THE FORM FOR EXCOMMUNICATION
The ministers and the elders perform the act of excommunication not only as the official organs of the church but also as the representatives of Christ Himself. Insofar as they function in the former capacity the whole congregation, as represented in them, participates in this disagreeable but necessary work. The church, as the bride of Christ, acts to preserve her purity when, through her official organs, she severs from her fellowship those who are guilty of gross sin and remain impenitent. As representing Christ Himself, the office bearers function in the name of and upon the authority of Christ, so that the act of excommunication is as though it were done by Christ Himself. This factor alone gives significance to the excommunication. If the act is not one of Christ Himself it is meaningless. It accomplishes nothing really. Christ holds the keys of David; and when He opens, no man shuts, and when He shuts, no man opens. And this is what Christ does through and by means of the official organs of His church.
The second thing to consider in this connection, then, is the fact that excommunication implies severance from the body of Christ. When the church declares that for reason they “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 promises to and bestows upon His Church’, the meaning is not simply that said person is cut off from a local congregation. This, of course, is also true. He loses all rights and privileges of membership in that particular church and he also cannot become a member in any church within that denomination. This follows naturally; but the matter is of much more serious consequence than this. He is severed from the body of Christ and has no communion with the true gathering of believers. He has no access to spiritual blessings. The benefits of the cross of Christ, which are indispensable unto life, are not for him. He has no forgiveness of sins and eternal life. By the act of excommunication he is officially declared to be outside of the body of Christ and has no part in the Kingdom of God.
This raises a very interesting question. Since, according to the Scriptures, it is impossible for those who are once in Christ (they are in Christ from all eternity) to be severed from Him (not one of them shall be lost), it follows that the elect cannot, in the true sense of the word, be excommunicated. But if excommunication in the true sense of the word is applied to the reprobate, how can we speak of severing them from Christ and the benefits of His Kingdom when they never were in Him and never partook of the blessings which God promises to His Church?
In attempting to answer this problem, there are two things that must be considered. First of all, it is certainly possible that the act of excommunication by the church is applied to an elect child of God. We would assume that in most instances where a child of God falls into sin, the labor of admonition and the initial disciplinary steps would succeed in bringing repentance. But if this is not the case, the act of excommunication will take place. Christ, however, in such a case, does not cast His child away. For a time, during his impenitence and through his excommunication, such a person is, from the viewpoint of his own consciousness and experience, devoid of the blessings of God although in the deeper sense of the word he is not. He is still in Christ; and in His own time Christ will bring him to repentance. That repentance is not something that comes apart from God’s blessing, but it is effected by means of those blessings. God gives him grace to repent, and then he is also readmitted into the fellowship of the Church. His excommunication then is not final but temporary. It is real only in the consciousness of the sinner and before the mind of the church, but in the deeper, actual sense of the word no excommunication has then taken place.
In the second place, when we speak of excommunication as applied to those who are reprobate and who, therefore, by that very act are finally severed from Christ and His Kingdom, we must again consider this in the same light, only now from a reverse point of view. Such a person never wasactually in Christ. Such a person then cannot be actually severed from the Kingdom in which he never had a part. However, in the outward sense of the word, he sustained a real relationship to Christ and the things of His Kingdom. He lived in the sphere of the church, came under the preaching of the Word, used the means of grace, partook of the sacraments, etc. That he had no real participation in these things becomes evident from his sinful walk and impenitence. Hence, when he is excommunicated from the church, he is severed from all these blessings also in the outward sense of the word. He is completely outside of the Kingdom. His excommunication serves to expose or bring to manifestation his reprobation. For such persons, who have outwardly tasted the blessings of the Kingdom and fallen away, there is no possibility of again bringing them to repentance. (Heb. 6) Their excommunication is final.
Thus from both points of view the act of excommunication is extremely important. The church, of course, is not able to determine conclusively the election or reprobation of the person who is being excommunicated. If, however, that person is a child of God the act of excommunication will be instrumental in eventually bringing him to repentance, and so in reality it serves him as a means of grace. If he is not a child of God, the same means works effectively to harden him in his transgression and greatly aggravates his final judgment.
Since the church is unable to and therefore may not even attempt to determine this matter, room must be left even after the excommunication for the possibility of repentance. This brings us to the third important consideration in this part of the Form for Excommunication. The act of excommunication, performed by the church, is always conditioned on continued impenitence. The Form states: “We do excommunicate N.. . SO long as he obstinately and impenitently persists in his sins.” The implication is plain. Our excommunication act is not the final one. Only Christ can and does execute that. Neither is our act of excommunication irrevocable. The verdict arrived at in the case and resulting in the decision to excommunicate is not an unchangeable one. Room must be left for revocation or withdrawal of this excommunication and this must be done too if and when there is genuine evidence of repentance. The way in which this is to be done is stipulated in another of our Forms, which we hope to consider later. But it is just because of this conditional element in the act of excommunication that the church also can and must continue to pray for those who, by reason of gross sin, have been severed from her fellowship.
In the fourth place, we note that as long as there is no evidence of repentance, so that nothing changes the members of the church are enjoined to regard him as “a heathen and a publican’, that is, as one who is outside of the Kingdom. In a practical sense of the word this does not mean that toward such a person the members of the church assume a “holier than thou” attitude. This is often done. We then cannot speak with him any more. We intentionally avoid any further contact with him. He is given the “cold shoulder” treatment which is, of all treatments, the least effective toward bringing one to repentance. And then not infrequently we are able to talk about this person, his sin and his excommunication from the church, but not to him. Such conduct and attitude cannot be justified.
On the other hand, the exhortation to “account him as a heathen and publican” plainly cannot mean that he is to be regarded the same as before. We may not act toward him as though nothing has happened. We may not continue social fellowship with him, enjoying his “good company,” for then we become partakers with him of his sin. Such a wrong attitude and conduct is sometimes justified by reasoning that admittedly the excommunicated person has some fault, but this is also true of every member of the church; and the fact that he became a victim of the disciplinary action of the church cannot disrupt my friendship toward him outside of the church. Besides, perhaps the church in its dealings with him was not 100% right either; and so, although I do not wholly condemn the act of excommuntion, I do not fully acknowledge it either. Within the sphere of the churchI must regard him as an outsider, but in other spheres of life in this world his friendship can be enjoyed and appreciated. If this reasoning is correct, then on the same basis we can be friends with the world while the Scriptures tell us that “whosoever will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.” (James 4:4b).
Our calling with respect to the excommunicated brother is explicit. We may not ignore him, but neither may we be his friend. In our contact with him, as one outside the kingdom of God, we must continue to admonish him as we have opportunity, and strive through every legitimate way to bring him to repentance. Doing this faithfully, he will not desire our friendship as long as he continues in his sin. A relation of hostility will ensue, so that ere long it will even become impossible to direct an admonition of love toward him. But, and this is the important thing, we will then have done our utmost; and the resultant hostile relationship will be of his own creation and responsibility. He will then not be able justifiably to point the finger at the members of the church and say that they showed no concern for him and his welfare. Neither will he be able to allege that the church’s members are inconsistent and twofaced, who, on the one hand, excommunicate him from their fellowship while, on the other hand, they walk with him in the very things for which they severed his fellowship in the church.