Sunday, March 29, 2009

Roundtable 42: Excommunication (SA III.ix)

Every once in a while one still hears Lutheran pastors speak about imposing the "lesser ban" as though there were also a "greater ban." SA III.ix shows that such is not the case. The greater excommunication is something Lutherans regarded merely as a civil penalty; it has no place in the Church herself (and those who think it does are confusing the two swords - getting Christ's government confused with Caesar's). What the pope calls the "lesser" excommunication is the real deal. "Open and hard-hearted sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the Church until they amend their lives and avoid sin."

Open - which means that the sin is known. It's not secret. It's not hidden. It's blatant and in your face. Everyone knows about it.

Hard-hearted - which means that the sinner doesn't give a rip about the sin. "Yeah, so God says it's wrong; it's a problem. Tough. He'll have to forgive me because I'm not going to change." Nowadays this frequently shows up with folks living together in sexual relationship without benefit of marriage.

To those who meet these two sad criteria, the Church through her called ministers employs excommunication. They are not admitted to the Sacrament *and other communion of the Church* until they amend their lives and avoid sin.

Amend - which means repent and change.

Avoid sin - which means the exact opposite of the embracing of sin; fleeing from it as from a deadly poisonous snake.

Not admitted to the Sacrament is pretty clear. I've had to tell folks before: "You can't receive the Eucharist as long as you are holding onto this sin and refusing to repent." It always is the most difficult of moments, but it must be done when there is no repentance.

What's the "other communion of the Church" that the SA refer to in this article? I think it refers to anything in the Church's life BEYOND being present to hear the Word proclaimed. If a person is serving as a treasurer, and they are excommunicated, then their office is forfeit. Same if they are an organist, a pastor, a Sunday school teacher, a parochial school teacher, a deaconess, a lector, a baptismal sponsor, well, you get the idea.

The article concludes by warning pastors not to mingle secular punishments with this ecclesiastical punishment. The reason, if you think about it, is clear: the Church is ruled by the Word of God. She has no other means of persuading or of carrying her responsibilities. She may NOT call upon the state to assist her in this. The "geistliche" estate is governed by "geistliche" means entirely. One thinks of how this got so muddled in early America where folks were pilloried for breaking the Sabbath and such.

Christ rules His Church by His Word. The faithful living out of this in community will call for putting out of the communion of the community those who try to hold onto sin and to justify it rather than letting Christ forgive, absolve and remove them from its shackles.

A final pastoral note: we should always distinguish between ruling sins and besetting sins. Ruling sins are when a person has truly given themselves over to what they know to be sin and no longer struggle or fight against it. To such people, the Law only is to be proclaimed. But they are quite different from those who struggle with besetting sins, sins that they fight against continually, and sometimes win against and sometimes lose. But they HATE the sin and wish to be free of it, and so they flee to Christ, who is the Savior of poor sinners and who will forgive them and strengthen them anew for the battle. To them, the Gospel alone is to be proclaimed.


Mike Keith said...

Very good point about ruling sins and besetting sins.

When people are holding a grudge - or they are just plain angry at someone - I know that some would invoke Matthew 5:24 as a verse that woudl then preclude such a person to receive the Sacrament. I have struggled with this application. However, I suspect if we keep in mind ruling or besettign sins it helps clarify. There is a difference between having difficulty in forgiving someoen but desiring to do so - and simply not wanting to forgive and wishing ill upon them. The former woudl not be grounds to be denied the Sacrament, the latter would be. Yes?

Preachrboy said...

Is it not proper, at least in our context, to distinguish between the "minor ban" and the "major ban"? The minor ban being, in pastoral practice, a private and temporary ban from the Sacrament imposed by the pastor.... The major ban being formal excommunication, ratified publicly by the congregation?

Rev. Tom Chryst

William Weedon said...

Yes indeed. The refusal to forgive is not at all the same thing as struggling to forgive - being willing to do so, but finding thoughts of anger creeping up again.

But here's a great technique. Everytime they come back, encourage the person to run to private absolution, and confess them. Satan gives up hurling those fiery darts if they only end up driving people into the arms of Jesus for forgiveness.

Rev. Andrew W. Jagow said...

I think the best pastoral practice also never applies excommunication in a vacuum, but rather works with the church elders to visit and warn the individual repeatedly before any congregational announcement is made. Thank God, I have never gotten to that stage.

One of the most interesting "excommunication" stories I have heard is from our vicar, who is from Liberia. He grew up in the house of a Pentecostal minister who, unfortunately, was caught in an affair. I always get a little confused when it comes to Pentecostal church structure, but someone who was a regional bishop came in and took over the preaching duties while the pastor who sinned sat in the back of the church. Every Sunday, after the sermon, the offending pastor would crawl on his knees from the back of the church to the front to receive a prayer. This would go on for months until the pastor was finally restored to his office. Yikes!