Who We Cast Away


The word “ostracize” comes from a practice of the world’s first democracy. Each year, the citizens of Athens could vote to conduct an ostracism—a writing on shards of pottery, or ostraka. Citizens would write the name of a man considered a potential threat to the state, usually somebody with enough power to become a tyrant. A person named by a sufficient number of citizens would be banished for ten years, not punitively, but preemptively. Such was the fate of the great military hero Themistocles, who defeated the Persians and saved all of Greece. In Athens, they did not take chances.

Human societies have always practiced some form of ostracism—often preemptively and always for protection against perceived threats. We are social animals, but we are also scared little mammals governed by our fears. Consequently, we often withdraw our society, and our protection, from those we consider dangerous. It’s how scared little social animals have always done things.

The fears that lead to ostracism are legion. We fear physical contagion, moral contagion, corruption, power, weakness, disease, deviance, and the displeasure of the gods. And we have a long tradition of ostracizing (or worse) lepers, adulterers, heretics, disabled people, sick people, and anybody who, for any reason, we imagine capable of bringing divine wrath down on our communities.

One of the most sinister reasons for casting people from our midst—and one that lies at the heart of many others—is the fear of having to re-evaluate the core assumptions that help us make sense of the world. Some societies, for example, believe that a soul can only inhabit a unique body that has been designed for it. Identical twins seem to violate this belief by splitting a single soul into two bodies. Consequently, twins must be killed (or allowed to die) lest they allow a soulless body to wreak havoc on the community.

This is also the main conflict in the Book of Job. Job is cast out of his society and rejected by his comforters because they do not want to have to rethink one of their principle beliefs: that God rewards good people with good things and punishes bad people with bad things. Belief in divine rewards and punishments structured much of the ancient world. The very existence of a person like Job—a righteous man suffering profoundly—was incompatible with this world view. It was easier for Job’s best friends to reject him and drive him away than to reevaluate their core beliefs. This sort of thing happens all too often today.

One guy who never did this was Jesus Christ. The New Testament, in fact, goes to great length to show Jesus interacting with—and not rejecting—nearly every category of human being that his society had determined to ostracize. He heals lepers, forgives adulteresses, interacts regularly with prostitutes and tax collectors, and even has some good words to say about Samaritans. For a Palestinian Jew in the Roman world, this is a pretty complete list of people not to hang around with.

Several people have told me recently that it is a serious mistake to see Christ’s abundant love as an acceptance of sinful behavior. This is absolutely true. But it is just as serious a mistake to confuse the need to disapprove of sin with the need to expel people from our society. It is completely possible to love the sinner, hate the sin, and not cast anybody from our midst.

This, in fact, is precisely the charge that Christ has given to those who would be his disciples.


  1. One reason that the policies being discussed this week matter a lot to me is that I have multiple close relatives in same-sex relationships, but the idea that unrepentant sinners shall be cast out shows up several times in Doctrine and Covenants Section 42. I wonder how many of us don’t have any sins that we haven’t repented of.

  2. anonforthis says:

    This is also strangely pertitent to many “Christian” politicians’ approaches to the current refugee crisis.

  3. Fantastic, Michael.

  4. 3rd Nephi 18 makes it very clear what we are to do in these situations — and I think the brethren are following the Savior’s counsel (verses 27-32) perfectly.

  5. Rob Osborn says:

    Im curious to know which individuals we actually are expelling from our society.

  6. Very well stated. Others I have talked who are also well known within our church community for being allies, and the greater community for “knowing how Mormons work” have had the surreal experience of trying to help both sides see ostracism as harmful, painful and destructive for the individual, and all those things on a disastrous level, for the communities.

  7. Rob, for starters there’s you.

  8. Rob Osborn says:

    What do you mean?

  9. Steve Evans says:

    Oh, I thought you meant from BCC.

  10. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Mike for President

  11. Clark Goble says:

    We should continue to fellowship with all and turn none away. Yet there are somethings that cut people off. We shouldn’t forget this was even part of Christ’s preaching for those who will not listen. “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” (Matt 18:17)

    It’s just sad that so many people aren’t able to still love those cut off from certain covenants. Jesus loved everyone. We’re all sinners and the call is to us all. Yet that doesn’t mean anything goes.

  12. Are we equating homosexuality with sin?

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Well that’s embarrassing. I was not aware of that origin of the word ostracize. How fascinating–and instructive.

  14. Drive out the bondmaid’s son. Gen 21:10

  15. Moral contagion seems to be what this is all about, but the supposed spiritual damage of allowing a baby blessing for a child of gay parents seems nothing compared to the real spiritual benefit of being inclusive and respectful.

    No. I think the heart of the matter is the teaching/tradition that sex is so very sinful. If I yield and concede that homosexual cohabitation isn’t even close to the seriousness of murder or rape, then so much worldview/”core assumption” is shattered.

  16. I can’t but help think that in these discussions of the new policy, there is a lot of talking past each other. The defenders of the policy seem to be defending the aspect of the policy that makes gay marriage an excommunicable offense. Yet, my great suspicion is that that is not what concerns the folks on the other side of the debate. What concerns these folks I suspect is that we are going one step further than excommunication and labeling SSM couples “apostates,” a notion that carries with it in the church a strong sense of implicit ostracization. From that perspective, scriptural verses barring sinners from partaking of the flesh and blood unworthily while at the same time forbidding one from casting such sinners out of the church throws a very different (and dare I say critical) light on this aspect of the new policy. I’ve heard folks respond with something along the lines of “well, yes, maybe apostasy isn’t the right word.” But I fail to see how that isn’t conceding the entire point. After all, at the end of the day, these are all just words, and it turns out that words matter a great deal.

  17. Person, I don’t think the core assumption/worldview we’re talking about here is sex so much as it is marriage. Marriage is and has been oh-so-very important and oh-so-very fraught for we LDS people for a long time.

    A naming blessing triggering a record with two mommies, a baptism generating a record with two daddies, before you know it some angry adult convert is suing the Church to do the temple work for his late moms… And why not? Since we recognized them as parents for the purposes of baptismal records, etc. And from there it will be gay people clamoring for live sealings, fire, brimstone, apocalypse. This, I’ve been given to understand, is the driving rationale for the new policy as drafted by the lawyers who wrote it.

    Let’s be clear, when we deny a baby a naming blessing, an eight year old baptism, and a legally married couple inclusion full stop, we are ostracizing, or cutting off, or expelling–phrase it how you like; we are withholding our society. And we are doing it, I quite agree with Michael, because we are afraid of what cherished paradigms of ours might have to shift or expand.

    Which, for a theology as expansive and nimble and a canon so open as ours, is a terrible shame.

  18. We are still left with the unanswered questions: why was this done and why was it done this way?

    That the policy was designed to protect children of gay parents from cognitive dissonance and contention within the home is nonsensical. Many parents (myself included) taught their children to reject several things they were taught in Sunday School and Seminary (e.g., that evolution is false, that church leaders are incapable of leading us astray, that the pictures of Joseph Smith translating the B of M are accurate, etc.) without anyone suffering irreparable psychological or spiritual damage. Indeed, they were better for it.

    And what’s up with labeling same-sex marriage apostasy? It was already well established that sexual relations between members of the same gender would likely result in severe disciplinary action. Did the church need to drive the point home by compelling the accused to wear a scarlet “A”?

    This almost looks like an act of petulance. Having lost every material legal and political battle, the church decided to strike back with a policy targeting an imaginary danger (children torn between their gay parents and their religion) so that it could remind everyone that, within in its own narrow sphere, it is still in charge.

    How’s that working out for everyone?

  19. Rachel Hamrick says:

    Love this!

  20. Great stuff, Michael.

  21. Strong, strong work. Thanks for posting.

  22. You may have conveniently excised uncomfortable passages of scripture (such as Alma 6:3 and 3 Nephi 18:31) from your copies of the Book of Mormon, but those who bear the responsibility of leading in the church don’t have that luxury.

  23. rebeccadalmas says:

    It would be wrong for any ward or member to interpret any difference in church standing as a reason for ostracism. Looking at policy and the way my oen ward functions, I know that any shunning taking places runs against doctrine and policy.

  24. I may be seeing something that isn’t there, but (and it would not be the first, nor the last time I’ve seen this here and elsewhere in the Bloggernacle) it seems like the last words of this thought-provoking piece are suggesting that those who are ultimately responsible for the policy — living prophets and apostles — are not being Christ’s disciples in this matter? That they are doing something the Lord Himself would not approve or do?

    Now, I’m reminded of a lesson in my daughter’s history class (fifth grade) about this very subject… Ostracizing, then, looks like a relevant topic in the XXI century, after all, but I do not think it is applicable here. Or, better, I do not see anyone trying (or wanting) to ostracize people with same-sex feelings, tendencies, identities or parentage. These people, their feelings, their tendencies, their identity, their being, are not a threat to the Church, quite the contrary.

    I think the issue is the Lord wanting to ‘ostracize’ (not the best word, but I’ll follow the central point of the piece) some behaviors (which should not be new or unexpected). Some behaviors are a ‘threat’ not so much to the Church as an institution, but to people practicing or supporting them. All sin (not people) should be ‘ostracized’ from our soul, isn’t it? Why? Because sin threatens our eternal happiness, salvation and exaltation. It stops our progress. It fights against our peace. It is contrary to our deepest nature as divine offspring. And the Lord does not want (that’s an understatement) this. And the fact that some of these behaviors/sins are more and more considered normal, if not ‘right and proper’, by society and even in the Church makes the whole issue all the more serious. Few other serious sins (if any) find so much favor among the general (Western) population and now in the Lord’s Kingdom as well. Not murder, not rape, not pornography use, not addiction etc. (to mention a few horrific sins I saw mentioned in several posts). The fact that a sin striking at the very roots of the Plan of Salvation finds so much acceptance and even pride/praise must be very troublesome to the Lord and to His prophets, in my opinion.

    The whole point of Creation is about creating families (as defined by the Creator) and making them eternal. The doctrine of eternal families/marriage (as defined by the Creator) is not only clearly established throughout Scripture from the beginning (not a mere modern teaching by mere modern prophets, and even if it was, would that make it less fundamental to the Father’s plan?); it predates the Creation of the Earth. The doctrine of the family is second only to the Atonement in terms of vital importance for the Plan. One of the hardest, soul-wrenching dilemmas behind this issue is that is entails both sexual identity (being born with a specific tendency or nature) and sexual behavior. That’s a very hard riddle to solve, it seems… It seems to ask for a soteriological theodicy of gender identity. if so many people, LDS or not, are ‘born’ gay, if their very identity, their very being, is gay, and the Lord affirms that same-sex behavior (and therefore ssmarriage as well) bans them from salvation (exaltation), what should we make of the whole Plan of Salvation? Of Justice and Mercy? Of basic Gospel Doctrine? Is it pre-destination all over again?

    Now, for what is worth, I totally agree that “it is completely possible [though not always easy] to love the sinner, hate the sin, and not cast anybody from our midst”. I am also convinced that we have not been asked to cast anybody from our midst. Not anyone (i.e. people, human beings, fellow Saints). There are two issues to consider: people and behaviors. We are to keep loving and serving all people, just as we have always been commanded to. Just as we have made sacred covenants to do. But the Lord is trying to send a clear statement — to us, more than to the rest of the world — about a specific behavior/lifestyle which is ever more accepted in society at large, and in the Church as well, the plan of salvation notwithstanding. He is trying to make things clear enough that no one can misunderstand.

    “It is completely possible [though not always easy] to love the sinner, hate the sin, and not cast anybody from our midst”, and this is exactly what the Lord, through His appointed servants, is asking (has always asked, will always ask) the Saints to do. We have not been asked to ostracize anyone, but the Lord cannot save people (even people He loves infinitely and perfectly) IN their sins, only FROM their sins. All people (black and white, bond and free, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, Utes and Cougars, gay and straight…) are invited to come unto Christ and be blessed, perfected and saved in Him and through Him and to partake of His Atonement, but not all behaviors have the same privilege. Some behaviors must be left behind, abandoned, disavowed, otherwise they make it impossible for someone to fully come unto Christ and return to the Father. It’s not about people, or children, being denied anything.

    Some, unfortunately, keep wanting to make the border between sinner and sin too porous and to extend (in good faith, out of sincere feelings, undoubtedly) love to both the sinner and his/her sin, or to change the definition of what really constitutes the ‘sin’ in this instance in order to love more the sinner. This Christ we all desire to follow and emulate was able somehow to feel infinite and perfect love for the sinner (whatever the sin) and, at the same time, to say He could not “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”.

    With all the love, empathy and compassion we can feel for our family members, friends or mere acquaintances impacted by this policy, we cannot forget that the Lord, in and through His Church (whatever society, civil law, the APA etc. affirm to the contrary) has the right to define what sin is or is not, what behavior is acceptable or not, and what can hurt the eternal chances of each precious soul to fulfill his or her divine potential and the measure of his or her creation, which is not defined merely by earthly, temporary, contingent (though strong) feelings or tendencies but is mostly dependent upon doing what the Lord asks us to do and becoming the person the Lord knows we can become. The greatest demonstration of love we can show and feel for those we care about, whatever their sexual orientation, is to direct them to the Source of all happiness and fulfillment, not away from Him (or from those who have been called to point others to Him).

  25. it's a series of tubes says:

    Amen, Andrea.

  26. I’m not sure that this post is about the policy changes at all.

  27. That’s right, Steve. It’s about Justin Bieber. Just last night I was at the hockey game, and it was announced that Justin Bieber will be performing some concerts next summer at the Barclays Center.

    And all those hockey fans rose up and booed lustily. Talk about ostracism!

  28. To clarify, I am writing about what I perceive to be the Christian responsibilities of people like me, because that is the perspective that I inhabit. It applies, I suppose, to the new policy–but it applies to a lot of other things as well. I am not writing about what the leaders of the Church should do, because that is not a perspective that I inhabit. I do not have their responsibilities, for which I am grateful. I have only my responsibilities, which are enough.

  29. What if we try to apply ‘ostracism’ to our own home, or to our Church meetinghouses? What would (or does) this term/practice mean then? What possible examples could we give of ostracism in these settings? I’m thinking about Italian meetinghouses I have seen; I do not know how it works in other countries. These may be simple examples, even naive, but they come from my limited experience: Is it a form of ostracism when we demand smokers not to smoke within Church property? Or when we ask people inclined to profanity not to swear within Church property? Is it ostracism when leaders do not allow some people to bear their testimony from the pulpit on Fast Sunday? Or to take the sacrament? Are we casting people away, or specific behaviors?

  30. Andrea, a couple weeks ago, a mother of a friend of my child told me that a mutual friend of our children had threatened my child. The threat involved stealing from our home if our child did not comply with her demands. I was not able to verify her report, in fact it seems to have been a misunderstanding. Yet, if it had been confirmed, I would have not allowed the child who threatened mine to come to our home anymore.

    There has to be a modicum of common ground of mutual respect to share space and company. If that is maintained, we can welcome all kinds of differences.

  31. Andrea: the casual dissociation between people and behavior is one that can lead us to un-Christlike conclusions. Such as the conclusion that Justin Bieber is ever welcome at the Barclays Center.

  32. “One of the most sinister reasons for casting people from our midst, is the fear of having to re-evaluate the core assumptions that help us make sense of the world”

    This is a great line, Michael. Nothing makes people more angry than having to rethink things.

  33. The new Biebs album is great. Go ahead and get angry instead of rethinking your assumptions.

  34. “To clarify, I am writing about what I perceive to be the Christian responsibilities of people like me, because that is the perspective that I inhabit. It applies, I suppose, to the new policy–but it applies to a lot of other things as well. I am not writing about what the leaders of the Church should do, because that is not a perspective that I inhabit. I do not have their responsibilities, for which I am grateful. I have only my responsibilities, which are enough.”

    The idea of ostracism is essentially one of maintaining boundaries in order to keep peace within and, even, without the boundary. Churches, mosques, synagogues, etc… they all represent a cloistering of people sharing common ground. I believe that they can represent the world on the small scale, and what we do within can deeply effect what occurs without, in the wider world. The wider world is changing, and there will be an ever-increasing need to be able to welcome those among us despite differences, to encourage mutual respect and fellowship.

    One example of changes is that, by 2050, Christians and Muslims will be basically tied in terms of percentage of world population, yet the shape will be different than now: Forty percent of Christians will be in Africa, percentages of Muslims in Western countries will be increasing. IOW, it looks as though Islam, which is perhaps the most hardline socially conservative religion in the world will represent a bigger portion of the population than it does now, and not merely in its own more cloistered world regions, but in most countries including Western developed nations. Source for pew study: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050/

    Thus, it would seem to me that a free and peaceful world will desperately need the ability to negotiate the differences of mutliple belief systems. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints can represent a microcosm of this, as it is a global Church led centrally, attempting to maintain a unified structure everywhere while staying true to its core doctrines and practices.

    One of the blessings of modern times is that we don’t have to exile anyone like the Greeks did in order to preserve the peace. Punishments don’t have to be as severe in order to prevent future crimes. People can feel safer and can better protect themselves. The state takes care of many of those things so that the Church has less to worry over. We also have more information and understanding of the world over time and space. We generally don’t have to rely on isolating ourselves into communities, seeking the assurance of safety through common values because more people besides our own faith communities share those values.

    You can see this openness already today alive in Church policy and reality: look at any ward in the Church, and most of the time if you could see all, you will find a member who has been disciplined or even excommunicated who is participating in the ward, welcomed by its members, and remaining part of the ward family. You will often see non-member individuals attend and participate for significant periods, being welcomed and treated well. The same can be seen for one-time visitors and non-member family of members. Look at the messages from our First Presidency and you will see exhortations to love everyone. So, if the LDS keep their covenants, even magnify them, they will bridge that divide that poses a dilemma to the rest of the world. And perhaps, in doing so, they will be part of making and keeping the world free and peaceful.

  35. I think it’s worth considering that humans, even chosen-people humans, are not very good at determining the boundaries that Christ would like enforced in His kingdom. To me, that’s a primary theme of our scriptures (esp BoM) and even our own more recent history. People naturally want to draw lines and build walls, and then Christ has to knock them down.

    I love the way this is described in Ephesians 2:14: “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us”

  36. Melvin C. Johnson says:

    Does the policy mean that baptized children in LGBT homes can no longer attend church? Take the sacrament? Participate in their age-appropriate meetings. What about young guys who hold the priesthood? Can they officiate in the duties of their officers? Or are they put on hold?

  37. So yeah, all this talk about eternal man-woman marriages, eternal families and eternal procreation is all well and good, but can anyone tell me again what exactly my role in the eternities is as a woman? I keep asking these pesky questions about my invisible, silent Heavenly Mother and I never seem to get any answer beyond “Oh, she exists.”

    Also, let’s do some math. Out of the estimated 36 billion human beings that have existed on this little space rock, how many of them are in temple-sealed eternal marriages? I’m betting it’s around 0.0001%. What about the 35.999 billion other people? If your answer to that is “It will all get worked out in the eternities,” then I think we can apply that response to the accusation that same-sex marriage is thwarting God’s plan.

  38. Asked and answered, as the trial lawyers would say, Melvin.

    And, what’s a “B” home, anyway?

  39. Kyle: Not a single person was angry. They were all smiling as they booed lustily.

  40. Glenn Thigpen says:

    The church does not drive out in the sense of ostracism. It does remove those from membership who are not able to maintain the covenants of chastity they made at baptism. Those who are not members are still allowed, actually encouraged to attend meetings, although there are some restrictions as to Sacrament, and participation in some activities.

  41. questioning says:

    (Mark 7:24-30)

    21Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. 22And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou Son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. 23But he answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. 24But he answered and said, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 25Then came she and worshipped him, saying, Lord, help me. 26But he answered and said, It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs. 27And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. 28Then Jesus answered and said unto her, O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.

  42. Is God the greatest Ostracizer? After all, isn’t He the One who says that no unclean thing can dwell in His presence? Doesn’t He draw a line and enforce it? Or is everybody going to live with God? Maybe it isn’t super mean to enforce some type of boundaries in the here and now so people are warned of what is ahead for all of us? Should we allow everybody into the temple?

  43. Carl Youngblood says:

    Great insights. The only slight pushback I would make is with the love-the-sinner/hate-the-sin reference, which I believe is actually undercut by the rest of your reasoning here. The very sinfulness of certain behaviors (like gay monogamy) is what is being called into question when we interact with those whom the current policy changes seem to be trying to distance us from. Rather than merely affirming the objective of retaining our worldview while interacting with those whose worldview is different from ours, I think it’s important to encourage openness to changing our worldview as we acquire new truth. The rest of your essay seems to encourage this, but your reference to love-the-sinner/hate-the-sin seems to undercut it.

  44. Carl, this is a reasonable point. I meant for this statement to be something like an “even if you think that. . . .” hypothetical. But I also wanted it to be compact and quotable. If I were less interested in rhetorical flourishes, I would have said something like, “even if you believe something to be a sin, and you think that you are morally bound to condemn that sin, it still does not follow that you have to ostracize somebody who commits that sin. The operation of condemning a sin is not logically connected to the operation of ostracizing a human being.”

    But that would have sounded tentative and pedantic. I was going for memorable.

  45. Unfortunately condemning a sin is ostracizing to a lot of people. Particularly homosexuals who don’t have the option of all the other blessings that eternal marriage offers.

  46. Michael, this is beautiful. I have never read anything of yours that I haven’t immediately wanted to share. Please write more.

  47. MikeInWeHo says:

    I think the whole concept apostasy and dis-fellowship is problematic, wherever it is practiced. It’s the hall mark of cults such as Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just because the LDS church (and various Evangelical groups) practice a less stringent form doesn’t make things better. The world has gotten way too small for tribal boundary markers, which is really what we’re talking about here. When did idealism die?

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