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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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is the judicial exclusion of offenders from the religious rites and other privileges of the particular community to which they belong. Founded in the natural right which every society possesses to guard its laws and privileges from violation and abuse by the infliction of salutary discipline, proportioned to the nature of the offences committed against them, it has found a place, in one form or another, under every system of religion, whether human or divine. That it has been made an engine for the gratification of private malice and revenge, and been perverted to purposes the most unjustifiable and even diabolical, the history of the world but too lamentably proves; yet this, though unquestionably a consideration which ought to inculcate the necessity of prudence, as well as impartiality and temperance in the use of it, affords no valid argument against its legitimate exercise. From St. Paul's writings we learn that the early excommunication was effected by the offender not being allowed to "eat" with the church, that is, to partake of the Lord's Supper, the sign of communion. In the early ages of the primitive church also, this branch of discipline was exercised with moderation, which, however, gradually gave place to an undue severity. From Tertullian's "Apology" we learn, that the crimes which in his time subjected to exclusion from Christian privileges, were murder, idolatry, theft, fraud, lying, blasphemy, adultery, fornication, and the like, and in Origen's treatise against Celsus, we are informed that such persons were expelled from the communion of the church, and lamented as lost and dead unto God; [ ut perditos Deoque mortuos; ] but that on making confession and giving evidence of penitence, they were received back as restored to life. It was at the same time specially ordained, that no such delinquent, however suitably qualified in other respects, could be afterward admitted to any ecclesiastical office. But it does not appear that the infliction of this discipline was accompanied with any of those forms of excommunication, of delivering over to Satan, or of solemn execration, which were usual among the Jews, and subsequently introduced into them by the Romish church. The authors and followers of heretical opinions which had been condemned, were also subject to this penalty; and it was sometimes inflicted on whole congregations when they were judged to have departed from the faith. In this latter case, however, the sentence seldom went farther than the interdiction of correspondence with these churches, or of spiritual communication between their respective pastors.

To the same exclusion from religious privileges, those unhappy persons were doomed, who, whether from choice or from compulsion, had polluted themselves, after their baptism, by any act of idolatrous worship; and the penance enjoined on such persons, before they could be restored to communion, was often peculiarly severe. The consequences of excommunication, even then, were of a temporal as well as a spiritual nature. The person against whom it was pronounced, was denied all share in the oblations of his brethren; the ties both of religious and of private friendship were dissolved; he found himself an object of abhorrence to those whom he most esteemed, and by whom he had been most tenderly beloved; and, as far as expulsion from a society held in universal veneration could imprint on his character a mark of disgrace, he was shunned or suspected by the generality of mankind.

2. It was not, however, till churchmen began to unite temporal with spiritual power, that any penal effects of a civil kind became consequent on their sentences of excommunication; and that this ghostly artillery was not less frequently employed for the purposes of lawless ambition and ecclesiastical domination, than for the just punishment of impenitent delinquents, and the general edification of the faithful. But as soon as this union took place, and in exact proportion to the degree in which the papal system rose to its predominance over the civil rights as well as the consciences of men, the list of offences which subjected their perpetrators to excommunication, was multiplied; and the severity of its inflictions, with their penal effects, increased in the same ratio. The slightest injury, or even insult, sustained by an ecclesiastic, was deemed a sufficient cause for the promulgation of an anathema. Whole families, and even provinces, were prohibited from engaging in any religious exercise, and cursed with the most tremendous denunciations of divine vengeance. Nor were kings and emperors secure against these thunders of the church; their subjects were, on many occasions, declared, by a papal bull, to be absolved from allegiance to them; and all who should dare to support them, menaced with a similar judgment. These terrors have passed away; the true Scriptural excommunication ought to be maintained in every church; which is the prohibition of immoral and apostate persons from the use of those religious rites which indicate "the communion of saints," but without any temporal penalty.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Excommunication'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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