Purpose of Excommunication

Excommunication is a remedial measure that is not without redemptive intent.

Rex D. Edwards, Th.D., is a member of the faculty of the department of religion at Columbia Union College.

EXCOMMUNICATION has been regarded by ecclesiastics as the ultimate disciplinary measure. As a "weapon" it has been conspicuous for its abuse. It has been employed as a penalty, often plunging the defendent into a situation of abysmal irreversibility. Luther in his "Discussion of Confession" emphasizes the punitive aspect of excommunication, while Calvin declares it to be a public ecclesiastical censure for the purpose of purification.1

The latter emphasis appears on a translation of an early Amish formulary dated 1779, to wit: ". . . the preservation of purity and holiness of the church. . . . The offending member can no longer have normal association. . . . He must be avoided; members can no longer eat or drink with him. . . . The church dare not risk contamination by condoning the offense, the offender must wee the wretched state in which his offense has placed him so that he will repent and return to worthy membership in the church, and the good name of the congregation must be preserved." 2

The formulation while admittedly and sternly punitive has the ultimate restoration of the individual as its goal. It reflects the disciplinary code of the early church of which Crannell writes, "It was not a complex and rigid ecclesiastical engine, held in terrorem over the soul, but the last resort of faithful love, over which hope and prayer still hovered." 3 Excommunication or disfellowshipment then was not a penalty, it was rather a salvaging instrument.

Is this premise continent with the purpose of excommunication as revealed in the New Testament? Two lines of thought require development. First, the effect upon the church, and second, the effect upon the individual excommunicated. The effect desired with respect to the first is the preservation of the church's spiritual testimony that she may pros per in purity. "Every effort must be made to show the world that the Church of Christ will not tolerate moral evil within its bounds," urges C. R. Erdman. 4

However, the effect upon the individual is open to debate, especially when confronted with the Pauline indictment that such a one should be delivered "over to Satan" (T.E.V.), an expression that occurs in 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:20. The consensus in theological circles equates "deliver over to Satan" with excommunication. Calvin comments: "Delivering over to Satan is an appropriate expression for denoting excommunication; for as Christ reigns in the Church so Satan reigns out of the Church, as Augustine, too, has remarked, in his sixty-eighth sermon on the words of the apostle, where he explains this passage. As, then we are received into the communion of the Church, and remain in it on this condition, that we are under the protection and guardianship of Christ, I say that he who is cast out of the Church is in a manner delivered over to the power of Satan, for he becomes an alien, and is cast out of Christ's kingdom."5

Calvin, it should be noted, modifies Augustine's proposal, as he continues his commentary on 1 Corinthians 5:5, so that the phrase is interpreted by him to mean a temporal condemnation. But such a view is not without objections. In the first place verse 4 indicates that the power of Christ is necessary in the act of "delivering over to Satan." But it is logical that if the Lord invests the church with excommunicatory powers He does not insist that the function be carried out by His power. The matter of the church's vested authority is not to be ignored. Jesus Himself said, "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18).

Another objection is that bodily punishment is implied in the phrase "for the destruction of the flesh." However, any notion of combining a penal judgment with exclusion from fellowship is nowhere endorsed in the New Testament.

The Final Objection

The final objection is that these commentators fail to consider the possibility that the phrase could be a special case, as in Acts 5:1-12, and refers to a unique power given by Christ to the apostles and exercised by Paul. After all, it was the same power by which Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead and Elymas the sorcerer blinded. Godet rightly holds that the Corinthians failed to act by means of excluding these licentious ones, so Paul felt it incumbent upon himself to act.6 It certainly was an exceptional case.

A direct statement as to the desired effect on the excommunicant is the fol lowing Pauline exhortation: "And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thess. 3: 14, 15). No clearer statement could be given as to the true purpose of excommunication. It is a remedial measure that is meant to produce remorse. Similarly, "But if any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, but in part: that I may not overcharge you all. Sufficient to such a man is the punishment, which was afflicted of many. So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow" (2 Cor. 2:5-7).

Here the principle of grace is presented in the case of church discipline. The punishment described is not a bodily one, but one of separation from the fellowship of Christian brethren. The sufficiency of this type of punishment is noted in verse 6, and the use of the words "comfort him" and "sorrow" in verse 7 imply that the predictable re action of the individual to the act of ex communication is repentance and remorse.

The excommunicated Roman Catholic is banned from heaven. The Calvinist is "delivered over to Satan," having left the kingdom of God he enters the kingdom of Satan. But does a pronouncement of excommunication affect the spiritual life of the individual? Actually, an example of the improper use of excommunication provides the answer: "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loveth to have the preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church" (3 John 9, 10). The inference is that a declaration of excommunication, as such, bears no spiritual significance. Calvin mockingly comments on the Catholic abuse of the practice when he writes: "But if it is asked, whether he who has been ex communicated unjustly has been ex communicated by the power of Christ? say it is enough that it is in his name." 7 Christ, he insists, cannot be the instigator of wrong, so an external injunction of this type can have no direct spiritual effect. Yet, the act of excommunication does have serious consequences, in that the offender is not only excluded from the fellowship of the church but also from the Lord's Supper. Strong points out that since "communion is a family rite, the participant should first be a member of the family. . . . The Lord's Supper is a symbol of church fellowship. Excommunication implies nothing, if it does not imply exclusion from the communion. If the Supper is simply communion of the individual with Christ, then the church has no right to exclude any from it." 8

Thus, excommunication preserved the integrity and purity of the church while binding sin to the conscience of the offender. The action was not without redemptive intent.

Who will make the pronouncement of excommunication? There are two alternatives: (1) the responsibility of per forming excommunication is given to the church leaders, the church members having no voice in the matter; or (2) the responsibility rests with the en tire church acting in company with its appointed leaders.

Matthew 18:15-20 designates several men to warn the offending brother, but the whole church is made responsible if excommunication is necessary. Paul addresses the entire assembly at Thessalonica when he says, "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly" (2 Thess. 3:6). In Paul's letter to Titus he encourages Titus to "affirm constantly" to those of his charge, the sayings of which will produce good works. The fact that instruction concerning excommunication appears in the same context implies that it, too, is one of the teachings that Titus is to affirm to the church in Crete, and it is the responsibility of the church in session and not a duty delegated to one individual. Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians, and Polycarp, writing to the Philippians, indicate that this was the interpretation of the apostles' teachings on excommunication.9

Adventists are counseled that "on the church in its organized capacity He [Christ] places a responsibility for the individual members." "The church is God's delegated authority upon earth. . . . The majority of the church is a power which should control its individual members." 10 Thus, in the Seventh-day Adventist formulary on excommunication it is clearly stated, "Members may be disfellowshiped from the church or otherwise disciplined only by a majority vote of the members present and voting at a duly called meeting." 11

Administered in Love

Finally, how shall excommunication be administered? The underlying principle, in every case, is love. Paul captures the attitude of the excommunicators in his admonition to the Corinthians, thus: "Wherefore I beseech you that ye would confirm your love toward him" (2 Cor. 2:8). To what intent? "Let all your effort be for his recovery. In treating the wounds of the soul, there is need of the most delicate touch, the finest sensibility. Only the love that flows from the Suffering One of Calvary can avail here. With pitying tenderness, let brother deal with brother, knowing that if you succeed, you will 'save a soul from death,' and 'hide a multitude of sins.' James 3:20." 12

Paul gives similar advice in the book of Galatians when he writes, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1). In this passage the Greek imperative is translated "restore." Here then is implied the whole procedure in excommunication. It is to be done by those who are spiritual, and in a spirit of meekness and importunate compassion that desires only the full restoration of the excommunicant. Such an attitude is an extension of Him who still "receiveth sinners."

When Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to excommunicate the disorderly and obstinate members, he adds, "yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thess. 3:15). The term "brother" denotes relationship. This practical outlook harmonizes perfectly with the positional truth of the unity of the body of Christ. Clearly, the method of excommunication operative in the New Testament was governed by family love. A love that is unafraid to face the question, "Do you feel, when a brother errs, that you could give your life to save him?"

Finally, in carrying out excommunication, one cannot avoid such Scriptural injunctions as "mark" and "avoid" (Rom. 16:17), keep no company with (1 Cor. 5:11), and "note that man, and have no company with him" (2 Thess. 3:14), and even "with such an one . . . not to eat" (1 Cor. 5:11).

Excommunication is remedial exclusion and therefore one's association with the "cast-out" should be with redemptive intent. "He is not to be regarded as cut off from the mercy of God. Let him not be despised or neglected by his former brethren, but be treated with tenderness and compassion, as one of the lost sheep that Christ is still seeking to bring to His fold." 13



1 Martin Luther, "A Discussion of Confession," Works of Martin Luther, trans. by Charles M. Jacobs (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co., 1915), vol. 1, p. 96. John Calvin, Tracts Relating to the Reformation, trans. by Henry Beveridge (Edinburgh: Printed for the Calvin Trans. Society by Edinburgh Printing Co., 1844), Vol. I, p. 107.

2 The Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XI (1937), pp. 163-169.

3 P. W. Crannell, "Excommunication," International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, II, p. 1051.

4 C. R. Erdman, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1929), p. 58.

5 Calvin, op. cit., p. 185.

6 F. Godet, Commentary on St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, 2 vols., Trans. Rev. A. Cusin (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1886), I, p. 253.

7 Calvin, op. cit., p. 107.

8 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: The Judson Press, 1907), p. 973.

9 Clement of Rome, "Epistle to the Corinthians," The Apostolic Fathers, trans., J. B. Lightfoot, 5 vols. (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1890), II, p. 131. Polycarp, "Epistle to the Philippians," The Apostolic Fathers, HI, p. 324.

10 E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 805; Testimonies to the Church, vol. 5, p. 107.

11 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, Revised 1971, p. 237.

12 White, op. cit., p. 440.

13 Ibid., p. 441.

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Rex D. Edwards, Th.D., is a member of the faculty of the department of religion at Columbia Union College.

August 1976

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