Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Having discussed previously the various steps or admonitions to be followed by the elders in the application of Christian discipline upon an impenitent sinner as these are outlined in Articles 76 and 77 of The Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches, we turn now to a discussion of the last step of Christian discipline. This last step is excommunication.
This last step is required according to Article 76 which reads,
Such as obstinately reject the admonition of the consistory, and likewise those who have committed a public or otherwise gross sin, shall be suspended from the Lord’s Supper. And if he, having been suspended, after repeated admonitions, shows no signs of repentance, the consistory shall at last proceed to the extreme remedy, namely excommunication, agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God. But no one shall be excommunicated except with the advice of the Classis.
Excommunication is mentioned as well in Article 77 when it describes the third admonition to be applied by the elders to the unrepentant in which, “… the congregation shall be informed that (unless he repent) he will be excluded from the fellowship of the church, so that his excommunication, in case he remains obstinate, may take place with the tacit approbation of the church.”
Note well that the excommunication of an unrepentant sinner must take place, “… agreeably to the form adopted for that purpose according to the Word of God.” This means that the Form of Excommunication has the status of a minor confession in our churches. Minor, not in the sense that it carries less authority than the major confessions, the Three Forms of Unity, but minor in the sense that it speaks only of one aspect of the truth of Scripture, namely, excommunication. The Form of Excommunication bears the same authority as do our Reformed confessions. It may not be changed except by way of a weighty objection (gravamen) being brought against it to the synod. Such an objection would have to demonstrate from Scripture that the form is in error.
In the light of the fact that very little discipline is being applied by the church in our day, and in light of the fact that excommunication is almost unheard of in the church in our day, it is significant that both the Church Order and the Form of Excommunication speak of excommunication as a remedy. Article 76 of the Church Order calls it the “extreme remedy” and the form calls it the “last remedy.” This means that our Reformed fathers regarded excommunication as a means to save the impenitent sinner. The church, after repeated and patient admonitions, proceeded to the “extreme, last remedy” with the fervent hope and prayer that God would use that means to save the impenitent sinner. Our churches must never lose sight of this important point. To neglect discipline and even excommunication is to be disobedient to the commandment of the Word of God and, further, it is to deprive the impenitent sinner of the means by which he might be saved! One of the three important purposes of Christian discipline and excommunication is the salvation of the sinner.
The second purpose of excommunication is to preserve the purity of the church. The form puts it this way, “… that we may not by this rotten and as yet incurable member, put the whole body of the Church in danger….”* When one walks in sin and refuses to confess that sin and leave it, he must, after being admonished patiently and in the love of Christ, be put out of the church. If the church fails to excommunicate impenitent members, she puts herself in danger. The church will sooner or later, but inevitably, become infected by the impenitent member. The proper exercise of Christian discipline is one important means of keeping the church pure and faithful both in doctrine and in the lives of her members. This is precisely why Christian discipline is one of the three marks by which, ” … the true church may certainly be known …” (Belgic Confession, Article 29).
Closely related to the above is the fact that when the church refuses to discipline the impenitent the name of God is blasphemed. All sins are really blasphemy. Every sin, whether it be a denial of the truth, i.e., false doctrine or an evil practice, is a refusal to honor and praise the name of God. And that’s to blaspheme the holy name of God. The Heidelberg Catechism, in at least two places, beautifully sums this biblical truth. In answer to the question, “What is required in the third commandment?” the Catechism, says, “That we, not only by cursing or perjury, but also by rash swearing, must not profane or abuse the name of God … and, briefly, that we use the holy name of God no otherwise than with fear and reverence, so that he may be rightly confessed and worshiped by us, and be glorified in all our words and works” (L.D. 36). The Catechism, teaches that when we ask that God’s name be hallowed we are asking, “grant us, first, rightly to know thee, and to sanctify, glorify and praise thee, in all thy works, in which thy power, wisdom, goodness, justice, mercy and truth, are clearly displayed; and further also, that we may so order and direct our whole lives, our thoughts, words and actions, that thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account” (L.D. 47).
Both the Church Order in articles 71 – 80 and the Form of Excommunication make clear that there is only one ground for excommunication, viz., impenitence. One is excommunicated because he stubbornly refuses to repent and thus fails to “come to any remorse for his sins” and to “show the least token of true repentance.” Because the sinner refuses to repent of his “heinous offence” he “daily aggravates his sin.” So it is that after having admonished the sinner patiently and in the love of Christ and with the advice of the classis, the elders are compelled to apply the extreme remedy. On the other hand, should the sinner repent of his sin in godly sorrow, the elders and congregation gladly forgive the sinner and restore him or her to the fellowship of the church. The church does this because she is convinced that God has forgiven the sinner.
The utter seriousness of the “extreme remedy” is emphasized by the language used in the form and by the sharp warning given by the form to the congregation. Because of the sinner’s refusal to repent the form states,
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.
After exhorting the congregation to keep no company with the sinner, but to admonish him, the form gives God’s people sharp warning,
In the meantime let everyone take warning by this and such like examples; to fear the Lord, and diligently take heed unto himself, if he thinketh he standeth, lest he fall; but having true fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, together with all faithful Christians, remain steadfast to the end, and so obtain eternal salvation … lest our God humble us again and that we be obliged to bewail some one of you; but that you may with one accord, living in all godliness, be our crown and joy in the Lord.
In the form’s powerful prayer God’s people,
… bewail our sins before thy high majesty, and acknowledge that we have deserved the grief and sorrow caused unto us by the cutting off of this our late fellow-member; yea, we all deserve, shouldst Thou enter into judgment with us, by
reason of our great transgressions, to be cut off and banished from they presence. —But O Lord, Thou art merciful unto us for Christ’s sake; forgive us our trespasses, for we heartily repent of them, and daily work in our hearts a greater measure of sorrow for them; that we may, fearing thy judgments which thou executest against the stiff-necked, endeavor to please thee….
Serious indeed is excommunication. Let the elders and ministers take it thus, and whenever necessary apply the extreme remedy in the hope that God will use it to bring the sinner to repentance, and with the prayer that by this means God’s church may be kept pure and His holy name not blasphemed but honored and praised.
* All subsequent quotations are from the Form of Excommunication found in the Psalter used by the Protestant Reformed Churches unless otherwise indicated.