On Excommunication

And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.  Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Mt. 18:17-18

“It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles…  that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you….  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my [Paul’s] spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

1 Cor. 5:1-5




Independent Churches do not have the Authority for Greater Excommunication



Order of Contents

On Different Types of Excommunication
On the Difference Between Lesser & Greater Excommunication
That Not Every Unrepented of Sin is Grounds for Excommunication
That Excommunication, in Regular Circumstances, must be Done with the
.      Consent of the Whole Church
Of the Status of Someone Greater-Excommunicated & How They Should
.      be Treated
That Excommunication does not Loose from Natural Duties
Does the Binding & Loosing of Excommunication Respect the Forgiveness
.      of Sins? & How Much is Required for an Excommunicated Person to be
.      Allowed back into the Church?
Must Church-Communion be Restored Immediately to a Repentant Person?
That Scandalous Persons are not Actually Excommunicated until they
.      are Excommunicated by those with the Power of the Keys, Though we Ought
.      Not to have Personal Fellowship with Them
The Chief Obstacles to Implementing Excommunication When it Should
.      be Done
That Excommunication May Not be Done by One Elder
That Erasure, in some Cases, is Natural, Biblical & Possible and/or Necessary



On Different Types of Excommunication

Samuel Rutherford

The Due Right of Presbyteries  (1644), pt. 1

Ch. 9, section 9, p. 283

“Our divines from Scripture make three degrees of excommunication:

1.  A debarring from the Lord’s Supper, Mt. 5:24, but it is not indeed a delivering to Satan or excommunication: this is called the lesser excommunication.

2.  A delivering to Satan, the greater excommunication, 1 Cor. 5:3-4, of this we speak here especially.

3.  Maranatha in the Syriac, is an utter cursing till Christ’s Second Coming.”


p. 273

“Therefore, he [the one that has been greater-excommunicated] is not altogether cut off from the Church, for delivering to Satan is medicinal, not vindictive, as the Great Excommunication is which is called Anathema Maranatha, which we cannot use but against such as have sinned the sin against the Holy Ghost, and is hardly discerned, and I would think such an one as Julian the Apostate should be debarred from the communion of the Word preached [unlike in greater-excommunication].

But these who are ordinarily excommunicated for contumacy and particular faults, and not for universal apostasy, are not altogether excluded from all brotherhood of the Church.”


p. 299

“2.  …For the power of the keys is not given to the catholic presbytery as to the first subject, to be a mean of edification in an ordinary and constant way; but only in an extraordinary and occasional way, in those things which concern the power of jurisdiction belonging to the whole catholic Church.

By ‘extraordinary’ here, I mean not that which is against a particular law of God, and cannot be done without a divine dispensation of providence, but by ‘extraordinary’ I mean that which is raro contingens, and does not oft fall out; as almost it never fal­ls out that the universal Church has need to excommuni­cate a national Church, for all and every one of a national Church do never fall away from the faith.  Yet a remote power for excommunication is in the catholic visible Church.”



On the Distinction Between Lesser Excommunication (or Barring from the Table) and Greater Excommunication (Removing from the Church)

Samuel Rutherford

A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the Churches of New England is now Re-Examined  (London, 1658)

bk. 1, ch. 5, pp. 20-1

“But for such as are excommunicated because of some particular scandal, as incest, or a particular heresy, and yet profess the truth, as to all other points, they are members cut off, and yet not cut off, in so far as they retain a profession, yea and to the knowledge of the Church, are visible converts, though in one particular scandal they lie without and give not such evidences of repentance [so] as [that] the Church can pardon them, as may be proven from the 2 Cor. 2:6-9; they are ordinary hearers of the Word, as such as must be reclaimed by the preached Word, as sick children, under the medicinal cure of [lesser] excommunication, and the preached Word that the spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord (1 Cor. 5), but they are not ordinary hearers as visible professors [simply, who have not been excommunicated], nor are they members complete [communicant] of the Church in the inner court, admitted to the seals;

2.  2 Thess. 3:14-15, They are cut off members, yet not counted as enemies, but to be admonished as brethren.  Therefore, though they be [in Greek] as heathens and publicans, Mt. 18, yet are they not simply to be counted pagans, nor occasional hearers, as pagans, but brethren: and though Mr. [John] Robinson [a Separatist], and some say the place, 2 Thess. 3, is not meant of excommunicated persons, beside that it is against the text, against the current of sound interpreters, yet it proves our point, that even such as walk disorderly, [in Greek], verse 11, and obey not the doctrine of the Gospel, and with whom we should not keep company, v. 14, and so ought to be excommunicate, by Mr. [Thomas] Hooker’s doctrine [a congregationalist], yet remain brethren, and are to be counted so by members of the Church, and are to hear the word of admonition, and so are visible professors, and so not utterly cast out of the visible Church, and Mr. Hooker doth no more refute our Protestants, than the Scripture who calls such as are fed, and the hearers of the Lord’s testimonies, the Israel of God, and the sheep of his pasture, his flock, inheritance, his vineyard his garath[?] of red vine, his spouse, and what is this but the Church visible, Ps. 147:19-20; Hos. 8:11.

What? because the excommunicated who thus hear ordinarily are not members of the Church, because they are not whole and entire members, it is no more consequently spoken, than if he would say a wounded soldier, because he is wounded, and under cure, is not a member of the army and sworn to the colors, because he cannot march and fight as other soldiers.”


p. 119

“4.  …it is sure [that] baptism in fieri, as it is administrate[d] and professed, is the means of the excommunicate[d] man’s solemn installing and engaging to be a follower of Christ: and by the scandal that brings on excommunication, baptism as professed and as binding is so far hurt as the Covenant-baptismal is violated: and if the man be excommunicate[d] for apostasy, then it is disputable whether baptism be not quite undone.”


See also

Gillespie, George – 111 Propositions

Sundry London Ministers – The Divine Right of Church Government.



That Not Every Unrepented of Sin is Grounds for Excommunication


Richard Baxter

Part 3, Question 94, ‘For what sins may a man be denied communion or [be] excommunicated?  Whether for impenitence in every little sin?  Or for great sin without impenitence?’  in A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience  (1673)

“3.  But ordinarily no man ought to be excommunicate[d] for any sin whatsoever, unless impenitence be added to the sin.  Because he is first to be admonished to repent, Mt. 18:15-16; Tit. 3:10; and repentance is the Gospel condition of pardon to believers.

4.  A man is not to be excommunicated for every sin which he repents not of, because:

1.  Else all men should be excommunicated.  For there are in all men some errors about sin and duty, and so some sins which men cannot yet perceive to be sins.

2.  And ministers are not infallible, and may take that for a sin which is no sin, and so should excommunicate the innocent.

3.  And daily unavoidable infirmities, though repented of, yet awaken not the soul sometimes to a notable contrition; nor are they fit matter for the Church’s admonition.  A man is not to be called openly to repentance before the Church for every idle word, or hour.

5.  Therefore, to excommunication these two must concur:  1. A heinousness in the sin;  2. Impenitence after due admonition and patience.”



The Scottish Form of Process  1707

Ch. 8, ‘Concerning Processes in order to the Censure of the Greater Excommunication’ in The Practice of the Free Church of Scotland in her Several Courts  8th ed. rev.  (Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1995), pp. 193-196


Walter Steuart of Pardovan

Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline, and Government of the Church of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1770), Book IV, Title VI, ‘Of the Order Proceeding to [Greater] Excommunication’, Section 2, p. 234.  See also the whole of Title VI.

“2.  Yet every error or difference in judgment about points wherein learned and godly men may differ, and which subverts not the faith, nor is destructive to godliness, or when persons, out of conscience, do not come up to the observation of all these rules, which are or shall be established by authority for regulating the outward worship of God and government of his Church, the censure of [greater] excommunication should not be inflicted for such causes. See [James] Durham on Scandal.  The letter from the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, with the answer of our General Assembly 1645.”



That Excommunication, in Regular Circumstances, must be Done with the Consent of the Whole Church


Gillespie, George – pp. 190-91  of pt. 3, ch. 8, Digression 4  in A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies…  (1637)



John Calvin

Commentary on 1 Cor. 5, v. 4

“Let us take notice, then, that in excommunicating this limitation be observed — that this part of discipline be exercised by the common counsel of the elders, and with the consent of the people, and that this is a remedy in opposition to tyranny.  For nothing is more at variance with the discipline of Christ than tyranny, for which you open a wide door, if you give one man the entire power.”


Jerome Zanchi & George Gillespie

Gillespie, English-Popish Ceremonies  (1637), bk. 3, ch. 8, Digression 4, p. 189

Sine totius, etc. ‘Without the consent of some whole Church’ says Zanchius (In. 4. Praec., col. 756):

‘no man ought to be excommunicat. Yea I adde, if it be a small Church, and not consisting of many learned and skillfull men, excommunication ought not to bee done, except the nighbour Churches be asked counsel of.’”



Of the Status of Someone Greater-Excommunicated & How They Should be Treated


Samuel Rutherford

The Due Right of Presbyteries…  (1644)

pt. 2, ch. 4, section 5, p. 231

“…and though excommunicate[d] persons defend and hold all fundamentals sound, and so may be materially a true Church, yet because their profession is no profession, but a denying of the power of godliness, they cannot be formally a visible Church, but are for scandals casten out of the visible Church.”


pt. 1, ch. 9, section 9, pp. 272-283

“2nd Conclusion:  Excommunicated persons though they be debarred from the Lord’s Supper and delivered to Satan, and [are] to be accompted [accounted] as heathen and publicans, yet are they not altogether and every way cut off from the visible Church.  2 Thess. 3:14, ‘If any obey not our word by letter, mark such an one, [in Greek,] with the note of excommunication (says Beza), and have no fellowship with him that he may be ashamed; that is, as Calvin well expounds, exclude him out of the company of the faithful and excommunicate him.  So also Bullinger, Marlorat and Jodocus Vullichius; v. 15, ‘Yet accompt him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.’

I know Mr. [John] Robinson [a New England, Independent, separatist] denies this place to be understood of any excommunicated person, but he wills the Thessalonians not to countenance, but to show their dislike of idle persons; and his reasons are:

1.  Because if Christ bids accompt the excommunicated person as an heathen and a publican, would Paul thereafter accompt him as a brother?

2.  Idolaters and heretics are to be excommunicated, and will you have such a brotherhood, as [a] brother-idolater?

But I answer:

1.  We read not in the New Testament where Christ or his apostles bid break off Christian fellowship with any, but there is excommunication signified.  If these words [in Greek], ‘have no fellowship with him, that he may be ashamed,’ signify not to forbear fellowship with him as a cast-out person, but only to show their dislike of the sin, that he may see it and be ashamed, as Robinson says, there is no more punishment to be inflicted on a contumacious person who will not obey the apostle’s words than is inflicted for any sin to which contumacy is not added; for we are to show our dislike of any sin, even the seen infirmities of our brethren.  For Augustine says, peccatum tuum est, quic quid tibi non displicet, ‘every sin in another is thine, against which thou showest not thy dislike.’

2.  The Law of nature does enforce (Lev. 19:17) that we should generally rebuke our brethren, and so show our dislike for any sin.

3.  ‘Be not mixed in fellowship with such a man,’ is a public abstinence from communion with him, else it does not shame him.  For every shown dislike, or not-communion with another in his sin, is not that which will put public shame on him that he may repent, as is intimated here.

2.  Christ bids not accompt him a publican, but [in Greek] is a note of similitude.  Simile qua simile non est idem.  ‘Every thing like is not the same.’  So that he may well be accompted as an heathen, not being altogether an heathen, and yet a brother, whose salvation and gaining you must intend.  Nor is it altogether against the comparison of Christ and that gentle waiting on perverse idolaters and excommunicate[d] persons to admonish them as brethren.  Seeing it becomes us to be merciful as our heavenly Father is, 2 Tim. 2:24-25; Mt. 5:45.  And we must forgive our offending brethren seventy seven times, Mt. 18:22.  And therefore though he were twice excommunicated, he is to be dealt with as a brother.  And an idolatrous brother is no worse than a Samaritan neighbor or friend.

2.  If excommunication be a medicine of the Church toward a sick son, the end whereof is salvation, ‘that the spirit may be saved in the Lord’s Day,’ 1 Cor. 5:5, ‘that he may learn not to blaspheme,’ 1 Tim. 1:12.  ‘That be may be gained,’ Mt. 18:15.  Therefore, he is not altogether cut off from the Church; for delivering to Satan is medicinal, not vindictive, as the great excommunication is which is called Anathema Maranatha, which we cannot use but against such as have sinned the sin against the Holy Ghost, and is hardly discerned; and I would think, such an one as Julian the Apostate should be debarred from the communion of the Word preached.  But these who are ordinarily excommunicated for contumacy and particular faults, and not for universal apostasy, are not altogether excluded from all brotherhood of the Church.

3.  If the excommunicate[d] person be excluded from all privileges of Church-fellowship, then also is he excluded from hearing the Word as a sick patient under Church-medicine [and yet greater-excommunicated persons were allowed the hearing of the preached Word in the Church of Scotland]; for it is a pastoral, and so to our [Independent] Brethren a Church-act, that the Shepherd strengthen the diseased, heal that which is sick, bind up that which is broken, bring again that which is driven away, seek that which is lost, Eze. 34.

4.  And [it is a pastoral act to] feed the flock with knowledge, as a pastor according to God’s heart and a bishop, Jer. 3:15; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:2; Jer. 23:1-4; Jer. 50:7; Isa. 56:10; Zech. 11:9-12.  It is a pastoral act to preach with all authority, reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine, 2 Tim. 4:2.

5.  He should as a pastor teach sound doctrine, exhort, convince the gainsayers, and silence heretics, Tit. 1:9.  But seeing the excommunicated person is not excluded from hearing the Word, and the pastor has a pastoral care of his soul and is to intend that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord, 1 Cor. 5:5, he cannot be utterly cut off from all Church-fellowship.

Also this [Independent] Author says that Church-members are to be admonished, and if we do it not, we hate them in our heart, Lev. 19:17; and if we warn not an Achan, his sin is the sin of all Israel.  Now if an excommunicated brother remain one whom we are to gain, and whose salvation we are to intend, if he be an ordinary co-worshipper in hearing, the object of pastoral and brotherly teaching and admonishing, he cannot be wholly excluded from all Church-fellowship.  And this also proves that these be members of the visible Church in some degree of Church-worship who yet are debarred from the seal of the Covenant.

And it cannot be said that the excommunicated person ought not to rebuke his brother and not hate him in his heart, as Lev. 19:17.  Penal excommunication looses not from the Law of nature.  But our [Independent] brethren make rebuking and mutual exhorting one of another Church duties of watchfulness; then is the excommunicated in some degree of Church-membership.

Nor can our brethren here reply with good reason:  Indians and Turks may hear the Word as well as the excommunicated person; and therefore hearing of the word is no note of Church communion.

I answer:

[1.]  The Turk and Indian must hear the Word, but at the by, and not professedly; but the excommunicated person by the tie of his Covenant made in baptism, and that relation he has to the Church under whose cure he is for the saving of his spirit, and to that Gospel which he professes, is obliged to the Church-communion of public-hearing [of] the Word; yea, and according to his oath given, to be subject to the ministry of such a man whom he chose for his pastor, to give obedience to him in the Lord, however in that one particular for which he is cast out he has failed against all the foresaid obligations.

2.  The Church, as a visible Church, exercises no medicinal acts upon Turks or heathen persons, and does not repute them as heathen, but does repute them to be heathen.  Nor have the pastors any pastoral charge of Turks and heathens except [that] they would desire to be baptized and profess the faith.  But the Church as the Church exercises medicinal acts of shunning Christian fellowship with the excommunicated, and that with a continuated intention even when he is excommunicated, that his spirit may be saved in the day of God; and the pastor has a pastoral, and so a ministerial care and obligation of pastoral teaching, admonishing and persuading him to return to God.

4.  Neither do we mean with Suarez and other schoolmen that excommunication does not so cut off a member as it removes not that baptismal character, or that passive power to receive the sacraments, or that the prayers of the Church are not offered of direct intention for the inwardly humbled and repenting excommunicated person while the sentence of absolution be pronounced by the Church, as Soto, Adrianus and Alanus think, because, forsooth, Innocentius III says [that] the excommunicated person, though repenting and doing what he can to be reconciled to the Church, yet without absolution from the censure, he is mortuus ecclesiastice, ‘dead ecclesiastically’, and so in Heaven also.  Though Navar, Turrecremata, Richard [and] Anton. think the penitent, excommunicated person is included in the general desires of the Church in their prayers because it is not the intention of the Church to exclude a true and living member of Christ’s body from a communion-spiritual with Christ.

But our meaning is that the excommunicated person is deprived of actual fellowship with Christ in the seals of the Covenant, as the Council of Arausican, A gremio sanctae matris Ecclesiae et consortio totius Christianitatis eliminamus.  His sin is bound in Heaven, yet so as the salvation of his spirit is intended by the Church; see for this Augustine.  We understand not a baptismal character, except regeneration and remission of sins, which cannot be taken away by excommunication, and therefore a moral claim to the holy things of God, and that for that time and state is rather removed, than any internal right to Christ.

Therefore some say, in this he loses rather possessionem quam jus, ‘possession than right’.  As a nobleman, for some offence, of three dwelling houses that he has, is confined to one of the three, so as he may not remove from that one; yet does he not lose right to the other two.

5.  All our divines, standing for the certainty of the perseverance of the regenerated, answer Papists and Arminians alleging for the apostasy of the saints, the example of the regenerated who may be excommunicated, that excommunication does never evince [prove] that the person excommunicated is out of the state of grace, but only that he has fallen into a scandalous external fact, which deserves that he should be delivered to Satan; and that one may be a member of the visible Church and converted to God, who is excommunicated.

Lastly…  But the believer is edified thereby [by excommunication], for he is delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord…  It were an inconvenience [contradiction] to deliver a [true] member of Christ to Satan morally, as 1 Cor. 6:15.  This is [would be] a sinful deliverance, when one is given over to Satan, that Satan may work in him as in his work-house and as in a child of disobedience, Eph. 2:2; a converted soul cannot thus be delivered to Satan; and this [former conception] we abhor to write no less than Robinson [who had opposed it as an objection].  But to deliver to Satan penally, as to a penal torturer who works sorrow and fear in the conscience for sin, to humble the offender, and to save his spirit in the day of Christ, is neither horror by word nor by writ, but [rather it is] the Word of God, 1 Cor. 5:5.

…and Field, ‘Excommunication does not wholly’ (saith he) ‘cut off men from the visible Church;’ and his reason is good, because they may and often do retain, first, the profession of pure truth; secondly, the character of baptism; thirdly, they profess obedience to their pastors; fourthly, they will not join to any other communion.  And therefore to say with our [Independent] Author, we dare not, to wit:

‘That though the seed of faith may remain in the excommunicated person; yet to the society of the faithful joined in a particular visible Church, they are not knit, but wholly cut off from their communion.  Also, he is delivered unto Satan, and therefore wholly cut off from the communion of the Church; and so from the seals, he and his seed, as heathen and heathen’s seed are.’

…So we are to condemn these who are more rigorous toward such as are excommunicated than Christ is: for Christ keeps them as sick children within his visible Church and uses Satan as the physician’s servant, who [the physician] boils herbs and dresses drugs for them, while he [the servant], by God’s permission, torments his spirit with the conscience of sin.  As when a child is sick (says worthy Cartwright) the father calls a college of physicians to consult about medicine to be given to the child.  So is the contumacious person under the medicine of excommunication administered by the Church-presbytery.  Now this we cannot say of heathen and publicans.

And therefore Augustine says excellently, excommunicated persons non esse ethnicos, sed tanquam ethnicos; ‘are not heathen, but esteemed as heathen,’ (ch. 6) and Chrysostom says the same in sense.  Yea, I gather this necessary distinction out of the Fathers, as Chrysostom, Theophylactus, Hilarius, that they are not members of the visible Church actu pleno, in a full act, because they want external communion with the Church, yet actu imperfecto, imperfectly they are members.

A second distinction I collect from Ireneus, Gregorius, Hieronim., Optatus, Augustine, that they are exclusi ab ecclesia quoad communionem, non ab ecclesia ipsa.  ‘They are excluded from the visible communion of the Church, rather than from the Church.’  A third distinction may be drawn from Eugenius, Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, while they call baptism, januam spiritualem, and lavacrum animae, the door of our entry to the Church (for which cause papists, though fondly, place their font at the Church-door) as the lavator of the soul.  So as excommunicated persons are within the door of the visible Church, though not admitted to the King’s table.

4.  The schoolmen do allow to the excommunicated persons, jus, non consortium; ‘[a] right, but not fellowship.’

5.  Turrecremaeta, Vega., Soto, Canus, insinuat distinctionem inter partes et membra Ecclesiae visibilis, because of some external communion that they have, as teeth are parts of the body in a new born infant, but they are not members; but they deny them to be members because they are cut off.

6.  Suarez excellently, privantur quoad communicationemcum aliis membris, non quoad esse membri.  ‘They are deprived according to the act of communion with other members, not as if they ceased to be members;’ as a member which cannot receive nourishment is yet still a member.

Our divines from Scripture make three degrees of excommunication:

1.  A debarring from the Lord’s Supper, Mt. 5:24, but it is not indeed a delivering to Satan or excommunication: this is called the lesser excommunication.

2.  A delivering to Satan, the greater excommunication, 1 Cor. 5:3-4, of this we speak here especially.

3.  Maranatha in the Syriac an is utter cursing till Christ’s second coming.”



Westminster Assembly – ‘Debate on Church Power; Session 603, March 13, 1645’, pp. 294-8  in ed. Hall & Hall, Paradigms in Polity…  (Eerdmans, 1994)  This section is an excerpt from the Westminster Assembly minutes.

Includes the notes of speeches on the topic by Coleman (Erastian), Rutherford, Gillespie, Lightfoot (Erastian), Seaman, Vines, Palmer & Maynard (Pres. & Erastian).

Durham, James – Pt. 3, Ch. 16, ‘What Further Duty is Required of Private Professors Towards Heretics that are Cut Off?’  in The Dying Man’s Testament...  (1659)



That Excommunication does Not Loose from Natural Duties


Davenant, John – Question 48, ‘Ecclesiastical Censures Do Not Set Aside the Obligations of Duty in Civil Life’  in The Determinations, or Resolutions of Certain Theological Questions, Publicly Discussed in the University of Cambridge  trans. Josiah Allport  (1634; 1846), pp. 487-501  bound at the end of John Davenant, A Treatise on Justification, or the Disputatio de Justitia...  trans. Josiah Allport  (1631; London, 1846), vol. 2

Davenant was an Anglican professor.



Does the Binding & Loosing of Excommunication Respect the Forgiveness of Sins, or Not?  & How Much is Required for an Excommunicated Person to be Allowed Back into the Church?

Samuel Rutherford

The Due Right of Presbyteries  (1644), p. 278

“5.  All our divines, standing for the certainty of the perseverance of the regenerated, answer Papists and Arminians alleging for the apostasy of the saints, the example of the regenerated who may be excommunicated, that excommunication does never evince [prove] that the person excommunicated is out of the state of grace, but only that he has fallen into a scandalous external fact, which deserves that he should be delivered to Satan; and that one may be a member [in some way] of the visible Church and converted to God, who is excommunicated.”


A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker… wherein the way of the Churches of New England is now Re-examined  (London, 1658), Book 1, ch. 14, pp. 148-151

“Hence, by the way, a word of that necessary and judicious question moved by Calvin, Mt. 18:18, ‘What ye bind on earth,’ etc.  Since the Church tolerateth many hypocrites and absolveth and looseth many who do but counterfeit and fancy repentance, shall we say that such are loosed and pardoned in heaven?

Some say [that] by ‘heaven’ here is meant the visible Church; and they distinguish between sin and scandal: and therefore that by ‘binding and loosing’, here is meant, not forgiveness or justification, or absolution from the guilt of sin in Heaven, or in the Court of God, or condemnation for that sin, but only deliverance from scandal and the removing of scandal and admitting of the man into the visible Church as a member: suppose his repentance be but hypocritical, yet when the Church proceedeth impartially according to the Rule of Christ, the sentence is ratified by God, and the man is loosed from the scandal, though not from the sin; the sin is yet bound before God, because he hath not really repented; otherwise the Church, who knows not heart-actings and who really repent, who not, though proceeding right according to the rule of Christ, should not have the promise of ratifying in Heaven what they do on earth, fulfilled to them; which cannot be said.

But taking it for a good observation that Calvin hath here, that Mt. 16, Christ speaketh of binding and loosing concional, by the Word preached; but here, Mt. 18, he speaketh especially of binding and loosing juridical in the court of the Church, by excommunication or absolution from that sentence.

In the former consideration the question is easy.  No pastor in preaching Gospel-promises or threatnings can bind, but conditionally: If the party do not believe and repent, the man’s sin is bound in Heaven; if he do believe and repent, his sin is loosed in heaven.

As to the other [Mt. 18], we find in the Word no such signification of binding and loosing in regard of scandal, but they are ever spoken of in regard of sin and the guilt thereof.  And therefore:

1. Calvin saith well that the speech of Christ is directed to no other than to those who duly and sincerely do reconcile themselves with the Church; and the Lord being willing to comfort trembling consciences, is not setting down a rule for comforting of hypocrites: But by the contrary, because hypocrites s[b?]oldly provoke to the Tribunal of God, when for gross scandals they are justly cast out; our Savior saith, The sentence of excommunication is ratified in Heaven.  The Scripture-rule is for such as obey, and for those who fulfill the condition, non de obliquis [not for those who are crosswise].

As to the doubt that the Church often absolves such who really repent not, how then can the hypocrite be loosed in Heaven, when the Lord knows he does but fancy repentance?

Answer:  Two things here are to be distinguished:

1.  The Church’s proceeding in the external Court as relating to them, if they impartially, according to the rule of Christ, proceed and be not sudden in re-admitting, but see [that] the incestuous man near swallowed up (though one man’s measure of visible repentance be not the rule to all) before they confirm their love to him, and forgive him, 2 Cor. 2.  Suppose his repentance be but counterfeit, or not saving and real, as was that of Ahab, yet are they to receive him, and admit him to the ordinances, and the Lord ratifies what they do in Heaven.  As:

1.  The Lord ratifies Philip’s baptizing of Magus; and the Lord approves the servants inviting to the marriage-supper the man that wanted the wedding-garment: for what the Lord commands, that He must approve and ratify in Heaven.

2.  What in charitable judgments is praise-worthy, that God also must ratify in Heaven; yea, it is praise-worthy in the disciples, when they heard Christ say, ‘One of you twelve hath a Devil, one of you shall betray the Son of Man;’ every one suspected and feared himself; none of the eleven suspected Judas, but gave him charity.

3.  Without this God should not approve the gathering of Churches, nor the casting of the draw-net in the sea, nor the sowing of seed upon all sort of grounds, the way side, the thorny, the rocky, the good ground, that the chosen, who are yet in the state of nature, may be brought in and effectually called.  But in receiving in excommunicates, the Church would not be sudden.  In the ancient Church, sacrificers to Idols were six years before they were received; they that defiled themselves with beasts, were debarred from the sacrament thirty years; adulterers, seven; women who made away their births, ten years; such as uncompelled denied the faith, twelve years.  What other years Burchardus and Gratianus have, may be seen.  Something for edification sure there was here.

2.  There is another thing here, which concerneth the conscience of him who is to be received, and when the Church-Court applies the sentence to the conscience for his personal pardon, sure whatever satisfaction the people have for removing of the scandal, the sentence of absolution so relating to him, is concional, not properly juridical; and conditional, not absolute; and therefore is to be pronounced by the mouth of the Church, the Pastor, thus: ‘Be it unto thee according to thy faith and repentance;’ and except the man really repent, his sin is not loosed in Heaven.

So then, the Churches loosing from the scandal is conditional, upon a seen condition of outward repentance morally sincere to the Churches apprehension, but they simply and absolutely make him a citizen of the Church and admit him to ordinances according to the command of Christ, both in private and public Church offences (If thy brother who offended, repent, forgive him), but his loosing from the sin or guilt in heaven, is ever conditional and never absolutely to be pronounced by the Pastor, the mouth of the Church, who cannot certainly know the condition.  Hence:

1.  The scandal is loosed in earth and heaven; the Church impartially following the rule of Christ sometime when the sin remains and is bound in heaven.

2.  The Church may say the man is absolutely freed from the scandal, so as the Church sins not in receiving him in, if they follow the rule; but he sins, and the scandal is bound in coming in, if he repent not: and also as to the guilt, he is freed from the sin only conditionally, for the condition of removal of the scandal is seen, and visible: but the condition of the loosing from sin is invisible.

3.  Sometime the man is both loosed from the scandal and from the sin, and every way loosed in heaven and earth, when he both really and visibly repents.

4.  The Church should go as near in readmitting a fallen sinner, and loosing him on earth as they can discern the Lord’s loosing in Heaven: the Corinthians seem to exceed in this, 2 Cor. 2:7, so that contrariwise, ye ought rather to forgive him.

5.  There is more of real saintship required, to receive in again one who hath been once a member and hath fallen, and was cast out, than to admit a member newly come from paganism:

1.  The larger the means of salvation have been, the greater guiltiness, as the scandal of a Christian is greater than the sin and scandal of a Sodomite, Mt. 10:15; Mt. 11:22; Mt. 12:41-42.  And therefore the repentance of the one must be more signal and larger than the repentance of the other.

2.  There is not such a measure of marriage-love required of a virgin before she be married, as after she hath been married, and born children to the husband; nor can any say there is so much knowledge required in a new entrant that knows not the first elements of philosophy, as in one who hath studied seven years.

Hence 6, it is utterly false that as visible saintship and real repentance, as far as can be, is required of one excommunicate, before he can be received in again; so real visible saintship, as far as can be seen, must be required in members before they be first admitted.  But I desire our [congregationalist] Brethren, if they judge the first receiving into the Church a loosing from sin and scandal, as readmission is, they will teach it me.”



Must Church-Communion be Restored Immediately to a Repentant Person?

Richard Baxter

Part 3, Question 94, ‘For what sins may a man be denied communion or [be] excommunicated?  Whether for impenitence in every little sin?  Or for great sin without impenitence?’  in A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience  (1673)

“2.  Some sins may be of so heinous scandal, that if the person repent of them this day, his absolution and reception may be delayed till the scandal be removed:

1.  Because the public good is to be preferred before any man’s personal good.

2.  And the Churches, or enemies about, cannot so suddenly know of a man’s repentance.  If they hear of a man’s murder, perjury or adultery today, and hear that he is absolved tomorrow, they will think that the Church consists of such, or that it makes very light of sin.  Therefore the ancient Churches delayed and imposed penances, partly to avoid such scandal.

3.  And partly because that some sins are so heinous that a sudden profession is not a sufficient evidence of repentance, unless there be also some evidence of contrition.”



That Scandalous Persons are not Excommunicated until they are Actually Excommunicated by those with the Power of the Keys, Though We Ought Not to have Personal Fellowship with Them 


Rutherford, Samuel – pp. 158-159  of Ch. 11, ‘Whither or No Separation from a True Church Because of the Sins of Professors & Manifest Defense of Scandalous Persons can be Proved from God’s Word, to be Lawful’  in A Peaceable & Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland… (London, 1642)  The answer to the question in the title of the chapter is ‘No’.

Rutherford’s context is writing against the Separatists from reformed churches.  Gillespie’s context below is writing of an ungodly toleration under imposed prelates in the presbyterian Church of Scotland. 

The Informatory Vindication below that, was a Cameronian document justifying their practice separating from the established congregations of the declined Church of Scotland during the Killing Times, under Erastian and Prelatic perseuction.  While the separatism of the Cameronians was contrary to the ecclesiology of the Second Reformation of Scotland, and we do not condone the larger context of the quote, yet, the quote itself is, in the main, on target. 



George Gillespie

A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies...  (1637), pt. 3, ch. 8, Digression 4, p. 190-91

“And that otherwise, if the tares grow so rank that they cannot be pulled up, and if the same evil disease take hold of so very many that the consent of the Church cannot be had to the excommunication of a wicked person, then good men must grieve and groan, and endure what they cannot help. Therefore, that excommunication may fruitfully succeed, the consent of the people is necessary…

Howbeit, even in such cases when the consent of the Church cannot be had to the execution of this discipline, faithful pastors and professors [laymen] must, every one for his own part, take heed that he have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkeness, but even reprove them; yea they ought, in sensu negativo, excommunicate those who should be (but are not) excommunicate positively: which negative excommunication is not an ecclesiastical censure, but either a bare punishment, or a cautel and animadversion; And so says the  Archbishop of Spalato [Marco Antonio de Dominis, d. 1624] (De Republica Ecclesiastica, vol. 2, bk. 6, ch. 9, num. 8, pp. 735-36), not only one brother may refuse to communicate with another, but a people also may refuse to communicate with their pastor, which he confirms by certain examples.”


Informatory Vindication  1687

Head 4, p. 70

“For, though we do not take upon us a presbyterial or synodical Church power to inflict juridical Church censures upon them that deserve them, yet we think this in our capacity and discretive judgment is incumbent upon us; to wit, according as we know they would manifestly incur the sentence of excommunication, deposition, deprivation, suspension, or rebuke, according to the degrees of their offence after rejected admonitions;

We may by our discountenance testify our dislike of their ways, not inflicting this as a censure, but signifying, hereby our sense of the moral obligation and equity of these censures when legally inflicted.  For though none have the power of the keys but Church Officers; yet people have a discretive power over their own practice, anticipating that power when it cannot be in Christ’s method exerted.”



The Chief Practical Obstacles to Implementing Excommunication when it Should be Done


Fox, John –  ‘What are the Chief Obstacles Hindering Excommunication’  1551  from ch. 8 of De Censura Ecclesiastica Interpellatio, as appended to Book 3 of George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, pp. 274-276

Fox was the one who wrote Fox’s Book of Martyrs.  He gives three main reasons why the implementation of excommunication was being resisted in the churches in his day, namely: 

(1) persons’ minds being on the wealth and stature of this world,
(2) nominal Christian persons which serve their own belly and sins, and
(3) those who are not convicted of their sins, pervert the Scriptures and promise themselves a wicked liberty of sinning.



That Excommunication May Not be Done by One Elder


Excommunication is a power of jurisdiction (including things like ordination, Church discipline, defining dogma, etc.), which take officers acting together to do, not a power of order (things like preaching, administering the sacraments, etc.), which a minister may do of himself.

The extraordinary offices in Scripture, such as the apostles, prophets and evanglelists could ordain and excommunicate of themselves, however the regular offices in the Church cannot.  Those who argued that one officer, usually a bishop, could ordain or excommunicate of themselves, Papists and Prelatists, usually argued continuity from the examples of the apostles, prophets and evangelists, specifically in passages like 1 Cor. 5 and the apostle Paul’s involvement with the excommunication there.  Hence, part of the reformed counter-argument involved the principle of cessationism (amongst other things).

The reason why ordination of ministers and excommunication are specifically held forth prominently in these discussions is because they are the highest actions of ecclesiastical power in their kinds.  All lesser actions in their kinds do not necessarily take the explicit power of a presbytery to do (the presbytery holding the root of Church authority), but they do take the consensus of elders (such as a local session), and may not be performed by one elder.



Gillespie, George – Digression 4, ‘Of the Power of the Keys & Ecclesiastical Censures’  in A Disputate Against the English-Popish Ceremonies...  (1637), pt. 3, ch. 8

This topic was a live issue in both Scotland and England when Gillespie wrote this, just before the Second Reformation in Scotland (1638).



That Removing from the Rolls and/or Erasure, in some Cases, is Natural, Biblical & Possible and/or Necessary  & that being a member of the visible Church is not restricted to being under the government of a local church.


While it does not appear that an example of erasure is in Scripture (as one might expect, Scripture not being intended to be an extensive book of ecclesiastical procedure), yet erasure necessarily follows from Biblical principles and is consistent with, and necessary from natural principles.

Erasure necessarily follows from Biblical principles in that:

Greater excommunication is not appropriate for every sin continued in without repentance.  Instances of such include, but are not limited to: remaining, indwelling sins (Rom. 7) and sins involved with struggling not to walk after the flesh (Rom. 8).  As greater-excommunication involves handing persons over to Satan (1 Cor. 5:5) and not regarding them as visible Christians, so it is not appropriate for many sins that a given church member may continue in over long periods of time without recognition of, or repentance from (as many reformed books of Church discipline teach).

Yet if church members leave a church for whatever reason (of which there are many), and yet cannot be transferred, either for practical reasons or even moral reasons, and yet they do not thereby lose their credible profession of faith (though perhaps they be in sin), then it would be inappropriate to greater-excommunicate them.

The opposite view, that one can only leave a local church by transfer, excommunication or death, being founded on the premise that God so regulates Church procedures in his Word (by sola Scriptura) such that Church procedures not found in his Word are invalid, is erroneous and contrary to nature in that:

Though the transfer of members from one church to another is evidenced in Paul’s epistles, yet such is not an inherently religiously thing; rather Paul is simple recognizing the natural propriety of and need of commending to another group of Christians a certain church-member so that they may safely, with trust, receive him for the good name he has.

This principle is natural, and the procedure of transfer amidst groups of an organization is something that is used civilly, in society at large (amongst the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, etc.), and is not inherently religious.  Therefore it is not regulated as such.  Rather, the apostles used it because church government is to be done in accordance with the light of nature.

Because such things, including erasure (which is used by non-religious organizations), are natural, they need not necessarily be proof-texted from Scripture, they being in consistency with the general principles of the Word.



William Ames

English [Congregationalist] Puritanism, containing the Main Opinions of the Rigidest Sort of Those that are Called Puritans [of the Congregational Variety] in the Realm of England  (1641), pp. 18-19

“12.  They [puritans] hold that if any member of the congregation having committed a scandalous sin, shall of self forsake the worship of God, and the spiritual communion with the Church, that the Church shall then send for the said person, and if he refuse to come, they shall (after much seeking and long patience) openly declare that he has no part nor portion in the holy things of God among them; that then the ecclesiastical officers have no authority or jurisdiction over him, but only the civil magistrate, and those unto whom he owes civil subjection, as parents, masters, landlords, etc.”


Samuel Rutherford

 A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker  (1658)  Rutherford in these passages is arguing against Congregationalism.

Ch. 19, p. 98

“It is uncharitable, and against the Word, to teach that when a church is dissolved, by no sin and scandal-visible, but by persecution or pestilence, that the dissolved members, though both real and visible converts, have no right to the ordinances: for if the formal cause, to wit, their confederacy into one visible body, as Mr. [Thomas] Hooker saith, be removed, their visible and external right is removed.

The like is to be said of visible professors, and of members of another congregation, and known godly sojourners [travelers]; these Mr. Hooker excommunicates for no scandal, visible and invisible: for impossible it is that they can meet together in one place with their own church…”


Ch. 21, p. 119

“It is bad divinity to join the nocent [noxious] excommunicate[d] man with the innocent dissolved member.”


Ch. 24, p. 139

“The seed of dissolved members, visible saints, are then [upon Hooker’s congregationalist paradigm and argument] without any sin in parents and children (to speak comparatively) [are] born pagans, but the Scripture teacheth us of no losing of covenant-right but by sin, either of the parties themselves or of their parents.”


Ch. 25

p. 159

“Apostles and members-dissolved are not fixed members of a single congregation, and yet members they must be of the visible, Church-catholic: sure it is no paradox, that the Apostles are such members, for they had right to all the seals in all Congregations; Ergo, they must by this reason be members and no members: the like may be said of godly professors so journers, of these baptized by Iohn Baptist, Matth. 3. by Pe∣ter, Act. 10. by Paul, Act. 16. For if we say that professors are only members of a particular Congregation, then we con∣fine a Brother to be gained only to one Congregation, let all the rest perish, they are not my brethren.”


p. 161

“From all this its clear that it is false which Mr. Hookr saith, ‘that all particular churches are all the members that the Church-visible hath.’  For apostles, godly sojourners, dissolved members, are not members of congregations, nor are they congregations themselves, and yet they are members of the visible, integral, catholic Church.”


Ch. 26, p. 164

[If losing membership in a local congregation makes one not to be a member of the visible Church, then a pastor ceasing to be a pastor of a dissolved congregation would defrock him, as congregationalists held.  Yet:]

“When the congregation is dissolved by persecution, the godly pastor [on the supposition of congregationalism] is cast out of his Master’s service by the nature of this [local-church] covenant [of the congregationalists], because he is faithful to Christ, and that by Christ Himself.”


Book 2

Ch. 6, p. 348

“Many martyrs faithfully perform congregational duties, yet doth not Christ make good this promise [to build them on the Rock, Mt. 16], for when members are dissolved by banishment, they are thrown off the rock [Hooker had defined a local congregationalist church as those built on the Rock].

That which by our Savior is set down, as contrary to their comfortable union with, and building upon Christ their rock, is being foiled [by governments banishing faithful local church members out of the local church] with the temptations of Satan and Hell, and being thrown off the rock [on the congregationalists’ definition], like the hypocrite, Mt. 7, who is the house built on the sand…  and so by this interpretation the Lord’s dissolving of a church, which often is a work of mercy, and putting of his children to an honorable condition of martyrdom, and glorifying of God by suffering and scattering of his Church, as Acts 8:12, must be a throwing them off the rock Christ, and a prevailing of the ports of Hell against them: contrary to the scope and intent of Christ in the text.”




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