Of Excommunicate Persons, how they are to be avoided.
THAT person, which by open denunciation of the Church is rightly cut off from the unity of the Church, and excommunicated, ought to be taken of the whole multitude of the faithful as an Heathen and Publican, until he be openly reconciled by penance, and received into the Church by a Judge that hath authority thereunto.
De Excommunicatis Vitandis.
QUI per publicam Ecclesiæ denunciationem rite ab unitate Ecclesiæ præcisus est, et excommunicatus, is ab universa fidelium multitudine, (donec per pœnitentiam publice reconciliatus fuerit arbitrio judicis competentis,) habendus eest tanquam ethnicus et publicanus.
Section I. — History.
CUTTING off from the people is a punishment often denounced and commanded in the old Testament. It appears in general to have meant death by the judgment of God (1 Kings xiv. 10), or by the hand of man (Exod. xxxi. 14, 15; xxxv. 2; Levit. xvii. 4, &c). But the later Jews understood it of excommunication, of which they had three different kinds. The first and lightest sort was called נִדּוּי (Niddui), separation or excommunication for a month; to be extended to two or three months in case of impenitence. The second and more severe kind was called חֶרֶם (Cherem), excommunication accompanied with imprecations from Deut. xxviii. and other places of Scripture. A person so separated was not allowed to have intercourse with any of the Jews, except for the purchase of necessary food: they might not consort with him, “no, not to eat;” a custom to which St. Paul is thought to allude in 1 Cor. v. 11. The third and heaviest form of excommunication was called שַׁמַּתָּא (Shammata), a word the derivation of which is obscure, and which some have supposed to be of the same signification with the Maranatha of St. Paul, namely, “the Lord Cometh.” Whether originally the second and third form may not have been the same is still doubtful.
From the very earliest times the Christian Church exercised a power of the same kind. Clemens Romanus probably alludes to it in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Hermas speaks of some that have sinned and are “rejected from the tower,” (which in his vision means the Church,) and who have afterwards to do penance for their fault. Irenæus tells us of several persons of heretical tendency, who were obliged to perform penitential acts; and of Cerdon, as having been several times put to penance, and finally excommunicated. Origen says, that “offenders, especially such as offend by incontinence, are expelled from communion.” Tertullian speaks of the gravity of Church censures; and of excommunication as a kind of anticipation of the judgment of God. From him indeed we obtain a considerable insight into the customs of public confession, of the penance and humiliations to which offenders were put, of their absolutions and restoration to communion, and of the utter and final excommunication from Church privileges of obstinate and incorrigible sinners. The canons of the Apostles, being especially directed to the ordering of discipline in the Church, are full of sentences of separation and excommunication. It is difficult to assign the exact date of these venerable canons; but Bishop Beveridge places them at the end of the second, or the beginning of the third century.
It being thus apparent, that, from the very first, excommunication was a regular part of the discipline of the Church, it is unnecessary to continue our history through the following centuries, when no one questions that such a punishment was in frequent use. We may be content to notice, that among the Christians, as among the Jews, there prevailed a distinction of greater and lesser excommunication. The lesser excommunication, called ἀϕορισμὸς or separation, consisted in exclusion of offenders from the participation of the Eucharist and from the prayers of the faithful, but did not expel them wholly from the Church; for they might be present at the psalmody, the reading of the Scriptures, the sermon, and the prayers of the catechumens and penitents, but might not remain to the service of the Communion. But the greater excommunication, called Anathema or total separation (παντελὴς ἀϕορισμός), excluded from all Church communion whatever, from approaching to any assembly of the faithful for prayer, or sermon, or reading of the Scriptures. The former kind, it is needless to add, was used for lighter offences; the latter for grievous and deadly sins.
Something has already been said (under Art. XXV.) concerning the custom of public confession, which was a penitential discipline, enjoined on those who were sentenced either to the greater or lesser excommunication, previously to their restoration to Church fellowship; and also concerning the private confession, which gradually superseded public confession, and so loosened discipline and weakened the hands of the Church. Yet excommunications, in cases of heresy, or of royal and national opposition to the authority of the Church, assumed a new and more formidable aspect in the Middle Ages; so that, although private offenders against morality or piety might escape more easily under the shield of private confession, the obstinate heretic, and the nation whose ruler was not submissive to the see of Rome, were handled with a severity unheard of before. The excommunications of Huss and Wickliffe and Luther are evidence of the mode of proceedings against individual dissenters from the established faith. The excommunication of the Emperor Henry IV. by Pope Gregory VII., and the interdict on England under John by Innocent III., exemplify the use which the successors of St. Peter made of the keys of the kingdom, when kings and nations bowed down before them.
The latter part of the Article speaks of reconciliation to the Church by penance, and of reception into the Church by a competent judge.
Besides exhomologesis or public confession, the early Church used to impose a term of public penance on those who expressed contrition for their sins, and desired to be restored to communion. The performance of penance was anciently a matter of considerable time, in order that the sincerity of the repentance might be tested, and that full evidence of sorrow might be given to the Church. Accordingly, penitents were divided into four distinct classes, called respectively flentes, audientes, substrati, and consistentes. The flentes, or mourners, were candidates for penance, rather than persons actually admitted to penitence. They used to lie prostrate at the church-door, begging the prayers of the faithful, and asking to be admitted to do penance. When they had been admitted to penance, they became audientes or hearers; because then, though not restored to communion, or the prayers of the Church, they might hear the Scriptures and the sermon. From this condition they passed into the state of substrati or kneelers. These were allowed to stay in the nave of the Church, and to join in certain prayers, specially put up for them, whilst they were on their knees. Lastly, they became consistentes or co-standers, persons allowed to stand with the faithful at the altar, and join in the common prayers, and to witness, but not partake of the Holy Communion. During the term of their penance, penitents were obliged to appear in sackcloth, with ashes on their head, to cut off their hair, to abstain from all feasting and innocent amusements, to show liberality to the poor, and to make public confession of their sins. How early this distinction of four orders of penitents was made, and the special rules concerning their penance were laid down, is not indisputably certain. The time of the Novatian schism, i. e. the middle of the third century, is the earliest period at which it is thought that mention is certainly made of these distinctions and rules of discipline.
It was only for heavy offences that excommunication, and therefore penance, were ever inflicted. In general it may be said, that the crimes were reducible to three classes ; namely, uncleanness, idolatry, bloodshed. The duration of the term of penitence was different, according to the magnitude of the offence, the aggravation of its guilt by circumstances, and the penitence or impenitence of the offender. For the heavier crimes, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years, and even the whole of a life, were not thought too long. Some were not reconciled to the Church but on imminent danger of death, and some were thought to have rebelled against God too grievously ever to have communion in this world; though God’s mercy might be hoped for them in the next. Moreover, we may add, that, generally speaking, public penance was allowed but once to sinners of any sort.
As for the judge or officer who had power to restore to communion and give absolution, it was ordinarily the bishop. He, for just reasons, might moderate and abridge the term of penance; and, as all discipline was considered to be lodged in his hands, he was esteemed both as the excommunicator, and also as the absolver of the penitent. Yet, in many cases, the power of absolution was committed to presbyters; who, by authority of the bishop, or in his absence, and on great necessity, such as danger of death, might reconcile the sinner to communion, and give him the absolution of the Church. Nay! as in cases of extreme necessity even deacons were allowed to give men the absolution of baptism, so, under the like circumstances, they were authorized to grant penitents the conciliatory absolution.
Having thus considered the primitive customs, and spoken of some abuses in the Middle Ages of the Church, we may proceed to the time of the Reformation. The Council of Trent says, the power of excommunication is to be used “soberly and with great circumspection;” still, if an excommunicated person will not repent, it enjoins that, not only shall he be prohibited “from Sacraments, and the Communion, and intercession of the faithful; but it may even be needful to proceed against him as one suspected of heresy” (etiam contra eum tanquam de hæresi suspectum procedi possit).
The Reformers generally insisted on the power of excommunication. The Augsburg Confession gives bishops authority “to exclude from the communion of the Church impious persons, whose impiety is notorious, by the word, not by human violence.” The Saxon Confession says, that “those guilty of manifest crimes ought to be excommunicated; nor is just excommunication an empty sound” (inane fulmen). Calvin, who was himself the great legislator for all the Calvinistic communions, divides the discipline of the Church into (1) private monition; (2) reprehension before witnesses; (3) excommunication (Matt, xviii. 15‒17). For light offences reprehension is enough; but for heavier, exclusion from the communion of the Supper, humiliation before God, and testification of penitence before the Church, are needful. No one, not even the sovereign, must be exempted from such censures; which he illustrates by the case of Theodosius. The Calvinistic communions in general have been very strict observers of the discipline thus maintained by their great reformer.
The Church of England is clear enough in its principles, though restrained in its practice. This Article speaks plainly her doctrine. The rubric before the Communion gives to the curate the power of repelling evil livers from the Eucharist, provided that he shall at once acquaint the bishop. The introduction to the Commination Service speaks with great regret of the relaxation of godly discipline, and with earnest desire that it may be restored. The canons of 1663 are sufficiently free in denouncing excommunication against heretics, schismatics, and dissenters of all kinds. The peculiar nature of the connection between the Church and State in England, and the prevalence of what are called Erastian opinions, have been the great causes why ecclesiastical censures have lost their power, and become a dead letter amongst us.
Section II. — Scriptural Proof.
THERE appear two points here to be demonstrated. I. That the Church is divinely authorized to excommunicate offenders, and to restore them to communion on their repentance. II. That certain persons in the Church are judges, having authority thereto.
I. Our Lord Himself gave power to His Church to excommunicate and absolve. In Matt, xviii. 15‒18, He enjoins that, if one brother or fellow Christian sin against another, and refuse to listen to private rebuke, or to the admonition of others to whom the offence may be told, then the grievance is to be communicated to the Church. But if, when it is told to the Church, the erring brother still neglects to hear and to show penitence, then he is to be looked on no longer as a Christian and a brother, but it is said, “Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (ver. 17). The meaning of this would be intelligible enough to the first disciples of Christ. They had been bred Jews, and knew that Jews had no communion with heathen men and publicans, not merely not in religious ordinances, but not even to eat. This direction then Christ gives to His Church, that those who, having sinned openly against their brethren, would not listen to her godly admonitions, should be separated from the fellowship of the faithful, and treated as heathens or publicans. Then, to confirm the Church in her authority, to assure her that her censures, and her remission of censure both had a warrant from God, He adds: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven” (ver. 18). In this context there can be no reasonable question, that the binding means to place in a state of bondage or excommunication from Church privilege, that the loosing signifies to restore again to the freedom of Christian communion.
At the risk of anticipating the subject of our second division, we ought to compare with this the promise to St. Peter (Matt, xvi. 19) and to the Apostles at large (John xx. 23). To St. Peter, as to the Church, it is promised, that by means of the keys of the kingdom he shall bind, and it shall be bound in Heaven; he shall loose, and it shall be loosed in Heaven. And to all the Apostles it is promised: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted: and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (ver. 23). Now to no human being, save to Christ alone, has the power of for giving sins primarily and absolutely been committed by God. (See Matt. ix. 6. Rev. iii. 7.) But to admit to the Church (i. e. to the kingdom of Heaven, Christ’s kingdom on earth) by baptism, to exclude from it by excommunication, to restore again by absolution and remission of censure, — these are powers which Christ commits to His people, and especially to the rulers and elders of His people.
To illustrate this, we must look at the practice of the Apostolic Church. In 1 Cor. v. 5, we find St. Paul enjoining the Corinthians to “deliver” the incestuous man “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” It is true many of the ancients were of opinion that St. Paul meant here to inflict by a miracle some bodily disease upon the man. But the Apostle does not say that he himself will deliver him to Satan, but bids the Corinthian Church to do so. If it were a miraculous punishment, it is far more likely that he should have inflicted it himself. But he bids them (ver. 4) assemble together, “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ;” promises that, as their bishop, he will be with them in spirit; and then tells them, with the power of the Lord Jesus to deliver the offender to Satan. Now the world is Satan’s kingdom; the Church is Christ’s. To expel from Christ’s kingdom is to turn over into Satan’s kingdom. What more fit than such language to express excommunication? And to prove that this is what is meant, we find (in 2 Cor. ii.) that, when the incestuous man had repented, the Apostle enjoins the Corinthians to restore and forgive him; and promises that he will forgive whomsoever they forgive. (See vv. 6‒11.) All this exactly corresponds with a case of excommunication, succeeded by restoration and absolution.
We may compare with these many passages, in which the Apostles enjoin upon Christians to withdraw from the company of brethren who do not live according to their Christian profession, but who are either impure in their lives, or heretical in their belief. (See Rom. xvi. 17. 1 Cor. v. 9; xv. 33; xvi. 22. 2 Cor. vi. 14, 17. 2 Thess. iii. 6, 14. 2 John 10, 11.) These, though not all directly bearing on the subject, show that Christians ought to keep themselves from all communion with ungodly men; and therefore make it probable, that they should be enjoined to exclude them from Church-fellowship.
II. We have next to show, that our Lord gave certain officers in His Church special authority, both to excommunicate, and to restore to communion.
The Church in the early ages must be viewed as a distinct society, separated from the world at large, held together by great and independent interests, governed by laws peculiar to itself, and ordered by its own officers. It was in the midst of the wilderness, with wolves and wild beasts all around it; a sheepfold, and with shepherds of the sheep. The shepherds or governors were the bishops and elders. “Let the elders that ride well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine” (1 Tim. v. 17). “We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake” (1 Thess. v. 12, 13). “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God” (Heb. xiii. 7). “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves unto them; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account,” &c. (Heb. xiii. 17). Such passages show, that the primitive pastors had a pastoral authority, as well as a pastoral care.
Now we have seen, that our Lord committed to His Church the keys of discipline, the power to bind and to loose. But, as all bodies act through their officers, so, what at one time He gave to the Church as a body, at another He specially assigned to the rulers of that body, the Apostles and elders. To St. Peter, the first and most honoured of the college of the Apostles, He promised, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven” (Matt. xvi. 19). And the power which he thus bestowed on St Peter, He afterwards yet more solemnly conveyed to all the Apostles, and apparently with them to other elders of the Church (see ver. 19), in the words, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John xx. 22, 23). The hypothesis, that this commission to the first disciples of Christ was miraculous, and therefore temporary, is utterly untenable. If a miraculous power were bestowed, it was no less than a power of searching the heart, and pronouncing authoritatively a judgment of perdition on the guilty, and pardon of sins to the penitent. But such power is the attribute of God alone; and He will never so give His glory to another. The Apostles, though endued with the gift of tongues, of prophecy, of miracles, were not endued with the power to bestow an actual remission of offences, such as would free the soul from all danger, when appearing before the judgment-seat of Christ; and as little might they hurl the thunderbolt of vengeance, and sentence transgressors to the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone. It is plain, therefore, that the keys committed to St. Peter were the badge of his stewardship, as “minister of Christ, and steward of the mysteries of God.” The power to bind and to loose was the same as the Church’s power to bind and to loose. And the power to retain and to remit sins, was but the same authority conveyed in different terms.
Now this power, considered as the power of admitting to, and excluding from the Church and her fellowship, as the Church exercised it, so the Apostles especially claimed it, as immediately resulting from their own commission from Christ. In the case of the incestuous man at Corinth, St. Paul enjoins the Church to excommunicate and afterwards to restore him; but, in both instances, he himself is to be considered as judging with them and ratifying their sentence, by virtue of his own special authority as an Apostle of Christ; in which office he claims to be exercising Christ’s own authority. Thus (in 1 Cor. v. 3, 4, 5), he says, “I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already . . . . In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one to Satan.” Here is a solemn excommunication, performed by the Church, ratified by the Apostle, and so confirmed by Christ Himself. And, in 2 Cor. ii. 10, when enjoining that the penitent sinner should be restored to communion, he writes, “To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it, in the person of Christ.” What can be plainer than that, in both these cases, St. Paul considered that he had himself, as a chief governor in the Church, an especial power, coupled with the general assent of the Church, to judge, to expel, and to restore? (So (in 1 Tim. i. 20) he says that he had himself excommunicated Hymenæus and Alexander. Whether we must infer that he did so of his own authority alone, or calling in other members of the Church, as assessors to him, we cannot say. Again, in 2 Cor. xiii. 1, 2, 10, we find him threatening to hold a regular judicial inquiry, summoning witnesses, not sparing those who should be proved to have sinned, but using sharpness, “according to the power which the Lord had given to him, to edification, not to destruction.”
To pass to other chief pastors, besides the Apostles themselves, we find that to Timothy and Titus, appointed bishops in the Church, St. Paul lays down rules, how they should judge, rebuke, and reject (1 Tim. v. 19‒21. Tit. iii. 10, 11). Moreover, we have at least one case of the abuse of this power recorded in the new Testament. Diotrephes, who aimed at a primacy (ϕιλοπρωτεύει), cast the brethren out of the Church (3 John 10). And herein we may recognize that Divine wisdom which ordained that, though the chief officers of the Church should be the principal executors of its authority, yet the authority should not be vested in them alone, but, with them, in the whole body of the faithful. (See again Matt. xviii. 17, 18.) And it may appear that, as our Lord, in immediate context with the promise of ratifying Church censures and Church absolutions, promised that “where two or three were gathered together in His name, He would be in the midst of them” (ver. 20); so it was with a kind of synodical authority that the Apostles ordinarily armed themselves, when they administered discipline (compare again 1 Cor. v. and 2 Cor. ii), that so they might not seem to lord it over the heritage of God, and that their power might be obviously for edification, not for destruction.
- See Buxtorf, Lex. Chald. Talm. Rabbin. s. vv. שַׁמַּתָּא ,חֶרֶם ,נִדּוּי, pp. 1303, 827, 2468; also Jahn’s Archæologia Biblica, § 252. ↑
- § 57; Coteler. Tom. I. p. 178, vid. note 93. ↑
- Herm. Pastor. Lib. I. Vis. III. § 5. ↑
- Lib. I. c. 13. ↑
- “Modo homologesin faciens, modo ab aliquibus traductus in his quæ docebat male, et abstentus est a religiosorum hominum conventu.” — Lib. III. c. 4. ↑
- Οἰα δ’ ἐστιν αὐτοῖς ἀγωγὴ καὶ περὶ ἁμαρτανόντων καὶ μάλιστα τῶν ἄκολασταινόντων, οὖς ἀπελαύνουσι τοῦ κοινοῦ, κ. τ. λ. — Origen. Cont. Cels. Lib. III. ↑
- “Nam et judicatur magno cum pondere, ut apud certos de Dei conspectu; summumque futuri judicii præjudicium est, si quis ita deliquerit, ut a communicatione orationis, et omnis sancti commercii relegetur.” — Tertull. Apolog. c. 39. ↑
- See Bishop Kaye’s Tertullian, pp. 251‒254, 262. ↑
- See for instance Canons 5, 8, 9, 10, 12, 28, 29, 31, 36, 48. On this subject see Marshall’s Penitential Discipline, ch. II. pt. 1. ↑
- See Bingham, E. A. Bk. XVI. c. II. §§ 7, 8. ↑
- The primitive Church did by no means exempt princes from its discipline, as is well known in the case of Theodosius, whom St. Ambrose excommunicated and put to penance for the slaughter of seven thousand men in Thessalonica. — Theodoret, Lib. V. c. 18; Bingham, XVI. iii. 5. ↑
- Bingham, E. A. XVIII. ch. II. ↑
- Ibid. ch. III. ↑
- Ibid. XVIII. ii. 2. ↑
- Marshall, Penitential Discipline, ch. II. pt. II. sect. 1. ↑
- See Bingham, E. A. XVIII. iv. ↑
- Ibid. § 8. ↑
- Bingham. XIX. iii. 1. ↑
- Ibid. § 2. ↑
- Ibid. § 3. On the whole subject of primitive discipline read Bingham, E. A. Bks. XVI.‒XIX., and Marshall’s Penitential Discipline. ↑
- Sess. XXV. cap. III. ↑
- “Impios, quorum nota est impietas, excludere ex communione Ecclesiæ, sine vi humana, sed verbo.” — Sylloge, p. 220. ↑
- Ibid. p. 293. ↑
- Instit. IV. xii. 2. ↑
- Ibid. § 6. ↑
- Ibid. § 7. ↑
- τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ. There is no sufficient reason to doubt that our Lord meant here His Church. It was not, indeed, then fully set up, but He was continually foretelling its establishment; why then might He not speak of it by name? The word itself is probably a translation of the Hebrew קָהָל; but it is by no means likely, that our Lord should intend His Christian followers to tell their troubles to the Jewish congregation, or the elders thereof, who would already have excommunicated and rejected them. Whilst He was with them, He Himself would be the natural referee. Afterwards he constitutes His Church the judge; the Church, that is, acting through its elders, as the Jewish קהל acted through its elders. Hence Chrysostom and Theophylact explain τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ by τοῖς προεδρεύουσι. — See Suicer, Tom. I. p. 1052. ↑
- See Theodoret and Theophylact In 1 Cor. v. 5; Balsamon and Zonaras In Basil. Can. VII.; Beza In 1 Cor. v. 5; Estius In 1 Cor. v. 5; Beveridge, Not. in Can. Apostol. X.; Pandectæ, Tom. II. p. 940. These all advocate the view tkane in the text. On the opposite side see Grotius and Lightfoot on 1 Cor. v. 5; also Hammond, who combines both views in one, thinking both excommunication and bodily disease to have been inflicted. So, I rather think, does St. Chrysostom. See Homil. XV. in 1 Cor. v. ↑
- See Dr. Hammond’s note on John xx. 23, He shows that the ἀϕίεναι and κρατεῖν in St. John are all one with the λύειν and δέειν in St. Matthew. ↑
- If we pass from the early to the present times, we may observe, that our Ecclesiastical Courts are, in theory, formed upon the punitive principle. They are, indeed, lay tribunals. Yet their judges represent, first, the authority of the primate, whose delegates they are; and secondly, as being themselves laymen, and as holding power from our civil, as well as our ecclesiastical rulers, they represent not only the hierarchy, but also the laity of the Church. ↑