Membership, Community, Diversity

Do Christian communities ever practice excommunication or banishment for religious reasons?

Various kinds of excommunication have played a role in a number of Christian organizations. In the Letter to the Galatians (1:8) Paul uses the word anathema (meaning literally “suspended or set above”) in the sense of “cursed, cut off” in reference to individuals who preached an unacceptable interpretation of the Gospel. Early church councils as well as official documents from later times have often applied the term anathema to any beliefs deemed inadequate or simply mistaken as well as to those who held such beliefs. Until the sixth century, to be pronounced anathema was equivalent to excommunication, but thereafter Canon Law introduced an important distinction. Anathema meant total exclusion from the life of the church, while excommunication meant only an inability to participate in the full sacramental life of the community. These two degrees came to be known as Greater and Lesser Excommunication. In more recent times, the Roman Catholic practice has introduced the distinction between excommunicates who are “to be avoided entirely,” a status now limited to persons who physically threaten the pope, and those who are “tolerated,” allowed to attend certain services but not to receive communion.

Excommunication is one of three types of official “censure” in Canon Law, all of which are very rarely invoked nowadays. “Suspension” means that a cleric cannot perform certain ritual actions. “Interdict,” denial of the right to celebrate some or all of the sacraments, can be imposed on individuals or groups, clergy or lay alike, in response to a cause for scandal. Roman and Anglo-Catholic traditions have by far the most elaborate juridical language, but many Christian churches have historically practiced varieties of excommunication. “Shunning,” for example, forbids members in good standing to associate in any way with those under the ban, even if they are family members. The practice is rare except among Radical Reform groups such as the Men-nonite and Amish.


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