Only One Reason for Excommunication

Was visiting with a fellow pastor the other day and the conversation turned to the topic of excommunication. He had a very interesting point, one that I immediately agreed with: “I have never excommunicated anyone for divorce, adultery, or any other sin for that matter. I have only excommunicated people for impenitence. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a congregation left.”

His point, which is a good one, is that there is only one reason for excommunication: impenitence. Unglaub. Unbelief. No one is excommunicated because he is an adulterer, a murderer, or a thief. Impenitence shows that one has already left the faith, and therefore is no longer a Christian. This is also the reason given in the Catechism too.

I know this is no “news flash” for seasoned pastors. I just liked the way he put it. Along the same lines, I was reflecting on the part of the Catechism the other day which says: “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by his divine command, especially when the exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation…” That word “openly” caught my attention. There are cases in congregations where a person is unrepentant, but his sin is not yet out in the open. It is not known. Until that time that it is, should a pastor excommunicate someone? How “open” does one’s impenitence have to be for an excommunication to take place?

A related question: should pastors excommunicate those who persistently stay away from the Divine Service? It is a sin to despise preaching and his Word. Those who refuse to return to repentance (which in this case would include acknowledging that it is a sin, and being absolved of it, and bearing the fruits of repentance, namely, returning to the Church) are “openly unrepentant” sinners. Why should they not be excommunicated?

Just a few thoughts and questions for the evening.

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About Rev. Paul L. Beisel

Graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN in 2001 (M Div.) and 2004 (S.T.M.); LC-MS Pastor and Adjunct Instructor for John Wood Community College; Husband of Amy and father of Susan, Elizabeth, Martin, and Theodore.
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6 Responses to Only One Reason for Excommunication

  1. Chad Myers says:

    Far be it from me to comment on the legal intricacies of Lutheran excommunication. From a purely lay perspective, though, it seems that a good litmus test is “reasonable hope of return/repentance.” If it’s someone who’s openly left the faith and joined another, or is attempting to subvert, heresy, scandal, or otherwise ruin the faith, then away they go.

    If it’s someone who’s just fallen away, lost the faith, sits at home on Sunday, it seems that there might be some pastoral work to be done there with a reasonable hope/chance of bringing them back.

    Also, beware the sin of Judas — which was not to betray Our Blessed Lord, but to despair and presume God’s mercy (or lack thereof) and forgiveness. Someone who’s on the brink, having been excommunicated, may fall into despair which would be far worse than just “coasting” or floating along, oblivious.

    Good question. I’m interested to see what conclusions you come to.

  2. DRG says:

    I am glad to see this question posited, as I also have a question regarding this topic.

    I would say in reply to Just how openly is open?
    If Matt 18:15- is followed then any or all interpersonal offense would eventually escalate to “open”, wouldn’t it?

    If I may pose my question… It entails the person not admitting that (s)he is guilty as in a case where the person has a different view of things—reality perceived differently than all others involved. One who feels people are out to get him/her and views normal conversations as veiled threats or attacks and then actually attacks that person and feels justified in it. Then the person sees no offense given on his /her side despite it being in print.
    So what should be done in a case where the person refuses to see the offense as a sin? The person has been told of the offense makes no reply, does Matt 18 apply since in this case?

    Anyone have insight for my question?
    TIA
    DRG

  3. Rev. Paul L. Beisel says:

    My first thought on your question DRG would be that part of repentance is acknowledging one’s error. If it has been clearly pointed out, and the person still refuses to acknowledge it, even though others have been brought in as per Matt. 18, then yes, I suppose at that point it would become necessary to “tell it to the church,” and make it known that the person does not admit his or her error.

    What if Nathan’s story about the ewe-lamb being stolen had had no effect on David? What if David continued to go about his business with no pangs of conscience about his actions towards Bathsheba and Uriah? Wouldn’t this show that he had not yet come to repentance?

    In cases like these, where someone refuses to acknowledge his sin, no sin can be forgiven. I suppose I would say: “God’s judgment be upon your head until you recognize this error. Lord have mercy on you.”

  4. Rev. Rabe says:

    You said that this “should be no surprise to you seasoned pastors” in regard to excommunication of impenitent but it would be for a previous seasoned circuit counselor in my circuit. After over 25 years of ministry he wanted to study the Office of the Keys again. I don’t believe it was for our sake but because he was confused and failed to know his stuff or for that matter continue to study it in the scripture and confessions.

  5. Sheila says:

    My husband and I we’re excommunicated by a pastor, from the lutheran faith in 1980 because we were baptised as a family. We had been christened as infants in the UK by unbelieving parents, it was a cultural thing to do to get the family together and celebrate a birth. We did it feeling guided by The Lord whom we had come to know while in attending the lutheran church. We still have close friends in this church as well as other church denominations and have trained in theological college serving God in many ways over seas and at home. I understand excommunication is due to doing something wrong openly and the church await our repentence. Why should this be so judgement upon us from the clergy when our fellowship with fellow Lutherans is favourable. We feel there is no need to repent for such a move of faith towards commitment to Christ which has been clear to all, yet we are despised as sinners by the organisation of this church denomination. In no way do we sense that we are rejected by God. Is it now time for the church to think again about who they reject at their own loss?

  6. Sheila says:

    I think it is disgraceful in the true sense of the word that you were excommunicated from our Lutheran church for this decision. At the time you acted in good faith, believing that you were being faithful to God’s will for your lives and you were on the other side of the world at the time! Where is the love and grace in this act of severance from your congregation? What a dreadful loss to our church, given your subsequent service as missionaries and dedication to His service. I hope that someone with authority in our Lutheran church can address this perplexing issue and that reconciliation and peace can be restored. A concerned Pastor’s wife.

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