For a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church discipline is not an ending. It is a beginning, a gift from Heavenly Father that allows the person to work through some serious personal sins and to overcome them, returning in time to full membership in the Church if they choose to complete the process. It is not a punishment, but a gift of love to a Mormon of faith.
Most sins, of course, don’t require church discipline. A person can stop attending church, not pay tithing, or start smoking without ever facing discipline. He may lose certain privileges, such as a temple recommend, but he can complete the repentance process on his own.
However, some sins are more serious and require more help. When Mormons are baptized at age eight or older, they make sacred covenants with the Lord. They promise to take on the name of the Savior Jesus Christ and to keep His commandments. To take on His name is an important honor and responsibility. It is a commitment to teach gospel truths and to help others along their spiritual path. When they are grown and go to the temple, they make additional sacred covenants. The more serious sins, including sexual sins, sins of abuse, serious crimes, and child pornography, for instance, require help through the repentance process because they are serious violations of those covenants.
Apostasy is another sin that requires assistance. Apostasy does not mean simply having doubts about a doctrine or holding a difference of opinion. Many Mormons have doubts, questions, or disagreements with some aspect of the Church and never risk losing their membership.
LDS.org, the official Church website explains:
“[Church discipline] is also used to address apostasy — the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the Church, its leaders and its doctrine. If someone seeks to teach as doctrine something that is contrary to the Church’s beliefs, attempts to persuade other Church members to their point of view or publicly insists the Church change its doctrine to align with their personal views, they would be counseled by a local Church leader and asked to cease that practice. If they fail to do so, Church discipline may follow. This also applies to an individual who subscribes to the teachings of apostate groups that engage in practices contrary to Church doctrine, such as polygamy. (Newsroom, Church Discipline).
Apostasy is considered serious because it not only hurts the person who is in apostasy, but it also endangers the testimonies of those who are being led away by that person. The person who works to “convert” members to their beliefs often lead astray those who might find themselves drawn into issues simply because they were at a weak moment in their lives. Removing a person’s membership gives the apostate person less power, and in fact, some who have practiced apostasy have admitted to remaining in the church as long as possible because they knew people were more likely to listen to them if they were members.
A person who has fallen astray has some control over the outcome. They are first counseled, as mentioned earlier, and can at that time choose whether or not to give up their dangerous practices. While some sins require excommunication, others, including apostasy, generally require it only if the person is not willing to take responsibility for the dangers he is creating and is unwilling to stop. This is entirely under the control of the person facing discipline. Being excommunicated actually protects the person who has chosen not to stop. The penalty for sin is less severe for those who are not under covenant, so the person is protected to some extent. This does not mean God will not hold them accountable; it only means the consequences God provides will be less than if the excommunication did not occur.
Those who are willing to stop and make an honest evaluation of their behavior and the impact they are having on others frequently realize this was a great blessing. They are stopped before they cross a line that causes them to leave the Church on their own or before they get so far away from the gospel they find it very hard to return. They are able to allow their leaders to help them evaluate their lives and to begin the process of properly understanding the doctrines they had previously struggled with. They can begin to build a newer and stronger testimony that can help them find their way back into full membership and a completely faithful relationship with God and Jesus Christ.
Not all disciplinary actions result in excommunication, but whatever the decision, it is always hoped that the actions won’t last forever. The leaders long to help the person return to the Church in full standing as soon as possible. They are always free to attend church during the time they are not members and to continue to build their testimonies and to benefit from the faith and testimonies of the members of their congregation and their church leaders. There is no shunning and, unless the person chooses to make his excommunication public, which is discouraged, no one ever knows. The church will not make the situation public unless the member has already done so, and even then, only if necessary. Re-baptism often occurs privately, so that it is likely no one will ever know.
While the term discipline might seem to suggest punishment, in truth, it is a gift of love designed to help a person regain his standing with God.
Resources for more information:
Apostasy (A to Z Topics)
Chapter 12: Preventing Personal Apostasy (Teachings of Brigham Young)
A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings, Elder M. Russell Ballard
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.