Wednesday, January 6, 2016

On Excommunication

By Dennis B. Horne (guest blogger)

            As anyone that keeps an eye on the news knows, excommunication as a disciplinary measure in the LDS Church has recently been a noticeable topic. Outside of the stories covering the excommunication of certain higher profile and publicity-seeking individuals, there has also been much discussion about the practice itself. Most of the media attention has been critical of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and sympathetic to those excommunicated. Biased bloggers have continued to agitate on this issue, constantly stirring the pot for their readers. Through it all the Church has quietly and steadily moved forward, doing that which its doctrine and leaders determine should be done.

            While the Church has and will continue to appropriately defend and explain itself, it may be helpful to notice and review some of the issues at play from a positive perspective.[1] So much of what is written comes from detractors or unofficial, self-appointed spokespersons that misstate church motives, doctrine, and procedures.  

To begin, a definition is in order. A practicing Mormon is or strives to be a disciple of Jesus Christ; one who follows the teachings of Jesus and His prophets and apostles. The Church—often called Mormonism—is not a culture, a club, a democracy, or a dictatorship. It is provided for but not governed by the Constitution of the United States. To be a member of the Church means one has been taught basic doctrines, repented of their sins, exercised faith, and been baptized and confirmed. Faithful Church members serve God and their fellow men and if faithful and worthy, they may become eligible to receive further ordinances in the temples. Then they must endure to the end in righteousness and faith if they wish to receive exaltation and become like their Father in Heaven.

The Church receives its doctrine from ancient and modern revelation to prophets, as found in the scriptures and the inspired teachings of Church leaders. It obtains its internal power, its “living” status, from the restored priesthood and the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is directed today by a modern prophet who receives revelation giving such guidance. The Church and its fundamental doctrines do not change with time or causes or fads or political expediency.

Those who try to change the doctrines of the Church usually find themselves in great spiritual peril. Those who love their particular worldly cause or philosophy (gay marriage, extreme feminism, etc.) more than the Church eventually find themselves out of it, literally or figuratively. Revealed doctrine does not mix well with the philosophies of the world; mingling the two has never worked. Furthermore, family members who love and support those who try to change church doctrine may also find that their misplaced loyalty eventually leads them out of the Church also. In this context, Jesus taught: “For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law” (Matt. 10:35). Others who misunderstand or misinterpret Mormon historical sources often find themselves in the same position of being out of the Church. We are living in the last days before the second coming of Christ and should not be surprised when the signs are all around us.

One former LDS seminary instructor wrote a book, published after his retirement, purporting to finally tell the real truth about Mormon history. Those with extensive and accurate historical knowledge found it to be nothing more than another tired anti-Mormon expose. Ironically, when it became widely known that he had been summoned to a disciplinary council, activists and protesters arose in wrath in his defense. For some reason, the council was not held and the protestors declared victory. Yet, how silent they were and how meaningless their victory when he later formally asked to have his name removed from the records of the Church. Not a peep of objection or protest was heard. Such hypocrisy tells the true story—the real purpose was to use the episode as a publicity stunt to bash the Church.

Another recent (2014) higher-profile excommunicant was quoted as saying: “I don’t feel like Mormonism is something that washes off”—almost seeming to equate her alleged discipleship to some kind of ooze or paint. In her case, the question was simple: which is the most important—your religion or your extreme feminism? She made her choice and announced it vocally in the press. It was more important for her to agitate for women to have the priesthood than for her to remain in the Church and enjoy its eternal blessings. For family members, the choice is simple but also hard: do you love the erring family member or friend and their cause, or do you love the Lord and His chosen prophet, the most. The decision can have eternal consequences.

Another somewhat prominent dissident, a blogger and podcaster with an apparently large following of unbelievers and doubters, was excommunicated in 2015. He has sought national publicity by issuing press releases and copies of correspondence with his stake president. One of the ironies about his unnecessary descent into apostasy was that it was partially caused by historical questions that most any competent gospel scholar could answer. As I read his list of objections I thought to myself, “He sure doesn’t know very much.” His lack of understanding and rejection of spiritual truths has now cost him dearly. Now he works hard to oppose the Church.

Often, publicity becomes the purpose of the excommunicant. They issue press releases or post statements on blogs, proclaiming the high honor and integrity of their particular worldly cause. They may insist that they are living “authentic” or “intellectually honest” lives. This helps them to be seen more as bullied martyrs and less as prideful dissidents or defiant sinners in the eyes of less-discerning observers. Truth be told, many people are living sincerely and authentically in sin and rebellion. Their Father in Heaven knew such would be the case and prepared well in advance for their exercise of agency; he has a kingdom prepared for them and they have their reward.    
            But what about excommunication itself, the most severe penalty the church can impose on erring members? Some voices have argued that it is old fashioned, barbaric, and should be abandoned as a relic of the 19th century. In answer, we remind them that the Lord has placed no time limit on His word and commandments. The same revelations that were given and written thousands of years ago and earlier in our dispensation are still true today. And the revelations provide for the unrepentant transgressor to be deprived of membership in the Church (see D&C 102).[2] 

Activists sometimes use clever language, such as “inclusive,” when calling for how the Church should treat high-decibel traitors, malcontents, agitators, apostates and dissenters. The Church they say, is strong enough now to tolerate dissention and apostasy within its ranks. Better yet, Church leaders ought to heed their suggestions. Such internal opposition and consequent concession is exactly how the New Testament Church fell into complete apostasy.

Speaking of the restored church (“Mormonism”), the revelation states that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven; And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received” (D&C 1:30-33). Therefore, while some individuals fall, the collective remains in the Lord’s favor and continues under His direction.

Some people decry the pain that excommunication causes for the person so disciplined as well as their family. Their reasoning is peculiar: because it causes spiritual or emotional pain, that must mean it is bad or wrong and should be discontinued. Again, they do not understand the doctrine. Spiritual pain and anguish is not always a bad thing; it can be a sign of the beginning of repentance, healing and improvement. The Lord said: “Therefore, inasmuch as you are found transgressors, you cannot escape my wrath in your lives. Inasmuch as ye are cut off for transgression, ye cannot escape the buffetings of Satan until the day of redemption” (D&C 104:8-9). For a definition of “the buffetings of Satan” one might closely observe the life (not the words) of an unrepentant apostate excommunicant; there is a great lesson to be learned. Only true repentance after excommunication can save their souls.

The Church cannot allow itself to be blackmailed into acceptance of the world’s shifting and corrupt standards because someone will be pained by obeying divine doctrine. Such is a common strategy of the gay activist—they assert that the Church must accept homosexuality or run the risk that some same-sex attracted members will commit suicide. Tragically, people with all kinds of problems, not just serious sexual sin, have chosen to commit suicide over the centuries. Nevertheless, our Father in Heaven has never softened or altered His commandments to assuage emotional distress, even the anguish that may lead one to suicide. A couple of decades ago, then-Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: “When members are hurting, it is so easy to convince ourselves that we are justified, even duty bound, to use the influence of our appointment or our calling to somehow represent them. We then become their advocates—sympathize with their complaints again the Church, and perhaps even soften the commandments to comfort them. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again: Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected.” Speaking of President Thomas S. Monson, Elder Packer said: “He says very little about it, but he visits the sick, hospitals, homes, comforting, counseling, both in person and in writing. However, I have never heard him over the pulpit, nor have I read anything in his writings—not one thing—that would give any license to any member to stray from the counsel of the prophets or to soften the commandments that the Lord has given.”[3]

The inner vessel must be kept clean, meaning the Church must be kept free of corrupting internal influences (see Alma 60:23).[4] If a voice, belonging to a discontented member, publicly agitates for change that is contrary to doctrine, and persists in doing so after being advised not to, then that voice must be shorn of its standing by Church discipline. Thereafter the voice remains free to sound long and loud but without the legitimacy of membership. This action helps to protect those in the Church that might become confused by alternate voices promoting false doctrine.[5]

            Some argue that there is no clear standard or that those standards are applied arbitrarily or unequally. While local priesthood leaders receive thorough training, there is no requirement for uniformity in disciplinary councils. There are simply too many variables at play in each case that must be taken into consideration.[6] The good men who compose disciplinary councils are guided by church handbooks, the scriptures, and the Holy Ghost in their decisions. The truth is, whether mocked by unbelievers or not, excommunication is the first step in the repentance process that leads the erring individual to return to full fellowship and a restoration of their spiritual blessings. Many have done so; they have walked the rocky path and found again the happiness they once enjoyed. This course saves them from the unimaginable agony they will endure when paying the price for their own sins, whether in this life or the next (see D&C 19:15-20). The great love expressed by local church leaders for rebellious members under their stewardship is no fanciful illusion. It is real and comes as a gift by virtue of the sacred office that they hold.

            Having a questioning mind and seeking to learn truth is one thing; always questioning everything is quite another. Joseph Smith received many revelations as a result of asking the Lord a question, including the First Vision, but he did not constantly doubt and question the revelations he received. He knew they were from God. Those who call for the acceptance of gay marriage and ordaining women to the priesthood have had their questions answered over and over again, but in their blind advocacy they have chosen to ignore or disregard the answers that do not fit the outcome they desire. Said a Church spokesperson: “In the Church we want all to feel welcome, safe, valued, and there is room for questions but how we ask is as important as what we ask, we shouldn’t try to dictate to God what is right in this Church.”[7]

The only safe course to find happiness in the gospel of Jesus Christ is humility, repentance, and obedience to the counsel of our leaders. Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated: “We are either for the Church or we are against it. We either take its part or we take the consequences. We cannot survive spiritually with one foot in the Church and the other in the world. We must make the choice. It is either the Church or the world. There is no middle ground. And the Lord loves a courageous man [or woman] who fights openly and boldly in his army.” He then asked this rhetorical question: “Am I valiant if I am deeply concerned about the Church’s stand on who can or who cannot receive the priesthood and think it is time for a new revelation on this doctrine?”[8] In light of wording pertaining to valiance as found in D&C 76, this is a question well worth pondering by those involved with Ordain Women and other kinds of feminist extremism.

            After the noise and clamor of the dissenters has died down, and the press releases have become old news, the Church is and always will be found to be moving forward steadily as guided and directed by its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. In 1993, Elder Boyd K. Packer shared his reaction to the disciplining of six erring members amidst much negative publicity. He said: “Not too many days ago, in a moment of great concern over a rapid series of events that demonstrated the challenge of those within the Church who have that feeling of criticism and challenge and apostasy, I had an impression, as revelations are. It was strong and it was clear, because lingering in my mind was: ‘Why? Why—when we need so much to be united?’ And there came the answer: ‘It is permitted to be so now that the sifting might take place, and it will have negligible effect upon the Church.’ ”[9] And we might say the same for those few vocal critics who have been excommunicated in recent years—their fall will have a negligible effect upon the Church.

[1] See the LDS Newsroom for various explanations and stories regarding Church Disciplinary actions;
[2] See “Church Disciplinary Councils”; and M. Russell Ballard, “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings,”
[3] Boyd K. Packer, “All Church Coordinating Council Meeting,” May 18, 1993, 5, 6.
[4] See Boyd K. Packer, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” October, 2010.; and Ezra Taft Benson, “Cleansing the Inner Vessel,” April, 1986.
[5] See Dallin H. Oaks, “Alternate Voices,” April, 1989.
[6] For a list of these, see M. Russell Ballard, “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings,”
[8] “Be Valiant in the Fight of Faith,” October, 1974; I realize this question originally applied to another issue, but it fits this subject very well nonetheless.

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