By Dr Paul M Elliott
Our series on the subject of how Christians should deal with false teaching in the church generated some followup questions from readers. We take up the first today: “What is the meaning of anathema? Can a church pronounce an anathema upon a person or group?”
Several Related Questions
Readers have asked this question in different forms:
One reader asked, “What is the meaning of ‘accursed’ (anathema) in Galatians 1:8-9? I’ve heard some preachers say it means ‘cursed by God,’ but I heard another one say that it just means ‘excommunicated.’ Or, are both right?”
Another asked, “Can a church pronounce an ‘anathema’ upon someone, as Roman Catholicism does, because his teachings are out of line with church doctrine?”
And another asked, “I recently left my (reputedly conservative Reformed) church because it promotes the teachings of men who say that we are saved through baptism, and the elders wouldn’t do anything about it. Some friends who haven’t left the church yet just told me that the elders are saying that I am ‘under God’s curse’ because I left and refused to submit to their authority. How can they say this about someone? Do they have the right to?”
The Use of the Word in Scripture
To answer these questions, we must first of all understand the use of the word anathema in Scripture. The Greek word appears in five passages. In Acts 23:14 it is used twice, when the enemies of Paul who had taken a vow not to eat until they had killed him, told the chief priests and elders, literally, “with an anathema we have anathematized ourselves,” or “with a curse we have cursed ourselves.” What they were saying was, “We have invoked God’s judgment upon ourselves if we fail to kill Paul.” (Cf. David’s oath in 2 Samuel 3:35.)
In Romans 9:3 Paul says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed (literally, made an anathema) from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites…” In other words, Paul was saying, “I could wish that I would be condemned to eternal death myself, in exchange for the salvation of my fellow Israelites who are unbelievers.”
In 1 Corinthians 12:3, Paul says, literally, that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘anathema is Jesus’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” This is what is behind Paul’s statement: The Jews who persecuted the early Christians (probably even Paul himself before his conversion) attempted to force them, under pain of death, to say “anathema is Jesus.” This was the formula of words by which they were to renounce their faith in Christ. By the same token, the Romans who persecuted the early Christians attempted to force them, under pain of death, to say “Caesar is Lord” as the formula of words by which they were to renounce Christ. In the early church, no Christian did either without facing the severest penalty — in the first case at the hand of God for cursing Christ, in the second case at the hand of man for loyalty to Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul writes, “If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema…” Not to love Christ (the Greek for “love” here is phileo, a term denoting loyalty) is a sign of unbelief, which warrants the severe condemnation of eternal separation from God. We need to keep in mind again, as in 1 Corinthians 12:3, that Paul was writing to believers who were, on the one hand, susceptible to the persecution of the Jews, and on the other hand, to the persecution of the Romans.
In Galatians 1:8-9, Paul uses the word anathema twice to describe the state of those, who would preach “another gospel, which is not another” — in other words, a counterfeit, soul-damning “gospel.”
The Biblical Sense of Anathema
The use of the word in these passages is, consistently, “condemnation to Hell by the decree of God.” The use of the word in the sense of excommunication from the visible church by the decree of man is not found in Scripture. This un-Biblical sense of anathema was introduced in the writings of some of the so-called early church fathers.
It is also significant to note that the Septuagint (the oldest Greek translation of the Old Testament, dating from the third century B. C.) uses the word anathema in a similar sense in every case where someone is described as being set apart and devoted to destruction, because that person is abhorrent to God (e.g., the inhabitants of Jericho in Joshua 6:17). It is also used of persons or things what were given up to God and could not be redeemed (e.g., Leviticus 27:28-29.)
Misuse and Abuse of Anathema
As noted above, the un-Biblical sense of anathema as a declaration of condemnation by man began to enter the church in its early centuries. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic church not only used the term in the sense of excommunication from the visible church, but also used it to usurp the exclusively Divine right to pronounce condemnation to Hell upon a person. It was thus that Rome, in Canon 11 of the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent (1547) said of anyone who believed in justification by faith alone, “let him be anathema.” At the same council Rome also said, of anyone who denied that salvation is a cooperative effort between man and God, “let him be anathema” (Canon 4). Rome declares men condemned to Hell for believing and preaching the one true Gospel.
Five hundred years after the Reformation, Rome continues to misuse and abuse anathema in this way. The current edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia says this:
Anathema remains a major excommunication which is to be promulgated with great solemnity. A formula for this ceremony was drawn up by Pope Zachary (741-52) in the chapter Debent duodecim sacerdotes…The Roman Pontifical reproduces it in the chapter Ordo excommunicandi et absolvendi, distinguishing three sorts of excommunication: minor excommunication, formerly incurred by a person holding communication with anyone under the ban of excommunication; major excommunication, pronounced by the Pope in reading a sentence; and anathema, or the penalty incurred by crimes of the gravest order, and solemnly promulgated by the Pope.
In passing this sentence, the pontiff is vested in amice, stole, and a violet cope, wearing his mitre, and assisted by twelve priests clad in their surplices and holding lighted candles. [The symbolism of all of this is the damnable falsehood that the Roman pope is the “vicar of Christ” or vice-Christ, the visible representation of Christ on earth.] He takes his seat in front of the altar or in some other suitable place, and pronounces the formula of anathema which ends with these words:
“Wherefore in the name of God the All-powerful, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, of the Blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles, and of all the saints, in virtue of the power which has been given us of binding and loosing in Heaven and on earth, we deprive [name of person] himself and all his accomplices and all his abettors of the Communion of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we separate him from the society of all Christians, we exclude him from the bosom of our Holy Mother the Church in Heaven and on earth, we declare him excommunicated and anathematized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and his angels and all the reprobate, so long as he will not burst the fetters of the demon, do penance and satisfy the Church; we deliver him to Satan to mortify his body, that his soul may be saved on the day of judgment.”
Whereupon all the assistants respond: “Fiat, fiat, fiat.” [That is, we concur that this declaration is legally binding.]
The pontiff and the twelve priests then cast to the ground the lighted candles they have been carrying, and notice is sent in writing to the priests and neighboring bishops of the name of the one who has been excommunicated and the cause of his excommunication, in order that they may have no communication with him.1
In the same way, but with far less formality, the elders of some churches today (especially some apostate Reformed ones) take it upon themselves to declare that those who have left the church because of its apostasy, renouncing the authority of a church and leadership that are no longer true to Christ and His Word, are “under God’s curse.” Of such men who commit an act of slander against the loyal saints of God, we may truly say, with the Apostle Paul, “Their condemnation is just” (Romans 3:8).
True and False Anathema
True anathema is not the proclamation of man or a church, but of God. To return to our readers’ questions:
The meaning of anathema in Galatians one is clearly, “let him be condemned to Hell.” No lesser penalty can be exacted against those who persist in proclaiming a counterfeit gospel of any kind.
Rome’s concept of anathema is clearly un-Biblical, since it is centered upon the judgment of man and not of God. Worse yet, Rome uses its un-Biblical anathema most often to enforce conformity to its false gospel and its man-made doctrines and regulations, and loyalty to a papal hierarchy that Scripture condemns.
No church or individual has the right to pronounce a curse upon anyone. The persistently unrepentant sinner in the visible church that is true to Christ is to be treated as an unbeliever (Matthew 18:15-20), but this is not in any way the same as pronouncing someone to be under a curse. Today, increasing numbers of nominally Protestant churches are usurping God’s authority by making such pronouncements, or implying that God’s judgment rests upon those who separate from apostasy in obedience to God’s command. In such a case, their ungodly pronouncement is nothing but persecution.
1. Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on “Anathema,” http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01455e.htm, as viewed on 11/7/2009.
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