Mormonism and Church discipline/Purpose

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Purpose of Church discipline

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Gospel Topics: "Church discipline is an inspired process that takes place over a period of time"

Church discipline is an inspired process that takes place over a period of time. Through this process and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, a member can receive forgiveness of sins, regain peace of mind, and gain strength to avoid transgression. Church discipline is designed to help Heavenly Father's children in their efforts to be purified from sin through the Atonement, return to full fellowship in the Church, and receive the full blessings of the Church.[1]


Question: What is the purpose of Church discipline?

The purpose is to provide the individual with a chance to start over

The purpose of excommunication is not to simply purge people from the Church. The purpose is to provide the individual with a chance to start over. Elder Ballard states:

When members need to have certain blessings withheld, the Lord’s object is to teach as well as to discipline. So probation, disfellowshipment, and excommunication, when they become necessary, are ideally accompanied by eventual reinstatement and restoration of blessings.

I remember as a child occasionally coming unkempt to the dinner table. My mother wisely sent me to clean up and then return. My parents would have been pained if I had taken offense and had run off—and I would have been foolish to do so. In the same way, the servants of the Lord occasionally find that they must, in loving concern, send some of Heavenly Father’s children out the door so they can return clean once again. The Lord does not want us to “miss supper.” In fact, he has a great feast prepared for those who return clean and pure through the door. He is greatly saddened when anyone decides they prefer to be unclean and miss the meal, or when they find an excuse to take offense, or when they run away. He is pleased to extend the chance to start over.

I’ve known a few rebellious people who disregard the commandments and are influenced by the evil one or by other rebellious people to transgress God’s laws. I’ve seen their distress and pain. I’ve also seen their joy when, humbled and fully repentant, they have returned to the Church and have had all their blessings restored. [2]

Although excommunication does not always result in the individual returning to the Church, the hope that this will happen is indeed the desired outcome.


Question: Why might one be disciplined within the Church?

The purpose of Church discipline is to save the soul of the transgressor, to protect the innocent and to protect the Church

Elder M. Russell Ballard notes:

The purpose is threefold: [1] to save the soul of the transgressor, [2] to protect the innocent, and [3] to safeguard the Church’s purity, integrity, and good name. [3]


Question: What Church disciplinary options are available?

1) Excommunication, 2) Disfellowshipment, 3) Formal probation and 4) Informal probation

Leaders of the Church have various options for discipline. Bishops or stake presidents impose Church discipline, and do so after discussing the matter with the member, hearing from other witnesses (if any), and after prayerful consideration.

From most to least severe, disciplinary options include:

  1. Excommunication - the person is no longer a member of the Church. They can participate in no ordinances, cannot speak or pray at meetings, cannot hold Church callings, may not attend the temple, may not wear LDS temple garments, and may not pay tithing. Excommunicated members may continue to attend worship services if they are not disruptive or dangerous.
  2. Disfellowshipment - the person remains a member of the Church, but cannot speak or pray at meetings, cannot hold Church callings, and may not attend the temple.
  3. Formal probation - the person remains a member of the Church, and is asked to comply with a set of conditions specified by the bishop. Formal probation can last no less than one year.
  4. Informal probation - the person remains a member of the Church, and is asked to comply with a set of conditions specified by the bishop. The length of informal probation is determined by the bishop, and can be less than one year.

The last two penalties may be imposed by a bishop privately upon a member. The first two penalties require a formal "Church disciplinary hearing," held by either the bishop and his two councilors, or by the stake presidency and stake high council.

The goal in every case of Church discipline is to have the member's altered status be temporary; the goal is to encourage them to reform and return to full activity and participation in the life of the Church.

Church discipline cannot impose any financial or legal penalties (see DC 134:10-12).


Question: What specific transgressions might result in Church discipline?

Moral sins and apostasy

Elder Ballard:

The First Presidency has instructed that disciplinary councils must be held in cases of murder, incest, or apostasy. A disciplinary council must also be held when a prominent Church leader commits a serious transgression, when the transgressor is a predator who may be a threat to other persons, when the person shows a pattern of repeated serious transgressions, when a serious transgression is widely known, and when the transgressor is guilty of serious deceptive practices and false representations or other terms of fraud or dishonesty in business transactions.
Disciplinary councils may also be convened to consider a member’s standing in the Church following serious transgression such as abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, child abuse (sexual or physical), spouse abuse, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, theft, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, or false swearing. [4]

President Gordon B. Hinckley on Larry King Live:

Larry King: Are people ever thrown out of your church?
Gordon B. Hinckley: Yes.
Larry King: For?
Gordon B. Hinckley: Doing what they shouldn't do, preaching false doctrine, speaking out publicly. They can carry all the opinion they wish within their heads, so to speak, but if they begin to try to persuade others, then they may be called in to a disciplinary council. We don't excommunicate many, but we do some. [5]

Generally, most Church discipline falls into two broad categories:

  1. serious moral sins
  2. apostasy

Group #1: moral sins

Serious moral sins which could result in a Church disciplinary hearing include committing various felonies, such as: murder, rape, sexual abuse, theft, or fraud. Other acts considered to be serious sins by the Church include: adultery, fornication, homosexual acts, and submitting to, encouraging, or performing an abortion except in cases where competent medical authority has determined that the mother and/or fetus' life is in serious jeopardy by a continued pregnancy.

Other acts contrary to Church teachings that would not result in excommunication or disfellowshipment include failure to pay tithing, failure to attend meetings, failure to observe the Word of Wisdom, failure to attend the temple.

Group #2: apostasy

The Church understands apostasy to be the repeated public teaching of ideas contrary to the doctrines, principles, or ideals of the Church. Those who are "apostate" continue to teach or preach their ideas even after being cautioned by their Church leaders.

Apostasy is the act of trying to persuade or mislead others; it is not the fact that one disagrees with Church actions, policies, or leaders. As President George Q. Cannon explained:

We could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term. We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the Authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him, and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy and be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern His Church. [6]


Question: What does not fall within the scope of Church discipline?

Civil or criminal cases, tithing, Word of Wisdom or church attendance

Elder Ballard:

Disciplinary councils are not called to try civil or criminal cases. The decision of a civil court may help determine whether a Church disciplinary council should be convened. However, a civil court’s decision does not dictate the decision of a disciplinary council.
Disciplinary councils are not held for such things as failure to pay tithing, to obey the Word of Wisdom, to attend church, or to receive home teachers. They are not held because of business failure or nonpayment of debts. They are not designed to settle disputes among members. Nor are they held for members who demand that their names be removed from Church records... ; that is now an administrative action. [7]

Paul, who had suffered much, observed in his epistle to the Hebrews: "Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby." (Hebrews 12:11.) [8]


Question: Is a Mormon disciplinary council really called a "court of love?"

The term "court of love" was used in a general conference talk by Elder Robert L. Simpson in 1972

The term "court of love" was used in a general conference talk by Elder Robert L. Simpson in 1972. [9] At that time, disciplinary councils were referred to as "priesthood courts." The purpose of these courts was not to convict someone of a crime, but rather to help the person on the road to repentance and bring them back into full fellowship in the Church. Elder Simpson noted:

Priesthood courts of the Church are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Oh, that members of the Church could understand this fact.

The adversary places a fear in the heart of the transgressor that makes it so difficult for him to do what needs to be done; and in the words of James E. Talmage, “As the time of repentance is procrastinated, the ability to repent grows weaker; neglect of opportunity in holy things develops inability.” (Articles of Faith, p. 114.) This simply means that doing what needs to be done will never be easier than right now. As in all other paths and guideposts that have been provided for us to achieve our eternal destiny of exaltation, there are no shortcuts. [10]

The term is rarely used among active Latter-day Saints

The phrase "court of love" has become a favorite phrase of ex-Mormon critics as a way to mockingly describe any Church disciplinary council. The term is rarely used among active Latter-day Saints. The term has even made it into popular media: One example is a reference made by a character in an HBO series to a pending disciplinary proceeding that she (quite seriously) referred to as a "love court."


Question: Why does the Church not publicize the reasons for excommunication of a specific member?

The Church does not usually publicize the reason for one's excommunication in order to protect the privacy of the individual

The Church does not usually publicize the reason for one's excommunication. This is done in order to protect the privacy of the individual, and give them a chance to rectify issues so that they can eventually come back into full fellowship. The purpose of excommunication is not to humiliate the individual in a public forum. Those who sincerely want to return to the Church are given the chance to do so without having to endure public scrutiny of their past sins.

Individuals who have apostatized, however, sometimes use their excommunication as a means to gain publicity

Individuals who have apostatized, however, sometimes use their excommunication as a means to gain publicity. They may have their own reasoning as to why they were really excommunicated, and this is what they communicate to the media. Since the Church remains silent on the real reason for the excommunication, the subject of the proceeding may spin the story any way that suits their purposes. Some excommunications have even been used to generate publicity in order to sell items such as books (or in one case, a calendar). [11] [12]

On occasion, the fact that a member has been excommunicated may be announced. This occurs when a member has been disciplined for:

  1. Apostasy
  2. Predatory behavior which threatens other members
  3. Other flagrant transgressions (e.g., teaching plural marriage, public ridicule or opposition to Church leaders)

In such cases, only a general announcement is made to the adults of a ward, informing them that the member has been either disfellowshipped or excommunicated “for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church.” Members are asked not to discuss the matter with anyone or gossip about it.



Notes

  1. "Church Disciplinary Councils," Gospel Topics on LDS.org.
  2. M. Russell Ballard, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings," Ensign (September 1990), 12. off-site
  3. M. Russell Ballard, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings," Ensign (September 1990), 12. off-site
  4. M. Russell Ballard, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings," Ensign (September 1990), 12. off-site
  5. CNN Larry King Live, 8 September 1998
  6. George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 493.
  7. M. Russell Ballard, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings," Ensign (September 1990), 12. off-site
  8. Neal A. Maxwell, Notwithstanding My Weakness (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1981), p.67
  9. Robert L. Simpson, "Courts of Love," Ensign (Jul 1972), 48. off-site
  10. Robert L. Simpson, "Courts of Love," Ensign (1972)
  11. Louis Midgley, "The Signature Books Saga," FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 361–406. off-site
  12. Mormons Exposed Launches 2009 "Men on a Mission" Calendar: Excommunicated Mormon Defies Church, Releases 2009 Edition, The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, Oct. 2, 2008.