Is “Excommunication” Biblical?

In Acts 17:11, the Berean Christians are praised for making sure what Paul was teaching them was actually found in Scripture:

The people here were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, since they welcomed the message with eagerness and examined the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

It is important to keep in mind that for them, the Scriptures were the Old Testament. Today, if we want to be like the Bereans, we have 66 books to compare.

One key step when it comes to being Bereans in the present (though it is by no means an infallible rule) is making sure that the words we are using are found in Scripture. Now granted, if we made this an infallible rule, then we would be forced to throw out the Trinity, because “Trinity” never shows up in Scripture, but in actual fact, we do see evidence of the Trinity (just without the word itself) in passages like Matthew 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 13:13; Mark 1:9-10; Genesis 1:1-2 (cf. John 1:1-3).

But the word under study today is “excommunication.” Is this a biblical word?

According to the rule that would require a word to be explicitly in an English translation for it to be a biblical word, the answer would initially appear to be “No.” The King James Version (1611) doesn’t ever use the word in question, and neither does my favorite translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible (2009). From this wooden–and theologically lazy (see next two paragraphs)–approach to the understanding of whether or not a concept is biblical, we would be forced to conclude that “excommunication” is unbiblical.

But if we do that, we would also be forced to conclude that the Trinity is unbiblical, and–even more applicable in light of the Bereans–that Jesus can’t be the Savior because His name doesn’t show up in the Old Testament, other than when it is speaking about Joshua. (Their names are identical in Greek, and the Bereans were likely using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.[1]) But obviously, the Bereans welcomed Paul’s message, so the mere presence or lack of a specific word in the inspired text–understood in the proper context–is not enough to deem something biblical or unbiblical.

Rather, the spirit of the matter must be understood. The Old Testament clearly witnesses to Jesus–even though it never uses His name–especially in passages like Isaiah 53, Micah 5:2, and Zechariah 9:9. This is why the Bereans could believe the message Paul brought. This is why they were praised more than the Jews in Thessalonika.

But what about the word “excommunication”? Is this a biblical concept? Is this what Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14; and Titus 3:10 are referring to?

Good questions. Today, I would like to briefly point out that excommunication is a biblical concept, but it is not what those passages are referring to.

One of the first, complete English translations of the Bible is the Geneva Bible (1560). This translation actually does use the word “excommunication” (or equivalents) in eight verses. By understanding the background of this translation, we are better equipped to understand some of their translational decisions. This translation was composed during Bloody Mary’s rule in England (1553-1558) when many Protestants fled to mainland Europe to escape persecution.[2]

The eight verses that use the word “excommunication” are as follows (I updated archaic language to sound/look more modern):

  • Joshua 7:1
    But the children of Israél committed a trespass in the excommunicate thing for Achán the son of Carmí, the son of Zabdí, the son of Zérah of the tribe of Judáh took of the excommunicate thing: wherefore the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the children of Israél.
  • Joshua 7:11
    Israél has sinned, and they have transgressed my covenant, which I commanded them: for they have even taken of the excommunicate thing, and have also stolen, and dissembled also, and have put it even with their own stuff.
  • Joshua 7:12
    Therefore the children of Israél can not stand before their enemies, but have turned their backs before their enemies, because they be execrable: neither will I be with you any more, except ye destroy the excommunicate from among you.
  • Joshua 7:15
    And he that is taken with the excommunicate thing, shall be burnt with fire, he, and all that he has, because he has transgressed the covenant of the Lord, and because he has wrought folly in Israel.
  • 1 Chronicles 2:7
    And the son of Carmi, Achár that troubled Israél, transgressing in the thing excommunicate.
  • John 9:22
    These words spake his parents, because they feared the Jews: for the Jews had ordained already, that if any man did confess that he was the Christ, he should be excommunicate out of the Synagogue.
  • John 16:2
    They shall excommunicate you: yea, the time shall come, that whosoever killeth you, wil think that he doeth God service.
  • 1 Corinthians 16:22
    If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be had in execration, yea excommunicate to death.

Here we see clearly that all of the Old Testament uses of the term “excommunicate” refer to the story of Achan in Joshua 7. Even the 1 Chronicles reference refers back to this story (though it uses a different form of his name). From this, we gather that “excommunicate things” are things set apart to God for destruction. Because Achan coveted something that God had set apart for destruction–because he took it and made it part of his belongings–he identified himself with it, and thus he was counted as excommunicate himself.

But when we come to the New Testament, the Geneva Bible does something very interesting. There are two different situations envisioned here, though they are both related.

Apparently, Jesus was creating such a stir in Judea that the only option the Jewish leaders had was to consider Him set apart by God for destruction. This is probably due to His claim in John 8:58 (amongst others), so anyone who aligned themselves with Jesus (by confessing Him as Messiah) was to be seen as identifying with something set apart for destruction, and thus counted as excommunicate themselves. Jesus tells His disciples that they should expect this sort of treatment as a result of their faith in Him.

And then, Paul, in 1 Corinthians, flips the concept on its head. He says, in effect, “They might think Jesus is accursed, and they might excommunicate those who love Him. However, in reality, those who have no love for Jesus are the ones who are truly set apart for destruction and excommunicate.”

A first observation from this reflection on the Geneva Bible’s use of “excommunicate”: A true Christian cannot truly be excommunicated. Whereas the powers that be might claim to have the power to excommunicate, only God determines who is truly excommunicate. When human “courts” (churches) take on this power, they think they are doing God’s work, but this is the height of arrogance, as John 16:2 shows most encouragingly, from the mouth of Jesus Himself:

“I have told you these things to keep you from stumbling. They will ban you from the synagogues. In fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God. They will do these things because they haven’t known the Father or Me. . . . I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

John 16:1-3, 33

A second observation is this: The Geneva Bible does not utilize the term “excommunication” in the passages dealing with Church Discipline. This is because Church Discipline is to be restorative and not punitive. Excommunication is not a restorative practice according to the Geneva Bible’s translators (the Reformers, including Calvin, who died in Geneva in 1564[3]), since the word never occurs in passages dealing with Church Discipline. Now granted, if someone is under Church Discipline, and if they are refusig to repent, then Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 16:22 might end up proving true, but until that time, Church Discipline demands a restorative approach. By doing so, we will protect ourselves from excommunicating people wrongly, and we will more visibly love those who love Jesus, even if they differ in certain specifics of theology than we do.

When it comes to someone who might be deserving of what is commonly called “excommunication,” the most important question is this: Does the person under consideration love the Lord Jesus Christ?

If so, excommunication is entirely unnecessary.

If not, we must lovingly pursue them with the gospel until our dying day (even if they have been “excommunicated” via the Church Discipline process), praying that they will repent before God eternally excommunicates them at the time of their own death (cf. Romans 9:1-3).

We must not take vengeance into our own hands, but leave room for God’s wrath! (cf. Romans 12:19-21).

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Gratia
Sola Scriptura
Sola Fide
Pro Ecclesia

Thanks for reading.


[1] See Stanley E. Porter, “Septuagint/Greek Old Testament,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1099.

[2] See John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History Volume 2: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 234-236.

[3] Gilbert William, “Calvin and Geneva,” in Renaissance and Reformation (Lawrence Kansas: Carrie, 1998).

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