Church Discipline: A Comparison

May 22, 2014 | 6 comments
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From Socrates in Athens to Galileo in Rome to John Scopes in a small town in Tennessee, trials make great drama. So it is not surprising that LDS disciplinary proceedings, essentially mini-trials, get so much attention, especially in the age of blogs and Facebook. I shared my thoughts on the topic three years ago in Church Discipline in the Internet Age. This post takes a different approach. Ever heard of Mars Hill Church?

Mars Hill Church is a conservative Protestant megachurch headquartered in Seattle, Washington, with branch campuses in several western states. If you Google “church discipline” two of the first ten links are about Mars Hill. From the main Wikipedia article:

Some have criticized the church for its harshness in dealing with dissent within its leadership, citing as an example an incident during the church reorganization in 2007 where two elders disapproved of and suggested revisions to a draft version of the rewritten bylaws …. Both elders were subsequently disciplined and fired shortly thereafter. Church leadership instructed members of the congregation to shun the two former elders as unrepentant.

They get media attention, such as a Seattle Times article, “Pastor firings roil congregation,” and this Patheos column, “Another Mars Hill Member Starts a Post-Mars Hill Blog.” The blog referred to is authored by a third guy who complained to the Mars Hill Board of Advisors and Accountability about the procedures used in the disciplinary proceeding against the two pastors (see above) on whom a church trial was held. His complaints, detailed in a three-part series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), were that the accused pastors were not invited to their own trial and were not informed what the charges were against them (until the board reversed that decision 24 hours before the trial). He also complained that the trial was unfair because the group of elders conducting the proceeding acted as prosecutors, judge, and jury. You can read the details in the letter he sent to the board. In some cases Mars Hill also practices formal shunning of former members (read the letter posted at another Patheos column).

LDS procedures compare surprisingly well to those outlined above. The person subject to an LDS church court is given notice well ahead to time and invited to attend. They are informed in writing of the charges to be addressed, although the anecdotal accounts I have read suggest this is often expressed in terms so general that the recipient doesn’t really know the specific charges. They can bring witnesses on their behalf. In the LDS system the bishop (and counselors) or stake president (and counselors and high council) do also function as prosecutor, judge, and jury. Subjects of an LDS proceeding have a right of appeal and are supposed to be informed of that right. Excommunication may affect some relationships, but there is no LDS doctrine of shunning.

So LDS procedures (assuming they are followed) are better, if not great. It wouldn’t be hard to improve them. There is no reason the person subject to an LDS church court shouldn’t be able to bring a friend or advisor of their choosing to the proceeding for support if they want to. This alone would reduce some of the hard feelings some people afterwards have (and share online) about their experience. And there is no reason the procedures that govern the proceeding can’t be made easily available. Just post a detailed summary at LDS.org with a link on the home page: “Have you been invited to attend a disciplinary council? Some facts you should know.” The current procedures work well in some cases, but in other cases people who attend are confused and uninformed about what is going to happen.

Here are a few quotes from the Wikipedia entry “Excommunication” to broaden our comparison a bit:

  • The Church of England does not have any specific canons regarding how or why a member can be excommunicated.”
  • “In the Reformed churches, excommunication has generally been seen as the culmination of church discipline, which is one of the three marks of the Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith sees it as the third step after “admonition” and “suspension from the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for a season.”
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses: “When a member confesses to or is accused of a serious sin, a judicial committee of at least three elders is formed. This committee investigates the case and determines the magnitude of the sin committed. If the person is deemed guilty of a disfellowshipping offence, the committee then decides, on the basis of the person’s attitude and “works befitting repentance” (Acts 26:20), whether the person is to be considered repentant. … If deemed guilty but repentant, the person is not disfellowshipped but is formally reproved and has restrictions imposed, which preclude the individual from various activities such as presenting talks, offering public prayers or making comments at meetings. If the person is deemed guilty and unrepentant, he or she will be disfellowshipped.”
  • “Among many of the Society of Friends groups (Quakers) one is read out of meeting for behaviour inconsistent with the sense of the meeting.”
  • “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practices excommunication as penalty for those who commit serious sins, i.e., actions that significantly impair the name or moral influence of the church or pose a threat to other people. According to the church leadership Handbook, 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. The LDS Church also practices the lesser sanctions of private counsel and caution, informal probation, formal probation, and disfellowshipment.

    So what’s the bottom line? Most churches provide for church discipline and excommunication, although formal procedures seem to vary considerably. LDS procedures are better than some but could be improved.

    [Note: In the comments, if you feel compelled to comment on your own experience in an LDS disciplinary proceeding, keep it brief and don’t name names. If you conducted an LDS disciplinary proceeding, just don’t comment on it at all.]

    6 Responses to Church Discipline: A Comparison

    1. George on May 22, 2014 at 5:06 pm

      “There is no reason the person subject to an LDS church court shouldn’t be able to bring a friend or advisor of their choosing to the proceeding for support if they want to.”

      I thnk this is the general practice. As a ward clerk for a couple of different bishops over the years, I have been assigned to keep minutes for disciplinary councils from time to time. In every case, the letter the bishop sent to the person coming before the council advised them that they could bring a friend or family member for support. Many of them did.

    2. Curtis Pew on May 22, 2014 at 7:38 pm

      I have also been a ward clerk and kept minutes for disciplinary councils. I learned from those experiences that Heavenly Father has a deep love for all his children, even when they stray.

    3. Wheat Woman on May 22, 2014 at 10:37 pm

      In my painful experience, disciplinary councils are sloppily executed and extraordinarily damaging. I can think of only very few reasons why it should even be considered. Whenever I hear them referred to as councils of love, I feel like vomiting.

    4. Kaye on May 22, 2014 at 11:12 pm

      Went to a court with a loved one. Very daunting. But the Stake President was guided by prayer. I know that for a fact.

    5. theoldadam on May 22, 2014 at 11:22 pm

      We are all derelict in the faith, at some point. And we are ALL active sinners.

      I do believe that it should only be when one is disruptive of the congregation, or outwardly defiant and open with their sin, that they ought be confronted and given the chance to repent.

      If they don’t…or won’t…then they have to go.

      Methinks.

    6. BevP on May 25, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      There is no mention here of any merciful side of the LDS disciplinary procedure, except WW’s rejection of any element of love. To my understanding, if the person does not bring someone to speak on their behalf, another will be assigned to, a high council divided in half, that fairness may have a chance. There is an element of mercy in relieving a resistant member of accountability for living in contravention of commandments and covenants, despite counsel. Would we rather excommunicate as vindictive punishment, or as merciful relief? Many who are unwilling to live with the exactitude asked of the faithful are still kind, generous, loving people, for whom I think Christ might respond with sorrow rather than vengeance. Lesser degrees of glory are still degrees of glory, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one who makes the final assignments.

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