Gangrenous Limbs and the Body of Christ: A Defense of Excommunication 

The meme is from a friend in response to a Dutch rabbi’s harsh response to documentarians trying to shoot footage in his synagogue for a piece on Jewish excommunicant Baruch Spinoza. I’m not posting it to make a point or as some kind of an argument; I just thought it was funny.

Recently, whenever there is an excommunication that makes the news a common response has been to invoke 1 Corinthians 12, a powerful discourse on the importance of diversity and unity in the Church that uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ as the Church. I get the sense that the historical use of this particular metaphor has its roots in Protestant more than Latter-day Saint exegetical thought, but I might be wrong, and besides it’s fine to borrow emphases from other traditions as long as they stay within the bounds of orthodoxy, which this one does. 

Still, I think the use of this metaphor as an attack against excommunication per se is a misappropriation. Some rhetoric I’ve seen will even go so far as to call excommunication “violence,” but when one slows down and thinks through the issue, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, regardless of one’s position on a particular action, excommunication should be a thing.    

When people argue for or against a certain religious practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are a number of approaches they use; here I’ll categorize these as 1) appeal to scriptural authority, 2) appeal to the practice of other Christian traditions, 3) appeal to early Church theology or practice, 4) appeal to current Church practice, and 5) appeal to extra-religious ethical sentiment. I think the use of excommunication passes muster in each of these cases. 

1. Appeal to scripture

Maybe because I was raised in the faith, but I’m not a big “appeal to the Bible” kind of person. One of the advantages we have is that we don’t have to rely on copies of copies of copies of texts that may or may not have actually been written by the person who is identified with writing it. In cases where it looks like the Bible blatantly contradicts Latter-day Saint theology (Matthew 22:30), I have no problem simply seeing that as a mis-copying or error that drifted in. From an academic perspective, the confidence intervals for any particular scripture in the Bible are pretty wide given how far removed they are from the purported source. 

Still, like in the case of excommunication and the Body of Christ, occasionally one finds Protestant-like biblical exegesis that creeps into the Latter-day Saint discourse, so it’s a valid question about what the Bible has to say about this. 

In the Old Testament, banishment and being cut off from the Lord’s people was a commonly used penalty commanded by YHWH. As the modern day Israel, it would be reasonable to see excommunication as a successor to this practice. If anything modern-day excommunication is a more liberal version of this, since it doesn’t necessarily require physically removing the excommunicant from the congregation.  

It appears that the The New Testament continues the practice (Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16) of removing people from the society of Christians who cause dissension or are otherwise in a state of grievous sin.  

Finally, with Latter-day Saint specific scriptures, being “blotted out” and “cast out” are both used in the Book of Mormon and the D&CIn terms of appeal to scripture, it’s clear that some version of excommunication is not only tolerated among the Lord’s people but in some instances commanded directly by God. 

2. Appeal to other Christian practices

This category isn’t used much by most pew members, but still occasionally finds its way into the discussion from religious studies types, so it’s worth noting that some version of excommunication is practiced just about all the other major faiths where concrete membership is a thing. Even the Unitarians have policies for banishing people from participating in communal worship. While never turning anyone away from this or that religious activity or ritual might sound nice, it’s one of those things that becomes very hard to execute in practice when you’re dealing with a real institution and not just abstract ideas. 

3. Appeal to early Church theology and practice

D&C 102 clearly outlined the procedures for a church disciplinary council, which were used in the earliest days of the Church, including among some who had been in Joseph Smith’s most innermost circles (and who presumably would have been in on it with him had the witnesses been intentionally fraudulent, but another point for another day.) Appealing to Joseph Smith-era teachings and practices as representing a more authentic restoration habitus doesn’t help the case against excommunication, even excommunication specifically against dissenters. 

In these discussions people sometimes refer to a particular statement by Joseph Smith:

I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism [Looks like Joseph Smith also had a hard time finding a noun that wasn’t “Mormonism!” SC]. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine.

However, here it’s important to read the whole context of what he was speaking about. Evidently “Elder Brown” (who, according to Joseph Smith in the same talk, was “one of the wisest old heads we have among us,”–he was clearly trying to defuse a situation without causing offense and turned on the sincere concern and charm as he was wont to do) had some sort of esoteric interpretation about what the beasts in Revelations meant. This was essentially the forerunner to the classic High Priest group discussion about where the Ten Tribes went, or what part of the Americas the Book of Mormon took place in, only in this case the guy with the weird opinion had been called up to a disciplinary council because of it, and in this talk Joseph Smith established a precedent on 1) not worrying about the mysteries (in the same talk, “to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts and heads and horns and other figure made use of in the revelations is not very essential to the Elders. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and knowledge is necessary to do away contention”), and 2) not disciplining people for their own possibly eccentric personal interpretations of scripture. 

This was a sincere man who came to Joseph Smith in good faith who happened to have what was considered an eccentric interpretation of a low-importance issue. Given the history of the Church, if Elder Brown had chained himself to the temple site or wrote op-eds to the Warsaw Signal to try to embarrass the Church into changing its teachings or behaviors, things wouldn’t have ended so benignly. The fact is that Joseph Smith could and did do boundary maintenance when he had to.   

4. Appeal to current Church policy

This and # 5 is personally where I tend to put my legal-theological eggs, and on this one the use of removal of membership is clearly supported by the leaders we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. 

5. Appeal to extra-religious ethical sentiment

Arguments 1-4 are pretty airtight; if there is a category of reason that mitigates against excommunication, it stems from sort of an extra-religious ethical sentiment that little bits of scripture here and there can be welded onto. That’s not to say that #5 is an illegitimate basis for religious argument. For example, although the 19th century abolitionists in Britain that were at the forefront of the then-radical idea of abolition were seen as the religious weirdos of their day, the Bible itself is ambiguous enough about slavery that I’m okay saying that the moral innovation that slavery is bad was at least partially rooted in a gradually developed, extra-religious moral sentiment. There should be and usually is something more to our ethical sense than “because the Bible/prophets/Joseph Smith said so.” 

However, for people that invoke #5 to decry excommunication in general, I would push them on the counterfactual: do you think the Church should categorically never excommunicate people? Or is there a line that somebody would cross that you think should cause the Church to remove their name? Would you excommunicate genocidaires, or would you still not support removing their name from the Church because “excommunication is violence”? Of course, the genocidaires is an extreme situation, but I’m using the counterfactual to point out that the issue of whether excommunication should ever be warranted is a separate, and much less messy, question of whether a particular case merits excommunication, and that when pushed to extremes most people would agree with the former. 

This latter is much more complicated, and there’s more to say on it (much of which I’ve already said in regards to boundary maintenance applies here too), but once we’ve established excommunication should be a thing, the particulars of when that is warranted is a much more complex post for another day.

15 comments for “Gangrenous Limbs and the Body of Christ: A Defense of Excommunication 

  1. I was ward clerk for 4 years and executive secretary before that. I helped organize multiple church disciplinary courts and as clerk took minutes and notes for four. After each one I sat in my car and wept. Nothing about them felt uplifting to me.

    The worst was one for a woman that I home taught that was living with her boyfriend. She was there alone with no one to defend her and I was told I was not allowed to speak on her behalf. She was disfellowshipped and pressured to marry her boyfriend who ended up physically, emotionally and sexually abusing her. The boyfriend I think is still a member. She and I are not.

    The next worse was a woman that had been seduced and then dumped by her home teacher. She had confessed and landed in this nightmare where men she thought would help her condemned her. I was her friend and one of the things I most regret is not leaving that meeting in protest. she never spoke to me again. I sat silently and took notes and if there is a god that moment may condemn me more than anything else I have done.

    I was involved with multiple church disciplinary courts as a branch President and district leader on my mission but thankfully the courts themselves were run by the mission President. One for a branch President that misused church funds. One for a child abuser. One for another branch President that had an affair.

    My experiences were pretty terrible with this system. I am against it. I do not think it is inspired and it does more harm than good.

    For members that commit crimes the church should refer them to local police and prosecution. Bishop should be more worried about caring for the ward than worthiness.

  2. I condemn the practice of excommunication for I guess none of your reasons. Just my own experience listed above. I have other cases including my own father that was excommunicated for abandoning his family that I could cite. He didn’t care and it made no difference to him your extreme case of someone that commits genocide either.

    I don’t care what the scriptures or modern prophets say. The practice requires a court like system that is inevitably wrong and more harmful than helpful. It cuts off healthy but wounded members indiscriminately and can’t distinguish between them and gangrene to use your analogy. If temporal justice is needed – then refer the case to them. If eternal justice is required then a higher power will take care of it.

    Sorry didn’t realize till I wrote this how strong of feelings I had about that. Will need to bring that up in therapy. My counselor will love that.

  3. @ Brian: No apology necessary. We disagree, but through your tragic personal experiences you have certainly earned a right to share your valuable perspective.

  4. Stephen I would be interested in your ideas of how excommunications should be implemented? I think the kind of rhetoric you object to, equating excommunication with violence is born out of people’s personal experiences and honestly the actual practice is hard to defend, unlike your hypotheticals. Our system of having Bishops/Stake Presidents do these does seem to lead to a lot of trauma for people. I have known a few people who have been disciplined.

  5. I have participated in several disciplinary councils (many years ago), and my experience was very positive. It was a natural part of the repentance process. And I never felt it was meant to judge, but to help people on the road to repentance – having said that I actually wish we did not have church disciplinary councils today. At least not in countries that have a good and fair judicial system. I agree with Brian “For members that commit crimes the church should refer them to local police and prosecution”. The principle is that you freely join the church, and you can freely leave the church. For me, the people that are in the process of repentance should be able to talk to the Bishop and get counseling help on how to deal with this process – without being excommunicated. The Bishop should withhold callings and assignments to those that are not worthy to do this without having to excommunicate them. I don’t think excommunication fits very well with our present culture and I don’t see the benefits of it. I don’t think that people that directly opposed the church or its teachings should be able to go to the temple, have callings or have assignments in church but I feel that can be done without excommunication.

  6. Should excommunication be used for ideological pruning? Until lpeople have a legitimate means to appeal, it is too arbitrary and capricious (the 1st Presidency hasn’t granted an appeal in my lifetime). I think we need to place a moratorium on it until we actually enact substantive and meaningful due process as outlined in the D&C, which the Church isn’t following. I am all for excommunicating child sex predators; but I am opposed to the Church using excommunication as a means to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy (see: September Six). The Church is poorer when we lose members we disagree with. See, https://www.owlofthedesert.com/blog/done-by-common-consent-part-16

  7. When I explained to a coworker that in our religion most members of the congregation would likely have no idea if another congregate is currently excommunicated, my coworker replied, “You guys do excommunication wrong”.
    I believe that the only scenarios for disciplinary councils or excommunication are cases where people are stirring/inciting rebellion against current church leadership. Any sinning that happens outside of the church building shouldn’t be grounds for disciplinary councils.

  8. FWIW, I’ve served in three unit presidencies in my life, been a ward clerk, and participated in a couple of different disciplinary counsels on my mission. In all, I’d guess I’ve been involved in one way or another in about 40 counsels. My experience is that counsels have slowed considerably. In my first bishopric, we did one a month (admittedly a student/single ward, which probably skewed the numbers–if you’re ever going to “fornicate,” it’s probably then). In my second, a branch presidency, every six months. As a ward clerk in a pretty traditional family ward, maybe every third month. And in my current calling, in another pretty traditional family ward, none in the last 2.5 years. (I also have never participated in a stake-level counsel.) Obviously, YMMV, but based on my experience, I kind of wonder if the practice is starting to die down.

    My opinion is that in this day and age, we should mostly be using disciplinary counsels as (1) boundary maintenance for those who are publicly advocating that our doctrine is wrong; and (2) criminal acts, including and especially child abuse. The vast majority of other counsels, I’d guess, are for fornication/adultery, and if someone is truly repentant about that, I think a good bishop should probably deal with it on his own. I don’t think that person should probably be going to the temple, for example, but a bishop can impose that condition himself.

    I also grieve for Brian G’s examples. I’ve never been part of one remotely like those. Along those lines, I also think that the original idea that the counsel is there to make sure the bishop doesn’t make an unfair snap-judgment on a parishioner was and is probably valid, but on more than one occasion I can remember, the person at the counsel saw it as four people ganging up on her/him, rather than just one. I think that’s not fair, but also can appreciate the perspective. Also, FWIW, I’d be totally okay inviting a RS Pres. or someone similar to be with the women found his examples; in at least one of those cases, I suspect three (likely very well-intentioned) men probably had blinders on that made it hard to see the unfairness, while another woman there would recognize it right away.

  9. I unfortunately have been present in disciplinary councils. Thankfully none were as traumatic as what Bryan G describes. In one instance I sincerely think the member lacked the capacity to even understand what was going on. Yet we proceeded full steam ahead. It was awful.

    I disagree that we use these as a tool to police those who find fault with church teachings. We use these as a tool to police those who find fault with church leaders. That’s in important distinction and one that I disagree with. For example a certain high profile therapist was excommunicated last year while another high profile therapist has not been disciplined. Both advocate for their profession which is often in disagreement with church teachings, policies, and culture. But one them them also criticized church leaders while another did not.

    Otherwise I strongly agree that in matters of criminal offense we should report to the authorities.

    This article reminded me of the phrase defending the indefensible. I’m not aware of Jesus every holding a disciplinary court. As for other biblical examples of saints holding councils, I’m not interested in emulating them. And I’m skeptical to use Matthew 18 as a plea to excommunication when we have current living leaders on record instructing us that being offended is a choice.

  10. E: TBH, I don’t have any experience here (having never been a leader nor called up by a council), and I haven’t really thought deeply about the mechanics involved and how they might be better implemented, but I’ll just say that any process that involves a judgment call is going to involve some misses and bad experiences, but in some cases the pros for allowing local discretion outweigh the cons.

    Rolf: To continue with the “gangrene” metaphor, I see the function of excommunication as putting barriers between wolves and sheep more than wagging a big finger at somebody. If somebody is using their membership in a very anti-Church way, the Church has the right to remove that tool for their toolkit. There is the obvious case of a very public figure pushing “I’m just a faithful member asking questions about why Joseph Smith was such a creepy lecher,” but it also includes, say, somebody in a student ward unabashedly trying to sleep around with multiple members of that ward. Again, the devil is very much in the details, but in broad strokes the intentional fighting against God scenario is where for me the left side of the meme comes into play.

    Owl of the Desert: That would be interesting if you are right that no appeal has ever been successful (I’m not trying to be skeptical; you might be right, but I don’t think that information is public). The line between the Elder Brown cited in the OP and, say, somebody who is very intentionally using their membership to undermine the Church as an institution is sometimes a matter of degree, can get fuzzy, and sometimes bad calls are made.

    Jader3rd: I believe (somebody who knows more Church history than I will have to correct/confirm) that at one point in pioneer days excommunications were publicly announced, although in general this is an area where the right side of the meme sits better with me than the left side.

    Anon for this: My anecdotal experience is similar, and I think you may be on to something. A relative of mine mentioned multiple disciplinary councils when he was a BYU bishop and homeward bishop (not the details, just the fact that there were multiple disciplinary councils) decades ago, while the other day I made a side remark about excommunications to a Stake President nearing the end of his term, and he mentioned that he actually hadn’t ever excommunicated anyone.

    I wonder if 1) nowadays people who are living in such a state to merit excommunication in the 90s just send in their resignation to save an evening for everyone. Now that the Church has less cultural power people are less inclined to fight for the Church membership when they’re clearly not operating within it in good faith, and 2) if the bar for excommunication has moved higher. We all hear moving stories about excommunicants experiencing the sublime healing power of the atonement and returning to the fold, but I suspect that excommunication is in large part kind of like returning home from a mission back when it was a rare thing; if the council chooses that path the excommunicants are probably not going to be coming back, so it’s in everybody’s interest to not employ a draconian response if it can be avoided.

    Chadwick: I think you have a point in regards to the leader/teachings distinction, but obviously we disagree on whether it’s valid. Specifically, I do think the boat-rocking is another variable they consider. I don’t mean to open up a can of worms by invoking a particular case, but if you run multiple general conference protests that are clearly trying to antagonize the Church even when they make certain polite requests, whether you agree with it or not that’s a fundamentally different thing than, say, the chapter in the a recent Maxwell Institute book where the author was round aboutedly saying that women should have the priesthood. Again, it’s a judgment call, and judgment calls can get messy, but yes, I agree with your point that the more boundary-maintenance excommunications often deal more with attacking the institution than attacking the teachings per se.

  11. I’m uncomfortable with excommunication. What is false doctrine? Suggesting racial equality before 1978? What is the problem with criticizing the Q15? Are they that insecure? Could the Church use improvement? Sure. Woman need to be in more responsible Church positions. Mission practices need to be improved. We need younger leaders. And Church officials are human; they make mistakes.

  12. I have participated in councils on the ward level and stake level. My observation/experience is that it goes well or not based on the man in charge. The problem, IMO, is there is no training on how to really do these. If you sit in them and observe the bishop or SP one may think that is how they are supposed to be done, hence bad training bad or good training good. Like everything else in the church, the way we do these has changed over the years. They have gotten “softer” for a lack of a better word. And that is a good thing in my mind. Heck they used to be called Bishops Court, the name by default, makes the bishop think he is to “sentence” the guilty with their deserved punishment. And unfortunately some bishops acted this way even when I was a bishop 15 years ago. They felt like they were there to discipline (punish) the sinner. Without training, this is easy to do. I was shocked that there was no formal, or informal training for me regarding councils when I was a bishop. I just had what I saw done from bishops and SP I served with. We all have to remember, they are just volunteers trying their best with little to no idea what they are doing. Maybe the church could do some of their cheesy training videos regarding how they expect these councils to be done. Some direction would be great.

    Yes in the early days they announced those who had been x’d to the members. This was done several ways over the years. They published them in the Deseret News, held councils for priesthood holders during general conference and those who attended got to vote stay or go. The sinner got to stand at the conference pulpit and speak his case, Brigham Young would lead the meetings then vote right then and there. I am even old enough to remember that they announced members excommunications to the priesthood on a ward level. That could have been a rouge bishop that I had….never know. Here is the quickest way to get x’d, in order…

    Open apostasy (blog it, print it, say it over the pulpit and dont stop when you are asked to)
    Stealing church funds
    Adultery (prominent member – endowed married member)

    The new handbook regarding this is an interesting read if you are curious about current guidelines.

    I think we still need the ability to excommunicate and that we should on certain issues. Other than those specific issues, it should be rare. I think that is what we are seeing more of now.

  13. I think anyone interested in this topic would do well to read chapter 32 in the General Handbook, “Repentance and Church Membership Councils.” For one thing, the Church no longer uses the term “excommunication.” It calls it “withdrawal of membership” instead. Yes, it’s mostly semantics, but the term excommunication has a lot of history and baggage, including association with actual violence. Also, in most churches to excommunicate someone is to officially damn them to hell (see Stephen C’s cartoon). We don’t mean that at all, but we can’t expect the media to convey that kind of nuance in high-profile cases. (Heck, we have a hard time officially damning to hell a man who kills his family and then himself.)

    Another significant change is that the member can ask their elder’s quorum president or Relief Society president to attend “to provide support.” A sister doesn’t have to be the only woman in the room any more.

    If you read over the list of sins for which a membership council is required, I think just about everyone will agree some sort of strong action is needed. The list for when it “may be necessary” will no doubt be more controversial. I’m also under the impression that the bar for official action is higher than it used to be, though I have little hard data about past practices. For example, in contrast to Anon’s experience, “leniency may be appropriate for young members who engage in immoral conduct if they forsake the sin and show sincere repentance.”

    Brian G, I’m so sorry to hear about your experiences. I suspect one reason the Church is trying to make membership councils more rare is that they can easily go so wrong. Even “judges in Israel” need to avoid putting themselves in a law of justice mindset rather than focusing on the law of mercy, grace, and the atonement of Christ.

  14. D&C 42 implies that those who commit adultery and sincerely repent should be forgiven, but if they do it again after that they shall be “cast out”. Not sure why the church would want to cut off almost anyone without giving them this opportunity.

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