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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary

Excommunication

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A penalty, or censure, whereby persons who are guilty of any notorious crime or offence, are separated from the communion of the church, and deprived of all spiritual advantages. Excommunication is founded upon a natural right which all societies have of excluding out of their body such as violate the laws thereof, and it was originally instituted for preserving the purity of the church; but ambitious ecclesiastics converted it by degrees into an engine for promoting their own power, and inflicted it on the most frivolous occasions. In the ancient church, the power of excommunication was lodged in the hands of the clergy, who distinguished it into the greater and less. The less consisted in excluding persons from the participation of the eucharist, and the prayers of the faithful; but they were not expelled the church. The greater excommunication consisted in absolute and entire seclusion from the church, and the participation of all its rights: notice of which was given by circular letters to the most eminent churches all over the world, that they might all confirm this act of discipline, by refusing to admit the delinquent to their communion. The consequences were very terrible.

The person so excommunicated, was avoided in all civil commerce and outward conversation. No one was to receive him into his house, nor eat at the same table with him; and, when dead, he was denied the solemn rites of burial. The Jews expelled from their synagogue such as had committed any grievous crime.

See John 9:32 . John 12:42 . John 16:2 . and Joseph.Antiq. Jud. lib.9. cap. 22. and lib. 16. cap. 2. Godwyn, in his Moses and Aaron distinguishes three degrees or kinds of excommunication among the Jews. The first he finds intimated in John 9:22 . the second in 1 Corinthians 5:5 . and the third in 1 Corinthians 16:22 . The Romish pontifical takes notice of three kinds of excommunication.

1. The minor, incurred by those who have any correspondence with an excommunicated person.

2. The major, which falls upon those who disobey the commands of the holy see, or refuse to submit to certain points of discipline; in consequence of which they are excluded from the church militant and triumphant, and delivered over to the devil, and his angels.

3. Anathema, which is properly that pronounced by the pope against heretical princes and countries. In former ages, these papal fulminations were most terrible things; but latterly they were formidable to none but a few petty states of Italy. Excommunication, in the greek church, cuts off the offender from all communion with the three hundred and eighteen fathers of the first council of Nice, and with the saints; consigns him over to the devil and the traitor Judas, and condemns his body to remain after death as hard as a flint or piece of steel, unless he humble himself, and make atonement for his sins by a sincere repentance. The form abounds with dreadful imprecations; and the Greeks assert, that, if a person dies excommunicated, the devil enters into the lifeless corpse; and, therefore, in order to prevent it, the relations of the deceased cut his body in pieces, and boil them in wine. It is a custom with the patriarch of Jerusalem annually to excommunicate the pope and the church of Rome; on which occasion, together with a great deal of idle ceremony, he drives a nail into the ground with a hammer, as a mark of malediction.

The form of excommunication in the church of England anciently ran thus: "By the authority of God the Father Almighty, the Son, and Holy Ghost, and of Mary the blessed mother of God, we excommunicate, anathematize, and sequester from the holy mother church, & 100:" The causes of excommunication in England are, contempt of the bishops' court, heresy, neglect of public worship and the sacraments, incontinency, adultery, simony, &c. It is described to be twofold; the less is an ecclesiastical censure, excluding the party from the participation of the sacrament; the greater proceeds farther, and excludes him not only from these, but from the company of all christians; but if the judge of any spiritual court excommunicates a man for a cause of which he has not the legal cognizance, the party may have an action against him at common law, and he is also liable to be indicted at the suit of the king. Excommunication in the church of Scotland, consists only in an exclusion of openly profane and immoral persons from baptism and the Lord's supper; but is seldom publicly denounced, as, indeed, such persons generally exclude themselves from the latter ordinance at least; but it is attended with no civil incapacity whatever.

Among the Independents and Baptists, the persons who are or should be excommunicated, are such as are quarrelsome and litigious, Galatians 5:12; such as desert their privileges, withdraw themselves from the ordinances of God, and forsake his people, Judges 1:19; such as are irregular and immoral in their lives, railers, drunkards, extortioners, fornicators, and covetous, Ephesians 5:5 . 1 Corinthians 5:11 . "The exclusion of a person from any Christian church does not affect him temporal estate and civil affairs; it does not subject him to fines or imprisonments; it interferes not with the business of a civil magistrate; it makes no change in the natural and civil relations between husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants; neither does it deprive a man of the liberty of attending public worship; it removes him, however, from the communion of the church, and the privileges dependent on it: this is done that he may be ashamed of his sin, and be brought to repentance; that the honour of Christ may be vindicated, and that stumbling-blocks may be removed out of the way."

Though the act of exclusion be not performed exactly in the same manner in every church, yet (according to the congregational plan) the power of excision lies in the church itself. The officers take the sense of the members assembled together; and after the matter has been properly investigated, and all necessary steps taken to reclaim the offender, the church proceeds to the actual exclusion of the person from among them, by signifying their judgment or opinion that the person is unworthy of a place in God's house. In the conclusion of this article, however, we must add, that too great caution cannot be observed in procedures of this kind; every thing should be done with the greatest meekness, deliberation, prayer, and a deep sense of our own unworthiness; with a compassion for the offender, and a fixed design of embracing reproving, instructing, and, if possible, restoring him to the enjoyment of the privileges he has forfeited by his conduct.

See CHURCH.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Excommunication'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/e/excommunication.html. 1802.

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