Excommunication in Mormonism

A photo of Keith Brown in his uniform.Keith L. Brown is a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized on 10 March 1998 in Reyjavik, the capital city of Iceland, while serving on active duty in Keflavik Iceland with the United States Navy. He currently serves as the Ward Mission Leader of the Annapolis Maryland Ward.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often inadvertently called the “Mormon Church”) I have been blessed in my almost 14 years of membership to serve in such positions as a member of the Stake High Council, and a member of two Bishoprics, serving as both Second and then First Counselor. Throughout my time of service in these callings I have on occasion been a part of a disciplinary council, both on the Ward and Stake levels, held regarding members who had committed some serious transgression. It has been my personal experience that the decision to excommunicate a member is normally one that is rendered as a last resort. Normally, other courses of action are pursued first to bring the member back to full fellowship in the Church. Lesser sanctions of private counsel and caution such as informal probation, formal probation, and “disfellowshipping” are also used as penalties for those who commit serious sins, those that threaten the salvation of the individual, pose a threat to other members, or significantly impair the name or moral influence of the Church.

The process is deeply meaningful, loving, and supportive of the individual and binds all of those involved in prayerful support of that individual. It often can turn around a life that has gone astray, bringing hope, confidence, and an ultimate increase in happiness.  There is no coercion in the Church of Jesus Christ, which values agency (free choice) and the value of each of Heavenly Father’s children.

The Difference Between Punishment and Discipline

Perhaps a clearer understanding of the distinction between punishment and discipline is in order before proceeding with this discussion. Speaking in regards to children, in their message titled “Punishment – or Discipline” published in the October 1983 issue of the Ensign Magazine, Layne E. and Jana Squires Flake differentiate the two in this manner, “Punishment calls for “retributive suffering.” But discipline is “training that corrects, molds, or perfects.” Punishment is directed at the child himself. Discipline is directed more at the objectionable behavior of the child; it is something we do for our children, not to them.”

A painting by Swindle of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery.In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints councils are established not merely to issue punishment to the offender, but to offer loving counsel and discipline to help correct the transgression that has been committed, and to guide them back on the correct path. It is for that reason that such councils are referred to as disciplinary councils and not “courts” where only punishment is issued according to the offense that has been committed. It is the sincere heartfelt intent of all council members to ensure that the Church member who is being disciplined understands that he or she is still loved by their fellow Church members, and that our  Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ still loves them, and through the process of repentance, they can be forgiven and made whole again. It is when the member who has been accused of a serious transgression refuses to repent and accept the counsel and discipline that is offered that excommunication is considered.  Excommunication removes a person’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ, and it is always hoped that this will be a temporary situation.

The purposes of church discipline are: (1) to save the souls of transgressors, (2) to protect the innocent, and (3) to safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church. Excommunication is generally reserved for what are seen as the most serious sins, such as: murder; child abuse or incest; adultery; polygamy; homosexual activity; apostasy; abortion; teaching false doctrines; or otherwise openly criticizing LDS leaders. It should be noted that attending Church services of another denomination or faith with a family member or friend does not constitute apostasy. However, joining another Church is considered an excommunicable offense.  Once a person joins another church, it is logical that his or her name should be removed from LDS Church records.  It is important to understand that where much is given, much is expected.  Those subject to excommunication are mostly those who have made higher covenants in Mormon temples.   Mormons who are serving in responsible leadership positions of the Church when they commit serious transgression, also fall into the “much is given” category.

 Mormon Disciplinary Councils

In a disciplinary council, the Stake President presides with his Counselors also in attendance. The twelve members of the Stake High Council are also asked to attend, and up to six of the twelve are assigned to represent the member in question while the other six are asked to represent the Church as a whole to “prevent insult or injustice.” In the event that a High Council member is unable to attend the Stake Presidency will assign a High Priest from any of the Wards or Branches that comprise the Stake to attend to make up for the absence. The member for whom the council is being held is invited to attend, but the council can proceed without him. If the member is present, he is asked to wait in another room while the Stake President briefs the council members as to why they are meeting and what is to take place during the course of the council. After the briefing, the member is invited into the room. Once the member, and those who have been invited to speak on his behalf, has presented his case, he is asked to leave the room once again in order that the Stake President, his counselors, and the High Council members can counsel together about what had been presented and what the final decision should be.

After due discussion, the Stake President and his Counselors will leave the room and meet separately in another room to pray and seek guidance as to the decision that should be made. Once the decision has been reached, the Stake President and his Counselors return to the room where the council is being held, and the Stake President informs the High Council members of the decision. Afterwards, the member is invited back into the room and the Stake President informs him of the decision that has been made. If the member is not satisfied with the decision, he can request that the decision be appealed to the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

There are certain instances, namely for adolescents, females, and males who do not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, the Bishop (leader of a Ward) or a Branch President (leader of a smaller Church unit) can determine whether excommunication or a lesser sanction is warranted for the transgressions that have been committed. He does this in consultation with his two Counselors. The Bishop or Branch President makes the decision in a spirit of prayer and his Counselors ratify the decision. The Bishop’s or Branch President’s decision can be appealed to Stake leadership.

After a Mormon is Excommunicated

Those who are excommunicated lose their church membership and the right to partake of the Sacrament (known as the Holy Communion, or the Eucharist in other faiths). Notices of excommunication may be made public—especially in cases of apostasy, where members could be misled—but the specific reasons for individual excommunications are typically kept confidential and are seldom made public.  The idea is NOT to make the person a public example.

Persons who have been excommunicated are generally allowed to attend Church meetings but participation is limited. They cannot offer prayers for the congregation, give talks, teach classes, enter sacred LDS Temples, wear Temple garments, or pay tithes. Excommunicated members may be re-baptized after a waiting period and sincere repentance, as judged by a series of interviews with Church leaders.

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