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The doctrine and theory of discipline behind the practice of excommunication is discussed in the articles Ban and Discipline; here only the procedure and grounds for excommunication will be treated. (The corresponding German term is Ausschluss aus der Gemeinde.)

Excommunication is here taken to mean the exclusion of the offender from all church fellowship. In the Catholic churches, both Roman and Greek, excommunication has been maintained uninterruptedly, administered by the bishop (or the pope or papal legate). The grounds and procedure are specified in the canon law, but the bishop is authorized to exercise his judgment in cases not covered by the law. The chief grounds are heresy, i.e., deviation from the dogma of the church, and any persistent defiance of the authority of the church or disobedience of its regulations. In medieval and later times the state was expected to and did join in the punishment of the offender by civil penalties, including the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy. The Reformers continued excommunication in a modified form, including the participation of the state in punishment. Gradually, however, the practice died out in the Protestant state churches and by the 17th century was practically extinct, except in certain Reformed countries, particularly in Scotland, and in colonial America. By the mid-1950s excommunication was almost unknown among the major Protestant bodies, except for cases of bold heresy by the clergy in certain groups such as the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church, which had some noted heresy trials in the 20th century. In such cases the decision is made by regularly constituted church courts and according to church law. The smaller and stricter Protestant churches in North America have largely retained excommunication as a major aspect of discipline.

Excommunication was practiced from the very beginning by Anabaptists and Mennonites, and has been retained down to the present time in all groups which have retained discipline, which includes most conservative Mennonite and Amish groups in North America. The power of excommunication has generally resided in the office of bishop or elder acting in the name of the congregation. The exercise of the power was customarily subject to an approving vote of the congregation, as it still is among the Amish. The bishop, in consultation with the ministry of his congregation, presented the case to the congregation, stating the offense, and after an approving vote, pronounced the formula of excommunication. In some Mennonite (MC) churches in the 1950s the bishop had the authority to excommunicate without a vote of the congregation. In some groups (e.g., General Conference Mennonite Church) the decision as to excommunication (like admission to membership) was made by the church council or some representative group rather than by the pastor or responsible leader of the church. Restoration of the excommunicated member was possible usually only after a lapse of time upon repentance and confession. In the stricter groups, e.g., the Amish, excommunicated members are received back into membership "from their knees," that is, they kneel to make confession and renew their vows, and are then given the right hand of fellowship and asked to rise just as in the case of baptism. Often a lapse of time, such as a month, is required before restoration.

The grounds for excommunication have always included both heretical doctrine and misconduct. The latter has included not only gross and flagrant sin but also disobedience to the regulations of the church, including a variety of points depending upon the character of the congregational or conference regulations. At various times and places the following have been (and still are) grounds: immorality in any form, theft, lying, etc., drinking of alcoholic beverages or drunkenness, smoking tobacco, attendance at theaters (including motion pictures), gambling and card playing, military service and training, unethical economic practices including taking advantage of bankruptcy laws, wearing of jewelry and fashionable attire, violation of the requirements of uniform costume, etc. An earlier universal ground was intermarriage with "outsiders," often even with those of other Mennonite branches; it is still the rule in a number of the more conservative groups. The rigid groups, such as Amish and the Old Colony Mennonites, have excommunicated for the use of modern inventions and conveniences, such as automobiles, electricity and electrical appliances, telephones, floor carpets, wall pictures, photography, etc. At times excommunication has been applied to schismatic leaders and even whole groups, and the threat of excommunication has been used to maintain control and to ward off incipient schisms or the appeals of internal or outside leaders for followers. In some cases bishops or elders, abusing their power, have high-handedly excommunicated personal enemies or have excommunicated for very minor infractions of rules or personal interpretations of them. More than one schism, especially in Holland in earlier times, has been wholly or partially caused by such actions. Occasionally assertions have been made to the effect that the early Anabaptists or Mennonites tolerated freedom of doctrine. This is clearly contradicted by the actual excommunications for heresy.

An excommunication formula developed, probably by tradition, which ultimately was printed in the ministers' manuals, or handed down in manuscript form as among the Amish. A typical formula is that printed in the Allgemeines and vollständiges Formularbuch (Neuwied, 1807) which was often reprinted: (Translated) "Since by your sinful life you have grieved God, given offense to the church, and made yourself unworthy to be a member of the church, therefore we excommunicate you herewith in the name of God, and by the authority of Christ's Word and commandment, according to Matthew 18 and the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, from our church, until you return, feel penitence and sorrow for your sin, ask God and the church for forgiveness, and lead a renewed life; to which may the Lord Jesus grant you grace, light, and understanding." The common rule was that the offender was to be admonished or visited before the excommunication could take place, but that in case of gross and flagrant publicly known sin, this prior admonition was not necessary.

By the 1950s excommunications were not so frequent, since it became common to permit an offender to withdraw before excommunication, in which case the bishop or elder merely announced the withdrawal, or recorded it in the church book without announcement. A painless type of excommunication is the practice of some congregations of dropping from the church rolls those who fail to pay their church dues for a period of time, or discontinue participation in the church activities, or cease attendance at the services. In some places members who have been disciplined by the "small ban," i.e., "setting back" from communion, may be continued as non-communicant members for a long time, even until death. In others such non-communicant members are carried only for a few years and then either quietly or publicly dropped. In a few Mennonite Church (MC) conferences deliberate abstention from the communion service three or more successive times was a ground for severance of membership.

A few historic cases of excommunication are worthy of note. In 1547 Dirk Philips, with Menno Simons' agreement, excommunicated Elder Adam Pastor at Goch because of his unitarian theology. In 1549 Menno Simons excommunicated Elder Frans Cuiper for pro-Catholic leanings. In 1552 he excommunicated Elder Gillis van Aken for adultery, restoring him in 1554 on confession. In 1560 he excommunicated Zylis and Lemke, two leaders of the High German churches, and, with the support of the Dutch leaders and churches, all the High German leaders, for not agreeing to the strict practice of avoidance including marital avoidance, as decided at the Wismar Conference. This marked a permanent division between Menno's followers and the South German and Swiss Brethren. In the course of the numerous factional disputes and schisms among the Dutch Mennonites 1560-1650, excommunication (including mutual excommunication of entire groups) was resorted to more than once. The same thing occurred in the Amish schism in Switzerland and Alsace in 1693, when Jakob Ammann excommunicated all those who refused to join him in the strict practice of avoidance, and the Reist party in turn excommunicated the Amish party. In America similar occasions can be reported. In 1777 the excommunication of Bishop Christian Funk by the Franconia Conference for supporting the colonial side of the Revolutionary War led to the Funkite schism. In the schism of the Brenneman group in Indiana in 1874, Daniel Brenneman was excommunicated by the conference (MC). Other similar cases have occurred in the MC group in more recent times.

The formation in 1847-48 of the new Oberholtzer group (first stage of the General Conference Mennonite Church), as well as its own early history, contains four striking cases of group excommunication. At the 1847 fall meeting of the Franconia Conference (MC) the Oberholtzer faction of 16 ministers including the moderator of the conference were expelled from the conference for having subscribed to an unsanctioned new constitution. Soon thereafter the chairman of the new conference and another minister, Abraham and Henry Hunsicker, were expelled together with their following for opposing the conference ruling of prohibition of membership in secret orders. In 1858 the new conference expelled Preacher William Gehman and 22 others for persisting in holding special prayer meetings contrary to a conference decision. In 1861 it expelled Preacher Henry Johnson of Lower Skippack, who took with him most of the congregation. The Hunsicker faction died out, but the Gehman faction developed into the Evangelical Mennonites, the oldest unit of the later Mennonite Brethren in Christ Conference. The "Johnson" Mennonites have continued as an independent group.

In 1697 the Danzig Elder Georg Hansen excommunicated the Mennonite artist Enoch Seeman, Sr. for painting portraits in violation of the Second Commandment, and would not reinstate him until he promised to paint only landscapes and decorations.

In later years, when the pressure to participate in military service became greater, numerous cases of excommunication of those who departed from the nonresistant faith are reported in Holland as well as in the Danzig area. In 1793 a Texel (Dutch) Mennonite was excommunicated for serving on a naval vessel. W. Mannhardt, speaking of the practice of the West Prussian churches, says (in his Wehrfreiheit der Altpreussischen Mennoniten, 1863), "From earliest times in all the Prussian churches the acceptance of military service has been counted as a sin requiring excommunication, . . . by which the offender drops out (ausscheidet) from the church. Earlier when certain members had been forcibly taken into the army and served in a war, they were forgiven and restored to membership upon repentance. Later, when military service was followed by continuing obligations in the reserve corps, the excommunication was made irreversible." When an Elbing Mennonite who had served in the 1815 campaign against Napoleon tried in 1816 to force the church to receive him again by an appeal to the King, which the elders resisted, the case was taken to court (Kammergericht) in Berlin, which in 1818 freed the elders of all charges, stating that in the light of their age-old principles the Mennonites had a right to such excommunications. Military service is no longer a ground for excommunication anywhere among European Mennonites and not in most North American congregations Mennonite Church, Mennonite Brethren Church and similar smaller denominations. However among the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites, and some smaller conservative groups it still is. In most such cases the forfeiture of membership is automatic. The Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference took action in 1948 more clearly defining its position by requiring excommunication for participation in combatant service but not for service in an unarmed medical corps. This distinction is no longer made. In the Mennonite Church (MC) group in World War II some 1,200 men lost their membership, some 500 of whom were reinstated later.

The land-commissioners Jakob Höppner and Johann Bartsch, who located the Chortitza colony in the Ukraine (founded 1788-89), were excommunicated from the Flemish church at Chortitza because of bitter feeling about their work. Bartsch was reinstated later, but Höppner became a member of the Frisian branch of the church. Johann Wiebe, elder in Chortitza, attempted to deter Claas Reimer from organizing the schismatic Kleine Gemeinde in 1812 by threat of excommunication and unfrocking. The elders of the Mennonite Church in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies in 1860 excommunicated the 18 founders of the Mennonite Brethren group, even though the latter had already formally withdrawn from the old church. In the confusion of the early days of the Mennonite Brethren group (1860-65) a number of cases of excommunication, even of leaders, occurred, some by radical elements. Among these cases were J. Reimer, B. Bekker, and C. Schmidt.

Author(s) Harold S Bender
Date Published 1955

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. "Excommunication." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 2 Jul 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Excommunication&oldid=162943.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. (1955). Excommunication. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 2 July 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Excommunication&oldid=162943.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 277-279. All rights reserved.

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