This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
What might excommunication look like in America today? By and large, American churches don’t practice church discipline in the way they once did. When it is practiced, the results are less than favorable. If our congregations were to excommunicate a member, it is likely that person would find a new church home without much trouble. Most churches don’t require a transfer of membership from outside their denomination, and many don’t even seek one from within their own denomination. A great number of American churches don’t belong to a denomination anyway and, given the bottom line fiscal realities we all face, they may not be inclined to inquire about that prospective member’s past—the real concern is getting another financial supporter into the pews no matter the cost. Practicalities aside, however, we must not overlook the most significant implication of this situation: excommunication loses its very purpose. Whether it is St. Paul in the New Testament, the practice of public penance in the early church, or our own practice of excommunication, the goal is always to restore the fallen brother or sister in Christ to full participation in the local congregation through repentance.
Martin Luther had precisely this goal in mind when he wrote about the proper use and the abuse of excommunication in his 1520 “A Sermon on the Ban,” preached in late 1519, but published in summer 1520. It is important to understand the context behind this sermon, because Luther was in many respects practicing what he preached. Shortly after the controversy over indulgences began in 1517, Rome began an official inquiry into Luther’s teachings to determine if they were heretical. This early process reached its conclusion with the famous interview before Cardinal Cajetan at Augsburg in October 1518 (“Revoco!”), but before that Luther had already published a sermon on the power of excommunication. Keenly aware of the possibility that he may be found guilty of heresy, Luther used the sermon to distinguish between internal communion and external communion. Since God alone places someone into the internal communion of the faithful, then God alone excludes someone from the same communion. By contrast, ecclesiastical excommunication only excludes the individual from external participation in the church. Furthermore, in the event of an unjust excommunication, the Christian still belongs to the internal communion of the faithful.
Luther’s heresy trial resumed in early 1520, after his views at the Leipzig Debate of 1519 were condemned by the theology faculties of Louvain and Cologne. Luther’s debate opponent at Leipzig, John Eck, had made his way to Rome by spring 1520 and lit the match that accelerated the process. Though the bull condemning Luther for heresy was not published until June 1520 and did not arrive in Wittenberg until October 1520, the outcome was all but certain. Rome intended to excommunicate Luther for his public teachings against what it deemed established church doctrine and for his protests against church authority. Luther knew exactly what awaited him, and his publication of “A Sermon on the Ban” reflected that.
Nonetheless, Luther’s position on excommunication hardly blunts the instrument so as to minimize its impact on him. To the contrary, he speaks in surprisingly objective, balanced tones about how excommunication should be understood and practiced. First, he recalls the 1518 sermon (and his understanding of Christendom from last month’s “On the Papacy at Rome”) by identifying two different types of fellowship or communion in the church: an inward, spiritual, and invisible fellowship, and an external, physical, and visible fellowship. Excommunication relates to the latter. In the external, physical, and visible fellowship, one “is allowed to participate in the holy sacrament, to receive it and to partake of it together with others” (LW 39:8). It is from this fellowship that one is excluded by a pope or bishop because of sin—for which Luther uses the designation the “small ban.” Alongside the small ban, there is also the “large ban,” which entails civic penalties such as prohibition of buying, selling, trading, and the like. Similar again to his 1518 sermon, Luther argues that even though someone may be excommunicated unjustly, he or she remains in fellowship with Christ and, thus, still shares in the internal, spiritual, invisible fellowship of the church.
Interestingly, though, Luther only reserves the highest praise for ecclesiastical excommunication—both the small ban and the large. For instance, he says, “Christ instituted this outward ban, small as well as large” (8). Furthermore, using language that strikes us as entirely medieval, he claims that when the small ban in particular is justified by the sin of the Christian and is applied rightly, it is to be seen as a gracious act of “mother” church: “For his mother, the holy church, wants to show her dear son this unbearable damage of sin, by way of punishment of the ban, and thereby wants to bring him back from the devil to God again” (10). Excommunication is a “pure and motherly punishment” and it is instituted “only to restore the inward spiritual fellowship” (11). Luther even makes clear that this ban is for more than the notorious heretic: “the ban should not only be used against those who oppose the faith, but also against those who sin in public” (21). Despite the fact that Luther was hard pressed by the authorities to recant his views, despite the fact that he knew excommunication would come his way, despite the fact that he believed excommunication for teaching his views was wrongheaded and ultimately unjust, he did not dismiss the practice outright or minimize its consequences. On the contrary, he extolled its benefits as a salutary institution of Christ to rebuke the sinner through the church and restore the sinner to full communion with the church through reception of the sacrament.
The Lutheran understanding of excommunication has largely followed the same lines that Luther laid out in 1520. Through the office of the keys, Christ has empowered his regularly called ministers with the task of remitting or retaining sins (Matthew 16, John 20). Bishops in particular have the power of jurisdiction, that is, “the authority to excommunicate those guilty of open crimes, and again to absolve them if they are converted and seek absolution” (Apology 28.13). Luther himself further explains that the “small ban” is the “true Christian excommunication” in which “manifest and obstinate sinners are not admitted to the Sacrament and other communion of the church until they amend their lives and avoid sin” (Smalcald Articles III.9). It is worth pondering what Luther means by “manifest and obstinate sinners.” He has in mind those whose errors are publicly known and who persist in those errors despite sound biblical, pastoral correction. He isn’t talking about the individual struggling with private sins or a pastor siding with one group over another in a congregational conflict. “Manifest and obstinate” implies an individual who teaches against the doctrine of the church or commits an egregious sin that contradicts Scripture, yet has no qualms about doing so. The refusal to remove such a sinner establishes an unhealthy precedent for others, who may come to believe such teaching or behavior is acceptable. This is why St. Paul urges the Corinthian church to excommunicate a man sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor. 5:1; 5:4) and claims that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). While the way this happens in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod may have its own congregationalist peculiarities, the theological foundation is the same: Lutheran Christians should exclude from their altars those who teach falsely or live immorally, and who do so publicly and unrepentantly, not only to restore the sinner to full communion through repentance and absolution, but also to protect the faithful from the unhealthy teaching or lifestyle that may tempt them, too.
I suspect that for most Lutheran clergy, though, the theology behind excommunication isn’t much of an obstacle. The real challenge is its execution. On the one hand, Lutheran pastors fear the ramifications if we rightfully excommunicate a parishioner for an idea or behavior the rest of the congregation, let alone the culture, finds no fault with. On the other hand, we feel powerless to affect any change in the life of the manifest and obstinate sinner because we realize that person will likely land at another congregation without that congregation or its pastor having any indication that the person was excommunicated. That is the danger of living in a multidenominational religious marketplace like ours, where people are free to pick and choose whichever congregation fits their liking—or their sin, as the case may be. It wasn’t like that in the ancient church, where you did not have competing congregations, or in the medieval or Reformation-era churches, where the overlapping spheres of church and government enabled civil enforcement of religious beliefs and lifestyles.
We don’t live in those eras, so we have to wrestle with the question of excommunication in the American church today. How should we go about it? What kind of sins might merit excommunication? Who is subject to excommunication for false teaching—just pastors, or theologians, or what about your ordinary lay member? Maybe the biggest question is whether excommunication is worth the hassle. What difference will it make? Do I want to risk my job, my income, and the support of my congregation over something that many will simply relativize or dismiss? Practically speaking, most manifest and obstinate sinners excommunicate themselves: they stop communing altogether. They would rather find a church that advocates for their views or behaviors than listen to Lutheran pastors preach and teach against those views or behaviors. Maybe worse still, the devil uses their sin and resistance to correction to erode their Christian faith altogether. This is the exact consequence, however, that the practice of excommunication seeks to avoid. The goal is not just to exclude the sinner, but to bring the sinner to repentance through correction so that he or she can participate fully at the table of the Lord and celebrate a common faith and a common morality with fellow Christians.