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This involves varying degrees of exclusion from the community of the faithful because of error in doctrine or lapse in morals. The term excommunicatus first appears in ecclesiastical documents in the fourth century. Discipline in the primitive church followed the Jewish model; cf. the threefold warning recommended for an offending brother in Matthew 18:15-17 (privately, before two or three witnesses, before the whole assembly), which conforms to Jewish practice.

The origin of excommunication in Christian terms is normally traced to the saying of Jesus about “binding and loosing” in Matthew 16:19 (to Peter) and 18:18 (to the disciples; cf. John 20:23). Even if such legislation were relevant at the time when the Evangelists wrote, there is no need to regard it as post- Easter invention. Paul advocates degrees of sanction to deal with offenders in the church, ranging from social deprivation (2 Thess. 3:10,14f.) to full exclusion from the community (1 Cor. 5:13; cf. v. 5 and 2 Cor. 2:5-11). The punishment in this case was the responsibility of the whole assembly (1 Cor. 5:4) and intended for the good of both the offender and the church (vv. 5- 7; cf. 1 Tim. 1:19f.). With the growth of the church, the problem of the authority to excommunicate also arose (cf. 3 John 9f.).

In the primitive Christian community, excommunication as such (“hand over to Satan,” 1 Cor. 5:5) implied complete isolation from the faithful. By the fifteenth century, a distinction had been introduced between excommunicates who were to be shunned for gross error (the vitandi) and those to be tolerated (the tolerati, who were rigidly excluded only from the sacraments). This distinction still operates in the Roman Catholic Church. In modern Protestant circles, despite the Anglican canons, formal excommunication is rarely imposed.

See also Anathema, Discipline, and Heresy.

EXCOMMUNICATION. The temporary or permanent exclusion of a church member from fellowship with the church.

Jewish practice.

Under the Old Covenant excommunication was represented by the ban (חֵ֫רֶם, H3051) placed on those who violated the Mosaic law, and as a result placed themselves outside the covenant relationship (e.g. Exod 30:33; Lev 17:4). There is reference to the threatened excommunication of those Israelites who did not come to Jerusalem in obedience to Ezra’s proclamation (Ezra 10:8).

In the NT there are references to Jewish discipline in relation to the synagogue (Luke 6:22; John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). There were different degrees of discipline, ranging from a temporary ban on contact with fellow Jews to the death penalty. The power to excommunicate seems generally to have been vested in the Sanhedrin.

In the teaching of Christ.

The Lord clearly recognized the place of church discipline. He gave His apostles, and through them the Church, the power to bind and loose (Matt 16:19; 18:18). He indicated the procedure which should be followed in the case of offending brethren. There must first be personal admonition, but if that does not have the desired effect there must be further admonition in the presence of witnesses. Should this not succeed, then the church must be notified. If the offender refuses to listen to the church there is no alternative but excommunication (Matt 18:15-17).

In the apostolic era.

Being deprived of Christian fellowship the offender loses any false sense of security he might otherwise enjoy by being allowed to remain in fellowship with the church. He must be brought to see the heinousness of the sin he has committed, and at the same time the world in general must be made aware that blatant sin cannot be tolerated within the Christian Church. Opinions vary as to the meaning of the Pauline phrase “the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor 5:5). The underlying thought may be that the offender, having been cut off from Christian fellowship, will become acutely conscious of his sin and guilt and will hate himself for what he has done.

Mention is made of action taken by a majority vote of church members, which resulted apparently in a change of heart on the part of the offender. The apostle asks that the church shall now regard the matter as closed and restore the disciplined member to full fellowship (2 Cor 2:5-11).

It seems that in the Early Church excommunication was exercised on both moral and doctrinal grounds. In the church at Corinth (1 Cor 5:1-8) the offense to which reference has already been made was one of incest. Paul intimates in his first letter to Timothy (1 Tim 1:20) that he had excommunicated Hymenaeus and Alexander because of their false teaching. A schismatic spirit was also regarded as an occasion for exclusion from the privileges of church fellowship (Titus 3:10). In the messages to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation the church of Ephesus is commended because it did not tolerate evil men, while the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira are reproved because they did not take effective action against heretical teachers or heathen abominations in their midst.

The purpose behind the exercise of church discipline is both to safeguard the purity of the church itself and to bring home to the offender his need of repentance. Those who are called upon to enforce such discipline must always be aware of their responsibility to restore the guilty party if and when he truly repents.

It is not absolutely clear from the NT what precise form excommunication took in every case. It would seem, however, that by the time the Pastoral Epistles were written, a more or less regular method of procedure had been adopted (1 Tim 5:19, 20) based on the Lord’s own teaching on the subject. Formal excommunication meant not only the severance of formal links with the local fellowship, but exclusion from the church life generally. Church members were counseled not to eat or enjoy social intercourse with one who had been excommunicated (1 Cor 5:11; 2 Thess 3:14, 15). At the same time they have a continuing responsibility to admonish and exhort the erring brother to repent. It is not to be assumed that someone who has been excommunicated ceases to be in “a state of grace.” It is clear that the Apostle Paul fully expected to see the disciplined offender numbered among the Lord’s people “in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5).

Whereas the exercise of church discipline is open to abuse (cf. 3 John 9, 10), the necessity for it remains. The Puritan preacher, John Owen, defined discipline as “the due exercise of that authority and power which the Lord Christ, in and by His Word, has granted unto the church for its continuance, increase and preservation in purity, order and holiness, according to His appointment.” Historically there has been considerable discussion whether the exercise of such discipline is vested in church officers or in the church itself as a corporate body. It is clear that when private remonstrances fail to achieve the necessary result the church must concern itself, and even though church officers may act on behalf of and in the name of the church, it is the corporate body which must assume ultimate responsibility for action taken. Church discipline must be seen not merely as a safeguard to the purity of the church, but also as a necessary means of promoting the glory of God. Those who are called upon to enforce it must themselves be sure that their motives are right and that the ultimate redemptive aim is not overlooked.

See Anathema.


J. Bannerman, The Church of Christ (1869), II, 186-200; D. D. Bannerman, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church (1887), 144-146, 176-188, 201-203; A. Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, ii 183, 184 (1891); SHERK 236 (1909).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)



Arts. in HDB, DB, Jew Eric, DCG; Martensen, Christian Ethics, III, 330 ff; Nowack, Benzinger, Heb Archaeol.; Commentary in the place cited.