Friday, April 20, 2007

4/20/07, For Your Consideration: Q.4 What is the standard Presbyterian procedure for excommunication?

Friday, April 20, 2007 9:02 PM

Dear Brethren,

As much as I value brevity, I saw no way to reduce the length of this article while treating the subject thoroughly. Thank you for your patience.

Your brother,


4. What is the standard Presbyterian procedure for excommunication?

In the last question we noted a number of reasons for publicly notifying the church of an upcoming excommunication before it is finalized. Let us now examine historical evidence to show that this is indeed standard Presbyterian practice. In fact, as we shall see, the procedure for both private and public sins involves no fewer than three weeks of public announcements prior to the final excommunication pronouncement. We shall examine three works in particular:
(1) _The First Book of Discipline_ (1560)
(2) _The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)
(3) _The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland_ (1641) . . . .


When Presbyterianism was still in her infancy, the Scottish ministers drew up a book of discipline to govern the affairs of the church. Regarding ecclesiastical discipline, the work addresses three cases: private sins, public sins, and capital crimes.

In the case of a person who commits a secret offense known only to a few, the steps are as follows (assuming no repentance after each step):
1. The offender is privately admonished;
2. The minister admonishes the offender;
3. The elders proceed according to the rule of Christ, "as after shall be declared", namely, the steps described next.

If the crime is public and heinous, then the steps are:
1. The offender is called into the presence of the minister, elders, and deacons, who declare and stress his sin; he is dismissed with an exhortation to consider the dangerous estate in which he stands.
2. After some time, if there is still no repentance, the church is made aware of the sin amongst them (but not of the name of the offender), and the people pray for the offender's repentance.
3. At the next public assembly,
(a) The crime and the person are both notified unto the church;
(b) The church's judgment is asked whether such crimes ought to be suffered unpunished amongst them;
(c) The closest friends of the offender are requested to labor to bring him to knowledge of his sin and dangerous estate;
(d) Everyone is commanded to pray to God for his repentance;
(e) A solemn and special prayer is made for the offender.
4. The third Sunday,
(a) The minister asks whether the offender has declared any signs of repentance to any of the ministry;
(b) Excommunication is pronounced against the offender.

In the case of those who commit crimes deserving of capital punishment, the excommunication proceeds "in the same manner" as described above.

Thus, the procedure for both private and public sins is the same, except that the former requires two additional initial steps. In both cases *three public announcements* are made prior to the excommunication. This procedure is followed even in the case of heinous sins such as murder.

For those interested in reading the original document, the relevant paragraphs are as follows:

"First, if the offence is secret and known to few, and rather stands in suspicion than in manifest probation, the offender ought to be privately admonished to abstain from all appearance of evil; which, if he promises to do, and to declare himself sober, honest, and one that fears God, and fears to offend his brethren, then may the secret admonition suffice for his correction. But if he either contemns the admonition, or, after promise made, does show himself no more circumspect than he was before, then must the minister admonish him; to whom if he is found disobedient, they must proceed according to the rule of Christ, as after shall be declared.

"If the crime is public, and such as is heinous, as fornication, drunkenness, fighting, common swearing, or execration, then ought the offender to be called into the presence of the minister, elders, and deacons, where his sin and offence ought to be declared and aggredged [stressed], so that his conscience may feel how far he has offended God, and what slander he has raised in the church. If signs of unfeigned repentance appear in him, and if he requires to be admitted to public repentance, the ministry may appoint unto him a day when the whole church convenes together, that in presence of all he may testify the repentance which before them he professed: which, if he accepts, and with reverence does, confessing his sin, and damning the same, and earnestly desiring the congregation to pray to God with him for mercy, and to accept him in their society, notwithstanding his former offence, then the church may, and ought [to] receive him as a penitent. For the church ought to be no more severe than God declares himself to be, who witnesses that, In whatsoever hour a sinner unfeignedly repents, and turns from his wicked way, that he will not remember one of his iniquities [cf. Ezek. 18:21-22; 33:14-16]. And therefore the church ought diligently to advert that it excommunicate not those whom God absolves.

"If the offender called before the ministry is found stubborn, hard-hearted, or one in whom no sign of repentance appears, then must he be dismissed with an exhortation to consider the dangerous estate in which he stands; assuring him, if they find in him no other token of amendment of life, that they will be compelled to seek a further remedy. If he within a certain space shows his repentance to the ministry, they must present him to the church as before is said.
"But if he continues in his impenitence, then the church must be admonished that such crimes are committed amongst them, which by the ministry has been reprehended, and the person provoked to repent; whereof, because no signs appear unto them, they could not but signify unto the church the crimes, but not the person, requiring them earnestly to call to God to move and touch the heart of the offender, so that suddenly and earnestly he may repent.

"If the person maligns, then the next day of public assembly, the crime and the person must be both notified unto the church, and their judgment must be required, if that such crimes ought to be suffered unpunished amongst them. Request also would be made to the most discreet and to the nearest friends of the offender to travail with him to bring him to knowledge of himself, and of his dangerous estate; with a commandment given to all men to call to God for the conversion of the impenitent. If a solemn and a special prayer were made and drawn for that purpose, the thing should be the more gravely done.

"The third Sunday, the minister ought to require if the impenitent has declared any signs of repentance to any of the ministry; and if he has, then may the minister appoint him to be examined by the whole ministry, either then instantly, or at another day affixed to the consistory: and if repentance appears, as well of the crime, as of his long contempt, then may he be presented to the church, and make his confession, and to be accepted, as before is said. But if no man signifies his repentance, then he ought to be excommunicated; and by the mouth of the minister, consent of the ministry, and commandment of the church, such a contemner must be pronounced excommunicated from God, and from the society of his church." [Seventh Head: Of Ecclesiastical Discipline in _The First Book of Discipline_ (1560)]

The capital crimes are addressed shortly afterward:

"We have spoken nothing of those that commit horrible crimes, as murderers, man-slayers, and adulterers; for such (as we have said) the civil sword ought to punish to death. But in case they are permitted to live, then must the church, as before is said, draw the sword which of God she has received, holding them as accursed even in their [very] fact; the offender being first called, and order of the church used against him, in the same manner as the persons that for obstinate impenitence are publicly excommunicated...." [Seventh Head: Of Ecclesiastical Discipline in _The First Book of Discipline_ (1560)]


Less than a decade later, the Scottish General Assembly commissioned John Knox to write a document providing more detail regarding the proper procedure for excommunicating a sinner and for receiving the same after repentance. The very first paragraph of the work describes its relationship to the book of discipline that we just considered above. Here it is expressly stated that the purpose is not to alter or contradict the earlier document, but rather to expand upon it and clarify it:

"To the Reader. Albeit that in the Book of Discipline [i.e., _The First Book of Discipline_] the causes as well of public repentance as of excommunication are sufficiently expressed: yet, because the form and order are not so set forth, that every church and minister may have assurance that they agree with others in proceeding, it is thought expedient to draw that order which shall be observed universally within this realm." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

As a result, we should not be surprised that this document also describes a three-week public excommunication process for both private and public sins. The procedure is revealed in the section entitled, "The Form of Excommunication", which appears in the latter half of the document:

"After that all admonitions, both private and public, be past, as before is said, then must the church proceed to excommunication, if the offender remains obstinate. Therefore, the Sunday after the third public admonition, the minister being before charged by the session of elders, shall thus signify unto the church (after the sermon): It is not unknown unto you, with what lenity and carefulness the ministry and the whole church, by private and public admonitions, has sought...." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

Notice that the church does not "proceed to excommunication" until after three public admonitions, during which time the members of the church are informed about the sin committed and the name of the offender. One might think that three public admonitions is sufficient, and that now the sinner will be summarily excommunicated. However, when the church "proceeds to excommunication", she actually begins another three-week process that culminates in the final pronouncement only in the last week. (The entire procedure, then, takes no less than six weeks: three for the public admonitions and three for the excommunication.)

In the paragraphs of "The Form of Excommunication" (immediately following the ones just quoted), the steps for the three-week process are given as follows:

1. "The Sunday after the third public admonition", the minister
(a) reminds the congregation of their knowledge of the offender and his sin;
(b) reminds the congregation of the multiple private and public admonitions that have already been given;
(c) explains the Scriptural basis of excommunication;
(d) delays the sentence in order to give anyone in the congregation who objects to the excommunication to notify the eldership at the next session meeting;
(e) leads the congregation in a public prayer for the sinner.
2. "The second Sunday" (i.e., the second Sunday after the third public admonition), the minister
(a) asks the elders and deacons whether the offender has shown any sign of repentance;
(b) explains the danger of excommunication, in case the offender is ignorant of his dangerous estate;
(c) again leads the congregation in a public prayer for the sinner.
3. "The third Sunday" (i.e., the third Sunday after the third public admonition), the minister
(a) again asks the elders and deacons whether the offender has shown any sign of repentance;
(b) explains again the offense of the sinner as well as the many times he has been privately and publicly admonished;
(c) asks the congregation whether they believe that such contempt should be suffered amongst them (and the minister proceeds to the next step only if no man intercedes at this point for the sinner);(d) offers one final public prayer and then pronounces excommunication upon the sinner.

(The reader is encouraged to consult the original document to verify the accuracy of this summary. The relevant paragraphs from the document are omitted here due to their length.)

Thus, the standard practice involves a three-week public excommunication procedure leading to the final pronouncement. That this form was applicable to both private and public sins is clear from its placement as a separate section (called "The Form of Excommunication") within the document, as well as the specific indicators earlier in the document that point the reader to it.

For example, in the case of those who commit scandalous public sins that are more heinous in nature (e.g., fornication, drunkenness, etc.), the ministry may, after several public admonitions, "proceed to excommunication, as after shall be declared" (i.e., according to the procedure found in "The Form of Excommunication"):

"Offences that deserve public repentance, and 0rder to proceed thereunto. Such offences as fall not under the civil sword, and yet are scandalous and offensive in the church, deserve public repentance. And of these some are more heinous than others: fornication, drunkenness used, swearing, cursed speaking, chiding, fighting, brawling, and common contempt of the order of the church, breaking of the sabbath, and suchlike, ought to be suffered in no person; but the scandal being known, the offender should be called before the ministry, his crime proven, accused, rebuked, and he commanded publicly to satisfy the church; which if the offender refuses, they may proceed to excommunication, as after shall be declared. If the offender appears not, summons ought to pass to the third time; and then in case he appears not, the church may discern the sentence to be pronounced." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

In the case of those who commit sins that are somewhat public but less heinous (e.g., not attending the preaching of the Word, abstaining from the Lord's supper, etc.), several private steps are to be taken, followed by three public admonitions, after which the ministry may proceed to excommunication, "the order whereof shall after be declared" (i.e., the procedure found in "The Form of Excommunication"):

"Others are less heinous, and yet deserve admonition, as wanton and vain words, uncomely gestures, negligence in hearing the preaching, or abstaining from the Lord's Table when it is publicly ministered, suspicion of avarice or of pride, superfluity or riotousness in cheer or raiment: these we say, and such others, that of the world are not regarded, deserve admonition amongst the members of Christ's body first, secretly, by one or two of those that first espy the offence.... If he continues stubborn, then the third Sunday ought he to be charged publicly to satisfy the church for his offence and contempt, under the pain of excommunication; the order whereof shall after be declared. And thus a small offence or slander may justly deserve excommunication, by reason of the contempt and disobedience of the offender." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

In the case of those guilty of capital crimes (e.g., murder, adultery, etc.), the offender is called before the ministry to defend himself from the accusation against him. If he does not appear, or if the civil magistrate is negligent in prosecuting the case, then the ministry publicly admonishes the individual and then proceeds to excommunication, "the form whereof shall after be declared" (i.e., the procedure found in "The Form of Excommunication"):

"If the offender, lawfully warned, appears not, inquisition being taken of the crime, charge may be given by the superintendent to the ministers, so many as shall be thought necessary for publication of that sentence, to pronounce the same the next Sunday, the form whereof shall after be declared. But and if the offender appears and alleges for himself any reasonable defence: to wit, that he will not be a fugitive from the law, but will abide the censure thereof for that offence, then may the sentence of excommunication be suspended till that the magistrate is required to try that cause; wherein if the magistrates are negligent, then ought the church from secret inquisition to proceed to public admonition, that the magistrates may be vigilant in that cause of blood, which cries vengeance upon the whole land where it is shed without punishment. If no remedy by them can be found, then justly may the church pronounce the offender [to be an] excommunicate, as one suspect, besides his crime, to have corrupted the judges, revengers of blood. And so ought the church to proceed to excommunication, whether the offender is fugitive from the law, or if he procures pardon, or eludes the severity of justice by means whatsoever besides the trial of his innocence." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

Thus, in the case of both private and public sins (and even in the case of capital crimes when the civil magistrate is negligent), the procedure to be followed is found in the section entitled "The Form of Excommunication". As we have seen, this section describes a three-week public process following three public admonitions. These admonitions are not only mentioned in "The Form of Excommunication" section itself, but they are also mentioned in each of the relevant sections describing the handling of private, public, and capital sins; and the minister reminds the congregation in the first week of the the three-week public process of the many public admonitions that have already been given to warn the offender.

As additional evidence, the document mentions an interesting special case, namely, a person who has apostatized from the Reformed Church to join the Roman Catholic Church. Even in such a case the person is entitled to three weeks of public admonitions prior to receiving the sentence of excommunication:

"Apostates to Papistry. Rests yet one other kind of offender that deserves excommunication, albeit not so summarily [i.e., not so quickly]: to wit, such as have been partakers with us in doctrine and sacraments, and have returned back again to the Papistry, or have given their presence to any part of their abomination, or yet that of any long continuance, withdraw themselves from the society of Christ's body, and from the participation of the sacraments, when they are publicly ministered. Such, no doubt, declare themselves worthy of excommunication; but first they must be called either before the superintendent, with some joined with him, or else before the elders and session of the best and next reformed church where the offenders have their residence, who must accuse their defection, exhort them to repentance, and declare to them the danger wherein they stand.

"Whom if the offender hears, the session or superintendent may appoint him a day to satisfy the church publicly, whom by his defection he had offended. But if he continues stubborn, then may the session or superintendent command the minister or ministers to declare the next Sunday the defection of such a person, and his obstinate contempt; and this advertisement being given two Sundays, the third may the sentence of excommunication be pronounced." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]

The only case of immediate excommunication is that of a person guilty of a capital crime (e.g., a murderer) who has been convicted by the civil magistrate or who has fled from the law. In such a case, it appears that the excommunication can proceed without delay:

"And yet further, we must consider that, if the offender is fugitive from the law, so that punishment cannot be executed against him, in that case the church ought to delay no time, but upon the notoriety of his crime, and that he is fled from the presence of the judge, it ought to pronounce him excommunicated publicly, and so continually to repute him, until such time that the magistrate be satisfied. And so whether the offender is convicted in judgment, or is fugitive from the law, the church ought to proceed to the sentence of excommunication, the form whereof follows:

"The minister, in public audience of the people, shall say, It is clearly known unto us that N., sometime baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and so reputed and accounted for a Christian, has fearfully fallen from the society of Christ's body, by committing of cruel and willful murder (or by committing filthy adultery, etc.), which crime by the law of God deserves death. And because the civil sword is in the hand of God's magistrate, who notwithstanding often winks at such crimes, we having place in the ministry, with grief and dolour of our hearts, are compelled to draw the sword granted by God to his church: that is, to excommunicate from the society of Jesus Christ, from his body the church, from participation of sacraments, and prayers with the same, the said N. And therefore, in the name and authority of the eternal God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, We pronounce the said N. [to be an] excommunicate and accursed in this his wicked fact; and charge all that favour the Lord Jesus so to repute and hold him (or her) until such time as that either the magistrate has punished the offender as God's law commands, or that the same offender is reconciled to the church again by public repentance. And in the meantime, we earnestly desire all the faithful to call upon God to move the hearts of the upper powers so to punish such horrible crimes, that malefactors may fear to offend, even for fear of punishment; and also so to touch the heart of the offender, that he may deeply consider how fearful it is to fall into the hands of the eternal God, that by unfeigned repentance he may apprehend mercy in Jesus Christ, and so avoid eternal damnation." [_The Order of Excommunication and of Public Repentance_ (1569)]


Skipping ahead a century, Alexander Henderson, who was one of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, summarized the practice of the Scottish Presbyterian Church in his day. In this work, he describes a procedure similar to that contained in the earlier documents that we have just examined:

1. The offender is admonished secretly by an individual (if the sin is private)
2. The offender is admonished secretly by two or three individuals (if the sin is private)
3. The offender is brought before the minister and elders;
4. The matter is made known to the congregation;
5. The sinner is brought before the Presbytery;6. For three consecutive weeks, the sinner is publicly admonished before the congregation;
7. A three-week process is followed, culminating in the excommunication pronouncement in the final week.

Thus, the process involves several preliminary steps in addition to the standard six-week procedure. The only difference between the handling of private and public sins is that the former requires secret admonition first. Capital crimes are allowed a more speedy process, but Henderson does not specify details. The relevant paragraphs are as follows:

"In case of obstinacy and willful impenitency, even when the offences are not so great and scandalous, they proceed to excommunication, but with great meekness, longsuffering, and by many degrees, the censure being so weighty, and they desirous to gain the sinner to repentance.

"If any person walk unworthy of the gospel, or commit any trespass, he is (unless the scandal be public and notorious) admonished first secretly by one, next by two or three more. And thirdly, if he contemn both, then according to the order preferred by our Saviour, Matt. 18, the matter is brought before the Minister and Elders where he is accused both of the trespass and of the contempt. If he cannot yet be brought to repentance, then is the matter in some measure made known unto the Congregation, and he called before the greater Presbytery; where if he gives signs of his repentance, he is remitted to satisfy his own session. But if he persist in his obstinacy, then by the Ordinance of the Presbytery, the particular eldership is to proceed against him with the censures of the Church even to excommunication.

"The matter being thus hard known and judged, and the whole process revised by the greater presbytery, the next Sabbath without delay, the trespass and order of admonitions are declared to the Congregation, and the person without specification of his name, admonished yet to satisfy: Which if he still refuse to do, the next Sabbath his name with his offence and contempt, are published, if he yet continue obstinate, then the next, which is the third Sabbath, is he charged publicly to satisfy for his offence and contempt under the pain of excommunication. If now he offer himself to the particular Presbytery, then do they at the appointment of the Presbytery, give order for his public repentance, the removing of the scandal, and his reconcilement to the Church, otherwise the Minister proceedeth in this order.

"The Sabbath after the third public admonition, the Minister with consent of the Eldership, is to make known to the Congregation that such a person is to be excommunicated, warning all that have any thing to object against it, that they appear the next session day: And for the present, that the whole Congregation pour forth their supplications, that God would grant him repentance, and to come out of the snare of the devil. If nothing be objected, or if none for him witness any appearance of repentance, then is the danger of the person, and the weight of the sentence laid open the next Sabbath, and he the second time prayed for publicly. If at last upon the next Sabbath there be no sign of repentance, then is he prayed for the third time, and there being no mean unassayed, nor remedy left to reclaim him, he is strucken with the terrible sentence of excommunication, which calling upon the Name of God to ratify the sentence in Heaven, and the people warned to hold him as an Heathen, or a Publican, and to shun all communion with him, except in natural and civil duties to be still performed by such as are bound. It is to be understood, that where the crimes are such that they cry to the heavens for revenge, waste the conscience, and by the law of God deserve death, and the transgressor certainly known, the process may be more summary, and excommunication more hastened, as on the other part of absolution, the time would be longer, and the trial of repentance more exact." [Alexander Henderson, "The order of excommunication", in _The Government and Order of the Church of Scotland_, Puritan CD#4.]


From the time that Presbyterianism was first established in Scotland in 1559 until the time of the Second Reformation in the 1640s, the procedure for excommunication remained essentially unchanged. In the case of both private and public sins, the offender was publicly admonished of his sin multiple times prior to a three-week excommunication process. The only difference between private and public sins was the preliminary step of several private admonishments in the former case prior to the other public steps. Even in the case of capital crimes, where some allowance was made for more speedy processing, the three-week procedure appears to be the general rule. Such patience in pronouncing the final sentence gave the church the opportunity to offer private and public prayers for the sinner, it gave the congregation the opportunity to voice any objections prior to the final pronouncement, and it gave the ministry the assurance that every reasonable means had been tried to reclaim the sinner before declaring the unavoidable sentence. Since this is the standard Presbyterian practice, is there any reason why the moral substance of this procedure cannot be followed by a church claiming to be Presbyterian, even in these extraordinary times?