To the liturgy of the Reformed Churches belongs the Form For Excommunicating impenitent persons from the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. This form may be found in the back of our Psalters, along with our other Confessions. It may be divided into four main parts. The first part contains an informative section, in which the congregation is made aware of the sin and impenitence of the offender and the necessity of excommunicating him. This is followed by a short paragraph in which the act of excommunication itself is described. Thereupon an important exhortation is laid upon the congregation in which she is enjoined to be of the proper spiritual attitude and behavior toward this matter. The form then concludes with an appropriate prayer. Following the above described order, we will briefly discuss the contents of this Form For Excommunication.
The Informative Part
In order that you may have this material before you, we will quote this part of the form in full. It reads as follows: “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ; it is known unto you, that we have several times, and by several methods declared unto you the great sin committed, and the heinous offence given by our fellow-member, N., to the end that he, by your Christian admonition and prayers to God, might be brought to repentance, and so be freed from the bonds of the devil (by whom he is held captive), and recovered by the will of the Lord. But we cannot conceal from you, with great sorrow, that no one has yet appeared before us, who hath in the least given us to understand that he, by the frequent admonitions given him, (as well in private as before witnesses, and in the presence of many), is come to any remorse for his sins, or hath shown the least token of true repentance. Since then he daily aggravates his sin, (which in itself is not small), by his stubbornness, and since we have signified unto you the last time, that in case he did not repent, after such patience shown him by the Church, we should be under the disagreeable necessity of being further grieved for him, and come to the last remedy: wherefore we at this present are necessitated to proceed to this excommunication according to the command and charge given us by God in His holy Word; to the end that he may hereby be made (if possible) ashamed of his sins; and likewise that we may not by this rotten and as yet incurable member, put the whole body of the Church in danger, and that God’s name may not be blasphemed.”
When the disagreeable necessity of using this form of excommunication in the church arises, the reading of it certainly does not acquaint the congregation for the first time of the offender and his sin. The various steps of Christian discipline have been followed. Both with and without the name of the offender this matter has been made known to the church. The magnitude of the heinous offense committed has been set before the congregation in order that, if possible, through the prayers of the church the sin might be removed and the offender set free from the bondage of the devil. Prior to this time of excommunication the consistory informed the congregation of her intent to proceed with the excommunication if there was no evidence of repentance. All of this, designed to help and save the offender, was necessary in order that the whole congregation might be able to assist with its admonitions and prayers in bringing this person to repentance. But it has all been of no avail and now the most disagreeable necessity is laid upon the church to proceed in that work which Christ, the head of the church, has given to her.
We note here that emphasis is placed on the information which is now given to the church concerning the offender’s impenitence. There has been not even the least token of repentance; the sin is aggravated daily; and the offender continues to scorn the patience shown to him in the labors which the church has bestowed upon him. Of all this the whole church must now be witness because the entire congregation participates in the excommunication and is responsible for it. The very fact that no one of the congregation has come to the consistory, either to protest the decisions previously made or to produce some evidence that there is at least the beginning of repentance, indicates the approval and concurrence of the congregation in the disciplinary labor of the consistory. The congregation must always be mindful of its responsibility in these matters. If an injustice is done against a member of Christ’s flock, we may not keep silent or just look the other way. We must speak out in protest against all injustice and insist that truth and right be maintained. It is undoubtedly much easier to tell ourselves that it is no concern of ours or to make up all kinds of excuses for our failure actively to perform our duty; but this cannot relieve us of our responsibilities. If we know that a member of the church is going to be unjustly excommunicated or has been unjustly barred from the Lord’s Table and we do nothing about it, the guilt of the misdeed becomes ours.
On the other hand, if a member is disciplined, and we have knowledge, which the consistory does not, of some things that might indicate a hope or possibility of repentance, we must also tell the consistory. Such information might prove very valuable. It might open up an avenue of labor for the consistory which otherwise is closed. It very likely would have a bearing upon the decisions which the consistory must make with regard to the time interval between the various admonitions and the time of the excommunication finally. Although the members of the church do not labor in these things in the same official capacity that the elders do, they must nevertheless be conscious of the labor which they are called to perform. A lack of this is detrimental to the entire spiritual life of the church. The church is a body. It is one, though composed of many members. The unity of these members is rooted in the faith and love of Christ, which also constrains them to exercise care for each other. Spiritually, therefore, it is impossible when one who belongs to the church becomes sickly and offensive to the church, to ignore that one or shove the whole matter off on the consistory. The love of Christ in us demands of us that we seek the well being of that member in every way we possibly can. If he is guilty, we tell him and admonish him in love. If he is innocent, but for some reason unjustly disciplined, we uphold him and defend as much as we are able his honor and good character. When then no one has appeared at the consistory to do any of this, the consistory may rightly assume that every member in the congregation is agreed in the matter of the excommunication that must take place.
This act of excommunicating a member from the church is called here a “disagreeable necessity”. It is this because by it the church is sorely grieved. It hurts deeply, and the pain the church suffers in this is not a physical one, which can be alleviated through various remedies; but it is a spiritual sorrow of the heart. Realizing the seriousness of what is to take place the church cries in pain for the soul of him who will not be brought to repentance. Just as the church, together with the angels in heaven, rejoice when one sinner is brought to repentance, so is she grieved to witness one who has come so close to the Kingdom of God go the way of perdition.
If then there is any consolation to be found in the performance of this disagreeable task, it must be in our keeping before our mind the three-fold purpose that this labor must serve. Briefly stated that purpose is: (1) the conversion of the sinner, (2) to maintain the purity and well being of the church, and, (3) for the honor of the Name of God. Our excommunication form puts it thus: “to the end that he may hereby be made (if possible) ashamed of his sins, and likewise that we may not by this rotten and as yet incurable member, put the whole body of the Church in danger, and that God’s Name may not be blasphemed.”
All of this is introductory. It must serve the purpose of bringing the church to a full realization of the situation. She must understand that what she is about to do, though most undesirable, is not a matter of her choice but is the performance of her duty to Christ. She must obediently use the power He has given to her and in that way trust that through her He will sovereignly and graciously perform a work that will always be salutary for His Church. In that confidence the most difficult and unpleasant tasks can be performed.
The next paragraph in the Excommunication Form describes the act of excommunication itself. It reads thus :
“Therefore, we, the ministers and rulers of the Church of God, being here assembled in the name and authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, declare before you all, that for the aforesaid reasons we have excommunicated, and by these, do excommunicate N. from the Church of God, and from fellowship with Christ, and the holy sacraments, and from all the spiritual blessings and benefits, which God promiseth to and bestows upon His Church, so long as he obstinately and impenitently persists in his sins, and is therefore to be accounted by you as a heathen man and a publican, according to the command of Christ (Matt. 18), who saith, that whatsoever his ministers bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven.”
The importance of this paragraph cannot be over emphasized. It contains the very heart of the matter, the excommunication itself. Several things, then, are to be carefully noted here. First of all, the form designates the officiating office bearers in the public act of excommunication as the ministers and elders of the church. This excludes the deacons because this is a matter of discipline which, strictly speaking, does not belong to the office of the deacon. In practice, however, where the deacons are added to the consistory under the provision of Article 37 of the church order, they naturally would also participate in this disciplinary work. But even then, this is not in their capacity of deacons. Insofar as they serve as assistants to the elders or advisory elders only would they have a part in this labor. The work of discipline belongs to the office of the ministers of the Word and the elders because these two offices are reflective of the prophetic and kingly office of Christ. It is through the efficacious Word of Christ and by His sovereign and royal authority that excommunication from the church is enacted. The ministers and elders therefore perform this work as representatives of Christ. And through them, as the official organs of the church, the whole congregation functions. That ministers here is plural means two things. Firstly, this is because under a former system there often were several ministers in one congregation in a given town or city. Secondly, I believe the fact that this excommunication has been preceded by a long labor of love that involved also the Classis and the ministers and elders of those churches represented in the Classis, this plural is proper. By the approval or concurrence of the Classis the various disciplinary steps took place. In them the ministers and elders also had a part. In a sense then the excommunication is performed by the whole church even though it is done by the local congregation. Each church in that federation of churches recognizes and honors what is done; for in it the churches together also had a part.