1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Excommunication
EXCOMMUNICATION (Lat. ex, out of, away from; communis, common), the judicial exclusion of offenders from the rights and privileges of the religious community to which they belong. The history of the practice of excommunication may be traced through (1) pagan analogues, (2) Hebrew custom, (3) primitive Christian practice, (4) medieval and monastic usage, (5) modern survivals in existing Christian churches.
1. Among pagan analogues are the Gr. χερνίβων εἴργεσθαι (Demosth. 505, 14), the exclusion of an offender from purification with holy water. This exclusion was enforced in the case of persons whose hands were defiled with bloodshed. Its consequences are described Aesch. Choëph. 283, Eum. 625 f., Soph. Oed. Tyr. 236 ff. The Roman exsecratio and diris devotio was a solemn pronouncement of a religious curse by priests, intended to call down the divine wrath upon enemies, and to devote them to destruction by powers human and divine. The Druids claimed the dread power of excluding offenders from sacrifice (Caes. B.G. vi. 13). Primitive Semitic customs recognize that when persons are laid under a ban or taboo (ḥerem) restrictions are imposed on contact with them, and that the breach of these involves supernatural dangers. Impious sinners, or enemies of the community and its god, might be devoted to utter destruction.
2. Hebrew Custom.—In a theocracy excommunication is necessarily both a civil and a religious penalty. The word used in the New Testament to describe an excommunicated person, ἀνάθεμα (1 Cor. xvi. 22, Gal. i. 8-9, Rom. ix. 3), is the Septuagint rendering of the Hebrew ḥerem. The word means “set apart” (cf. harem), and does not distinguish originally between things set apart because devoted to God and things devoted to destruction. Lev. xxvii. 16-34 defines the law for dealing with “devoted” things; according to v. 28 “No devoted thing that a man shall devote unto the Lord, of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed. None devoted shall be ransomed, he shall surely be put to death.” As in Greece and Rome whole cities or nations might be devoted to destruction by pronouncement of a ban (Numbers xxi. 2, 3, Deut. ii. 34, iii. 6, vii. 2). Occasionally Israelites as well as aliens fall under the curse (Judg. xxi. 5, 11). A milder form of penalty was the temporary separation or seclusion (niddah) prescribed for ceremonial uncleanness. This was the ordinary form of religious discipline. In the time of Ezra the Jewish “magistrates and judges” among their ecclesiastico-civil functions have the right of pronouncing sentence whether it be unto death, or to “rooting out,” or to confiscation of goods, or to imprisonment (Ezra vii. 26). There is also a lighter form of excommunication which “devotes” the goods of an offender, but only separates him from the congregation. Both major and minor kinds of excommunication are recognized by the Talmud. The lesser (niddah) involved exclusion from the synagogue for thirty days, and other penalties, and might be renewed if the offender remained impenitent. The major excommunication (ḥerem) excluded from the Temple as well as the synagogue and from all association with the faithful. Spinoza was excommunicated (July 16, 1656) for contempt of the law. Seldon (De jure nat. et gen., iv. 7) gives the text of the curse pronounced on the culprit. The Exemplar Humanae Vitae of Uriel d’Acosta also deserves reference. The practice of the Jewish courts in New Testament times may be inferred from certain passages in the Gospels. Luke vi. 22, John ix. 22, xii. 42 indicate that exclusion from the synagogue was a recognized penalty, and that it was probably inflicted on those who confessed Jesus as the Christ. John xvi. 2 (“Whosoever killeth you,” &c.) may point to the power of inflicting the major penalty. The Talmud itself says that the judgment of capital cases was taken away from Israel forty years before the destruction of the Temple. “Forty” is probably a round number without historical value, but the circumstance recorded by this tradition and confirmed by the evangelist’s account of the trial of Jesus is historical, and is to be regarded as one of several restrictions imposed on the Jewish courts in the time of the Roman procurators.
3. Primitive Christian Practice.—The use of excommunication as a form of Christian discipline is based on the precept of Christ and on apostolic practice. The general principles which govern the exclusion of members from a religious community may be gathered from the New Testament writings. Matt. xviii. 15-17 prescribes a threefold admonition, first privately, then in the presence of witnesses (cf. Titus iii. 10), then before the church. This is a graded procedure as in the Jewish synagogue and makes exclusion a last resort. Nothing is said as to the nature and effects of excommunication. The tone of the passage when compared with the disciplinary methods of the synagogue indicates that its purpose was to introduce elements of reason and moral suasion in place of sterner methods. Its object is rather the protection of the church than the punishment of the sinner. The offender is only treated as a heathen and publican when the purity and safety of the church demand it. In the locus classicus on this subject (1 Cor. v. 5) Paul refers to a formal meeting of the Corinthian church at which the incestuous person is “delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” These are mysterious words implying (1) a formal ecclesiastical censure, (2) a physical penalty, (3) the hope of a spiritual result. The form of penalty which would meet these conditions is not explained. There is a reference in 2 Cor. ii. 6-11 to a case of discipline which may or may not be the same. If it be the same it indicates that the excommunication had not been final; the offender had been received back. If it be not the same it shows the Corinthian church exercising discipline independently of apostolic advice. Up to this point there is no established formal practice. 1 Tim. i. 20 (“Hymenaeus and Alexander whom I delivered unto Satan that they might be taught not to blaspheme”) seems to refer to an excommunication, but it does not appear whether the apostle had acted as representing a church, nor is there anything to explain the exact consequences or limits of the deliverance to Satan. 1 Cor. xvi. 22, Gal. i. 8, 9, Rom. ix. 3 refer to the practice of regarding a person as anathema. Taking these passages as a whole they seem to point to an exclusion from church fellowship rather than to a final cutting off from the hope of salvation. In the pastoral letters there is already a formal and recognized method of procedure in cases of church discipline. 1 Tim. v. 19, 20 requires two or three witnesses in the case of an accusation against an elder, and a public reproof. Tit. iii. 20 recognizes a factious spirit as a reason for excommunication after two admonitions (cf. Tim. vi. and 2 John v. 10). In 3 John v. 9-10 Diotrephes appears to have secured an excommunication by the action of a party in the church. It is clear from these illustrations that within the New Testament there is development from spontaneous towards strictly regulated methods; also that the use of excommunication is chiefly for disciplinary and protective rather than punitive purposes. A process which is intended to produce penitence and ultimate restoration cannot at the same time contemplate handing the offender over to eternal punishment.
4. Medieval and Monastic Usage.—The writings of the church Fathers give sufficient evidence that two degrees of excommunication, the ἀφορισμός and the ἀφορισμὸς παντελής, as they were generally called, were in use during, or at least soon after, the apostolic age. The former, which involved exclusion from participation in the eucharistic service and from the eucharist itself, though not from the so-called “service of the catechumens,” was the usual punishment of comparatively light offences; the latter, which was the penalty for graver scandals, involved “exclusion from all church privileges,”—a vague expression which has sometimes been interpreted as meaning total exclusion from the very precincts of the church building (inter hiemantes orare) and from the favour of God (Bingham, Antiquities of Christian Church, xvi. 2. 16). For some sins, such as adultery, the sentence of excommunication was in the 2nd century regarded as παντελής in the sense of being irrevocable. Difference of opinion as to the absolutely “irremissible” character of mortal sins led to the important controversy associated with the names of Zephyrinus, Tertullian, Calistus, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Novatian, in which the stricter and more montanistic party held that for those who had been guilty of such sins as theft, fraud, denial of the faith, there should be no restoration to church fellowship even in the hour of death. On this point the provincial synods of Illiberis (Elvira) in 305 and of Ancyra in 315 subsequently came to conflicting decisions, the council of Elvira forbidding the reception of offenders into communion during life, and the council of Ancyra fixing a limit to the penalty in the same cases. But the excommunication was on all hands regarded as being “medicinal” in its character. It is noteworthy that the word ἀνάθεμα had fallen into disuse about the beginning of the 4th century, and that, throughout the same period, no instance of the judicial use of the phrase παραδοῦναι τῷ Σατανᾷ can be found.
A new chapter in the history of the church censure may be said to have begun with the publication of those imperial edicts against heresy, the first of which, De summa trinitate et fide catholica, dates from 380. Till then exclusion from church privileges had been a spiritual discipline merely; thenceforward it was to expose a man to serious temporal risks. Excommunication still continued to be occasionally used in the spirit of genuine Christian fidelity, as by Ambrose in the case of Theodosius himself (390); but the temptation to wield it as an instrument of secular tyranny too often proved to be irresistible. The church fell back on carnal weapons in her warfare and invoked the secular powers to uphold the ecclesiastical. In the formula used by Synesius (410) which is to be found in Bingham’s Antiquities, we already find the attention of magistrates specially called to the censured person. The history of the next thousand years shows that the magistrates were seldom slow to respond to the appeal. Even the hastiest survey of that long and interesting period enables the student to notice a marked development in the theory and practice of excommunication. One or two points may be specially noted. (1) When the Empire became nominally Christian and the quality of the church life was sacrificed to the quantity of its adherents, the original character of excommunication was lost. The power of excommunication was transferred from the community to the bishop, and was liable to abuse from personal motives: Gregory the Great rebukes a bishop for using for private ends power conferred for the public good (Epist. ii. 34). Excommunication became a common penalty applied in numberless cases (see the Penitential of Archbishop Theodosius: Haddan and Stubbs, Councils and Documents, iii. 1737), and was invested with superstitious terrors. (2) While it had been held as an undoubted principle by the ancient church that this sentence could only be passed on living individuals whose fault had been distinctly stated and fully proved, we find the medieval church on the one hand sanctioning the practice of excommunication of the dead (Morinus, De poenit. x. c. 9), and, on the other hand, by means of the papal interdict, excluding whole countries and kingdoms at once from the means of grace. The earliest well-authenticated instance of such an interdict is that which was passed (998) by Pope Gregory V. on France, in consequence of the contumacy of King Robert the Wise. Other instances are those laid respectively on Germany in 1102 by Gregory VII. (Hildebrand), on England in 1208 by Innocent III., on Rome itself in 1155 by Adrian IV. (3) While in the ancient church the language used in excommunicating had been carefully measured, we find an amazing recklessness in the phraseology employed by the medieval clergy. The curse of Ernulphus or Arnulphus of Rochester (c. 1100), often quoted by students of English literature, is a very fair specimen of that class of composition. With it may be compared the formula transcribed by Dr Burton in his History of Scotland (iii. 317 ff.). To the spoken word was added the language of symbol. By means of lighted candles violently dashed to the ground and extinguished the faithful were graphically taught the meaning of the greater excommunication—though in a somewhat misleading way, for it is a fundamental principle of the canon law that disciplina est excommunicatio, non eradicatio. The first instance, however, of excommunication by “bell, book and candle” is comparatively late (c. 1190).
5. Modern Survivals in Existing Christian Churches.—At the Reformation the necessity for church discipline did not cease to be recognized; but the administration of it in many Reformed churches has passed through a period of some confusion. In some instances the old episcopal power passed more or less into the hands of the civil magistrate (a state of matters which was highly approved by Erastus and his followers), in other cases it was conceded to the presbyterial courts. In the Anglican Church the bishops (subject to appeal to the sovereign) have the right of excommunicating, and their sentence, if sustained, may in certain cases carry with it civil consequences. But this right is in practice never exercised. In the law of England sentence of excommunication, upon being properly certified by the bishop, was followed by the writ de excommunicato capiendo for the arrest of the offender. The statute 5 Eliz. c. 23 provided for the better execution of this writ. By the 53 Geo. III. c. 127 (which does not, however, extend to Ireland) it was enacted that “excommunication, together with all proceedings following thereupon, shall in all cases, save those hereafter to be specified, be discontinued.” Disobedience to or contempt of the ecclesiastical courts is to be punished by a new writ, de contumace capiendo, to follow on the certificate of the judge that the defender is contumacious and in contempt. Sect. 2 provides that nothing shall prevent “any ecclesiastical court from pronouncing or declaring persons to be excommunicate on definite sentences pronounced as spiritual censures for offences of ecclesiastical cognizance.” No persons so excommunicated shall incur any civil penalty or incapacity whatever, save such sentence of imprisonment, not exceeding six months, as the court shall direct and certify to the king in chancery.
In the churches which consciously shaped their polity at or after the Reformation the principle of excommunication is preserved in the practice of church discipline. Calvin devotes a chapter in the Institutes (bk. iv. chap. xii.) to the “Discipline of the Church; its Principal Use in Censure and Excommunication.” The three ends proposed by the church in such discipline are there stated to be, (1) that those who lead scandalous lives may not to the dishonour of God be numbered among Christians, seeing that the church is the body of Christ; (2) that the good may not be corrupted by constant association with the wicked; (3) that those who are censured or excommunicated, confounded with shame, may be led to repentance. He differentiates decisively between excommunication and anathema. “When Christ promises that what his ministers bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, he limits the power of binding to the censure of the church; by which those who are excommunicated are not cast into eternal ruin and condemnation, but by having their life and conduct condemned are also certified of their final condemnation unless they repent. For excommunication differs from anathema: anathema which ought to be very rarely, or never, resorted to, in precluding all pardon, execrates a person, and devotes him to eternal perdition: whereas excommunication rather censures and punishes his conduct. Yet in such a manner by warning him of his future condemnation it recalls him to salvation” (Inst. bk. iv. chap. xii. 10). The Reformed churches in England and America accepted the distinction between public and private offences. The usual provision is that private offences are to be dealt with according to the rule in Matt. v. 23-24, xviii. 15-17; public offences are to be dealt with according to the rule in 1 Cor. v. 3-5, 13. The public expulsion or suspension of the offender is necessary for the good repute of the church, and its influence over the faithful members. The expelled member may be readmitted on showing the fruits of repentance.
In Scotland three degrees of church censure are recognized—admonition, suspension from sealing ordinances (which may be called temporary excommunication), and excommunication properly so-called. Intimation of the last-named censure may occasionally (but very rarely) be given by authority of a presbytery in a public and solemn manner, according to the following formula:—“Whereas thou N. hast been by sufficient proof convicted (here mention the sin) and after due admonition and prayer remainest obstinate without any evidence or sign of true repentance: Therefore in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and before this congregation, I pronounce and declare thee N. excommunicated, shut out from the communion of the faithful, debar thee from privileges, and deliver thee unto Satan for the destruction of thy flesh, that thy spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” This is called the greater excommunication. The congregation are thereafter warned to shun all unnecessary converse with the excommunicate (see Form of Process, c. 8). Formerly excommunicated persons were deprived of feudal rights in Scotland; but in 1690 all acts enjoining civil pains upon sentences of excommunication were finally repealed (Burton’s History, vii. 435).
The question whether the power of excommunication rests in the church or in the clergy has been an important one in the history of English and American churches. Hooker lays down (Survey, pt. 3, pp. 33-46) four necessary conditions for the execution of a sentence involving church discipline. “(1) The cause exactly recorded is fully and nakedly to be presented to the consideration of the congregation. (2) The elders are to go before the congregation in laying open the rule so far as reacheth any particular now to be considered, and to express their judgment and determination thereof, so far as appertains to themselves. (3) Unless the people be able to convince them of errors and mistakes in their sentence, they are bound to joyn their judgment with theirs to the compleating of the sentence. (4) The sentence thus compleatly issued is to be solemnly passed and pronounced upon the delinquent by the ruling Elder whether it be of censure or excommunication.” In this passage it is clear that the effective power of discipline is regarded as being wholly in the power of the individual church or congregation. Hooker expressly denies the power of synods to excommunicate: “that there should be Synods, which have potestatem juridicam is nowhere proved in Scripture because it is not a truth” (Survey, pt. 4, pp. 48, 49).
The confession of faith issued by the London-Amsterdam church (the original of the Pilgrim Fathers’ churches) in 1596 declares that the Christian congregation having power to elect its minister has also power to excommunicate him if the case so require (Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, p. 66). In 1603 the document known as “Points of Difference” (i.e. from the established Anglicanism) submitted to James I. sets forth: “That all particular Churches ought to be so constituted as, having their owne peculiar Officers, the whole body of every Church may meet together in one place, and jointly performe their duties to God and one towards another. And that the censures of admonition and excommunication be in due manner executed, for sinne, convicted, and obstinately stood in. This power also to be in the body of the Church whereof the partyes so offending and persisting are members.” The Cambridge Platform of 1648 by which the New England churches defined their practice, devotes ch. xiv. to “excommunication and other censures.” It follows in the main the line of Hooker and Calvin, but adds (§ 6) an important definition: “Excommunication being a spirituall punishment it doth not prejudice the excommunicate in, nor deprive him of his civil rights, therfore toucheth not princes, or other magistrates, in point of their civil dignity or authority. And, the excommunicate being but as a publican and a heathen, heathen being lawfully permitted to come to hear the word in church assemblyes; wee acknowledg therfore the like liberty of hearing the word, may be permitted to persons excommunicate, that is permitted unto heathen. And because wee are not without hope of his recovery, wee are not to account him as an enemy but to admonish him as a brother.” The Savoy Declaration of 1658 defines the theory and practice of the older English Nonconformist churches in the section on the “Institution of Churches and the Order appointed in them by Jesus Christ” (xix.). The important article is as follows:—“The Censures so appointed by Christ, are Admonition and Excommunication; and whereas some offences are or may be known onely to some, it is appointed by Christ, that those to whom they are so known, do first admonish the offender in private: in publique offences where any sin, before all; or in case of non-amendment upon private admonition, the offence being related to the Church, and the offender not manifesting his repentance, he is to be duely admonished in the Name of Christ by the whole Church, by the Ministery of the Elders of the Church, and if this Censure prevail not for his repentance, then he is to be cast out by Excommunication with the consent of the Church.”
In contemporary English Free Churches the purity of the church is commonly secured by the removal of persons unsuitable for membership from the church books by a vote of the responsible authority. (D. Mn.)