The practice of temporarily or permanently excluding someone from the church as punishment for sin or apostasy.
Old Testament In the Old Testament, excommunication came as a curse from God as punishment for sin (Deuteronomy 27:26;
Malachi 4:6). The Jewish community assumed authority to curse on God's behalf (Numbers 23:8;
Isaiah 66:5). Old Testament terms for excommunication include: Karath, to be excluded or cut off (Exodus 12:15,
Leviticus 17:9); cherem, banish, devote, or put to destruction (Exodus 22:19;
Joshua 6:17); and qelalah, desolation or thing of horror (2 Kings 22:19;
Jeremiah 25:18). The covenant community protected itself from curse and temptation by distancing covenant-breakers from the community even to the point of executing them.
New Testament Expulsion from the synagogue was one form of New Testament excommunication. Christians were frequently subject to expulsion, which was punishment for blasphemy or for straying from the tradition of Moses (Luke 6:22;
John 16:2). Many early Christians thus endured excommunication from the worship place of their fathers to be Christians. The apostles practiced excommunication based on the binding and loosing authority Jesus gave to them (John 20:23;
Matthew 18:18). See Binding and Loosing. They excommunicated church members for heresy (Galatians 1:8) for gross, deliberate sin (1 Corinthians 5:1;
2 John 1:7) and perhaps for falling away from church belief and practice (Hebrews 6:4-8). The purpose was to purify the church and to encourage offenders to repent (1 Corinthians 5:5-6;
2 Corinthians 2:6-10;
2 Thessalonians 3:15). Punishment ranged in scope from limited ostracism to permanent exclusion and may even have included some form of physical punishment if the church continued synagogue practice (Luke 4:28-30;
Acts 7:58). New Testament terms for excommunication include: being delivered to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5;
1 Timothy 1:20); anathema or cursed and cut off from God (Romans 9:3;
1 Corinthians 16:22;
Galatians 1:8). The New Testament churches apparently used excommunication as a means of redemptive discipline. See Apostasy.
In Church History During the Middle Ages, when church and state became intertwined, excommunication was often used as a political tool. In 1054, the Catholic church was divided into east and west. Each claimed primacy as the true church. They “resolved” the issue by excommunicating each other.
Disputes with reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin frequently produced excommunications in varying degrees. Many of Luther's essays were written in response to calls for him to recant or be excommunicated. During Calvin's power struggle in Geneva, a city government council tried to gain authority to excommunicate in order to use it as a political weapon.
Contemporary In its broadest sense, excommunication now means denial of sacraments, congregational worship, or social contact of any kind. Excommunication is practiced in this manner by both Protestant and Catholic churches. However, the term itself is used mainly in the Catholic church and usually indicates the permanent ban. Lesser punishments are called censures.
Donna R. Ridge