A Laymen’s Commentary on the Smalcald Articles: Excommunication

Part III, Article IX. Of Excommunication.

The greater excommunication, as the Pope calls it, we regard only as a civil penalty, and it does not concern us ministers of the Church. But the lesser, that is, the true Christian excommunication, consists in this, that manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin. And ministers ought not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment, or excommunication.

At the time of Luther, the greater ban of excommunication came with civil penalties that would remove a person from public life as well as from the church.  The civil government does have the right and privilege to construct laws regarding civil penalties. However, the church should not be in the business of forcing the state to set these up. This confusion of secular and ecclesiastical punishment lead to a misunderstanding and abuse of excommunication.

The true use of excommunication is to bring people to repentance in the case of open sin (1 Corinthians 5).  Excommunication is never done lightly nor without due diligence.  There are two levels of excommunication in the Lutheran church. The first is the ban to the Sacrament of the Altar.  This is typically done by the pastor if he knows the parishioner is still in the process of reconciliation, or if they are a member of a different denomination or confession.  The second ban is to remove them from the church, namely not permit them entrance at all. This form is rarely practiced.

In the end excommunication is always with the goal of repentance.  One can always come back and the Gospel can always be proclaimed. Too often though we are weak on this and do not use excommunication at all, even when it ought to be used.  Such as with those living in manifest sin.

1 “As surely as I live,” God said,
“I would not see the sinner dead.
I want him turned from error’s ways,
Repentant, living endless days.”

2 And so our Lord gave this command:
“Go forth and preach in ev’ry land;
Bestow on all My pard’ning grace
Who will repent and mend their ways.

3 “All those whose sins you thus remit
I truly pardon and acquit,
And those whose sins you will retain
Condemned and guilty shall remain.

4 “What you will bind, that bound shall be;
What you will loose, that shall be free;
To My dear Church the keys are giv’n
To open, close the gates of heav’n.”

5 The words which absolution give
Are His who died that we might live;
The minister whom Christ has sent
Is but His humble instrument.

6 When ministers lay on their hands,
Absolved by Christ the sinner stands;
He who by grace the Word believes
The purchase of His blood receives.

7 All praise to You, O Christ, shall be
For absolution full and free,
In which You show Your richest grace;
From false indulgence guard our race.

8 Praise God the Father and the Son
And Holy Spirit, Three in One,
As was, is now, and so shall be
World without end, eternally!

(LSB 614)

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