The ban is an instrument of church discipline that has played an important role in the history of the Mennonites. It is the term used to indicate either exclusion from communion (kleiner Bann) or exclusion from membership (grosser Bann).
Matthew 18:15-17 is the Biblical foundation of church discipline: "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (RSV). If Jesus has here expressly pronounced the duty of the church to exercise discipline, He gives the authority in Matthew 16:19, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (RSV). In John 20:23 He says to His disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (RSV) (see also 1 Thessalonians 5:14; James 5:16).
According to these passages there are three degrees of church discipline; the ban or excommunication is the third of these. It is, however, not the right of the priest, bishop, or pope to exclude, but alone that of the church, which alone has the authority to pronounce the ban. The ban was practiced thus in the apostolic church (1 Corinthians 5:35); it was managed thus in the old-evangelical groups of the Middle Ages, especially among the Waldenses (Keller, Reformation, 56, 57, 109, 224); it was demanded and practiced thus in the Anabaptist churches from their beginning.
The introduction of the ban, i.e., the exclusion of unworthy and corrupt members from the church of Christ, which is to exist as a special community independent of the state, untouched by and unalloyed with the world, was one of the principal demands the Anabaptists made on Zwingli. After a period of wavering, he rejected this demand as he also did on the question of infant baptism (E. Egli, Analecta Reformatoria I, 99-149). Punishment of blasphemers by the government (said Zwingli) made the ban unnecessary. Thus Zwingli was in 1525 already strongly in favor of the idea of a state church; but he had prominent opponents in the ranks of his church.
At the Bürgertag of the cities of Zürich, Basel, Bern, Schaffhausen, St. Gall, Mühlhausen, Biel, and Konstanz on 27 September 1530, Oecolampadius proposed that the ban be introduced again. And a few months later, at the public disputation at St. Gall, 20-23 December 1530, Dominicus Zili defended the ban most vigorously against Zwingli with Scriptural reasons. He was defeated and was forbidden to preach. But the dispute on this question continued for many years in the Reformed Church. Calvinists and Zwinglians were sharply opposed.
The Lutheran Church repeatedly stated the Biblical command to exercise the small and the great ban; but interference by the state and the religious indifference of the individual congregations did not permit a strict and determined application of the Biblical requirement (Hauck-Herzog, II, 381 ff.).
The position of the Anabaptists on the ban is more consistent and unified. They hold themselves strictly to the word and command of Jesus, Matthew 18. In their concept of the Christian church the use of the ban is implicit. The church is a fellowship of those who, by their own decision, have obligated themselves in their baptismal vow to a truly pious Christian life as a disciple of Christ. The church must preserve this "pure" character if it is not to suffer dissolution. The wicked and blasphemous have no place in it. The church as the body of Christ must expel them as the human body casts out an unclean ulceration. But the ban may be applied only to coarse, notorious sinners. This was the doctrine and the practice of the early Anabaptists.
In the letter of the Zürich Anabaptists to Thomas Müntzer of 5 September 1524, they say, "Form a Christian church with Christ's help and His rules, as we find them established in Matthew 18 and applied in the Epistles. He who does not correct his faults, is unwilling to believe, and resists the word and act of God and remains so, after Christ and His Word and His rules have been preached to him and he has been admonished with the three witnesses, shall not be killed, but regarded as a heathen and a publican, and left alone."
The seven Articles of Schleitheim (24 February 1527) state, "The ban shall be used with all those who have yielded themselves to the Lord, to follow in His commands, and with all those who are baptized into one body and permit themselves to be called brethren and sisters, and yet somehow slip and fall into error and sin and have been unwittingly overtaken. These shall be admonished, the second time secretly and the third time be punished openly before the entire church according to Christ's command (Matthew 18). But this shall take place according to the order of the Spirit of God before the breaking of bread, that we may all with one spirit and love break and eat of one bread and drink of one cup."
Especially noteworthy is Balthasar Hubmaier's interpretation of the ban. He does this in two books. One has the title, Von der brüderlichen Strafe. Wo diese nicht ist, da ist gewisslich auch keine Kirche, obschon die Wassertaufe und das Abendmahl Christi daselbst gehalten werden (Nikolsburg, 1527). Then he explains: The Christian church is made up of persons who have devoted themselves to God in a new life through baptism. As such they must do the will of Christ. But since human beings remain sinners, a medicine is needed to remove the bad flesh. This medicine is brotherly discipline, without which the church cannot exist. There are two kinds of sins: open sins, which must be punished openly, and secret sins, which must be punished secretly; according to Christ's command, first privately, then before two or three witnesses, and finally before the church. First the brother or sister should have his attention called to his sin in the light of his baptismal vow, and then if he does not hear, and not until then, witnesses shall be called or the church informed. Those who live in strife with each other should be dealt with in the same manner, to lead them to reconciliation. This power of admonition may be exercised by every Christian. Only where the church is a true church, can discipline be exercised properly.
Another pamphlet is directly connected with the above; namely, Von dem christlichen Bann. Wo derselbe nicht aufgerichtet und gebraucht wird nach dem ordentlichen und ernstlichen Befehl Christi, daselbst regiert nichts denn Sünde, Schande und Laster (Nikolsburg, 1527). Here he says, "The ban is the public excommunication of a person who is unwilling to desist from a scandalous, open sin. The purpose of the ban is to avoid offending the weak; the second purpose is to cause the sinner to examine himself and reform. The church received the authority to ban from Christ (Matthew 16:19). Christ gave the disciples two keys, one to loose and one to bind. The former is used in baptism; it opens the portals of the church for the forgiving of sins; it is also used with the penitent sinner to receive him again as often as he shows genuine repentance. The second key gives the church the power to excommunicate the sinner." In this connection Hubmaier introduces a formula for the ban with the phrase, "without wishing to encroach upon the liberty of anyone." The church leader points the sinner to his baptismal vow, calls his attention to his sins and the threefold admonition, and then commits him to the devil. It is not permitted to hold intercourse of any kind with him, but neither is it permitted to mistreat or to kill him. Only the government has the power of punishment after as before the excommunication. All deeds of friendship must cease, but in case of need it is permissible to support him. Only members of the church, not those outside the church, may be banned. But all Christians who break their baptismal vow and are unwilling to correct their fault, should be excommunicated, and their names passed on to the other congregations. Whoever sees his sin and asks for pardon shall be received, no matter how often it happens. True penitence is shown by reform of conduct. "But," Hubmaier concludes these explanations. "if the great lords do not want to institute church discipline, no Christian rule will be possible. But to Christians the manger in Bethlehem is a dearer place to linger in than the grand church of the Pharisees; for there he will lose the star that leads to Christ."
It is very interesting and of great significance to note how these instructive statements of Hubmaier's coincide with the practical statements and judgments of the Swiss Brethren. Thus, in the disputation at Zofingen, 1-9 July 1532, the Anabaptists said: "When one is warned once and a second time, and he does not reform, he should be reported to the church, excommunicated, and not received again until he proves himself with the fruits of righteousness. No one shall be banned unless he has committed an open sin which deserves the punishment. These are the abominations that do not inherit the kingdom of God, as Paul points out in Galatians 5. These, if they are known to the church, shall be put out according to the regulation of the ban. The public exercise of the ban is administered by the leader, not without the foreknowledge of the church, but with and in the church, which should hear and judge the affair according to its merits. When one has committed a sin openly, he shall make amends for it openly."
This shows that there was unity among the Swiss and South German Anabaptists in the concept and practice of the ban. Its importance and necessity in the life of the Christian church was everywhere recognized; the churches endeavored to fulfill the Biblical demands earnestly, and yet with love, strictly, and yet with justice. Among some of the Dutch Anabaptists this was not the case. Here a harsh use of the ban was the cause of lamentable quarrels and regrettable divisions. A stricter and a milder branch were formed, a division between the "coarse and the fine," who violently opposed and banned each other. Sebastian Franck must have had this kind of proceedings in mind when he generalized in his Chronica (p. 193), "There is much banning in their churches, so that almost every church bans the other, and there is almost as much freedom of belief as in the papacy. Whoever does not say yes to everything, his ears has God stopped, and they begin mournfully to pray for him. If he does not soon turn about, they put him out."
Menno Simons expressed himself at length on the ban in his books. In 1541 he devoted a pamphlet, A kind admonition . . . how a Christian should be disposed; and Concerning the shunning and separation of the unfaithful . . . (Complete works, 407), to the question. He demands that believers avoid the company of backslidden members of unclean conduct, in order to make them ashamed of themselves and correct their errors. But this shall be done only after previous admonitions according to Matthew 18 have been disregarded.
Now various opinions arose on the avoidance and the act of excommunication. They concerned principally two questions; namely, whether the ban demanded an avoidance of the banned one by all members including husband or wife, or whether in this instance the requirements could be eased; and whether in all offenses, including coarse carnal sins, a triple warning must precede the ban, and then must be pronounced only if there is no improvement in conduct.
On this question Menno expresses himself in his writing, A scriptural explanation of excommunication for the benefit of all pious and God-fearing children (Complete works , 455-486) to the effect that the avoidance must extend to worldly relationships, that one may not have dealings with the banned one, nor eat or drink with him, that the avoidance in marriage is not a dissolving of marriage; but the conscience shall herein not be burdened But if the fallen member yields to the admonition, the ban shall not be applied. He expresses himself similarly in the appendix to his booklet, Confession of the triune, eternal and true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Complete works, 487-498). He emphasizes the need for the ban again in his largest work, which is directed against Gellius Faber. In his letters Menno also repeatedly stated his views on the ban. It is his opinion that in the case of coarse carnal sins excommunication must be applied immediately without preliminary admonition. Once more Menno develops his views on the ban in one of his latest works, An account of exclusion or separation from the Church of Christ (Works, 961-998). Sharply and earnestly he defends avoidance in marriage; he requires Christian moderation and kindness in its application, and especially defends the view that those known to be coarse offenders be put out of the church at once and not after the threefold warning.
The harshest conception of the ban was represented by Leenaert Bouwens. He demanded in unconditional and universal avoidance in marriage and in most cases the application of the ban without preliminary admonition and warning. He banned his opponents, who favored a milder view. This led to the first division (1556) of the Anabaptists into Waterlanders and the main Frisian-Flemish group.
A much milder conception of the use of the ban was held by the Swiss Brethren and the Upper German Anabaptists. They were unable to assent to the resolutions of the convention of elders at Wismar in 1554. These resolutions among other things stated: (1) Those who married outside the Anabaptist brotherhood should be excluded, but if they led an upright, Christian life they should be received again. (2) Only in case of absolute necessity was buying or selling permitted with backsliders. (3) Marital avoidance of the backslidden husband or wife should be observed, but not if it violates conscience. Two emissaries of the High German Anabaptists, Zylis and Lemke, personally conferred with Menno Simons, to win him over to a milder view; but they did not succeed. At a large meeting of Anabaptists at Strasbourg in 1557, marital avoidance was rejected. Menno and the Dutch were requested by this meeting in a letter not to take an extreme position on the use of the ban, which might lead to division.
Nearly 150 years later it was again the attitude toward the ban that caused a division among the Mennonites. This time it occurred in Switzerland and South Germany. Jakob Ammann, an elder in a Mennonite congregation in the Bernese Oberland, demanded marital avoidance and refusal to eat with the banned members. Elder Hans Reist of the Emmental and his followers opposed him. This led to the momentous division into Amish and "Reist" Mennonites, which has remained to a large extent even to the present.
The Mennonites clung tenaciously to the requirement of the ban. The Dordrecht Confession of 1632, Art. 16, Says, "We confess and believe also a ban . . . . When someone after he has been enlightened and has accepted the knowledge of the truth, has become a part of the communion of saints, afterwards again fails into coarse sin, shall not remain the company of the righteous, but shall he removed as an offensive member and open sinner, and punished before all the members, and scoured out as leaven, and that to his correction and as an example to warn others, and to keep the church pure. In short, that the church must put away him who is evil, whether in doctrine or life, and nobody else." In article 17 the strict avoidance of the banned member is enjoined; only in the case of necessity shall anyone help him or show him brotherly love.
Gerrit Roosen of Hamburg expressed a similar view in Evangelisches Glaubensbekenntnis der taufgesinaten Christen oder also genannten Mennonisten, wie solches in Altona bei Hamburg öffentlich gelehrt und gepredigt wird, 1702 (Article 8).
The confession of Cornelis Ris of 1773 (Hoorn, Holland) represents the milder concept. It sets up four stages of discipline: (1) the brotherly admonition; 12) earnest admonition and counsel, not to partake of communion until the offense is removed and clear evidence of improvement is shown; (3) open punishment before the church; and (4) excommunication. The avoidance of banned persons should be observed in Christian kindness, and love. Between husband and wife this (marital) avoidance is not to be observed in any case except for adultery.
In Holland the Waterlanders practiced a mild form of banning, and already in the first half of the 17th century the ban gradually fell into disuse. Both in the Flemish and the Frisian group a division took place in 1586 and 1589 respectively, on the ban. The Old Frisians and Old Flemish were more rigorous in applying the ban than the Young Frisians and the (Soft) Flemish. The latter two groups soon followed the lenient practice of the Waterlanders. After the 18th century the ban was applied only in a few cases and only in the conservative congregations of the Jan Jacobsgezinden and the Old Flemish. Today the Mennonites of Holland as well as in the cities of North Germany have completely given up church discipline. The ban is never exercised. In the Palatine churches only the "small ban" is occasionally applied. The Formularbuch of 1852 states, "He who obviously lives in abomination and the works of the flesh and of darkness, cannot belong to Christ, and therefore cannot be a believing member of His body, the Christian church. His evil deeds and sins separate him from God. But since, by the express word of the Lord and His apostles, the holy communion is an exclusive pleasure of the believers, i.e., of those who belong to the Lord as His people, it follows clearly that those who openly live in sin and vice and thereby cause stumbling and offense, can have no part in the holy communion as long as they remain impenitent. Therefore, if there is such a member in a church, who on a Scriptural basis, because of his offensive conduct, cannot be considered worthy of admission to the communion, such a member, after he has been admonished several times in a brotherly and earnest manner, and still is unwilling to desist from his sinful conduct, shall be excluded from participation in the holy communion by the leaders of the church in question, and not re-admitted until he has expressed genuine penitence in an open confession to the leaders and given evidence of it in his conduct. The exclusion takes place either before the assembled church [which is no longer done, N.] or silently before the leaders of the church."
The Mennonites of Baden and Württemberg hold a much stricter conception and execution of the ban. In their Leitfaden zum Gebrauch bei gottesdienstlichen Handlungen, of 1876, the following is said about the ban: "If a member of the church perseveres in his wrongdoing and in his sin in spite of all admonition, then sharing in the communion is denied him. This disciplinary measure (the 'little ban') is to be applied for the lighter offenses. But if a member perseveres in his serious and open sins after repeated admonition, and has not let himself be moved to a change of attitude by exclusion from communion, he is excluded from the church and is no longer considered a member, until he shows a change of attitude and requests admission. Without previous admonition the ban is to be used with members who have fallen into open and flagrant sins ... and upon marriage with members of the state churches ... especially when such a member permits his children to be baptized, because he thereby actually disclaims the chief principle of our church, baptism upon confession of faith. Excommunication may be executed only by the elder of the congregation."
The position of the country churches in West Prussia was stated in the confession of faith of 1895: "In the case of flagrant sins which cause offense, an immediate separation from the church is required. This must be done before the church according to 1 Timothy 5:20. Avoidance of the banned members is connected with the separation according to 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Thessalonians 3. Nevertheless we must take care that hate and enmity do not creep in under the guise of the ban, 2 Thessalonians 3:15. But when an excluded member confesses his sins and shows genuine fruits of repentance, then we consider it our duty to receive him again into the church, 2 Corinthians 2:6-10."
Similar regulations concerning the use of the ban are contained in the Handbuch zum Gebrauch bei gottesdienstlichen Handlungen der Mennoniten-Gemeinden in Russland, of 1911. The first confession of the Mennonite Brethren of 6 January 1860, states, "Concerning the ban we confess that all wanton and carnally-minded sinners must be put out of the communion of believers, as Paul testifies in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15. But if it happens that someone secretly falls into a carnal offense, which may God prevent, and if the Spirit of Christ, who alone is able to create true penitence in us, persuades him to confess and repent, then the church has no power at all to ban such a penitent sinner, because forgiveness of sins is not acquired in or through the ban, but through the merits of Christ -- An unrepentant sinner, however not be admitted into the church until he is sincerely converted to Christ." (This confession is printed in. Menn Bl., 1863, in the article "Die Separtisschen Bewegungen in Süd-Russland." The Mennonite Brethren Confession (Glaubenskenntnis der Vereinigten Taufgesinnten Mennonitischen Brüdergemeinde in Russland) takes a similar position, following the earlier edition of 1874.
The Mennonites of North America practice both the forms of the ban, according to their official confessions and disciplines or minister' manuals, although in some groups the practice has become lax. Avoidance is practiced however, only by the most conservative groups, viz., the Old Order Amish, the Church of God in Christ Mennonite, the Reformed Mennonite and the Old Colony Mennonites and related groups. In the 1950s the majority of all Mennonites and all kinds of Amish, in the United States still used the Dordrecht Confession, though this was no longer the case by the 1990s. The General Conference Mennonite Church in its ministers' manual of 1898 took over almost word for word the statements of the Baden Leitfaden on the ban. In both theory and practice the Swiss and French Mennonites practice both forms of the ban, though without the avoidance.
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 Additional Information
Seven Articles of Schleitheim (Anabaptist, 1527)
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