time - most notably David Johnson and Jeff vanVonderen's The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority in the Church (available for preview here). A growing forum of excommunicants from the same small denomination we'd been catapulted out of was also a comfort. It also helped to understand the grand scope of the practice of shunning: we are not alone! Even the particular sin we were accused of - gossip/slander - is a very common rationale behind shunning: in a 2008 article on the increase in excommunications trending nationwide, The Wall Street Journal states there is...
...a growing movement among some conservative Protestant pastors to bring back church discipline, an ancient practice in which suspected sinners are privately confronted and then publicly castigated and excommunicated if they refuse to repent. While many Christians find such practices outdated, pastors in large and small churches across the country are expelling members for offenses ranging from adultery and theft to gossiping, skipping service and criticizing church leaders. The revival is part of a broader movement to restore churches to their traditional role as moral enforcers, Christian leaders say. Some say that contemporary churches have grown soft on sinners, citing the rise of suburban megachurches where pastors preach self-affirming messages rather than focusing on sin and redemption. Others point to a passage in the gospel of Matthew that says unrepentant sinners must be shunned.
To the shock of the secular community as well as many within the Christian church, 10-15% of Protestant evangelical churches practice shunning, which translates to an overwhelming 14,000 to 21,000 U.S. congregations. While excommunication is something we often associate with Amish, Mennonite or Catholic faith traditions, this practice is alive and (un)well in a variety of church movements. The Wall Street Journal report also notes the two dozen lawsuits in the last decade through which shunned ex-church members have attempted to recover damages for defamation, negligent counseling and emotional injury. In 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a pastor for ousting a family in which the woman was charged with gossip, setting the stage for a national tidal wave of such lawsuits attempting to shed light on a painful and often very private episode in the lives of those shunned.

When you're shunned, you often lose everything except for the clothes on your back - friendships, spiritual support, community, and sometimes even jobs and family relationships can be impacted by the very group of people called to love and support you. Singles who are excommunicated may even find themselves unwelcome in their own home, if that home is shared (as it often is) by other church members. For our family, it was a barbaric experience that cut our children off from every one of their friends and their home-school group, as well as exposing my husband and I to torturous accusations that ate away at our spiritual well-being and mental health.

Yet there is such hope as you emerge from shunning! Deeper relationships, richer love for family, a deeper understanding of the personal nature of your relationship with God, strengthened ability to rely on Him alone for your needs, and perhaps even a stronger and healthier church family await you! A year and a half later, we are part of a new church where our children are thriving and we are relearning trust in our fellow members. God has prospered us financially, physically, and emotionally as we've walked as a family into recovery from this ordeal. As hard as it is now to run into former friends, these encounters have a simpler, bittersweet edge to them. Once you've made peace with the fact that these friendships are over, you can begin to look back with fonder memories and more grace for those who hurt you. If we are to be Christ-like in all we do, then we must look on our accusers and abusers with love, as Christ did the tens of thousands who shouted for His condemnation. If the Perfect One quietly and gracefully endured the ultimate penalty for moral crimes He did not commit, we must be quick to forgive and to reach out with the olive branch of peace.

Part of reconciliation is acceptance of wrongs done and the conscious act of moving forward into your emotional and spiritual recovery. Christ does not wish us to be spiritually stunted by the actions and words of others. He desires us to be full, unabashed servants living out the lessons of the Cross in our daily lives, even in our interactions with those who wounded us. And while it is important to recognize that wrong has indeed been done, it is also important to forgive. When you can name something, you can put a label on your forgiveness. Yes, you've been hurt - worse than you ever imagined possible. But you CAN be made new, even after this onslaught. It is the beauty and awesomeness of all-surpassing grace. It is the hope at the heart of Christianity - that we can be transformed by both bad experiences and good. It is how we make sense of all pain in this world: it draws us ever closer to the One who will one day rescue us from this fallen and painful world.

you didn't have to cut me off -
Make it like it never happened and that we were nothing -

Now you're just somebody that I used to know.
Somebody That I Used to Know, Gotye

For further reading, consider 

This post is Part 2 of a series on Shunning that will include several guest posts from others who've undergone this painful process. Feel free to link up to your own posts, old or new, if you've written about being shunned. You are no longer an outsider - there is a group here waiting to call you "family" and welcome you in Jesus name!