ADMIN NOTE: I just want to start by saying that I am not speaking for the church here. I’m just relaying my own experiences and thoughts. If you want official positions and statements on these topics, I strongly recommend going here.
The other day, a friend asked me for my thoughts on church discipline for the people involved in the Ordain Women movement. I know there are a lot members of the church who are tired of the group, their demands, and what not. I’ve talked to plenty of people who would simply see them all excommunicated, and, frankly, I’ve felt that way as well. Probably expressed it, too. It’s been frustrating to see them do and act against things that are so obviously (for me anyway) contrary to the Lord’s will.
But here’s the thing: I’m hesitant to say that they should be excommunicated because I don’t know the detail and more importantly, I don’t know them, their hearts, and their understanding.
A gut response to a question like what should happen to apostates is typically that they should be excommunicated. They are disobeying the prophet, actively teaching doctrine that has been declared incorrect by the church, and are otherwise outside the bounds of correctness set by the church, but I guess I wonder why I feel that way? Is it out of anger at their misunderstanding and what some might even call stupidity? Because if the drive behind the desire to take church discipline is anything other than “what does the Lord want,” I’m wrong.
In Doctrine and Covenants 121:43, the Lord speaks about discipline saying:
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
I had a friend who once pointed out that if we closely look at the scripture, it says that we afterwards show an increase of love. How can we show an increase if we have not loved prior? This scripture almost requires us to love the guilty so much before reproof that we must truly love the sinner deeply and purely, and when you understand and love someone so much to then feel compelled by the spirit to offer reproof, you will never do so out of any desire other than to help them and love them.
So if love is our basis, I do wonder what I would do. If I were in a position to judge in this case (and thank heavens I’m not!), I would mourn with them over their perceived slights at not having the priesthood. I would seek to understand what led them to believe what they believe and why they feel compelled to teach false doctrine despite being asked not to and being so clearly instructed otherwise. I would council with them, listen to them, meet with them, and only after doing so for long enough to feel like I knew them and loved them would I consider moving forward with discipline.
Only after understanding and hearing and listening would I feel comfortable taking the matter to the Lord not as their judge (because He’s the Judge) but as their advocate where I could plead their case before the Lord as well as all the things I and others had done to help them and lift them. To love them. And in a case like that where so much preparation and effort had gone into understanding and loving first, I think a priesthood leader has the right to get that answer from the Lord regarding discipline. And I think he will. And a person so judged who honestly feels the leader has treated them in that way cannot feel anything but justice and mercy being served.
In cases of apostasy, it’s hard to make a fair judgment as an external person because the line is so clearly drawn in the doctrine. And yet isn’t it interesting that the church doesn’t often make such a hard and immediate decision regarding apostasy? Even in cases of outright apostasy, they seem to move slowly on any disciplinary case, slow being a relative term of course. But the church is careful to serve the person being judged, not rushed to see them punished or cast out. A person so roughly handled and discarded bears little hope of seeing a return to fellowship and the gospel. In the end, the rule carries less bearing on the person than the Law, and the Law is Christ. This is why in two equal cases in every way, one person walks free and the other may not. Because we don’t judge. He does. And He does so from a position of perfect love and understanding.
In my time in church leadership, I’ve sat in on half a dozen or so disciplinary councils. Each was unique, but there were a lot of similarities. I know most of the church doesn’t get to see church discipline from either side of the desk so to speak, so I wanted to talk about some of the experiences I had and the insights I’ve gained.
NOTE: In saying this, I would emphasize that my involvement was as a High Councilor, or someone who sits in council with the stake presidency. I did not “vote” on disciplinary matters, but I had opportunities to talk to the people involved, interview them, discuss the matter with my fellow Councilors and the presidency, and then offer my sustaining voice in support of the disciplinary decision. In the bishopric where I serve currently, my role is more or less the same, though I would directly council the bishop who would hold the key of making that decision.
I remember one case that we dealt with almost a full year after the events in question happened, and those events were more or less known, understood, and fully confessed. Another one took only two months to develop with a similar full confession from the person. Why? Because both of those people spent that time working with their bishops and the stake president being educated, grown, and nurtured. By the time it came before the council, it was an opportunity of healing and growth for these two and their families. One needed longer to get to that point. During that time, he retained his membership in the church with the associated blessings. While he did not participate in the ordinances of the church or exercise his priesthood, he was still part of us and treated as such. The other didn’t need as much time. For both, the priesthood leaders I worked with helped both the accused and the victims, including and especially the innocent victims that are hurt by the actions of others.
With the Ordain Women movement, I thought it was interesting that the two leaders currently facing discipline both talked about the numerous meetings they’ve had with their own religious leaders. Those leaders are doing what they can to understand, to hear, to listen, and to learn before reproving. They are doing it right.
Another thing to consider is that we don’t make the judgment. I think we get confused when we refer to our bishops as Common Judges in Israel thinking that they “create” judgment in these cases. Our judges in the legal courts are in a similar position, and their role is one of interpretation, not creation. They interpret and apply the law. They do not create it nor do they ignore it (well, they shouldn’t… Another post another day….). A bishop is in the same boat. He does not create law in his judgment, he merely applies it. And he always seeks the guidance of the spirit in his judgments.
I have always been impressed in the disciplinary councils I’ve sat on that after a full review of the transgression, a discussion with the person and any witnesses thought necessary, the next two steps are a long conversation with the person’s bishop and then the judge steps aside to interpret the Lord’s will. To take them separately….
After the person is done being interviewed, he leaves and his bishop is given an opportunity to talk about his experiences with that person, his thoughts on their repentance, and where their life stands. I was particularly impressed in more than one case where the bishop spoke deeply about his love for the person and how hopeful he was for their salvation. This is not a bishop who spoke from anger, although many of them certainly could have! This was a bishop who was so distraught at the long road ahead for a person in their flock that they were experiencing physical pain and anguish. These are men who love these sinners and love them deeply because they know them beyond the labels of adulterer or thief or apostate.
I would often watch my fellow Councilors in these moments, and I never once felt a moment of criticism, anger, or judgment from them, including those times when it was some of our most trusted brothers sitting across the table from us. People who really did know better and betrayed that trust. Not once did I feel anything but the deepest love and concern for them from my fellow Councilors.
Next, the stake president and his counselors leave the room and go somewhere private. They review the information they have, discuss their thoughts, and then each offer in turn a prayer for what the Lord would have them do. When they are in agreement, they come back, present the decision to the council who then votes to sustain the decision. This is not a vote of yay or nay, this is merely a vote of support. If the council voted against the decision, the decision still stands if the president feels inclined. This, more than anything, is a final check on the process to make sure that the right decisions are being done.
To be honest, I don’t know if that is exactly what happens when the presidency retires to discuss, ponder, and pray, but I can imagine. Having seen the rest of the process, I can imagine it proceeds in the same way with nothing but hope, love, concern, and a genuine desire for the well-being of the person. I’ve seen the stake president come back to the council with his eyes radiating joy because he knew exactly what the Lord wanted him to do and how it would help the person. I’ve seen him come back with his eyes heavy, his lips pursed, and his shoulders slumped for the exact same reasons. Why the difference? Because his own personal feelings were being set aside in favor of the clear revelation from the Lord. Where the answers agreed, he was joyed at the thought that the answer would help this person he loved. Where they did not, he was worried about the person whom he loved so much, but he still moved forward with the knowledge he had gained.
As I’ve pondered these wonderful people in the Ordain Women movement, I’ve wondered often why they feel the way they do, and more often than not, I feel moments of introspection. Has my behavior as a man, a priesthood holder, and a priesthood leader left any with the impression that they mattered less to me or that the priesthood made me better? Have I used that authority in a way that hurt them or left them feeling put down? Do my attitudes convey the feelings that I should have for all men, not just some?
Katherine taught the family home evening lesson last night. She talked about Daniel in the Lion’s Den and how prayer was an influential part of seeing him saved. I noted with interest that King Darius, a non-believing pagan sinful man spent the night in prayer and fasting. I wondered which God he prayed to. I wondered if he did sacrifices and offerings based on his own, incorrect understanding. And then I wondered whose prayer the Lord answered. Surely He answered Daniel’s (although we don’t have a record of him praying). But surely, Darius’s prayer was also answered.
The Lord loved Darius–a pagan, wicked man caught up in his own self-importance–as much as Daniel–a prophet, priest, and religious king of incredible stature. Who is to say that the Lord doesn’t feel just as deeply the earnest questions and desires of the Ordain Women movement? It doesn’t mean those prayers will be answered as they see fit, but it also doesn’t mean that He has rejected them.