The Limits of Community

“You can’t trust Melanie but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.” Ordell in Jackie Brown

‘He that saith he receiveth [my law] and doeth it not, the same… shall be cast out’ (D&C 41:5).

According to the D&C, there is a point at which an individual’s sins can become so detrimental to the community that they need to be formally excluded (cf. D&C 41:5).  Excommunication is a difficult topic that requires care.  This discussion is not intended to focus upon those times when excommunication has been used and there is, seemingly, no direct impact upon the community (though I am sure this sometimes happens).  Rather I want to consider whether it might be possible to accept sinners as part of the community, even when their sins are potentially destructive.  Wendell Berry wrote: ‘A community can trust its liars to be liars… and so enjoy them’.  If a community could accept the sins of another with this type of love then excommunication might not be such an essential part of our ecclesiology. Yet, I am sceptical of such an approach to sin and the community.

Church discipline is intends to ‘save the soul’ of the sinner, safeguard the integrity of the Church and ‘protect the innocent’.  Excommunication can be used in any of these three circumstances.  Protecting the innocent refers to various vulnerable groups who might be at risk of various forms of predatory behaviour.  I believe excommunication should be used primarily to protect the community form these situations rather than safeguarding the integrity of the Church (although I can imagine times when this would be necessary).  Moreover I believe those situations when excommunication is necessary to save the soul are even more infrequent.

Following Berry we can ask, if liars can be trusted to be liars does a religious community need excommunication to protect itself?  For Berry ‘a community member can be trusted to be untrustworthy and so can be included… But if a community withholds trust, it withholds membership.’  We cannot ignore the exclusionary pain that must be felt by the excommunicated person when that trust is formally removed.  ‘To know in this matter is to be safe’.  Certainly there is something attractive about this form of tolerant community which readily loves and accepts those people who could potentially hurt it.  Perhaps Zion could be conceived as such a place.

However, there are a number of problems with Berry’s position.  Knowing someone is a liar may protect others from potentially being deceived but there are other scenarios when that ‘knowing’ may not be a sufficient protection.  Children, for example, might be less capable of appropriately trusting someone to be a liar.  Does ‘knowing’ someone is a liar require suspicion toward anything said by that individual?  It seems unlikely that someone who is trusted to be a liar could ever serve as a teacher.  In fact, this approach to sin is entirely reductive.  Our subjectivity, in this approach, is constituted almost entirely by our sins and it fails to recognise that people are far more complex.  Defining anyone as either perpetually truthful or dishonest is spurious.  Berry’s view also assumes that personality is stable and this assumption might be problematic for those who believe that Christ can help us turn from some of our sins.  Even if we believe that people do not change then as a community we need to think carefully about what forgiveness means in these circumstances.

Having been guilty of sin in my life, the idea of being forever defined by those acts in my relationship with other people is horrifying.  Trusting someone to be a liar would constrain our ability to build bonds of fellowship with them, it would constrain their ability to love us and it would very possibly drive them away.  In short, trusting someone to be a liar limits our ability to experience the liar as fully human.

Before Christmas, mmiles wrote an excellent post considering how we demonstrate forgiveness to those who suffer from dispositions that could potentially damage members of a community.  In her post she speaks of people who have been part of the ‘criminal justice system’.  Her post highlights, from a different direction, the difficult questions a community must ask about how to love, accept and sustain people with a variety of challenges.  I do not think that I am arguing against her viewpoint (that we should do what we can to protect people from themselves at times).  I agree that communities should counsel together regarding how to ensure that our communities are safe for everyone.

In this vein, although excommunication has been framed as a means of protecting the members of the Church/congregation it may also serve another function.  Excommunication provides a space for the ward to heal and grow with the expectation that this person will re-enter the community.  Sometimes we cannot ignore the pain that a particular action may have caused.  Excommunication therefore could focus upon how the community responds to the sins of another rather than focusing upon the salvation of the individual.  In other words, re-baptism symbolises a community’s refusal to define that person by their previous life.  It then becomes part of a re-birth into a community who willing accepts you (with open arms and raised hands) to become one with them again.  Perhaps, every re-baptism could stand as symbol for our continued sanctification as a community.


  1. Very thought-provoking, Aaron.

    I’m going to have to think about this a little more before offering anything but my thanks for the opportunity to think about it.

  2. Interested direction. I still look at excommunication as a means to save the soul of the sinner. Even in cases where victims or the name of the church are at risk, the ultimate goal is to bring the sinner back into the fold.

    If a community “tolerates” a sinner’s behavior by claiming that it is his nature (ie. liars lie), then we are tacitly saying to the person “it really is no big deal,” we remove the social motivation to repent, and dilute the testimony of the doctrine of repentance. The Lord has said he “cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance – Alma 45:16) If we as holders of His priesthood and members of His church accept sinful behavior with a wink, we diminish the role of the church and the gospel – which is to bring a man to Christ. Ultimately, it is an individual quest – not a community decision.

  3. it's a series of tubes says:

    Certainly there is something attractive about this form of tolerant community which readily loves and accepts those people who could potentially hurt it. Perhaps Zion could be conceived as such a place.

    Do you feel such a “Zion” is consistent with the description in Moses 7:18? It seems that such a community could not be of one heart and one mind, nor would certain members of the community be “dwelling in righteousness”…

  4. #2 – I don’t believe avoiding excommunication is winking at sin. Rather a priesthood leader can help the person to take respond to the consequences of their sins without excommunication or disfellowshipment. Moreover, a community must sustain the other members of the community and so there is a community dimension to re-instatement, whether that is felt or enacted.

    #3 – Zion, in my view, at least as described in the Book of Mormon and in Moses does not suggested a group of people who did not sin but rather they were people who were in a ‘right standing before God’, who were unified in their commitment to Christ and to each other and who had eradicated economic inequality (but this seems unclear in the Enoch case). So, yes, in one sense I don’t think the view described is inherently antithetical to Zion however, as I lay out in the rest of the post I do not subscribe to that view.

  5. One of the mist difficult parts of repentance I have witnessed is when people are unable to forgive themselves -sometimes long after God has done so. One of the benefits of excommunication is that it is a very real break, which can be bridged with re-baptism and a restoration of blessings. People I know who have been ex-ed and re-baptized have no doubt in their mind where they stand with God. Others that have worked through lesser processes still struggle. I am not pushing for excommunications, and thankfully they are rare, but I do know that when the keyholder (Stake President) makes that call, my experience has always shown it to be a good call.

    I have never witnessed it, but it would be an interesting scenario if offended members of the community failed to sustain the return of a “lost sheep”. Seems like a struggle with D&C 64 would redefine who the “sinner” has become.

  6. Interesting post but I disagree that D&C 41:1-5 is about a community issue verse 1 reads in part “ye that hear me not will I curse” and paraphrasing verse 5 he that doeth not my law will be cast out. …re-baptism symbolises a community’s refusal to define that person by their previous life.” This is a wonderful concept and I would love it to be true but in my experience it is not practiced by Bishops and SPs the truth is that you are treated as damaged goods for years. Even President Monson in welcoming back the less active, the offended, the critical and the transgressor said In the private sanctuary of one’s own conscience lies that spirit, that determination to cast off the old person and to measure up to the stature of true potential. *In this spirit*, we again issue that heartfelt invitation: Come back. So if you have cast off the old person or the natural man shall we say? you are invited back to commune with those who haven’t.

  7. #5 – Unforunately, I have witnessed instances where excommunication wasn’t a “good call”, imho. I also am not opposed to excommunciation, but the issues this post raises are important to consider, imo – especially in cases where someone truly has repented and doesn’t need excommunication as a motivation in that regard.

    Sometimes, excommunication is seen as a necessity simply because it’s on a checklist of necessities – and that doesn’t seem consistent with the description of the reasons for excommunication we have in the Book of Mormon.

    Having said that, one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of my life was being involved in the re-baptism of a member who had been excommunicated. It’s hard to describe that experience adequately, but it’s one I will never forget. Of all the things the post said, I loved particularly the following:

    “re-baptism symbolises a community’s refusal to define that person by their previous life. It then becomes part of a re-birth into a community who willingly accepts you (with open arms and raised hands) to become one with them again.”

  8. There had better be room for sinners in the church, else there would be nothing there but a nursery and a Primary without teachers or anyone to pick the little ones up afterward.

    Still, “trusting a liar to be a liar” works only as long as a community is small enough for everyone who comes in contact with the liar to know what he is. Children aren’t the only ones who aren’t capable of always recognizing a liar, once the community grows beyond the limits of personal knowledge. Someone speaking loudly enough to draw attention, yet at a sufficient distance that people can’t have personal knowledge of his lies, has the potential to mislead and cause serious disruption in a community. That’s one of the chief purposes of giving elders’ certificates and other documentary evidence that someone is entitled to represent the community to people who don’t already know a person’s authority — it helps to distinguish between those who have a right to act for the community and those who don’t. In extreme cases, excommunication serves the same purpose, by putting the world on notice that so-and-so does not speak for the community.

    But there are far more prodigal sons than there are Korihors, and excommunication is, I hope, an extreme tool used only as necessary in the same proportion to help sinners repent and return to the fold.

  9. Howard, people are cast out of the community and so I fail to see how this is not a community issue. Moreover, I agree that in many ways what I have described here is not in practice what we currently see in our discussions of excommunication, hence my writing it. I wanted to explore other ways of thinking about excommunication. Moreover, I should state that I don’t think excommunication is ever for God, i.e. excommunication is not ever necessary for forgiveness.

    #5 – I have never seen anyone formally prohibit sustaining but I am sure that some people have been dissatisfied with some of those decisions and this is one thing which I think we could overcome if we framed excommunication in these terms as well. Moreover I agree that people can struggle to forgive themselves but I suspect that punishing (i.e. cutting them off from the community) that person is often not helpful in the long because it perpetuates a particular view of the atonement which I think is unhealthy. Moreover, I suspect that seeing the good experiences in those coming back involves an inevitable selection bias regarding your data points.

  10. Mark Brown says:

    It is interesting for me to watch how the church itself seems unable to quite settle on an approach to this. For a while, the approach seemed to be to ex’ people quickly. Memos from SLC emphasized that God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance. Then the pendulum swung the other way, we got memos about forgiveness and the importance of retaining members, and you couldn’t get yourself kicked out of the church if you tried.

  11. I think your final thoughts work pretty well in 19th century Mormonism, where excommunication and rebaptism, or simply rebaptism were alot more common and less traumatic to the community and individual in certain ways.

  12. Aaron: You are absolutely right. I do have a bias that is based on I what I have experienced. As do we all.

    Having sat in those chairs and having made those judgements, I know that punishment has never been the focal point of a disfellowshipment or an excommunication – although some would interpret it that way. You might think I am pollyanna-ish, but I look at those experiences as some of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life, where the power of inspiration and the atonement shines brightly, not vengeance.

    Some come back, and it is glorious, some don’t and it is tragic. Unless one has the keys and inspiration to pass those judgments on a case-by-case basis, personal conjecture is the most blatant bias of all.

  13. Aaron, I agree with your post. I do think, sometimes the community must exclude, not because it would internally damage the community, but because it might cause damage from external sources. For example, the policy of excommunicating for plural marriage was imposed as a result of political pressure, so that the Church would be seen as “serious” about ending plural marriage. I think that Church discipline for certain other crimes is also imposed to make a statement to others (inside or outside the Church) “this kind of conduct is not only sinful, but intolerable, and therefore we exclude such people from the community.”

    I think that was some of the intent of the Kimball years’ encouragement of excommunication, not to save sinners, but to communicate forcefully that sexual sin was so unacceptable it would result in explusion–it was for deterrance purposes.

  14. Chris Gordon says:

    I don’t see how it would ever come about, but we need some sort of community tradition or policy or something in place about how “the rest of us” handle instances of ex-communication or disfellowshipment. Thankfully, it happens rarely enough in most units that any such development is hindered in its creation.

    I think of the Amish customs of shunning sinners for a period as an illustration of the point. Not that I agree with shunning per se, but at least the sinner and the community both had an established response in place. All know the appropriate way to handle it and can respond to the situation accordingly. In its ideal, I suppose everyone feels uplifted for having gone through the process and the community is healed with the sinner.

    For us, how do we as a community respond to an ex-communication? How do we love the sinner? How do we give what fellowship we can appropriately? Anyone who doesn’t know the answers to that is bound to default to some level of discomforting awkwardness that only serves to compound the sinner’s problems in his or her relationship to the ward family.

  15. StillConfused says:

    The problem that I have with excommunication is that it appears to be used against targeted sins (namely sexual sins). A priesthood holder in my prior ward, who was also an attorney, stole a fellow parishoner’s entire inheritance. I told the bishop, also an attorney, and nothing at all was done. Finally, the FBI chased the man down and he is serving time in prison. He may have been excommunicated once he was sent to prison (not sure about that) but he wasn’t even counseled for his horrible crime and devastating impact it had on a fellow church member. IF we are trying to protect a community, this guy is more deserving of excommunication than another man who engages in a consensual though non-marital sexual encounter.

  16. I’m with MMM here. Church discipline really is there to benefit the penitent sinner, as well as the community at large. In my experience, excommunication is reserved for very few cases where either repentance is not forthcoming (hence helping “the person to take respond to the consequences of their sins without excommunication or disfellowshipment” (#4) is not applicable) or the sinner is of sufficiently high profile that healing is required in the community and that healing can only come through separation.

    I have never witnessed the latter, only the former, though I’m aware of cases of the latter. My own experience is that most PH leaders will strive to follow President Hinckley’s counsel to priesthood leaders and mete out only as much judgement is required to help the individual repent where that is appropriate.

    MMM’s comment about a sinner’s need for help in discovering God’s forgiveness (#5) is right on the money. The discipline process (including, perhaps especially, the time involved) has been helpful for many of those I’ve worked with.

  17. Kristine says:

    My problem with the idea that discipline is helpful to the one being disciplined is that I have never heard that thought expressed by someone who had been disciplined, only by men (and it is always men–women can only be on one side of the process, which is a HUGE problem for another post) who did the disciplining. That disconnect suggests to me that there’s a failure of empathy, at least.

  18. Excommunication in our church doesn’t really seem to enforce community boundaries as much as it seems to enforce community standards. In most cases, those who are excommunicated are shamed, not shunned, and are welcome to participate with the community to a great extent.

    And, if you’re technically a member but not participating, you can pretty much get away with anything and not get ex’ed, even if you decide to participate again later.

  19. Kristine: I believe that the very FIRST woman experienced the very thing you are talking about when she was punished and kicked out of the garden. She eventually expressed that she saw the punishment as a good thing.

    “And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:11)

    Adam had a similar response and saw that the punishment ended up being a really good thing: “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God. (Moses 5:10)

    Most of us never appreciate discipline when it is administered – but often we learn to appreciate it – in hindsight.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    #19, what tremendous empathy you possess! You illustrate Kristine’s point perfectly by posting a completely boneheaded comment in response to her sincere concerns about empathy (and gender roles) in the context of ecclesiastical discipline.

    Just staggering, really, that you would write as you did in response to her. I hope you never extend such counsel to people in real life.

  21. Matt W. says:

    I’ve known 5-6 people who’ve gone through either disfellowship or excommunication and come back. The 2 (I am sketchy on whether one, a distant acquaintance was disfellowshipped or excomunicated) who were excommunicated really valued the fresh start when they came back. I wasn’t there for the beginning of either of their processes, only for the return. They were both very open about their situation and years had passed since either had been excommunicated.

    On the other hand, the 4 I know who were disfellowshipped were a lot more private about what had happened with them, so I don’t really know how that worked. The one I was closest too came back to church from innactivity, and asked for a disciplinary council.

  22. Kristine says:

    Yeah, reaching back to the scriptural account that has served as the basis for centuries of oppression of women is kind of poor form in this case.

  23. John Mansfield says:

    Kristine, try the essay “Drinking, and Flirting with the Mormon Church” by Marian Nelson in the Winter ’92 Dialogue.

  24. Kristine says:

    Dialogue?? Who reads that apostate rag? ;)

  25. Wow Steve! I did not mean to be “boneheaded” or lack “empathy.” Hostile much?

    Kristine made a very valid point that people don’t perceive discipline as helpful while they are in the midst of receiving it.

    My point in quoting Moses was simply that since the beginning of time, people who are being disciplined have had to emerge through that discipline and look back at it in hindsight before they could see that it was necessary and/or productive. I am not wrong.

    Also, many penitent people realize, and humbly accept, the need for discipline as they try to quietly work their way back.


  26. John Mansfield says:

    The role of community in excommunication is tough to decipher because the process is so confidential. If the excommunicated person doesn’t say something, almost no one in the ward will know anything.

  27. Mark Brown says:


    Just think of it as Steve’s special kind of discipline. In hindsight, you’ll probably come to appreciate it.

    Kristine’s larger point, if I understand it correctly, is that most of the comments come from people who have been on the administering side of the table. Of course that perspective thinks it is necessary. What is missing from the conversation so far is the perspective from someone who got railroaded.

  28. Steve Evans says:

    Middle-aged, there’s more to being right than providing a scripturally accurate answer. Your reply is perfectly unsuited to showing any empathy or concern whatsoever for anyone in the situation Kristine describes.

    Allow me to demonstrate this principle on you by subjecting you to BCC discipline. I am sure that you, as a penitent person, will humbly accept the need for discipline for your stupid comments as you quietly work your way back from the moderation queue.

  29. Mark: LOL! (and I never use the term LOL)

  30. Who’s LOLling now.

    Mark is just right — easy for those doling out the punishments to extol the virtues of our courts of love.

  31. We’re pretty story-driven, so I wonder about excommunication when I hear that the “ultimate goal is to bring the sinner back” because I don’t know a whole lot of stories where this happens. It could be that we just don’t talk often about them.

    I think the label “excommunication” itself carries a strongly negative vibe, a rejection, a bit of verbal violence. I don’t think this was deliberate, it’s just the way the word sounds in my own ears.

    #2, Middle-aged: then we are tacitly saying to the person “it really is no big deal,” we remove the social motivation to repent, and dilute the testimony of the doctrine of repentance.

    This seems to assume that punishment is requisite for repentance, and that we need to ensure that punishment occurs in order to help people repent. I would question that idea. Too one-size-fits-all. And I don’t know that it is how things really currently work anyway. At the same time, I’m really not a proponent of the sort of “come as you are” religiosity, come as you are and who much cares if you change at all. Nah, I don’t think that’s the key either.

    I liked Ardis in #8.

    #12, Middle: Unless one has the keys and inspiration to pass those judgments on a case-by-case basis, personal conjecture is the most blatant bias of all.

    I can certainly appreciate that. I’ve never been involved with such a case directly in any way, but my dad was a Bishop a long time ago (I was about 4 or so, I don’t remember much about it). My mom tells me now that dad always hated doing church courts, he always felt terrible about it. So yes, I think that members of the Church who believe in priesthood keys, etc., should take into account the position of the authorities. At the same time, I also hope that ruminations like Aaron’s, and Ardis’s, and other people in this thread, will help provide some food for thought for those key holders, and I hope they are humble enough to consider some of these discussions.

  32. Just now saw the garden of eden comment. I think “middle-aged” largely missed Kristine’s point. I see this happen sometimes in the church, but other times in non-church-related circumstances. I tend to do this in my marriage sometimes. I short-circuit the communication process by relaying a “solution” to a problem that I didn’t understand to begin with. Combine my solution with a few scripture verses and you have a recipe for a justifiably annoyed wife.

  33. #17 Kristine, I can only speak from my experience. The few people I’ve counseled through this process were appreciative of the process and sought a way to square themselves with God and the church. They thought it important enough to themselves to come and talk to me about it when i was in a position to talk about those things. That’s true for men and women.

    Now, it’s true that I never heard any of them speak about that experience publicly, so others may have been unaware of their feelings.

    And it’s entirely possible that I misunderstood the words they spoke to me, as well.

  34. sought a way to square themselves with God and the church Unfortunately these are two entirely different processes. Becoming square with God is the easy one other can take years longer to accomplish.

  35. #34: I didn’t say they were the same process. That’s why I used the conjunction “and” to join two objects, God and the church. But for those people of faith, they found comfort and peace in working with a priesthood leader to find that reconciliation with both.

    And I don’t agree that it’s easy for everyone to become square with God after sin. For some people it takes time and effort to understand that the blessings of the atonement are available to them. I’m not dictating that it should take a certain amount of time, but the fact is that for some folks it does (as MMM also suggests above in #5).

  36. Kendrick K says:

    Great Post :) At least in my own community, I really seen real progression IMO, dealing out the EX card has become less common over the years. Love seems to be the main motivation rather than punishment.

    I think it is important to consider our own position regarding forgiveness because by our own judgments we’ll be judged.

  37. Scott B. says:

    Combine my solution with a few scripture verses and you have a recipe for a justifiably annoyed wife.

    Or maybe just a wife who takes the truth to be hard. Because she’s wicked. Like Kristine.

  38. Kristine, my experience with excommunication has not included such issues as apostasy, which may account for a different perspective. However, I do have a close friend who went through several years of being excommunicated for moral issues, and expressed to me after being rebaptized, that without excommunication, he doubts that he would have ever changed his hurtful behavior. Anecdotal at best, but that seems to echo the sentiments I have heard from a few others in similar situations.

    To the main topic of the OP, the community’s involvement in excommunication does seem to be at odds with the stated goal of saving the sinner, if the issue is not one that represents a threat to the church or its membership. Since excommunications, or even disciplinary councils that result in no action or lesser action, are rarely discussed outside those with a specific need to know, such as a bishop, in rare cases a home teacher, but almost never disclosed to the general membership except where the person is considered a threat to the community. As a result, as a community, we usually don’t know who is in this kind of situation, and work from a handicap, and see only the results, such as someone who declines offering a prayer in Sunday School, or never makes a comment in RS or PH, and suddenly doesn’t hold a calling. It almost invites suspicion and rumor, and unless the disciplined individual is willing to share his or her story with those around them, we can’t react appropriately. Part of that is supposed to help the families of these individuals from embarrassment, but the converse is often the result. We’ve changed the name from church courts to disciplinary councils, but the stigma and secrecy remain, and that would seem in some cases to make it more difficult for a community to react.

    I will say that the intent of excommunication removes someone from official recognition in the community, but the disciplined individuals who cooperate in the process are encouraged to still attend church meetings, as hard as that may seem. There seems to be a desire to have those folks out, but still on the edges of the community so that they don’t have so far to go when they return.

  39. Latter-day Guy says:

    In other words, re-baptism symbolises a community’s refusal to define that person by their previous life. It then becomes part of a re-birth into a community who willing accepts you (with open arms and raised hands) to become one with them again. Perhaps, every re-baptism could stand as symbol for our continued sanctification as a community.

    This would ring more true to me if rebaptism really were a community affair. In my (admittedly limited) experience, it is usually carried out very quietly indeed––no special program, no talks or musical numbers, no happy announcements from the pulpit––only hush, hurry, and a hope to bury all the unpleasantness beneath the minimally-witnessed waters. (Not that one can blame anyone for this attitude, given the associated stigma[s].)

  40. I looked at Kristine’s comment again, and MMM’s response (ironic acronym? ;)) I think her comment was ambiguous enough to require a little bit of discerning, and I do think MMM missed her context. Here’s what she said:

    “My problem with the idea that discipline is helpful to the one being disciplined is that I have never heard that thought expressed by someone who had been disciplined.”

    In other words, I think Kristine (who I reckon is familiar with a few instances of excommunication) is saying that she has not heard excommunicated folks employing your justification, that they are simply better off, etc. I think she would agree that it’s is hard to see such justifications as something other than a means whereby priesthood leaders help themselves feel a bit better about an otherwise unpleasant process.

    I would personally add to Kristine’s point (not sure if she would agree, but I figure she would) by saying that I believe there are some formerly-excommunicated folks who would agree with MMM that the process helped them become better off in the long run. At the same time, this “solution” fails to account for instances where a person was not, in fact, better off after the fact.

    Of course, in the church we can fall back on the “personal accountability” idea, saying that such people chose to let it affect them poorly, that it’s their fault if church discipline results in harm to them, psychological or otherwise. But that move just shifts the blame, ends the conversation prematurely. What about the personal responsibility of the people who mete out the punishment, despite good intentions? I can conceive of circumstances where a well-meaning body of leaders gets it wrong in an excommunication proceeding, where good intentions result in bad outcomes. So I don’t feel comfy just blaming the excommunicant, especially if other decisions could have helped saved their souls. “The worth of a soul is great,” we teach.

    This is a long way of saying I think MMM was really only focusing on the people for whom the process worked out. There are such people, but it isn’t so clean cut. We run the risk of overlooking better ways to address problems among church members if we sit back, comfortable with the way things currently run, overlooking negative cases we otherwise ought to account for. And it seems to me there are such cases.

    Next, Kristine brought up gender. MMM offered an exegesis of the Genesis story as a way to justify his own perspective, presumably ending the discussion via an appeal to canonical authority. But that’s a highly charged narrative, especially for some contemporary folks who know that it has historically been used to justify poor treatment toward women. I think there are other scriptures which could be easily employed against the ones you offer, but that is beside the point. I think there are other ways of talking about the issue of gender and excommunication, and Kristine evidently does too, hence her saying it was a subject for another post. Here’s a preliminary unsolicited suggestion:

    In the Church it seems we do believe that councils are quite effective for decision-making. (Elder Ballard has emphasized this strongly, for instance.) We also believe all members are entitled to revelation, even revelation for those over whom they preside (think Relief Society presidents, or mothers, etc.) It seems to me Kristine would argue that sisters could be usefully asked to assist in some of these matters, and I would personally agree with her on that.

    Kristine, if I got you all wrong I apologize and hope to receive clarification!

  41. Kristine says:

    kevinf–I wasn’t particularly talking about cases of apostasy. Not quite sure how to read that…

  42. Kristine says:

    Nope, BHodges–the only difference is that you clearly think before you type :) If I had done that, I’d likely have tried to make the points you did so nicely.

  43. enter the community.
    Aaron thanks for this post. I think your statement above is key to what excommunication was originally set out to do, but has perhaps evolved into something else. It could be argued that anyone who sins in a manner worthy of excommunication hurts the community whether or not the community knows about the sin. But supposing someone is excommunicated because they truly hurt the community in a public way, then I think the Christian ideal would be to not only welcome that person back into the community, but help that person to get there.
    In past decades excommunication was a public affair. In SLC the newspapers carried the names of those excommunicated (or in later years announced in sacrament meeting). So even if the sin was private, it quickly became public, thus becoming a communal affair. I wonder then if rebaptisms were also more public as people were invited back into the community. It seems if it was carried out with compassion, it would be much different. Although I’m not fond of public or private shunning- and don’t really get how that could be a good thing.

  44. Kristine says:

    Except on the issue of gender, BH, I’d say that including women in disciplinary councils is different (and in some ways more urgent) than including them in other kinds of councils. Having a woman be disciplined for sexual misconduct, for instance, by a group of only men is (hopefully) obviously problematic. Women being disciplined for feminist writings by a group of exclusively male hierarchs is frankly grotesque.

    All of the men I know who have participated in disciplinary councils are good men whom I know to have righteous intentions. I actually _want_ to believe that the process generally works. But knowing that I could only ever be on one side of it makes me suspicious and frightened of the whole process. On a really visceral level, I feel anxious every time a conversation about church discipline happens. (And I don’t think it’s because I’m a sinner, though I assuredly am. My sins are of the sort that are worse than the ones for which church discipline usually applies).

  45. Kristine, # 41, it appears that I may have been reading something that in retrospect you didn’t write, and my response was rambling, grammatically challenged, and not useful.

    What I really wanted to communicate is that the problems with secrecy and confidentiality around disciplinary councils, which I believe is usually a good idea, also is problematic in enabling people to exist on the edges of the community with a hope to returning. If no one talks about it, it is really hard to be outside hoping to return, and makes living on the edge of the community just that much more difficult.

  46. ANd Kristine, I would agree that the lack of women in a disciplinary council where a sister is facing discipline, is fraught with difficulty, no matter how good the men are that involved. And in my experience, they are generally all good men, none of whom are particularly comfortable sitting on the other side, either.

  47. #44, fair enough I think.

  48. Mark Brown says:

    We say that excommunication is used for any of three purposes, to help a person to repent, to protect the innocent, or to preserve the reputation and integrity of the church. But we ought to take into account that the confidentiality which surrounds the proceedings works at cross-purposes with those two final reasons. If nobody knows why or when somebody was excommunicated, it doesn’t do the innocent any good, and the reputation of the church isn’t rescued.

  49. Mark Brown says:

    One other thing. It seems to me that there is a crucial difference between being humbled and being humiliated. I think it is every bit as necessary to protect and safeguard the dignity of the person before the council as it is to preserve the reputation of the church. Under the circumstances, unless we take extraordinary care, I think it is possible to crush people, even if we don’t intend to.

  50. I’m thinking by analogy with families that sometimes it’s necessary to protect the innocent from further damage by the unrepentant guilty. Sometimes all the family can do after giving the person many chances to repent and retain full fellowship is to accept the choice of the unrepentant to separate themselves by their harmful actions toward others.

    And other times, perhaps, the authority in question may be the one who needs a new perspective on the situation, and a period of separation helps to give that distance needed for all parties to make a well-considered judgment. No decision is ever final if both parties wish for change in the status quo.

    I see this from all sides, in the analogy to families, and I really don’t see it clearly even yet. Sometimes the authorities are either bullies themselves or else they’re taking the side of the aggressor against the victim. The best thing for all parties in that case is also separation, I think. Other times the authorities are desperately trying to show a bully the error of his or her ways, which said bully isn’t currently understanding or feeling. Unless the transgressor understands the proper boundaries of their agency, they can’t know they did wrong, so they can’t repent.

    Oddly enough, in my very dysfunctional family I’ve been in three of the four roles. (First I was the uncomprehending and therefore unrepentant bully, as a young adult, and the separation definitely helped me learn the boundaries of my stewardship and agency. [Not proud of that episode.] Later on I was the victim who was being blamed for standing up for myself against lifelong aggression and bullying, and in this case the separation allowed the authorities to learn the boundaries of my own self-determination. That turned out well because I finally gained the standing of a person with the authorities. And lastly, recently, I was the authority in question with my son, and I still don’t know whether I was right or wrong is taking such a drastic step. I’d just had all I could take, and still hope very much that it works out for his good. I know it’s doing *me* good, but then as the parent, aren’t I supposed to be strong enough to take it in order to teach someone better?)

    Actually, now I’m wondering again if I was wrong in all 3 cases. It’s so hard to deal with not knowing instinctively that one is a person and has inalienable rights. You have to second-guess yourself all the time and reestablish good healthy boundaries when dealing with people who also don’t know, who overstep. It’s so easy to slip back into letting abusive vibes get set up in your relationships again when you grew up abused. Even when you know better and vow never again to let that happen. Your selfness still tends to erode over time because it’s gradually eaten away before you notice. Maybe that’s another good argument against single parenthood, because a healthy loving relationship between spouses gives the parents more resilience and strength. I don’t know. I just know abuse has the effect of making a person doubt themselves constantly. Maybe the fact that I’m tending now to believe myself to be someone who is always wrong, who never can have good relationships and doesn’t deserve them is evidence for how long overdue the separation is this time. Maybe I need to talk to the bishop or something. I don’t know. Why do I always have these crippling self-doubts? It’s agonizing.

    Parents love their kids more than the kids love their parents back, and that’s as it should be, but how do you limit how much a mixed-up mentally ill child should be allowed to abuse the parent? Since the parent is in charge and decides the rules and limits, can the parent ever be the victim in that relationship? Am I stretching the analogy of the Church as a family too far and narcissistically threadjacking this post into something about me? Or am I just likening the post to myself in a good and healthy way? Isn’t it neurotic of me that I can’t leave this question alone? Lol, what a muddle I’m in!

  51. “Having been guilty of sin in my life, the idea of being forever defined by those acts in my relationship with other people is horrifying. Trusting someone to be a liar would constrain our ability to build bonds of fellowship with them, it would constrain their ability to love us and it would very possibly drive them away. In short, trusting someone to be a liar limits our ability to experience the liar as fully human.”

    I never thought of it that way before, but that is a great way to frame the problem. Excellent post!

  52. Josh B. says:

    Obviously you put a lot of thought into this post. It shows

  53. Spencer L. Jensen says:

    Not to stir up controversy, but that quote from Jackie Brown piqued my curiosity, so I added it to my Netflix queue. Now it has already been sent, and to my dismay I discovered that it is rated R for a very, very large amount of obscenities. You might want to be a little more selective in the sources you quote from…not exactly what I would call “the best books.”

  54. What were you thinking, Aaron? I was going to share this post with everyone I know, but now . . .

  55. Steve Evans says:

    LOLZ Spencer!

  56. There may be instances where firm formal discipline helps the individual to receive hope in Jesus and strength to change. However, in some instances, the person’s reaction is one of discouragement, sense of rejection, and a loss of hope. Some are so discouragement, they don’t return for years, decades, or even don’t return by the time their mortal life has ended. I know people in those categories.

    When he first became president, President Kimball felt that not enough people were being excommunicated, and encouraged leaders to excommunicate more than they were doing. (“Too often a transgressor is forgiven and all penalties waived when that person should have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated. Too often a sinner is disfellowshipped when he or she should have been excommunicated.” April 1975 priesthood session) His theory was that repentance could not occur unless there was punishment.

    Discipline did increase during those years. But as I understand it, the leading councils eventually decided that imposing too much penalty could be as bad or worse than not imposing enough. And the tacit encouragement to impose more drastic penalties was sharply diminished. In fact, I was present at a training meeting (10years after the Kimball speech above) with then-Elders Monson and McConkie at which Elder McConkie said something like the following, “Brethren, if the desired change can be brought about by disfellowhipping, rather than excommunicating, then disfellowship. If it can be brought about by probation rather than disfellowship, then use probation. If it can be brought about without even probation, then don’t use probation. The idea is to put our arms around the sinner and help the sinner back onto the path.”

  57. “You might want to be a little more selective in the sources you quote from…not exactly what I would call “the best books.””

    I love this.

    Spencer, you might want to be a little more selective in your knee-jerk Netflix queing. If you didn’t notice the rating, the fact that it’s a Tarantino movie should have tipped you off. In any event, it’s actually a pretty good movie, if you don’t mind the blood, the body count, the language and the sex.

  58. britt k says:

    I too am sceptical abou the protection of the innocent allowed by excommunication. Should excommunication be public knowledge so it can allow for protecting the innocent? In many cases (sexual sin) I don’t know that it needs to be public. I would think the only time the community needs to be protected is in the case of a more damaging sin (lying and stealing come to mind–or child abuse).

    it feels like it is more to protect the image of the church than the church members. If the exommunicated person does something stupid the church can say they hav been excommunicated. See it wasn’t us. Until that is said though, the members have no idea and can easily be manipulated…

    As a relief society president in a young adult ward I didn’t have any idea one of my ladies had been excommunicated before I was called until I attempted to call her to a calling-or teach something or I relly can’t remember, this was almost 20 years ago. I was not informed of the reason…

    It is interesting to ponder if some sins do need a public recognition and separation and than a public reuniting process. It’s not a separation if the bulk of the members don’t even notice or know.

  59. Britt, certainly I am not arguing that all sins for which people have been excommunicated fall into the category of protecting the community. The examples you use, and others, are the ones I have in mind when thinking about excommunication. Moreover, I suspect that for those who have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated the separation is very real even if other people are unaware.

    DavidH, thank you for sharing that quotation.

    Mark Brown, that distinction between being humbled or humiliated is very significant. In my view, the act of confession itself, especially if it is voluntary, would seem sufficient to avoid any further ecclesiastical humbling. However, that dimension adds another layer of complexity to my OP. I was trying to deal with situations where the sin is general knowledge and other comments in the same vein as yours have helped me realise that I did not adequately delineate that difference in the OP. What that difference means in practical terms is not clear. As I expressed in a previous post, I think there is in public confession but I am not unaware of the potential difficulties this could raise.

  60. Peter LLC says:

    It’s not a separation if the bulk of the members don’t even notice or know.

    Speaking as a person who can’t even be bothered to read the ward bulletin or pay attention to announcements delivered over the pulpit, I’m not sure what the bulk of the members notice or know has to do with anything, especially with regard to church discipline.

    For that matter, I don’t have the sense that even convert baptisms attract the attention they should, and would hesitate to hold repentant ex-members to a higher standard of public acknowledgment than those who have found their way into the fold for the first time.

  61. Chris Gordon says:

    I threw something out there that was in the middle of MMM v. Kristine and got swallowed accordingly that I’d still like to get some feedback on. I’m just petty like that and need validation. :)

    How much of the weaknesses of ex-communication and disfellowshipment at accomplishing its own defined ends is in our ward community’s lack of knowledge of how to respond to it? The average ward probably doesn’t face it all that often to develop customs or un-official policy as to how to react. Usually, at most there are gossipy whispers among the ranks with the customary instructions to leaders as to what the disciplined member can and cannot do, and that’s it.

    Contrast that with communities who practice shunning, for example. The entire community participates in the discipline and the entire community responds when the appropriate time has passed. Everyone knows what’s going on, everyone knows how to respond, and everyone is involved in both the discipline and, ideally, in welcoming the sinner back into the fold.

    Without condoning shunning, what types of customs, official or otherwise, would help church discipline better meet its ends, help the community heal together, and just plain make it all less awkward? Could a disciplined member be encouraged to write an open letter to the ward? Make a statement? Have some mechanism to communicate to the ward? Should the ward community have a similar mechanism to communicate a response? A plan for continued friendship and nourishment?

  62. Meldrum says:

    Quite an montage of ideas about excommunication. Interesting. I am having trouble with the most fundamental aspect of this discussion. What does excommunication have to do with the limits of community?

    Theoretically, excommunication could be like the Spanish Inquisition, a method to throw people out of the LDS community and thrust their souls down to hell sans the fires and whips and racks. In actual practice, it seems to most often be used to help members repent and heal broken relationships within the community. Less often it also involves punishing higher status leaders.

    Excommunication is expensive in terms of energy and time of stake or ward leaders. I know of no case where it has been used to protect me. Rarely a few token intellectuals are canned and this generally liberates them from any further influence and if anything enhances their voice. Lavina Fielding Anderson was kicked out but she remains a visible part of the LDS community.

    Even if you are booted, your name is never deleted from the memory of the big computers on North Temple. I really don’t understand how excommunication actually removes a member from the community in contrast to messing with their place within the community.

    Might I suggest that several other mechanisms are far more significant than excommunication in defining the limits of the LDS community?

    First and most obvious is resignation which is more common than excommunication and is reported by some to exceed convert baptisms in recent years. Next is voluntary inactivity for a variety of reasons, not usually congruent with common sunday school class perceptions of why this happens. This is the path that about 90% of new converts and at least half of life-long members take. Here is where the real limits of the LDS community are defined on a person-by-person and week-by-week basis. Finally, is apathy and flying below the radar, where at least half of the people attending meetings find themselves.

    The boundary on the other side of the Mormon plantation is defined by our approach to missionary work. The missionary department in Salt Lake thinks they can actually determine and even increase the number of converts through the application of various schemes borrowed from modern marketing principles, but it doesn’t work. It is hard to imagine any reason a person would not be baptized, if they temporarily agree with a small number of simple concepts asked in the interview preceding it. A few things like an unresloved criminal complaint, an abortion, and such might require the approval of a mission president. But that boundary is about as fenestrated as it can get. Hence we have the church of the revolving door.

    Notice, excommunication is at the discretion of the institution of the church. All of the other more important mechanisms that define the LDS community are at the discretion of the individual members and investigators. We the members define the church community. We are the church.

  63. Chris, your thoughts capture something of what I am trying to articulate. I do not necessarily want to specify what our community response should be but rather that by focusing upon the community (and their collective sanctification) might be a useful way of approaching a specific sub-set of excommunications. My sense is that those sins which directly impact the community are usually well known within the community itself. This is especially true in small wards, like the one I am a part of.

    Meldrum, if we are the Church-community then excommunication (and the sins which precede it), in part, defines our relation to the other members in that community, i.e. cannot hold a TR, calling, speak in Church etc. Moreover, when people return what is the relationship of the re-baptised to that group of people. Does the stigma of sin continue to persist despite re-baptism and if so what does this say about the limits of our ability to forgive, as a community, and hence fully accept someone as one of us?

  64. I was ex’ed for adultery a long time ago and since returned so I’ve seen this issue from all sides except apostasy. There is a drama going on in this thread and it plays out in the church community as well over these same issues. Tatiana describes it in the 4th paragraph of 50 first she was a bully (persecutor) later a victim and then a rescuer with her son. Persecutor, victim, rescuer this is the psychological stuff drama is created from and it plays out with church discipline as well see The conversation will become more productive when it moves to a no fault point of view we are all sinners some are are disciplined others are not I don’t mean to offend anyone but wake up there are many undisciplined liars, a few undisciplined adulterers and plenty of porn users sitting in our pews on Sunday although it is theoretically possible for community to be tangibly damaged by one individual this is quite rare so the real issue is how do we all get along during and after this drama.

    The common definition of apostasy is the formal disaffiliation from or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. The church turns this definition on it’s head by deciding for the member that they have reached this point and it is time to change or leave. I largely see LDS apostasy charges as a power play on the part of the church rather than a loss or lack of belief on the part of the disciplined member.

    Mark Brown makes excellent points in 44 & 45: Since nobody knows it doesn’t do the innocent any good, and the reputation of the church is not rescued. There is a crucial difference between being humbled and being humiliated.

  65. And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin offering But the goat, on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.

  66. Meldrum says:


    The answer to all of those questions is entirely dependentant upon how, individually, we want to treat each other. What I am saying is that the entire community defines its limits in many complex ways which are expressed in how we act toward each other. The fewer leaders at the top have only limited ability to define the limits of community through institutional responses like excommunication. In our modern secular society where more and more people are turning away from churches, our church leaders have no options with any real immediate bite.

    For example consider a hypothetical Bishop’s $hit list. The Bishop might intend putting a person on the list as punishment. It might be secret , only known to the perpetrator, or published narrowly or widely. But if the ward members decide that being on the list is a status symbol, or desirable to avoid demanding callings, or evidence of not being square, or just plain funny, then the community has defined this limit independently from the Bishop. When the rest of the ward ignores the list it becomes meaningless. Excommunication only has the meaning that collectively we allow ourselves to give it.

    The TR might function in reverse of this list , but not really. On one hand the temple is supposed to be the pinnacle of our worship, something devoted members sold all their belongings and transversed mountains and deserts and oceans to attain. On the other hand attendance is low and we are constantly being begged to attend. In a pinch many feel justified in lying to get a TR for an event. The TR is not much of a boundary at all between the inner circle of the ward and the rest, except perhaps in the minds of a few.

    The other tool is the status assigned to callings. When was the last time anyone was actually punished for doing a crappy job in their church calling? The only time the Bishop calls you in is when you are doing a good job making people think outside of their comfort zone. At worst, they just might release you, which is actually a reward. Eventually “good” callings are not extended to less valiant members but that does not effectively exclude them and leads to burn-out.

    I had a Bishop who once asked me to teach the gospel doctrine class as a punishment. When he later asked me if I had had enough yet, I told him truthfully that it was my favorite calling ever and would continue indefinitely. In the past Mormons did not negotiate much over callings, but I see that changing now.

    Another way to responded to calling manipulation is to give one’s self bogus callings, such as the Underground Elder’s Q Pres. or Stake Ancestral Dutch Oven Recipe Specialist, or Snow Removal Committee for Cuba. This results in greater entanglement with the ward members, not less.

    You can never be genuinely humbled by outside forces. It has to come from within. If you have enough inner strength, you will not easily be humiliated either. Because you can chose how you respond to any given circumstance and decide not to be humiliated in your own mind. Ridiculed but not humiliated.

  67. As a gay person I think maybe I’m more attuned to this issue than some, since ANY behavior considered “homosexual” will land you in a Church court in the blink of an eye. This includes something as simple as holding hands with someone of the same gender. I lived through the horror of the Kimball era when people were excommunicated for seemingly the smallest infractions. You could be excommunicated for having homosexual thoughts or feelings – you didn’t even have to DO anything! It was like a witch hunt.

    Excommunication should be reserved for only the most heinous of crimes. I personally have not seen it do a lot of good. Rather, it serves to embarrass and alienate someone from the “community” that needs to be uplifting them, loving them, and encouraging them to overcome their problems. In most of the instances I’ve seen, the individual is ostracized to some extent, marginalized, and becomes the nucleus of the latest Ward gossip. Instead of the Community showing an “increase of love” after being reproved, the excommunicant is more likely to be looked down on, ignored, and many times altogether forgotten. How does that fit in with “To The Rescue”?

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