Shortly before the pandemic turned the world upside down, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a new online-only General Handbook to replace the previous standard “Handbook I (for stake, or regional, presidents and bishops) and Handbook II (for all other lay leaders in the faith),” as noted by Peggy Stack in the Salt Lake Tribune. Significantly, this new general handbook became available for anyone to view online, not just for those in leadership callings.
In February 2020, W&T blogger Bryce Cook reported on the General Handbook changes related to policies on transgender members as well as same-sex relationships and marriage. Today, I’d like to focus on the section about apostasy.
One notable change was that membership councils (the nicer rebranding of disciplinary councils) were made optional in cases of apostasy. The stake president is now expected to counsel with the area presidency before deciding whether to convene a membership council.
The other changes were related to the definition of apostasy itself. Below is the applicable section (18.104.22.168). Additions are noted in red.
As used here, apostasy refers to a member engaging in any of the following:
• Repeatedly acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, or its leaders
• Persisting in teaching as Church doctrine what is not Church doctrine after being corrected by the bishop or stake president
• Showing a pattern of intentionally working to weaken the faith and activity of Church members
• Continuing to follow the teachings of apostate sects after being corrected by the bishop or stake president
• Formally joining another church and promoting its teachings (Total inactivity in the Church or attending another church does not by itself constitute apostasy. However, if a member formally joins another church and advocates its teachings, withdrawing his or her membership may be necessary.)22.214.171.124 Apostasy, General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Apparently, the new general handbook became available on February 19th, the same day BYU’s “principle-based” honor code was updated. Many of you are aware of the confusion the honor code update caused by removing a section specifically banning homosexual behavior. A subsequent clarification letter was sent out in March 2020. The reasoning given by Elder Paul V. Johnson in that clarification letter was, “a foundational doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is that ‘marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan…” Because “[s]ame-sex romantive behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage,” it is “not compatible with the principles included in the Honor Code.” Homosexual behavior, basically, is in opposition to the doctrine of (heterosexual) eternal marriage.
What’s significant is that Elder Johnson used this reasoning after the handbook definition of apostasy was amended to include “repeated” and “public opposition” to the church’s doctrines and policies, not just the church and its leaders. It seems that church leaders felt that the General Handbook modifications would adequately cover the same expectations as the previous honor code, without running into potential problems with explicit LGBTQ discrimination in higher education.
What are your thoughts about the General Handbook’s new treatment and definition of apostasy?
The lead image is a screenshot of the General Handbook’s new cover in the Church’s Gospel Library.
I just want to comment on the BYU policy reversal that you referred to. I said this at the time and I’ll say it again:
The Church really dodged a bullet on this reversal. This could have easily been POX part II with a lot of bad external press and a ton of internal dissent. It was that outrageous. But the Church had the good fortune of announcing (via the BYU Honor Code Office) an enlightened policy and then reversing course in days (via CES) at the same time that Covid first blew up as a national issue in
March of 2020. Covid kicked this story off the front page.
Too bad because the reversal narrative never really got traction again and the Church /BYU really got away with one.
The institution that administers the Gospel to the Saints is too dogmatic with its approach to managing the behavior of the Church.
The problem isn’t with the “Church” (Body of Congregation), or the “Gospel” (Doctrine of Christ), but with the institution that puts itself between the Gospel and the Church.
Apostasy is not opposition. Only an unrighteous dominion would call it so.
The biggest problem with this “expanded” definition is that it suddenly include opposition to “policies” which was the category for man-made ideas that were downgraded from “doctrine.” The PH ban was justified as having been a mistaken policy, never really a doctrine. Saying we can’t disagree on policies is a whole different thing. What’s next? Not being allowed to call someone’s tie ugly? That’s literally where we are headed here.
So much rests on your local leaders not being rigid dogmatists or fanatics at this point. There are many weasel words in this statement, deliberately so, and if one were so inclined, it would be a piece of cake to show that our top leaders are all guilty of apostasy by this definition:
“Repeatedly acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, or its leaders”
– What is CLEAR opposition? Is it the difference between an argument and contradiction?
– What is PUBLIC opposition? How big does the audience have to be to qualify as public? Ten people who listened to a podcast or read a blog post? The readership of the NYT?
– What is DELIBERATE opposition vs. just having another opinion or different idea how things should be done?
– What is “the Church”? Is the Church Office Building or Ensign Peak the Church? Is disagreeing about how the missionary department runs or the teaching manuals or early morning seminary grounds?
– What is “doctrine”? This word just means “teachings,” and those have changed during my lifetime, many many times.
– Which policies qualify? Can we gripe about being asked to clean the building, because give me a break! THAT’s a policy.
– Which leaders qualify? I realize this was already in there, but isn’t this the literal opposite of “common consent” in the D&C? What if someone votes no on a leader? Are they at risk of excommunication? That’s like the old joke about fascist leaders being told they won 99.4% of the vote and asked What more could they want. The answer: the names and addresses of the .6% who didn’t vote for them.
When I say that the Q15 are all guilty of apostasy by this definition, I mean that they constantly disagree with each other on the direction of the Church, and as soon as they get into the big chair, their predecessors’ policies and even doctrines may be tossed right under the bus, not always kindly either! The “I’m a Mormon” campaign now qualifies as a “victory for Satan.” Is that not clear and deliberate public opposition to Pres. Hinckley’s policies?
It could also be argued that hardline stances like Bednar’s advice to toss your fiance out like yesterday’s trash over a pair of earrings qualify for this: “Showing a pattern of intentionally working to weaken the faith and activity of Church members”
I have heard the theory that adding “policies” was done to justify the excommunication of Sam Young, the former bishop who sought to bring child sexual abuse to the attention of the Church. They even enacted many of his requested changes to protect children, but rather than saying thank you for your love of the children, they exed him and threw him out also like yesterday’s trash.
A teenaged girl was badgered by a bishop during an interview about masturbation and oral sex. The girl was completely innocent and felt assaulted. She ended the interview. She couldn’t muster up the courage to let her parents know what had happened for a week.
The parents were called into the Stake Presidents office and nearly had their temple recommends pulled. Their crime? Requesting help from the Area Presidency in dealing with this Bishop. Apparently it was a local policy for how youth should be interviewed, so the couple was guilty of not “sustaining” their local leaders. This occurred just months before the church made changes to how the youth are interviewed. It was swept under the rug and the couple never received an apology for the trauma the family went through.
Church policy should always be examined critically. But be prepared to surrender your recommend if the Stake President does not like you or your views.
The definition of “apostasy” is whatever the leaders of the Church decide it is. And that’s the problem. If you are the kind of church member to make too much noise, cause embarrassment to the leaders by pointing out their errors, or are otherwise a fly in the ointment, it is likely they will use the “apostasy” trump card to get rid of you. In just about every high profile excommunication that’s happened in the last several years, the presiding authority used a twisted and ambiguous interpretation of “apostasy” to justify the decision. It really doesn’t matter what the handbook says, now or in the past. In an organization concerned with boundary maintenance, it’s perhaps the leader’s most valuable tool next to the temple recommend.
In addition to what @Jack Hughes and @Angela said, it’s pretty clear that in at least some cases excommunication is being driven by higher-ups and not the bishop / stake president.
The timing suggests this was the case for Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, and most recently (and IMO most egregiously for a variety of reasons) Natasha Parker. And according to some in attendance at meetings about the exclusion policy, leadership was instructed to begin excommunicating gay married couples but “not all at once or it’ll look like a witch hunt” “but it’ll eventually need to be done.” Hmm.
It’s an ink blot and even if it weren’t it’s not followed anyway. It’s not like there’s any recourse if a leader’s application of the ink blot is improper.
Now of course – the church as a private institution doesn’t need to give any reason or criteria for excommunicating people. It can do that however it wants. But it’s just dishonest to act like there’s a policy when that policy is totally meaningless AND isn’t followed anyway.
It’s pretty clear from the transcripts of high profile excommunication proceedings over the last few years that the real policy in place is: “If we want to excommunicate you, we will do so.” The various categories of “apostasy” and the various changes to those definitions and categories are largely irrelevant to what local leaders do or how they conduct proceedings. What needs to be changed is the process, not the definitions.
What if an LDS person is charged with weakening the faith and activity of Church members? The accused says, “I did no such thing.” The bishop says, “Yes, you did.” Accused says, “Name one.” The bishop says, “You made this Facebook post, and another one, and they could weaken faith and activity.” If that’s how the bishop thinks, case closed. Thus you can be held guilty of weakening the faith and activity of Church members even if there is not a single person whose faith or activity you affected. Heck, you can be found guilty of weakening faith and activity of others even if you *strengthened* the faith and activity of others. It sure seems like facts are largely irrelevant much of the time.
Important post. Dave B is spot 0n about the expanded definition essentially allowing the church to excommunicate anyone they feel like excommunicating. This is confirmed by Angela’s comment regarding how to define any of these terms. The fact that this language is expansive and general and not specific and clear indicates that the church is not at all concerned with actual justice and is very concerned with a kind of self-authorized power to expel whoever they feel like. It’s also pretty clear that although the church makes noises about respecting everyone and that everyone is a child of God, the church also feels the need to be able to create a space where it can legislatively assault the most vulnerable, marginalized people in its community. I actually sort of get why the church (0r any large, fairly well-known organization) would want to curb opposition or tamp down negative voices, and technically, they are within their rights to do this sort of thing, but it appears as if it’s merely another kind of administrative overreach that I’m sure sounded good in a leadership meeting, but is so obvious in its intent to eliminate any kind of dissent that it’s just another example of what the church really values: obedience, a hagiographic attitude towards leadership and toeing the line. I mean have you ever really sat down and listened to/read a lot of general conference talks? I feel like I’m hearing some sort of bizarre propaganda theoretically designed to “strengthen” the church membership, but the rhetoric ends up sounding more like a kind of benign, but vaguely sinister set of assertions that really isn’t supported by logic or, often, scripture. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.
Lawyer here. The vagueness Angela, Dave B, and Brother Sky have outlined is a feature, not a bug. If, that is, the Church wants to maximize its power to discriminate. Courts have recognized that vague criminal statutes are problematic, not because it’s hard to define the terms (lawyers always argue about definitions), but precisely because severe vagueness encourages arbitrary, discriminatory enforcement. Take the vagrancy laws of the Jim Crow South, requiring people to carry cash or demonstrate employment: they were written so enforcement could be selective, and – surprise! – they were almost never enforced against anyone other than the state’s political enemies (Black people, activists, etc.)
Of course, excommunication isn’t a legal process (it’s pseudo-legal), and the church is a private organization that can exclude people. BUT, even private organizations can’t discriminate against protected classes (i.e., on race, gender, sexual orientation). That is why you didn’t see mass excommunication of gay couples. Obviously, the Church isn’t afraid of being seen to witch-hunt – it’s afraid of being sued into the stone age.
@Billy Possum, not sure I agree with that legal interpretation (lawyer here too) but interested to know more. Maybe I’m missing something.
My understanding is that employers can’t discriminate against protected classes but I am pretty sure churches can discriminate however they want when it comes to their membership and ecclesiastical leadership. Otherwise the church could be sued for categorically prohibiting women from leadership positions, for treatment of black people, etc etc. And the Church *is* excommunicating gay couples en masse right now. They didn’t want to do it too publicly for PR reasons, not legal reasons.
Church educational institutions and church employment do face some legal issues which is why they join lots of legal battles protecting the rights of religious employers and educational institutions to discriminate. But when it comes to excommunication / withdrawal of membership and discrimination in unpaid ecclesiastical positions, anti-discrimination laws in the US generally do not apply. Religious orgs can do terribly discriminatory things with impunity.
“And the Church *is* excommunicating gay couples en masse right now. ”
I’ve seen this claim a couple times on various blogs, but haven’t seen anything about the evidence for it Is it available somewhere?
@wondering I had heard it too and was reluctant to (a) spread the claim without any specific evidence but also didn’t want to (b) interrogate gay folks about it as if I didn’t believe them. But I’ve seen multiple accounts now of people it’s happening to (Nathan Kitchen, Randy Wellbaum) and Latter Gay Stories claims to know of a dozen and I have no reason to believe they’re lying.
Wait a second, Mary Ann starts blogging again and John Charity disappears. Either she has stronger ties to Deznat than we all imagined or she is in fact John Charity.
Either way, the world is right again.
À few years ago an Australian state was discussing “Assisted dying legislation”, on the way back from a stake leadership meeting with the new branch president, he raised the legislation and I expressed my support. It was a progressive ward, and the BP was the most conservative. I should have been more circumspect.
Within a couple of days he and a councilor appeared on my doorstep in the dark, and handed me an envilope. It contained a letter summoning me to meet in his office to answer a charge of apostacy.
After an opening prayer his first question was do you agree that you are apostate.
I had been told by another member beforehand that a BP could not ex an HP, so I just told him he did not have the power.
He told me this was not the end, but nothing happened. There was great tension in the branch, and in our lives, because the SP did not say what was happening. We were in limbo for months.
The BP applied for a job elsewhere, and the next BP called me as a councilor.
The original BP, and that SP both went inactive.
I moved a few years later, was the HP group leader for a number of years, but have since had a Bishop, (who was in the original stake) refuse me a TR, overruled by SP. Told by bishop I would not give a talk, or hold a position while he was bishop, he was replaced by his son in law as Bishop, who was briefed, because when I went for a recommend he refused to ask the questions just asked fishing questions about my views for an hour, made another apointment, and did the same thing, SP gave me a recommend. The SP, is being released shortly. Still have same Bishop so?
I have been tempted to conclude from stories like Geoff-Aus’ and various postumous reinstatements that TRs and excommunication have a great deal to do with activity in the Church on this earth, but little or nothing to do with God’s view of the individual involved or the efficacy of ordinances previously performed for that individual. It seems that at least some TR denials and excommunications/withdrawals of membership are more a function of leader roulette –leaders at any ecclesiastical level — and of unrighteous dominion. The expansion and vagueness of the handbook “apostasy” definition, combined with the impossibility of getting higher-ups to deal with SPs or BPs could not be better designed to reinforce autocratic local leadership in their assumptions that they know the answers because they’ve been put in those positions.
As a young man of 25, I was accused by my Stake President of immoral behavior. I bit back, and bit hard. He saw that he had made an erroneous conclusion and immediately backed down. He even tried to apologize, without flatly acknowledging that he had been a jerk. I simply looked at him and said, “Good Bye.”
Years later, in my 50s, while dealing with an overly-testosteroned Stake President, I pushed back hard against him in a meeting on his quirky interpretation of a scripture. Problem was, he knew that I knew the scriptures well,
A couple of months later, I bumped into the man, and he said he was surprised to see me, the implication being that I would have gone inactive because of my dispute with him. I told him that the Church was mine as much as it was his, and that he didn’t have what it takes to drive me out of the Church, and sorry to disappoint him, I wasn’t going anywhere. He got a huge kick out of my answer and smiled broadly. We never had any more issues.
Doesn’t work for everyone in all circumstances, but I find it helps sometimes to wear a coat of armor to church. I am sorry for the situations described in this comment thread.
Relevant column by Jana Riess, titled “An in-depth look at every individual excommunicated by Jesus Christ in scripture: With at least a dozen Mormons now facing church discipline, it’s logical to take a step back and ask ourselves what Jesus would do. Here is an in-depth look at all the people Jesus excommunicated.”
Table of medals won by country during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games so far. Boasting medals v population!
1 CHINA population 1445 million – 22 gold 13 silver 12 bronze total 47
2 UNITED STATES population 320 million – 19 gold 20 silver 13 bronze total 52
3 JAPAN population 126 million – 17 gold 5 silver 8 bronze 30 total
4 AUSTRALIA population 25 million – 14 gold 3 silver 14 total 41 doing very well.
5 USSR Population 146 million – 11 gold 15 silver 12 bronze total 38
Many of the athletes train in the city I live in, the BMX male rider lives in the next suburb. 70% of Australian medals have been won by women.
Geoff. 14+14+3 is 31. Still a good number.
Sorry yes 31 for Aus
Someone should do a post on the stupid/ irrelevant and just plan mean policies of the church during it’s history
I think the too much group think group talk ( in a very closed cultural community)
“Thus you can be held guilty of weakening the faith and activity of Church members even if there is not a single person whose faith or activity you affected. Heck, you can be found guilty of weakening faith and activity of others even if you *strengthened* the faith and activity of others. It sure seems like facts are largely irrelevant much of the time.”
This is exactly what just happened to me when I was excommunicated two weeks ago. Despite plenty of members, including three who served in stake presidencies, writing to my stake president that the issues I am describing and discussing in my Mormon Civil War podcast are real and heavily impacting their families and friends, and some even pointing out how the podcast has helped them to have hope and stay active and even be reactivated in the Church, I was still excommunicated on the grounds of opposing leaders and he added in his verdict letter despite not mentioning it at the trial the new criterium that I am apparently encouraging people to lose their faith and leave the Church even though my consistent message has been urging people to stay and how we can make it safe for them to stay.
Making even opposing policies an automatic disciplinary offence is the final nail in a totalitarian system where you literally cannot disagree with anything at any level whatsoever that the local or global leaders decide is the policy of the church or how the gospel should be interpreted. Which as others have pointed out is ludicrous since the Church leaders keep flip-flopping on what these things even are, and “policy“ used to be their get out of jail free card for not being held responsible themselves for things they later abandoned.
They have totally shot themselves in the foot removing their last line of defence and plausible deniability that way. Elevating ‘policy’ into unquestionable ‘doctrine’ level status is a two edged sword that will also cut the leaders flip-flopping on policy or relying on it being regarded as a secondary category of seriousness to doctrine.
So as usual these days we are living with a leadership tying itself up in knots of total control freakery and irrational incompetence and destroying the Church before our eyes. It will functionally cease to exist here in Britain and Europe and many other regions in the next 10 to 15 years unless this nonsense stops so many people are leaving. We are down to 14.7% active in the UK.