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This article contains a study on what the New Testament says about the matter of excommunication – what kind of people the saints [a] were told to mark, cast out, avoid and deny fellowship to.
Even the matter of excommunication on “doctrinal grounds” will be considered here. Further, it will be studied who was to do the marking of offenders, and who was to cast them out, and for what reasons. More: Was the marking and avoiding to be “for ever”, and if not, when and under what circumstances could the saints receive the offenders back to their fellowship?
A note: In order to fully understand the matter of excommunication, one must also understand the matter of churches. Most bible-versions contain the word “church” in numerous places in the NT. This has caused many people to think that things in churches are similar to what the saints practised. But, that is not so. What we see in churches, consists mostly of modified variants of Catholic customs, dogmas and power-hierarchies – things that lack biblical basis. Many bible-versions contain wordings which reflect Catholic manners and practices, instead of being proper translations of the Greek NT text.
a In this article, the word “saints” refers to those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century.
The origin of the word “excommunicate” is that it comes from “church Latin” and refers to a Catholic concept. Literally, the old Latin verb excommunico could have referred to “putting out of the community”, but in Catholicism its practical meaning has been “to lay under the ban of the church” and thus “expel from communion” (denying people access to the Catholic “eucharist”).
Other churches have then in various ways copied that Catholic word and concept, and adapted it to their own needs and purposes.
In some churches, people are demanded to avoid and shun those whom the church (preacher) “excommunicates”. Often, the excommunicated persons are then treated as if they did not exist. When their former friends meet them on a street, those “friends” cross over to the other side of the street and keep far away from them. Even families are split, because the excommunicated ones are considered “unclean”, and because “church leaders” demand people to avoid even their closest family members and to move away from them. In some cases, even those who have company with “excommunicated” persons or talk to them, are also excommunicated.
A number of churches have used the word “anathema” in connection with their excommunications (“bans”). That is a copy of the Catholic concept “ban of the church” which meant that for instance those who did not accept the Catholic dogmas or rulings, could be “anathemised”, “banned”.
(The meaning of the old Greek word ἀνάθεμα, and the Catholic “anathema” concept, are discussed in an appendix at the end of this article.)
The following considers what we can find in the New Testament, concerning what the saints did in regard to marking and avoiding. It is, of course, mostly in the Epistles that we can learn more about that matter. They contain a number passages which, when considered together, form a picture of what the apostles taught in regard to “excommunication”.
First, let us consider a passage in 2 Thessalonians 3.
2 Thessalonians 3:6–14 contains such phrases as “withdraw yourselves” and “mark that man and have no company with him”. In other words, Paul, Silvanus and Timothy told the saints to close out from their fellowship persons of a certain kind. That was “disfellowshipping”, or “excommunicating” if you please. And, that was regarding persons who did not want to work and tried to live at the cost of others.
Here is the passage in question – make sure to read all of it, slowly and with thought:
2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to withdraw yourselves from every brother who leads an idle life, instead of living according to the instruction you received from us. 7 For you know in what way you should imitate us, because we did not behave disorderly among you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 Not that we did not have the opportunity, [b] but we made ourselves a model for you to imitate. [c] 10 Even when we were with you, we told you this: If someone does not want to work, neither let him eat. 11 But we hear that some among you are leading negligent lives, not working at all but being busybodies. 12 We charge and exhort such persons, by our Lord Jesus the Messiah, to keep quiet and work and eat their own bread. 13 So, brothers, keep on acting in an upright way. 14 But if someone does not give attention to what we have said in this letter, mark that man and have no company with him, so that he may be ashamed. (BPT)
Really what were Paul, Silvanus and Timothy saying? Simply that all who were able to work, were to do that, in order to support themselves. But, if someone did not want to work [but wanted to live at the cost of others], in that case the saints were to close such a person out from their fellowship. Verse 14, “mark that man and have no company with him”.
And yes, this applied to all healthy persons in their working age, including those who had been elected as elders. But in our day, something else is being taught. Even a number of New Testament passages have been “adjusted” by bible-translators, giving a different picture of the matter. – See the notes below.
b Verses 8–9, “so that we would not be a burden to any of you—not that we did not have the opportunity” – many translators have put into verse 9 such words as “power” or “right”, but it appears that in this case the many-faceted word exousia in the Greek text is used in the signification “chance”, “opportunity”. It appears that Paul, Silvanus and Timothy were politely stating that they knew that the saints in Thessalonica were generous and would have allowed them to stay as guests, for free. So, from that viewpoint, they would have had the opportunity or chance (exousia) to “be a burden” to those people. But, Paul and his companions were relaying a command from the Lord – see verses 6–14 above – and so, they made it clear that they would not live at the cost of others. Verse 8, “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; rather, with labour and toil we worked night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you”. – There is more on 2 Thessalonians 3:9 and its translation and meaning in the article nma030.htm, including the appendix at its end.
c Verse 9, last part: “We made ourselves a model for you to imitate” – here, the example which Paul and his companions set, was that they supported themselves and did not live at the cost of others.
In a letter to Timothy, Paul included an instruction to withdraw from people who use religion for making money.
1 Timothy 6: […] 5 perverse disputings of men of corrupt understanding, and destitute of the truth, using piety as a source of gain: from such withdraw thyself. (JB)
One edition of the Williams NT has “who imagine that religion is only a means of gain”; the 20CNT has “who think of religion only as a source of gain”.
Note the words “from such withdraw yourself” which the above-quoted JB and many other translations have in that verse. That was “disfellowshipping”, or “excommunicating” if you please.
(Some translators have omitted those four words. Some have claimed that they have “little manuscript authority”, but is that so? John Gill noted in his commentary, “The Vulgate Latin and Ethiopic versions omit this clause; it is wanting in the Alexandrian copy, and in Beza’s Claromontane Exemplar, but is in other copies.” So, it appears that most Greek manuscripts have in that verse the phrase aphistaso apo tôn toioutôn, “from such withdraw yourself”. And, even without those words, that verse makes it clear that Paul condemned the manner of using religion for making money.)
In another letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul warned about men of a certain kind, and said that they are to be shunned.
2 Timothy 3:1 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: 2 For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 without natural affection, unyielding, slanderers, without self-control, savage, despisers of good, 4 traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away. (VW06)
Verse 5, “from such people turn away” – here, Paul was not talking about people in general. No, he was warning about immoral persons who were, among other things, “lovers of themselves, lovers of money”, verse 2. – Obviously, this warning was regarding such persons and their doings, in connection with religion. – Paul told Timothy to turn away from people of that kind. That was denying company to.
A note: It is true that the words “in the last days” in verse 1 refer to things and persons in the first century; see the use of similar phrases in Hebrews 1:2, James 5:3, 1 Peter 1:20, 1 John 2:18 et cetera. But, things are not any better in our day.
In Titus 3:10, some translators have used wordings which hide the original meaning. This began already with the Latin-language Catholic Vulgate version. In it, the word hairetikon in the Greek text is left untranslated, in the transcribed form hereticum. The Greek adjective hairetikos referred to [persons who in some way cause] division, but in Catholicism, its latinised form hereticus came to be used of people who did not accept and follow Catholic dogmas. Later, when other churches came on the scene, they copied that Catholic concept, and used it for their own purposes.
Here is how the Catholic DR1899 renders that verse:
Titus 3:10 A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid (DR1899)
Here is the same verse along with two preceding ones, as the CT has it:
Titus 3:8 This saying is trustworthy. On this I want you to firmly insist; that those who have faith in God must be careful to maintain honest occupations. Such counsels are good and profitable for men. 9 But avoid foolish questionings and genealogies and dissensions and wranglings about the law; for these are unprofitable and empty. 10 After a first and second admonition, refuse a man who is causing divisions (CT)
“Refuse a man who is causing divisions” – the wider context indicates that some hairetikos (divisive) men had been trying to form their own “party” or “school of thought”, Greek hairesis.
Putting that in other words: It appears that the apostle was warning about men of the kind that make themselves “teachers” and “leaders” and want people to follow them and their teachings (doctrines). Such men were to be shunned. “Disfellowshipped”, if you please. (The words “wranglings about the law” in verse 9 indicate that it was some Jews or judaizers who tried to divide the disciples.)
John wrote to someone a letter which among other things contained an instruction regarding shunning. We read:
2 John 10 If any one come to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, nor give him any greeting. (CT)
“Does not bring this teaching” – exactly what teaching or teachings did John refer to? The context tells us more. It appears that that was regarding a specific problem. We read:
2 John 9 Whoever is going ahead, and is not abiding in the teachings of Christ, does not possess God; but he who is abiding in the teaching possesses both the Father and the Son. 10 If any one come to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, nor give him any greeting. 11 For the man who greets him shares in his wicked work. (CT, highlighting added)
So, the meaning of the words “does not bring this teaching” in verse 10 is clarified by verse 9, “is not abiding in the teachings of Christ”. John obviously meant that if someone did not hold to what Jesus had taught but instead spread his own teachings, then that man was to be excluded from the fellowship, avoided and not even greeted.
Thus, John said the same as Paul: The saints were not to follow men or men’s teachings. They were to follow Jesus and keep to His teachings. They were to mark and avoid deceivers who came with their own teachings.
The above-quoted 2 John 9–11 shows that the saints were to deny fellowship to persons who did not keep to what Jesus had taught.
The earlier quoted Titus 3:10 shows that the saints were to keep away from persons who caused divisions. That obviously referred to persons who did not hold to what Jesus had taught but instead came with teachings of their own.
So, it can be said that in that way, the saints were told to excommunicate people on “doctrinal grounds”. That is: They were to deny fellowship to persons who wanted to make themselves “leaders” and “teachers” and have people follow them and their teachings, doctrines. – In that context, consider these words of Jesus:
Matthew 23:8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’; for one is your Teacher, and you are all brothers; 9 “and call no one ‘Father’ on earth, for One is your Father in heaven. 10 “And call no one ‘Leader,’ because One is your leader, even the Christ. (CT)
Some might say, “But the apostles taught people.” True – but they only echoed what Jesus had taught. They did not come with teachings of their own. Sometimes, if the apostles did not have the word of the Lord on some specific matter, they might even express a private opinion, but then, they could make it clear that it was so. An example: “To all others I say (I, not the Lord) […]”, 1 Corinthians 7:12.
A note: The word “doctrine” comes from the old Latin noun doctrina which simply meant “teaching”. (The article nsa080.htm has more on the word and concept “doctrine”.)
Consider this: As we all know, dogmas, doctrines, tenets, creeds and the like are always compiled by men and consist of teachings of men.
Also, consider this passage:
Ephesians 4:14 That we from now on be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; 15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ (AKJV)
As you can see, the apostle Paul warned about “doctrines” (teachings of men) and being deceived by such. All were to look up to Jesus and His teachings.
Please also note that the earlier discussed Titus 3:10 does not refer to people deviating from some “church” or preacher or their doctrines (teachings). Paul was warning about deceiving men (apparently some Jews or judaizers) who tried to make people turn away from Jesus and His teachings.
Consider even this: When preachers want to set up a church of their own, they often create division in some religious group, in order to grab a part of it as their own followers and financiers. They do that by the help of doctrines. Preachers who start new churches, often “profile” themselves, in order to attract people. They do that by producing some special doctrines or dogmas, which they then claim to be “the truth”, “new revelations”, or whatever. That’s how religious division is created: By the help of doctrines.
A side-note: Many bible-versions have in 1 Corinthians 1:10 such wordings as “all speak the same thing”. Some have then claimed that to mean that people should follow the doctrines of some church or preacher. The article naa060.htm sorts out that matter.
Some preachers might quote Galatians 1:8–9 and cause people to think that it refers to the preacher and his doctrines, and that those who do not agree with the preacher, are (to be viewed as) “anathema”. – Let us consider that passage.
Galatians 1:8 but even if we or a messenger out of heaven may proclaim good news to you different from what we did proclaim to you—anathema let him be! 9 as we have said before, and now say again, If any one to you may proclaim good news different from what ye did receive—anathema let him be! (YLT)
Please note that in those verses, the word “we” refers to the apostle Paul and his companions. Also: The Good Tidings which they proclaimed, did not consist of their own teachings. They were only echoing what Jesus had taught. – The point here is that Galatians 1:8–9 has nothing to do with churches and preachers and their doctrines.
The Greek text of verse 9 contains the word anathema. Many translators have left that word untranslated; some have rendered it as “accursed”. But, the practical meaning of that verse appears to be that the apostle told the saints to cast out and shun all and anyone who proclaimed some other gospel than the one which Jesus had proclaimed and which the apostles were echoing.
(The meaning of the old Greek word ἀνάθεμα, and the Catholic “anathema” concept, are discussed in an appendix at the end of this article.)
Paul wrote to the saints in Rome:
Romans 16:17 I urge you, Brothers, to be on your guard against people who, by disregarding the teaching which you received, cause divisions and create difficulties; [d] dissociate yourselves from them. 18 For such persons are not serving Christ, our Master, but are slaves to their own appetites; and, by their smooth words and flattery, they deceive simple-minded people. (20CNT, note sign added)
When you read that quote, please note that it was not some preacher or elder who was to “mark” and cast out people. Verse 17: It was the “brothers” (the saints, all and everyone of them) who were to mark and avoid the offenders, and close them out from their fellowship.
d “Divisions” and “difficulties” – the Greek text has dichostasia and skandalon. The former was related to the verb dichostateô which meant “to stand apart”, “to disagree”. The latter referred to a “trap” or “snare”. It appears that Romans 16:17 is about the same sort of problem as the earlier discussed Titus 3:10. That is, it appears that Paul was even here warning about men who created their own teachings, in order to divide the disciples, so that they could catch and grab some of them as their own followers (and financiers; note the word “appetite”, verse 18).
Please note that the words “the teaching which you received” in the above-quoted Romans 16:17 refer to Jesus’ teachings, which the apostles then echoed. That passage has nothing to do with some church or preacher or their doctrines and dogmas.
If one looks for the word “leader” in the New Testament part of the 1769 edition of king James’ bible, one will find it only in Matthew 15:14, in connection with certain people who had made themselves “religious leaders”.
Matthew 15:12 Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying? 13 But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. 14 Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch. (KJV1769)
“Let them alone”. That was regarding the Pharisees who in those days had managed to make themselves “religious leaders” in Judea. The meaning appears to be “keep away from them”.
The article noa120.htm has more on the Pharisees, and sorts out even the misunderstanding regarding “Moses’ seat”. The article nsa060.htm considers the matter of “spiritual authority” – that is, the question, “Who can speak for God?”
A note: A number of translators have put into certain New Testament passages wordings that could make casual bible-readers think that the apostle Paul told people to “follow him as their leader”, or something like that. But, the Greek text of the passages in question shows that what he did, was instead that he told people to imitate the example which he and his companions had set, in regard to certain things. The article nma030.htm has more on that subject, including the nature of that example.
The background was that in the saints’ fellowship in Corinth, there was a certain offender, an immoral person. In that connection, the apostle Paul used symbolic language, such expressions as “puffed up” and “leaven” (sourdough). He told the saints to cast out the offender, similar to how leaven was purged out in the Old Covenant’s ritual.
1 Corinthians 4:18 But as of me not coming to you, some men are puffed up. 19 But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord should will, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power. 20 For the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power. 21 What do ye want? Should I come to you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness? 1 Corinthians 5:1 Fornication is actually heard among you, and such fornication that is not even named among the Gentiles, for some man to have his father’s wife. 2 And ye are puffed up and did not rather mourn, so that he who committed this deed might be taken away from the midst of you. 3 For I truly, as being absent in the body but present in the spirit, I have already, as though present, judged the man who committed this thing this way. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 to deliver such a man to Satan for destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. 6 Your boasting is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? 7 Purge out the old leaven, so that ye may be a new lump, since ye are unleavened. For also Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us. 8 Therefore we should feast, not by old leaven, nor by leaven of evil and wickedness, but by non-leaven of sincerity and truth. […] 11 But now I write to you not to associate if any man who is called a brother is a fornicator, or a greedy man, or an idolater, or a slanderer, or a drunkard, or a predator, not even to eat with such kind. 12 For what is in me to also judge those outside? Do ye not judge those inside? 13 But God judges those outside. And ye yourselves shall drive out the evil man from you. (ACV, highlighting added)
Verse 6, “little leaven” which could “leaven the whole lump”, and verse 7, “purge out the old leaven, so that you may be a new lump” – again, the apostle used symbolic language. He told the saints to cast such sourdough (the offender) out from their fellowship. In other words: They were to “disfellowship” that person.
A note: A number of bible-translators have added to the last part of verse 8 the word “bread”, but the Greek text does not have any word for bread there. Paul was talking about persons, and not about bread.
The above-quoted 1 Corinthians 5:2 shows that Paul was reprimanding the saints in Corinth, because they had not cast the offender out from their fellowship. Here is another translation of that verse:
1 Corinthians 5:2 Yet you are puffed up instead of mourning and removing from among you the man who has done this thing. (CT)
A study of Paul’s letters to Corinth shows that there apparently were even other men of bad nature. And, it appears that some such men had managed to make themselves “leaders”. Paul mocked the believers in Corinth, because they had allowed those men to remain in their fellowship, instead of casting them out. We read:
2 Corinthians 11:13 God’s messengers? They are counterfeits of the real thing, dishonest practitioners masquerading as the messengers of Christ. 14 Nor do their tactics surprise me when I consider how Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is only to be expected that his agents shall have the appearance of ministers of righteousness—but they will get what they deserve in the end. 16 Once more, let me advise you not to look upon me as a fool. Yet if you do, then listen to what this “fool” has to make his little boast about. 17 I am not now speaking as the Lord commands me but as a fool in this business of boasting. 18 Since all the others are so proud of themselves, let me do a little boasting as well. 19 From your heights of wisdom I am sure you can smile tolerantly on a fool. 20 Oh, you’re tolerant all right! You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, takes advantage of you, puts on airs or even smacks your face? 21 I am almost ashamed to say that I never did brave strong things like that to you. […] (PH72)
As you can see, Paul mocked those people, because they had allowed themselves to be used by such deceivers. “Oh, you’re tolerant all right! You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, takes advantage of you, puts on airs or even smacks your face?” – They should have cast such persons out from their fellowship.
Galatians 5 is preceded by Paul’s analogy where Abraham’s wives Hagar and Sarah and their offspring represented two covenants, two cities, two mountains, and slavery respectively freedom. Paul was talking about the matter of the two covenants, old and new. The wider context indicates that some Jews or judaizers were trying to cause the saints in Galatia to begin to observe some old-covenantal rules. Paul wrote to those saints:
Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and wrap not yourselves again in the yoke of bondage. 2 Behold I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing at all. 3 I testify again to every man which is circumcised that he is bound to keep the whole law. 4 Ye are gone quite from Christ as many as are justified by the law, and are fallen from grace. 5 We look for and hope to be justified by the spirit which cometh of faith. […] 12 I would to God they were sundered from you which trouble you. (TRC)
Again, the apostle’s words “I would to God they were sundered from you which trouble you” were in regard to persons who tried to cause the saints to begin observing old-covenantal rituals or rules. He told those saints to cast such trouble-makers out from their fellowship.
(Some linguistics: In the Greek text of verse 12, the verb in question is apokoptô which, among other things, was used in such meanings as “to reject” and “to exclude”. In old Greek there was also the related adjective apokoptos which in this kind of context referred to someone being “severed from others”.)
Matthew 18 records how Jesus taught his disciples in regard to how they were to deal with their eventual internal disputes and similar things.
Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother. 16 But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. (WEB)
Verse 15, the words “sins against you”: Obviously, Jesus was talking about persons who offended or hurt others.
Verse 17, “as a gentile or a tax collector” – clarification: On this occasion, Jesus was addressing Jewish people. Traditionally, the Jews shunned people of other nations, the goyim. And, as to the [Roman] tax-collectors, same verse – they were hated, of course. In short: Verse 17 refers to shunning offenders.
Now, it is clear that those disciples were not to make a “court case” of every little thing. And also, none of them was to offend others in any way. But if there nevertheless arose a problem, then they were to first try to talk with the offending person in private. If the offender did not want to listen, then the one who had been offended or hurt could take along two or three others, to be present as witnesses at a discussion with the offender. But if that did not help either, then one could tell the assembly (ekklêsia) about the offender’s behaviour, so that all would know about the problem, and shun that person.
It is not fully clear what the word ekklêsia, “assembly”, in the Greek text of that verse refers to. One thing is clear: There were no churches in those days. Also: It is not likely that the disciples had formed assemblies or fellowships of their own, at that time yet. (The first NT use of the word ekklêsia in such connection is found in Acts 2:47.)
But, it could be that Jesus gave that instruction in advance, knowing that after his ascension, the number of disciples would grow and that they would begin forming their own “assemblies” – local fellowships. Verses 15–17 are followed by verse 18 which records how Jesus mentioned “binding and loosing”. This was concerning how those disciples, people of the first century, were to settle their internal disputes or similar problems.
(On an other occasion, recorded in Matthew 16, Jesus spoke about a time when the apostles were to “bind and loose”, acting as judges, see for instance Matthew 19:27–28. That obviously referred to how they were to assist Jesus in the administration of the Reign of God, after they had become immortals. The article nba070.htm has more on this.)
The New Testament does not spell out that matter. Of course, we know what Jesus said to Simon Peter regarding forgiveness – Matthew 17:21–22 – but obviously, that did not mean that the disciples were to accept in their fellowships persons who time after time caused trouble or division or habitually lived in sin.
For instance Paul wrote that divisive people were to be warned two or three times, but if that did not help, such offenders were to be shunned. But, what if the trouble-makers really changed themselves – could they then be received back? The biblical record does not tell us what the saints did, in such cases.
The New Testament does not give any support to the originally Catholic concept where some preacher or church has a “right to excommunicate”. Among the saints, it was the saints themselves, all of them, both as a group as well as individuals, that were to mark, cast out and shun and avoid offenders.
It is worth noting that some of Paul’s instructions and warnings in that connection, were regarding men who set themselves up as “religious leaders” or tried to live at the cost of others. The apostle made it clear that such men were to be warned, but if that did not help, then the saints were to cast them out from their fellowships and shun and avoid them. Excommunicate them, if you please.
And yes, there were even some instructions as to how to deal with immorality and with offences of other kinds.
See also the “recommended reading” section, after the appendix below.
The noun anathema and the verb anathematizô came from the verb anatithêmi which had many different uses and meanings.
In the Greek text of the Septuagint version (LXX), the word anathema is used as a translation of the Hebrew verb charam and the noun cherem. (Those Hebrew words had different uses and meanings. They could refer “devoting”, such as devoting to the Lord, but they could also refer to such things as accursing or destroying.)
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the noun anathema is found in Acts 23:14, Romans 9:3, 1 Corinthians 12:3 and 16:22 and Galatians 1:8 and 9. The verb anathematizô is found in Mark 14:71 and Acts 23:12, 14 and 21.
In Acts 23:14, 14 and 21, some have translated the words anathema and anathematizô as “curse” or similar, but in those verses for instance the NKJV interprets them as referring to an “oath”, which appears to be the right translation in those cases. In Romans 9:3 and 1 Corinthians 12:3, it is not fully clear what Paul meant by the noun anathema. Galatians 1:8–9 is discussed in the main part of this article.
In 1 Corinthians 16:22, many translators have either left the word anathema untranslated, or made it to “accursed” or something similar. That verse records how the apostle told the saints in Corinth that those who did not love Jesus, were to be considered as anathema. Was he pronouncing a curse? Perhaps not. It could be that he simply meant that the saints were not to accept in their fellowships people who did not love Jesus – that they were to cast such persons out from their fellowships.
In the “religious language” of our day, the word anathema is used in the meaning “formal ecclesiastical curse accompanied by excommunication”. Background: The Catholic Church has at times declared people in “the ban of the church”, also called “anathema”. Those who did not accept the Catholic dogmas or other rulings, could be “banned”. Many other churches have then copied that Catholic practice, and used it in some modified form.
The Catholic Church used to have “minor excommunication” and “major excommunication”. Apparently, the latter could be quite a spectacle. It is said that when the pontiff declared such a ban on someone, he was clad in his colourful paraphernalia and was assisted by twelve priests, all holding lit candles. The pontiff solemnly pronounced the ban, in the names of all kinds or “deities” and “saints” and “powers”, declaring the person in question “excommunicated” and “anathematised” and “condemned to everlasting fire”, and so on and so forth. When that was done, the assistants shouted “fiat, fiat, fiat” (“so be it”), and then they and the pontiff cast their burning candles to the ground.
Obviously, that show was not wasted on any “small people” but was reserved for use on rulers and other “high” persons. If they then “repented” – acknowledged the pontiff’s power and worshipped him (crept on their knees and kissed his hand) – then that ban could be lifted. In other words: That was a matter of politics, in connection with battles about political power and similar things. (For a time, the pontiffs were emperors over large parts of Europe, and even later they had great political power. The “anathema” or “ban” was sometimes used as a tool, in such connection. Those who threatened the pontiff’s power-position, could always be banned.)
As for the “common people” – they were not of interest for the pontiffs. They were instead taken care of by other systems, such as the Inquisition which was set up to control people. The Inquisition interrogated “suspect” people, often with torture, until they acknowledged their “crime”. Upon that, they were given “forgiveness of sins”, but were then turned over to “mundane authorities”, often to be executed.
Those were some of the details of the old Catholic system of “excommunicating” and “anathematising” (banning). Some of those things have then been copied by non-Catholic churches, in various modified forms. Over time, some of the brutalities have been removed, leaving mostly the ban-part. That has then been used as a tool for controlling people through fear. There are churches and preachers that go as far as to dividing families, by demanding people to leave their “banned” spouses and children and so on. Many people have been caused to think that they must “stay in the church in order to be saved”, and as most people neither know nor check what the Bible actually says in regard to such things, those churches and preachers have been able to go on with their rule of terror (control through fear).
(The articles naa010.htm, nga060.htm, and naa031.htm have some notes on the matter of churches.)
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Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters
An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm
On the example the apostle Paul set, for others to imitate. → nma030.htm
What does the word “doctrine” really mean? Likewise, what is the meaning of the terms “dogma”, “creed” and “tenet”? → nsa080.htm
1 Corinthians 1:10, the translation “all speak the same thing”. What was the apostle Paul talking about? → naa060.htm
What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? → noa120.htm
What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm
Matthew 16:19, the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and “bind” and “loose”. What kind of “keys” and “binding and loosing” was Jesus talking about? → nba070.htm
Matthew 16:18, “I will build my assembly, and the gates of hades shall not prevail against it”. What and where was the ekklêsia or assembly which Jesus said he would form? Was it an earthly religious organisation as some claim, or something else? → naa010.htm
The origin and meaning of the word “church”. → nga060.htm
“Church eras” – do they exist? Are there seven “eras of the church”, as some say – “Sardis era”, “Philadelphian era”, “Laodicean era” and so on? → naa031.htm
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