Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Though it happens only occasionally, it is possible that a person who had been excommunicated from the church repents and desires to be reconciled with the Lord and His church. Article 78 of the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches makes provision for this when it states:
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.
Van Dellen and Monsma call attention to a rather serious omission from the English translation of this Article. The original Dutch version of Article 78 reads, ” … 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, at the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper….”* The words, “at the next celebration of the Lord’s Supper” were omitted. They should have been retained. The announcement of the Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons informs the congregation that the consistory intends to loose the excommunicated person from the bond of excommunication ( in other words, reinstate the person) “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….” It should also be noted in this connection that censure begins with suspension from the Lord’s Supper. This being the case, it is fitting that reconciliation take place when the sacrament is celebrated. The reason the phrase was omitted is probably because the first part of Article 78 stipulates that the announcement that an excommunicated person wishes to become reconciled shall be made “either before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or at some other opportune time….” The “or at some other opportune time” allows for exceptions to the rule that the reconciliation take place before the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
The Form of Excommunication speaks of excommunication as “the last remedy.” The Church Order likewise calls excommunication “the extreme remedy” (Art. 76). The reason for this is that one of the purposes for which the church applies excommunication is to save the sinner. After all other means have failed, the church hopes and prays that it may please the Lord to use the final and extreme step in the process of discipline to bring the transgressor to sincere repentance before God.
The churches, therefore, welcomed repentant sinners even though such sinners may have been excommunicated. At first consistories and classes regulated the reinstatement of banned members without a regulating rule in the Church Order. It was soon found, however, that uniformity was desirable. Thus Article 78 was formulated and added to the Church Order by the Dutch synod of 1586.
The procedure to be followed for the reconciliation of excommunicated sinners is carefully laid out in the article. Two conditions must be met. First, the one who has been excommunicated must desire to be reconciled to the church. The sinner himself must desire this and make this known to the elders of the church. It must not be someone else’s desire to which the sinner assents, but it must be his own heartfelt desire and request to be reconciled. Second, the excommunicated one must desire reconciliation “in the way of repentance.” The church must be willing to forgive “till seventy times seven,” but only and always when the sinner repents. Repentance involves godly sorrow on account of the sin, the desire to be forgiven by the Lord and one’s fellow saints, and a leaving of the sin.
Before reconciliation may take place, the elders must be certain that the sinner has sincerely repented. There must be no doubt about this. All reservations must be removed. This does not mean that the elders simply impose a time of probation during which the sinner is given opportunity to demonstrate that he has indeed left the sin, but during which the elders ignore him. This would be wrong indeed! When one who has been excommunicated expresses the desire to be reconciled with the Lord and His church, the elders ought to designate a time of probation, but then work with the person and encourage him and bring him the Word of God which alone can save him.
It ought to be noted that often, when discipline is applied, the sinner will ask for his dismissal papers. Rarely will an impenitent sinner allow the process to be completed with the application of the “last, extreme remedy.” When the sinner resigns his membership and is granted dismissal papers he in effect excommunicates himself from the church of Christ. Therefore, when such a one desires to be reconciled with the Lord and His church, this should take place only upon sufficient evidence of sincere repentance. In most instances, if not in all, readmittance of such penitent sinners should take place in public.
When the elders have determined that the repentance of the sinner is genuine, they must take a decision to reinstate the sinner to the fellowship of the saints in the church. An announcement must be made to the congregation to this effect. This announcement is found at the beginning of the Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons and reads as follows:
Beloved in the Lord, it is known to you, that some time ago our fellow member, ___, 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 readmitted into the communion of the church….
The announcement continues by informing the congregation that the sinner will be reinstated the next time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. The announcement also admonishes those who have lawful objections to the reconciliation to inform the elders in due time.
The reason why this announcement must be made to the congregation is so that the congregation may give its tacit approbation or approval of the sinner’s being reinstated. Because the congregation approved of the excommunication, she must also approve of the readmission. Still more, if reconciliation is to be accomplished, the repentant sinner must be received into the fellowship of the church and restored to the communion of the faithful. The congregation must receive him when he seeks her fellowship once again.
Thus the form asks the penitent to “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?” Further, the penitent is asked whether he believes God has forgiven him and whether he truly desires to be readmitted into the church of Christ and whether he promises to live in all godliness according to the command of God. When the penitent answers to these questions, “Yes, verily,” the minister declares him to be “absolved from the bonds of excommunication.”
At this point the congregation is exhorted to:
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 sinner who repenteth: count him no longer as a stranger, but as a fel
low-citizen with the saints, and of the household of God.
The form concludes with a prayer of thanksgiving to our “gracious God and Father.”
It is a blessed day indeed for that congregation of Jesus Christ when an excommunicated sinner is thus reconciled with them and the Lord.
It is possible that the person who was excommunicated has moved away from the church which excommunicated him and thus seeks admission into a different congregation. This is permissible, but only if such reconciliation takes place in close cooperation with the consistory which excommunicated him, and with its consent.
May God grant in His mercy that the elders and consistories of the Protestant Reformed Churches continue faithfully to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven. They must not hesitate to apply discipline when that is called for. Only in this way is the church kept pure, and only in this way is God’s name praised.
* Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary: A Brief Explanation of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), p. 323.