Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Facts About LDS Church Discipline; Counseling, Probation, Disfellowshipment, And Excommunication

The recent excommunication of Chad Hardy triggered the customary outcry and debate over the disciplinary practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While most non-members seemed to recognize the right of the LDS Church to police its members, and some even lauded the Church for doing so, a number of LDS people actually criticized the Church for excommunicating Hardy, claiming it was too harsh.

This shows that even many Church members themselves, including active members, do not completely understand the spirit and purpose of Church discipline. Back in September 1990, Apostle Russell Ballard published an article in Ensign Magazine which discusses Church discipline in greater detail. Elder Ballard likens it to a child being sent away from the dinner table to wash his hands before a meal; once the child has cleaned up, he's welcome to return to the dinner table.

I merely present the highlights of the article in this post. There are two classifications of Church discipline; informal and formal:

Informal Discipline: Can occur when a bishop learns of a transgression, usually through an errant member's self-confession. The bishop is the only priesthood leader involved. May result in either counseling or probation. Similar in concept to non-judicial punishment in the military (referred to as Article 15 punishment).

- Counseling: No disciplinary action imposed. The bishop will simply provide more intensive interaction and supervision.

- Probation: A bishop will temporarily restrict a member's privileges, such as the right to partake of the sacrament, hold a Church position, or enter the temple. The bishop may ask the member to surrender his temple recommend temporarily. In addition, he may require the member to make specific positive changes in attitude or behavior. In contrast to formal probation, no official record is made or kept of informal probation. The bishop maintains close contact with the member and will terminate the probation period when he is prompted to do so.

Formal Church Discipline: This occurs when a disciplinary council is convened. Mandated under a number of circumstances, to include cases of murder, incest, or apostasy. A disciplinary council is also required when a prominent Church leader commits a serious transgression, when the transgressor is a predator who may be a threat to other persons, when the person shows a pattern of repeated serious transgressions, when a serious transgression is widely known, and when the transgressor is guilty of serious deceptive practices and false representations or other terms of fraud or dishonesty in business transactions.

Disciplinary councils may also be convened (but are not necessarily required) to consider a member’s standing in the Church following serious transgression such as abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, child abuse (sexual or physical), spouse abuse, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, theft, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, or false swearing. The presence or absence of civil or criminal proceedings may or may not be considered in a council hearing, depending on the circumstances. A bishop can hold a disciplinary council within his ward, but if the accused hold the Melchizedek Priesthood, it is customarily elevated to the Stake level, in which the Stake President will convene the council.

Church disciplinary councils were once known as "Church Courts". They are similar in concept to judicial punishment, or courts-martial in the military. They can levy four possible outcomes:

- No Action: A disciplinary council may decide that no discipline is warranted, or perhaps downgrade the response to informal discipline.

- Probation: A member's privileges may be curtailed as in informal probation, except it becomes a matter of record.

- Disfellowshipment: Disfellowshipped persons retain Church membership and are encouraged to attend public Church meetings, but are not entitled to offer public prayers or to give talks. They may not hold a Church position, take the sacrament, vote in the sustaining of Church officers, hold a temple recommend, or exercise their Priesthood. They may pay tithes and offerings and continue to wear temple garments if endowed.

- Excommunication: Excommunicated persons lose their Church membership. Consequently, they are denied the privileges of Church membership, including the wearing of temple garments and the payment of tithes and offerings. They may still attend public Church meetings, but their participation in such meetings is limited. Excommunicated persons are encouraged to repent and so live as to qualify for eventual baptism. Excommunication is officially viewed by Church leadership as a first step toward restoration rather than a final severance from the Church, but where it ultimately leads depends upon the subsequent attitudes and actions of the person excommunicated.

Members and non-members alike sometimes ask why Church disciplinary councils are held. The purpose is threefold: to save the soul of the transgressor, to protect the innocent, and to safeguard the Church’s purity, integrity, and good name. In the case of Chad Hardy, his representation of returned missionaries as sex objects for personal profit fell into the latter category, although his extended inactivity may have greased the skids for his excommunication.

Disciplinary councils are not held for such things as failure to pay tithing, to obey the Word of Wisdom, to attend church, or to receive home teachers. They are not held because of business failure or nonpayment of debts. They are not designed to settle disputes among members. Nor are they held for members who demand that their names be removed from Church records or who have joined another church; that is now an administrative action.

It is the official position of Church leaders that those who incur formal Church discipline are NOT to be mistreated or viewed as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God in any way. Many excommunicants who feel offended generally bring it upon themselves by demanding that family and friends follow them out of the Church as a test of loyalty. But wise Church leaders will continue to fellowship excommunicants who display the courage to continue attending meetings.

Read the rest of Elder Ballard's article to find out other useful information about the Church's disciplinary procedures.

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