Yesterday, I Was Excommunicated.

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Seventeen years ago today, I was baptized.

Yesterday, I was excommunicated.

Though, that is not entirely accurate. 

It would be more precise to say that the elders of the church I used to attend declared that I was excommunicated, apart from any membership vote, apart from allowing the members to hear any counter-arguments, and apart from any biblical or legitimate process of discipline. 

I have two aims in discussing this matter publicly: 

The first is to “set the record straight,” so to speak, since the elders’ declaration has been made public to the members of the church, and will be made public to the extent that anyone inquires about my membership status. 

The second is to be a warning, and an encouragement, to other brothers and sisters in the faith who might find themselves in the midst of such abusive actions by their elders. Based on numerous accounts which have been reported to me, along with my own personal experience, I have reason to believe that similar abuse, in the name of “discipline,” is something the Church needs to be discussing and warning about. 

However, I want to be clear that my aim is not any form of retribution against the elders or against the church. I have entrusted them to Him who judges justly, and I will ask that you join me in earnestly praying for their repentance and renewal in the faith.

Because I do not want this to function in any way as retribution against the elders or the church, I will omit the names of both the elders and the church involved. The majority of those who already know the name of the church to which I refer are also members of that church, and they have been instructed not to communicate or associate with me at all. Therefore, this is the only manner in which they are able to learn the truth about what transpired. 

 

Setting the Record Straight

Because I am involved in public ministry, it is appropriate that some might inquire about my Church membership status. Rather than attempting to hide the fact that a board of elders has declared that I am in unrepentant sin, I want to be as forthright as possible with the public and with my readers. 

I will give an overview of the timeline and situation below, and invite anyone who wants more specific details to contact me privately. The vast majority of the communication between myself and the elders on this matter has taken place via written electronic communication, so no one needs to simply “take my word for it” regarding any of the below. I will share all of the communication with anyone interested, and possibly publish it in the future after redacting identifying information.

(Update: You can now see the relevant email exchange leading up to the “discipline,” through the “second warning” here. All identifying information has been redacted.)

Before I get into the details (which, quite frankly, may otherwise bore you), I want to give you my general evaluation, so that you understand why these details are necessary. 

 

General Evaluation

From the beginning of this process of “church discipline” (which I intentionally put in scare quotes), the elders communicated disdain and contempt toward my honest attempts to be a “Berean” regarding the claims they were making. I repeatedly and earnestly sought to understand the biblical rationale for their claims against me, and I was repeatedly rebuked and punished for doing so. They made it clear, in several ways throughout this process, that it was not the Word of God to which they wanted me to submit, but their own arbitrary will, which they claimed was based in the Word of God, while refusing to substantiate that claim, and while penalizing me for requesting that they do so. 

In their announcement of their decision at the members meeting (which my wife insisted upon attending, because they forbade me from attending), they repeatedly expressed that it is good to speak out boldly for the truth, but that there is a “clear line” which we cannot cross. However, they have demonstrated through this process that they are not able, or willing, to explicitly identify where that “clear line” is, and ground that identification in biblical reasoning. The “clear line,” so far as I can tell, is measured only by their subjective and ineffable comfort level. 

There are a number of other important evaluations I would like to note, but I will save those for later, and allow the reader to assess the above evaluations themselves by reading the summary of events below.

 

The Initial Accusation: Slander

In May, I published a post on Facebook (the post has since been reconstructed here for reference) which was critical of some SBC pastors regarding their responses to the controversy at Southern Seminary. One of the elders of my church contacted me over FB Messenger, with another elder in the conversation. He told me he was contacting me “as a brother” (rather than as a representative of the elders), because this post was the first time he thought a formal call to repentance was warranted. (The accusation centered on “slander” but often included references to “uncharitableness,” etc…). He insisted that I remove the post and that I apologize, confessing that I had sinned. Of course, I cannot confess to sinning without believing that I have sinned, so I inquired as to his reasons for believing I was in sin.

After much discussion over the course of multiple days, wherein one of the elders defended the actions of Southern Seminary, the accusing elder was not able to substantiate his accusation of sinfulness against me. This was in spite of my ongoing attempts to help him clarify and identify exactly what he believed to be sinful and why. At each point where it seemed like he had communicated what he believed to be sinful about the post, I would repeat my understanding of his position and ask if I was correct, only to be told that I was incorrect. 

Moreover, the accusing elder repeatedly cited my requests for substantiation (of his charges) as further evidence of my sinfulness, while insisting that it was my responsibility to demonstrate that I was not guilty of his charges. I explained that he was (likely unwittingly) employing a kafka trap (holding me as guilty until I proved myself innocent, and counting any attempt I made to defend myself as further evidence of my guilt). He finally became exasperated and volunteered to end the discussion until he could bring it to the other elders.

 

Meeting With the Other Two Elders

I then met with the two other elders (who were not in the FB chat, but who were aware of it) in person. In spite of the fact that they had given only a few hours for the meeting, one of the elders kept attempting to bring up many other issues, instead of discussing the formal charge of sin which had been brought against me. He even attempted to claim that there was a sinful pattern of behavior on my part, which they had repeatedly addressed with me in the past. I responded in shock, explaining that to my recollection they had never communicated to me before that they thought I was in sin, and that to my knowledge, all of our past conversations had been aimed at resolving personal differences regarding matters of preference in tone and style of writing. The other elder even affirmed this, explaining that it would have been a failure to shepherd on their part if they had thought I was in sin in the past without communicating so to me. 

In the little bit of time that we were able to focus on the formal charge of sin which had been brought against me, the only thing which the two elders present seemed to agree upon regarding why the original post was sinful was the fact that I had not included the possibility that the pastors (whom I was criticizing in the post) had simply been negligent, rather than merely been evasive. However, as we were packing up to leave (they set the schedule, not me), the same elder who had attempted to misconstrue past conversations noted that my negative evaluations of the pastors would still stand (in my mind) even if they had been negligent. I confessed that was probably the case, to which he responded with disapproval. This indicated to me that they still had not sufficiently communicated to me why they thought the post was sinful (since the added possibility of negligence, which they had agreed upon, was now not sufficient for counting the post as not sinful). 

In an effort to come to an understanding, I emailed the two elders I had met with, asking for them to specify exactly what they believed to be sinful in the post, and why. I even outlined several possibilities based on our discussion, hoping that doing so would make it easier for them to identify their own position and to clearly express it to me. 

 

First Official Warning

In response to my questions, all four elders emailed me with a “first official warning.” In this warning, the charge of sin changed from “slander” to “divisiveness.” This formally altered the nature of the correction (according to their bylaws), from a sin which would require a member vote (slander), to a sin which would not require a member vote (divisiveness). 

(Looking back, this appears to have been done intentionally to avoid the necessity of bringing the matter before the church for a vote: The rationale, in the bylaws, of “divisiveness” not requiring a vote is its immediate threat to the unity of this local church. But at no point did the actions for which I was being disciplined pose any threat to the unity of this local church. Moveover, they never exercised the option to forbid me from attending corporate gatherings, until the membership meeting in which my excommunication was to be announced. If they believed I posed a threat to their local church, they could have, and presumably would have, asked me not to attend previous corporate gatherings over the past few months while this “discipline” process was carried out). 

The warning was specifically tied to the original post about the pastors, stating that if I did not remove the post and apologize, they would have to count that as unrepentant behavior, and remove me from membership.

In the same email, they gave two reasons for believing that the post was sinful: 1) The lack of qualification; and 2) The lack of evidence for the conclusions I drew.

 

My Response to the First Official Warning

In response, because I wanted to be sure that I accurately understood them, so that I could genuinely test my heart against the Scriptures regarding their accusation of sinfulness, I asked a clarifying question. I asked, if I had posted in such a way as to address the 2 reasons they cited (by adding qualifications, and by narrowing the scope of my claims to the evidence I was citing), whether they still would have believed that the post was sinful. And if they would still see it as sinful, I asked that they explain what other reasons they had for thinking that it was sinful. 

I emphasized 3 times in this email that I wanted to be sure that I clearly understood exactly why they believed it was sinful. This was because, according to biblical repentance, I could not repent (as they were requiring of me) without accurately understanding the nature of the sin I was being accused of, so that I could test my heart against Scripture and be convicted.

 

Second Official Warning & Termination of Communication

In response to my email asking for clarification, all four elders responded with the following:

Jacob, it’s no longer a question of how we would have responded if you had used more verbal finesse in the past. We are calling you to a new mindset. Not, ‘I should have been more careful with how I said it,’ but rather, ‘My careless, aggressive words reveal a harsh, judgmental, divisive spirit. Please forgive me.’

This is officially our second warning. Without your repentance, all further conversation is terminated.”

Note that when I stated my understanding of the reasons they cited for believing the post to be sinful, and asked them to correct me if I was wrong, they dismissed it as mere “verbal finesse.” 

They claimed that they were “calling me to a new mindset,” but they dismissed my earnest attempts to understand their reasons for believing that I was in sin (and such understanding would be minimally necessary in order for me to genuinely come to a “new mindset.”)

Then they punished me for asking for clarification by escalating the discipline to a “second official warning.” This warning came less than 24 hours after their “first official warning,” and was the sole result of my earnest question for clarity on the nature of the sin of which they were accusing me. The impression given was, “stop asking questions and obey.”

Finally, after dismissing my attempts to get clarity, and after penalizing me for desiring clarity, they terminated all further communication, which guaranteed that I was not going to receive any clarity regarding the nature or the reasons for their accusation against me.

 

My Response

At this point, they had consistently demonstrated that they were not interested in any form of biblical repentance on my part; that they did not want to convince me that I was in sin, so that I could come to a genuine change of mind—but rather, that they wanted me to bow to their arbitrary will by pretending to myself that I was in sin merely because they insisted that it was so, and they wanted to use the threat of cutting me off from the Body of Christ as motivation. 

Thus, it would have been appropriate (and probably wise) for me to walk away, shake the dust off my feet, and disregard anything else they had to say. 

However, one of the elders was a dear friend of mine, and if there was anything I could do to salvage our friendship, I wanted to do it. Therefore, I endeavored to search through everything that the elders had communicated regarding this matter—however vaguely, and confusedly they had done so, in order to identify any shred of legitimate biblical concerns they might have had. 

In an attempt to reconcile, I took down the post, I posted a public apology which matched the concerns they had stated in their first warning as closely as I could understand them, and I offered to meet with that one elder to discuss general sanctification in online interactions. 

We did meet, and in those two meetings, I expressed the difficulty I was having making sense of their convictions on the matter in light of other biblical passages which they seemed to be overlooking. I expressed that I wished there was an in-depth systematic theology on the topic of polemics, so that the Church could get more clear on what is appropriate and when. I also expressed my willingness to continue to engage in dialogue and pushback on the topic in light of the fact that there is no settled biblical scholarship on the appropriateness, context, manner, etc… of sharp speech. 

At the end of these meetings, I asked if I was still under discipline (hoping that my efforts to meet their concerns—in spite of the fact that they were communicated to me so unclearly—would soften their hearts and cause them to de-escalate). The elder I was meeting with informed me that another elder wanted to know whether I agreed with them that my original post had been sinfully divisive. 

I answered that I didn’t know, but I was willing to discuss it further. I answered this way because my attempts to understand their rationale had been repeatedly refused and punished. 

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Doubling Down

Shortly after this, I received an email from all four elders indicating that, because I didn’t agree with them that the original post had been sinfully divisive, that I was still under discipline. 

Moreover, after this point, they began to shift the target by bringing up numerous other posts to which they objected, but which had not been included in the first or second warnings. 

Given that they had stubbornly refused to clarify their rationale about the singular original post, I knew it would be futile to even attempt to engage them about the other posts they were bringing up. 

At this point, I knew that the hope of salvaging my friendship with that one elder was lost, so far as it depended on me. 

I told the elders that they had demonstrated a lack of interest in my genuine repentance, and that this was not, and had not been biblical or legitimate church discipline. I shared with them all the reasons that I have shared above. And I told them to either dismiss it, or finalize it by taking it to the church. They chose the latter. 

 

The Members Meeting

Prior to the members meeting where they announced their decision, they contacted a friend of mine, who was familiar with all the details of the situation, and asked that he not attend. So far as I can tell, asking a member who is not currently under discipline not to attend a members meeting is unprecedented and highly suspect. They also asked that I not attend, which seems to be loosely allowed by their bylaws, but it is suspect that this was the only “corporate gathering” which they asked me not to attend.

Given their requests regarding attendance, it appears as though they did not want anyone present who would be able to contradict their framing of the situation. 

At the meeting, they communicated that they generally agree with my positions on various issues, but that I crossed a “clear line”—a “clear line” which, as I stated above, they are not able or willing to identify and ground in any biblical rationale. 

They insinuated that they had been discussing the sinful nature of my online content with me over the last three years, which is a lie. 

We’ve had many discussions over the last three years, but as I stated above, to the best of my recollection, at no time was it communicated to me that they believed that I was in sin. Rather, the discussions were always about differences of opinion on various topics and differences of opinion on how to communicate regarding those topics. I was alway eager to hear their biblically-based reasons for why they would have preferred to say something differently, and I often made adjustments or revisions based on such counsel from them. 

When they informed the members about the “discipline” process I had gone through, they said, “eventually we had to escalate it to a second warning.” This was highly misleading. 

It would have been more accurate to say, “We rushed from a first warning to a second warning, in less than 24 hours, because Jacob had the audacity to ask us a clarifying question about the charges we had brought against him.”

Finally, at the meeting, they mentioned that numerous people, including pastors, from other churches had contacted them to issue complaints about my online activity. Something similar happened to AD Robles a few years ago, and I’ve received numerous reports indicating that this is likely a trend among evangelical leaders to silence their online opponents. This brings me to the encouragement section.

 

Encouragement to The Brothers

Brothers, do not allow your consciences to be bothered by anyone, of any office, who refuses to submit legitimate and biblical rationale for what they claim to have against you. 

Yes, we must submit to our elders, just as we must submit to the governing authorities, but only insofar as doing so is consistent with submission to the One who is Prophet, Priest, and King over them. 

Do not allow anyone, including your elders, to pretend that their arbitrary preferences are interchangeable with God’s revealed will, on any issue. Their preferences may be grounded in God’s revealed will, but your conscience cannot be bound with theirs until they, or someone else, demonstrates such grounding to you. 

When it comes to polemics (publicly contending for the truth of the faith), don’t allow a different standard of hermeneutics than you would on any other issue. Yes, there are passages which instruct us to be gentle, patient, etc… But there are also numerous passages and examples which could not reasonably be described as gentle or patient. We must not treat the Bible as though there are verses for one side and verses for another, but rather, we must labor to integrate everything it has to say on a given topic. When it comes to the topic of gentleness and sharpness of speech, I have done my best to indicate the beginnings of such an integration here and here but I am eager to receive pushback and correction as it is only a first pass on the topic.

If a few men decide to formally declare that you are cut off from the Body through unbiblical and illegitimate means, do not be discouraged. It is of no account. 

Rather, pray for them. 

And finally, I would like to point out that we are in an age of mass apostasy. But the Lord is faithful and will keep His remnant (1 Kings 19:18). One of the ways He does that is through the encouragement of the true brothers in the faith. And I want to be intentional in that regard. I will have more details on this soon, but I will be launching an initiative to support and defend innocent Christians who are enduring similar abuse. If you have gone through a similar experience, or are currently going through something similar, please reach out to me at jacob@christianintellectual.com.

 

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