If you are not aware yet, there is a black-side to conservative presbyterianism. For several decades numerous heavy-handed independent ‘presbyterian’ churches have torn lives and families apart by excommunicating believers, where one’s judges are their own accusers, with little due process and no recourse for appeal.
What is not always well known is that the Bible and historic presbyterianism do not allow independent churches to excommunicate believers out of the visible Church, and hence such ‘excommunications’ are invalid. It is your Savior’s will that ‘you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ (Jn. 8:32)
Order of Contents
Practical Reasons – Gillespie
Books of Discipline (6)
Historic Quotes (6)
Can local churches excommunicate a member out of the visible Church?
While the local session of elders have the Biblical authority to bar offending persons from the Lord’s Table (lesser excommunication), as to the question of whether a local session has the power to excommunicate a person out of the visible Church, not recognize them as a Christian and hand them over to Satan (greater excommunication, 1 Cor. 5:5), the Biblical and historic presbyterian answer to that question is: No.
It was not Christian lay persons or the local session of elders that received the Keys of the Kingdom of Christ to bind and loose, but the apostles as representatives of the universal visible Church (Jn. 20:22-23; Mt. 28:16,18-20; 16:18-19; Eph. 4:11-12), which authority has descended upon the regular and continual presbyteries of the Church (1 Tim. 4:14).
In Matt 18:15-20, the classic text on Church discipline, the ‘church’ has the power of excommunication. What does the word ‘church’ mean in this passage?
In the Old Testament, matters of great weight were prescribed to be appealed to the Levitical officers in Jerusalem (Dt. 17:8; see this in practice in 2 Chron. 19:8). As George Gillespie argued (in Aaron’s Rod, p. 188), the Hebrew equivalent of the word ‘church’ is often used to designate these great assemblies of elders and rulers of Israel (1 Chron. 13:2,4; 29:1; 2 Chron. 1:3, etc.). And that which is commanded to, and performed by, the elders (Dt. 19:12; Josh. 20:4), is also said to have been done by the congregation (Num. 35:24; Josh. 20:6; Ex. 12:3,21), as the elders are the congregation’s legal representatives. “It was not, therefore, to any assembly, but to an assembly of rulers that causes were brought in the Old Testament.”
In the day when Christ spoke, before the New Testament Church was separate from the synagogue, the word ‘church’ referred to the ecclesiastical, judicial, ruling assemblies of the synagogue, and excommunications (according to the Jewish practice) were not binding if pronounced by fewer than ten men (see Aaron’s Rod, pp. 23-4). These ruling assemblies of elders alone had the power of excommunication, and are called ‘presbyteries’ in the Greek of Luke 22:66,71 and Acts 22:5.
In the New Testament the word ‘church’ often refers to greater, judicial assemblies, the body of regional overseeing office-bearers and the body of regional churches (see the Greek of Acts 11:22; 13:1-3; 19:38-9; 20:17,28; 21:18-19; 2 Cor. 2:6; etc.). The 1800’s, Southern Presbyterian, Thomas Smyth demonstrates in detail that there were presbyteries at Jerusalem, Ephesus, Antioch, Samaria and Corinth in his Ecclesiastical Catechism, pp. 69-75.
1 Cor. 5:1-5 is the only description of an excommunication that we have in the New Testament. It is clear from 1 Cor. 12:20,28 and 14:3,22,24 that there were many regional office bearers in the congregations at Corinth that sat judging as a college of elders, 1 Cor. 14:29. When Paul tells them to excommunicate the offender, it is with his regional judicial authority (1 Cor. 5:3-5), and we know from 2 Cor. 2:6 that it was done by ‘many’.
The congregation does not have the power of the Keys to excommunicate as they are ruled, not rulers. To be a ruler to oneself is not to be under authority. Rather, it is Christ that rules his Church from heaven through the earthly officers He sets over his people (Eph. 4:11-13). For lay persons to vote another member out of the church is the equivalent of the children of a family kicking out their sibling by popular vote.
Thus, ‘church’ in Matt 18 does not mean the congregation or the local session, but the whole Church, in its various levels of ruling government, which alone has the full root of delegated authority from Christ to rule over his flock. The Bible gives the power of greater excommunication to the overseeing regional presbytery.
There is no warrant in the Bible for a local session to excommunicate a person out of the visible Church. All such ‘excommunications’ done by local churches without the authority of God’s Will are invalid and are not bound in heaven.
George Gillespie, 111 Propositions Concerning Ministry and Government of the Church
They therefore who… are justly by excommunication in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ cut off and cast out from the society of the faithful, and are pronounced to be cast out from the Church…
But that all abuse and corruption in ecclesiastical government may be either prevented and avoided or taken away, or lest the power of the Church either by the ignorance or unskillfulness of some ministers here and there, or also by too much heat and fervor of mind, should run out beyond measure or bounds, or contrariwise being shut up within straighter limits than is fitting, should be made unprofitable, feeble, or of none effect: Christ the most wise Lawgiver of his Church has foreseen and made provision to prevent all such evils which He did foresee were to arise, and has prepared and prescribed for them intrinsic and ecclesiastical remedies, and those also in their kind (if lawfully and rightly applied) both sufficient and effectual: Some whereof he has most expressly propounded in his Word, and some He has left to be drawn from thence by necessary consequence.
Therefore by reason of the danger of that which is called calvis errans, or a wrong key; and that it may not be permitted to particular churches to err or sin licentiously, and lest any man’s cause be overthrown and perish, who in a particular church had perhaps the same men both his adversaries and his judges; Also that common businesses which do belong to many churches, together with the more weighty and difficult controversies (the deciding whereof in the consistories of particular churches is not safe to be adventured upon) may be handled and determined by a common council of presbyteries. Finally that the governors of particular churches, may impart help mutually one to another against the cunning and subtle enemies of the truth, and may join their strength together (such as it is) by an holy combination, and that the church may be as a camp of an army well ordered; lest while every one strives singly, all of them be subdued and overcome; or lest by reason of the scarcity of prudent and godly counselors (in the multitude of whom is safety) the affairs of the church be undone: For all those considerations particular churches must be subordinate to classical presbyteries and synods.
Independent Churches do not have the Authority for Greater Excommunication, 1644, 53 pages, from Chapter 10, Section 10 of his The Due Right of Presbyteries, pp. 289-323
A Congregation does not have the Whole Power of the Keys of Church Government from Christ 1642 36 pages, being chapters 13 and 16 from his, A Peaceable Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland
Whether the Congregation as the Congregation Excommunicates a Delinquent? or is it the Catholic, Visible Church which Excommunicates? 1658 being Book 4, Ch. 5 of A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church Discipline
‘Whether the Power of Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Belongs to the People or to the Presbytery?’ 1645 38 paragraphs, being ch. 9 of his A Dissuasive from the Errors of the Time
Books of Church Discipline
The Discipline of the Reformed Churches of France 1559
Canon 18 in Synodicon Gallia Reformata, vol. 1, xxxiii
[The Second Book of Discipline was the fountainhead of Scottish Church discipline and continued its regulatory influence up through the Form of Process in 1707.]
Yet this is meet, that some of the Elders be chosen out of every particular congregation, to concur with the rest of their brethren in the common assembly, and to take up the delations of offences within their own kirks, and bring them to the assembly… It has power to excommunicate the obstinate.
The Form of Process 1707
[The Form of Process has been constitutionally foundational in the Scottish Church since its time.]
4. The kirk session having brought the process to an intimation of the censure of the lesser excommunication, before they inflict the same, they are to refer the affair to the presbytery, bringing their whole proceedings before the presbytery in write, that the presbytery may thereby have a clear and full view of the whole affair
11. If after all, the scandalous persons makes no application, but continues impenitent, the presbytery, after prayer, is to pass sentence, and appoint a minister to intimate the same, and to show the presbytery’s resolution to proceed upon such a Sabbath as they shall name, for pronouncing that dreadful sentence [of greater excommunication] solemnly in face of the congregation, unless either the party, or some one for him, signify some relevant ground to stop their procedure
[The Draught was the draft form of the Book of Discipline that was adopted in 1788 (which is not on the internet). The Book of Discipline adopted in 1788 was the original form of discipline of the national denomination of Presbyterians in America, from which all American branches of presbyterianism derive.]
When any person has been, with the advice of the Presbytery, (as directed in the Form of government etc.) adjudged to be cut off from the communion of the church, it is proper that the sentence be pronounced against him…
The minister shall, after the advice of the Presbytery has been obtained, at least two Lord’s days before the excommunication, give the congregation a short narrative of the several steps which have been taken with their scandalous and obstinate brother…
The Practice of the Free Church of Scotland in her Several Courts (also known as ‘The Blue Book’), eighth edition, 1995, p. 100
(4) Excommunication is the gravest censure and is applied only where the offender is deemed utterly recalcitrant and defiant. It is commonly referred to as the Greater Excommunication and involves the removal of the offender’s name from the Communion Roll and the declaration that he/she is no longer a member of the Church of Christ. Yet even so, this censure is intended to awaken the conscience of the offender so that he/she in penitence may seek the mercy of God and in due time be restored to the fellowship of the Church of Christ. This censure cannot be pronounced on a Kirk Session’s sole authority. It requires the authority of Presbytery (see Form of Process VIII).
2.28 Reference to Presbytery: Before pronouncing judgment in cases of extreme gravity coming before them, a Kirk Session must refer them to the Presbytery for advice. In the past these cases included, incest, adultery, a third instance of fornication, flagrant heresy or schism, contumacy, a woman’s professed ignorance of the paternity of her child and any case requiring pronouncement of the Greater Excommunication. In present circumstances there
75. The effect of a [local] session’s judgment upon an ordinary member may be the infliction of one or more of four censures… (3.) Suspension from privileges for a longer or shorter period, or indefinitely, as the result of a confession or conviction, which is called the lesser excommunication; or (4.) What is termed the greater excommunication. Excommunication cannot be adopted without the express authority of the presbytery, which is also requisite for the removal of that sentence by absolution.
Reformation Civil Scotland 1592
12th Parliament of Scotland, held at Edinburgh, 1592
The power of the presbyteries is to use diligent labors in the bounds committed to their charge, that the kirks be kept in good order: To inquire diligently of naughty and ungodly persons, and to travel to bring them in the way again by admonition, or threatening of God’s judgments, or by correction. It appertains to the eldership to take heed that the word of God be purely preached within their bounds, the sacraments rightly ministered, the discipline entertained, and ecclesiastical goods uncorruptly distributed. It belongs to this kind of assemblies, to cause the ordinances made by the assemblies provincial, national and general to be kept and put in execution, to make constitutions which concern το πρεπον in the Kirk for decent order in the particular Kirk where they govern: providing that they alter no rules made by the provincial, or general assemblies. And that they make the provincial assemblies foresaid, privy to the rules that they shall make: and to abolish constitutions tending to the hurt of the same. It has power to excommunicate the obstinate, formal process being led, and due interval of times observed…
Samuel Rutherford 1642
A Defense of the Government of the Church of Scotland, 12th Article, ‘Church Assemblies and the Power of Censures’
2. The second assembly is a classis [presbytery] of many pastors and elders from sundry congregations who have power of excommunication, (1) in respect [case] that the person excommunicated does keep company with many consociated [associated] churches and so as a leaven may infect many (1 Cor. 5:4; Matt 26:59; John 11:47; Acts 20:17,18); (2) and for this cause, one pastor of a single congregation, is not able to ordain a pastor (because it wants example in the Word of God).
Therefore a college of presbyters, or a presbytery of pastors and elders, who have power larger than a session, even to excommunicate and ordain pastors, is necessary in the church, which ordains Timothy to be a pastor, and so may deprive and excommunicate him (1 Tim. 4:14, Acts 20:17,18,28,29).
In church censures we proceed thus: In private faults if a brother offend a brother, he is admonished alone by the offended. If that gain him not, he is admonished before two or three; if that prevail not, the matter is brought before the church, which has power of the keys; if he obey not the church, he is excommunicated (Matt 18:15-20).
3. Our third censure is the greater excommunication, which is done by the whole congregation, as all other censures, but in diverse ways: (1) by the presbytery or eldership judicially and authoritatively, (2) by Paul his pastoral spirit (1 Cor. 5:4), the minister in the church’s name pronouncing the sentence (1 Tim. 1:20), (3) and by the people…
George Gillespie 1641
An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland, p. 43. HT: Andrew Myers
First, then, we shall take into consideration the bounds of the power of particular [local] elderships, and how the same may be said to be independent, and how not…
The first distinction is, between things which are proper and peculiar to one congregation, and things which are common to many: the former pertains to the particular eldership, the latter to the common eldership. Whence it comes that, in Scotland, the cases of ordination, suspension, deposition and excommunication, are determined in the greater presbyteries, because it does not concern one congregation alone, but many, who be taken into the common presbytery, and who be put out of the same; neither does the excommunication of a sinner concern only one congregation, but the neighboring congregations also, among whom, as it is to be commonly supposed, the sinner does often haunt and converse. Cyprian [A.D. 200-258], speaking of the admission of some who had fallen, and who had no recommendation from the martyrs [witnesses] to be received again, refers the matter to a common meeting, and his reason is, because it was a common cause, ‘and did not concern a few, nor one church only,’ see Book 2, Epistle 14.
Alexander Henderson 1641
The Government and Oder of the Church of Scotland
If any person walk unworthy of the Gospel or commit any trespass, he is (unless the scandal be public and notorious) admonished first: secretly by one, next by two or three more. And thirdly, if he contemn both, then according to the order prescribed by our Savior (Matt 18), the matter is brought before the minister and elders where he is accused both of the trespass and of the contempt. If he cannot yet be brought to repentance, then is the matter in some measure made known unto the congregation and he is called before the greater presbytery, where, if he give signs of his repentance, he is remitted to satisfy his own session. But if he persist in his obstinacy, then by the ordinance of the presbytery, the particular eldership is to proceed against him with the censures of the church even to excommunication.
The matter being thus heard, known and judged, and the whole process revised by the greater presbytery, the next Sabbath (without delay) the trespass and order of admonitions are declared to the congregation and the person (without specification of his name) is admonished yet to satisfy. Which, if he still refuse to do, the next Sabbath his name, with his offence and contempt, are published. If he yet continue obstinate, then on the next Sabbath (which is the third), he is charged publicly to satisfy for his offence and contempt under the pain of excommunication. If now he offer himself to the particular presbytery, then do they (at the appointment of the presbytery) give order for his public repentance, the removing of the scandal, and his reconcilement to the church. Otherwise the minister proceeds in this order:
As the presbytery excommunicates profane professors, so does it also depose preachers…
The subject and matters treated in the presbytery are all the ecclesiastical matters of weight which concern the particular churches there represented, as: the examination, ordination, suspension and deposition of ministers, scandals of ministers in doctrine, life, or any part of their calling, the decerning [decreeing] of excommunication…
The Divine Right of Church Government: Jus Divinum Regiminis Eccleastici, by the London Provincial Assembly
Original Preface, pp. xlviii-il of the Naphtali Press edition. HT: Andrew Myers.
II. What one true excellence is there in the whole independent government in any one point, wherein it really differs from the presbyterial government? Take for instance a few points of difference.
All censures and acts of government are dispensed in single congregations ultimately, independently, without all liberty of appeal from them to any superior church assembly; so the parties grieved are left without remedy.
All censures and acts of government are dispensed in congregational presbyteries subordinately, dependently, with liberty of appeal in all cases to presbyterial or synodal assemblies; where parties grieved have sufficient remedy.
There are acknowledged no authoritative classes or synods, in common, great, difficult cases, and in matters of appeals, but only [per]suasive and consultative; and in case advice be not followed, they proceed only to a non-communion.
There are acknowledged, and with happy success used, not only [per]suasive and consultative; but also authoritative classes and synods, in cases of great importance, difficulty, common concernment, or appeals; which have power to dispense all church censures, as need shall require.
Collections and Observations Concerning the Worship, Discipline and Government of the Church of Scotland 1709, by Walter Steuart
Ch. 8, Concerning Process in Order to the Censure of the Greater Excommunication, p. 234-9
3. The kirk-session having brought the process to the lesser excommunication, before they proceed further, they are by a reference to lay their whole proceeding in writ before the presbytery, who finding them to have orderly proceeded, and that the lesser excommunication is not sufficient, they [the presbytery] are to cause [to] cite the scandalous person…
6. The scandalous person still continuing impenitent, and making no application or submission, the presbytery is then to appoint the minister to intimate their resolution to proceed upon such a Sabbath as they shall name for pronouncing that dreadful sentence…
16. In case the excommunicated person continue obstinate, after the sentence of the presbytery is intimated in all the kirks within their bounds, they are to give an account thereof to the synod…