The seventy-seventh article of the Church Order outlines the steps or procedure that is to be followed in excommunicating the impenitent sinner from the church. It must be remembered that this is not apunishment of sin but it is the final means used in an attempt by the church to save the sinner from the inevitable punishment which God Himself will surely inflict. The church does not inflict punishment for sin. She leaves that to God. In civil spheres, since the state is given the sword power, a specific punishment is written upon the statute books for every violation of law but this is not the case in the church. The Roman Catholic Church has something like this but this is contrary to Reformed principles. In Reformed Churches all sin is not censurable for then every member of the church must be excommunicated for all sin. Some sins call for admonition and correction while public, gross sin that gives offense in the church of Christ has to be dealt with according to the steps of discipline and censure. The final end of this is excommunication.
The actual process of excommunication takes place in 3 distinct steps. The Church Order calls these steps admonitions. This does not mean that in these steps the sinner is admonished. This is to take place repeatedly before as well as during the process of excommunication. But the attention is now diverted to the whole church. In these three steps the congregation is admonished and urged to labor with the sinner in an attempt to still bring him to repentance. The prayers and pleadings of the church are sought in an attempt to do what apparently the private labors of the consistory has failed to accomplish. Hence, in the first step or admonition the church is informed of the actual situation without mention being made of the sinner involved. In the second admonition the name of the sinner is given to the church. This second step takes place only after the advice of the Classis has been sought. In the final step the congregation is told that unless there is evidence of repentance the sinner will be excommunicated from the church on a specified date.
In connection with this process there are a few matters concerning which we must briefly comment. Article 77 of the Church Order states, “After the suspension from the Lord’s table (silent censure, Art. 76) and subsequent admonitions, and before proceeding to excommunication (the actual excluding from the fellowship of the church) the obstinacy of the sinner shall be publicly made known to the congregation, the offense explained, together with the care bestowed upon him, in reproof, suspension from the Lord’s Supper, and repeated admonition, and the congregation shall be exhorted to speak to him and to pray for him.” Now all of this takes place through the three admonitions directed to the church. It is important then that all this be done properly. It is first of all important that when the consistory makes an announcement to the church about the matter, this announcement should be prepared in writing but it should not appear on the church bulletin. It must be read from the pulpit. The reason this announcement should be prepared and read is because it might be that the guilty person or another member of the church may raise possible objections and may even take the matter to Classis. Should that happen, then there should be a record of exactly what was said or announced to the congregation. The Church Order Commentary tells us that when the first announcement is made it should contain the following: “The statement must be strictly accurate and objective. As the first section of Article 77 demands, this announcement should indicate (a) the nature of sin committed, (b) the obstinacy of the sinner, (c) the diligence of the Consistory in admonishing the party concerned and in suspending him from the Lord’s Supper and in admonishing him still further, (d) and finally the admonition to the Church to pray for the transgressor.” This is sufficient although it may be added that in connection with point (a) above the specific sin should be spelled out as a direct violation of one of the commandments of the Word of God.
The announcement which is to be made in connection with the second admonition, according to the same commentary, should contain the following:
“(a) the character of the sin committed and the name of the sinner; (b) the obstinacy of the transgressor also after the first admonition to the church; (c) an exhortation to the church to speak to the erring one, and to pray for him.”
There are essentially two differences between this announcement and the first one. The name of the sinner is now mentioned and this is done with the consent of the Classis. We purposely speak of “consent” here because that is the way it has been translated in the Church Order. Our redaction has corrected this and rightly so because the original Dutch text does not read “met toestemming der Classe,” but “met advies der Classe.” The word “advise” then is correct and this is necessary to safeguard against possible prejudice, partiality or unfair censure. When a consistory seeks this advice of the Classis, however, this does not mean that the consistory can do as it wishes regardless of what advice the Classis has given. Jansen emphasizes that this “does not mean: with the permission of Classis, for that would conflict with the fact that each Church is essentially a self-governing body under Christ, and that there is no superior authority which can dictate to the particular church above the Consistory in the strict sense of the word. Neither does the expression: with the advice of Classis mean: after Classis has been consulted. In that case the consistory could ask for advice formally and then do as it saw fit. The expression means: according, or in harmony with, the advice of Classis. This is one of the matters in which the individual churches have agreed not to follow their own judgment independently of the other churches, but to follow the judgment of all the other churches meeting as Classis for mutual deliberation and counsel. The particular churches, united in federative bonds according to their intrinsic unity in Christ and the injunctions and examples of Holy Writ, have agreed to abide by the opinion of the majority unless to the mind of the church or consistory concerned the opinion of the majority is clearly a violation of God’s Word and our basis of union. In that case the way of protest and appeal is open, and ultimately, if need be, acquiescence under protest, or if the voice of conscience will not permit this, separation.”
Of course it must be understood that when a consistory takes a matter of this kind to the Classis the individual being treated must be informed. This is to give this person the opportunity to be present at the Classis if desired to defend himself in the matter. If he is not present the Classis can only go on the report given by the consistory but even then the following must be established before the Classis can advise to proceed in the censure: (a) that the sin committed is censurable; (b) that the admonitions and suspension from the Lord’s Supper according to Article 76 have taken place; (c) that the first admonition to the church has been properly made; (d) that the consistory has labored sufficiently with the erring member after the first announcement to the church; (e) that it is clear that the transgressor is and remains impenitent and obstinate in his rejection of all admonitions.
The third and final admonition to the church is then given. This can hardly be construed as an admonition. It is more of an announcement in which the church is informed that the sinner remains obstinate and that unless repentance is forthcoming the excommunication will take place in the near future. The consistory must determine the time at which this will take place and the congregation must also be informed of this. Circumstances may alter this but it is generally accepted that this time interval is about four weeks. This gives anyone in the congregation opportunity to show the consistory just cause why the excommunication should not take place and if this is not done the excommunication, as Article 77 states, “takes place with the tacit approbation of the church.”
The question remains as to what should be the relationship between the members of the church and a brother or sister who has been excommunicated? Concerning this the form of excommunication has this to say:
“. . . so long as he obstinately and impenitently persists in his sins, and is therefore to be accounted by you as a heathen man and publican, according to the command of Christ (Matt. 18), who saith, that whatsoever his ministers bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven. Further, we exhort you, beloved Christians, to keep no company with him, that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but at all times admonish him as you would a brother.”
This is quite different than the governing rules of the Roman Catholic Church on this matter. The late Rev. Ophoff wrote that in the Roman Catholic Church the following rules are held:
“1. The members of the church may not hold conversation with the sinner.
“2. They may not pray with him.
“3. They shall refrain from showing him any honor or respect such as greeting him in public.
“4. They shall not cohabitate with him, eat and drink with him at the same table, work with him and admit him into their assemblies.”
To this Rev. Ophoff adds that “to these rules so many exceptions were allowed as to nearly nullify them.”
Concerning the Reformed position he then added: “The Reformed refrained from laying down all kinds of rules. They perceived that this is impossible. They took into account the purpose of the excommunication which is to shame the sinner in order that he may repent. Their position was this. The brethren may not break off all relations with the sinner, and behave as if he no longer existed. But they must so behave toward him that under the pressure of the approbium he repents. It means that they must let the sinner feel and know by word, deed, look and attitude that they censure in their hearts his obstinacy and are sorely grieved by it. They must break off all intimate fellowship with the sinner. They must not take him to their bosom as if he were their dearest friend. They must not shine upon him with the light of their countenance but on the contrary they must hide their face by excluding him from their Christian fellowship. Doing this, they follow the example of their heavenly Father. For He, too, hides His face from His child who sins and will not repent, so that the obstinate one for the time being no longer enjoys His fellowship.”