The Christadelphian form of excommunication is called “disfellowshipping” or “withdrawal of fellowship.” It is the disciplinary method which occurs when people do not follow church authority on matters of belief or practice.
There are no exact statistics compiled stating how many people have been disfellowshipped and it would be difficult to assess. Much would depend on how the statistics were formulated and it would be complicated because the practice occurs both individually to members and has also occurred to entire congregations, which is sometimes called “block disfellowshipping.” When it happens to a group this can be called schism, but due to the autonomous nature of individual congregations and the existence of supra-church groups it has varying manifestations. So, for instance, a congregation can be block disfellowshipped by one meeting, but both may be still considered in fellowship by another congregation. Or it can be accepted by one supra-church group (such as a preaching or Bible School committee), but not another. Likewise so can individuals and without any central authority (or something like a synod) the incongruities create the potential for never ending disputes and politics within the community. This is one of the organisational weaknesses of a democratic framework and also with defined statements of faith which need ever closer defining.
If those separated by schisms were included many thousands of Christadelphians have been disfellowshipped. Individually it would also add up to a fairly large number. Block disfellowshipping has tended to occur primarily when issues have arisen which have not been covered by statements of faith, but which present a challenge to traditions. Today such an issue would be the role of women. In the past it has included who is responsible at the judgment, whether people are raised mortal or immortal or what “sin in the flesh” means. Divorce and remarriage has also been a source of intense friction if we look at a moral issue as opposed to belief issues.
There are three broad categories why people are disfellowshipped. These are moral, doctrinal and for non attendance. There are crossovers between these categories, but these are the main ones. The different categories create different challenges for the Christadelphians and also how they are dealt with. It can also affect how likely a person will be to be reaccepted. An exhaustive consideration is beyond our scope at this time, but some general points are worth noting.
Moral issues primarily deal with behaviour rather than theology, but the boundaries are blurred at times. An issue becomes theological when the person involved does not accept that their activities are un-Biblical or sinful and seeks to defend them upon that basis.
The major reasons here are usually relationship issues or sexual ones. These include marrying out of the Christadelphian faith, divorcing or remarrying, and adultery. It also includes a few people who actively become homosexuals. For a deeper consideration of those who are considering a long-term relationship with a Christadelphian a more expansive consideration is elsewhere on this site.
An interesting point to note is that the issues that people are disfellowshipped for morally form a very small part of what Christadelphians actually believe are wrong and in that sense are very selective. They are those in general which have clear cut outward actions which can be measured. In 150 years to my knowledge no one has been disfellowshipped for being materialistic for instance, which is also considered sinful, or for being envious or for being a hypocrite.
Doctrinal reasons are diverse, but there are some broad reasons which will be considered at a later date.
It should be recognised that Christadelphians do not generally want to disfellowship anyone, although it is probable that personal and political reasons have been part of the process at times. It is therefore only fair to note that to do so is not easy and to do so well requires a deep conviction that by so doing it is fulfilling God’s will. Many of those who have done so later struggle with this very point, just as those who are disfellowshipped often struggle with moving forward in their lives too.
The purpose of disfellowshipping therefore to a Christadelphian is to bring a person into line with God’s will, whether that is theological or practical. It is not to simply hurt that person or make their lives unnecessarily difficult. The process of disfellowshipping is therefore usually preceded with an attempt to convince the person to repent, change or when it is doctrinal that they are wrong. Historical Christadelphian procedures for this are found within a document called The Ecclesial Guide. The aim according to this is recovery and not expulsion. In practice very little effort is placed into recovery. As someone who has established a group for Out of Fellowship Christadelphians can confirm from their own experience and that of others once a person is disfellowshipped many former members never even contact them.
The reason for this is very simple. Those who are disciplined represent a problem which expulsion solves. By contrast, to restore can require in-depth consideration and working through of issues which is necessarily more difficult. It may at times also require an acknowledgment of some flaws in both the community and its approach.
The normal procedure is that once an issue is noted by a member of the congregation it is brought to the leading brethren of the church who then seek to arrange meetings to discuss the issues. If these cannot bring the member into line or they refuse to talk or talks cannot be arranged, then the person is recommended to the church for disfellowshipping and if a majority agree then it goes forward.
The Catholic word for this process is called “excommunication” which comes from the root word for communion and means denying a person communion. This is the practice of remembering the death and resurrection of Christ through a simple ceremony of breaking bread and drinking wine in Christadelphian terms.
A disfellowshipped person can usually still go to church, but they are no longer considered to be a Christadelphian or part of the body of Christ. They are not usually allowed to have any active roles within the congregation and people mentally alter their approach and conception of them. In others words they lose a sense of ready acceptance. Christadelphians do not usually go as far as Jehovah’s Witnesses and advocate shunning those they disfellowship, nor do they anathematise those they disfellowship. It does however usually lead to a distancing from them and a reduction in association and care shown towards them.
Restoration of a person is the reverse of the disfellowship process. This has different aspects depending on the broad category into which it falls and also the specifics of the person’s situation.
For those disfellowshipped for moral reasons, the person concerned would be expected to acknowledge their sin and cease their sinful actions as defined by the Christadelphians. So, for instance, if they have become an active homosexual they would be expected to cease from that relationship. If they are in an adulterous situation they would be expected to cease. If they have married out of the faith, though, they are not normally expected to divorce that person, but a certain period of time is usually allowed to elapse before re-admittance to show the disapproval of the community to what is considered to be an act of wilful sin.
Divorce has been a divisive issue in the community, because marriage in scriptural terms is for life. The two people are considered to become one and they are expected to continually work for restoration. Separation is usually accommodated, (although frowned upon) and for a man would result in him not being allowed a responsible role or being allowed to speak on the platform. Marriage is an important divinely appointed institution to the Christadelphians and divorce, separation or remarriage very much affects status in the community.
Remarriage is where it gets divisive because it is seen to be entering a state of adultery. It is totally disallowed in some meetings and breakaway groups. On the basis of compassion other congregations do make exceptions and give allowances. The complications are immense with former partners remarrying, leaving the Christadelphians, having children to bring up alone, the emotional difficulties some have at remaining single and so forth. The main Christadelphian community has recognised this and it is down to individual congregations what stands they take and there is no consistent position adopted. There is also some controversy over some remarks on marriage which Jesus made (which are sometimes called “the exceptive clause”) and whether it allows those whose partners have committed adultery to remarry.
Those who are disfellowshipped for doctrinal reasons rarely return because they do not consider that they have sinned. They also have rarely changed to simply upset people and due to the very rigid thinking and closed thinking in the community it has often followed a period of very deep thought. In fact most people initially keep thoughts to themselves for a long time before finally speaking out or asking questions. They will therefore often believe the community itself has some flaws it needs to recognise. Restoration on the community’s terms often means they have to alter their change of position to be accommodated. Unless the person or community therefore changes there is little scope for full reconciliation.
It seems that non attendance is something which is covering other issues. That can be disillusionment with how the community works, it could be an attempt to simply leave or in other cases it can cover depression or personal difficulties. Unless these are understood then the person will not return. In fact disfellowshipping them (which not all congregations do) can make the likelihood of restoration more difficult because they may require sensitivity, not a process of discipline.
I personally suspect that this area covers people who really need some emotional help, but which Christadelphians with their very non emotional outlook very often don’t have the ability to approach.
On Wikipedia under the section excommunication there is a statement that “disfellowship for doctrinal reasons is now unusual.” This is “proven” by referring to a news source called “News from the Ecclesias” stating that in The Christadelphian [historically the main magazine and carries such information], in a typical year (Jan - Dec 2006) there were only two suspensions for doctrinal reasons in the UK, both indicating that the member had already left of his/her own choice.
I suspect that this is broadly true, but not for the reasons which the quote is used to imply. It is used to imply this is because the community is now accommodative of changes of position. This is not the case and the reason why is because people who change come under intense pressure to conform and there is little attempt to understand where they are coming from. The community would rather a person “chose” to resign rather than disfellowship them. It should also be noted that the posts in the Christadelphian are written by those who disfellowship to justify their disfellowship and many would not refer to that fact at all, but simply state “they are no longer in fellowship because they no longer believe the Truth.”