The Evolution of Excommunication

I recently went through every version of the Church Handbook of Instructions, looking at what they have to say about the operation of church courts and how it has changed over time.

The earliest handbook was put out in the 1890s and dealt exclusively with the handling of church funds. In 1920 procedures governing church courts were added. Gradually, more instructions were included in successive editions, until it became the general compendium of policies that it has become. For most of its history, the section on church courts was based on what started out as a verbatim reproduction of the material on church courts from Widtsoe’s Priesthood and Church Government. Over time, however, the wording was changed subtly until the early 1980s, when the entire church court system was overhauled under the direction of Dallin H. Oaks and the term “disciplinary councils” was introduced.

There are a number of interesting changes in the procedure over the course of the twentieth century. For example, for a time the Handbook required that in a bishop’s court the counselors had to concur in the decision of the court. In the event that they did not concur then the case was to be referred to the stake high council. Under the current procedure the concurrence of bishop’s counselors is not necessary for the decision of a bishop’s court. The most interesting shifts, in my opinion, however, have come in the method by which church court procedures are commenced and the way in which remedies are conceptualized.

Until 1980, the Handbook, following the text of Widstoe’s book, distinguished between cases that were begun by a “complaint” and cases that were begun by a “summons.” A complaint consisted by an accusation lodged with one church member against another church member with his or her bishop or stake president. The handbook included a sample form on how to make such a complaint, and while the instructions were not explicit there was nothing to suggest that the bishop could decline jurisdiction over the case. A “summons” was a case that was commenced by the bishop or stake president instructing a member to appear before a church court. The procedural distinction should be familiar to those acquainted with the difference between adversarial and inquisitorial systems or, broadly speaking, the difference between common law and civil law systems. In 1980, however, the distinction between complaint and summons was dropped. The assumption in the new instructions was that all cases would begin with a summons. In other words, the inquisitorial/civilian model of church courts replaced the adversarial/common-law model of church courts.

The second interesting change has to do with remedies. Until the 1940 edition of the Handbook the remedial stage of the case was governed by this set of instructions:

The Penalty – The decision may specify compliance, or acts of restitution required of the guilty party, neglect of which will bring into operation certain penalties; or the penalty may be imposed unconditionally.

Notice that this contemplates that the outcome in many church court cases will be some sort of a remedial order. Excommunication and disfellowship were not necessarily the end of case. Rather, a member would be ordered to do something like providing restitution to a wronged party on pain of excommunication or disellowshipment. The excommunication or disfellowshipment was seen as a way of enforcing compliance with the remedial order, and the assumption was that in such cases the sanction would not be necessary because the member would comply with the order. In 1940, the section on penalties was re-written to read:

Church Punishments — A person who is disfellowshipped is denied the privileges of the Church. He is not to be admitted to priesthood meetings, nor to any assembly of Church officers; he is not to hold any office in the Church, nor in any of the auxiliary organizations; he is not entitled to partake of the sacrament, nor to speak in meetings. Of these restrictions the person should be specifically informed when the penalty of disfellowshipment is imposed.

Disfellowshipment may be terminated and the person restored to fellowship in the Church on evidence of sincere repentance and full compliance with the conditions imposed, only by action of the tribunal that dealt with the case, or by a tribunal having a superior jurisdiction. In ever instance of application for restoration, after disfellowshipment by a bishop’s court, the approval of the respective stake presidency must be obtained.

Excommunication means complete severance from the Church. The excommunicated person can regain membership only be baptism, as if he had never been a member before. A person who has been excommunicated should not be baptized until approval has first been obtained from the stake presidency and high council of the stake, or the bishopric of the ward in which the action against him was taken, and until permission is given by the president of the stake in which the person resides.

Members who have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated should not be avoided or persecuted by members of the Church. They should be dealt with kindly and prayerfully, in the hope that they may turn from their mistakes and receive again the full privileges of Church membership.

There are two things to note about this shift. The first is that the administrative effect of disciplinary actions is spelled out in much greater detail. This is what one would expect as, no doubt, the Brethren in Salt Lake City had to grapple with a myriad of detailed questions from local leaders. It also indicates, however, that more thought has been given to precisely what disfellowshipment or excommunication means to a disfellowshiped or excommunicated member.  In other words, it is coming to be seen more as a particular spiritual and ecclesiastical status rather than simply a threat made as part of a remedial order.

Notice also how the notion of excommunication or disfellowshipment as a way of compelling compliance with a remedial order has been shifted. For example, the assumption is that a person will be disfellowshiped until they comply with a remedial order rather than being disfellowshipped only for failing to comply with such an order. Excommunication itself is no longer explicitly linked with compelling performance of a remedial order at all, only with personal repentance.

I would submit that what we are seeing in the 1940 General Handbook is the emergence of a new way of thinking about church discipline in general and excommunication in particular. During much of the 19th century, church discipline was primarily about remedying some concrete past wrong. The core case was a dispute between two members, adjudicated by a church tribunal, in which the threat of excommunication was used as a way of compelling compliance with the remedial order of the court. Of course there were always cases involving “summons” rather than “complaints” and sometimes excommunication was used as a punishment associated with a kind of cursing formula whereby the apostate and sinful were “given over to the buffetings of Satan.” Even in cases of summons, however, the assumption was often that the church court would impose some remedial order and excommunication or disfellowshipment was only a final means of coercing compliance.

In the twentieth century, however, we get a more pastoral view of church discipline. The purpose of church courts is less and less to coerce compliance with particular ecclesiastical decrees in particular cases. Indeed, the core case ceases to be a more or less public dispute between two members. Rather, it becomes a confidential encounter between an erring member and his or her priesthood leader. In this private, pastoral setting church discipline is no longer about forcing compliance with a particular decree of the court. Rather, discipline itself is increasingly seen as a pastoral tool. The idea is that being disfellowshipped and even excommunicated can itself be a salutary event, part of the process by which a person can repent of their sins by being given a paricular spiritual and ecclesiastical status for a time. This is seen most dramatically in the shift that occurs from church courts to disciplinary councils in the 1980s and the dropping of the complaint procedure from the Handbook, but I think that we can detect it as early as the 1940 commentary on church punishments.

51 comments for “The Evolution of Excommunication

  1. BTW, lest anyone think I did something sneaky in this research, back copies of the General Handbook of Instructions are available in both the University of Utah and the BYU Special Collections.

  2. Interesting stuff. I was just pondering last week whether the church discipline system was more common-law or civil-law, and I figured it was more civil-law. I’m glad to see that someone more knowledgeable in the field came to the same conclusion.

  3. Seems like we’re seeing less ex’ing in the church these days–rumor has it people don’t return like they’re supposed to–and just disfellowship for what used to be pretty serious offenses. Any sense in your research about this shift?

  4. Nate,
    Thanks for this. I remember in Priesthood opening exercises in the the 1960 and early 1970s, that the AP would be dismissed and excommunications would be announced to the MP. One goodhearted bishop who always slurred unintelligibly the name of the excommunicant.
    My own disciplinary council some 15 years ago was focused on healing. The continued support of stake and ward priesthood leaders has been essential in my recovery — along with the healing power of the atonement and of the Holy Ghost. I wrote about this here on T&S a while ago.
    President Hinckely captured the sense of my experience in his closing comments of the Priesthood session of GenCon 4/2004:
    Now the work of the Church is a work of salvation. I want to emphasize that. It is a work of saving souls. We desire to help both the victim and the offender. Our hearts reach out to the victim, and we must act to assist him or her. Our hearts reach out to the offender, but we cannot tolerate the sin of which he may be guilty. Where there has been offense, there is a penalty. The process of the civil law will work its way. And the ecclesiastical process will work its way, often resulting in excommunication. This is both a delicate and a serious matter.
    Nevertheless, we recognize, and must always recognize, that when the penalty has been paid and the demands of justice have been met, there will be a helpful and kindly hand reaching out to assist. There may be continuing restrictions, but there will also be kindness.

    “I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.” — 2 Ne 33:6

  5. On court of love, I don’t know the precise timing. It never appears in the Handbook. There is a conference address with that title from the 1970s.

  6. Nate, are we to assume that there have been no significant changes in procedure from 1980 to the most recent edition (2006)?

    It was only with the 2006 edition, I believe, that specifically barred a disciplinary council from going forward if the member resigned membership. Up until this time resigning (i.e. “asking for your name to be removed”) wasn’t allowable and the church court would go forward.

    Not being a lawyer, I’m not sure how this fits into your view of common-law or civil-law. But to my mind this change represents an extension of the changes you describe, with the church recognizing they have no civil authority, other than granting/revoking membership in the organization.

    Which also raises the question, in the past, did the Church exercise any really civil power such that they could actually force restitution or other remediation, other than welding the threat of disfellowship/excommunication?

    Might the changes you describe be the natural progression from a small parochial church that essentially held religious and civil power to a world-wide church that only holds religious power?

  7. I have heard a rumor that in the early 1980s the Church Historical Department was commissioned to do an internal study on the results of those who had been excommunicated. According to the rumor this study concluded that the vast majority of those who were excommunicated or disfellowshipped never returned to church activity, and it was this study that prompted the overhaul of the church court system. I have never seen anything collaberating this. Furthermore, I think that the shift that occurred in 1980 was less radical than some have argued. By 1980 the Handbook’s treatment, which was really a successively edited version of Widtsoe’s text had become a bit diffuse and ungainly. Mainly what happened in the 1980s, I think, is that they simply rewrote the text from the ground up without necessarily radically altering the procedures. Those parts that were dropped, such as the discussion of “complaint” cases, had more to do, I think, with eliminating material that had long since become anachronistic.

    As for the operation of the system in practice, I really have no insight on that as I don’t know of any good source of information. In the few cases involving church discipline of which I have personal knowledge the approach of the leaders was entirely pastoral and to the best of my knowledge successful.

  8. “Which also raises the question, in the past, did the Church exercise any really civil power such that they could actually force restitution or other remediation, other than welding the threat of disfellowship/excommunication?”

    During the 19th century the Territorial Utah Legislature passed very broad arbitration laws that were pretty clearly intended in my opinion to give church courts substantially all of the powers of secular civil courts — e.g. the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence, enforce judgments through a sheriff’s attachment, etc. However, as near as I have been able to determine these laws never operated in practice, due mainly to the hostility of the federally appointed judiciary.

    On the other hand, the use of ecclesiastical sanctions to enforce civil judgments of church courts continued into the 20th century, long after any hope of using these territorial statutes had passed.

    I do think that the shift that occurs over the course of the 20th century is more than simply a retreat from the expansive civil jurisdiction of church courts, although that is clearly happening as well. Interestingly, there aren’t strong statements about the limited subject matter jurisdiction of church courts in the Handbook until the 1970s and the 1980s, although I think that as a practical matter jurisdiction over civil disputes had largely been abandoned prior to that period. (Even here, I have heard stories — uncorroborated — of major commercial disputes being submitted to church leaders in the 1960s and 1970s.) Over and above this shift, however, I think that the meaning and use of excommunication has shifted subtly over the course of the 20th century.

  9. “… he is not entitled to … speak in meetings.”

    I guess back in Paul’s day, women were disfellowshipped from the getgo. :-)

  10. Strong work, Nate. My impression of 19th century church discipline in the case of sin, is comparable. It seems to me that frequently the penitent were simply rebaptized (the last instruction documenting this, of which I am aware is in the 1910s). I just read an account last night of an individual that was struggling with alcohol and was consequently disfellowshiped. After mastering himself he petitioned for full fellowship and was rebaptized.

    It seems that the shift in excommunication and disfellowshipping could also be influence by the re-situation of baptismal liturgies in the late 19th century and early 20th century, coupled with the repositioning of the priesthood throughout the 20th century. If the traditional edict of church discipline is unavailable, then adjudicators would need to find new ones. I would also recommend checking out Daymon Smith’s dissy (2008) and his treatment of Priesthood and Church Government.

  11. Nice discussion, Nate. Interesting how the administrative effects are now spelled out in detail, but the procedural aspects of the proceeding seem to have become more informal. I’m not sure this always works to the advantage of the person coming before a disciplinary council, where the bishop now has all the institutional knowledge and controls the course of the proceeding, while the person before the council has little knowledge of what is coming, few resources to learn what’s going to happen or how they might prepare, and little control over the proceeding. When it was more of an adjudicatory proceeding, I suspect the parties were more balanced (the person bringing the complaint and the person responding to it).

    In particular, the present unavailability of any written procedures or guidelines (apart from the letter given to the person days before the proceeding) that a person coming before a disciplinary council can appeal to in order to assess the propriety of their individual proceeding is a problem. And the fact that the person before the council is not allowed to bring in another person to assist or advise them makes this doubly problematic. The only thing that saves the system in practice is that the vast majority of bishops work hard to be fair, be patient, and give the person before the council the benefit of the doubt.

  12. Until 1980, the Handbook, following the text of Widstoe’s book, distinguished between cases that were begun by a “complaint” and cases that were begun by a “summons.” A complaint consisted by an accusation lodged with one church member against another church member with his or her bishop or stake president

    In that case, I wish to register a complaint.

  13. Great post, Nate. Do you have a short list of other changes that were (at least, for the purposes of this post, in your view) *less* interesting or noteworthy, but still substantial?

  14. Nate,

    My recollection is that the term “disciplinary council” was introduced, along with a substantial rewrite of the former Church court section, in the 1989 handbook. Elder Oaks visited our stake in 1989 just before the release of the revised handbook, and spoke in the priesthood leadership session about some of the forthcoming changes (and in more detail in a separate session for high councilors and bishoprics).

    (Dallin Oaks did not become an apostle (or general authority) until 1984.) I have a vague recollection that there were some intervening changes in the mid-1980s–like a supplement perhaps. I think the supplement in the mid-1980s removed the requirement for discipline results to be announced to all Melchizedek priesthood members.

    This wikipedia site purports to list all editions of the handbook.

  15. Thanks again for insight into the history of Church courts. Clearly, the 19th century exercise of civil jurisdiction was a matter of resolving disputes between two Church members, with the main interest of the church itself being to achieve a reconciliation that would promote unity within the Church as a body. There were, of course, matters involving transgression, but in the years I read the transcripts of the Salt Lake High Council, they were the minority of cases. I wonder if you can cofirm that from your much more comprehensive research?

    It appears from what you have said that the early 20th Century Church courts still retained the procedure of one member bringing a complaint against another, even though the subject matter jurisdiction was now limited to actions that, while they injured the plaintiff or someone he or she was responsible for, also transgressed Church standards of behavior. The transition you document clearly shows identification of the Church itself as the injured plaintiff in all cases. Thus, the change of terminology from a “court” (which could hear both civil–citizen versus citizen–cases, and criminal–citizen versus the state–cases) and implied authority from the community to compel compliance with its decisions, to that of a disciplinary council, which is the terminology for a voluntary association that is focused on the accused’s status as a member of the association. Many membership organizations, including churches and businesses, hold in-house hearings to determine whether a person deserves to continue his or her membership. This terminology conveys a limited authority over the person that extends only to the association withdrawing the privileges of membership in response to someone who has betrayed that member relationship, a process that many people can understand and sympathize with based on similar process in their churches, schools, fraternal lodges, golf country clubs, sports associations, and civic organizations.

    I personally have no idea what motivated the timing of the 1980 changes. Nevertheless, there were several studies of the Church courts operating as a civil dispute resolution forum which were published in the late 1970s, including a paper by one of my fellow law students, a book by Mark Leone using church court records from southern Utah, and my own Utah Law Review article from 1978, based on research in the Church Archives, which was the topic of a short presentation I did for some employees at the Church Office Building. Additionally, the 1979 excommunication of Sonia Johnson gave a lot of national notoriety to the Church courts process, including efforts by some of her supporters to criticize the procedure. My guess is that these were factors in persuading Elder Oaks and other leaders that it was appropriate to review the procedures of the bishop and high council courts and consider revisions.

    With respect to #20, proceedings in bishopric hearings are also kept fair by the fact that a bishop’s decisions can be (and sometimes must be) appealed to the Stake Presidency and High Council. High Councils are enjoined by scripture to assign some of the members to advocate the case for the accused. The effectiveness of that informal, unprepared and inexpert advocacy is of course limited, but it reminds all participants that they do not have license for an Inquisitorial, guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to such matters. In my own experience, most High Council members are limited in their experience with serious, felony level sin, such as child sexual abuse, and have a tendency to give a good deal of the benefit of the doubt to an accused, including to denials that, for example, he committed the sin against additional members of the family.

    In one such case, I educated my fellow high council members about the serious difficulties that even confessed child sexual abusers have in admitting the full scope of their guilt, and the tremendous difficulty they have in reforming their behavior without strong motivators like actual confinement and active treatment. Even in today’s atmosphere of more open discussion about the frequency of such abuse, and the persistence of abusers even after they have been identified, such as in the Catholic Church scandals of the past decade, many people are willing to assume that someone they personally know, who has led an apparently exemplary life until then, could not be such an incorrigible monster.

    Such inability to believe the worst played a major role in the difficulty that a number of Boy Scouts in eastern Idaho experienced in having action taken by the Church and the Boy Scout regional officers against a child sex abuser who worked at a scout camp, whose mother was a prominent scouting officer in the community. Despite formal national Boy Scouts of America training and procedures for identifying and sanctioning predators, the senior employed leaders refused to believe multiple accusations against the young man.

    The simple lack of experience of many good LDS men with egregious sin, the deceptiveness of serious sinners, and the reluctance of such men to speak explicitly and accurately about the details of such revolting behavior, decreases the significance of the sanctions imposed by Bishop and High Council hearings. I would suggest that, when making up the roster of their High Council, a stake presidency should consider the advisability of including brethren who are professionals in fields like criminal law, law enforcement, emergency medicine, psychology, social work and counseling, so there is an in-house expert who can advise the High Council about the behavior they can expect from predators who may use Church membership and the trust we offer to “Brother Jones” to abuse the most innocent of those under their care as leaders.

  16. Which also raises the question, in the past, did the Church exercise any really civil power such that they could actually force restitution or other remediation, other than welding the threat of disfellowship/excommunication?

    That doesn’t seem very likely without both parties prior consent. D&C 134:10 is worth quoting here:

    We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship

  17. After reading Raymond’s comment, I can’t believe the admins here will allow Bro. Jones to continue to comment. I always knew there was something creepy about that guy. Keep him at BCC where he belongs.

    Mark D. – What little I know about the Council of Fifty would indicate that the Church was very involved in civil affairs, and that for most of the 19th century “The Church” and “The Government” were essentially the same. So while the policy is outlined in D&C 134:10, my question deals more with what the real life person in Utah (and the various Mormon colonies throughout the west) would have experienced in a church court. And to take it a step further, how often would a church court have led to civil charges and penalty?

  18. Re: #20
    In contrast to some of your comments:
    – There is nothing secret in the grey handbook and any one can read what is says. I let members read out of it but I don’t let them borrow it. Page xiii of the grey handbook allows for photocopying portions ” for high councilors and others as needed”.
    – Page 113 the presiding officer is plainly instructed in his duty to prepare the member for the council by explaining its “purpose and procedures”. Perhaps in your experience this wasn’t done properly, but the obligation is clearly there.
    – Page 113 also details the right of the member to have witnesses and the right to question the councils witnesses. My experience has also been that the member has sometimes been accompanied during the council by a Bishop or other support.
    – Page 115 clearly details the appeals process.
    If members are being failed it is not because the instructions and procedures are not in place.
    Re: #25
    I agree with your comments in regard to the need for expertise. I sat on one High Council where we were lucky enough to have a member who was a Doctor who helped us work through 3 very difficult, serious cases. The cases coming before councils now are not like the old days!

  19. Kari: What little I understand about the Council of Fifty was that it was intended to be a civil government (e.g. no requirement of Church membership), and in some cases acted like a shadow civil government, apparently passing the same bills and so on. I don’t get the impression that it ever exercised any real (i.e. coercive) authority.

    Now of course, if the United States had disintegrated as a result of the Civil War, the state of Zion might have become an independent country, and bishop’s courts might have acquired real – and legitimate – enforcement powers. But that is all hypothetical. What civil power bishop’s courts did exercise during the nineteenth century seems at best to be the equivalent of binding arbitration.

  20. Nate: Very interesting post. I am not a lawyer, but have served in four different bishoprics, all of which conducted church disciplinary councils in very different ways.

    I found there to be a broad level of variance in understanding the premise of the councils and the methods for delivering discipline. Example: One bishop seemed more punitive in his use of the councils, what I would loosely call a “justice” orientation. Another seemed intent on enacting decisions based on a strict application of what he thought the handbook’s policies literal meaning required, a “rules-based” or “duty” orientation, while another seemed to close the handbook and exercise personal judgment aimed squarely at helping the member heal and move forward, often employing very creative and unexpected methods, what I would call–as you reference–a truly pastoral approach and an independent one at that.

    My unscientific observations seemed to suggest the long-term outcome in each instance was dramatically different. The pastoral approach seemed to be more effective as a rehabilitating vehicle, and the members judged under these two bishops seemed to engage more quickly and become more deeply connected to the ward. The “discipline” applied, meaning the members’ participation restrictions, were generally lighter as well but not in every case. The punitive approach often left members wounded, embarrassed and put off; there was this ominous sense of finality. The other approach lacked empathy.

    (I need to disclose in all four bishoprics we dealt with no felony-level cases or ones that might include pathological behavior. Most involved fornication or adultery and did include some level of harm to innocent third parties, most often in the form of devastating breaches of trust and public humiliation. None involved a member in a highly responsible or visible church calling.)

    Sorry for the lengthy writing and sloppy thinking I’m presenting. I know you are addressing the theory of these councils based on handbook language and I am looking at its application since 1994. Since the efficacy of the later depends on the guidance and clarity of the former, I think the connection I’m making is relevant. So my point is this: I think there is much misunderstanding among bishops regarding these councils and I was often left wondering why a more radical over hall wasn’t undertaken by the church to create an even more purely pastoral experience, even to the point of excluding counselors completely from the process. Naturally, the D&C provides specific mandates; however, current approaches seem dated and I question its effectiveness and even my own understanding of its purpose–this after having read the handbook’s guidance on councils dozens of times over the years.

    My critical thoughts would include this notion. Having had these experiences, if I found myself in a position requiring a council, I would probably hinge my decision to seek one more on my evaluation of the bishop’s personality traits, manner of thinking and gospel orientation than on anything else. And it seems to me this is an indication of poorly articulated policy.

  21. Thanks for the post, Nate.

    It is also my understanding that excommunications are less frequent now. Without going into sourcing, I understand that that this is directly related to the Church’s hesitancy to remove the Gift of the Holy Ghost from members at the time when, at least arguably, they most need it. One of the most difficult decisions a Bishop (or, more often, a SP) must have to make is whether to excommunicate or disfellowship. I’m glad it’s not me.

  22. What I’ve tended to notice about at least some bishopbrics and perhaps also stake presidencies is that often between the presiding officer and his counselors, there is a variety of characteristics and talents that when unified in the presidency, make for a better balance.

    For example, one member of a presidency might be more business-like/professional (but perhaps less personable) in his dealings – which is great for making sure that the proper meetings are held on time – but might sometimes come across as a little cold. Then another member of the presidency might be very personable and kind – but not as effective in other ways, etc. However, as I have observed it, when these personalities and traits are working together, they balance each other out.

    So I wondered if that balancing out factor is lost when the bishop is given greater influence and the counselors are more excluded. I was intrigued that in an earlier version, as Nate wrote:

    “for a time the Handbook required that in a bishop’s court the counselors had to concur in the decision of the court.”

    From what I have seen of bishopbrics, I thought that would be a good thing – to have judgment/decisions being made by more than one single individual. I wonder why that was changed. There may be a good reason but it isn’t clear to me what that reason would be.

  23. DJW wrote:

    I found there to be a broad level of variance in understanding the premise of the councils and the methods for delivering discipline. Example: One bishop seemed more punitive in his use of the councils, what I would loosely call a “justice” orientation. Another seemed intent on enacting decisions based on a strict application of what he thought the handbook’s policies literal meaning required, a “rules-based” or “duty” orientation, while another seemed to close the handbook and exercise personal judgment aimed squarely at helping the member heal and move forward, often employing very creative and unexpected methods, what I would call–as you reference–a truly pastoral approach and an independent one at that.

    This is exactly what I am trying to bring up in my previous comment. It seems that when decision-making or judgments are isolated in individual bishops, that you will end up with a wide variety of approaches. I would hope/suspect that if the bishopbric had to make a unified consensus decision, there would be more balance in the outcomes. Of course, it might not always work out that way – but I think it improves the chances.

    Then again, I don’t have anywhere near the historical experience or perspective of the Church leadership in these matters. Perhaps a broader bishopbric approach has negative outcomes that just aren’t as foreseeable to a typical member of the church who has not been in these leadership circles.

  24. 32.
    It is also my understanding that excommunications are less frequent now. Without going into sourcing, I understand that that this is directly related to the Church’s hesitancy to remove the Gift of the Holy Ghost from members at the time when, at least arguably, they most need it.
    This was the main reason my SP gave for disfellowshipping instead excommunicating me. I couldn’t begin to tell you in the 15 years since how many times that tender mercy has proven to be crucial. Not only have I needed this help repeatedly, it has led me to develop a much closer relationship with God and what’s been to me a surprising ability to love and help others who are in trouble either because of their own or someone else’s iniquity.

  25. Great post, Nate. I still remember hearing excommunications announced from the pulpit when I was a kid in the early 60’s, and even heard a few wing nuts threaten other members with taking them to a church court in the early 70’s. Thank goodness we have progressed, and as you point out, the whole process has taken on a more pastoral character.

    From my experience as a member of disciplinary councils at both ward and stake levels, mostly starting in the mid 90’s, bishops do not start any sort of formal disciplinary council without consulting with the stake president. Usually, a significant amount of time is put into counseling and working with the individual, trying to help them come to a truly repentant state before commencing the disciplinary process. I’ve had more than one stake president say that a disciplinary council is not of much value unless the individual is actively trying to repent, so a lot of folks who are committing sins are mostly ignored by formal church discipline until they willingly come forward. The obvious exceptions are those where the safety of others is involved, those convicted of felonies, and individuals in higher church offices or whose public profile is associated with the church, where discipline moves in a more expeditious manner.

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson (#25), those are excellent thoughts. Yes, it would seem like a great idea for every high council to have one or two members with professional experience in predatory behavior.

    Alan (#29), the information you quote from the handbook is just the sort of information that should be made available to every individual who comes before a disciplinary council. I think we agree on this. However, that information is rarely provided. That’s just a fact. Bishops sometimes put some of that information in the bishop’s letter. Access to the CHI varies by ward but is generally granted only on a need to know basis (and someone coming before a council is the last person to whom the bishop is likely to grant access).

    The problem could be solved in a week if someone with proper authority in Salt Lake prepared an official and approved one-page document titled “Information About Disciplinary Councils” that summarizes that information from the CHI, then sent it out to every bishop and BP with instructions to attach it to any letter (“summons,” as Nate terms it) sent to someone who is being called into council. This is such an easy solution that would solve the problem, why hasn’t it been done already? There’s an obvious answer to that question.

    And can we change the name again? How about “Bishop’s Review Council”?

  27. There’s obviously a big difference between “Brother Jones” in Raymond’s comment (#25) and “Bro. Jones” the frequent and always welcome T&S commenter.

  28. DJW (#31): There is a way for the concerned bishop to ensure a more pastoral approach and exclude his counselors. That is to handle Church discipline informally between only himself and the member. The stated purposes of Church discipline are to (1) protect the reputation of the Church, (2) protect the innocent, and (3) assist the sinner to repent. The first two considerations are not implicated in nearly all matters a bishop confronts. In many cases, I believe that only tradition constrains a formal disciplinary council with respect to the third purpose. I don’t necessarily find that tradition (i.e., “adulterers are always disfellowshipped after holding a disciplinary council) to be an especially compelling reason to involve counselors and invoke formal discipline. In other words, very frequently the sinner can be assisted to repent privately and informally.

    Your observation about who you would choose to govern your council is unfortunate but true. A member’s experience in the Church is affected greatly by the attitude and disposition of his or her bishop, not only with respect to discipline but in a host of other ways more immediate and more frequently experienced. I’m afraid this would continue despite a more clearly articulated policy.

  29. I decided to stay anonymous for now. I usually am pretty frank, but I am telling something that could expose people I’ve hurt to further pain, so I will hide my identity for now.

    Back in 1981 I was a clerk a couple of times in what was called “bishop’s court”. I typed the “summonses” and completed all the prerequisite paperwork afterwards. It was a fairly good education.

    About a decade later, I was in the same position, and a couple of years later in a bishopric having what was now called “disciplinary council”. I came to know pretty well how the system is supposed to work, having sat in SP and HC meetings for a while in the meantime.

    Then, a little over a decade later again, I walked to the bishop’s office with my wife to tell him, that I had in fact committed adultery, and want to submit myself to whatever he felt right in my case. He asked some questions, and then said, that he thought that since years had passed, and some other circumstances, he thought that there is no further action necessary, and that he was happy for me because I had found it in me to own up when I really didn’t need to. He being very cautious, he wanted to check with the SP, but basically he believed he was right. My heart really melted. There was no desire to “punish” me, only to help me. I started believing that perhaps I could even forgive myself. manaen links to his (her?) earlier comment, and that describes so well so many things that I experienced.

    (I had not been hiding my sin as much as having been unable to recognize it or even fully remember it, due to several issues, among them clinical depression with psychotic episodes, suicide attempts and substance abuse. I had gotten over the abuse and the depression, and without medication etc came fully aware of what I had to do.)

    This bishop definitely took the “pastoral” approach. He said that he knows the Lord loves me, and approves of my sincere effort to repent of all my sins, and that He has already forgiven me.

    Then he thanked me for the service I have been giving since my recovery started taking hold.

    Just a couple of notions about formal discipline:

    * It is a challenge for the Church organization that bishops are not formally trained to counsel members. It could be that there would be fewer people so vocally critical of the Church, if we hadn’t had those “business administrator” bishops and SPs, who sometimes come off almost as retaliatory. Not conducive to healing that is necessary for a person, who has been injuring primarily him- or herself by the sin. Perhaps we should expand LDS Family Services in that direction?

    * In the bishoprics and presidencies I have been in, there has always been a spirit of cooperation and negotiation within the presiding trio. So if agreement was not reached immediately, we would each take the matter to the Lord by ourselves, and try to see each others’ point.

    Especially important this was in a couple of cases: both were married couples, who had both been unfaithful. One couple had actually already divorced, while the other was holding off judgement on that. Between the divorced couple, one was meek and expressed willingness to repent and come closer to the Lord, while the other one was defiant, and frankly told us about intentions to move to another city to live with someone without getting married. It was not so awfully difficult to decide on the latter, after this person would not even hear us out on why I could be good to try to go with the Church principles.

    With the other couple it was a bit confusing, actually, and it later turned out, that we had just given the other party a temporary postponement, as about five years later she walked out on her husband to live with another man, whom she’d been dating on and off without “getting caught” since that council we held. So no wander we felt uncertain, but we also decided to err on the side of mercy.

    As it stands, the current Church practise teaches much to all parties involved. But perhaps bishops and SPs should have some kind of “sensitivity training” about how to meet a person without coming off as condescending toward a “sinner”. We all sin and have weaknesses, with some it is more obvious than with others.

    The Atonement can cover everything that is not fair in life, and heal us in many ways.

  30. Very interesting post, Nate. Thanks for all the information. Great comments too.

  31. Apologies to the real Bro. Jones. I guess that is one of the pitfalls of having a generic name, like “Joseph Smith”.

    Back in the heyday of civil dispute resolution in the church courts, decisions over property would sometimes be framed as an order to Brother A to make a payment or turn over possession of property to Brother B. It was not always stated that Brother A would lose membership status if he disobeyed the High Council decision, but if Brother B came in and reported that Brother A had not fulfilled the order, the High Councils would then consider a sanction against Brother A’s membership. I never saw any evidence that the High Council thought it could enforce its rulings any other way, although I read one decision by a bishop who also happened to be the local probate judge (a common situation in many small Utah communities) who expressed the intent to use his judicial authority to persuade a recalcitrant to make restitution.

    Since the only means of enforcing a decision was to suspend someone’s membership status, persons who were not members and had nothing to lose were not allowed to be plaintiffs in civil cases, and persons who were not members were not made defendants. If a recalcitrant Brother A failed to make restitution after being excommunicated, Brother B was told he was free at that point to sue ex-Brother A in an official government forum.

  32. There’s obviously a big difference between “Brother Jones” in Raymond’s comment (#25) and “Bro. Jones” the frequent and always welcome T&S commenter.


  33. Great post, Nate. I notice that, as disciplinary councils changed their focus from remedial to pastoral, we see something of a similar shift in emphasis between grace and works. I don’t know if they are directly related, but it makes sense that as LDS Church leaders started talking more about the Grace of God, the disciplinary system would emphasize the same.

  34. I think that welding the threat of excommunication, along with all other forms of corporal punishment, shold be eliminated from the church. If we must mark someone with a threat of excommunication, glue would work just as well without damage to the body or physical pain. If the tithingmen thought the emotional pain of wearing the “A” was enough for Esther Pryne, it should be enough for any bishop.

  35. Questions:
    1. Even with the change in procedure, can members still have the Bishop or High Council adjudicate matters between members (like arbitration)? Spencer Kimball wrote that members should never haul each other into the civil courts. Can two parties still seek the Church’s guidance in such matters (whether adversarial or not)?

    2. Is there still an appeal process as stated in the D&C? E.g. can one still appeal the results of a disciplinary council, theoretically up to the First Presidency?

    [BTW…my grandfather told me of an alleged crime committed at a major non-Church institution in Utah in the 1970s. The matter was reported to the General Authorities and they dealt with it. The latter happened. I am also aware (2nd hand) of a well-known political figure in Utah as recent as the 1990s who complained to a member of the Twelve about the actions of a business partner. This did not involve a disciplinary action but I am told the member of the Twelve did get involved—though I think in a minor way by privately rebuking the partner. So I think that culturally, asking the Church to get involved is still alive whether or not its done via official procedure].

  36. You can delete the sentence “the latter happened”…I was going to relate one of two things the GA’s said might happen and which one happened but it might not be faith promoting given I don’t know all the facts. So that’s a typo…

  37. I suspect President Kimball was echoing the Apostle Paul’s teaching here:

    Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?
    Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life? If then ye have judgments of things pertaining to this life, set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.
    I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? no, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers.
    Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? (1 Cor 6:1-7)

    There you have it – a seven verse justification for the whole venture of the Church into civil law…

  38. Nate, this was a great post. Something I’d love to read about but would never have researched myself. And it reminds me how I really wish every family was given a copy of the handbook!

    One goodhearted bishop who always slurred unintelligibly the name of the excommunicant.

    I had a friend who got pregnant in high school. She had the baby, but later became pregnant again and didn’t think she could face another single-parenthood situation. She had an abortion.

    In one of our long heart-wrenching talks, I convinced her to go to the bishop. She confessed and she was excommunicated. When her sin was announced to the priesthood quorums, it nearly did her in. She couldn’t understand (and neither could I) why this needed to occur.

    It is my understanding this is no longer part of the picture, but bless that sweet bishop mentioned above for his kindness.

  39. DJW–
    Thanks for your insightful and experienced comments. Too bad excommunication has not evolved further–I see less pastoral and more by the book/justice, for the church resolutions than those that work to keep our members rather than cut them off. Especially with the young.

Comments are closed.