Redefining Apostasy: Building Bridges, Not Barriers, in the Face of a Faith Transition

The following is a guest post by Randall Davis.

Amidst the tapestry of human experience, religious freedom–the right to worship in accordance with one’s own conscience–is a deeply-valued principle that forms the bedrock of much goodness in our world today. Having associated with people of various faith traditions over the years, I have seen the enriching influence of religion in their lives, and from our discussions, they recognize that religious freedom carries both duties and responsibilities that honor the sanctity of other beliefs.

One of those duties should be to respect another’s choice to enter or leave a religion in the spirit of graciousness and understanding. This more readily occurs when a religion sees its existence as but a small part of some divine plan and spiritual transformation as an essential part of individual growth.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints emphasizes the need for religious freedom and states that members have the responsibility to “respect the religious beliefs of others and the beliefs and opinions of those with no religion” and continues by stating that we should be civil in our conversations with others (see

However, there are times when a religion sees itself as the ultimate guardian of divine truth, and anyone who leaves the fold may be viewed in a less favorable light because there exists no paradigm by which to view faith transition, even to another Christian tradition or other religion, in a positive or even neutral light.

Such could be the case with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which proclaims unique truths and priesthood powers not found in any other religion, and Church leaders at times refer to it as “the one-and-only true church.” However, a current member who formally joins another church is committing the sin of “apostasy” according to the Church’s ecclesiastical handbook (see Article; The handbook further states that apostasy needs to be “addressed promptly to protect others,” and a formal membership council may be convened to remove a member’s record from the Church (formally termed “excommunication”).

Churches can certainly exercise their religious freedom to label people in apostasy for joining another church if they so choose, and the current definition within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is clear: “When individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel, they are in a state of apostasy” (See However, does this language seem fitting to our evolving understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and the diverse religious landscape of today’s world? Could spiritual hubris and chainmail certitude about our own beliefs make us less accommodating to a shifting faith, and could we be mischaracterizing transformation we do not understand?

Whatever the case, if a person no longer desires to retain affiliation with the former faith, a name removal could be a simple administrative procedure; however, the emotionally-charged and archaic use of the term of “apostasy” carries a terrifying stigma of unwarranted disgrace and shame among one’s family and other members and goes against the ecumenical charge we have to build bridges, and not barriers, among those who see their faith differently. What current members need is not protection from others who leave because of a faith shift; rather, they need radical empathy and understanding for those whose spiritual moorings are now grounded somewhere else.

Unfortunately, the term, “apostasy,” can breed incivility and divisiveness that delegitimizes a person’s heartfelt search to go elsewhere and pathologizes spiritual growth that others do not understand. However, if we believe in religious freedom and respect as the Church’s website suggests, we should not alienate people further with the label of apostasy simply for finding a new spiritual home, nor should we use any form of fear to persuade them to remain with us. Rather, we should welcome them when they enter our religious fold, and we should wish them well, with dignity and grace, when they leave on their new spiritual quest, even if we do not agree with their decision.

If the Church wants to continue using the label, then reserve it for members who, as the Church Handbook states, are “acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, or its leaders” and are “showing a pattern of intentionally working to weaken the faith and activity of Church members.” Joining another religion with no public activism and opposition toward the Church is in a different category of behavior.

A more pastoral change in tone within the Church’s General Handbook regarding a shift in religious affiliation would make great strides in mending fences, building relationships, and displaying humility with all that we still do not know. Fortunately, the Church has made similar changes to outdated language when it removed the terms “excommunication,” “disfellowship,” and “disciplinary council” from its ecclesiastical guidelines in 2019 (see More changes would increase the Church’s ability to foster greater interfaith dialogue, where spiritual transformation is respected and honored, and removing the “apostasy” designation for the previously-mentioned reason would be a warm sign of friendship and invitation to return——which is less likely to happen if people are labeled as an apostate on their way out.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield spoke of religious pluralism and inclusion in his book, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right:

Religions are especially adept at creating a shared language and practice to help their adherents feel closely connected. But religion must always be on guard about the cost to those who don’t embrace them or who embrace other religions. It is so easy to forget that the system that is right for you, even one that you believe God wants for you, may not be right for everyone. After all, how could the will of an infinite God ever be made so small as to fit into one finite system? Ironically, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we should be making the most room for one another; but it seems that instead, we make the least (page 112).

These ideals should embody the duty of religious freedom for all humankind, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Author Biography:

Randall Davis, an English language specialist and MA TESOL graduate from Brigham Young University, lives in American Fork, Utah.


Apostasy. (n.d.). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hirschfield, B. (2009). You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Three Rivers Press: New York.

Repentance and Church Membership Councils. (2022, August 24). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What is Religious Freedom? (2013, May 16). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

19 comments for “Redefining Apostasy: Building Bridges, Not Barriers, in the Face of a Faith Transition

  1. Thanks for this. I re-watched parts of the movie Silence lately so the question of “apostasy” has been on my mind. Traditionally a lot of world religions have been more okay with the never-members than the former members, not just with informal norms but in actual rules. I wonder if the historical reason for the double standard (which we inherited)
    is because of pragmatism. To survive in a world with multiple faiths you have to evince some tolerance of their existence, but unless the emperor across the border is a former member you have less to lose by enforcing harsh penalties against the leavers in your own in-group.

  2. There’s a delicate balance. On the one hand, we want to be as charitable as possible towards those who leave the faith as a result of their search for meaning. And on the other, we don’t want to convey the idea that the restored gospel is just one of many viable avenues that will lead us to ultimate meaning. The Book of Mormon is clear on these points: that the Savior’s name is the only one given whereby salvation may come. And, also, that no one’s belief can or ought be coerced.

  3. Can one have issues with the “church” but be all in with the gospel? That is where I am mostly at. The gospel is true and the church is doing the best that men/women can do, warts and all. There is a tendency to think in the church we have to agree 100% with the “church” at all times or we are not true members. These differences sometime cause people to leave the church and that makes me sad for all those involved. As the author has said, this can cause huge rifts with family and friends that really should be avoided.

    What is wrong with conveying that the gospel is just one of many viable ways that leads to meaning and salvation? The older I get the more I believe/realize that God knows that just a small part of His children will take the ultimate path and desire to become like Him in all things. Most will be shooting for just eternal peace and the occasional harp playing/listening. IMO all religions that bring people to a knowledge/belief in God and Jesus bring a level of salvation to those members. And they will be thrilled with their salvation level. Does the “church” own Jesus? Of course not.

    I dont think the topic you wrote about can be shared and emphasized enough. We are going to see more and more leave the church in the coming years. Every family will experience some form of “apostacy” if they have not already. If we dont learn to handle this in a Christ-like way, it’s just going to be that much harder for those on both sides of the issue to cope.

  4. I prefer hard but accurate words over soft but vague terms, and the focus on terminology gets the priorities wrong. There’s no way to make renouncing baptismal covenants be something neutral or positive. The next, urgent issue, which the post does touch on, is how to treat people with love and respect no matter what. But that’s not a theoretical discussion about terminology, it’s a real, practical matter that anyone who’s been around for a while has dealt with in some form. And somewhere on the list well below that is what word to use. “Apostasy” doesn’t fit some cases, but it fits others quite well.

    One basic issue with the post is the question of whether to approach the Church as just one among many valid paths, or the one true church. While it may be one among many paths as a civic matter, this certainly isn’t true as a tenet of our religion: the point of the Restoration wasn’t to add to the proliferation of paths, but to restore the true one.

    The post notes that “Joining another religion with no public activism and opposition toward the Church is in a different category of behavior,” but that also seems to be what the Handbook says, as it specifies the combination of “Formally joining another church and promoting its teachings.”

  5. I’m not big on boundary maintenance in personal relationships and public discussions, and it isn’t my assignment to paste labels like “apostate” on anybody. But. I am not the formal church, nor am I one of those with the responsibility for watching over the church or keeping the doctrine pure or being a judge in Zion. Those roles, and the need for them, do exist, and no amount of playing nice with the neighbors justifies blurring the lines until there is no longer any meaning or distinction between the Kingdom of God and anybody else’s kingdom. There is right and wrong. There is truth and error. A round of handholding and kumbaya does not make it otherwise. Those ties mean, or meant, something profound, and pretending to rejoice when they are cast aside is a hurtful, hateful lie.

  6. On Jonathan’s point, I do think there can be a nuanced but important distinction between “Formally joining another church and promoting its teachings” and “Joining another religion with public activism and opposition toward the Church.” If my kid becomes a Hari Krishna and goes to the airport, I wouldn’t see that action as intrinsically anti-Church, even if they are “promoting the teachings of another religion.” Now, if they leave and specifically and intentionally aim their fire at undermining Church beliefs that’s different, but simply promoting another faith’s beliefs generically, even if in the course of it they may naturally rub up against Church beliefs, is different than intentionally aiming at Church beliefs.

  7. REC911: “What is wrong with conveying that the gospel is just one of many viable ways that leads to meaning and salvation?”

    I think where we’d be wrong is in not offering the *fulness* of the gospel to others. God intends to give everyone an opportunity to get on the high road that leads to eternal life. Else, why Christ’s sufferings?

  8. The Church should protect itself against wolves in sheep’s clothing — those who work to undermine or destroy. That is apostasy.

    But those who leave the Church and leave the Church alone are not threats to our community. God respects the agency of each person, and invites each of us to “come and see.” If I join the Church and knowingly make covenants, and raise children in the Church, that is my continuing choice — and each of my children may make the same choice and choices — even if they start down the path and receive covenants at my suggestion, any of them can decide to leave at any time.

    Maybe it is like the parable of the prodigal son — the adult child of covenant decides to leave the community — the father allows him to leave honorably and live his own life — he leaves, and lives apart from the community — in the parable, the father does not cast out the son, or excommunicate him. I think the father’s example is worthy of emulation.

    If my adult son or my neighbor leaves the Church and leaves the Church alone, he is still my son or my neighbor. I do not need to defend the Church from him, as he is not working to undermine or destroy. He is not an apostate. Hopefully, he respects my agency and I respect his agency. If he returns, I will rejoice. If not, well, my sorrow (not my anger) remains and life goes on.

  9. I appreciate this article. I know those who have given their whole life to the Church and the gospel and to serving others. At some point they come across information that causes them to rethink things. The new information appears to be beyond questioning, though the implications are up for interpretation. They lose trust in the authorities of the Church. They continue to search for God and ask Him to guide them in their quest for truth and goodness. They search, study and pray and continue keeping the commandments as taught by the Church. They are not “lazy learners.” Eventually they think the Church has no place for those who struggle or who don’t believe everything. They feel unwanted. In time they feel their only recourse to remain integrous and to be at peace is to step away from the Church in their continued journey toward Divinity. They don’t do this lightly. It tears them apart as they think about the loss of community and acceptance for themselves and their children. They pain. They hurt. Many feel they are not leaving the gospel of Jesus Christ, just leaving the Church institution. Others’ thoughtful and sincere journeys lead them to accept Christianity as one of many ways to engage God, but find other traditions to commune with the Divine. Do you really think it’s warranted to call these people “apostate?” Why use harsh, unkind, offensive and arrogant words to describe their sincere thoughtful journey seeking the Divine? We don’t have to acquiesce our beliefs to allow other’s theirs. We don’t have to use condescending terms for boundary maintenance.

  10. Amen Karl !

    Jack- I never proposed that we dont offer to others, I said those who dont take the offering are getting/finding a level of salvation through the church they belong to by being good Christ-like people. God, I am sure, is ok with this because He of all people knows not all his kiddos want to be mormon. In fact by the grand scheme of things, hardly any of His kids want to. If people dont accept the tenants/doctrines of our church but accept what the Baptist or Lutheran offer, then that is a good thing.

    I know it can be hard for some members to understand that not everyone wants to be married for eternity, create worlds, people those worlds, be a god, etc. They just want to sing to Jesus for eternity, and rest. (whatever that looks like)

  11. I’ll be okay with us using the word “apostate” to describe those who leave our church when we start using the same term to describe those who convert from other churches to ours.

  12. This post caused me to wonder what the current instruction may be regarding those who join other churches. I had the vague idea that joining another church was not a reason to remove a person’s church membership unless the new church is a break-away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the helpful link in the post to in the church handbook my vague idea seems to be pretty much valid. The section starts, “Issues of apostasy often have an impact beyond the boundaries of a ward or stake. They need to be addressed promptly to protect others.” Then it specifies five types of actions that a bishop or stake president would need to identify as apostasy and deal with. The first three of the five are things a person might do as an individual acting in opposition to the church. The fourth is “continuing to follow the teachings of apostate sects after being corrected by the bishop or stake president.”

    The fifth specified apostate action is the one raising concern here: “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.)” In context of the stated reason the church leader should address apostasy, and in context with the other kinds of apostasy that are listed, it is easy to think of situations where formally joining another church may necessitate withdrawal of membership by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other situations where it would not be helpful to anyone.

  13. I have enjoyed reading the thoughtful comments on this topic as much as I did writing the article.

    Until 2019, most members did not have access to the Church Handbook of Instructions and thus, were unaware on what language was being used to describe apostasy. Over the past 20 years (and more), the language in the Handbook has changed to describe what apostasy means in terms of joining another church. In the past, it was simple this:

    “Formally join another church.”


    “Formally joining another church and promoting its teachings.”

    A slight shift in tone and meaning.

    Also, in the past, acts of apostasy were listed under transgressions where “a disciplinary council must [italics] must be held.” Whether leaders actually carried this out probably depended on different circumstances. In today’s Handbook, apostasy is not listed among the actions that require action, but it is up to leaders to determine whether a membership council is held or not.

    Also, the word, “apostate,” was used in the past iterations of the Handbook (“Priesthood leaders must take disciplinary action against apostates to protect Church members”) where that language is no longer found in the Handbook.

    All of these are positive changes to reflect a more ministerial tone. As I mentioned in the article, I still feel that the act of joining another church without open and aggressive opposition does not merit the apostasy label. As much as we wish people would stay in the Church, such a designation is of little ecumenical value today; furthermore, if the restoration is still ongoing as we often hear, perhaps the tent of the Gospel is far more expansive than we know, and those who find new spiritual homes are just fine where they are, and we haven’t realized that yet.

    Again, I’ve enjoyed the meaningful dialogue I have seen here.

  14. If the church is right to move on from words like “excommunicate,” “disfellowship,” and “disciplinary council,” (which itself is a change from the earlier “church court”) then I think it’s right to do the same with “apostate” for the same reasons. Randall Davis has a good idea.

    In this kind of situation, the reason to consciously change the terms we use is our desire to signal a change in the way we think about a problem. It’s a signal we send not only to others, but also to ourselves. In the original post, Randall says that “excommunicate,” “disfellowship,” and “disciplinary council” are outdated, but I think that’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that we want those terms to become outdated as we learn to act differently in dealing with problems of membership status. Changing our terms is a hopeful way of moving toward change.

    Some commenters here are concerned that getting rid of the term “apostasy” would mean softening the church’s doctrinal claims of truth and authority. I’m not sure whether to impute that idea to Randall. If that’s what he thinks, I respect his view, but I don’t think it’s a necessary part of the argument against calling people apostates. These are two separate things. We can stop using this inflammatory term without giving up a scintilla of the church’s doctrine.

    I’m not arguing for turning boundaries into mushy nothings. A church needs boundaries to be sustainable. I’m saying that hostile boundaries are counterproductive. Calling people apostates is an example of sharp hostility. The newest version of the Handbook tries to use “apostasy” as a neutral descriptive term, and it tries to narrow the meaning of “apostasy” in a legalistic sense. I think the Handbook does this in good faith. However, among the Latter-day Saints, the word cannot function as a neutral term. For us, “apostasy” is loaded with two hundred years’ worth of hostile connotations. Eliminating our use of this word would be somewhat awkward, since there are no neutral, one-word alternatives that I can find. But it would be healthy. It would be appreciably easier than finding alternatives to “Mormon.”

  15. Apostate is a harsh word, and I wouldn’t object if we dropped it like we’ve dropped excommunication. In practice members use it rarely, and generally only for those who leave the Church and then attack it. But this article isn’t just asking us to drop a word, it’s asking us to drop the idea that the Church is true, and perhaps that there’s such a thing as religious truth.

    It’s very much contrary to the spirit of the 21st century, but it’s possible to say “I love you” and “I think you’re wrong” and mean them both. In fact it’s vital, since the alternatives are “I think you’re wrong, therefore I hate you” and “I love you, therefore I will convince myself that you’re not wrong regardless of logic or evidence” or the more common “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t think I’m wrong.” We see way too much of both. We need to get better at living with and loving people we disagree with, but the solution isn’t to give up on the very idea of truth.

    I firmly believe there are many routes to the Celestial Kingdom, and that most people who get there will not have been members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints during their mortal experience. (I also suspect that most of us who were lucky enough to be born into the Church were put there because we need the extra help it provides, not because we’re some sort of spiritual elite.) But I also believe that there’s only one Celestial Kingdom and when we make claims about its nature they are either true or false–though in many cases we don’t know which. So will there be Catholics in the Celestial Kingdom? Yes! Including priests, nuns, and monks whose lives of service and holiness helped prepare them to be there. But they’ll also be happily and eternally married, because that’s the nature of the Celestial Kingdom. (As REC911 points out, other Catholics will enjoy the heaven they expected and prefer in the Terrestrial Kingdom.) Will there be Evangelicals in the Celestial Kingdom? Yes! And their zeal for God will help prepare them to be there. But their enjoyment will not be in contrast to the eternal torture of damned souls in hell, like they currently expect.

    Truth matters. It’s awful that when C.S. Lewis’s wife died, his grief was compounded by mistakenly believing that their marriage had eternally ended. We’re very lucky to have key truths that were, are, and will be revealed to the Lord’s Church. When someone leaves the Church, we need to do better at treating them with love and respect, which usually includes not arguing with them. But we don’t have to try to convince ourselves that they haven’t lost something by leaving in order to do that.

  16. What is often overlooked when speaking of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that no one particular Christian FAITH has a monopoly of the same. It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ, period. Whatever the interpretation of Jesus’ teachings by the myriads of Christian FAITH’s, doctrines, rituals etc are theirs, alone. And if the adherents of such FAITH’S are true to their particular religious beliefs/doctrines – then good on them. Over the years my attitude has shifted from belonging to the one-true-church to that of belonging to the much wider group of CHRISTIAN ‘believers’ which simply means that I accept Jesus for whom he claimed Himself to be, through the acknowledgment of Peter’s testimony of him “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” I don’t have any hesitation in attending other FAITH’S services on Sundays if I happen to be at a location where our FAITH is not represented, or even at times just to enjoy the company of other fellow Christians. Our FAITH needs to rid itself of the term ‘apostate’ when referring to those who depart for their own reasons. I can’t think of a more condescending, and non Christian attitude that to attach such a term to others simply because they have decided to depart. If I am queried as to what my FAITH is, I am now more inclined to state CHRISTIAN rather than be specific about being a member of our particular FAITH, the reason being that is now who I am in relation to such query. I support all CHRISTIAN FAITHS, which profess faith in GOD, and endeavour to live their lives according to Jesus teachings. Hence, I regard those who are Catholic, protestant, evangelists, GREEK Orthodox, as my fellow Christian siblings indeed.

  17. Asking me about my assigned ministering families is so triggering when nobody in the ward knows about my faith crisis. I have my reasons to keep it hidden for now.

  18. One piece that is often left out of the discussion when speaking of a faith shift is the emotional distress that is experienced by the person who remains. Compassion and empathy are for everyone. The Book of Mormon calls us to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).

    Unfortunately, empathy can be very tribal in nature where we only can see the world through the prism of our own experiences, and we try to love others from a distance, particularly those whose lives we do not understand. However, from the posts so far, I sense a feeling of wanting to understand more deeply and radically, not in spite of, but because of, any differences that exist. As human beings, we yearn for connection, and the comments that I see are a witness to that. Thanks.

  19. This is an excellent article and a difficult situation for many families.

    It is made more difficult when we have thousands of missionaries around the world that sit in investigators living rooms and tell the Joseph Smith Story.

    The word for word experiece related by Joseph Smith telling us that Heavenly Father appeared to him and told him to join none of the churches of the day because they were all WRONG.

    This can create an “attitude” problem that is hard for some members to reconcile.

    This is not the missionaries fault, it is just the way things are.

    I appreciate the comments here, I have hope for the younger generation.

    Some of the older ones seemed a little snotty and unpleasant and I have avoided their company for most of my life.

    Great job by the younger ones coming up.

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