Why Church Discipline?

Posted on by

In our increasingly diverse and tolerant society, it can be quite jarring to hear about individuals who are being threatened with excommunication from a church. In order to better understand the disciplinary process of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is helpful to understand the way in which Church disciplinary action is viewed by the leaders of the Church.

Past President Gordon B. Hinckley made this relevant comment to the New York Times in 1994:

“Every individual in the church is free to think as he pleases,” …. “But when an individual speaks openly and actively and takes measures to enlist others in opposition to the church and its programs and doctrines, then we feel there is cause for action.” …. “There’s a great spirit of tolerance in our church,” Mr. Hinckley said, adding that church officials maintained “an earnest desire to work with” excommunicated Mormons and bring them back into the fold.”

More recently, the Church issued a statement in this regard, which reads, in part:

Sometimes members’ actions contradict Church doctrine and lead others astray. While uncommon, some members in effect choose to take themselves out of the Church by actively teaching and publicly attempting to change doctrine to comply with their personal beliefs. This saddens leaders and fellow members. In these rare cases, local leaders have the responsibility to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled. Decisions are made by local leaders and not directed or coordinated by Church headquarters.

It may also be helpful in this particular instance to refer to a statement that was issued by the Church in 1994, which reads, in part:

It is difficult to explain Church disciplinary action to representatives of the media. Considerations of confidentiality restrain public comment by Church leaders in such private matters.

We have the responsibility to preserve the doctrinal purity of the Church. We are united in this objective. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught an eternal principle when he explained: “That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 67).

The statement continued:

The longstanding policy of Church discipline is outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants: “We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members … according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; … They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.” (D&C 134:10.)

Faithful members of the Church can distinguish between mere differences of opinion and those activities formally defined as apostasy. Apostasy refers to Church members who: “1, repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; or 2, persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority; or 3, continue to follow the teachings of apostate cults (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishops or higher authority.” (General Handbook of Instructions, 10-3.)

Finally, this article from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism sheds further light on apostasy in general and has this to say about a member who has been excommunicated for apostasy:

LDS scriptures establish a loving and hopeful attitude toward apostates. Latter-day Saints are strongly counseled to love those who have left the faith, and to encourage, plead, and work with those who have strayed, inviting “the lost sheep” back to the fold (Luke 15:3-7). Of the wayward, the resurrected Savior taught, “Ye shall not cast him out of your…places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them” (3 Ne. 18:32). The desire to return is motivated by the reality of repentance enabled by the Atonement of Jesus Christ. “He who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more. By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins-behold, he will confess them and forsake them” (D&C 58:42-43).

For a more in-depth discussion of the purposes of Church discipline and the way in which it is administered, the Church has published this article.

Interested parties may also benefit from reading this article Elder M. Russell Ballard, of the Quorum of the Twelve, who addressed these issues in a 1990 article entitled “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings.”