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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Excommunication (2)

EXCOMMUNICATION denotes the exclusion, either temporary or permanent, and specifically on moral or religious grounds, of a member of a religious body from the privileges which membership in that body ordinarily carries with it. The word does not occur in Authorized and Revised Versions, but we have in the Gospels several references to the practice as it existed among the Jews in the time of Christ, while certain words of Christ Himself supply the germs of the usage of the Christian Church as it meets us in the Apostolic age and was subsequently developed in the ecclesiastical discipline of later times.

i. Jewish excommunication.—Passing over the segregation of lepers, though this generally implied exclusion from the synagogue (Matthew 8:4 || Luke 17:14),* [Note: Being forbidden to enter a walled town, they could not worship in the synagogue in such places; but in unwalled towns a corner was frequently reserved for them in the synagogue, on condition that they were the first to enter and the last to depart (see Hastings’ DB iii. 97a).] and coming to excommunication of the more specific kind, we find that it is certainly referred to four times in the Gospels, viz. Luke 6:22 (‘blessed are ye … when they shall separate you from their company’—ἀφορίσωσιν ὑμᾶς), John 9:22 (‘for the Jews had agreed already that if any man should confess him to be Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue’—ἀποσυνάγωγος γένηται), John 12:42 (‘they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue’—ἵνα μὴ ἀποσυνάγωγοι γένωνται), John 16:2 (‘they shall put you out of the synagogues’—ἀποσυναγώγους ποιήσουσιν ὑμᾶς). It is not unlikely, however, that a fifth reference should be found in the ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω of John 9:34-35 (so AVm [Note: Vm Authorized Version margin.] and many commentators). Meyer and Westcott (Gospel of St. John) object to this that no sitting of the Sanhedrin had taken place, and that the persons who cross-questioned the formerly blind man were not competent to pronounce the sentence of excommunication. It is true, no doubt, that excommunication properly denotes a formal sentence passed by the officials of the congregation (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 60),—though in Talmudic times a minor form of excommunication by an individual, and especially by a rabbi, was also recognized (Jewish Encyc. vol. v. p. 286 f.),—but as it was ‘the Jews,’ i.e. in the language of the Fourth Gospel the Jewish authorities, who expelled the man, it seems quite possible that the examination described in John 9 was of a formal nature. This is confirmed by the expressions, ‘they bring to the Pharisees him that aforetime was blind’ (John 9:13), ‘they called the parents’ (John 9:16), ‘they called a second time the man that was blind’ (John 9:24), which suggests an authoritative summons before an official body. And when we read in John 9:25 ‘Jesus heard that they had cast him out,’ this seems to imply that some grave act of formal censure had been passed upon the man.

Of the fact that excommunication was practised in the Jewish synagogue in the time of Christ, these passages leave us in no doubt. But now comes the question whether at that time there were different kinds of excommunication. In the Talmud two degrees are recognized, a minor, niddûi (נִרּוּי), and a major, hçrem (חֵרָם); the former being a temporary exclusion from the synagogue together with a restriction upon social intercourse with others, while the latter amounted to a ban of indefinite or permanent duration.* [Note: The attempt has sometimes been made to discover in the language of the Talmud a third and more awful kind of excommunication named shammattâ (שַׁמַּחָּא); and in accordance with this it has been supposed that there may be a reference to the three presumed degrees of Jewish excommunication in Luke 6:22—‘they shall separate you from their company (ûi), and reproach you (hçrem), and cast out your name as evil’ (â). But it is now generally acknowledged that the idea of this threefold distinction is due to a mistake, and that, as used in the Talmud, â is simply a general designation for both the ûi and the çrem (see Buxtorf, , s.v. שַׁמַחִּא; Schürer, ii. ii. 60).] It must be remembered, however, that as an authority upon Jewish usages the Talmud does not carry us back to the earliest Christian age, and that for the practice of Jewish courts in the time of our Lord the NT itself is our only real source of information. And while it has sometimes been fancied that in the Gospels we have an indication of two kinds or degrees of excommunication—the ἀποσυνάγωγος of John 9:22; John 12:42; John 16:2 being distinguished either, as something more severe, from the ἀφορίζειν of Luke 6:22, or, as something more mild, from the ἐκβάλλειν of John 9:34-35—the truth is that there are no adequate grounds for such discriminations. It is, of course, quite possible, and even likely, that in the time of Christ there were distinct grades of exclusion from the privileges of the Jewish community, corresponding to the later niddûi and hçrem, [Note: It is perhaps suggestive that ἀνάθεμα is the constant LXX rendering of the OT חִרֶם (Joshua 6:17-18; Joshua 6:7; Joshua 22:20, 1 Chronicles 2:7), and that ἀνάθεμα and ἀναθεματίζειν meet us frequently in the NT as expressive of a curse or strong form of hanning (Mark 14:71, Acts 23:12; Acts 23:14; Acts 23:21, Romans 9:3, 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Corinthians 16:22, Galatians 1:8-9).] but the NT cannot be said to testify to anything more than the fact of excommunication itself.

For the immediate origin of the practice of excommunication as it meets us in the Gospels, we have only to go back to Ezra and the days after the Exile, when the strictest discipline was absolutely essential to the solidarity, indeed to the very existence, of the Jewish Church and nation. Ezra insisted that those Jews who had married foreign wives should either put away both their wives and the children born of them, or forfeit their whole substance and be separated from the congregation of Israel (Ezra 10:8). But the ultimate roots of the practice are to be sought in the Pentateuchal legislation, with its exclusion of the ceremonially unclean from the camp of the congregation (Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:2-3), and its devotion to destruction (חָרַם, whence חרָם) of whole cities or tribes as enemies of Israel (Deuteronomy 2:34; Deuteronomy 3:6; Deuteronomy 7:2; cf. Judges 21:11, where the men of Jabesh-gilead themselves fall under the ban of extermination for not coming up to Mizpeh along with their brethren).

With regard to the grounds on which, in our Lord’s time, sentence of excommunication was passed, the Talmud speaks of twenty-four offences as being thus punishable—a round number which is not to be taken too literally (Jewish Encyc., art. ‘Excommunication’)—though later Rabbinical authorities have carried out the list into its particulars. When we read that the rulers decreed that any one who confessed Jesus to be Christ should be put out of the synagogue (John 9:22; John 12:42), this may show that they possessed a large discretionary power of fixing the grounds of ecclesiastical censure. But if the later lists of Talmudical writers rest on traditions that go back to the time of Christ, there were certain recognized categories of offence, such as ‘dealing lightly with any of the Rabbinic or Mosaic precepts,’ under which it would be easy for the Jewish casuists to arraign any one who called Jesus Master or acknowledged Him to be the Messiah.

ii. Christian excommunication.—It lies beyond the scope of this Dictionary to deal with excommunication as practised in the Apostolic Church, and as it meets us especially in the Pauline writings. But in the teaching of our Lord Himself we find the principles at least of the rules which St. Paul lays down in 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:6-11, 1 Timothy 1:20, Titus 3:10.

In Matthew 16:19 Jesus promises to St. Peter the keys of the Kingdom of heaven, so that whatsoever he shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. In Matthew 18:17-19 He makes a similar promise to the Church generally, or to the Twelve as representing the ecclesia—not ‘qua apostles with ecclesiastical authority, but qua disciples with the ethical power of morally disciplined men’ (Bruce, Expositor’s Gr. Test., in loc.; cf. further John 20:23). And in the immediately preceding context (Matthew 18:15-17) He gives directions as to the way in which an offending brother is to be dealt with in the Church. The injured person is first to go to him privately and endeavour to show him his fault. If he will not listen, one or two other Christian brethren are to accompany the first as witnesses—not in any legal sense, we must suppose, but because ‘consensus in moral judgment carries weight with the conscience’ (Bruce, op. cit., in loc.). If he is still obdurate, the Church is now to be appealed to: ‘and if he refuse to hear the Church (ἑκκλησία) also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican.’ That ἐκκλησία in this passage means the community of Christian believers, and not, as Hort, for example, thinks (Christian Ecclesia, p. 10), the Jewish local community, seems in every way probable. Jesus had already spoken at Caesarea of the ἐκκλησία that is built on Christian faith and confession (Matthew 16:18), and it was altogether natural that on this later occasion He should refer to it again in speaking of the relations between Christian brethren. But it would be a mistake to find in this passage any reference to a formal process of excommunication on the part of the Church. The offender of whom Christ speaks excommunicates himself from the Christian community by refusing to listen to its united voice, and the members of the community have no option but to regard him as an outsider so long as he maintains that attitude. That Jesus meant nothing harsh by the expression ‘as the Gentile and the publican,’ and certainly did not mean a permanent exclusion from the Christian society, may be judged from the way in which He treated a Roman centurion and a Syrophœnician woman, and from the name given Him by His enemies—‘the friend of publicans and sinners.’ No doubt in an organized society a solemn and formal act such as St. Paul prescribes in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 is a natural deduction from the words of Christ in this passage; but it cannot be said that such an act is definitely enjoined by the Lord Himself. It is the attempt to find here the authoritative institution of excommunication as a formal act of ecclesiastical discipline that gives a colour of justification to the contention of some critics (e.g. Holtzmann, Hand-Commentar zum NT, in loc.) that what we have in this passage is not an actual saying of Jesus, but a reflexion of the ecclesiastical practice in the Jewish-Christian circles for which the Gospel of Matthew was written.

From our Lord’s teaching in this passage it seems legitimate to infer that, though excommunication may become necessary in the interests of the Christian society, it should never be resorted to until every other means has been tried, and in particular should be preceded by private dealing in a brotherly and loving spirit. From the two parables of the Tares and the Wheat (Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43) and the Draw-net (Matthew 13:47-50) we may further gather that Christ would have His people to exercise a wise patience and caution in the use even of a necessary instrument. Matthew 18:15-17 shows that there are offences which are patent and serious, and are not to be passed over. But from the two parables referred to we learn the impossibility of the Donatist dream of an absolutely pure Church. Not even those who have the enlightenment of the Spirit are infallible judges of character. The absolute discrimination between ‘the good’ and ‘the bad’ (Matthew 13:48) must be postponed till ‘the end of the age’ (Matthew 13:49). Only under the personal rule of the Son of Man Himself shall all things that offend (πάντα τὰ σκάνδαλα) be gathered out of His Kingdom (Matthew 13:41).

Literature.—Artt. on ‘Excommunication’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, Encyc. Bibl., and Jewish Encyc.; Schurer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. p. 59 ff.; Weber, Jüd. Theol.2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , Index, s.v. ‘Bann’; Martensen, Christian Ethics, iii. p. 330 ff.; the Commentaries of Meyer, Alford, Westcott (Gospel of St. John), and Bruce (Expositor’s Gr. Test.) on the passages referred to; Bruce, Parabolic Teaching of Christ, p. 42 ff.

J. C. Lambert.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Excommunication (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/e/excommunication-2.html. 1906-1918.

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