“Because the fundamental purpose of Church discipline has always been to save souls rather than only to punish, formal disciplinary councils are considered “courts of love,” marking the first step back to full harmony with the Lord and his Church, rather than the last step on the way out of the Church.” Bruce C. Hafen
Everywhere, conversations are buzzing about the possible disfellowship or excommunication two Mormons– one, a woman who has led the movement to ordain Mormon women to the priesthood. I’ve seen several articles– most critical of the church.
I understand those criticisms, but I refrain from judgment because we don’t/can’t know the whole story. I don’t have enough information to defend or demean Kate Kelly or her bishop, but I believe some clarity on LDS Church Discipline might be useful. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I have good resources.
First, and this is extremely important, the LDS Church does not publicize disfellowshipping or excommunications (except in very rare cases ie. a child predator who poses risk to innocent church members). These matters are extremely confidential. The person sitting next to you in Sunday School can be excommunicated and rebaptized without more than a half dozen people in their congregation knowing anything about it. Erik has served on a few church discipline councils and he has never told me or even hinted at names of anyone involved (in fact he says he’s purposely forgotten the names himself). He has never outlined the details of a situation or told any particulars. So– if the New York Times announces a possible excommunication, the person involved offered that information. Not the church.
I have a lot to say, but a few definitions might be in order: Disfellowshipping means a person remains a church member but cannot enter the temple, take the sacrament, teach classes or lead youth. It’s usually temporary. Excommunication means a revocation of church membership. An excommunicated member loses the same privileges but must be rebaptized to regain membership. Neither lose the privilege of attending church services, visiting and home teachers and the love and friendship of their leaders and fellow congregants.
Also, church discipline is extremely rare. It might seem strange to some of you, that we have church ‘discipline’ at all– don’t we have the right to live as we please?– but we are a church where we make promises. We make promises of chastity, we make promises to sustain our leaders, we make promises to offer our time and talents to God. It’s not an Easter and Christmas sort of church; Mormonism affects every hour of every day for it’s members. And while we’re often accused of following blindly, most members I know have carefully examined church doctrine and practices. I follow the precepts of the church because they make my life really, really happy.
Still, I have issues I struggle with. No one is kicked out of the church for doubts and/or disagreements. We are a hospital for the sick, not a shrine for saints (it would be kind of an empty shrine). We are also a people constantly striving to improve. We believe in true repentance and through the grace of Jesus Christ, our sins can be forgiven. Repentance or lack thereof, is the purpose of any form of church discipline.
An example: let’s say a woman strikes up an inappropriate friendship with a married man. Most likely, she’ll recognize her error, end the relationship, repent and the matter will be taken care of between her and God. But let’s say the relationship goes further– marriage vows are broken. Then, she would need to follow the first steps but also confess to her bishop, because confession is a huge part of repentance. In most cases, her bishop would counsel with her and, at most, suggest a period of disfellowship.
One acquaintance who went through a period of disfellowship shared with me it was one of the sweetest, most sacred times in her life. We are all pretty adept at lying to ourselves– when I had the habit of yelling at my kids I was really good at justifying my behavior– and if we lie enough, we come to believe we haven’t really done anything so wrong. My friend described disfellowship as a time to be completely honest with herself and with God. And, she said, “I finally understood how much God loves me– even when I’m sinning and foolish and broken, He loves me. Those months gave me time to learn to love myself and others around me.”
But let’s say it goes further– the woman doesn’t feel repentant and flagrantly continues the relationship. At this point, she’d receive a formal letter asking her to meet with her bishop and his two counselors. After lovingly counseling with her, they would find a course of action. Even then, it’s extremely unlikely she’d be excommunicated– only if she was completely unrepentant and had no regard for the people she was hurting.
For men, it’s a bit different. Most repentance is done personally or with the counsel of their bishop, but when a man commits very serious sin, he’s asked to meet with a Church Court: the stake presidency and 12 men from the surrounding congregations (a stake usually consists of 4-8 wards or congregations). The church handbook states the threefold purposes: to save the souls of the transgressors, to protect the innocent and to safeguard the purity, integrity and good name of the church. Meeting with a Church Court might sound intimidating, but Erik assures me the room is full of love and concern for the individual. There are a lot of tears. Mormons cherish the individual; we approach the throne of God one by one. Each soul bears incalculable worth. Missionaries who spend two years serving feel successful if they bring one person into the fold of God. People matter.
One of my favorite parables: three brothers go on a camping trip. Two brothers do all the work, they set up the tent, make the fire, cook dinner, while the third does nothing but throw stones in the river and wander mountain paths. Now, what if the two brothers went home the next morning and told their father, “He was just goofing off so we left him in the woods.” Ludicrous! Can you imagine the two sons trying to justify themselves?
“But we set up the tent perfectly and we made a fantastic dutch oven dinner!” None of it matters, none of our accomplishments or excellent habits impress the Father, if we leave those we are responsible for behind.
Each person matters, to the church, but especially to God. And that’s why excommunications are extremely rare. Very few people are excommunicated who don’t want to leave.
Two of my friends, both self-identified feminists, felt this love for the individual keenly when visiting church headquarters recently. On separate occasions they met with church leaders who expressed their love for the women of the church and asked how they could make women feel more welcome, more valued. These leaders are very savvy and aware of current events and moods. They can’t change the basic structure of the church, but they are listening to suggestions and training local leaders to honor women, listen to their opinions and trust their decisions.
I trust the men and women who lead the church. Every interaction I’ve had with them has confirmed to me they are guided by the Spirit.
Rather than insisting on blind obedience, our church encourages members to ask questions, to study things out for themselves, to search the scriptures and obtain personal revelation. But churchwide revelation only comes from the head of the church. Still, members can offer opinions and suggestions. Lowell Bennion, a beloved humanitarian, lived in my ward until his death. His children often talk about the letters he wrote to the Prophet on various subjects and changes he wanted to see in the church. Some of those changes have c0me about; some haven’t. The prophet and the apostles take questions before the Lord; they don’t follow their own opinions or desires, they follow God.
I trust our Prophet, I trust our apostles, I trust the women leading the Relief Society, Primary and Young Women and I trust God to lead them well.