Excommunication is a religious censure which is used to deprive or suspend membership in a religious community. The word literally means out of communion, or no longer in communion. In some churches, excommunication includes spiritual condemnation of the subject member or group. Censures and sanctions sometimes follow excommunication such as banishment, shunning or shaming depending on the group's religion, its religious community or, its broader religious community. This article studies excommunication and spiritual condemnation often associated with excommunication, but not the religious censures and sanctions that follow excommunication.

Anathema Edit

The biblical basis of excommunication is anathema. The references are found in Galatians 1:8 “But even if we, or an angel from Heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be anathema"! Then also, 1 Corinthians 16:22 "If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be anathema". The word can be translated several ways; the King James Version translates it accursed.

Anathema was used in the early church as a form of extreme religious sanction, beyond excommunication. The earliest recorded example was in 306. The Roman Catholic church still makes use of the sanction, though it is rarely used against an individual. Some modern churches which seek to return to a New Testament form of Christianity refer to any form of exclusion as anathema.

Roman Catholic Church Edit

See also - List of people excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church

Excommunication is the most serious ecclesiastical penalty for Roman Catholics. While under censure, the excommunicate is barred from participating in the Church's sacramental life. The outward sign of this loss of community involves a prohibition of the person from participating in liturgy in a ministerial capacity, as well as from receiving the Eucharist or the other Sacraments. Certain other rights and privileges normally resulting from membership in the church are revoked, such as holding ecclesiastical office. Excommunication is intended to be a "medicinal" penalty intended to seriously motivate the offender to repent. In the Roman Catholic Church excommunication is usually terminated by repentance, confession, an act of profession of the Creed, and then absolution. Offenses which incur excommunication must be absolved by a local ordinary (bishop or vicar general) or a priest whom the local ordinary designates. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, the excommunicant is still considered Christian as the "baptismal watermark" is held to be indelible.

The Roman Catholic Church has an extensive history of the uses of excommunication, especially during the Middle Ages. Popes and archbishops used excommunication as a weapon against high ranking officials and kings who fell out of favor with the Catholic Church. Perceived abuse of this power, along with some other factors, led to the rise of the Protestant Reformation. With the rise of the idea of separation of church and state, excommunication no longer has any civil effect.

Excommunication can be incurred either ferendae sententiae (imposed or declared) or latae sententiae (automatic). Automatic excommunication is only applicable in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.

Prior to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, there were two degrees of excommunication: vitandi (shunned), and tolerati (tolerated). This distinction no longer applies today, and excommunicated Catholics are still under obligation to attend Mass, even though they are barred from the Eucharist.

Automatic excommunication Edit

There are a few offenses for which Latin Rite Roman Catholics are automatically excommunicated (the Latin term is Latæ Sententiæ):

  1. Apostasy (canon 1364),
  2. Heresy (canon 1364),
  3. Schism (canon 1364),
  4. Desecration of the Eucharist (canon 1367),
  5. Physical force against the Pope (canon 1370),
  6. Attempted sacramental absolution of a partner in adultery (canon 1378),
  7. Ordination of a bishop without a Papal mandate (canon 1382),
  8. Violation of the sacramental seal of confession by a priest or bishop (canon 1388),
  9. Procurement of a completed abortion (canon 1398), or
  10. Accomplice in any of the above (canon 1329).

These excommunications are not incurred when certain mitigating circumstances apply (canons 1323 and 1324), e.g., depending on age, ignorance, culpability.

Unless the local ordinary or an ecclesiastical court finds that the offense in question occurred, the obligation to observe an automatic excommunication lies solely on the excommunicated (Can. 1331 §1). Thus, even though an automatic excommunicant is forbidden to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, the excommunicant still retains the offices and all such acts are still valid acts under the law unless there has been a trial and finding of fact. Once this occurs, all subsequent acts become void and all offices lost (Can. 1331 §2).

The removal of the excommunication incurred by offenses 4 through 8 is reserved to the Holy See, either personally by the Pope or through the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Additionally, various parts of the Catholic Church can impose other grounds for excommunication. For example, from 1884 to 1977 in the United States, an automatic excommunication applied to divorced Catholics who remarried outside the Church without obtaining an annulment. As another example, since 1996 in the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, an automatic excommunication applies to members of certain organizations, including Call To Action and the Society of St. Pius X.

Some ecclesiastical offenses incur an automatic interdict, which for a lay person is virtually equivalent to excommunication. See that article for details.

Eastern Orthodox Communion Edit

In the Orthodox Church, excommunication is the exclusion of a member from the Eucharist. It is not expulsion from the Church. This can happen due to minor reasons like not having confessed within that year or be imposed as part of a penitential period. It is generally done with the goal of eventually restoring the member to full communion. The Orthodox Church does have a means of expulsion, by pronouncing anathema, but this is reserved only for acts of serious and unrepentant heresy. Even in that case, the individual is not "damned" by the Church but is instead left to his own devices. But, according to some theological sects, the person who receives anathema by the Church, is condemned to Hell and will be unable to rot in their grave.

Anglican Communion Edit

Church of England Edit

The Church of England does not have any specific canons regarding how or why a member can be excommunicated, though there are canons regarding how those who have been excommunicated are to be treated by the church. Excommunication is seen as an extreme measure, and very rarely used. For example, a clergyman was excommunicated in 1909 for having murdered four parishioners

Episcopal Church of the USA Edit

The ECUSA is, at the time of writing, in the Anglican Communion, and shares many canons with the Church of England which would determine its policy on excommunication. No central records are kept regarding excommunications, since they happen so rarely. In May 2000, a man was excommunicated for "continued efforts to attack this parish and its members" who had been publishing highly critical remarks about the church and some of its members in a tiny local paper, many of them about the pro-homosexual stance the church had taken.

Calvin's view on excommunication Edit

In John Calvin's Institutes of The Christian Religion, he said (4.12.10):

For when our Saviour promises that what his servants bound on earth should be bound in heaven, (Matthew 18: 18), he confines the power of binding to the censure of the Church, which does not consign those who are excommunicated to perpetual ruin and damnation, but assures them, when they hear their life and manners condemned, that perpetual damnation will follow if they do not repent. [Excommunication] rebukes and animadverts upon his manners; and although it ... punishes, it is to bring him to salvation, by forewarning him of his future doom. If it succeeds, reconciliation and restoration to communion are ready to be given. ... Hence, though ecclesiastical discipline does not allow us to be on familiar and intimate terms with excommunicated persons, still we ought to strive by all possible means to bring them to a better mind, and recover them to the fellowship and unity of the Church: as the apostle also says, "Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother" (2 Thessalonians 3: 15). If this humanity be not observed in private as well as public, the danger is, that our discipline shall degenerate into destruction.

Some Reformed churches today do not make use of excommunication (or church discipline in its lesser forms), though it is often still required by their constitutions.

Anabaptist traditionEdit

When believers were baptized and taken into membership of the church by Anabaptists, it was not only done as symbol of cleansing of sin but was also done as a public commitment to identify with Jesus Christ and to conform one's life to the teaching and example of Jesus as understood by the church. Practically, that meant membership in the church entailed a commitment to try to live according to norms of Christian behavior widely held by the Anabaptist tradition.

In the ideal, discipline in the Anabaptist tradition requires the church to confront a notoriously erring and unrepentant church member, first directly in a very small circle and, if no resolution is forthcoming, expanding the circle in steps eventually to include the entire church congregation. If the errant member persists without repentance and rejects even the admonition of the congregation, that person is excommunicated or excluded from church membership. Exclusion from the church is recognition by the congregation that this person has separated himself or herself from the church by way of his or her visible and unrepentant sin. This is done ostensibly as a final resort to protect the integrity of the church. When this occurs, the church is expected to continue to pray for the excluded member and to seek to restore him or her to its fellowship. There was originally no inherent expectation to shun (completely sever all ties with) an excluded member, however differences regarding this very issue led to early schisms between different Anabaptist leaders and those who followed them.


Jakob Ammann, founder of the Amish sect, believed that the shunning of those under the Bann should be systematically practiced among the Swiss Anabaptists as it was in the north and as was outlined in the Dordrecht Confession. Ammann's uncompromising zeal regarding this practice was one of the main disputes that led to the schism between the Anabaptist groups that became the Amish and those that eventually would be called Mennonite. Recently more moderate Amish groups have become less strict in their application of excommunication as a discipline. This has lead to splits in several communities, an example of which is the Swartzedruber Amish who split from the main body of Old Order Amish because of the latter's practice of lifting the ban from members who later join other churches. In general, the Amish will excommunicate baptized members for failure to abide by their Ordnung as it is interpreted by the local Bishop if certain repeat violations of the Ordnung occur.

Excommunication among the Old Order Amish results in shunning or the Meidung, the severity of which depends on many factors, such as the family, the local community as well as the type of Amish. Some Amish communities cease shunning after one year if the person joins another church later on, especially if it is another Mennonite church. At the most severe, other members of the congregation are prohibited almost all contact with an excommunicated member including social and business ties between the excommunicant and the congregation, sometimes even marital contact between the excommunicant and spouse remaining in the congregation or family contact between adult children and parents.


In the Mennonite Church excommunication is rare and is carried out only after many attempts at reconciliation and on someone who is flagrantly and repeatedly violating standards of behavior that the church expects. Occasionally excommunication is also carried against those who repeatedly question the church's behavior and/or who genuinely differ with the church's theology as well, although in almost all cases the dissenter will leave the church before any discipline need be invoked. In either case, the church will attempt reconciliation with member in private, first one on one and then with a few church leaders. Only if the church's reconciliation attempts are unsuccessful, the congregation formally revokes church membership. Members of the church generally pray for the excluded member.

Some regional conferences (the Mennonite counterpart to dioceses of other denominations) of the Mennonite Church have acted to expel member congregations that have openly welcomed non-celibate homosexuals as members. This internal conflict regarding homosexuality has also been an issue for other moderate denominations, such as the American Baptists and Methodists.

The practice among Old Order Mennonite congregations is more along the lines of Amish, but perhaps less severe typically. An Old Order member who disobeys the Ordnung (church regulations) must meet with the leaders of the church. If a church regulation is broken a second time there is a confession in the church. Those who refuse to confess are excommunicated. However upon later confession, the church member will be reinstated. An excommunicated member is placed under the ban. This person is not banned from eating with their own family. Excommunicated persons can still have business dealings with church members and can maintain marital relations with a marriage partner, who remains a church member.


The separatist, communal, and self-contained Hutterites also use excommunication and shunning as form of church discipline. Since Hutterites have communal ownership of goods, the effects of excommunication could impose a hardship upon the excluded member and family leaving them without employment income and material assets such as a home. However, often arrangements are made to provide material benefits to the family leaving the colony such as an automobile and some transition funds for rent, etc. One Hutterite colony in Manitoba, Canada had a protracted dispute when leaders attempted to force the departure of a group that had been excommunicated but would not leave. About a dozen lawsuits in both Canada and the United States were filed between the various Hutterite factions and colonies concerning excommunication, shunning, the legitimacy of leadership, communal property rights, and fair division of communal property when factions have separated.Other religions

Other religionsEdit

Islam, Judaism and Hinduism also practice a form of excommunication.

See alsoEdit

External links Edit


  • Encyclopedia of American Religions, by J. Gordon Melton ISBN 0-8103-6904-4
  • Ludlow, Daniel H. ed, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan Publishing, 1992.
  • Esau, Alvin J., "The Courts and the Colonies: The Litigation of Hutterite Church Disputes", Univ of British Columbia Press, 2004.
  • Gruter, Margaret, and Masters Roger, Ostracism: A Social and Biological Phenomenon, (Amish) Ostracism on Trial: The Limits of Individual Rights, Gruter Institute, 1984.
  • Beck, Martha N., Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, Crown, 2005.
  • Stammer, Larry B., Mormon Author Says He's Facing Excommunication, Los Angeles Times., Los Angeles, CA.: Dec 9, 2004. pg. A.34.
  • As told to Keirna Mayo, My Family Disowned Me: Lauren Parsons, 19, Gave up her Family for a Chance to Live the Life She Always Wanted, COSMOGIRL.COM/MYSTORY, Feb 2004. (Mennonite)
  • D'anna, Lynnette, Post-Mennonite Women Congregrate to Address Abuse, Herizons, 3/1/93.
  • Anonymous, Atlanta Mennonite congregation penalized over gays, The Atlanta Journal the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta, GA: Jan 2, 1999. pg. F.01.
  • Garrett, Ottie, Garrett Irene, True Stories of the X-Amish: Banned, Excommunicated, Shunned, Horse Cave KY: Nue Leben, Inc., 1998.
  • Garret, Ruth, Farrant Rick, Crossing Over: One Woman's Escape from Amish Life, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.
  • Hostetler, John A. (1993), Amish Society, The John Hopkins University Pres: Baltimore.
  • MacMaster, Richard K. (1985), Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America 1683-1790, Herald Press: Kitchener & Scottdale.
  • Scott, Stephen (1996), An Introduction to Old Order and Conservative Mennonite Groups, Good Books: Intercourse, Pennsylvania.
  • Juhnke, James, Vision, Doctrine, War: Mennonite Identity and Organization in America, 1890-1930, (The Mennonite Experience in America #3), Scottdale, PA, Herald Press, Pp 393, 1989.
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