Catholic dissident Sylvester L. Steffen has written:
Excommunication is an arcane and violent tool of dominion theology and imperial ecclesiology. It intends to control by instilling emotions of guilt and fear in the minds of the people and to stifle dissent. In so doing it truncates personal conscience and cuts off communication.
These words seem strikingly applicable to the pending excommunication trials of Mormons Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. The news has called forth not only expressions of distress and concern from a sympathetic internet audience, but voices of gloating, vilification and shame from those who have actually been called by their faith community uphold the principle of love and tolerance.
The word being thrown around in frenzied ‘net discussions to justify the imminent action against Kate and John is apostasy. However, apostasy is “the explicit renunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause,” and I’m not at all certain that this accurately or properly describes their public behavior. Kelly, at least, has strongly indicated her conviction of the truth claims of the Mormon Church. Dehlin, while possessing a more nuanced connection to Mormonism, nonetheless strongly values his membership.
The term that is wanted here is heresy—that is, any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. A heretic, Wikipedia tells us, is a proponent of such claims or beliefs. Heresy is distinct from both apostasy and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
Any church which does not protect itself against heresy is in danger of drifting from core beliefs. The Mormon Church has a system of checks and balances in place to guard against unintended theological drift. But not to worry! The hierarchical system found in the Church today protects its doctrinal teachings. Each congregation has a Bishop, an “overseer,” who presides not only over Sunday meetings, but all of the activities which take place in the ward. Bishops are accountable to Stake Presidents, and they to Area Authorities. At any one of these points, heretical ideas may be corrected and refuted by authorized Priesthood direction. All educational materials to be used by the church as a whole are approved by the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve. The Church as an institution, is structured so that there are numerous opportunities “to clarify false teachings and prevent other members from being misled.” Additionally, general, church-wide conferences are held twice yearly to instruct and admonish members.
In order to protect from top-down heresy, the principle of common consent was instituted (D&C 26:2). This vigorous failsafe has been diluted over time to the rubber-stamping that we see today, therefore grass-roots heresy is more likely to be promptly addressed than administrative impropriety.
Both hierarchical oversight and common consent can be overplayed to the point of abuse and violence. Arbitrary and autocratic enforcement of rules from the top down has led to people being excommunicated because they homeschooled and had too much food storage. Grass-roots resistance has resulted in congregations voting out their entire council of local leaders. On the whole, the system is meant to check excesses on both sides. Optimally, it should be possible to address the concerns of all members in a safe and non-violent manner.
The codependence of violence and non-violence in civil rights has been termed the “Malcolm and Martin” conundrum after the different approaches taken by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Malcolm’s approach was defiant and aggressive, calling for social change by any means possible; while Martin was resistant but firmly committed to non-violence. Common wisdom is that a “Malcolm” is needed to pave the way for acceptance of the “Martin.”
Many Mormons would place Kate Kelly with the “Malcolm” approach. A good hard look at the evidence would show that this is unsupportable. All of the Ordain Women actions have been peaceful and respectful. Even when their conference action included a “rally” of sorts on Temple Square, the women and their supporters lined up peacefully at the doors to respectfully request admission. This was without doubt a non-violent demonstration. It was primarily a symbolic action, much like Ghandi’s first act of peaceful resistance was to pick up a handful of salt from the beach. Gentler than Ghandi’s movement, the OW women violated no law and were working within the church system by asking leaders to pray about women’s ordination. John Dehlin’s program of podcasts and personal outreach is even more non-violent.
On the other hand, though the institutional Church is structurally equipped to deal with faithful dissent, it appears that certain leaders have chosen to use a more violent means of reprisal. According to the Church Handbook of Instructions, 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. But with such a system as we have, is excommunication necessary in cases such as Dehlin’s and Kelly’s?
Excommunication is a violent action, imbued with eternal consequences for believing members. In most faith traditions, it shuts the door to the kingdom of heaven by declaring that the expelled person is not a Christian. Further, as BCC’s Ronan recently reminded readers, “excommunication in a Mormon setting is the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments.” For Latter-day Saints, who hold sacred the concept of eternal family connections, the brutal destruction of these spiritual links is particularly devastating.
Cyprian of Carthage was a third-century North African bishop known for his leadership and devotion to Christ’s church. Though he is obscure to many non-Catholics, he said these famous words: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” With these words Cyprian implies that the church has the God-given authority to determine the identity of the true members of God’s family. In Mormon terms, that which is bound on earth and thus in heaven, can be loosed by the same power. The pathos of the quotation lies in its assumption that cutting members away from mother Church and the fellowship of believers also removes their access to God. To the extent that this occurs in excommunication, it is harsh and violent.
The LDS Church has chosen to downplay the violence of the act of excommunication by using the term “Courts of Love.” A quick search traces this term to an April 1972 Conference talk by Robert L. Simpson, Courts of Love.
I have no doubt that there are many kind and good local leaders in the Church who attempt to conduct these proceedings with love. But this does not change the fact that intrinsically they are courts of punishment and separation. Describing her excommunication trial, Margaret Toscano has said: “There’s something vicious about niceness that struck me in this — that the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action.” I daresay that any humility or determination to repent or return to the Church can be attributed to the character of the excommunicant, and not to the effect of the proceeding itself.
I’ll end this post as I began, with the words of Sylvester Steffen. Especially in these times, he says,
more communication is needed, not less; more sensitivity to personal conscience is needed, not less. Excommunication is counter-productive. With today’s means of communication, attempts at stifling it only diminishes the credibility of those who would shut it down with utter disregard for honest dissent and the integrity of personal conscience. Excommunication doesn’t work and is universally seen as wrong-headed…
Does excommunication work? You may have read the words of Robert Kirby in the Salt Lake Tribune, asking himself and his readers whether being excommunicated would have the desired effect:
Would it make me more compliant or less compliant?
Probably less. I’d still attend church and participate to the extent I was allowed. I’d still be myself though, only now there would be even fewer consequences for doing so.
Well written! Thank you for posting it. Niceness covering violence is just another more pronounced version of LDS passive agression, similar to the denial of playing classical music while carrying out the holocaust.
“Many Mormons would place Kate Kelly with the “Malcolm” approach. A good hard look at the evidence would show that this is unsupportable. All of the Ordain Women actions have been peaceful and respectful.” Yes, this. Kate Kelly has the great misfortune of being a true believing liberal. She uses her moral values, as a liberal, to use methods that liberals see as necessary to communicate the need for change and to advocate for minority viewpoints against the status quo. I take that for what it is.
Most conservatives I know are suspicious and hostile of liberal motives and tactics to the point that they cannot fathom that someone who holds them would ever be acting in good faith. They paint a villainous caricature of liberals, including the strawman version of liberal ideals that we heard from E. Holland at the last General Conference. It is simply impossible for staunch conservatives to believe that liberals can be believing, active, testimony-bearing and having members of the church. Unfortunately, as some of my own relatives have demonstrated, there are many who would love nothing more than to see all liberals excommunicated rather than acknowledge than Jesus wasn’t a republican (or a democrat).
A note on the passive aggressive manner of excommunication, it is necessary to the preservation of one’s own self-esteem to believe that the people we wound deserve it. It’s another reason why it is not possible to lie to or cheat on your spouse without convincing yourself that they are partly to blame.
Hawkgrrrl-ok to quote your above post on a blog I read? Conservative blog that could use those words.
This article displays a terribly warped version of what excommunication actually is. In fact, many Mormons have been excommunicated and rebaptized without their fellow parishioners even knowing it.
Brian – of course, please do.
Brian, I’m curious.. why would secrecy make excommunication any less violent?
Ok. Y’all at bright people and perhaps can explain this to me, being on the periphery of the “kingdom”, my insights are regarded as limited. One if the reasons that I hear given for the action contemplated for Ms. Kelly and Mr. Dehlin is that their actions and statements can serve or have served to undermine the faith and testimony of others. If that is a valid criterion why wouldn’t disciplinary councils be convened for Mark E. Peterson for thus 1954 BYU speech on race, Joseph Fielding Smith for his authorship of Man: His Origin and Destiny, and/or Harold B. Lee for undermining the First Presidency in ordaining blacks when proposed in the late 60s? I realize they would have to be convened in absent is but that precedent appears to have been set?
yes, excommunications work. I am happy they happen. the Church and Gospel isn’t a free for all, do whatever, say whatever you want lifestyle. I live down the street from a exed member and the Church has been trying so hard to get her back but she won’t budge!! She says her excommunication was what she needed to wipe the slate clean, get her a chance to repent and move on. Her problem is her heart is still hardened! She knows the Church is true, relates wonderful spiritual experiences and all, comes on ocasion. But she won’t get rebaptized!!
one of my mission comps. told me in his ward a Bishopric member had to get up and say he was pilfering tithing money and as part of his repentance process had to tell everyone, he did and I dunno what happened.
How far do we tolerate behaviour like that? what about adultery, free-willy fornicating, spouse or child abuse, major crimes, preaching false doctrine etc.? We allow those things to happen and nothing happens to them? it would be lunacy.
Roger, that’s easy to explain. It’s a double standard.
I’m confident that excommunication does not cancel our temple sealings or covenants, these things cannot be taken from us, but we can relinquish them.
I’m not sure how ‘the church’ can get this right now, they seem to have chased these people up a blind alley. I’m sure their membership can be withdrawn and they can be disfellowshipped, but if they love God and His gospel, they belong to Him, and no power can tear them from His love. I understand the need for order as it is perceived within the church, but this is not an illuminating or edifying spectacle.
@8-because maybe they were told not to say those things anymore and they didn’t go to the media with it, Here is a blog post about Pres. Lee and his involvement written by someone who knows more about it then you or I
An excommunication must be sealed by the spirit, if you’re following the spirit and get exed for it who cares? You will have no spiritual cost for it but the social cost can be very high which can make excommunication abusive.
What did Jesus say to the adulteress in the temple? I hereby excommunicate you? No of course not! Neither do I condem you, go and sin no more. The church is obsessed with control, sin avoidance and behavour, excommunication and the threat of it is about compliance and enforcement. Obediance to the church is the goal. It’s not uncommon to be in the good graces of Christ but still owing the church!
Roger #8: A rhetorical question, but good point. It’s hard to tell just what actions help or hurt members. Some teachings may inspire one person, but harm another.
whizzbang #9: I’m glad you brought that up, I was actually hoping to discuss that here. In thinking about this subject, many members wonder if there are extreme cases, such as abuse, where excommunication is appropriate (to protect others, if nothing else)! As a pacifist, I believe there are peaceful ways of handling almost every situation.
I recall a ward I was in where we had a 30-40-year-old brother who was extremely sketchy. I don’t know if he was a sex offender, but he was strange, and he followed little girls around. Our bishop assigned the elders quorum members, one at a time, to be his “friend” whenever he was in the building. They would walk with him in the halls, sit with him, even go to the restroom when he did. This is an example of an alternate method of handling serious situations which will protect others, but also reach out and help the “offender,” perhaps saving his/her soul instead of cutting them off.
Many of the sins you mentioned in your comment are crimes, and can and should be pursued through the legal system. But knowing that God loves all his children, I would rather see creative acts of love in discipline coming from the Church.
@8 For MEP and JFS, if someone in the ward is saying these things nowadays, they probably would not get exed. As noted above HB Lee was counseled to stop and he did. This is likely the preferred outcome (for the local leaders) for JD, KK, and others who may be in that situation soon.
>I’m confident that excommunication does not cancel our temple sealings or covenants<
Our personal feelings may differ, but this is the official doctrine of the Church. People who are rebaptized after excommunication must have these blessings "restored," and they are not considered to be in effect until they are. This is why it is so devastating to believing members, and why I feel so strongly that it shouldn't be used so indiscriminately.
whizzbang #12: I do hope and believe that our leaders are praying sincerely about the issues that have been brought up by Kate Kelly. I think we have already seen some of the results.
I loved reading the link you provided. One must remember, however, that there was plenty of “agitation” in the ’70s about blacks and the priesthood before the times changed enough so that this revelation was able to be received, both by the leadership and the general members of the Church.
Please note that Brian with the Neon Trees avatar is different from Brian without NT. I only want to get in trouble for my own dumb remarks, not anybody else’s.
So people would be okay if someone is disfellowshipped, say, for an extended period of time, but excommunication is off the table no matter the facts? The member disfellowshipped can wear garments and is expected to pay tithing, but can’t partake of the sacrament, hold callings, say prayers, speak in class. Am I reading this post to stand for the proposition that excommunication is not an option no matter what members do?
Why is excommunication necessary? And if it is necessary why isn’t it being commonly used in other churches?
Ex-communication is a legitimate doctrine of the gospel. Its all over the Book of Mormon, and the New Testament warns when it is not done and should have been. Jesus even went so far as to teach metaphorically about cutting off limbs and throwing people into water with a mill around their feet when they offend.
A if millstone snd into the water for abusing littleones was excommunication what do you call the cruxifcion?
Jettboy #22: You are right that excommunication is scripturally justified. In the scriptures the Lord has said that he will cut off those who do not keep the commandments. He has also said that He is our judge and our lawgiver. When humankind are given the ability to judge, it is for the purpose of knowing good from evil (see Moroni 7). We are told:
If our leaders want to hold “courts of love,” I’d like to see them being places where the concerns of both parties are laid on the table. Discussions can be held, compromises can be made, help can be extended, I’d say even warnings could be given. I like to think of a Bishop as a judge in Israel in the sense that Moses put it in Exodus 18:
But as for excommunication–as for punishment–cutting someone off from God and the fellowship of believers–
I say we leave that to the Lord and to the individual themselves.
I’ve been thinking about the difference between heresy and aposticy. Heresy brings the focus of the conflict to the subject matter of the disagreement, this is a contest the church cannot afford to enter and is in fact it is the very challenge being brought by the critics it labels apostate! An apostate is as someone who has abandoned their religion, interestingly this is an accusation and conclusion the church makes FOR people even as they deny it themselves, it is a way of shifting the blame from the subject matter to the critic.
The bloggernacle has been calling the church to repentance for a long time. The church has responded by calling a couple of the more visible critics to repentance but then blinked with John, that blink predicts the outcome. The church is now playing a defensive game aimed at keeping their base distracted or in slumber but they have clearly lost the contest and with the coming die off of 1P and half of Q12 the old guard will be replaced and the church will either reveal God’s will on the matters (unlikely) or move toward a more honest and inclusive religion.
I love your example of the Bishop assigning a chaperone, but would be troubled as a parent to have the church put itself above the law in a situation of abuse of minors or other situations where the law of the land has been broken. This would be a putting the welfare of the offender above his/her potential victim, even colluding with the perpetrator, as has been the case in the catholic church. I couldn’t be comfortable allowing the church to be in loco parentis, as it often is, were this to be the case.
I’ve worked with a sister for some years who was abused by a ‘priesthood holder’. The church took no action but expected her to forgive.She has spent her life since terrified of meeting him in the temple and wondering if she had the responsibility as a child to go to the state authorities for fear that he might be abusing other children.
I take the Saviour’s statement to mean that children must be protected, however the effect of the atonement extends to the sinner as it does to the victim. The demands of both justice and mercy I take to be fulfilled in the atonement, but the specifics are perplexing.
I take statements around temple sealings being withdrawn from individuals as being relevant to situations when the specific terms of the covenant have been broken, as in adultery. Even then the sealing of that individual to his/her parents would not be dissolved. I imagine God’s love to be at least as great and merciful as our own, BIV.
I don’t have access to the handbook these days, so I’m hoping to be corrected if I’m wrong.
That’s a great observation.
Absolutely. I’d be troubled as well if a church leader undertook to cover such things up from proper legal consequences. As I said above, bona fide crimes should be pursued through the legal system. And church leaders should do everything possible to protect their flock.
@18-no problem! I am sure there is more to come!
See this Richard Burton portrayal of a Catholic Exorcism – from Beckett – for a full understanding of what Excommunication entails. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnxJyEF4qLE
Utah is not Italy, Salt Lake City is not Rome, Temple Square is not the Vatican so why are the Mormons acting like Catholics?