Ecclesiastical Censure

In our liturgical study the next matter for consideration is the Form of Excommunication as it appears in the back of our Psalter. The material or content of this form is inseparably connected with the broader subject of ecclesiastical censure or discipline, since excommunication is but one step, the final step, in this process. When the ecclesiastical machinery of discipline is activated by gross sin in the church and there remains no evidence of repentance in the sinner, the end result is excommunication, and where this is necessary the form which we purpose to discuss is to be used.

Although therefore our present study must be limited to the matter of excommunication proper, it will not be out of place to make some general observations on the subject of ecclesiastical censure as such. In doing so we must keep in mind that detailed questions that arise belong properly to the field of Church Polity rather than to that of Liturgies and consequently lie outside of the scope of this rubric. We do not intend to discuss Articles 71 to 81 of our Church Order now, but it is also impossible to avoid the fact that some matters treated there come into focus in connection with our subject of Excommunication

Even more than in the days of Calvin there are many today who would prefer to elide from our Church Order and Confession the matters dealing with Christian discipline or, if they must be retained in the confessions, to then ignore them altogether or, at best, to bring these things into practice only in cases of extreme necessity. The factors contributing to this sorry state are, first, a general ignorance concerning the purpose and nature of Christian discipline; secondly, a pseudo emphasis upon the so-called Christian liberty of the members of the church, and, finally, a general contempt for spiritual practices concomitant with licentious and worldly living. The result is that practices which our fathers condemned are condoned by the church today and there seems to be no reversing of this trend for the power of ecclesiastical censure is broken. The church has fallen into a state of disorder and now welcomes into her confused fellowship all who will contribute to her material support, regardless of walk of life. Unless there is a resurgence of disciplinary action by the church, the continuance of her deterioration as a spiritual institution is inevitable. 

Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religionsuccinctly touched upon the urgent necessity of ecclesiastical censure when he wrote in Chapter 12 of Book IV as follows: 

“But as some have such a hatred of discipline, as to abhor the very name, they should attend to the following consideration: That if no society, and even no house, though containing only a small family, can be preserved in a proper state without discipline, this is far more necessary in the Church, the state of which ought to be the most orderly of all. As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the Church, so discipline forms the ligaments which connect the members together, and keep each in its proper place. Whoever, therefore, either desire the abolition of all discipline, or obstruct its restoration, whether they act from design or inadvertency, they certainly promote the entire dissolution of the Church. For what will be the consequence, if every man be at liberty to follow his own inclinations? But such would be the case, unless the preaching of the doctrine were accompanied with private admonitions, reproofs, and other means to enforce the doctrine, and prevent it from being altogether ineffectual. Discipline, therefore, serves as a bridle to curb and restrain the refractory, who resist the doctrine of Christ; or as a spur to stimulate the inactive; and sometimes as a father’s rod, with which those who have grievously fallen may be chastised in mercy, and with the gentleness of the Spirit of Christ. Now, when we see the approach of certain beginnings of a dreadful desolation in the Church, since there is no solicitude or means to keep the people in obedience to our Lord, necessity itself proclaims the want of a remedy; and this is the only remedy which has been commanded by Christ, or which has ever been adopted among believers.” 

That ecclesiastical censure culminating in excommunication is both a necessary and legitimate function of the church is evident from the Scriptures themselves. The International Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. II, pg. 1050, finds a form of excommunication practiced in both the Old and New Testaments. We quote the following: 

“Excommunication is exclusion from church fellowship as a means of personal discipline, or church purification, or both. Its germs have been found in (1) the Mosaic ‘ban’ or ‘curse’ (herem, devoted), given over entirely to God’s use or to destruction (Lev. 27:29); (2) the ‘cutting off,’ usually by death, stoning of certain offenders, breakers of the Sabbath (Ex. 31:14) and others (Lev. 17:4Ex. 20:22-38); (3) the exclusion of the leprous from the camp (Lev. 13:46 Num. 12:14). At the restoration (Ezra 10:7, 8) the penalty of disobedience to Ezra’s reforming movements was that ‘all his substance should be forfeited (herem), and himself separated from the assembly of the captivity.’ Nehemiah’s similar dealing with the husbands of heathen women helped to fix the principle. The New Testament finds a well developed synagogal system of excommunication in two, possibly three, varieties or stages. Nidday, for the first offense, forbade the bath, the razor, and the frequenting of the temple. It lasted thirty, sixty, or ninety days. If the offender still remained obstinate, the ‘curse,’ (herem) was formally pronounced upon him by a council of ten, and he was shut out from the intellectual, religious and social life of the community, completely severed from the congregation. Shammatha, supposed by some to be a third and final stage, is probably a general term applied to both nidday and hevem. We meet the system in John 9:22, ‘put you out of the synagogue.’ In Luke 6:22 Christ may refer to the three stages: ‘separate you from their company, and reproach you, and cast out your name as evil.'” 

And again on page 1051, “Clear, specific instances of excommunication or directions regarding it, however, are found in the Pauline and Johannine writings. In the case of the incestuous man (I Cor. 5:1-12), at the instance of the apostle (‘I verily, being absent in body but present in spirit’), the church, in a formal meeting (‘In the name of our Lord Jesus, ye being gathered together’), carrying out the apostle’s desire and will (‘and my spirit’), and using the power and authority conferred by Christ (‘and with the power of our Lord Jesus’), formally cut off the offender from its fellowship, consigning (relinquishing 2) him to the power of the prince of this world (‘to deliver such a one unto Satan’). Further, such action is enjoined in other cases: ‘Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.’ II Cor. 2:5-11 probably refers to the same case, terminated by the repentance and restoration of the offender. ‘Delivering over to Satan’ must also include some physical ill, perhaps culminating in death; as with Simon Magus (Acts 8:20), Elymas (Acts 13:11), Ananias (Acts 5:5). I Timothy 1:20: ‘Hyraenaeus and Alexander . . . that they might be taught not to blaspheme,’ is a similar case of excommunication accompanied by judicial and disciplinary physical ill. In III John 9, 10 we have a case of excommunication by a faction in control: “Diotrephes . . . neither doth he himself receive . . . and them that would he . . . casteth out of the church.”

From The New Schaaf-Herzog Encyclopedia it is also evident that Christian discipline was commonly practiced in the early church. In Vol. III, page 86 we find the following: 

“Church discipline is a means of securing and maintaining the spiritual purity of the Christian Church. This exercise arises from the fact that the Church is a human institution, the members of which are subject to the limitations and weaknesses of humanity. The Christian congregation, therefore, like every other community, needs a means of self protection in order to suppress or eliminate whatever might impair or destroy its life. But, from the constitution of the Church, the character of its discipline is purely spiritual. Therefore the only means which can properly be employed is exclusion, partial or total, of those whose acts jeopardize it. 

“The center of the Scriptural doctrine of ecclesiastical discipline is Matthew 18:15-18; and its practical application in the apostolical church is learned from I Cor. 5 and II Cor. 2:4-8. A member of the Corinthian congregation had married his stepmother, and the congregation had suffered the deed. Paul then wrote to the Corinthians that the offender should be excommunicated, and ‘delivered unto Satan.’ His words produced such an impression, not only on the congregation, but also on the offender, that, when he wrote again to the Corinthians, Paul could recommend mercy. It is, however, not only for such flagrant offenses as the above that Paul demands punishment, but also for minor failings by which a man is made a burden to his fellow men (II Thess. 3:6); and he warns the congregations against heresy, for it eats like a canker (II Tim. 2:17). A heretic, after admonishing him once or twice in vain, avoid (Tit. 3:10); do not even bid him Godspeed (II John 10, 11). The punishment, however, must never be administered in a spirit of retaliation. Church discipline, though necessary for the self-protection of the church, has as its aim the reclamation and reconciliation of the offender; hence, in the spirit of love it must dictate its punishments (II Cor. 2:6-8). That the discipline is exercised by the Church is indicated in all the passages cited except that from Titus, where the direction is given for personal guidance alone (cf. verse 9). The apostolical institutions of Excommunication and reconciliation lived on in the post-apostolic church, and during the period of persecution became even more peremptory. Under Decius, whose goal seems to have been the total destruction of Christianity, there occurred, by the side of the most admirable examples of faithfulness, so frequent instances of defection that a special regulation for the reconciliation of the lapsed became a necessity. This regulation, which continued valid down to the fifth century, established a course of penance which ran through various stages, and comprised a period of several years; but its severity naturally called forth devices of evasion and subterfuge, such as the libelli of the confessors, and church discipline became somewhat lax. A reaction toward greater severity followed, and the Montanists declared that the excommunicated ought to remain for their whole life in a state of penance, while the Novatians affirmed that the church had no right at all to forgive the lapsed, though the Lord might be willing to do so. Meanwhile the developing organization of the Church had reached the department of discipline, and the penitents, who had been excommunicated and desired to be received back into fellowship, were divided into four classes and compelled to pass through as many stages of penance.” 

To all of this must yet be added the word of Christ to Peter and through him to all of the apostles and to His Church: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19). 

The exercise of ecclesiastical censure is not an optional matter but a vital function of the church which is given to her by Divine command. Its importance may never be minimized and it neglect cannot avoid harmful consequences. In this awareness we approach our subject to consider the serious implications of the form for excommunication.