Excommunication is an institutional act of religious censure used to end or at least regulate the communion of a member of a congregation with other members of the religious institution who are in normal communion with each other. The purpose of the institutional act is to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or to restrict certain rights within it, in particular, those of being in communion with other members of the congregation, and of receiving the sacraments.
The term is often historically used to refer specifically to excommunications from the Catholic Church, but it is also used more generally to refer to similar types of institutional religious exclusionary practices and shunning among other religious groups. For instance, many Protestant denominations, such as the Lutheran Churches, have similar practices of excusing congregants from church communities, while Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as the Churches of Christ, use the term “disfellowship” to refer to their form of excommunication. The Amish have also been known to excommunicate members that were either seen or known for breaking rules, or questioning the church.
The word excommunication means putting a specific individual or group out of communion. In some denominations, excommunication includes spiritual condemnation of the member or group. Excommunication may involve banishment, shunning, and shaming, depending on the group, the offense that caused excommunication, or the rules or norms of the religious community. The grave act is often revoked in response to manifest repentance.
Main article: Excommunication (Catholic Church)
Within the Catholic Church, there are differences between the discipline of the majority Latin Church regarding excommunication and that of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Excommunication can be either latae sententiae (automatic, incurred at the moment of committing the offense for which canon law imposes that penalty) or ferendae sententiae (incurred only when imposed by a legitimate superior or declared as the sentence of an ecclesiastical court).
According to Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, “excommunication does not expel the person from the Catholic Church, but simply forbids the excommunicated person from engaging in certain activities.” These activities are listed in Canon 1331 §1, and prohibit the individual from any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship; celebrating or receiving the sacraments; or exercising any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions.
Under current Catholic canon law, excommunicates remain bound by ecclesiastical obligations such as attending Mass, even though they are barred from receiving the Eucharist and from taking an active part in the liturgy (reading, bringing the offerings, etc.). “Excommunicates lose rights, such as the right to the sacraments, but they are still bound to the obligations of the law; their rights are restored when they are reconciled through the remission of the penalty.” They are urged to retain a relationship with the Church, as the goal is to encourage them to repent and return to active participation in its life.
These are the only effects for those who have incurred a latae sententiae excommunication. For instance, a priest may not refuse Communion publicly to those who are under an automatic excommunication, as long as it has not been officially declared to have been incurred by them, even if the priest knows that they have incurred it. On the other hand, if the priest knows that excommunication has been imposed on someone or that an automatic excommunication has been declared (and is no longer merely an undeclared automatic excommunication), he is forbidden to administer Holy Communion to that person.
In the Catholic Church, excommunication is normally resolved by a declaration of repentance, profession of the Creed (if the offense involved heresy) and an Act of Faith, or renewal of obedience (if that was a relevant part of the offending act, i.e., an act of schism) by the excommunicated person and the lifting of the censure (absolution) by a priest or bishop empowered to do this. “The absolution can be in the internal (private) forum only, or also in the external (public) forum, depending on whether scandal would be given if a person were privately absolved and yet publicly considered unrepentant.” Since excommunication excludes from reception of the sacraments, absolution from excommunication is required before absolution can be given from the sin that led to the censure. In many cases, the whole process takes place on a single occasion in the privacy of the confessional. For some more serious wrongdoings, absolution from excommunication is reserved to a bishop, another ordinary, or even the pope. These can delegate a priest to act on their behalf.
Interdict is a censure similar to excommunication. It too excludes from ministerial functions in public worship and from reception of the sacraments, but not from the exercise of governance.
Eastern Catholic Churches
See also: Eastern Catholic canon law
In the Eastern Catholic Churches, excommunication is imposed only by decree, never incurred automatically by latae sententiae excommunication.
A distinction is made between minor and major excommunication.
Those on whom minor excommunication has been imposed are excluded from receiving the Eucharist and can also be excluded from participating in the Divine Liturgy. They can even be excluded from entering a church when divine worship is being celebrated there. The decree of excommunication must indicate the precise effect of the excommunication and, if required, its duration.
Those under major excommunication are in addition forbidden to receive not only the Eucharist but also the other sacraments, to administer sacraments or sacramentals, to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever, and any such exercise by them is null and void. They are to be removed from participation in the Divine Liturgy and any public celebrations of divine worship. They are forbidden to make use of any privileges granted to them and cannot be given any dignity, office, ministry, or function in the Church, they cannot receive any pension or emoluments associated with these dignities etc., and they are deprived of the right to vote or to be elected.
Minor excommunication is roughly equivalent to the interdict in Western law.
The excommunicable offenses in the Catholic Church can be distinguished
- as has been said, into the ones where the punishment is latae sententiae, that is the penalty is incurred by committing the deed itself, and those where it needs to be imposed by a court,
- according to who has the right to absolve it: which is ordinarily the bishop, or in some cases, the Apostolic See,
- whether the offender is to be avoided henceforth (vitandus) or not. Under the 1983 Code, the term vitandus is not used.
Persons belonging to an Eastern Catholic Church are never subject to a latae sententiae punishment; this is therefore not explicitly mentioned in the lists below.
A person is latae sententiae excommunicated or, if an Eastern Catholic, ferendae sententiae if one:
- uses physical force against the Pope (reserved to the Apostolic See, for Eastern Catholics even to the Pope in person; can. 1370 CIC, can. 1445 CCEO; used to result ipso facto in a vitandus excommunication until 1983, can. 2343 CIC/1917),
- pretends to absolve (which is invalid, can. 977) his own partner in a sin against the Sixth Commandment (reserved to the Apostolic See; can. 1378 § 1. CIC, can. 1457 CCEO, can. 728 §1 CCEO),
- violates directly the Seal of the Confessional (reserved to the Apostolic See; can. 1388 CIC, can 1456 § 1 CCEO, Canon 728 §1 CCEO),
- throws away, or for sacrilegious purpose keeps back the Blessed Sacrament (reserved, for Latin Catholics, to the Apostolic See; can. 1367 CIC, can. 1442 CCEO),
- consecrates, as a bishop, another bishop without mandate by the Apostolic See or receives such consecration (reserved, for Latin Catholics, to the Apostolic See; can. 1383 CIC, can. 1459 § 1 CCEO),
- is an apostate (can. 1364 § 1 CIC, cf. can. 751 CIC; can. 1436 § 1 CCEO), that is, one who totally repudiates the Christian faith,
- is a heretic (can. 1364 § 1 CIC, cf. can. 751 CIC; can. 1436 § 1 CCEO), that is, contumaciously denies or doubts a dogma of the Catholic Church,
- is a schismatic (can. 1364 § 1 CIC, cf. can. 751 CIC; can. 1437 § 1 CCEO), that is, denies submission to the Pope or to the other members of the Church subordinate to the Pope (this is not, per se, true of one who merely disobeys an order of the Pope),
- performs, has performed on herself, assists in, or makes possible an abortion (can. 1398 CIC, can. 1450 § 2 CCEO),
- commits simony in a Papal election (Universi Dominici gregis [UDG] no. 78),
- as a Cardinal or any other person taking part in the conclave (the conclave’s secretary, etc.), makes known an exclusive or helps, in any other manner, a secular power to influence the papal election (UDG no. 80),
- as a Cardinal, makes any pacts, deals or promises regarding the papal election at a conclave; this does not forbid the Cardinals to discuss whom to elect (UDG no. 81).
- as a bishop attempts to confer Holy Orders on a woman, alongside the woman who attempted to receive the consecration. In both Eastern and Latin rites, the excommunication is reserved to the Apostolic See.
A person may be ferendae sententiae excommunicated if one:
- tries to celebrate the Mass without being a priest (incurs, for Latin Catholics, also a latae sententiae interdict for laymen and suspension for clerics, can. 1378 § 2 no. 1 CIC, can. 1443 CCEO),
- hears a Confession or tries to absolve without being able to absolve (for Latin Catholics; this does not, of course, include hindrances on the penitent’s side for the mere hearing of the Confessions, and hidden hindrances on the penitent’s side for absolutions; can. 1378 § 2 no. 1; incurs also a latae sententiae interdict for laymen and suspension for clerics),
- breaks the Seal of the Confessional as someone not the Confessor, e. g. an interpreter or one who overheard something that was said (for Latin Catholics, can. 1388 § 2 CIC),
- who breaks a penal law allowing excommunication that was enacted on the local level, which the local authority, however, may only do with great caution and for grave offences (for Latin Catholics, can. 1318 CIC),
- omits stubbornly, as an Eastern Catholic priest, the commemoration of the hierarch in the Divine Liturgy and Divine Praises (not mandatorily, can. 1438 CCEO),
- commits physical violence against a patriarch or a metropolitan, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1445 § 1 CCEO),
- incites sedition against any hierarch, especially a patriarch or the Pope, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1447 § 1, not mandatorily),
- commits murder, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1450 § 1 CCEO),
- kidnaps, wounds seriously, mutilates or tortures (physically or mentally) a person, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1451 CCEO, not mandatorily),
- falsely accuses someone of a [canonical] offense, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1454 CCEO, not mandatorily),
- tries to use the influence of secular authority to gain admission to Holy Orders or any function in the Church, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1460, not mandatorily),
- administers or receives a Sacrament, excluding Holy Orders, or any function in the Church through simony, as an Eastern Catholic (can. 1461f. CCEO, not mandatorily).
Former excommunicable offenses
According to the Code of Canon Law of 1917, the excommunications reserved to the Apostolic See were grouped in three categories, those reserved 1. simply, 2. in a special manner, 3. in a most special manner (each solvable by the Pope and by those priests the Pope had delegated the faculty to absolve for precisely that degree); and below the excommunications reserved to the bishop (which is now principally true of every excommunication), there was yet a category of excommunications reserved to no one (i. e., that could be solved by any confessor).
The excommunications for desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, physical violence against the Pope, attempted absolution of an accomplice in a sin against the sixth Commandment, and breaking the Seal of the Confessional (no. 1-4 from the latae sententiae offences listed above) were reserved to the Apostolic See in a most special manner. The excommunications for apostasy, heresy or schism were reserved to the Apostolic see in special manner, though they could be solved by the bishop (though not the general vicar) in his stead (can. 2314 § 2). The possible excommunication of someone not the Confessor who disclosed something under the Seal of the Confessional was reserved to no one; the excommunication for unlawful episcopal consecrations did not then exist (but there was a latae sententiae suspension), as neither did the possible excommunication (and certain suspension) of a priest who does have faculties but absolves a penitent he knows to be unrepentant. The other excommunications still in existence were reserved to the bishop as they are now.
The following further acts were excommunicable offenses
- reserved to the Apostolic See in a special manner:
- having been a suspect of heresy for six months without clearing the suspicion (can. 2315),
- editing books of apostates, heretics and schismatics that defend apostasy, heresy or schism, or reading, without due permission, such books or those in particular forbidden by the Apostolic see (the latter did not include the whole Index, can. 2318),
- simulating Holy Mass or the sacramental absolution, without being a priest (can. 2322),
- appealing against the Pope to a future Council (can. 2332),
- taking recourse to secular powers to hinder the promulgation of acts of the Apostolic See or its legates, or hinders their promulgation or execution with force or fear (can. 2333),
- giving laws or decrees against the freedom and the rights of the Church (can. 2334 no. 1),
- hindering the Church, directly or indirectly, to exercise her power of governance, in both the external and the internal forum, taking recourse to secular power for doing so (can. 2334 no. 2),
- taking a Cardinal, a Papal Legate, a major official of the Roman Curia, or one’s own diocesan bishop to a secular court w.r.t. their actions in office (can. 2341),
- physical force against a Cardinal, Papal Legate or any bishop (can. 2343),
- usurping goods and rights of the Church (can. 2345),
- forging Apostolic letters (can. 2360),
- falsely accusing a confessor of the crime of solicitation (can. 2363),
- simply reserved to the Holy See:
- commercially dealing with indulgences (can. 2327),
- being initiated to Freemasonry or other associations of the kind, acting against the Church and legitimate powers (can. 2335),
- trying to absolve from a penalty reserved to the Holy See in a special or most special manner without having the faculty to do so (can. 2338 § 1),
- giving aid to vitandus excommunicates in their delict, or, as a cleric, knowingly and freely celebrating the Divine Office together with them (can. 2338 § 2),
- taking a bishop, abbot or prelate nullius, or one of the highest superiors of papally recognized orders to secular court w.r.t. doing his office (can. 2341),
- violating the enclosure of a convent (can. 2342),
- taking part in a duel, in any function (can. 2351),
- trying to enter a (civil) marriage as a cleric from the rank of subdeacon and above, or a monk or nun with solemn vows (can. 2388 § 2),
- commit simony (can. 2392),
- incepting, destroying, hiding or substantially changing a document directed to the diocesan curia, as a vicar capitular or canon of the chapter (during a vacancy only?) (can. 2405),
- reserved to the diocesan bishop:
- trying to enter marriage in front of a non-Catholic minister, or in the explicit or implicit understanding that one or more of the children are to be baptized outside the Catholic Church, or giving knowingly one’s children to be baptized by non-Catholics (can. 2319),
- making false relics or knowingly selling them, distributing them and exposing them to public veneration (can. 2326),
- physical violence against a cleric, monk or nun (can. 2343 § 4),
- marrying, as a monk or nun in simple vows (can. 2388 § 2),
- reserved to no one:
- writing, editing or printing, without due permission, editions of the Sacred Scripture or of annotations or commentaries thereon (can. 2318 § 2),
- giving an ecclesial burial to the unfaithful, apostates, heretics, schismatics or any excommunicates or interdicted people (can. 2339),
- forcing a man to enter the clerical state or a woman to enter religion or to take simple or solemn vows (can. 2352),
- for the victim of solicitation, knowing failure to denounce the perpetrator (not to be absolved before the obligation is fulfilled, can. 2368 § 2).
Eastern Orthodox churches
In the Eastern Orthodox churches, excommunication is the exclusion of a member from the Eucharist. It is not expulsion from the churches. This can happen for such reasons as not having confessed within that year; excommunication can also be imposed as part of a penitential period. It is generally done with the goal of restoring the member to full communion. Before an excommunication of significant duration is imposed, the bishop is usually consulted. The Orthodox churches do have a means of expulsion, by pronouncing anathema, but this is reserved only for acts of serious and unrepentant heresy. As an example of this, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, in its eleventh capitula, declared: “If anyone does not anathematize Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, Apollinarius, Nestorius, Eutyches and Origen, as well as their heretical books, and also all other heretics who have already been condemned and anathematized by the holy, catholic and apostolic church and by the four holy synods which have already been mentioned, and also all those who have thought or now think in the same way as the aforesaid heretics and who persist in their error even to death: let him be anathema.”
Although Lutheranism technically has an excommunication process, some denominations and congregations do not use it. In the Smalcald Articles Luther differentiates between the “great” and “small” excommunication. The “small” excommunication is simply barring an individual from the Lord’s Supper and “other fellowship in the church.” While the “great” excommunication excluded a person from both the church and political communities which he considered to be outside the authority of the church and only for civil leaders. A modern Lutheran practice is laid out in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s 1986 explanation to the Small Catechism, defined beginning at Questions No. 277-284, in “The Office of Keys.” They endeavor to follow the process that Jesus laid out in the 18th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. According to the explanation, excommunication requires:
- The confrontation between the subject and the individual against whom he has sinned.
- If this fails, the confrontation between the subject, the harmed individual, and two or three witnesses to such acts of sin.
- The informing of the pastor of the subject’s congregation.
- A confrontation between the pastor and the subject.
Many Lutheran denominations operate under the premise that the entire congregation (as opposed to the pastor alone) must take appropriate steps for excommunication, and there are not always precise rules, to the point where individual congregations often set out rules for excommunicating laymen (as opposed to clergy). For example, churches may sometimes require that a vote must be taken at Sunday services; some congregations require that this vote be unanimous.
The Church of Sweden and the church visit at Sundays were manatory (Konventikelplakatet) for all Swedes from 1600-1858 as the only allowed religious organisation in the country, with a few exceptions, like for the Great Synagogue of Stockholm and Embassies. The other side is that you can’t get excluded from a state institution that is by law mandatory for all. The topic has some interesting aspects of Excommunication (Catholic Church) of the parliament of Sweden by canon law from the Catholic Church and interdict (Catholic church strike) as background of the Reformation in Sweden.
In the Church of Sweden and the Church of Denmark, excommunicated individuals are turned out from their parish in front of their congregation. They are not forbidden, however, to attend church and participate in other acts of devotion, although they are to sit in a place appointed by the priest (which was at a distance from others).
The Lutheran process, though rarely used, has created unusual situations in recent years due to its somewhat democratic excommunication process. One example was an effort to get serial killer Dennis Rader excommunicated from his denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) by individuals who tried to “lobby” Rader’s fellow church members into voting for his excommunication.
Church of England
The Church of England does not have any specific canons regarding how or why a member can be excommunicated, although it has a canon according to which ecclesiastical burial may be refused to someone “declared excommunicate for some grievous and notorious crime and no man to testify to his repentance”.
The punishment of imprisonment for being excommunicated from the Church of England was removed from English law in 1963.
Episcopal Church of the United States of America
The ECUSA is in the Anglican Communion, and shares many canons with the Church of England which would determine its policy on excommunication.
In the Reformed Churches, excommunication has generally been seen as the culmination of church discipline, which is one of the three marks of the Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith sees it as the third step after “admonition” and “suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season.” Yet, John Calvin argues in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that church censures do not “consign those who are excommunicated to perpetual ruin and damnation,” but are designed to induce repentance, reconciliation and restoration to communion. Calvin notes, “though ecclesiastical discipline does not allow us to be on familiar and intimate terms with excommunicated persons, still we ought to strive by all possible means to bring them to a better mind, and recover them to the fellowship and unity of the Church.”
At least one modern Reformed theologian argues that excommunication is not the final step in the disciplinary process. Jay E. Adams argues that in excommunication, the offender is still seen as a brother, but in the final step they become “as the heathen and tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). Adams writes, “Nowhere in the Bible is excommunication (removal from the fellowship of the Lord’s Table, according to Adams) equated with what happens in step 5; rather, step 5 is called “removing from the midst, handing over to Satan,” and the like.”
Former Princeton president and theologian, Jonathan Edwards, addresses the notion of excommunication as “removal from the fellowship of the Lord’s Table” in his treatise entitled “The Nature and End of Excommunication”. Edwards argues that “Particularly, we are forbidden such a degree of associating ourselves with (excommunicants), as there is in making them our guests at our tables, or in being their guests at their tables; as is manifest in the text, where we are commanded to have no company with them, no not to eat”. Edwards insists, “That this respects not eating with them at the Lord’s supper, but a common eating, is evident by the words, that the eating here forbidden, is one of the lowest degrees of keeping company, which are forbidden. Keep no company with such a one, saith the apostle, no not to eat – as much as to say, no not in so low a degree as to eat with him. But eating with him at the Lord’s supper, is the very highest degree of visible Christian communion. Who can suppose that the apostle meant this: Take heed and have no company with a man, no not so much as in the highest degree of communion that you can have? Besides, the apostle mentions this eating as a way of keeping company which, however, they might hold with the heathen. He tells them, not to keep company with fornicators. Then he informs them, he means not with fornicators of this world, that is, the heathens; but, saith he, “if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, etc. with such a one keep no company, no not to eat.” This makes it most apparent, that the apostle doth not mean eating at the Lord’s table; for so, they might not keep company with the heathens, any more than with an excommunicated person.”
In the Methodist Episcopal Church, individuals were able to be excommunicated following “trial before a jury of his peers, and after having had the privilege of an appeal to a higher court.” Nevertheless, an excommunication could be lifted after sufficient penance.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Churches, excommunicated sixty-four members from the Newcastle Methodist society alone for the following reasons:
Two for cursing and swearing.
Two for habitual Sabbath-breaking.
Seventeen for drunkenness.
Two for retailing spiritous liquors.
Three for quarrelling and brawling.
One for beating his wife.
Three for habitual, wilful lying.
Four for railing and evil-speaking.
One for idleness and laziness. And,
Nine-and-twenty for lightness and carelessness.
The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Connection, in its 2014 Discipline, includes “homosexuality, lesbianism, bi-sexuality, bestiality, incest, fornication, adultery, and any attempt to alter one’s gender by surgery”, as well as remarriage after divorce among its excommunicable offences.
The Evangelical Wesleyan Church, in its 2015 Discipline, states that “Any member of our church who is accused of neglect of the means of grace or other duties required by the Word of God, the indulgence of sinful tempers, words or actions, the sowing of dissension, or any other violation of the order and discipline of the church, may, after proper labor and admonition, be censured, placed on probation, or expelled by the official board of the circuit of which he is a member. If he request a trial, however, within thirty dates of the final action of the official board, it shall be granted.”
When believers were baptized and taken into membership of the church by Anabaptists, it was not only done as symbol of cleansing of sin but was also done as a public commitment to identify with Jesus Christ and to conform one’s life to the teaching and example of Jesus as understood by the church. Practically, that meant membership in the church entailed a commitment to try to live according to norms of Christian behavior widely held by the Anabaptist tradition.
In the ideal, discipline in the Anabaptist tradition requires the church to confront a notoriously erring and unrepentant church member, first directly in a very small circle and, if no resolution is forthcoming, expanding the circle in steps eventually to include the entire church congregation. If the errant member persists without repentance and rejects even the admonition of the congregation, that person is excommunicated or excluded from church membership. Exclusion from the church is recognition by the congregation that this person has separated himself or herself from the church by way of his or her visible and unrepentant sin. This is done ostensibly as a final resort to protect the integrity of the church. When this occurs, the church is expected to continue to pray for the excluded member and to seek to restore him or her to its fellowship. There was originally no inherent expectation to shun (completely sever all ties with) an excluded member, however differences regarding this very issue led to early schisms between different Anabaptist leaders and those who followed them.
Jakob Ammann, founder of the Amish sect, believed that the shunning of those under the ban should be systematically practiced among the Swiss Anabaptists as it was in the north and as was outlined in the Dordrecht Confession. Ammann’s uncompromising zeal regarding this practice was one of the main disputes that led to the schism between the Anabaptist groups that became the Amish and those that eventually would be called Mennonite. Recently more moderate Amish groups have become less strict in their application of excommunication as a discipline. This has led to splits in several communities, an example of which is the Swartzetruber Amish who split from the main body of Old Order Amish because of the latter’s practice of lifting the ban from members who later join other churches. In general, the Amish will excommunicate baptized members for failure to abide by their Ordnung (church rules) as it is interpreted by the local Bishop if certain repeat violations of the Ordnung occur.
Excommunication among the Old Order Amish results in shunning or the Meidung, the severity of which depends on many factors, such as the family, the local community as well as the type of Amish. Some Amish communities cease shunning after one year if the person joins another church later on, especially if it is another Mennonite church. At the most severe, other members of the congregation are prohibited almost all contact with an excommunicated member including social and business ties between the excommunicant and the congregation, sometimes even marital contact between the excommunicant and spouse remaining in the congregation or family contact between adult children and parents.
In the Mennonite Church excommunication is rare and is carried out only after many attempts at reconciliation and on someone who is flagrantly and repeatedly violating standards of behavior that the church expects. Occasionally excommunication is also carried against those who repeatedly question the church’s behavior or who genuinely differ with the church’s theology as well, although in almost all cases the dissenter will leave the church before any discipline need be invoked. In either case, the church will attempt reconciliation with the member in private, first one on one and then with a few church leaders. Only if the church’s reconciliation attempts are unsuccessful, the congregation formally revokes church membership. Members of the church generally pray for the excluded member.
Some regional conferences (the Mennonite counterpart to dioceses of other denominations) of the Mennonite Church have acted to expel member congregations that have openly welcomed non-celibate homosexuals as members. This internal conflict regarding homosexuality has also been an issue for other moderate denominations, such as the American Baptists and Methodists.
The practice among Old Order Mennonite congregations is more along the lines of Amish, but perhaps less severe typically. An Old Order member who disobeys the Ordnung (church regulations) must meet with the leaders of the church. If a church regulation is broken a second time there is a confession in the church. Those who refuse to confess are excommunicated. However upon later confession, the church member will be reinstated. An excommunicated member is placed under the ban. This person is not banned from eating with their own family. Excommunicated persons can still have business dealings with church members and can maintain marital relations with a marriage partner, who remains a church member.
The separatist, communal, and self-contained Hutterites also use excommunication and shunning as form of church discipline. Since Hutterites have communal ownership of goods, the effects of excommunication could impose a hardship upon the excluded member and family leaving them without employment income and material assets such as a home. However, often arrangements are made to provide material benefits to the family leaving the colony such as an automobile and some transition funds for rent, etc. One Hutterite colony in Manitoba (Canada) had a protracted dispute when leaders attempted to force the departure of a group that had been excommunicated but would not leave. About a dozen lawsuits in both Canada and the United States were filed between the various Hutterite factions and colonies concerning excommunication, shunning, the legitimacy of leadership, communal property rights, and fair division of communal property when factions have separated.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Main article: Church membership council
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) practices excommunication as a penalty for those who commit serious sins, i.e., actions that significantly impair the name or moral influence of the church or pose a threat to other people. In 2020, the church ceased using the term “excommunication” and instead refers to “withdrawal of membership”. According to the church leadership General Handbook, the purposes of withdrawing membership or imposing membership restrictions are, (1) to help protect others; (2) to help a person access the redeeming power of Jesus Christ through repentance; and (3) to protect the integrity of the Church. The origins of LDS disciplinary procedures and excommunications are traced to a revelation Joseph Smith dictated on 9 February 1831, later canonized as Doctrine and Covenants, section 42 and codified in the General Handbook.
The LDS Church also practices the lesser sanctions of private counsel and caution and informal and formal membership restrictions. (Informal membership restrictions was formerly known as “probation”; formal membership restrictions was formerly known as “disfellowshipment“.)
Formal membership restrictions are used for serious sins that do not rise to the level of membership withdrawal. Formal membership restriction denies some privileges but does not include a loss of church membership. Once formal membership restrictions are in place, persons may not take the sacrament or enter church temples, nor may they offer public prayers or sermons. Such persons may continue to attend most church functions and are permitted to wear temple garments, pay tithes and offerings, and participate in church classes if their conduct is orderly. Formal membership restrictions typically lasts for one year, after which one may be reinstated as a member in good standing.
In the more grievous or recalcitrant cases, withdrawal of membership becomes a disciplinary option. Such an action is generally reserved for what are seen as the most serious sins, including committing serious crimes such as murder, child abuse, and incest; committing adultery; involvement in or teaching of polygamy; involvement in homosexual conduct; apostasy; participation in an abortion; teaching false doctrine; or openly criticizing church leaders. The General Handbook states that formally joining another church constitutes apostasy and is worthy of membership withdrawal; however, merely attending another church does not constitute apostasy.
A withdrawal of membership can occur only after a formal church membership council. Formerly called a “disciplinary council” or a “church court,” the councils were renamed to avoid focusing on guilt and instead to emphasize the availability of repentance.
The decision to withdraw the membership a Melchizedek priesthood holder is generally the province of the leadership of a stake. In such a disciplinary council, the stake presidency and, sometimes in more difficult cases, the stake high council attend. If the high council is involved, the twelve members of the high council are split in half: one group represents the member in question and is charged with “prevent[ing] insult or injustice”; the other group represents the church as a whole. The member under scrutiny is invited to attend the membership proceedings, but the council can go forward without him. In making a decision, the leaders of the high council consult with the stake presidency, but the decision about which discipline is necessary is the stake president’s alone. It is possible to appeal a decision of a stake membership council to the church’s First Presidency.
For females and for male members not initiated into the Melchizedek priesthood, a ward membership council is held. In such cases, a bishop determines whether withdrawal of membership or a lesser sanction is warranted. He does this in consultation with his two counselors, with the bishop making the final determination after prayer. The decision of a ward membership council can be appealed to the stake president.
The following list of variables serves as a general set of guidelines for when membership withdrawal or lesser action may be warranted, beginning with those more likely to result in severe sanction:
- Violation of covenants: Covenants are made in conjunction with specific ordinances in the LDS Church. Violated covenants that might result in excommunication are usually those surrounding marriage covenants, temple covenants, and priesthood covenants.
- Position of trust or authority: The person’s position in the church hierarchy factors into the decision. It is considered more serious when a sin is committed by an area seventy; a stake, mission, or temple president; a bishop; a patriarch; or a full-time missionary.
- Repetition: Repetition of a sin is more serious than a single instance.
- Magnitude: How often, how many individuals were impacted, and who is aware of the sin factor into the decision.
- Age, maturity, and experience: Those who are young in age, or immature in their understanding, are typically afforded leniency.
- Interests of the innocent: How the discipline will impact innocent family members may be considered.
- Time between transgression and confession: If the sin was committed in the distant past, and there has not been repetition, leniency may be considered.
- Voluntary confession: If a person voluntarily confesses the sin, leniency is suggested.
- Evidence of repentance: Sorrow for sin, and demonstrated commitment to repentance, as well as faith in Jesus Christ all play a role in determining the severity of discipline.
Notices of withdrawal of membership may be made public, especially in cases of apostasy, where members could be misled. However, the specific reasons for individual withdrawal of membership are typically kept confidential and are seldom made public by church leadership.
Those who have their membership withdrawn lose the right to partake of the sacrament. Such persons are usually allowed to attend church meetings but participation is limited: they cannot offer public prayers or preach sermons and cannot enter temples. Such individuals are also barred from wearing or purchasing temple garments and from paying tithes. A person whose membership has been withdrawn may be re-baptized after a waiting period of at least one year and sincere repentance, as judged by a series of interviews with church leaders.
Some critics have charged that LDS Church leaders have used the threat of membership withdrawal to silence or punish church members and researchers who disagree with established policy and doctrine, who study or discuss controversial subjects, or who may be involved in disputes with local, stake leaders or general authorities; see, e.g., Brian Evenson, a former BYU professor and writer whose fiction came under criticism from BYU officials and LDS Leadership. Another notable case of excommunication from the LDS Church was the “September Six,” a group of intellectuals and professors, five of whom were excommunicated and the sixth disfellowshipped. However, church policy dictates that local leaders are responsible for membership withdrawal, without influence from church headquarters. The church thus argues that this policy is evidence against any systematic persecution of scholars or dissenters. Data shows per-capita excommunication rates among the LDS Church have varied dramatically over the years, from a low of about 1 in 6,400 members in the early 1900s to one in 640 by the 1970s, an increase which has been speculatively attributed to “informal guidance from above” in enforcing the growing list of possible transgressions added to General Handbook editions over time.
Main article: Jehovah’s Witnesses and congregational discipline
Jehovah’s Witnesses practice a form of excommunication, using the term “disfellowshipping”, in cases where a member is believed to have unrepentantly committed one or more of several documented “serious sins”. The practice is based on their interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5:11-13 (“quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man….remove the wicked man from your midst”) and 2 John 10 (“never receive him in your home or say a greeting to him”). They interpret these verses to mean that any baptized believer who engages in “gross sins” is to be expelled from the congregation and shunned.
When a member confesses to, or is accused of, a serious sin, a judicial committee of at least three elders is formed. This committee investigates the case and determines the magnitude of the sin committed. If the person is deemed guilty of a disfellowshipping offense, the committee then decides, on the basis of the person’s attitude and “works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20), whether the person is to be considered repentant. The “works” may include trying to correct the wrong, making apologies to any offended individuals, and compliance with earlier counsel. If deemed guilty but repentant, the person is not disfellowshipped but is formally reproved and has restrictions imposed, which preclude the individual from various activities such as presenting talks, offering public prayers or making comments at religious meetings. If the person is deemed guilty and unrepentant, he or she will be disfellowshipped. Unless an appeal is made within seven days, the disfellowshipping is made formal by an announcement at the congregation’s next Service Meeting. Appeals are granted to determine if procedural errors are felt to have occurred that may have affected the outcome.
Disfellowshipping is a severing of friendly relationships between all Jehovah’s Witnesses and the disfellowshipped person. Interaction with extended family is typically restricted to a minimum, such as presence at the reading of wills and providing essential care for the elderly. Within a household, typical family contact may continue, but without spiritual fellowship such as family Bible study and religious discussions. Parents of disfellowshipped minors living in the family home may continue to attempt to convince the child about the group’s teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that this form of discipline encourages the disfellowshipped individual to conform to biblical standards and prevents the person from influencing other members of the congregation.
Along with breaches of the Witnesses’ moral code, openly disagreeing with the teachings Jehovah’s Witnesses is considered grounds for shunning. These persons are labeled as “apostates” and are described in Watch Tower Society literature as “mentally diseased”. Descriptions of “apostates” appearing in the Witnesses literature have been the subject of investigation in the UK to determine if they violate religious hatred laws. Sociologist Andrew Holden claims many Witnesses who would otherwise defect because of disillusionment with the organization and its teachings, remain affiliated out of fear of being shunned and losing contact with friends and family members. Shunning employs what is known as relational aggression in psychological literature. When used by church members and member-spouse parents against excommunicant parents it contains elements of what psychologists call parental alienation. Extreme shunning may cause trauma to the shunned (and to their dependents) similar to what is studied in the psychology of torture.
Disassociation is a form of shunning where a member expresses verbally or in writing that they do not wish to be associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, rather than for having committed any specific ‘sin’. Elders may also decide that an individual has disassociated, without any formal statement by the individual, by actions such as accepting a blood transfusion, or for joining another religious or military organization. Individuals who are deemed by the elders to have disassociated are given no right of appeal.
Each year, congregation elders are instructed to consider meeting with disfellowshipped individuals to determine changed circumstances and encourage them to pursue reinstatement. Reinstatement is not automatic after a certain time period, nor is there a minimum duration; disfellowshipped persons may talk to elders at any time but must apply in writing to be considered for reinstatement into the congregation. Elders consider each case individually, and are instructed to ensure “that sufficient time has passed for the disfellowshipped person to prove that his profession of repentance is genuine.” A judicial committee meets with the individual to determine their repentance, and if this is established, the person is reinstated into the congregation and may participate with the congregation in their formal ministry (such as house-to-house preaching), but is prohibited from commenting at meetings or holding any privileges for a period set by the judicial committee. If possible, the same judicial committee members who disfellowshipped the individual are selected for the reinstatement hearing. If the applicant is in a different area, the person will meet with a local judicial committee that will communicate with either the original judicial committee if available or a new one in the original congregation.
A Witness who has been formally reproved or reinstated cannot be appointed to any special privilege of service for at least one year. Serious sins involving child sex abuse permanently disqualify the sinner from appointment to any congregational privilege of service, regardless of whether the sinner was convicted of any secular crime.
Similarly to many groups having their origins in the 1830s Restoration Movement, Christadelphians call their form of excommunication “disfellowshipping”, though they do not practice “shunning”. Disfellowshipping can occur for moral reasons, changing beliefs, or (in some ecclesias) for not attending communion (referred to as “the emblems” or “the breaking of bread”).
In such cases, the person involved is usually required to discuss the issues. If they do not conform, the church (‘meeting’ or ‘ecclesia’) is recommended by the management committee (“Arranging Brethren”) to vote on disfellowshipping the person. These procedures were formulated 1863 onwards by early Christadelphians, and then in 1883 codified by Robert Roberts in A Guide to the Formation and Conduct of Christadelphian Ecclesias (colloquially “The Ecclesial Guide”). However Christadelphians justify and apply their practice not only from this document but also from passages such as the exclusion in 1Co.5 and recovery in 2Co.2.
Christadelphians typically avoid the term “excommunication” which many associate with the Catholic Church; and may feel the word carries implications they do not agree with, such as undue condemnation and punishment, as well as failing to recognise the remedial intention of the measure.
- Behavioural cases. Many cases regarding moral issues tend to involve relational matters such as marriage outside the faith, divorce and remarriage (which is considered adultery in some circumstances by some ecclesias), or homosexuality. Reinstatement for moral issues is determined by the ecclesia’s assessment of whether the individual has “turned away” from (ceased) the course of action considered immoral by the church. This can be complex when dealing with cases of divorce and subsequent remarriage, with different positions adopted by different ecclesias, but generally within the main “Central” grouping, such cases can be accommodated. Some minority “fellowships” do not accommodate this under any circumstances.
- Doctrinal cases. Changes of belief on what Christadelphians call “first principle” doctrines are difficult to accommodate unless the individual agrees to not teach or spread them, since the body has a documented Statement of Faith which informally serves as a basis of ecclesial membership and interecclesial fellowship. Those who are disfellowshipped for reasons of differing belief rarely return, because they are expected to conform to an understanding with which they do not agree. Holding differing beliefs on fundamental matters is considered as error and apostasy, which can limit a person’s salvation. However, in practice disfellowship for doctrinal reasons is now unusual.
In the case of adultery and divorce, the passage of time usually means a member can be restored if he or she wants to be. In the case of ongoing behaviour, cohabitation, homosexual activity, then the terms of the suspension have not been met.
The mechanics of “refellowship” follow the reverse of the original process; the individual makes an application to the “ecclesia”, and the “Arranging Brethren” give a recommendation to the members who vote. If the “Arranging Brethren” judge that a vote may divide the ecclesia, or personally upset some members, they may seek to find a third party ecclesia which is willing to “refellowship” the member instead. According to the Ecclesial Guide a third party ecclesia may also take the initiative to “refellowship” another meeting’s member. However this cannot be done unilaterally, as this would constitute heteronomy over the autonomy of the original ecclesia’s members.
Society of Friends (Quakers)
Among many of the Society of Friends groups (Quakers) one is read out of meeting for behaviour inconsistent with the sense of the meeting. In Britain a meeting may record a minute of disunity. However it is the responsibility of each meeting, quarterly meeting, and yearly meeting, to act with respect to their own members. For example, during the Vietnam War many Friends were concerned about Friend Richard Nixon’s position on war which seemed at odds with their beliefs; however, it was the responsibility of Nixon’s own meeting, the East Whittier Meeting of Whittier, California, to act if indeed that meeting felt the leaning. They did not.
In the 17th century, before the founding of abolitionist societies, Friends who too forcefully tried to convince their coreligionists of the evils of slavery were read out of meeting. Benjamin Lay was read out of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for this. During the American Revolution over 400 Friends were read out of meeting for their military participation or support.
Iglesia ni Cristo
Iglesia ni Cristo practices expulsion of members it deems to have gravely sinned or gone against the teachings and doctrines of the church. The Sanggunian, the church’s council, has jurisdiction to expel members from the church. People expelled by the church are referred to as dismissed (Tagalog: tiwalag). Offenses that may be grounds for expulsion include marrying a non-member, becoming pregnant out of wedlock (unless the couple marries before the child is born) and most especially disagreeing with the church administration. An expelled member can be re-admitted by pledging obedience to the church administration and its rules, values and teachings.
Unitarian Universalism, being a liberal religious group and a congregational denomination, has a wide diversity of opinions and sentiments. Nonetheless, Unitarian Universalists have had to deal with disruptive individuals. Congregations which had no policies on disruptive individuals have sometimes found themselves having to create such policies, up to (and including) expulsion.
By the late 1990s, several churches were using the West Shore UU Church’s policy as a model. If someone is threatening, disruptive, or distracting from the appeal of the church to its membership, a church using this model has three recommended levels of response to the offending individual. While the first level involves dialogue between a committee or clergy member and the offender, the second and third levels involve expulsion, either from the church itself or a church activity.
Main article: Patimokkha in Theravada Buddhism
There is no direct equivalent to excommunication in Buddhism. However, in the Theravadan monastic community monks can be expelled from monasteries for heresy or other acts. In addition, the monks have four vows, called the four defeats, which are abstaining from sexual intercourse, stealing, murder, and refraining from lying about spiritual gains (e.g., having special power or ability to perform miracles). If even one is broken, the monk is automatically a layman again and can never become a monk in his or her current life.
Most Japanese Buddhist sects hold ecclesiastical authority over their followers and have their own rules for expelling members of the sangha, lay or bishopric. The lay Japanese Buddhist organization Sōka Gakkai was expelled from the Nichiren Shoshu sect in 1991 (1997).
Hinduism is too diverse to be seen as a homogenous and monolithic religion, it is often described an unorganised and syncretist religion with a conspicuous absence of any listed doctrines, there are multiple religious institutions (ecclesia is the Christian equivalent) within Hinduism that teach slight variations of Dharma and Karma, hence Hinduism has no concept of excommunication and hence no Hindu may be ousted from the Hindu religion, although a person may easily lose caste status through gramanya for a very wide variety of infringements of caste prohibitions. This may or may not be recoverable. However, some of the modern organised sects within Hinduism may practice something equivalent to excommunication today, by ousting a person from their own sect.
In medieval and early-modern times (and sometimes even now) in South Asia, excommunication from one’s caste (jati or varna) used to be practiced (by the caste-councils) and was often with serious consequences, such as abasement of the person’s caste status and even throwing him into the sphere of the untouchables or bhangi. In the 19th century, a Hindu faced excommunication for going abroad, since it was presumed he would be forced to break caste restrictions and, as a result, become polluted.
After excommunication, it would depend upon the caste-council whether they would accept any form of repentance (ritual or otherwise) or not. Such current examples of excommunication in Hinduism are often more political or social rather than religious, for example the excommunication of lower castes for refusing to work as scavengers in Tamil Nadu.
An earlier example of excommunication in Hinduism is that of Shastri Yagnapurushdas, who voluntarily left and was later expelled from the Vadtal Gadi of the Swaminarayan Sampraday by the then Vadtal acharya in 1906. He went on to form his own institution, Bochasanwasi Swaminarayan Sanstha or BSS (now BAPS) claiming Gunatitanand Swami was the rightful spiritual successor to Swaminarayan.
Main article: Takfir
Since there has been no universally and univocally recognized religious authority among the many Islamic denominations that have emerged throughout history, papal excommunication has no exact equivalent in Islam, at least insofar as the attitudes of any conflicting religious authorities with regard to an individual or another sect are judged to be coordinate, not subordinate to one another. Nonetheless, condemning heterodoxy and punishing heretics through shunning and ostracism is comparable with the practice in non-Catholic Christian faiths.
Islamic theologians commonly employ two terms when describing measurements to be taken against schismatics and heresy: هَجْر (hajr, “abandoning”) and تَكْفِير (takfīr, “making or declaring to be a nonbeliever”). The former signifies the act of abandoning somewhere (such as migration, as in the Islamic prophet’s journey out of Mecca, which is called al-Hijra (“the (e)migration”)) or someone (used in the Qur’an in the case of disciplining a dissonant or disobedient wife or avoiding a harmful person), whereas the latter means a definitive declaration that denounces a person as a kāfir (“infidel”). However, because such a charge would entail serious consequences for the accused, who would then be deemed to be a مُرْتَدّ (murtadd, “a backslider; an apostate), less extreme denunciations, such as an accusation of بِدْعَة (bidʽah, “[deviant] innovation; heresy”) followed by shunning and excommunication have historically preponderated over apostasy trials.
Takfīr has often been practiced through the courts. More recently, cases have taken place where individuals have been considered nonbelievers. These decisions followed lawsuits against individuals, mainly in response to their writings that some have viewed as anti-Islamic. The most famous cases are of Salman Rushdie, Nasr Abu Zayd, and Nawal El-Saadawi. The repercussions of such cases have included divorce, since under traditional interpretations of Islamic law, Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.
However, takfir remains a highly contentious issue, primarily since there is no universally accepted authority in Islamic law. Indeed, according to classical commentators, the reverse of blasphemy charges seems to hold true also, in that Muhammad reportedly equated the act of declaring someone a kafir itself to blasphemy if the accused was a Muslim.
Main article: Herem (censure)
Herem is the highest ecclesiastical censure in Judaism. It is the total exclusion of a person from the Jewish community. Except for cases in the Charedi community, cherem stopped existing after The Enlightenment, when local Jewish communities lost their political autonomy, and Jews were integrated into the gentile nations in which they lived. A siruv order, equivalent to a contempt of court, issued by a Rabbinical court may also limit religious participation.
Rabbinical conferences of movements do expel members from time to time, but sometimes choose the lesser penalty of censuring the offending rabbi. Between 2010 and 2015, the Reform Jewish Central Conference of American Rabbis expelled six rabbis, the Orthodox Jewish Rabbinical Council of America expelled three, and the Conservative Jewish Rabbinical Assembly expelled one, suspended three, and caused one to resign without eligibility for reinstatement. While the CCAR and RCA were relatively shy about their reasons for expelling rabbis, the RA was more open about its reasons for kicking rabbis out. Reasons for expulsion from the three conferences include sexual misconduct, failure to comply with ethics investigations, setting up conversion groups without the conference’s approval, stealing money from congregations, other financial misconduct, and getting arrested.
Judaism, like Unitarian Universalism, tends towards congregationalism, and so decisions to exclude from a community of worship often depend on the congregation. Congregational bylaws sometimes enable the board of a synagogue to ask individuals to leave or not to enter.
- Banishment in the Bible
- Excommunication of actors by the Catholic Church
- List of people excommunicated by the Catholic Church
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia