Recent headlines about impending Church disciplinary councils have drawn criticism from both members and non-Mormons. Rather than discuss the controversies that two latter-day saints, Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, have individually and separately incited, it seemed necessary to discuss the whole notion of excommunication and what it means to latter-day saints.
Excommunication is the loss of membership in the Church. It is the ultimate penalty. One's membership can be terminated for causes of apostasy or unchristian-like conduct. Thankfully, it is a rarely needed form of Church discipline. In most cases, members have made mistakes for which they're genuinely sorrowful. This godly sorrow leads them to repentance and a desire to become reconciled to the God and the Church. Excommunication occurs when there is no repentance or outright defiance. It occurs when the unrepentant sinner is in rebellion against the ecclesiastical authority of the Church, its leaders, when the individual poses a danger to other members, or when the individual's reputation sullies that of the Church.
Excommunications are rarely announced to the world or even the Church. Let's say that a member is found to have committed adultery repeatedly and shows no signs of repentance. The outcome of any disciplinary council would not usually be announced publicly, in the hopes of sparing him and his family embarrassment. It would be the hope of the Church's leaders that the individual would repent, forsake his sins, and apply to be readmitted to the Church by baptism. This is the most common resolution of a member who is excommunicated. Excommunication is normally not permanent. When a person is readmitted by the Church, he is baptized again and his original date of baptism is restored on the Church's records. It is as if the sin never occurred. Like God's forgiveness is complete, so is the Church's.
Other, lesser Church discipline options can range from probation to disfellowshipment. In these cases, bishops and stake presidents can impose restrictions upon participation in the Church. For lesser sins, a bishop might restrict a member from participating in sacred temple ordinances, or asking a member to refrain from offering public prayers or partaking of the sacrament for a short period. Discipline is intended to help the member be relieved from certain burdens and obligations while working through the repentance process. In almost all cases, this process is confidential.
Excommunications are only made public when there is a need to protect the Church and its members. It would be necessary to reveal the excommunication of a child molester to protect children in the Church. It would be necessary to reveal the excommunication of a member who defrauded his fellows in business or financial dealings to prevent him from abusing the trust and confidence of others in the Church. It would also be important to announce the excommunication of an individual who sought to establish false teachings as doctrine and explain to members why those teachings are unorthodox, to protect them from being deceived.
In the Church, there are certain leaders who are designated “judges in Israel.” This means that they have been given priesthood keys and spiritual gifts of discernment to determine worthiness for certain blessings of membership. In most cases, a member who commits a minor sin would confess to the Lord in prayer and seek his forgiveness. Certain sins, however, impact our worthiness to hold positions in the Church, to participate in gospel ordinances, or to teach others. When such sins are committed, the member should discuss and confess to his bishop. Confession is a sign of sincere repentance and shows a willingness to submit to the Lord and his priesthood servants.
Only God can forgive sin, but so far as the worthiness to participate in the Church is concerned, he has given authority to his priesthood to forgive or retain sins. (See John 20:23.) It is a part of the authority of priesthood keys given by Christ to his apostles. This authority was restored with the holy apostleship when the priesthood was restored via Joseph Smith in this dispensation.
The questions that need to be asked and answered regarding the recent headlines regarding two rebellious members are largely ignored by the non-Mormon world. It's not a question of social justice or freedom of speech. It's a question of when a Mormon ceases to be a Mormon.
What defines Mormonism as a unique and distinctive religious system? There are certain characteristics that define us as being separate and different from Catholics and Protestants. Those doctrines include an affirmation that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the resurrected, living Son of God, and that the Holy Ghost is a third, separate and distinct member of the Godhead. They include a belief that God speaks today through living prophets and that there was a restoration of ancient priesthood authority to the world through one of those modern prophets, Joseph Smith. There is an acceptance that the current leaders of the Church are prophets, seers, and revelators in the same sense that those terms are used in the scriptures. There is a belief that God himself revealed and reaffirmed the truths and doctrines anew in our time. There is an acceptance that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God's kingdom on earth, preparing the world for the day that the kingdom of heaven comes.
In the cases of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, their actions and their words challenge these beliefs and attempt to convince other members to doubt their legitimacy. At that point, unless they repent, they are outside the norms of orthodoxy. Having opinions outside the bounds of orthodoxy is not a sin. Preaching those opinions as truth and trying to supplant revealed doctrines with those opinions is.
I once knew the wife of a district president in France, a convert from Catholicism, who shared once that she still liked to pray to the Virgin Mary every now and again because it gave her comfort. This is definitely an unorthodox position for a Mormon. However, she did not advocate that others pray to Mary or insist that this practice become a part of Mormon orthodoxy. I have known Mormons that believed in reincarnation, blending that belief with our doctrine of the “many mansions” in heaven. They expressed this opinion in private conversations, but they didn't advocate that others believe it. The Church doesn't tell us what to think. It doesn't tell us we cannot speculate based on what we already know. It doesn't tell us that we may not petition God for personal revelation or insights. However, if we are blessed to receive those insights, they are given to us as a personal gift. We are not to teach those things as doctrine for the whole Church.
There are just certain lines of orthodoxy that every sect or denomination will determine as boundaries of their doctrines. A Baptist who comes to profess that Joseph Smith is a prophet will find himself outside the bounds of Baptist orthodoxy. A Catholic who comes to accept the Book of Mormon as scripture will find himself outside the approved doctrines of his faith. If these Christians were to begin preaching these beliefs to their fellow Baptists or Catholics, they would find themselves begin excommunicated from these faiths. Every denomination necessarily defines their doctrinal boundaries and has the right to enforce them by withdrawing fellowship from those who remove themselves from those bounds.
Why would atheists, feminists, or members of other faiths care about the excommunications of two latter-day saints? Hypothetically, if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no authority from God, then what difference does it make? If the Church is not authorized by God, and if it were simply another man-made religion, why would it matter if these individuals left the Church and founded their own denomination based on their opinions. If there is no distinct power or authority in the Church, why does it matter? It only matters if we do indeed have the power we claim that God has given us. If our claim is true (and it is!) that the Church holds the keys of the kingdom that Christ gave to Peter, then the power to forgive or retain sins in in our possession. If we hold the keys, we have power to bind on earth and in heaven. If we hold the keys, it means that other denominations do not and that they are illegitimate pretenders. Why would a secular feminist, gay-rights activist, or atheist care about controversies of religion if there was no God, revelation, authority, or commandments?
Mormons represent a small demographic. Our numbers are not significant enough to warrant the attention of so many. That their attention is riveted upon us is a testament to the power that God has poured out upon the Church.
It is always an occasion for sadness when one of the Lord's flocks rebels and wanders away, striving to take others with them. The door to repent and return remains open. The future will show if their works will be sustained by God or whether they will come to naught in the end. Meanwhile, to criticize the Church and claim that it is intolerant is merely a sign of the external intolerance towards Mormons and our beliefs. After all, if our society celebrates diversity, why should it expect that we should all believe the same thing?
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