Monday, April 02, 2007

3/20/07, For Your Consideration: Q.1 Excommunication by Email?

The other posts in the series are:
For Your Consideration
Q.2 Limits of Modern Technology?
Q.3 Immediate Excommunication?
Q.4 What is the standard Presbyterian procedure for excommunication?
Q.5. Scriptural Justification for a Three Week Excommunication Notice
Q6. Misinterpretation by Price, Barrow, and Dohms
Q.7 Why Read the Banns?

Dear Brethren,

I humbly submit the following question below for your consideration.

Your brother,


1. Should an ecclesiastical court excommunicate someone via email?

Let us begin by assuming that I am a scandalous sinner who has obstinately committed a sin worthy of excommunication. And let us assume that I am a member of a lawful church governed by a lawful court of Christ. In such a case, it is natural to ask, what is the proper procedure for carrying out my excommunication?

We live in an age of unprecedented technology. Just in the past decade, email has become so ubiquitous as a means of communication that it is hard to remember what life was like without it. With just a few presses on the keyboard, any one of us can send (nearly instantaneously) a message to someone on the other side of the world. One can even send a message to a large group of people at once. On the one hand, email has brought us closer together, enabling more rapid and frequent communication than was possible before. On the other hand, the increasing technology has, in many respects, caused our society to lose (in my opinion) many of the social graces and acts of civility which were taken for granted by previous generations.

Man is a social creature, and face-to-face interaction is important for any human relationship to remain healthy. Listen to the Apostle John's longing to see his brethren in person: "Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full" (II John 12; cf. III John 13-14). John was not content to use the technology available to him (namely, paper and ink) as a substitute for personal, up-close interaction. Rather, he knew that the bonds of Christian fellowship are greatly strengthened by face-to-face interaction. He knew that without such interaction, our joy in fellowship is not complete.

The light of nature teaches us that, because of the dignity of the image of God on the receiving end, some instances of communication -- particularly those of weighty importance -- ought to be conducted face-to-face. Suppose a young lady were to receive an email from her beau asking her to marry him. Would you expect her to be overwhelmed at the tender care displayed to her, or would you expect her to be insulted? Or suppose a married man were to receive an email from his wife declaring her intention to seek divorce. Would that form of communication be sufficient, or would the husband's innate desire be to see his loved one face-to-face to try to work out their differences? As another example, suppose that one day you noticed in your Inbox an email from the hospital saying that your wife (or husband, or other loved one) had been suddenly killed in an automobile accident? Would that be a charitable way for the medical staff to communicate a matter of such weighty importance, or would it be an indication of lack of civility? Even unbelievers know instinctively that something is just not right about relying on the modern technology available through telephone, email, or fax, for important notifications. This is why it is the policy of secular authorities to physically send someone to your door, or to ask you to physically come to the hospital, to inform you of the news of the recent death of a loved one. Is it possible that they have something to teach us?

The law of charity is always applicable, whether in ordinary or extraordinary times. As such, this law should always be kept in mind when considering whether an action is lawful: "If there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Rom. 14:9). Suppose that, God forbid, the state were to pronounce you guilty and notify you of your impending execution. Which of you would like to receive such notification via email? Although the sentence itself would be the greater sin (assuming that you were innocent), would not the chosen means of communication add insult to injury? Is human life so cheap that it is not worth a more dignified presentation to notify it that it will end? Drawing an analogy, is the human soul so cheap that an email is sufficient to convey the gravity of the situation when that soul is cast out of the church of the living God?

I think we would all agree that certain actions require face-to-face interaction. A hug, a kiss, holding hands, a foot massage, and other signs of affection cannot be done remotely. Even if the technology were advanced to such a degree that such actions could be simulated with arbitrary precision using visual feedback from a retinal display, auditory feedback from an array of directed speakers, a haptic interface for providing tactile stimuli, and a chemical device to stimulate the olfactory nerves, it would still not be a genuine hug. Friends, of course, cannot share a meal together over the telephone, and a marriage cannot be consummated via email. Ecclesiastical actions are governed by this same principle. When the Apostle tells the brethren to greet one another "with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16:16), he is requiring face-to-face interaction. Would we participate in a distributed Lord's Supper service using videoconferencing technology, or would we allow a pastor to administer baptism using a teleoperated robot? If not, then is it possible that church officers should not use technology to administer an excommunication via email?

Allow me, if you will, to advance the argument one step further. Much has been said by others about the benefits of modern technology, so it is only fair for us to consider its limitations as well. The Scripture commands parents to discipline their children with the rod: "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." (Prov. 13:24) Suppose a man were to invent a mechanical device that, by means of an electric motor, oscillates a rod up and down in a spanking motion. Suppose the device were connected to the internet so that the man, while on a business trip, could dial-in using his laptop and administer discipline to his son thousands of miles away at home. Would this be a lawful use of technology? Would we consider such a father wise and prudent, or would we instead counsel him to wait until he returned home so that he could talk with his son face-to-face about his sin and express his love for him via tangible means such as hugs and kisses, in order to maintain a healthy relationship?

Similarly, the Scripture places the authority of the sword in the hands of the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:4). Suppose that the state were to rig an explosive device in the home of the convicted man (after an orderly trial in which he was found guilty) that could be triggered remotely. One day the executioner presses a button, and thousands of miles away the man's life is extinguished. Would this be a lawful use of technology? At what point does a lawful execution bear so much resemblance to an unlawful murder, simply because of the undignified manner in which the procedure is conducted, that it becomes unlawful?

As we all know, three forms of government are intrinsic to the created order of human societies: the family, the state, and the church. To these three governments God has given the power of the rod, of the sword, and of excommunication, respectively. If we cringe at the seemingly unnatural use of technology to administer the rod remotely, and if we cringe at the grotesque use of technology to administer the sword remotely, then is it possible that we also should object to the unnatural use of technology to administer excommunication remotely? If it is unlawful for a father to remotely administer the rod, and if it is unlawful for the state to remotely use the sword, then can the church lawfully administer the most severe form of discipline available to it -- namely excommunication -- by sending an email? Is this the proper way to handle such a censure, even in extraordinary times, or is it such a deviation from the created order as to not be a lawful approach, even if the one being shunned is guilty?

Even if sending such an email were lawful, would it necessarily follow that it was expedient? The Apostle Paul warns us, "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient" (I Cor. 6:12). Just because something is lawful does not mean that we ought to do it. Since the goal of excommunication is to restore the erring brother to fellowship, we must ask whether this is an expedient means to accomplish that goal. Would it not have been more charitable and expedient for Mr. Price, Mr. Barrow, and Mr. Dohms to have delivered this message to me in person, face-to-face? After all, we live in an age of unprecedented technology, which extends not only to communication but also to travel. In just a few hours of flying on a plane, any of them could have been here in my city, and I would even have volunteered to pick them up from the airport. Being here in person would have made the joy of our fellowship more full (as the Apostle says), it would have enabled more extensive and effective communication to ensure that we had not misunderstood one another, and it would have provided a more dignified presentation of the final result (assuming that I had remained obstinate in my sin). What is a few days of traveling, and a few hundred dollars for a plane ticket, to labor for the saving of a soul? Is Christ's parable about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to reclaim the one that is lost of no applicability to our current situation?

Someone may object by saying that these men truly desire my restoration but did not deem it expedient to travel here to my town. After all, what would it have accomplished, since they and I had already reached an impasse? Can they really be expected to physically travel to visit every single person before excommunicating him or her, especially when there is such a large number of persons being cast out as to make such travel impractical? First of all, we should not underestimate the power of God to bring about reconciliation between those who disagree. Since there were many misunderstandings between us in our private correspondence, who knows but that a more effective means of communication (namely, face-to-face) would have enabled us to clear up some of those? Secondly, whether the end result would have been the same, proper procedure still should be followed. We cannot say that a murderer is not entitled to a fair trial and an orderly execution just because the evidence against him is so compelling as to allow no other verdict. Even if we all saw the murder first-hand live on television, we still are not entitled to lynch him at twilight; rather, we must first conduct a proper trial and then end his life in an orderly manner. Finally, suppose that these men were willing to clear up misunderstandings, to follow proper procedure, and to visit me, but they simply were not physically able to do so for whatever reason (e.g., poor health or overloaded work schedules). If so, then what does such a limitation say about the expediency of the present ecclesiastical government, when the people cannot receive face-to-face ministry from even a single elder, even in the most distressing of circumstances? Is there really no other way?

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