Cut Off from Among the People

One element of the Law which the vast majority of Christians see as being obsolete or annulled following the death and resurrection of Christ is the system of death penalties prescribed for a variety of offenses therein.  While there are still many Christians who see the death penalty as appropriate in cases of murder, or other very specific crimes, relatively few would argue for its application in cases of, for example, disrespect to parents, or the fraud of a woman being found not to be a virgin on her wedding night.  The fact that Christians do not embrace a literal application of these commandments from the Law is then often used in argument in an attempt to relativize the seriousness of other sins which require the death penalty in a literal reading.  Even in cases in which the prescribed death penalty is viewed as arguing that these are ‘mortal sins’ or ‘sins unto death’, it must be admitted that saying that a sin is very serious is a far cry from saying that it is worthy of death.  It is difficult, with that approach, to argue that the strictness of the Law has been somehow watered down.

In order to understand the way in which the Apostles, and the Church following them, have continued to apply this portion of the Law, one first has to understand the way in which life and death are viewed by the Law itself, as it relates to the community which is under the Law.  This understanding begins in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis.  In our modern era, so much of our discussion has concerned the historicity of the various narratives in the book of Genesis that we are prone to lose sight of its place in the Torah.  In its canonical form, Genesis is not an independent entity, but rather serves as the historical and theological prologue to the Torah as a whole.  The major themes of the Law are therefore to be found initially in Genesis, and Genesis should shape our understanding of the events and teachings related in Exodus through Deuteronomy.

Life, in Eden, was to eat from the tree of life, and thereby to remain forever in the place where God is.  In the day that our first parents chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they died in being cut off from the tree of life and were expelled from that place where God’s presence is.  Throughout the Torah, this is the understanding of what life and death mean, including biological life and death.  The living God dwells in the land of the living, and the slain in the grave are cut off from his life-giving hand.  Here the ideas of death and exile are brought together and united.  Later, in the Law, the common phrase is that certain sins require that a person be ‘cut off from among the people’ (Num 15:30-31).  It is ambiguous whether this refers to expulsion from the community, or a literal death penalty not because of our lack of historical knowledge, but precisely because both of these ideas are so closely united in the vision of the text.  When the place where God is becomes the camp with the tabernacle at the center, and still later when it becomes the kingdom with the temple at its theological center, to be expelled or cut off from that place, and God’s presence, is death.  The situation continues, and is the subject of meditation, in the post-exilic Psalms and prophets.

It is also important to note that the status of being cut off from among the people and from the presence of God was not irremediable.  Following the pattern established in Genesis by Abraham’s sacrifice of the provided ram rather than Isaac, sin offerings were to be offered as a ransom for the life of the violator of the Law.  Discussion of the Law and its penalties often leaves aside the fact that the Law includes concrete means of repentance and restoration.  The Law as a whole is not merely a means of governance for Israel, rather it represents the expression of what is now required of Israel, now that God is dwelling among them, and the means of restoring justice, the right relation of things, when that situation has been disrupted.  Numbers 15 explicitly ties the cutting off of a person from the community to their lack of repentance, in addition to the nature of their sin.  When sin enters the community through a person, this can be remedied either by the repentance of the person, or the removal of that person from the community.

St. Paul applies this part of the Law quite directly in 1 Corinthians 5.  A man in Corinth is guilty of sexual immorality with his stepmother, which under the Law requires him to be cut off from among the people, but the church in Corinth has done nothing about it.  St. Paul points out that this situation cannot be allowed to stand.  The man must be removed from the community.  But even here, St. Paul extends the idea that this will hopefully work toward the man’s repentance and salvation.  Excommunication from the church community is the direct equivalent of exile from the old covenant community, and is the remedy for unrepentant sin throughout the New Testament (cf.  Matt 18:17, 2 Thess 3:6, 1 Tim 1;20).  In addition to being expelled from the place where Christ dwells, one is excluded from eating from the tree of life, here fulfilled in the Eucharist as the ongoing source of life in the kingdom (John 6:53-57).  Far from being a ‘watering down’ of the judicial penalties of the Law, excommunication from the church community, as taught by the apostles and practiced by the church through the centuries, is a direct and literal application of the principles, and the penalties, of the Law.

About Fr. Stephen De Young

The V. Rev. Dr. Stephen De Young is Pastor of Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Lafayette, Louisiana. He holds Master's degrees in theology, philosophy, humanities, and social sciences, and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Amridge University. Fr. Stephen is also the host of the Whole Counsel of God podcast from Ancient Faith and author of four books, the Religion of the Apostles, God is a Man of War, the Whole Counsel of God, and Apocrypha. He co-hosts the live call-in show and podcast Lord of Spirits with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick.


  1. Does this understanding of being “cut off” as spiritual execution affect our understanding of the status of heterodox Christian churches? If excommunication is severance from the Tree of Life, the Temple, the Church, and is equivalent to death, can a priest who has been cut off in this manner be seen as still ministering the life-giving Mysteries of God’s grace to those who leave the community with him? Or are the two issues not analogous?
    I ask this question with no particular answer in mind, but the question is following me around now.

    1. A distinction needs to be made here regarding entering into schism, and the present situation. Someone who consciously chooses, for whatever reason, to cut him or herself off from the Church is choosing to walk away from Christ, and to cut themselves off from the tree of life in this sense. This is true both in cases of schism, and in cases of apostasy (Heb 6:4-8). But in the present situation, the vast majority of people in heterodox Christian churches have made no such conscious choice, and so labelling them as schismatics or heretics is not true, unloving, and unhelpful.

      With regard to clergy, the Orthodox position has never been that ordination gives an individual the ‘power’ to actualize the mysteries of the church, nor that it leaves some indelible mark on the character of the man in question. Clergy who are deposed are returned to the ranks of the laity. Biblically, and in the teaching of the Fathers, ordination is the setting apart of certain men for particular tasks. Grace is received by the clergy to empower, strengthen, and enable them to perform this role for which they have been set apart. The clergyman in question, if he cooperates with this grace, in serving the Lord in his role, will find salvation through his service. But certain sinful actions, including but by no means limited to, entering into schism will see him returned to the ranks of the laity to continue to work out his salvation in that context.

      1. I understand what you mean about equating the conscious choice to leave the Church with simply growing up outside it. I would never want to label Christians outside Orthodoxy like that, so thank you for clarifying for other readers what I may have wrongly implied.
        But if I’m reading you correctly (and I want to be sure that I am), you are suggesting that for a community to leave the Church means that any clergy who go with them become laymen, and therefore that these communities cannot pass any sacraments on to their children (apart from lay baptisms, presumably, by necessity). Is that what you mean?

        1. Essentially, yes. The mysteries aren’t performed by the clergy based on a power which they possess. The priest does not perform the mystery of the Eucharist by correctly saying the words of institution. The Holy Spirit makes the body and blood of Christ present on the altar in the same way in which he made the body and blood of Christ present in the womb of the Theotokos. So a clergyman who has been laicized, or who has gone into schism or apostasy has no sacerdotal power to take with him. God does whatsoever he wills in the heavens and on the earth. If he chooses to work in the lives of individuals through the sacraments of a heterodox communion, he is certainly free to do so. But he has also certainly never promised to do so. St. Irenaeus said that we know where the Holy Spirit is, but we don’t know where he isn’t. God is certainly at work outside the confines of the Church. If not, how would anyone ever be brought to the Church? But that doesn’t make any of those other places where he is at work the Church.

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