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.]