Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“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.”
Church Order, Article 78.
Article 78 deals with the restoration of those who have been excommunicated from the church. Articles 76 and 77 dealt with excommunication, setting forth the reasons and procedure for excommunication. Those articles viewed excommunication as the “extreme remedy.” Always the purpose of excommunication is the repentance and recovery of the sinner who is excommunicated. Both the consistory and the congregation desire this and pray for it. At times, God answers those prayers by bringing the sinner who has been excommunicated to repentance. Not only does He bring him to repentance, but He also works in him the desire to be reconciled to the church and restored to his membership in the church. This is the concern of Article 78. Article 78 deals with the happy circumstance of positive fruit on the true church’s faithful exercise of Christian discipline.
Just as the impenitent sinner was dealt with in an orderly way at the time that he was excommunicated from the church, so is the restoration of one who has been excommunicated to take place in an orderly way. Involved in that orderly way in which the excommunicated but now repentant sinner is to be received again into the church are certain fundamental biblical principles. Those principles underlie the procedure that is outlined in Article 78. Those principles must be highlighted, and of those principles the church must be cognizant as she effects the restoration of repentant sinners.
Article 78 has a long and illustrious history. Our Article 78 was Article 71 in the Church Order that was drafted by the Synod of the Hague (Netherlands) in 1586. Ever since that time—for well over 400 years—this article has been incorporated into the various church orders of the Dutch Reformed churches. Our Article 78 was taken over from the English translation of the Church Order that was adopted by the Christian Reformed Church in 1920. This English translation of the Church Order of Dordrecht was adopted by the Protestant Reformed Synod of 1944.
Article 78 does not concern itself with the restoration of those who have been erased as baptized members of the church. The churches are presently considering a proposed procedure, both for erasure and for readmittance of those who have been erased. Although this is not spelled out in the Church Order, the principles that underlie restoration of those who have been excommunicated as set forth in Article 78 would also apply to the restoration of those who have been publicly erased.
Neither does Article 78 deal with readmitting those who resigned their church membership while under discipline, but before they were actually excommunicated. Once again, the principles that underlie this article would come into play in that situation. In such a case, confession of sin would necessarily be made, first before the consistory and then publicly in the congregation. In that way the wayward member would be restored to church membership. At the same time, the discipline that he was under at the time that he withdrew his membership would be lifted.
Article 78 does not either address itself to the situation of someone who was unjustly excommunicated. Such excommunication is possible. The biblical safeguards against this that are incorporated into the Church Order make it very unlikely. But it is possible that consistories and broader assemblies err. It is possible that someone is wrongfully excommunicated from the church. Martin Luther, after all, was unjustly excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church. In such a case, the consistory responsible for such unjust excommunication would publicly acknowledge this fact. Such a member’s reinstatement would be accomplished by the consistory’s publicly repealing the unjust excommunication.
None of these is the concern of Article 78. The concern of Article 78 is specifically with someone who has been excommunicated, officially and formally, by the church. The “Form of Excommunication” was read over him. For some time, perhaps even for years, this individual has been cut off from the church and from the use of the means of grace in the church. After a length of time, he has at last come to repentance over his sins. He has been brought to see the justice of his excommunication. And he has turned from the sins that were the occasion for his excommunication.
Additionally, this person has expressed to the consistory that excommunicated him the desire to be reconciled to the church. Article 78 makes specific mention of this: “Whenever anyone who has been excommunicated desires to become reconciled to the church….” It is not only family members, loved ones, and former church members who desire this individual’s reconciliation and restoration. But the individual himself must express this desire and take the initiative in seeking reconciliation. He makes it known to the pastor and to the elders that it is his heart’s desire once again to be a member of the church. What then? What procedure should a consistory follow in accomplishing the reconciliation of one who has been excommunicated? That is the concern of Article 78.
Article 78 speaks of the restoration of those who have been excommunicated “in the way of repentance” (boetvaardigheid, Dutch) and “with profession of his conversion” (bekeering, Dutch). The excommunicated who may be restored to membership in the church are those who give clear evidence of “repentance” and “conversion.” These are not two different things. Repentance expresses the negative idea, that the sinner is sorry for his sins. Conversion includes repentance, but conversion also conveys the positive idea that not only does one turn from his sins, he also goes in the right way. The two belong together, and both must be evident in the life of one who desires restoration to the church.
Implied in the article is the fact that this repentance and conversion are evident. The congregation is not merely being informed that this is so. But it has had time and opportunity to witness the sinner’s repentance and conversion. For some time, he has undoubtedly been attending the worship services. The change in his life has been apparent, not just to the elders and not just to close family members, but to the congregation generally. In light of his evident repentance, the consistory is now prepared to proceed to his formal restoration to the congregation.
The procedure outlined by Article 78 concerns the excommunicated sinner’s restoration to the congregation. Presupposed is that the excommunicated sinner has made his peace with the consistory. Long before any announcement to the congregation, the consistory has taken up the excommunicated person’s expressed desire to be restored as a member of the church. The consistory has had opportunity to verify his professed repentance and conversion. And the consistory has received his confession of sin, judging it to be genuine. The consistory makes announcement to the congregation because it has already taken the decision to proceed to the restoration of the one who had been excommunicated. The announcement made to the congregation by the consistory is done in the confidence that the congregation is going to concur in the consistory’s decision to receive this individual as a member once again.
Article 78 stipulates that the way in which an excommunicated person is restored to membership in the church is that “it shall be announced to the congregation.” An announcement must be made to the congregation regarding the consistory’s decision to reconcile an excommunicated sinner. The announcement must take place before reconciliation formally occurs. The announcement is not the reconciliation, but informs the congregation of the consistory’s intention, at some future date, to accomplish the sinner’s reconciliation.
The purpose of the announcement is not merely to inform the congregation. Rather, the purpose of the announcement is to gain the approbation of the congregation. Just as the approbation of the congregation was necessary for excommunication to take place (Article 77), so the tacit approval of the congregation is necessary for the reconciliation of those who have been excommunicated. That this is the purpose of the public announcement in the congregation, Article 78 itself makes plain. According to the article, the purpose of the announcement is that “no one can mention anything against him to the contrary” before his formal reconciliation takes place. This, clearly, indicates the necessity of congregational approbation before a consistory would proceed to restoration.
It is possible that a member has questions regarding the restoration of the one who formerly had been excommunicated. The public announcement provides that member the opportunity to come to the consistory with his questions. It is even possible that a member opposes the restoration. In that case, he must present the consistory withwritten grounds on account of which he believes the excommunication ought not to be lifted. The consistory must evaluate the objections and grounds of this member before proceeding with the restoration of the excommunicated person. If the consistory judges the member’s grounds to be invalid, it may then proceed with the restoration. If, however, the member serves notice to the consistory that he intends to appeal to the classis the consistory’s decision to proceed in spite of his objections, the consistory is wise to put the public restoration of the excommunicated sinner in abeyance until the broader assembly has adjudicated the matter.
The restoration of those who have been previously excommunicated is to take place in a public worship service of the congregation, with the use of the “Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons.” (That form can be found in the back of the Psalter.)
Article 78 speaks of this restoration being accomplished in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is specifically mentioned because formal discipline of the impenitent sinner began with suspension from the Lord’s Supper. At the same time, this is one of the most painful aspects of excommunication, that the excommunicated sinner is denied the privilege to sit down at the Lord’s Supper. Restoration to church membership includes the great blessing of once again being permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper! Although this privilege of church membership is specifically mentioned in Article 78, all the privileges of church membership are restored to the excommunicated sinner who has been reconciled to the church. Once more, he is a member of the instituted church, and all the rights and benefits of membership are his to enjoy.
At the time of the public restoration of one who has been excommunicated, as has been noted, the “Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons” is read. This is a beautiful form, with which many in the church are unfamiliar. That is undoubtedly due to the infrequency with which it is used. But everyone ought to take the time to read through this form. I recommend that to all of you. It is a unique form inasmuch as it is divided into two parts, each part to be read separately, the last part at the time of the sinner’s formal restoration to the church.
The form ends with a prayer, as do almost all of our liturgical forms. But it seems to me that this is a special prayer. It is a special prayer inasmuch as, for a long time, the members of the church have been praying forthe sinner. Now, finally and thankfully, they are able to praywith the sinner. What a wonderful thing! What a goodness and grace of God! What a joy in heaven among the angels! And what a joy in the church on earth!