Friday, June 12, 2009

He Said: Excommunication

The most dread word that any Latter-day Saint fears is excommunication. Most Latter-day Saints hope that they will one day dwell in the celestial kingdom with Christ and our Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother so being excommunicated is tantamount to a Mormon as the ultimate punishment since an excommunicated person will no longer be considered part of the church or body of believers and will be cut off from God. Damnation means not being in the presence of God and excommunication is the church's way of saying that you are cut out of the Lamb's Book of Life.

The Church says that the process is a court of love. I questioned that for many years until I was involved at the stake level in receiving a person back in to the fold in 2005. Some members believe that it is only between the Lord and the person and that the church should not get involved. I feel that the church can exert an influence in helping a person to repent and return to the fold. Ultimately it requires inspired judgment in order to determine the status of a person. In LDS belief there is a series of judgments which lead up to the final judgment and that the Lord will consider in making his final determination. I also think that the church does need to protect itself from unscrupulous members who could bring about damage and lead others away from the church for apostasy.

Acccording to Wikipedia excommunication is a penalty "for those who commit serious sins or for those that significantly impair the name or moral influence of the church."

According to the Church Handbook of Instructions, The purposes of church discipline are (1) to save the souls of transgressors, (2) to protect the innocent, and (3) to safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the church. Excommunication is generally reserved for what are seen as the most serious sins, including committing serious crimes; committing adultery, polygamy, or homosexual conduct; apostasy, teaching false doctrines, or openly criticizing LDS leaders. A 2006 revision to the Church Handbook of Instructions states that joining another church is also an excommunicable offense, however merely attending another church does not constitute apostasy.

Excommunication for a Melchizedek Priesthood holder (all adult males over eighteen who are living LDS standards are usually ordained to the priesthood) must be done at the stake level. The stake presidency (made up of a stake president, two counselors, a stake clerk, and an executive secretary) and High Council act as a disciplinary council like a court. The High Council is made up of twelve members who act as the defense and prosecution. Six speak for the person and six speak against the person. The person committing the offense is excused to the hallway to await the decision. After hearing all the testimony the stake presidency then return to his office and consult in private. The stake president then invited the smaller group to pray and then comes to a decision on what discipline to impose. He then tells the small group his decision and they return to the high council room where the stake president announces the decision to the combined group. The person being disciplined is asked to come back in and told the final outcome and a few words of counsel on the appeals process and the conditions of their discipline and a some words on how to return to full fellowship later. If the person is not present a letter is sent to them informing him of the decision of the stake president. A person can appeal to the First Presidency in Salt Lake City.

Females and adolescent males or adult Aaronic priesthood males are disciplined by the bishop and his two counselors with the bishop making the final determination. The decision can be appealed to the stake president and the First Presidency.

When a person is excommunicated they can still attend church but they can't partake of the sacrament, hold a calling, pay tithing nor attend the LDS temple. An endowed member needs clearance from the leaders in Salt Lake City before they are allowed to have their blessings restored. The matter is kept private today without other members being told so not to embarrass the person nor his/her family. When I first joined the church it was announced publicly. An excommunicated person can ask for reinstatement after one year. Depending on the severity of the sin it may take several years and requires them to follow a plan for correcting their behavior.

I attended a disciplinary council when I was an executive secretary in a stake. The man had committed some grievous sexual sin which included adultery. He had been excommunicated. He worked with his bishop in overcoming his sexual addictions which included pornography. After about a year and a half with the recommendation of his bishop the First Presidency agreed he could be reconsidered for reinstatement. The stake president told us the decision to reinstate was approved by Salt Lake City and we could proceed if everyone was in agreement. We meet as a stake presidency with the High Council and heard the person's statement and the bishop's statement that he had counseled with him and felt him ready to be reinstated to full fellowship. A few High Council members spoke for the man and a one or two spoke about what had caused the problem in the first place but not too adamantly. We as a stake presidency then left the room and had a short discussion on whether the person was ready to be received in full fellowship again. All five members of the stake presidency gave their views. We prayed as a group. The stake president then pronounced that he felt the Holy Spirit and felt we should accept the person in full fellowship. We returned to the room and the stake president told the high council that he felt the person should be welcomed back in full fellowship.

The person was invited in to the room again. The stake president told him how proud he was of the person and their desire to live the gospel and correct his behavior and that the group felt that the person should be received in full fellowship. Every person in the room shook the person's hand and a few embraced the person warmly welcoming the person back in to the full fellowship of the church. I wasn't involved in the restoration of blessings or any of those details since the stake president handled that part personally between him, the person and Salt Lake City. We were only involved in the process of welcoming him back.

I can't to this day remember who the person is but I do know that the person involved felt dignity and compassion and love in the process. It was a very moving experience for me to welcome the person back in to full fellowship and to see his joy in coming back. On that day I discovered that when handled the way the church outlines that it was indeed a council of love.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who is reeling from the struggles associated with addiction, and who always hated themself for the mere thoughts -- someone who ultimately made some mistakes that resulted in ex-communication, I can tell you that the love, dignity, and compassion of which you speak varies by area.

    I lived in one area where priesthood leaders were compassionate and loving, as you appear to be. I was able to be re-baptized within a couple years. It was wonderful, as I knew that these men understood the gospel and did their best to do Heavenly Father's will.

    Then I had to move. I'm on my second bishop, and still 7 years after that, and I'm increasingly convinced that as long as I live in this ward, in this stake, in this area, I'm completely wasting my time, energy, and tears. I don't think I would ever have been re-baptized if I lived here, and I am not sure I'll ever even be able to get my letter to the First Presidency asking for my restoration of blessings.

    The pain of rejection and lack of compassion and understanding is unbearable. And my dignity is most certainly not preserved. I'm teetering on the edge of just throwing my hands in the air and walking away from the church completely. I know this sounds angry, but truthfully, it's just painful. I can't bear the rejection anymore. I'm astonished that these people appear to have such little grasp of the gospel and what it entails.

    "Dignity" is not a word I would use to describe the process in this ward. My stake president has been better, but frankly, if the bishop doesn't "get it," it's going nowhere.