“Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church in the way of repentance, it shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; or at some other opportune time, in order that (in as far: as no one can mention anything against him to the contrary) he may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.”
—Article 78, D.K.O.
When all other attempts to save the sinner have: failed the final step of excommunication is applied. This step also is designed and purposes to save the sinner. It remains the hope and prayer of the church that God will be pleased to use this final remedy to bring the sinner to repentance. Consequently the way must be left open for this possibility so that the penitent may be re-admitted into the church. Provision for this is made in the article of the Church Order quoted above and in the Form for the Readmitting of Excommunicated Persons as found in our liturgy.
There are two things that are required before a person who has been excommunicated can be re-admitted into the church. First of all the articles say that he must “desire to become reconciled.” It is not sufficient that a friend or relative perhaps has this desire and for their sakes the excommunicated person gives assent to it. It must be his own sincere, heartfelt and expressed desire. From this it follows in the second place that this reconciliation in the words of the article takes place “in the way of repentance.” There is no other way possible. This repentance must evidence the sincerity and genuineness of the desire to be reconciled. Further it must be not only expressed by word of mouth but shown concretely in deed as well. All doubts must be removed and this is not to make it difficult for the excommunicated one to be re-admitted but it is necessary for his own well being and for that of the church.
Even as the whole church was involved in the excommunication process, so now in regard to the re-admittance of one who has been excommunicated and who has repented the church takes an active part. It is to be noted that the article of the Church Order states, “It shall be announced to the congregation, either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time.” The reason for this announcement is first of all because the re-admittance itself is to take place, as we shall see presently, at the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Consequently, in the second place, the congregation must be informed of this prior to that time in order that opportunity may be given to register lawful objections with the consistory if there are those in the church who have such.
The announcement that is made is provided right in the Form of Re-admitting Excommunicated Persons. This Form contains two parts that are read on two separate occasions. The, first part contains the announcement and the second part is used for the re-admittance proper. We quote here the announcement:
“Beloved in the Lord, it is known to you, that some time ago our fellow member N.N., was cut off from the Church of Christ; we cannot now conceal from you, that he, by the above mentioned remedy, as also by the means of good admonitions and your Christian prayers, is come so far, that he is ashamed of his sins, praying us to be re-admitted into the communion of the Church.
“Since we, than, by virtue of the command of God, are in duty bound to receive such persons with joy, and it being necessary that good order should be used therein, we therefore give you to understand hereby, that we purpose to loose again the aforementioned excommunicated person from the bond of excommunication, the next time when by the grace of God we celebrate the Supper of the Lord, and receive him again into the communion of the Church; except any one of you, in the meantime, shall show just cause why this ought not to be done, of which you must give notice to us in due time. In the meantime, let every one thank the Lord, for the mercy shown this poor sinner, beseeching him to perfect his work in him to his eternal salvation. Amen.”
This announcement is made for the explicit purpose of gaining the approval of the congregation. It expresses a definite intention on the part of the consistory to re-admit the brother at the time of the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper with the reservation that the approval of the congregation is gained. Anyone having objections is duty bound to register them in order that they may be seriously considered and if there are no such objections brought it means that the matter proceeds with, the approval of the whole church. This is all to clear the way so that, according to Article 78 of the Church Order, the excommunicated person “may with profession of his conversion be publicly reinstated, according to the form for that purpose.”
In connection with this last quoted part 6f the article of the Church Order it is to be noted that there is an important omission in our English translation. The Holland version has after the word “re-instated” the phrase “at the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Monsma and Van Dellen suggest that this omission may have been occasioned by the fact that the first section of Article 78 states that the announcement regarding the proposed re-admittance may be made “either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time.” They explain: “This clause merely allows for necessary exceptions to the rule. Which rule? That re-admittance of excommunicated persons should take place just before the Church celebrates the Lords Supper.” This, however, we fail to see. The time for re-admitting excommunicated persons is always at the time of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This the announcement of the Form which we quoted also indicates. The phrase of Article 78, “or at some other opportune time” does not refer to the re-admittance but rather to the time of the announcement that is made to the congregation. This may be done either at the time of celebration of the Lords Supper or at some other opportune time. But the re-admittance proper take place “at the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” This phrase should therefore be in the article.
One might object that if the announcement then is made at the time of one celebration of the Lord’s Supper the individual must wait three months to be re-admitted. This is correct and there is nothing objectionable to this. It gives him opportunity in walk and confession to prove the sincerity of this repentance. Furthermore his excommunication was not done hastily and therefore also the re-admittance must be done with caution and patience.
The Form for re-admitting excommunicated persons is quite brief and since it is seldom used and undoubtedly not too well known we will quote in here in its entirety:
“Beloved Christians, we have the last time informed you of the repentance of our fellow-member N.N. to the end, that he might with your foreknowledge be again received into the Church of Christ; and whereas no one has alleged anything why his re-admission ought not to take place, we therefore at present purpose to proceed to the same.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 18) having confirmed the sentence of Church, in the excommunicating of impenitent sinners, declareth immediately thereupon, ‘that whatsoever his ministers shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven’; whereby he giveth to understand, 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 bonds of condemnation. Therefore, since God declares in His Word that He 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; accordingly the apostle Paul (I Cor. 5) commanded the Corinthian (whom he had declared to be cut off from the Church) to be again received and comforted, since being reproved by many, he was come to the knowledge of his sins; to the end that he should not be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow (II Cor. 2).
“Secondly, Christ teacheth us in the aforementioned text, that the sentence of absolution, which is passed upon such a penitent sinner according to the Word of God, is counted sure and firm by the Lord; therefore, no one ought to doubt in the least, who truly repents, that he is assuredly received by God in mercy, as Christ saith (John 20), Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.’
“But now to proceed to the matter in hand: I ask thee, N.N., whether thou dost declare here with all thine heart before God and his Church; that thou art sincerely sorry for the sin and stubbornness, for which thou hast been justly cut off from the Church? Whether thou doest also truly believe, that the Lord hath forgiven thee, and doth forgive thy sins for Christ’s sake, and that thou therefore art desirous to be re-admitted into the Church of Christ, promising henceforth to live in all godliness according to the command of the Lord?
“Answer: Yes, verily.
“We then, here assembled in the name and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, declare thee, N.N., to be absolved from the bonds of excommunication; and do receive thee again into de Church of the Lord, and declare unto thee that thou art in the communion of Christ and of the holy sacraments, and of all the spiritual blessings and benefits of God, which He promiseth to and bestoweth upon His church; may the eternal God preserve thee therein to the end, through his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Be therefore assured in thy heart, my beloved brother, that the Lord hath again received thee in mercy. Be diligent henceforward to guard thyself against the subtlety of Satan, and the wickedness of the world, to the end, that thou mayest not fall again into sin; love Christ, for many sins are forgiven thee.
And you, beloved Christians, receive this your brother, with hearty affection; be glad that he was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found; rejoice with the angels of heaven, over this siner who repenteth; count him no longer as a stranger, but as a fellow citizen with the saints, and of the household of God.
“And whosoever we can have no good of ourselves, let us, praising and magnifying the Lord Almighty, implore his mercy.”