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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Excommunication

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eks -ko -mū -ni -kā´shun : Exclusion from church fellowship as a means of personal discipline, or church purification, or both. Its germs have been found in (1) The Mosaic "ban" or "curse" (חרם , ḥērem , "devoted"), given over entirely to God's use or to destruction (Leviticus 27:29 ); (2) The "cutting off," usually by death, stoning of certain offenders, breakers of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14 ) and others (Leviticus 17:4; Ex 30:22-38); (3) The exclusion of the leprous from the camp (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 12:14 ). At the restoration (Ezra 10:7 , Ezra 10:8 ), the penalty of disobedience to Ezra's reforming movements was that "all his substance should be forfeited (ḥērem ), and himself separated from the assembly of the captivity." Nehemiah's similar dealing with the husbands of heathen women helped to fix the principle. The New Testament finds a well-developed synagogal system of excommunication, in two, possibly three, varieties or stages. נדּוּי , niddūy , for the first offense, forbade the bath, the razor, the convivial table, and restricted social intercourse and the frequenting of the temple. It lasted thirty, sixty, or ninety days. If the offender still remained obstinate, the "curse," ḥērem , was formally pronounced upon him by a council of ten, and he was shut out from the intellectual, religious and social life of the community, completely severed from the congregation. שׁמּתא , shammāthā' , supposed by some to be a third and final stage, is probably a general term applied to both niddūy and ḥērem ̌ . We meet the system in John 9:22 : "If any man should confess him to be Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue" ( ἀποσυναγωγός , aposunagōgós ); John 12:42 : "did not confess ... lest they should be put out of the synagogue"; and John 16:2 : "put you out of the synagogue." In Luke 6:22 Christ may refer to the three stages: "separate you from their company ( ἀφορίσωσιν , aphorı́sōsin ), and reproach you (ὀνειδίσωσιν , oneidı́sōsin = ḥērem , "malediction"), and cast out your name as evil (ἐκβάλωσιν , ekbálōsin )."

It is doubtful whether an express prescription of excommunication is found in our Lord's words (Matthew 18:15-19 ). The offense and the penalty also seem purely personal: "And if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican," out of the pale of association and converse. Yet the next verse might imply that the church also is to act: "Verily I say unto you, What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven," etc. But this latter, like Matthew 16:19 , seems to refer to the general enunciations of principles and policies rather than to specific ecclesiastical enactments. On the whole, Jesus seems here to be laying down the principle of dignified personal avoidance of the obstinate offender, rather than prescribing ecclesiastical action. Still, personal avoidance may logically correspond in proper cases to excommunication by the church. 2 Thessalonians 3:14 : "Note that man, that ye have no company with him"; Titus 3:10 : "A factious man ... avoid" (American Revised Version margin); 2 John 1:10 : "Receive him not into your house," etc., all inculcate discreet and faithful avoidance but not necessarily excommunication, though that might come to be the logical result. Paul's "anathemas" are not to be understood as excommunications, since the first is for an offense no ecclesiastical tribunal could well investigate: 1 Corinthians 16:22 , "If any man loveth not the Lord, let him be anathema"; the second touches Paul's deep relationship to his Lord: Romans 9:3 , "I myself ... anathema from Christ"; while the third would subject the apostle or an angel to ecclesiastical censure: Galatians 1:8 , Galatians 1:9 , "Though we, or an angel ... let him be anathema."

Clear, specific instances of excommunication or directions regarding it, however, are found in the Pauline and Johannine writings. In the case of the incestuous man (1 Corinthians 5:1-12 ), at the instance of the apostle ("I verily, being absent in body but present in spirit"), the church, in a formal meeting ("In the name of our Lord Jesus, ye being gathered together"), carrying out the apostle's desire and will ("and my spirit"), and using the power and authority conferred by Christ ("and with the power of our Lord Jesus"), formally cut off the offender from its fellowship, consigning (relinquishing?) him to the power of the prince of this world ("to deliver such a one unto Satan"). Further, such action is enjoined in other cases: "Put away the wicked man from among yourselves." 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 probably refers to the same case, terminated by the repentance and restoration of the offender. 'Delivering over to Satan' must also include some physical ill, perhaps culminating in death; as with Simon Magus ( Acts 8:20 ), Elymas (Acts 13:11 ), Ananias (Acts 5:5 ). 1 Timothy 1:20 : "Hymenaeus and Alexander ... that they might be taught not to blaspheme," is a similar case of excommunication accompanied by judicial and disciplinary physical ill. In 3 John 1:9 , 3 John 1:10 we have a case of excommunication by a faction in control: "Diotrephes ... neither doth he himself receive ... and them that would he ... casteth out of the church."

Excommunication in the New Testament church was not a fully developed system. The New Testament does not clearly define its causes, methods, scope or duration. It seems to have been incurred by heretical teaching (1 Timothy 1:20 ) or by factiousness (Titus 3:10 (?)); but the most of the clear undoubted cases in the New Testament are for immoral or un-Christian conduct ( 1 Corinthians 5:1 , 1 Corinthians 5:11 , 1 Corinthians 5:13; perhaps also 1 Timothy 1:20 ). It separated from church fellowship but not necessarily from the love and care of the church (2 Thessalonians 3:15 (?)). It excluded from church privileges, and often, perhaps usually, perhaps always, from social intercourse ( 1 Corinthians 5:11 ). When pronounced by the apostle it might be accompanied by miraculous and punitive or disciplinary physical consequences (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20 ). It was the act of the local church, either with (1 Corinthians 5:4 ) or without (1 Corinthians 5:13; 3 John 1:10 ) the concurrence of an apostle. It might possibly be pronounced by an apostle alone (1 Timothy 1:20 ), but perhaps not without the concurrence and as the mouthpiece of the church. Its purpose was the amendment of the offender: "That the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Corinthians 5:5 ); and the preservative purification of the church: "Purge out the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, even as ye are unleavened" (1 Corinthians 5:7 ). It might, as appears, be terminated by repentance and restoration (2 Corinthians 2:5-11 ). It was not a complex and rigid ecclesiastical engine, held in terrorem over the soul, but the last resort of faithful love, over which hope and prayer still hovered.

Literature

Arts. in HDB , DB , Jewish Encyclopedia , DCG; Martensen, Christian Ethics , III, 330ff; Nowack, Benzinger, Heb Archaeol .; Commentary in the place cited.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Excommunication'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/e/excommunication.html. 1915.

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