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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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Excommunication is a form of ecclesiastical censure involving exclusion from the membership of the Church. Such exclusion may be temporary or permanent. It may cut off the offender from all communion and every privilege, or it may be less severe, allowing some intercourse and certain benefits.

1. The term.-The word ‘excommunication’ is not found in Authorized Version or Revised Version , nor are the obsolete forms ‘excommunion’ (Milton), ‘excommenge’ (Holinshed), ‘excommuned’ (Gayton). There are general references to the subject, and one or two cases are mentioned with some detail. The Greek verb ἀφορίζω signifies ‘mark off from (ἀπό) by a boundary (ὄρος).’ It is used sometimes in a good sense (e.g. Acts 13:2, Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:15), and sometimes in a bad one (e.g. Luke 6:22; note the three degrees of evil treatment-ἀφορίσωσιν, ὀνειδίσωσιν, ἐκβάλωσιν τὸ ὄνομα). See also Matthew 13:49; Matthew 25:32, 2 Corinthians 6:17, Galatians 2:12. It is employed by various Greek writers-Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, and others-and is found frequently in the Septuagint . Excommunicatio is a Latin word of later origin. It is used in the Vulgate.

2. Warrant for the practice in the Apostolic Church.-Excommunication in apostolic times rested upon a threefold warrant.

(1) Natural and inherent right.-Every properly constituted society has the right and power to exclude members not conforming to its rules. The Church has authority to exercise a right which every society claims. An analogy is sometimes drawn between the Church and the State. The State has power to send into exile, to deprive of civil rights, and even claims and exercises the power to inflict a death-sentence. So, in spiritual matters, the Church may pass sentences of separation more or less complete, and though the supreme judge alone can pronounce the sentence of death in an absolute sense, yet the Church can pass such a sentence in a relative sense-the offender being regarded as dead from the standpoint of the ecclesiastical court. Upon this point-whether in excommunication and in ‘binding and loosing’ the power of the Church is final and absolute-two divergent views have been held. As typical of these two schools of thought, see Dante, de Mon. iii. viii. 36ff., and Tarquini, Juris eccl. Inst. 4, Rome, 1875, p. 98. The former declares it is not absolute, ‘sed respective ad aliquid.… Posset [enim] solvere me non poenitentem, quod etiam facere ipse Deus non posset’; the latter states that St. Peter (Matthew 16:19) is invested with ‘potestas clavium, quae est absoluta et monarchica.’

(2) The example of the Jewish nation and Church.-In the Pentateuch it is stated that certain heinous sins cannot be forgiven. By some form of excommunication or by death itself the sinner is to be ‘cut off.’ Thus the sanctity of the nation is restored and preserved. In the later days of Judaism the penalties became somewhat milder as a general rule. The foundations of Jewish excommunication are Leviticus 13:46, Numbers 5:2-3; Numbers 12:14-15; Numbers 16, Judges 5:23, Ezra 7:26, Nehemiah 13:25. The effects are described in Ezra 7:26; Ezra 10:8. The Talmud mentions three kinds of excommunication, the first two disciplinary, the third complete and final expulsion. There was separation, separation with a curse, and final separation with a terrible anathema. For Gospel references see Luke 6:22, John 9:22; John 9:34-35; John 12:42; John 16:2. The sentence might be pronounced on twenty-four different grounds.

(3) The authority of Jesus Christ.-The main basis of authority for the Christian Church is the teaching of its Founder. The passages of most importance on the subject under consideration are Matthew 16:19; Matthew 18:18, John 20:23. Excommunication must be preceded by private and public exhortation, conducted in the spirit of love, with caution, wisdom, and patience. Only as a last resort, and when all else has failed, must the sentence of banishment be pronounced (see Matthew 13:24-30; Matthew 13:36-43; Matthew 13:47-50). From Christ Himself the Church received authority, not only to ‘bind’ the impenitent and unbelieving and to ‘loose’ the penitent believer, but also, in its properly constituted courts, to condemn and expel gross offenders and to forgive and re-instate them if truly penitent.

3. Legislation in the Apostolic Church.-The general methods of procedure are made clear by St. Paul’s method of dealing with the case of the incestuous person at Corinth (1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 2:6-11). The excommunication of the offender was a solemn, deliberate, judicial act of the members of the Church specially gathered together ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ’ for the purpose, and equipped with the authority and ‘power of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The act of exclusion was that of the Church itself and not of the Apostle Paul. The power was not in the hands of an official, or body of officials. Wherever it has become the prerogative of a priesthood it has led to great abuse and the results have been disastrous both to priests and people.

The object of this act of discipline was to reform the sinner (1 Corinthians 5:5), and to preserve the purity of the Church. Where a difference of opinion existed as to the course to be pursued, the verdict was decided by the majority (2 Corinthians 2:6). The sentence might be modified or rescinded according to sub-sequent events (2 Corinthians 2:6-8). ‘To deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus’ (1 Corinthians 5:5), is an obscure passage. Perhaps St. Paul thought that a sin of the flesh was more likely to be cured by bodily suffering than in any other way. In his opinion certain afflictions of the body were due to the operations of Satan (2 Corinthians 2:11; 2 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Timothy 1:20). Probably he thought that, in accordance with the sentence of the Church, God would allow Satan to inflict some physical malady that would lead the offender to repentance. If we may take 2 Corinthians 2:6-11 to refer to the same case, the desired result was reached.

‘It cannot have been unknown to Paul that he was here using a form of words similar to the curses by which the Corinthians had formerly been accustomed to consign their personal enemies to destruction by the powers of the world of death. It seems not open to doubt that the Corinthians would understand by this phrase that the offender was to suffer disease and even death as a punishment for sin; and Paul goes on to add that this punishment of the flesh is intended to bring salvation ultimately to his soul (ἴνα τὸ πνεῦμα σωθῇ): by physical suffering he is to atone for his sin.… The whole thought stands in the closest relation to the theory of the confession-inscriptions, in which those who have been punished by the god thank and bless him for the chastisement’ (Ramsay in Expository Times x. [1898-99] 59).

For cases in which physical ill followed ecclesiastical censure see Acts 5:1; Acts 8:20; Acts 13:10. Some hold that the ‘delivery to Satan’ was by virtue of the special authority of St. Paul himself, while the Church had power to expel only. There is nothing in the text to support such a view. This punishment must not be confounded with the anathema of Romans 9:3, 1 Corinthians 16:22, Galatians 1:8-9. ‘The attempt to explain the word (ἀνάθεμα) to mean “excommunication” from the society-a later use of the Hebrew in Rabbinical writers and the Greek in ecclesiastical-arose from a desire to take away the apparent profanity of the wish’ (Sanday-Headlam, Romans 5 [International Critical Commentary , 1902], p. 228). Calvin and some other reformers thought the expression ἀνάθεμα. Μαρὰν ἀθά (1 Corinthians 16:22) was a formula of excommunication. Buxtorf (Lex. Chald., Basel, 1639, pp. 827, 2466) says it was part of a Jewish cursing formula from the Prophecy of Enoch (Judges 1:14).There is no reason for such an opinion. It was not held until the meaning of the words was lost or partially so. They are neither connected nor synonymous as some have supposed, and are rightly separated in Revised Version -‘If any man loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema. Maran atha’ (cf. Philippians 4:5).

In addition to the specific case at Corinth and general references in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:14 (cf. Romans 16:17, James 5:16), we find more precise directions in later books-the Pastoral Epistles and General Epistles of St. John (see 1 Timothy 5:19-20; 1 Timothy 6:3, Titus 3:10, 1 John 1:8 f., 1 John 5:16, 2 John 1:10, 3 John 1:9-10). Heresy, schism, insubordination, usurpation of the authority of the Church by a section, became grounds of excommunication. The morals, doctrine, and government of the Church were all imperilled at times and could be preserved only by strict discipline and severe penalties upon wrong-doers. As in the Jewish community, the sentence of excommunication might be lighter or heavier, the exclusion being more or less complete. It might mean only expulsion from the Lord’s Table, but not from the Lord’s House; or it might be utter banishment from the Lord’s House and an interdict against all social intercourse with its members.

It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the history of excommunication in the Christian Church. Suffice it to say that the distinction between the minor (ἀφορισμός) and major (παντελὴς ἀφορισμὸς ἁνάθεμα) forms of it, which existed from very early times, if not from the Apostolic Age itself, were continued for centuries with a wealth of elaborate detail as to the exact penalties involved in each, and as to the attitude of those within the Church to those without its pale. Unfortunately, excommunication often became an instrument of oppression in the hands of unworthy men. In mediaeval days it frequently entailed outlawry and sometimes death.

‘The censures of the Church, reserved in her early days for the gravest moral And spiritual offences, soon lost their salutary terrors when excommunications became incidents in territorial squabbles, or were issued on the most trivial pretext; and when the unchristian penalty of the interdict sought to coerce the guilty by robbing the innocent of the privilege of Christian worship and even of burial itself’ (A. Robertson, Regnum Dei [Bampton Lectures, 1901], p. 257).

See also Anathema, Chastisement, Discipline, Restoration of Offenders.

Literature.-articles ‘Discipline’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , ‘Discipline (Christian)’ in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics , ‘Excommunication’ in Dict. of Christ and the Gospels , Smith’s Dict. of the Bible 2, Jewish Encyclopedia , Catholic Encyclopedia , ‘Bann (kirchlicher)’ in Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie und Kirche 3; E. v. Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , London, 1904; H. M. Gwatkin, Early Church History, do. 1909; E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] , Edinburgh, 1885-1890; C. v. Weizsäcker, Das apostolische Zeitalter3, Tübingen, 1902 (Eng. translation of 2nd ed., London, 1894-95); A. Edersheim, LT [Note: T Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Edersheim).] 4, London, 1887; J. Bingham, Origines Ecclesiasticae, do. 1708-1722; H. Hallam, View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages10, do. 1853.

H. Cariss J. Sidnell.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Excommunication'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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