There is quite a bit in the news about a couple of individuals who apparently have been scheduled for church disciplinary councils due to activities that are alleged to be contradictory to LDS doctrine. While I’m not inclined to comment on those specific cases (because I am not privy to all the facts and don’t want to pass judgment on anyone), I acknowledge that for many people the idea of a church disciplining its members is unfamiliar, and I think that a few words to explain the Mormon notion of such discipline might be helpful.
What are the Reasons that the Church Might Discipline a Member?
Discipline in the LDS Church is a pretty rare thing. I’ve spent about 6 years of my life in positions where I could be asked to participate in a disciplinary council, and it has only come up twice. In both cases, only informal action was taken. These councils are uncommon because there are few types of conduct that justify it, and informal counseling often resolves such issues before there is any need for formal action.
In very general terms, Church discipline may be appropriate when a person has engaged in serious repeated sin and is not repentant. There is no formal list of such triggers for a disciplinary council, but we are talking here about serious moral transgression or criminal conduct. The purpose for discipline under such circumstances is primarily to protect the Church (for example, in the case of spousal or child abuse) and assist the transgressor in turning his or her life around. Sometimes, Church discipline can act as a “wake up call” to members who persistently engage in serious sins without fear or concern about consequences.
Church discipline might also be appropriate where conduct is of a public nature and has or might bring the Church into disrepute. For example, if a bishop (leader of a local congregation) were to have an open affair with a member of the congregation, the Church would certainly take action to ensure that its opposition to such behavior is clear.
Discipline might also be appropriate in the case of open apostasy. As with some other Christian churches (I’m thinking of Catholics in particular), the LDS Church takes its doctrine seriously, meaning that we expect that no matter where you go in the world, when you walk into Mormon services on a Sunday, you will be taught the same doctrine. There is no requirement that each person believe exactly the same thing on every issue, but when a person openly teaches something contradictory to the established doctrine of the Church, that’s a problem. In my mind, this is a common-sense problem. If you don’t agree with what Church A believes, there are plenty of other churches on the buffet line that might be a better fit for your beliefs.
How is Church Discipline Conducted?
I’m fortunate to have had very little experience in this area, but enough to know the general parameters. Church discipline is conducted through disciplinary councils (formerly referred to as church “courts”). Such councils are called locally by the presiding officer. For members of the Melchizedek priesthood, that is the stake president. For everyone else, it is the bishop. When the presiding officer becomes aware of a situation that might require disciplinary action, the member is given written notice and an opportunity to appear before the disciplinary council and state their case. There are procedures for the council, but they aren’t structured like a formal trial. Other witnesses can be called, if necessary, but the typical scenario is more like an extended discussion in the bishop’s office. The disciplinary councils are private and confidential (which is why the Church is unable to discuss the specifics of such councils publicly or to refute complaints by members who have been subject to discipline). If I remember correctly, there are appeal procedures, but it has been years since I’ve needed to read the Church Handbook. It isn’t exactly the great American novel.
What Kind of Discipline Can be Issued?
There are essentially five things that can happen as a result of the disciplinary council. One possibility is the council decides to do nothing. Another option is informal action, usually followed up by the bishop alone. A third option is a formal probation, requiring follow up from the bishop or the disciplinary council, and perhaps placing limited restrictions on what the member can do within the Church (for example, a priesthood holder might be restricted from performing certain ordinances).
The two most serious results are disfellowshipment and excommunication. If a person is disfellowshipped, they lose certain privileges in the Church for a period of time. For example, they can attend regular Sunday services but not attend the temple, they cannot give prayers in church meetings, and they cannot hold callings. If a person is excommunicated, on the other hand, they are no longer members of the Church. They can continue to attend services, but they cannot hold callings.
Only formal church discipline is disclosed to other people, and then only on a limited basis so that a person is not extended a calling or asked to do something that they cannot, and then getting embarrassed as a result. These matters are to be handled discretely. Are there situations where more had been disclosed than should have been? Absolutely, but that’s the result of people not following instructions or proper procedures. Let’s be honest: Baptism washes away your sins, but stupid tends to stick.
Is There Any Way Back?
One of happiest moments from when I served a full time mission for the Church was when one of my companions received a letter from his excommunicated father, announcing that he was being rebaptized. I will never forget the expression on my companion’s face. He was so proud of his father and the long road he had walked to return to membership in the Church.
All church discipline is reversible. The ease of reversing it proportionate to the seriousness of the action taken. Probation is relatively easy to reverse, usually only requiring the action of the bishop. Disfellowshipment can be reversed locally as well. Only excommunication requires approval outside of the local authorities. In order to be rebaptized into the Church, a person must have approval from the First Presidency. That is no simple or quick task, and for that reason excommunication is rare. (It was more common in the early days of the Church, when membership was small and the President of the Church lived right down the road. Excommunication could be, and often was, reversed fairly quickly under those circumstances, operating more like disfellowshipment in present times).
The mission of the Church is to bring the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire world. Ultimately, discipline in the Church is to fit into that same mission by giving members who have engaged in serious misconduct a structured path of repentance that will bring them into full fellowship and open to them all of the blessings of membership in the Church. It is not meant to be punitive, but rehabilitating. Not surprisingly, many of those who have been disciplined by the Church will interpret the process differently, especially where they have resisted such discipline. But sometimes when we have lost our way, it is only through detailed directions that we find our way home.