I recently read an interesting and ironic article on Deseret News’, Mormon Times news outlet. The article attempted to draw similarities between Harry Potter, Voldemort, and excommunication. Mormon Times writer, Sharon Haddock, reports that a speaker at the Annual Religious Education Student Symposium makes the case that excommunication has become the Mormon equivalent to Voldemort. She explains that Mormons all know of excommunication but choose to approach it similar to those in the movie, Harry Potter, approach Voldemort. Instead of speaking his name they rather refer to him as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” The article continues to explain that excommunication has become a “taboo” topic when in fact it is something much more pleasant, an incredible act of mercy and symbolism for God’s own love for us. This article could not be more inaccurate, and can only be explained as being an outright propaganda piece for Salt Lake.
Despite the articles assertions, there is nothing pleasant about being threatened or actually excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint, except for the possibility that those who have been excommunicated might be more inclined to see Mormonism for what it truly is and to accept the Christ of the New Testament. The prospect of being excommunicated within the LDS Church is another example of the temporal structure within the church effectively limiting the power of the Blood of Jesus Christ, thus distorting Biblical truth. According to the LDS Church, Christ’s blood alone is not sufficient to rectify the sins that make excommunication necessary. One could draw a parallel between the doctrine of “blood atonement” taught by Brigham Young and this current excommunication phenomenon. It is essentially teaching that we must kill your membership and spirit in order to save it. I will have to vigorously denounce and disagree with these assertions, as they are not in harmony with the teachings of the Bible. While there is Biblical precedence for excommunication, and I agree with it’s temporal necessity, in Mormonism it takes on a different meaning than what is detailed with the Books of Matthew and 1 Corinthians. To fully understand these connotations, you must understand that LDS doctrine teaches there is no glory or living again with God without full membership in their church and completion of their temple ordinances and rituals.
The prospect and threat of excommunication hangs over the heads of every single active and inactive member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. This damaging and far reaching action is at the disposal of any Bishop and Stake President. According to the 2006 version of the Church Handbook of Instructions – Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics gives the following definition, “A person who is excommunicated does not enjoy any of the privileges of Church membership. He may not wear temple garments or pay tithes and offerings…excommunication almost always lasts at least one year.” The Handbook also gives a warning that a member of the church who is excommunicated will have their “temple blessings revoked.” It is not hard to understand why members of the church are reluctant to speak the name of excommunication openly; it has the potential, in their minds, to affect their ability to achieve glory, their family’s ability to remain together, and their status within the church or ward. Being excommunicated is like taking a nuclear weapon to a person’s reputation and status with their close-knit congregations.
Knowing what excommunication is within the LDS faith is one thing, but how does one bring upon themselves this weapon of mass reputation destruction? Let us return to the handbook that Bishops and Stake Presidents are supposed to use as an official guide. According the 2006 Handbook it states that a member “may” be excommunicated for the following:
- Serious transgressions
- Violations of temple covenants
- Unrepentant disfellowshipped members
- Members who make serious threats to other members
- Church leaders or members that “impair” the good name of the church
The Handbook goes on the explain what behaviors necessitate a church “Disciplinary Council.” This church version of a criminal court is only symbolically so with no jury of peers or defense council but rather the arbitrary judgment of a Stake President, Counselors, and the Stake High Council. A member “must” be tried for the following transgression, infraction, or sins:
3. Child Abuse
5. Serious transgression while holding church leadership positions
6. Pattern of transgressions
7. Transgressions that evidence a Predator
8. Widely known transgressions
A member “may” be tried by a Disciplinary Council for:
2. Transsexual Operation
The Handbook indicates the following “may not” be necessary for inclusion in Disciplinary Council, but leaves the door open:
1. Failure to comply with some church standards
2. Business failure
3. Non payment of Debts
4. Civil Disputes
5. Sins admitted after a significant passage of time
The Disciplinary Council has at its disposal the following options once judgment is rendered: No action, Formal Probation, Disfellowshipment, and Excommunication. Ironically the sin that is discussed most in-depth and prominently within the Handbook of Instruction is that of “Apostasy.” This “transgression” is perhaps one of the most feared and misunderstood charges that can be leveled against any member of the LDS Church whether they are active or not. According to the Handbook the following are all hallmarks of members who may have fallen into apostasy:
- Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or it’s leaders.
- Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected…
- Continue to follow the teachings of apostate sects (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected
- Formally join another church
Many members believe that by openly disagreeing with church authorities whether it be on the local level or Salt Lake opens themselves up to becoming defendants in a Disciplinary Council. Once again it becomes a situation or an environment where members are not only afraid to openly discuss the specifics of excommunication but even more terrified that by openly discussing it that their thoughts and discussion could become fodder for a priesthood sanctioned Apostasy investigation, as allowed by the Handbook.
The threat of excommunication is often used as a politically motivated weapon. It has been speculated by many that have been excommunicated that Salt Lake routinely orchestrates local Disciplinary Councils in order to quietly take care of those members who have become critical of Salt Lake or the LDS Church as a whole. Many of the infamous “September Six,” who were excommunicated in September 1993, contended that Boyd Packer, Apostle of The LDS Church, played a significant behind-the-scenes role in their excommunications, despite the church policy that excommunications are suppose to be strictly a local affair. It is becoming increasingly clear that the church leadership both locally and in Salt Lake are increasingly growing weary of those that point out flaws in history or doctrine, making strategic excommunication a convenient tool.
As if the threat of having your life as a Mormon turned upside down is not significant enough, the Bishop and Stake President are given sole discretion to announce excommunications to the congregation, especially if the related charge is apostasy. The Handbook specifically encourages this public announcement when the individual has been speaking out and disagreeing publicly with church leaders. Curiously the handbook encourages Bishops not to publicly discuss excommunication when sexual sins are involved, indicating that those allegations could be damaging to a family. Ironically, it was my observation while in Mormonism that families stood to lose more friends and influence for “Apostasy” than any allegation of sexual sin.
Unfortunately, the recent trend has been to strategically leak the details of the investigation, Disciplinary Council, and subsequent excommunication to the press, when a high profile member of the LDS is involved. For example, take the case of the former Bishop Simon Southerton, who has been at the forefront of making public information relating to the DNA problems related to the Book of Mormon. He has been extremely vocal and public in his research that calls church doctrine, leaders, and scriptures into question. Rather than excommunicate him for apostasy, it was broadcast that he was to be charged with adultery, and excommunicated in 2005. To make matters worse the LDS Church violated it’s own Handbook and guidelines by publishing the following in their own newspaper, Deseret News:
An Australian who wrote a book saying DNA evidence contradicts ancestral claims of Mormon belief faces disciplinary action that could get him excommunicated from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Simon Southerton has been ordered to appear at a July 31 hearing before church leaders in Canberra, Australia… rather than charge him with apostasy, LDS leaders in his area have charged him with adultery. (2005)
Ironically, it is not allowed to announce excommunication for adultery to the congregation, but the LDS Church can publish it in their newspaper?
No one is immune to the potential of church discipline. I observed this firsthand while attending Brigham Young University in Idaho. After repeatedly asking questions and for clarification regarding early church history and leadership in my religion classes, I was asked to stop, by my Bishop. This harrowing appointment with my Bishop came as a result of asking my religion professor why seminary and BYU did not teach about the events surrounding the Kirtland Anti-Banking Safety Society. I was told in class that I was not being “faith promoting.” Later in the Bishop’s office, I was told that I was causing problems in class with these “sorts” of questions, and that they indicated that I had “ulterior motives.” He was adamant that this was not going to be tolerated, and could easily be construed as apostasy. He went on to ask if I would like to call my parents and explain to them why I had been excommunicated and expelled from school.
I certainly understand the temporal need for excommunication for murder, incest, and predators but to freely and openly use it as a bully technique for quieting discussion and disagreement is certainly not in keeping with the Holy Spirit and doctrine of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The tactics used by LDS Church leadership relating to excommunication and Disciplinary Councils seem closer to Nazi Germany rather than a church that claims to be the “one true church.” It is little doubt why members of the LDS Church are terrified to even speak the word “excommunication” as this writer reports. The ramification of being involved in a Disciplinary Council and Excommunication are so far reaching and detrimental to someone’s life within the LDS Church, both officially and socially; it should be regarded with a measure of fear and avoidance. It is principally one of the reasons that my wife and I decided to legally have our names removed from the records of the LDS Church, rather than wait for a frustrated church leader to excommunicate us for being involved with another Church or being critical towards LDS Church leaders. Our greater fear was that something far more sinister would be alleged as the reason for excommunication, and freely announced to our LDS friends and family, leaving us with little recourse to publicly clear our names.