Mormon Jurisprudence and Apostasy

A few years ago, Nate O. wrote a fun piece regarding the non-existence of mormon jurisprudence. The purpose of the post was to discuss various reasons for the absence of rabbinical-style exposition in the mormon faith, and to theorize as to whether mormonism will ever evolve to the point where we have a Maimondes of our own. The argument goes something like this: mormons love to read the scriptures, we love to obsess over correct conduct and we love our system of dispute resolution. So why don’t we have a host of authors and authorities writing detailed exegeses of mormon law?

Having obsessed over Nate’s post for over two and a half years, I have an idea: mormonism is a religion of civil law; or at least it will be, given the passage of time. Let’s explore the idea with the example of apostasy.

In this hypothetical Bloggernacle 1st Ward, Bloggernacle Stake, someone is preaching false doctrine in Sunday School. Let’s call him Brother Brown (or just Aaron). The bishop tells Aaron to stop, warning him that his teachings are against the doctrine of the Church. Aaron ignores the bishop and continues to preach his ideas about his daughter being the One Mighty and Strong. So, the bishop goes to the stake president, who after discussing the matter with Aaron convenes a disciplinary council in accordance with D&C 102 and other scriptures. How will Aaron’s conduct be evaluated?

The average member is tempted to say that Aaron will be evaluated on the basis of the scriptures, common sense, and revelation of the council. Aaron’s apostasy will be judged on the basis of general standards, following a concept of apostasy that would be something like, “apostasy means teaching or encouraging members to believe or practice differently than the requirements of the temple recommend.” However, average Joe Mormon reasons, the council will have considerable flexibility both in evaluating whether Aaron is an apostate and in determining what discipline is necessary.

Average Joe is likely mistaken, at least in part, about how things will go at the disciplinary council. First, and most importantly in the case of apostasy, Aaron Brown’s behavior will not be evaluated on the basis of general standards, local practice, or any other generalized or parochial standard. Instead, the definition and basic standard for declaring a member apostate is clearly set forth in the Church Handbook of Instructions:

1. Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.
2. Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishops or higher authority.
3. Continue to follow the teachings of apostate sects (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishop or higher authority.

There’s nothing shocking or ill-fitting in this definition of apostasy, and indeed the average member will probably look at this and say, “yes, that’s about what I had in mind.” But what is interesting here (though probably not shocking) is that this definition of apostasy is articulated nowhere in the scriptures, nor is it publicly available as a general matter. It seems odd to the Western mind that a member’s conduct would be judged based upon a non-public regulation, and understandably so. In the case at hand, however, the congruency between the CHI and the lay concept of apostasy is such that we shouldn’t get worked up about the fact that an apostate Aaron might not know of his apostasy until in front of a disciplinary council. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially when the law follows common notions.

The second interesting aspect of the CHI definition of apostasy is that it will most likely be used as a corpus juris civilis of sorts, with the handbook being the primary source of law to be used in judging Aaron. The disciplinary council is under injunction to follow the CHI and the scriptures, and as such the solution in the case-at-hand will be derived from following the handbook’s procedures, instead of using precedent or other common law notions. Given the confidential and secret nature of each council, it seems natural that precedent not be available in these proceedings. This (willful?) ignorance of precedent handily explains why someone like Margaret Toscano is excommunicated whilst, say, Thomas Murphy is not. Specific fact patterns that appear to evade CHI definitions or regulations will be evaluated by analogy from what statutory provisions are available. At the same time, the role of the council as judge is different than one would expect under a U.S. common law system: instead of having adversarial representatives arguing before a judge who makes determinations of law and a jury who makes determinations of fact, the disciplinary council will likely follow an inquisitorial system, with the council itself taking note of evidence, questioning witnesses and evaluating claims of fact and law as it deems appropriate. Aaron can call witnesses on his behalf, but the council can also call witnesses as need be. In other words, when Aaron Brown goes to his court of love, he has essentially moved to France.

“But wait,” says average Joe Mormon, “what of revelation and inspiration? Doesn’t the Holy Ghost truly preside at a Church disciplinary council?” Once again Joe Mormon is both right and wrong. The Holy Ghost can and indeed does inspire members of the council to make the right decisions based on God’s will — but this is most likely to happen through the procedures and policies articulated in the handbook, the scriptures and other, semi-codified materials. The likelihood of significant deviation from the materials at hand at any disciplinary council is slight. There are several possible reasons for this, which I’ve snarkily articulated below (note that these points are applicable to the general notion of why mormons love to follow established procedure rather than be will-o-the-wisps):

1. The handbook is the distillation of God’s will for managing the day-to-day operations of the church; as such it is perfect and whatever you were thinking outside of it is wrong.
2. The handbook represents the policies of Church headquarters, and so any deviation from them represents a break from the COB; the benefits of deviating from the handbook had better be worth the cost of defying the Brethren in their horrible, horrible wrath.
3. Our church meetings are long enough already; efficiency and expediency in church administration necessitate that we follow standardized procedures to the extent possible.
4. Most Church members aren’t thoughtful enough or attentive enough to the Spirit to know when to break from established policy.

This post is already too long and rambling. The point is, our church legal system is nothing like the U.S. system, and we shouldn’t expect it to be. It’s not entirely like France, either, for a multitude of reasons (chief among them: our regulations and laws are far from being a codified mass like a true civil code).

Here are a couple of additional resources:
Fall 1989 Dialogue: Clark and VanWagoner, Christ and the Constitution: Toward a Mormon Jurisprudence

J. Reuben Clark Law School resource on Church Courts

Parting shot question: when should people be excommunicated for apostasy?


  1. Steve Evans says:

    I should note that when I talk above about “the congruency between the CHI and the lay concept of apostasy,” I feel this is also true as a general matter concerning the overlap between the CHI and what members believe. I can’t think of any Journal of Discourses-style surprises in the handbook — which would make sense, especially if one views the CHI as a descriptive rather than prescriptive document (I don’t).

  2. I think that priesthood leaders have more flexibility to “follow the Spirit” (and ultimately do) then you are letting on, Steve. That said, this is an interesting post. I like the idea of appeal, on cases of apostasy (though I’ve never heard if a verdict has ever been overturned on such an appeal). I also think the definition that the CHI gives is actually pretty good.

  3. But she IS the One Mighty and Strong! Bad example.

  4. When should people be excommunicated for apostasy? Maybe when they start their own communities or churches? A Warren Jeffs in the guise of an Aaron Brown should be excommunicated. But, to my thinking, there is a serious flaw in Church disciplinary councils, namely that they invite division and accusation–not just within the private chamber, but throughout a ward or a stake. Though those involved attempt to keep everything very confidential, eventually far too many people know who was excommunicated and for what. Word simply gets out. I remember learning about a neighbor of mine who had been excommunicated for homosexuality. My view of him was distorted from that moment on–even when I saw him years later as a veil worker in the temple. I knew about adulterous behavior and found myself judging the adulteror in a most unChristian way. And I remember very well when Janice Allred (Margaret Toscano’s sister) was excommunicated for publishing her views on Heavenly Mother after being told not to. Several people felt they needed to publicly express their support for the council, using words like, “Of course she deserved excommunication.” Such uncharitable words, so merciless and judgmental–all coming from a sense of loyalty to the judges. I am concerned that private repentence too often becomes a public ordeal where church members are tacitly invited to take sides, and where someone’s sins are whispered throughout the ward. I genuinely wish I did NOT know some of the things I know about people in my ward. Their struggles are none of my business except as I can kindly support them. Our loyalty to church leaders should never be expressed by epithets against someone who has been excommunicated, but only by greater personal devotion and self-examination. Far too often, people like Margaret Toscano are used as objectified warning signals rather than respected as fellow citizens in the household of faith (which surely extends beyond the church rolls).
    And let me be the first to supply the JS quote which everyone knows and which will almost certainly get quoted again in this conversation:

    “I did not like the man being called up for erring or questioning doctrine. It looked too much like the Methodists. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled.”

  5. commenter says:

    I don’t know if this is on topic or not, but I am curious about something: How often disciplinary actions successfully appealed?

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Commenter, there are no statistics available for your question. It’s not off-topic, just unanswerable. My experience is that people who view the process with skepticism will say that successful appeals never happen. I don’t think that’s the case.

  7. A few thoughts. First I think individual courts move beyond the DHI quite often. Although rarely in the sense of punishing more than is outlined. This leads to some to be mad. (How come he didn’t get disfellowshipped for the same thing?) However this actually makes sense.

    Second thing is that I’d note the nature of apostasy is seen very much as rebellion against the community and not the nature of belief. Notice even in the GHI the issue isn’t what you believe but what you teach as official. The issue is competing authority and not dogma or belief. Even there it is continuing teaching, i.e. continuing to try and usurp power.

    I just thought I’d bring this up. I’d mentioned in a similar discussion at my blog that I think the big difference between religion as law (Islam and Judaism) on the one hand and religion as philosophy (Christianity, although as Nate notes one can’t neglect canon law) As others have said I think our focus is on community and the other issues are tied to community and power of the community.

  8. Margaret, note though that the DHI doesn’t contradict Joseph’s comment. You can pretty well believe anything in the church. It’s teaching that’s a different matter. (Something Joseph himself ran into when there were competing lines of power and arguably something we encountered again in the succession crisis)

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Clark’s right — Joseph was extremely tolerant in some ways, but the second anyone questioned his authority or his teachings it was game over.

  10. Appeals and reversals do indeed happen. I know personally of one such case. Regarding frequency I can’t speak; all I can say is that the frequency is non-zero.

  11. Ardis Parshall says:

    Steve, you’re very right in saying that our church system is nothing like the secular system. People get into trouble (in the sense of misunderstandings and frustration) when they assume that what they think they have learned from L.A. Law or Boston Legal can be transferred to the church setting.

    One of the misunderstandings that I find most frequently in historical excommunications, where the record tends to be much more fully available than in our generation, is the assumption that a “defendant” has to “break a law” before being “punished.” There’s a whiff of that in your post when you write about “non-public regulations” and “semi-codified materials.” After all, in democratic America we can’t hold somebody accountable for a law that was so secret he had no chance of following it. But in the church, the legal system is based on principle, not statute. We generally know how we are to behave, we generally know when we’re misbehaving, we have little trouble in recognizing rebellion and disunity and apostasy in someone’s attitude, even if we can’t make a case that would stick in the state courts of California.

    Another misunderstanding is apt to show up in commenters’ responses to your question of someone should be excommunicated. Excommunication or disfellowshipment isn’t always or necessarily punishment for a broken law. It may be used to wake someone up to the seriousness of the direction he is heading, even if he hasn’t yet gone very far down the wrong path. If, perhaps, someone is teaching pernicious false doctrine and doesn’t respond well to being corrected, the bishop doesn’t have to wait until he actually marries a plural wife or founds his own church or otherwise takes a definitive step — if he can be brought to realize the danger through such disciplinary action, then it serves as a corrective, not a punishment.

    Don’t expect to understand or explain our system by reference to any secular system. It won’t work.

    I’m not a lawyer. I only play one at church.

  12. Ardis Parshall says:

    “… question of WHEN OR WHETHER someone should be excommunicated. …”

  13. Clark and Steve, yes, anyone who opposed Joseph’s authority or teachings ran into serious trouble. Those who taught new things that Joseph hadn’t taught — or even didn’t believe — usually didn’t have trouble. In this sense, Joseph Smith was like the Hobbesian Leviathan: Fighting against what Joseph did say brought heartache, but speaking where Joseph had been silent at worst brought good-humored rebukes.

  14. Ardis: “in the church, the legal system is based on principle, not statute….”

    Kinda-sorta, Ardis. I think that is the general idea, but more and more we are writing policies that are taking the weight of statutes. Every year the church grows is a year that we administratively anchor ourselves a bit more in our own procedures and manuals. We love to say that those things aren’t as important as revelation, that those lines of communication with heaven are what matter most, etc., but nonetheless we are getting more codified all the time.

  15. Ardis Parshall says:

    Margaret, the “serious flaw” you note doesn’t really have anything to do with the disciplinary council itself. It’s the human flaw of gossip and judgment. If those involved in the system maintained confidentiality as they’re supposed to, or, failing that, if members of the community minded our own business and exercised charity as we’re supposed to, there would be no problem. The fault is in the human beings, not in the system.

  16. Has anyone here witnessed a disciplinary council?

    It was very different than what I thought it would be. Maybe the most sobering thing that happened to me while on my mission was when my Mission President asked that I sit in with him while he presided in one.

    I will say the outpouring of love towards the brother was incredible. It was all just very different than what I had expected.

  17. Ardis Parshall says:

    Sorry, Steve, but unless you’re speaking from great familiarity with an exceedingly numerous set of disciplinary councils so that you can authoritatively report that “law” rather than “equity” has in fact become the rule, I must challenge you. I would challenge you even so, come to think of it, because to accept your position as fact means that the church has become/is becoming an apostate, man-made institution. That assertion conflicts with all the evidence I can muster in the other direction.

  18. Challenge ME, Ardis?? I hope you brought your pistols.

    Well, of course I have limited data. And I can’t speak authoritatively as to anything regarding the Church, of course (can you do otherwise?). But I’m not trying to say that the Church “has become/is becoming an apostate, man-made institution”; simply that our manuals and policies are getting more and more important, and are taking on more and more weight. I don’t think that’s all too controversial a point, is it?

    I’m not saying that we’ve left the spirit behind or anything — in fact as Tim J. and others have (and will continue to) point out, Church disciplinary proceedings are most famously known for the real love and concern people have for each other. I expect that to continue. But the simple fact is that the CHI is the way of the future.

  19. Ardis, I think your comment #17 engages in a little bit of false dichotomizing. Everybody knows there are human-made components of the church — or were the cry room and the omnipresent basketball courts the product of revelation? The existence of a human side to the church does not in any way prove the nonexistence of a divine side.

  20. But what is interesting here (though probably not shocking) is that this definition of apostasy is articulated nowhere in the scriptures, nor is it publicly available as a general matter…. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially when the law follows common notions.

    That reminds me of when I took my guitar through the green lane at the Munich airport and got fined for tax evasion; turns out the customs officers know all kinds of stuff that would keep the Average “What, you have to declare this?” Joe up at night if he knew about it, or at least out of trouble.

  21. JNS, you dare to question the basketball court?

    I think that with the increasing growth of the Church and the relative distance between Bishops and General Authorities these days, handbooks are increasingly important. It is just the nature the situation.

    Still, Ardis’s point about values over law, is, I think, a very important one.

  22. I would echo Tim (#16) post in that concern for the individual is paramount, and on an equal footing with the concern for the church. I will also say that I have not seen a disciplinary council in either of the last two stakes I have lived in for apostasy. I think they are rare.

    I will also note that there is a great amount of discretion as to when to instigate a disciplinary council. Stake Presidents I have served under as a bishop and high councilor all seem to feel that except under exceptional circumstances, a disciplinary council is not of much use unless the accused is in a repentant state. The goal is always to foster repentance, and get the erring individual back on track.

    I have also been surprised at the infrequency of DC’s for all kinds of activity. I think they perhaps are more frequent at the bishop’s level, which generally results in less severe penalties. The counsel given to me as a bishop was that if excommunication was likely, pass it up to the stake level, and let the Stake President carry the burden of the legal remedies. That, however, never reduced the burden of still working and counseling with those in the repentance process.

  23. Kevinf: “concern for the individual is paramount, and on an equal footing with the concern for the church.”

    Yes, absolutely. This is what D&C 102 is all about.

  24. Ardis Parshall says:

    JNS, you’re the one drawing kinky lines. The importance or consequences of basketball courts is so far removed from the conduct of disciplinary councils as to leave me stunned that one would suggest the other to your mind. There can be little response to your comment beyond a blank stare.

    Steve, if I thought mindless and spiritless following of an ever-changing handbook trumped the spiritual component of disciplinary councils on a regular basis (we always have to allow for the odd duck stake president who has not risen to the demands of his calling), I would have to accept that the pharisees had driven a stake through the heart of the church and killed it deader than disco. I don’t see us even moving in that direction.

    Meet me on Main Street at high noon. I’ll bring the pistols.

  25. One point worth making in reference to historical excommunications is that the Protestant milieu was quite different then. Mormons and other Christian groups in the period had very low threshold for excommunication or disfellowshipment. There was a surprising and sometimes maddening fluidity about church membership after disestablishment that lowered the threshold for excommunication. I’ve only ever been present for church courts related to violation of behavioral norms, and that setting was clearly and powerfully focused on repentance and restoration. But apostasy is different, I think, and much harder to maintain that sense of love because in the former accused and accuser generally agree that something has happened, while in the latter the very act of accusing is extremely divisive and disputed.
    One could make an argument that only hierarchs should be excommunicated for false preaching, though that seems somewhat extreme. There are times when, to protect a community it may be appropriate to exclude a certain person, say in the case of a sexual predator exploiting church relationships or a physical abuser. Harder questions would be these people you read about from Utah who defraud their coreligionists for large sums of money. Has their exploitation of church membership made them dangerous to the community?

    Part of this too is driven by our expectations. If we expect as a community that those with ideas directly antagonistic to church leadership will be excommunicated, we may see silence on the subject as tacit permission. If we expect as a community that private members will have many even conflicting views, then one would think the threshold for excommunication would be higher.

    Tough questions I’m realizing as I mull them over, relating to ideas about holy society, church covenants (in the Puritan sense), loyalty and personal belief.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    Ardis, now you’re putting words in my mouth! Mindless and spiritless following? Come now, I never said anything like that.

  27. Steve,

    I look back, and I think you may be wrong about the definitions of apostasy not being public. The root issues at play in your definitions from the Handbook are part of every temple recommend interview.

    I also would be surprised if someone being charged with apostasy had not already been warned, counseled, and instructed by their bishops and stake presidents. It would come as no surprise. I’ve heard anecdotal stories of ambush disciplinary councils, but again, that has been hearsay, and I presume, urban legend. No one that I have direct knowledge of (again, not for apostasy, where I have no experience) has ever been to a disciplinary council without some advance discussion or warning.

    If you look, the Handbook is supposed to move from doctrine, to principles, to policy, with an awareness that while doctrine is fairly certain, principles and policy are less so. I believe, as well, that over the last two decades, that the actual length of the handbook, and its’ various subparts that are handed out to priesthood and auxiliary leaders (“Book 2”) has decreased.

    Big difference from the tax codes.

  28. An interesting feature of disciplinary councils is that, where two individuals commit the same sin, the more faithful may be the more likely to be excommunicated. If an endowed member commits adultery on his way out of the church completely (i.e., he’s losing his testimony and has little respect for his temple covenants), he might be “only” disfellowshipped based on the council’s belief that such a person is better off on the records of the church than not. By contrast, an endowed person that commits adultery, feels the full weight of his sin, and wants to be back in full fellowship with the Saints may be excommunicated with everyone in the council hoping that there will be a re-baptism a year later.

    Admittedly, this scenario is somewhat speculative, but it is based on seeing how these courts actually go.

  29. Steve Evans says:

    Kevinf, like I said in my post, there is a large congruency between the handbook definition of apostasy and our common notions of the term (I would include the temple rec questions in that group). So, I agree that the “definitions” of apostasy in a loose sense are public. However, having similar “root issues at play” is decidedly NOT the same thing as knowing what the definition actually is, and the CHI definition –the one used in Church discipline — is not public.

    I don’t think I’ve said anything about surprise councils. In fact, the example in my post had a clear warning being given to Aaron Brown.

  30. smb, I think you may be right — apostasy may be the wrong example to use if we’re evaluating Church Courts as a whole, both because of the adversarial nature of the sin and its relative infrequency.

  31. Steve, the ambush example was only to indicate that if for any reason, someone were to be accused of apostasy, that they would likely get a definition and counsel about that behavior before they were ever confronted with actual proceedings that could compromise their membership. And if anyone has questions, just go to your bishop and ask to see the definitions of apostasy in the handbook. That might be fun! (Seriously, you can ask to see it, even possibly alone with it, just not in a room with a copier.)

    However, I have certainly participated in ambush priesthood leadership visits! (as in “ward conference is coming up, and the stake president and I were just in the neighborhood….”)

  32. When comparing the new CHI (Book 1) to the old, there are more things taken out than added in. I’ve heard a rumor that when the new Book 2 comes out, the church will have eliminated even more policies and procedures.

    As the church becomes larger and more international, the greater the need becomes to reduce all these regulations because they don’t apply from one situation to the next (or one country to the next). We get general outlines and then follow the spirit and our local leaders.

    Regarding apostacy, I agree with Clark in #7. The main issue isn’t the doctrine or the belief, it’s the public refusing to follow the a priesthood leader in a way that could lead others astray. And if that’s the case, I think they should be excommunicated. It’s better that one soul should perish than an entire generation be led…

  33. Ardis Parshall says:

    My last message apparently got lost. Steve, I apologize if I have put words in your mouth. It seemed as though you were saying we were becoming more and more bound by paragraphs printed in the handbook, which (to my mind) would be the same as saying we were becoming less and less reliant on the equity sought through reason and spirit — the “mindless and spiritless” conclusion I drew. If that isn’t your meaning, I am sorry for mistaking it so.

    I just got back from a couple of visiting teaching visits, where the message was on “becoming an instrument in the hands of the Lord through listening to the promptings of the Spirit.” Because of the implications and longterm consequences of church discipline, I sincerely hope — and do believe — that usually if not always, councils are instruments in the hands of the Lord precisely because they do seek and follow the promptings of the Spirit, not because they are following a checklist printed in the handbook.

  34. Ardis, first I don’t think that following a procedure set forth in a handbook necessarily makes us less reliant on the Spirit. Indeed, there are many circumstances where form and procedure are absolutely vital prerequisites to having the Spirit to begin with.

    Second, I don’t think I’ve said that we’re becoming more “bound” by the handbook — just that we do in fact follow handbooks far more today than we used to. I see no crime in that, nor do I think that’s a rollercoaster to Hell.

  35. As for when punishment trumps leniency, here’s an interesting comment – President Kimball said (Conf.Report April 1975, 116): “We are concerned that too many times the interviewing leader in his personal sympathies for the transgressor, and in his love perhaps for the family of the transgressor, is inclined to waive the discipline which that transgressor demands. Too often . . . that person should have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated. Too often a sinner is disfellowshipped when he or she should have been excommunicated. . . It is so easy to let our sympathies carry us out of proportion; and when a man has committed sin, he must suffer. It’s an absolute requirement – not by the bishop – but it’s a requirement by nature and by the very part of man.”
    (His scriptural support is found in D&C 95:1 and Alma 42:16)

  36. #4

    When should people be excommunicated for apostasy? Maybe when they start their own communities or churches? A Warren Jeffs in the guise of an Aaron Brown should be excommunicated.

    I’m not certain this is really a very good example:

    Warren Jeffs is not and never has been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Regardless, I think the case can easily be made that when those who teach, preach, publish and expound their own version of doctrine, aka The Toscanos, and others, that in fact they have started their own community or church.

  37. When lawyers blog.

  38. In wondering why there is no Mormon jurisprudence, I think we need to look at the righteous people of God in history to see that they never had their religious laws codified. I think of Alma the elder having to deal with the persecution of the saints. He sent the matter over to King Mosiah to be handled civilly. King Mosiah wanted nothing of it, because no civil law was broken. Alma had to pray about it and get inspiration, not from any handbook, not from any previous scripture. This was something he hadn’t dealt with before, and he knew of no examples. What can we learn from something like that? Especially if we compare to the Jewish jurisprudence. How exact are the rules? Didn’t they get so ridiculous that you couldn’t walk on grass on Sundays? I think the reason why we don’t see any jurisprudence in our theology is because we’d get bogged down in the traditions of our fathers, instead of relying on the Spirit and the information coming from the incident at hand.

    I think the moment we start codifying our religion, we start strangling it, suffocating what it really is.

  39. Margaret said: “Though those involved attempt to keep everything very confidential, eventually far too many people know who was excommunicated and for what. Word simply gets out.”

    Well didn’t Signature publicise these excommunications with the consent of those excommunicated? I’m not sure and I’m willing to be wrong about this — but I believe that it is difficult to lay the trauma of excommunication at the door of those involved as judges if those who are disciplined make it a cause celebre.

  40. molly bennion says:

    So if I were to have taught, preached, published or expounded before 1978 that blacks should have the priesthood, should I have been excommunicated? Would my actions have undermined the authority of the Brethren so as to lead others astray? What constitutes belief so errant as to warrant excommunication? When is an idea so dangerous the perpetrator must be cast out simply to protect those so weak as to be led astray?

    Count me with Margaret Young and her appropriate reminder of Joseph Smith’s famous counsel. I would limit excommunication for apostasy to intentional and flagrant attempts to harm the church (a “you know it when you see it” and, I know, fuzzy test) and leave us free to think out loud in the hope of honing our ideas in the marketplace. It is too easy to allow our fears, our ignorance and our arrogance to brand the good thinking of others as apostasy.

  41. Molly, Amen.

    I just read Margaret Toscano’s “Are Boys More Important Than Girls.” I found nothing in there that I wouldn’t expect to find in the post or the comments of a feminist-minded Mormon blog.

    Now, I know that this is a recent article not tied to her excommunication, but it underlines the point to me that “to think out loud in the hope of honing our ideas in the marketplace” is both a good thing and one being practiced quite freely on the internet today.

    Are bloggers being subject to church discipline,* and if not, is this a case where common law is evident in the church? I’m thinking of the precedent set by people like Thomas Murphy and Grant hardy who were not excommunicated, perhaps an unconscious sign (a “precedent”) that the bar for excommunication for apostasy has been raised higher in the last few years or so?

    (*I can think of one example where a blogger may have been ex’d for blogging, but it was a rather extreme, vitriolic, DAMU-style blog.)

  42. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’ve been having some tangental thoughts. (This medium really suffers for the way it limits thread drift, btw.)

    I wonder about the wolves in sheep’s clothing. Do they know they are wolves, or, our capacity for self-deceit being what it is, do they think that they’re sheep? And if we might, in fact, be ourselves wolves unawares – how do we become aware of it?

    Well, His sheep, we read, hear His voice and harden not their hearts, and come unto Him. I suppose that if we are wolves we might even deceive ourselves on this point. So, regular unvarnished prayerful humble self-assesment seems like a really good idea. Now, if we find our heart has gone hard to the bishop, or the church, or to God – we may have some pretty good reason for that, and in fact, even in that state might be right about some things. Pero, nuestros corazones egoistas …

    It also says that once the Spirit is gone, “ere we are aware”, – and it is to me of monumental interest what states cause it to grieve and withdraw (sin itself isn’t so much stressed as ‘covering one’s sin’) – we are left to fend for ourselves.

    Well, even then, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.


  43. Not only the intent but also the process of the church court, at least in modern times as outlined in the Handbook, seems to focus on the repentance process of the individual. When the intent is to do otherwise, it seems pretty messy.

    For instance, church courts are sometimes described in terms of being a deterrence against other sinners (especially intellectual practices some might consider apostate), which is certainly a purpose of civil courts. But since the specifics of the infraction are not made public by the church court (as far as I know), the deterrent effect would not be very effective. So if a stake president is using the process as a means of making an example of apostate behavior, it seems to be an ineffective axe to swing, unless they are assuming that the whisper or publicity factor would take care of it…which can have dangerous and spiteful consequences, as Margaret pointed out.

    So I’m not sure how effective the use of church discipline can be as a means of maintaining the purity of church doctrine beyond the individual violations of the promises to sustain our leaders.

  44. Re. #6, 10, I am also aware of successful appeals.

    Re. #24, careful Steve, Ardis keeps company with gun enthusiasts.

    Regarding the believing weird doctrine versus teaching weird doctrine, the Church’s position is on the act and behavior of publicizing the weird doctrine, after having been explicitly told to cut it out by an ecclesiastical authority. There is a sanctioned or prohibited behavior, not a sanctioned or prohibited belief. The belief becomes a problem when I either engage in it or attempt to persuade others to follow my point Church-contradicting personal point of view. If Aaron Brown believes his daughter is the One Mighty and Strong, then so be it. If he attempts to persuade his fellow ward members she is, after his Bishop has told him to stop it, then he will be pulled into a disciplinary counsel, and the matter will a question of disobedience and not goofy, weirdo doctrine. At that point, it becomes Aaron’s choice to arrogantly reject the counsel and pridefully choose his pet doctrine over the Church, or to humbly admit he has ignored his Bishop’s admonition to cut it out and actually cut it out.

  45. Ardis #24, good grief. OK, I’ll make the same point without mentioning basketball courts. Everybody agrees that parts of the temple ordinances are human and cultural constructs, right? That’s why those components of the ordinances can be revised without destroying the intended meaning and legitimacy of the whole. Having a human component to our temple practice doesn’t make the entire temple experience apostate, does it? Just so, having a human component to our disciplinary procedures doesn’t make the entire church apostate. Steve is almost indisputably correct that the church relies more on detailed handbooks in this and most other things now than it did two or three generations ago; at that point in time, no clear equivalent of the CHI existed. We’re at a bureaucratic moment in our history. But bureaucracy is not inherently Pharisaical. Instead, it’s been an attempt at managing the challenges of church globalization.

  46. Molly Bennion and the Ronan Amen Corner:

    #’s 40 and 41

    So if I were to have taught, preached, published or expounded before 1978 that blacks should have the priesthood, should I have been excommunicated?

    I have no idea. The convening and running of Church Courts are decided well above my pay grade, and I suspect yours as well.

    I do know that you would likely have had a receptive audience in Davis O. McKay, of whom Prince and Wright wrote:

    Yet unlike them, he simultaneously moved toward extending priesthood blessing to black men within the church . . . he deserves more credit than he has ever received for preliminary work on reversing the ban on priesthood ordination for black men that had persisted for mor than a century.

    David O’ McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism p.61

    So, if by your blacks and the priesthood example you seek to draw a parallel to that and say the Toscano’s (or fill in the name of your cause celeb), I’m not certain there is one; but, perhaps you can provide evidence of a member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve who were similarly sympathetic to the Toscanos’ (or other cause celeb’s) ideas.

    Count me with Margaret Young and her appropriate reminder of Joseph Smith’s famous counsel.

    See Clark and Steve’s #’s 8 & 9

    I would limit excommunication for apostasy to intentional and flagrant attempts to harm the church (a “you know it when you see it” and, I know, fuzzy test) and leave us free to think out loud in the hope of honing our ideas in the marketplace.

    I would agree for the most part.

    I just read Margaret Toscano’s “Are Boys More Important Than Girls.” I found nothing in there that I wouldn’t expect to find in the post or the comments of a feminist-minded Mormon blog.

    Now, I know that this is a recent article not tied to her excommunication, but it underlines the point to me that “to think out loud in the hope of honing our ideas in the marketplace” is both a good thing and one being practiced quite freely on the internet today.

    It’s really irrelevant to the point as it had nothing to do with her excommunication by your own admission. But, did you have a specific “feminist-minded” Mormon blog in mind?

    Are bloggers being subject to church discipline,* and if not, is this a case where common law is evident in the church?

    Why shouldn’t they be?

  47. I have a friend who was recently threatened with excommunication even though he was inactive in the church (for over two years). The situation arose because he accepted members (and the Bishop) who visited him at his home. Based on observations in his living arrangement, assumptions were made by the Bishop during the visit, and a (official, needs to be signed to be received) letter was sent by the Bishop, basically saying that unless my friend responded and clarified that the assumptions were wrong, or basically agreed to start repenting, that he would probably “lose [his] membership in the church.” I saw the letter; it even gave a 4-week window in which clarification would need to be made. My friend did send a letter of clarification, and the Bishop apparently responded saying he wasn’t going to proceed with any action. The main thing I found disturbing about the situation is that 1. the threat of excommunication was held out based on assumed behavior; and 2. the 1-month time limit to clarify or have more formal action taken. I don’t know enough details about my buddy to know if the assumptions were correct, nor do I know what exactly he wrote to satisfy the Bishop.

    My point is simply that, in practice, there is so much discretion at the local level in regard to church discipline that it is almost impossible to have a conversation of this type (or at least a consistent one, where everyone can eventually come to some agreement). Yes, there are standards, instructions, ‘safe-guards’, etc., but when it comes down to it, there is A LOT of discretion.

  48. Steve Evans says:

    Molly and Ronan, I think you’ve both raised interesting and different questions. Molly — your pre-1978 scenario is particularly troublesome because your pre-1978 heretic becomes, with hindsight’s boon, a prophet. It’s easy for us post-1978 to say that such a person was right all along. I’m still not convinced that answers the question — and in any event I am not sure how transferable your scenario is to more familiar modern apostasies such as the Sept. Six. Bolder souls might say that someday the Toscanos of this world will be heralded as prophets, just as your pre-1978 heretic. But I don’t think so.

    Ronan, are bloggers subject to Church discipline? Of course they are. Blogging is publishing. The blogger who was excommunicated was publishing quite anti-mormon literature, and nobody should be too terribly surprised at how things went with him (disappointed? maybe). But I would be extremely skeptical to see in Grant Palmer or Thomas Murphy any real “precedent.” At most I’d say you could point to those non-proceedings as indicative of a current trend, but their examples certainly aren’t binding in any real respect. Definitely there is no common law at play. I’d also point out that in neither case was there a definitive judgment in their “favor,” simply an indefinite adjournment of proceedings.

  49. Kevin Barney says:

    Ronan #41, I think you meant Grant Palmer (disfellowshipped former CES employee), not Grant Hardy (editor of the Reader’s Edition of the BoM out of UoI Press).

  50. RE #40

    So if I were to have taught, preached, published or expounded before 1978 that blacks should have the priesthood, should I have been excommunicated? Would my actions have undermined the authority of the Brethren so as to lead others astray?

    I have thought about this specific example before. There were members who publicly called for a reversal of the church’s priesthood ban in the years before 1978. At least two members even took matters into their own hands by supposedly ordaining blacks to the priesthood.

    There were also church leaders who questioned the ban. According to Leonard Arrington’s memoire, he was told that a special committee of apostles was appointed in 1954 to study the issue, and they concluded that there was no sound scriptural basis for the policy (but also concluded that the church was not ready for its reversal). In addition, Hugh B. Brown clearly advocated a policy reversal, publicly and privately. It seems that it is not fundamentally apostate to question church policy/doctrine.

    Of course, it is the Prophet’s and Apostles’ perogative to define church doctrine and policy–the responsibility does not rest with lay members. However, my limited reading suggests that lay members who spoke against the policy were not usually disciplined, but those who acted in defiance of the policy often were.

  51. Let me state my point more clearly:

    It would seem that it is not necessarily apostate to merely question a particular church policy/doctrine. I gave examples of a few apostles who questioned the ban. Obviously there were others, including President Kimball, who questioned the ban enough to pray about its reversal.

    But if we specifically ask whether lay members are apostate if they question church policy/doctrine, then it’s not as clear. All I can say is that I have seen the writings of many (Lester Bush, for example) who publicly challenged the basis for the ban, and apparently were not excommunicated.

  52. Ugly Mahana says:

    Re: #40

    Would not a fuzzy test result in seemingly contradictory results between cases? Does this explain why it seems that one person is excommunicated while another receives lesser censure for similar behavior?

    It seems to me that (poularly available) evidence, which is martialed to show that church discipline is applied unfairly may actually show that disciplinary councils are evidence of a ‘you know when you see it’ standard, augmented by the Spirit (Who also knows it when he sees it!). Since most of us do not attend the councils, and cannot know what was seen, presented, or felt, my sense is that the outcomes as should not be criticized as much as they are.

  53. molly bennion says:

    I meant no reference to the Toscano’s or anyone else.

    The example of blacks and the Priesthood is unfortunately not merely an issue of prophecy. Discipline of numerous kinds appears to have been both threatened and used against those who spoke out against the former policy. But perhaps that example is too flawed and narrow.

    How about another example of the difficulty of identifying and disciplining “apostasy?” President McKay and the General Authorities he charged to document doctrinal errors in Mormon Doctrine identified many hundreds of such errors. Should Church discipline have been used against Elder McConkie? I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but it seems to me a legitimate question. Or may GA’s speak and write their creative doctrines freely and the rest of us keep our mouth’s shut? Couldn’t their errors lead far more people astray than could I? And, is this what a Christian community is supposed to look like?

  54. Guy,
    We do not know what current members of the leading quorums privately think about certain issues, the same way the general membership at the time had no idea what David O. McKay thought about blacks and the priesthood. Considering the ban held in his lifetime, one could only have presumed he supported it.

    I agree that it’s not exactly common law, but I know that if Aaron Brown were being threatened with excommunication I would advise him to point out to his SP that Grant Palmer (not Hardy, thanks Kevin!), was “only” disfellowshipped for what is a pretty stinging appraisal of Mormon history. I think that might be worth something, especially if he publicised his plight in the media.

    I have a purely anecdotal sense that the S6 and some of the others who were caught up in the purges of the early 90’s would not necessarily be excommunicated today (note Palmer’s disfellowshipping rather than excommunication and Murphy’s complete escape from any discipline). Thus, it ain’t exactly civil law either.

    If they would be ex’d, then the Mormon blogs need to be very, very careful for there is much that is “apostate” by that definition to be found online (and I’m not talking about the anti- or DAMU blogs).

    I will state my opinion clearly: I do not think people should be excommunicated for the content of their mind and the honest dissemination of their ideas. (Heretics who claim authority or start their own ecclesiastical or anti-church political groups would be different.) Sure, do not allow them to teach at church or at church schools (see Kung, Hans), but excommunication only creates martyrs and bitterness. The excommunication of the S6 et. al. has only served to create a whole cottage industry among ex-Mo’s and DAMU’s. Public doctrinal rebuttals and clarifications are all that is necessary.

    In my field, we have truly lost something because of the estrangement of scholars of the caliber of David Wright. His not teaching at BYU is one thing, being ex’d is another. It’s a real shame.

  55. Steve Evans says:

    Molly — fair enough. I was just drawing on popular examples, I shouldn’t have.

    Ronan, I totally disagree with you. Saying to your SP “well, they let Grant Palmer go,” will do absolutely nothing.

  56. I totally disagree with you, especially if the media was involved.

  57. Steve Evans says:

    And Molly, you’re sure asking some good questions! I think, looking at the problem of GA writings from a top-down perspective, if I’m one of the 12 or something and I see two books on one topic: one from one of the 70 and one from an unknown scholar…. I’m more inclined to be skeptical and critical towards the unknown, notwithstanding the greater potential influence of the 70’s book. Perhaps it is a matter of personal contact and trust? I agree that in the abstract like situations should be treated as like.

    Is this what a Christian community is supposed to be like? I guess it’s pretty far from Zion — on both sides of the high council conference table.

  58. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, what difference would it make if the media were involved? Vigils, press releases and news articles have not made a difference in the past.

    Can we agree on this at least — that John Cusack’s career peaked with Say Anything?

  59. Count me in the Molly/Ronan “amen” corner that Church discipline should be rare in the context of apostasy, and I think the Brethren must, at least tacitly, agree.

    In addition to the Palmer and Murphy examples suggesting a trend of moderation in the use of discipline in such cases, I would add that the disciplinary council for Simon Southerton very carefully limited its consideration to allegations of violation of behavioral standards, and declined to follow Southerton’s request that the council also consider whether he was in apostasy.

    Regarding SL’s quote in post 35 from President Kimball in 1975, which encouraged a toughening of Church discipline, my understanding is that local priesthood leaders followed that counsel to such a degree that a few years later the Church made modifications formally and informally to moderate discipline again.

  60. John Cusack’s career peaked either with High Fidelity or Being John Malkovich.

    Steve, it’s impossible to create a universal rule about whether reasoning by analogy, or involving the media, will influence a particular Stake President. People vary a lot, and the information or analogy that will be persuasive also varies.

  61. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, Cusack was lucky to be a part of Malkovitch — the movie was great but not really because of him. And High Fidelity is NOT better than Say Anything.

  62. Vigils, press releases and news articles have not made a difference in the past.

    But some would argue that that’s precisely what helped Murphy and Palmer.

    Anyway, your insistence on this matter seems to strike a blow against some kind of codification. If Aaron (poor Aaron!) wrote a book largely similar to Palmer, but was ex’d rather than disfellowshipped this would suggest that there is no strict code. Plus, Aaron would have every right to feel aggrieved.

  63. Oh, and Aaron is the least apostate person at BCC. We all know Stapley’s up for the chop for all his womyn stuff.

  64. Discussion of this topic will not be complete without mentioning Grosse Pointe Blank.

  65. Steve Evans says:

    No Ronan, on the contrary — that’s precisely how a civil law system would work, disregarding precedent. Each case is sui generis and what happened to Murphy, Palmer, Toscano, Pratt or Rigdon doesn’t matter.

    Ultimately we don’t know what “helped” Murphy and Palmer. It is probably fruitless for us to argue either side, since it’s such a black box. Besides, the whole hypothetical is outlandish — AARON writing a book?? Come now.

  66. Steve Evans says:

    Talon, that’s an interesting wrench you’re throwing in the works, but I’d suggest that it’s an outlier. Even the Romans built some nice aqueducts after Rome was sacked.

  67. But civil law based on what? “Thou shalt not be apostate.” Your CHI points 1-3 offer nothing that would explain to me why David Wright was excommunicated. So if there is a code, not everyone follows it.

  68. Steve, a parallel question. Would it be fair to say that Jennifer Lopez’s movie career peaked with “Out of Sight”? Even if we give credit for that movie to Soderbergh rather than her?

  69. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, don’t attempt to distract us with Soderbergh!

  70. And I think there is a sense that people are excommunicated less today (for all offenses) and that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Somewhere in there may be some squishy idea of precedent. The fact that Sister X was not ex’d for adultery simply must have some bearing on whether Sister Y will be ex’d or not. Even if no-one admits that this is an influence.

  71. Kevin Barney says:

    Imagine what it must be like to be a bishop or stake president and facing your first disciplinary council. That would be a tough situation. No precedent to stand on. Perhaps you are aware generally that excommunications are down in the Church these days, for whatever reason. But basically you are without guidance.

    I know you’re supposed to just follow the spirit, which is probably why I’ll never be a bishop or stake president. I would want a little more substantive guidance as to what I am supposed to be doing in that setting.

  72. This weekend I picked up a 1968 Church Handbook of Instructions. It has a rather long section on excommunications. Is this not in the currenct Handbook? (I don’t have a current one, just the old one, which is pretty historically fascinating)

  73. JNS, yes to Lopez in Out of Sight.

    Evans and Talon, I stick with Say Anything as the height of Cusack’s career, but argue that Gross Pointe Blank is the height of Minnie Driver’s career.

    Having little opinion regarding the topic of post, I now shut up.

  74. Molly Bennion says:

    Re:57, Steve, Thank you. Unfortunately questions come much easier than answers.

    Re:52, I think you help make my point. I would add more and easier to document criteria to reduce the inevitable fuzziness. (As well as equal systems for men and women, but that’s another post.) Here I argue for more mercy in less discipline and more justice when it is truly necessary. As for the Spirit, of course
    there is the source of right action, but perhaps I expose a weakness only my own in saying I do not believe the Spirit is always correctly perceived.

    Some have commented that members have spoken out without excommunication. Yes, but too often with church discipline.
    The denial of opportunities to serve is a favorite. That even touches spouses, like Juanita Brooks’ husband.

  75. In theory I understand how someone might feel they are being punished by being denied the opportunity to serve. But personally I find the idea bizarre. I could get used to any punishment that involved attending church for three hours and having the rest of the week free. I did that for most of my life and it felt about right.

  76. Ugly Mahana says:


    Your point regarding more mercy and more justice is well taken. I hope that all involved in the gospel (broadly defined), and especially in disciplinary councils, keep that need in the forefront of their minds. I also agree that inspiration can be misunderstood or misapplied. That said, I think I may have misunderstood what you wrote earlier, and would like to clarify somewhat.

    It seems to me that you argued that a ‘fuzzy test’ would be an appropriate way to apply result of applying such a standard of mercy. Is this correct?

    If it is, then my question is how do you distinguish inconsistent results resulting from using a fuzzy test from patently unfair treatment of persons accused of apostasy (or other disciplinible activities)?

    And, as a follow on question, if the cause of the inconsistent results cannot be distinguished based on what we are able to hear about, then how should this inform our perception of disciplinary councils in general?

  77. I’d take the soundtracks for either Say Anything or Grosse Pointe Blank over Rome’s aqueducts any day of the week.

  78. RE # 71

    I’m going to go out on a limb here, and remind myself, and the rest of us, that the operative principle here in any disciplinary proceeding is the guidance of the spirit. I won’t speak to any specifics, but in the limited number of disciplinary councils I have been involved with, both as a bishop, and on high council proceedings, I have always come away with what I could only say is a complete sense of peace about the outcome, and having that assurance that we acted correctly. I don’t know that there has ever been much disagreement in the discussions, either.

    But Kevin Barney, you are correct. The first time I sat as bishop in a bishop’s disciplinary council, I can tell you that I was scared spitless, knowing that no one else in that room could make a final determination, other than me. That’s very humbling. A lot of prayer went into that up front, and during the evening. I could only walk away at the end, marveling at how clear the final decision was. Otherwise, I don’t think I could live with myself.

    And yet, I have heard of others who have felt that they were not dealt with properly by church disciplinary councils. I don’t feel that I am particularly more sensitive than others to spiritual influences, and I have on more than one occasion, had serious misgivings about the council and actions taken by other bishops and stake presidents. I can only hope that they also felt good about the outcome.

    I go back and state this again. I have full assurance that the councils I’ve been involved with have come to a conclusion that is the will of the Lord. I also know that on a couple of occasions as bishop, I was determined to go down a course, and have felt the proverbial stupor of thought that accompanies a wrong decision. Once corrected, it went away. And it was easily distinguishable from the normal stupors of thought that I am subject to, as my wife will attest.

    Sorry to go so earnest here, but I don’t think we can ever move beyond a set of guidelines to a more exacting legal code for things, because the workings of the spirit. Sure, when I went into some of these proceedings, I certainly thought about precedent, comparisons, and other issues, but the final course was clear. I only wish it worked that way in the rest of my life.

  79. Correction in paragraph 3 of my post # 78, referring to actions by other church authorities, I meant “counsel”, and not “Council”. The two in this context are obviously not the same.

  80. Ugly Mahana says:

    Blast my editing. I apologize for typos. # 76 par. 2 should read “would be an appropriate way to apply such a standard…”

    And I don’t know if disciplinible is a word.

  81. Amen to Kevinf’s comments. Regarding the difficult nature of the proceedings, that’s the main reason they are councils. So that one person (bishop or SP) is not left with that weight on his shoulders alone. And for new bishops or SP’s, there is additional guidance available…their priesthood leader.

    I sat in one council where common sense and any understanding of the severity of certain sins would indicate the person should be ex’d. But it didn’t quite feel right to any of us. The bishop was hesitant to just let it slide. So it was passed up to the SP, who confirmed the impression that this person should not be ex’d and sent it back to the bishop to help the person through the repentance process.

    But back to my original point, I’ve participated in a couple councils that were called because the Bishop just felt the circumstances were too complex and wanted input from his counselors and confirmation of the guidance of the spirit.

  82. The D&C has a procedure for handling differences in doctrine vis-a-vis church members.

    The High Council is convened and a court is established and the doctrinal differences are heard between the various parties. At the end, the High Council is supposed to decide who is correct and there the matter should rest, true doctrine having been decided.

    So, the Stake High Council is supposed to decide doctrine?? OUR Stake High Council? I wonder how the Council of 12 will settle with that.

    Frankly, I would welcome good doctrinal discussion even with strongly held differences of opinion. I do not think that Joseph had it in mind that only a few people should establish doctrine. It was supposed to be free-floating and chaotic.

  83. The value of the doctrinal council is that it is not disciplinary in nature, it is more of a Grand Jury, establishing truth. But I guess there is a merging of the lines. If you do not accept the judgment of the council, you can be found in contempt.

    Anyway, if you do not shut up and take council, your sin will be added upon as not accepting the leadership of the appointed leaders, which is worthy of excommunication alone.

    This is catch 22. If you argue in a court of doctrinal purity against authority, there need be no other witness or proof of your guilt. So, once on the hot seat, all you can do is be quiet and submit your journal articles to the bishop for editing before they are published. If you find it absurd that an insurance salesman should judge a paper concerning some 16th century movement and modern Mormonism, you are hosed.

  84. Bobw,

    I can only say that I dread ever being involved in a disciplinary council being held for apostasy. I’ve just read some of the notes on David Wright’s experience at the Mormon Alliance website, and it is frightening to me.

    My experience so far has only been positive. I hope that it remains so.

  85. molly bennion says:

    76. sorry to be so absent. I am now out of town caring for my parents. Just reached the wifi access at a Starbucks and have 5 minutes before they kick me out.
    I was unclear. No, I do not argue for fuzzy. I would like it to be less fuzzy, but some degree of fuzzy (like these exacting legal terms, readers?) is what a system pleading for the Spirit must be.
    Your perception of disciplinary councils question needs more time. all too briefly, usually I think the spirit and the men involved work pretty well together. Sometimes I have not been so sure. How can we be? Calls for caution for all involved. Discipline should be rare. sorry, this rates more and the nice kid pushing me out of starbucks wants to go home.

  86. In church disciplinary councils members of the jury, so to speak, are allowed/encouraged to ask questions of the defendant/penitent. I can imagine an apostasy council turning into an interesting discussion between a well prepared but not antagonistic defendant and a smart, well prepared council. It might even come to resemble some of the threads floating around the bloggernacle, with much higher stakes of course.

    For councils dealing with conduct, I’ve always thought it takes a tremendous amount of courage to come and bare one’s soul, warts and all, to a room full of men and then be prepared to answer questions about the conduct. For the few I’ve participated in, the confessional aspect seemed to take a real toll on the person doing the confessing, even for those whom I sensed did not seem to take the whole thing too seriously.

    Wasn’t there a GA ex’d in the late 80’s or early 90’s for apostasy? I’m not sure my memory is accurate on this point so I hesitate to toss out the name that is rolling around my head. I think it had something to do with the BOM and depictions/interpetations of Lamanites or American Indians.

    Concerns about councils and the results being confidential are misplaced when one considers the MLS and church bureaucracy. If a person is ex’d the church records are amended and there are several people who have access to those records, including the clerk who has to enter the changes. As time marches on from the date of the council and people rotate through callings like records clerks more people have access to the membership records. Also church callings, including home teaching assignments, have to be adjusted when an excommunication occurs. In short, there are multiple opportunities for a person’s church status to be disclosed or inadvertently revealed. I suppose it doesn’t have to be so, but so long as the church maintains the type of membership records it does, this type of information will leak out in bits and pieces. Even if a person were to change wards to avoid the informal gossip network that unfortunately exists, their membership records, or lack thereof, will haunt them.

  87. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, especially when the law follows common notions.

    The government’s obligation to pronounce and publish the law is an ancient legal principle. Trying to whiggle one’s way around publication is embarrassing.

    Your example would not be a case of ignorance of the law but rather of authorities who are keeping the law from the people by design. Whether certain behavior is wrong is only part of the issue. An equally important aspect is that Aaron could not invoke the law if it were to favor him.

    Practically, that may mean that LDS authorities can use the law to badger their opponents but the leaders themselves may not have to abide by legal constraints. That’s not the rule of law. It’s authoritarianism.

    The bottom line is that there is no rule of law in Mormonism. There is no case law. There is no church law. If there is then we don’t know it.

    The stake president is effectively the judge and prosecutor. There is no representation. Insofar as there is an appeal, neither the accused nor their representatives get to participate.

    Catholicism, on the other hand, has the rule of law. That is why the Catholic Church did not excommunicate a single sex abuse advocate even though their organizations are now threatened by bankruptcy.

    By contrast, Mormon leaders have excommunicated mothers of abused children. Why? Because LDS leaders can.

    Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If one does not constrain mortals institutionally then there will be abuse.

    It is not enough to recognize that LDS leaders are as imperfect as anyone else. That insight requires a response in terms of institutional design. In that respect, the LDS Church is woefully lacking. We are all paying the price for that deficiency one way or another.

    The apologist logic of inspiration is frankly more honest than Orwellian attempts to redefine authoritarian models of power as the rule of law.

  88. rbc,

    Once Church discipline is lifted all reference to the discipline is removed from the person’s records–in the case of excommunication, the original baptism date is used and the rebaptism date does not appear, and following the restoration of blessings, the original ordination and temple dates are used and the date of restoration of blessings does not appear. In very limited cases, such as in the case of child abuse, there is a special notation on the record (I do not know what it looks like.)

    The same is true in the case of divorce–no reference is made to the prior marriage or divorce on the membership record, except if the person is still sealed to the prior spouse, in which case a brief notation to that effect is included. Also, children from prior marriages (or from no marriage at all) do appear on records.

    These changes were made around 20 years ago. I still remember them because our ward (for which I was then serving in a bishopric) received a box full of new records to replace the old ones.

  89. George P. Lee (of the Seventy) was excommunicated way back when. He felt that Church was not doing enough for his people and was quite bold in speaking to the issue. But other things were revealed later which, again, should NOT have been part of the public domain. His excommunication was not based on these “other things,” but on the strong, sometimes oppositional stand he had taken about the Church’s care of Native Americans.
    Richard Lyman (another GA, was excommunicated years for adultery. The biography of Spencer W. Kimball goes into some detail about President Kimball’s sorrow that Bro. Lyman seemed not to care about pursuing the restoration of his temple blessings.
    Again, I am concerned that I know so much about both of these cases (much more than I’ve put down here). I’ve even heard details about how Lyman’s adultery came about. Why should I know ANY of that?

  90. How do you know what Lee’s excommunication was based on? It is rumored that it wasn’t because he was a child molestor, but do you have some verifiable evidence it was only due to his Native American rights issues?

  91. Hellmut,

    “Apologist logic of inspiration”? Inspiration is what is required, if we truly believe the basic principles of the church.

    However, even after I made my post about the guidance of the spirit that I have observed, I know that there are cases where some could question if inspiration was involved. I don’t know the certainties of those incidents, as I have not personally experienced it. But I share the concern that sometimes, being a church with lay leadership, if we are always as inspired as we should be.

    I would agree with what Eugene England wrote about in his essay “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel”. The requirements of a lay leadership puts us both in the position of having to be a leader, and try as hard as possible to make the right decisions, and as a follower, to understand that sometimes leaders, do make mistakes. I know that I made mistakes, and that I offended people while serving as a bishop. It has made it easier for me to cut other leaders some slack for things I could take offense to.

    Establishing a codified legal system only reduces the dependence on the spirit that leadership, and also being led, requires of us daily in the church. I know of no other religion that stresses the importance of personal revelation, and that you can receive answers to know for yourself, and not always rely on someone else’s spiritual access. That, however, sets up the paradox that sometimes puts us at odds with each other, and with authority. It’s not perfect, but it points out to us that we need to try harder.

  92. Steve Evans says:

    Hellmut, your antimormon-ness is showing! Quick, say something nice about the Church so we don’t see too much of what’s inside. Needless to say I find your description of Church disciplinary proceedings inaccurate and repugnant.

  93. . . . plus your understanding of the government’s “obligation to pronounce and publish the law” manifests a woefully inaccurate understanding of law. Or at least of the common law. (A judge’s decision that changes the application of a law very well may be retroactive.)

  94. Re 88 That’s correct about the records reverting to the pre-incident information; however, for the years between the council, rebaptism and then restoration of blessings, the information is sitting right there. In fact, during the time between a rebaptism and restoration of temple blessings the records show the date of the rebaptism as the member’s baptism date. It’s only after a restoration of blessings that the records are amended to appear as if nothing happened-at least at the ward level. It’s my understanding SLC keeps a separate set of records where church discipline is never deleted. A type of spiritual double billing, if you will.

    re 89, I could not agree more. I was thinking of Elder Lee earlier but not sure, and I would much rather be blissfully ingorant of those details.

  95. I’ll throw in my two cents’ worth based on my experience being on the receiving end of one of those “courts of love.”

    I got notice of my court on the day it was to be held. I was not given specifics of the charge, even when I asked for them both before the court and during it. I was not allowed a delay to try to get witnesses, since one of the members of the court was traveling from out of town to be there, and it “would be inconvenient” for him!

    To this date, I have no idea of the specifics of the charge. The only evidence I saw of the Spirit’s being there is that I was only disfellowshipped when my bishop wanted both me and my wife excommunicated, hanged, and then drawn and quartered, burned, and have our ashed scattered to the wind. The SP refused to let him take any action against my wife. The SP probably took more flack over that decision than any other he made regarding our situation.

    I do know the Spirit was there a little over a year later for the court that reinstated me. One of the court members was openly hostile to me, both during the year I was “out” and at the court. When it was over, he told me that he voted for my restoration because when he prayed about his vote, the Spirit told him I was sincere in trying to “come back.”

    We moved to a different state a week later, and haven’t looked back.

  96. Steve Evans says:

    OK, I’m closing the thread. Thanks to all who were willing to give such productive comments and ask such insightful questions.

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