Should the church shun released prisoners?

On 19 May 2015 I was asked by a leader of a large NSW Baptist Church to provide advice on possible “biblical grounds” for a request by the church to exclude a person from attending services and other local church events.

The person in question (let’s call him “Dave”) was formerly an active member of the church. He reportedly suffered from a mental illness, was convicted of murder and imprisoned, and had apparently applied for parole. It was my understanding that Dave would soon be released from prison into the local community.

Dave had indicated his intention to return to active participation in his former church congregation, and the church had requested that he not do so. Presumably this action was in response to a request from the person’s former wife who attended the church. 

In early May 2015, Dave wrote to the leaders of the local church, asking the church to provide biblical grounds for the effective ban in order for him to explain his non-attendance to his children and grandchildren.

I have read the original letter but I know nothing of the wishes of other members of his family. I was unaware whether Dave had made a guilty plea in relation to the offence, had expressed remorse, or had sought to engage in a process of restorative justice for the offence that led to his imprisonment. My brief was simply to provide biblical support for a proposed church order to exclude Dave from the church community.

2.   The practice of shunning

There is clear warrant in the New Testament for churches and individual Christians to engage in a process of shunning or excommunicating wrongdoers, although always with the aim of encouraging godly sorrow, repentance, reconciliation and restoration to the fellowship (e.g. Mt 18:15-17; 1 Cor 5:1-8 (and see 2 Cor 2:5-11); Rom 16:17; 2 Jn 10-11). Religious groups may practice shunning or excommunication as a way of punishing persons for heresy, disloyalty, or moral failure. Such persons are seen to have violated a community standard or broken a social taboo. 

On the other hand, Christians are warned not to be judgmental toward others (Mt 7:1-5). Further, there are many biblical passages supporting the restoration of shunned or estranged persons (see above; also see 2 Sam 9, where Mephibosheth was shunned by society through no fault of his own, and King David subsequently restores his self-esteem, restores his personal identity (title and possessions), and restores him to a place of honour in the community). 

A punitive policy must be based on clear admissible evidence of serious sin warranting such action. There is no sin in the case under consideration here, and therefore no need for repentance and no justification for shunning or excommunication on moral grounds. The proposed ban would operate solely on the basis of the church’s perceived duty of care. 

3.   Duty of care

Churches have a duty of care to those for whom they provide services. This would presumably extend to the application of reasonable measures to ensure the protection of persons from known risks relating to mental illness and potential associated violence. There may also be potential insurance implications for the church. The wishes of family members should also be considered.

However, most (if not all) church services and church-related events are recognised as public events open to all. While it is prudent to enact policies aimed at protection and risk management, it is impossible to protect or insure against all potential risks to persons.

Further, it might be argued that a church has an equivalent duty of care to persons suffering from mental illness, or persons who have been released from prison, specifically a duty to welcome, accept, restore, and enfold the person in the life and ministry of the church.

It is unlawful in Australia to discriminate against a person on the grounds of disability, and mental illness is clearly regarded as a disability. In my opinion, a duty of care argument in favour of exclusion should only be used if there is a clear and present danger to other attenders of church services or church-related events, such as a formal statement from a medical practitioner.

A general request by family members to exclude a person would not normally constitute such a danger. If the person were likely to attend a church activity, it may be prudent that a prior arrangement be agreed to between the church and the person whereby he agreed to be accompanied by a suitable mentor and for an agreed probationary period. 

4.   Public relations

The church should also consider the public relations cost/benefit of its exclusion policy. It may be prudent to balance duty of care and the wishes of family members against potential negative public perceptions of the church that may arise, especially if the exclusion policy is in operation for a protracted period. 

Consideration should also be given to what actions may occur in response to the person arriving at a church activity (whether previously advised or otherwise), what legal grounds may exist for such actions, and whether the impact of negative outcomes associated with the response renders the ban untenable from the perspective of the church’s public profile and reputation.

It may be in the best interests of the church, in terms of public relations if not on moral grounds, to lift the ban. This is especially significant in view of the fact that Christians and churches are rightly perceived to act on the basis of ethical values such as unconditional love, longsuffering, acceptance, grace, and reconciliation – values that reflect the nature and character of God and are exemplified in the teaching and ministry of Jesus. 

It would be very difficult, for example, and potentially damaging to the church’s public profile, to maintain the view that God calls his people to model unconditional love, longsuffering, acceptance, grace, and reconciliation toward all people except in cases involving convicted murderers who have “served their time” in prison and wish in good faith to return to their home church.

The words of Jesus at the synagogue in Nazareth, announcing the beginning of his public ministry, come to mind: “The Spirit of theLord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for theprisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…” (Lk 4:18). Banning released prisoners from attending church services looks contrary to the spirit and letter of the Gospel, because it is, and such a policy could well precipitate a public relations disaster.

It would be heartening if the church, through this experience, was able to develop a stronger reputation as a community that closely followed the teachings of Jesus, and closely modelled the practical implications of the gospel of grace.

5.   Precedent

Enforcement of the proposed ban would set a precedent in the church. Would the policy apply to other persons suffering mental illness? Would it apply in other situations, such as the estranged former spouse of a divorced person, or a former business associate convicted of major fraud? In my opinion, such a precedent should be set only in extraordinary circumstances, and with clear boundaries and sunset clauses.

6.   Restorative justice

Generally, restorative justice involves

returning to their previous condition all parties involved in or affected by the original misconduct, including victims, offenders, the community, and even possibly the government.  Under this punishment philosophy, the offender takes full responsibility for the wrongdoing and initiates restitution to the victim.  The victim and offender are brought together to develop a mutually beneficial program that helps the victim in the recovery process and provides the offender a means of reducing their risks of re-offending.[1]

Rather than insisting on banning the person in question from attending church activities, it seems to me that a policy of encouraging him to reconnect with his former faith community, and immersing once again in familiar patterns of devotion and discipleship, may well constitute an important element in his ongoing rehabilitation and restoration to full spiritual, emotional and psychological health.

Contact with a church community could not reasonably be construed as damaging to Dave’s health and well-being, unless he were to perceive the church as seeking to shun or exclude him from the fellowship. There may also be important lessons to be learned by the church through this process.

7.   Conclusion

As I observed earlier, I am unfamiliar with the details of the case and do not know the persons involved. There may be additional factors pertaining to this case beyond my knowledge that may compel a different course of action. However, given the considerations noted above, I cannot suggest any reasonable biblical basis or rationale for upholding a ban on Dave’s attendance at church activities. 

The overwhelming biblical evidence unequivocally encourages an attitude, and therefore a policy, of mutual embrace, inclusion, fellowship and unity. We are all broken people on our way home. For most of us, the fellowship of a healthy local church is arguably the best place to find meaning, hope, encouragement and peace. 


Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, bushwalking, and reading a good book. This article is an edited version of advice to the person who requested it.


References

[1] Terance D. Miethe & Hong Lu, Punishment: A Comparative Historical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 24.

Image source: CityNews