It is not very often that the Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons is used by the church. This stems, first of all, from the fact that the Form of Excommunication is not used very often. Usually those members of the church who are worthy of excommunication do not allow themselves to be publicly excommunicated with the form. They rather resign their membership after they have been placed under the first or second step of ecclesiastical censure. Then, in the second place, of those few who are publicly excommunicated, it is a very small minority that repents, is willing to confess their sin before the church and seeks readmittance into the congregation. The majority continue in their impenitent way and become hardened in sin. Nevertheless, the question of few or many has no bearing upon the fact that the church must always be ready and must stand with open arms to receive the penitent. In readiness for this eventuality the church has the “Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons” as an essential part of her liturgy. It is this form that is our present concern.
The above mentioned form is divided into two parts which are read in the church service on two separate occasions. In the past we stressed that the process of excommunicating a member from the church is a very slow one, and now we must observe that readmitting such a member is never done hastily. The actual readmittance takes place at the time of and in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Before that time, however, the Consistory, having decided to receive this member again into the communion of the church, has the first part of the Form for Readmittance read from the pulpit. This part of the Form consists of a lengthy announcement informing the congregation of the Consistory’s intention to receive this member into the church at the time of the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Concerning this announcement we may notice the following important elements:
(1) It informs the congregation that the member to be readmitted has come to repentance, is ashamed of his sins and seeks readmission into the church. We are to remember that all of this was accomplished by the means of excommunication and the good admonitions and prayers of the church. The former means is, as we have emphasized in the past, a remedy to save. It is the final remedy that is used by the church. The admonitions and prayers of the church are additional means which are employed during and after the censure process, and are also directed toward the salvation of the brother. It can now be announced that it has pleased the Lord to use these means to effect repentance and to bring back the sheep that was lost.
(2) It enjoins the congregation to fulfill its God-given obligation to receive such a person with joy. The attitude of the congregation is important and it follows that if the church was really grieved when it performed that disagreeable task of excommunicating this member, it will abound with joy when it is able to receive him back again.
(3) It emphasizes the necessity of this readmittance being done according to proper order. All things, of course, must be done in good order in the church of Christ and this is no exception. That order necessitates that the actual readmission must wait until the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and in the meantime, if there are members of the church who know of reasons why this member should not be received again into the communion of the church, they must give notice of this to the consistory. A mere objection without sound reason will not prevent his being admitted. Any objection brought to the Consistory must be well-founded. These objections must be considered by the Consistory and then the decision concerning his readmission rests with them. But suppose that the Consistory overrules certain objections that are brought, and the members of the church who brought them decide to appeal these decisions of the consistory to the Classis? What should be done in such a case? The Consistory, of course, as an autonomous body, has the right to go ahead and receive this member into the church, but it would be the part of wisdom, if at all possible, to wait the outcome of the decisions of the Classis.
(4) It exhorts everyone in the congregation to thank the Lord for the mercy shown this poor sinner and enjoins them to pray that the Lord will continue His work in him to his eternal salvation.
In the way of repentance, rejoicing, approbation and thanksgiving the fellowship of the church is open to the sinner who once was cut off. In this process the readmittance is based, not on any mistake which the Consistory may have made in this person’s excommunication, but solely on his sincere repentance, which implies his acknowledgement, that his excommunication was just. Now suppose that you have a case in which the Consistory actually was in error in imposing the sentence of excommunication upon a member. What then? When this is finally brought to light and the member, unjustly excommunicated, seeks readmittance into the church, how is this to be accomplished? It ought to be evident that the Form for Readmitting Excommunicated Persons which we are discussing could not be used in this instance. It simply would not fit. The above announcement with its various parts could not be made and the actual Form for Readmittance that follows could not be truthfully read here. In such a case the proper way is that the Consistory would make confession of their wrong to the brother, and this would be announced to the church so that by that very act the excommunication would be nullified. This could happen many years later, when perhaps none of the original men are still serving in the Consistory and that body now consists of all new members. Nevertheless the Consistory as a body is responsible for its decisions, and if these prove to be wrong, that same body must confess so that the evil may be removedfrom its midst. And, finally, the whole congregation, for its complicity in the excommunication, must confess to the brother and manifest that confession by receiving him with joy into her fellowship.
The Form of actual readmittance, which is read to the congregation on the occasion of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, consists of two main parts. First of all, there is a didactical part consisting of a statement to the effect that no one has alleged any reason why this readmission ought not to take place, and this is followed by a reference to various passages of Scripture which relate to the readmission of penitent and excommunicated sinners. The first of these passages is Matthew 18, in which the loosing of a sinner is applied to the readmittance of the excommunicated sinner. The Form explains the verse, “that whatsoever his ministers shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven,” to mean that when any person is cut off from His Church, he is not deprived of all hopes of salvation; but can again be loosed from the bond of condemnation. Reference is also made to Ezekiel 33 to show that since God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his wickedness and live, so the church always hopes for the repentance of the backslidden sinner, and keepeth her bosom open to receive the penitent. More directly still are the references to I Corinthians 5 and II Corinthians 2 where the apostle Paul admonishes the church to receive again the sinner whom he had declared ought to be cut off from the Church but who had now repented. Thus the sentence of absolution is sure and confirmed by the Word of God in John 20, “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them,” and therefore no one ought to doubt in the least that God will certainly receive in mercy those who truly repent.
The liturgical part of the Form consists of two parts. In the first part the person who is to be readmitted is asked to declare before the congregation and before the face of God that “with all his heart he is sincerely sorry for his sin and stubbornness, for which he has been justly cut off from the Church.” Also, that he truly believes “that the Lord, has forgiven him, and doth forgive his sins for Christ’s sake,” and, finally, he is asked to promise, as one desiring to be readmitted into the Church, to live in all godliness according to the command of the Lord. To this the brother answers, “Yes, verily.”
With this the readmission of the brother is in effect accomplished. To this liturgical rite, however, is yet added words of the minister to both the readmitted brother and the congregation. The former is informed that “in the name and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ” and through the office bearers of the church he is absolved from the bonds of excommunication and received again into the church. This places him in communion with Christ and of the holy sacraments and of all the spiritual blessings and benefits of God, which He promises to and bestows upon His Church. The minister then expresses the solemn desire that God through Christ will preserve this brother to the end, and then, addressing him as “my beloved brother,” he assures him that the Lord has received him in mercy and admonishes him to be on his guard against the subtlety of Satan, and the wickedness of the world and to love Christ!
The congregation is enjoined to receive this beloved brother with hearty affection and to rejoice greatly because “he that was dead is alive, and he that was lost is found.” With the angels in heaven they are to be glad, and this joy must be evidenced as they count him no longer as a stranger, but as a fellow citizen with the saints, and of the household of God.
Most appropriately this service is concluded with prayer to God. The prayer that is rendered is brief but complete. It contains an expression of praise and thanksgiving to God, together with several petitions for His merciful goodness in behalf of the penitent brother and the congregation. The subjective necessity of this prayer stems from the awareness that we can of ourselves do no good and therefore also do recognize the manifestation of repentance in the brother who has been readmitted into the church as the evidence of Divine mercy. No honor or credit for this do we ascribe to ourselves, but we praise and magnify the Name of Him from Whom all blessings flow. He has given our fellow-brother repentance of great rejoicing to His Church.
The congregation asks for mercy in behalf of the brother, that he may be assured of forgiveness, may have joy and delight in the Lord’s service, may by his conversion edify many even as his past sin has given offense to many, and may walk steadfastly in the Lord’s way to the end.
In behalf of the congregation the prayer is raised that she may learn from this example that with God there is mercy and He is to be feared. Further that she may receive the brother as co-heir of life eternal, and with him may jointly serve God in obedience all through life. All of this is possible only through Jesus Christ, our Lord, in Whose Name the perfect prayer which the Lord Himself taught us to pray is uttered as the most fitting conclusion.