Rees, BobWeighing in on this summer’s excommunication controversies is former LDS bishop Bob Rees, who made it a goal to avoid the nuclear option of excommunication. His perspective in this guest post strikes me as compassionate and wise, as shown by his very personal story at the end. — JKR

A guest post by Robert A. Rees

When I became bishop of the Los Angeles First (Singles’) Ward in 1982, I didn’t know much about being a bishop, but I did know that, except under the most extreme circumstances, I wasn’t going to excommunicate anyone.

I had two reasons for this.

First, when someone is excommunicated, it often leads to a de facto excommunication of his or her family and, in some cases, even friends and acquaintances. Since excommunication suspends eternal sealings, others in the family are dramatically affected by disciplinary action.

This can have far-reaching consequences as an excommunication in one generation often leads to successive generations being disconnected from or disassociated with the Church. For example, it is likely that my great-grandfather, David L. Rees, was excommunicated from the Church. Of all my great-grandfather’s descendants, only a small handful of us are members of the Church—all, by the way, as a consequence of later, independent conversions, not his spiritual or religious influence.

Second, LDS history and Christian history more generally contain many examples of excommunications that, with the hindsight of history, appear arbitrary or unjust (e.g., Catholic Galileo Galilei and of Mormon Helmuth Huebener).

While it’s not possible to know all the facts of any given case, based on the best available information, some excommunications seem capricious and others disproportionately punitive, and, in the case of Huebener, politically motivated.

The possibility of this happening is increased by the fact that the Church has a lay, professionally untrained priesthood which sometimes leads to individuals being unexpectedly thrust into positions requiring wise ecclesiastical and also psychological counseling and judgment for which often they are unprepared.

A good example of the arbitrary and inconsistent nature of church discipline is the treatment of California Latter-day Saints during Proposition 8.

While I know of no excommunications over Proposition 8 (although there could have been some), in some instances members lost their temple recommends, were put on probation or were disfellowshipped for seemingly minor expressions of dissent (for example, wearing a rainbow pin to Church with the slogan “All Families Matter”), which in other stakes resulted in no disciplinary action—or even comment.

Another factor that complicates excommunications is that conditions that might justify such an action during one period may seem (and actually be) trivial in another. For example, an ancestor of my late wife was excommunicated in early Idaho for buying flannel for diapers for his new baby from the gentile store in Southern Idaho instead of at ZCMI, the Church’s store.

So how did my resolve not to excommunicate anyone play out during my time as bishop?

Not long after I became bishop, I interviewed a woman who was living with a non-member. Finding that she was a returned missionary and therefore endowed, I called her to repentance and told her that she had either to marry the man or end the relationship.

She replied that she had tried unsuccessfully to get him to marry her. She felt she should stay in the relationship.

As a new bishop, I understood that it was my duty to press her to decide between two moral choices, neither of which included maintaining the status quo. I gave her time to make her decision and when she refused to end the relationship, told her that I had no choice but to hold a court, thinking that in this instance I might have to surrender my previous inclination against excommunication.

However, surprisingly, I did nothing. I was not completely comfortable in doing so, but something prevented me from taking disciplinary action against this woman.

A number of years later while visiting another ward, I attended a Sunday school class that I found particularly inspiring and well taught and afterwards took time to convey my sentiments to the teacher.

When I was finished, she said, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I told her I didn’t, and then she reminded me of who she was. It was the woman I had almost disciplined.

She said, “I’m glad you didn’t do anything. The man I was living with joined the Church and recently we were married in the temple.”

I cite this example not to validate my inaction (since action is often required) or even to assert that it was inspired, but rather to illustrate that in such matters one cannot always rely on precedent or the Handbook of Instructions.

Robert A. Rees teaches at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

78 Comments

  1. Hi Bob….you said you’re a former Bishop, do you mind me asking if you are a member today and active in the church? This question did not enter my mind until I saw your current position at the end of the article…..you teach at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. I’ve enjoyed attending the Berkeley Ward many times this past year.

    • Jana Riess

      I think Bob is in Colombia doing relief work right now, or soon will be, so let me answer: Yes. Bob is still a very active Latter-day Saint and is the editor of the “Why I Stay” books (with essays written by Mormons who have chosen to stay within the Church). You can read more about his professional and missionary work in the Wikipedia article I linked to above.

      • Thank you Jana….I appreciate it

        To B Kuhn….yes it does matter….so many “ex” members write about the church and obviously from an adversarial point of view. Like listening to a fired employee bad talking his previous employer. Regarding the teaching at theology school, more church members should do it….as long as they teach the truth.

    • I will answer for Brother Rees. Yes, he is a very active member in good standing. He continues to reach out, uplift, inspire and support the best opportunities in our religious community. For many of us, he is an anchor in a storm and a light house as we make our way. Yes – he teaches at Berkeley.

  2. Paul Belfiglio

    “…an ancestor of my late wife was excommunicated in early Idaho for buying flannel for diapers for his new baby from the gentile store in Southern Idaho instead of at ZCMI, the Church’s store.”

    ROTFLMAO!

    I don’t want to offend anyone, but hey, if there was any reason why someone would be deemed unworthy to ever partake of the sacrament I think this beat all.

  3. Another reminder that Bishop’s like all of God’s servants, are mortals, subject to flawed reasoning, and victims of bias. His opening statement indicates that he did indeed not understand anything about being a Bishop, and his willful declaration seemed to indicated that he, and not God, was to determine his service. A truly humble Bishop would never make such self centered declarations, but would rather say, “I am an at will servant of the most high God, and whatever he inspires or directs me to do I will do it, even if my own flawed human reason seems to indicate otherwise, and even if it includes excommunication. Since even a cursory understanding of scripture indicates that the perfect Jehovah, supports excommunication in some circumstances, it would seem self deifying for an imperfect mortal to claim he would never do it, as if his wisdom were superior to God’s

    Here are some salient points he misses.

    1. Excommunication is only one of many options arising out of the Church Disciplinary Council. Councils, correctly conducted, never predetermine or demand a certain outcome, but rather function as fact collecting body, ending with an outcome revealed by God though his Holy Spirit, as to what is required. God being all knowing, and flawless in his justice, is the one who should determine the outcome, not a flawed human based on biased human observations of revisionist history. Bishops can choose to not convene a council, as inspired by the spirit, but such decision should be directed by God, and not man.

    2. Lack of excommunication, when warranted and directed by God actually harms both temporally and spiritually the person, their descendants, and many others who are observing from the outside. I have interviewed and counseled with many who received a mere slap on the wrists for serious transgression and who carried doubt, fear, guilt , and pain for many years, when spirit lead appropriate discipline could have saved them all of that and lead them to the born again, grace based deep cleansing they truly needed.

    3. God’s actions, when questioned by flawed humans will often seem capricious and arbitrary. It would be just as flawed for humans to judge Kate Kelly’s Bishop and the decision reached as it would be to judge this Bishop and his choice with regards to the Sister. I know personally of a sister in very similar circumstances, whose unchecked lifestyle destroyed her children. Not all outcomes of withholding discipline are positive. Besides, this author presents only the facts that support his theme. There are many variables we do not know about the woman who was not disciplined, and the impact it had on others, and may yet have on her.

    4. All of his flesh based reasons for why one should not exercise excommunication constitute evidence of self deification and are of no value given the forgotten truth that the Holy Spirit and the grace of God are given to imperfect men, as part of keys, to assist them to overcome the flaws listed. It is hypocritical to judge the actions of other Bishops or Stake Councils with regard to Prop 8 or any other actions, particularly since the Author is clearly a flawed human, and subject to his own bias. It evidences that a primal human flaw is the assumption that one’s flawed reason is superior to the judgments of others acting on those cases, who may actually have merely been implementing the will of a perfect God.

    • This commenter reflects absolutely no distinction between God’s will and the actions of his servants.

      Not sure if that’s laughable or dangerous.

      • Add “humble, true and faithful” after “actions of His” and you have it about right. There is precedence. D & C 1:38, 68:1-5, Helaman Chapter 10.
        The existence of selfish humans, false prophets, and weak and deceptive humans pretending to revelation does not logically lead to the conclusion that others cannot get it right. What is truly both laughable and dangerous is to suppose for private reasons, that an Omnipotent and Omniscient God cannot sanctify his servants, and then reveal his will to them. As President Monson recently posted: “when God speaks and a man obeys, that man will always be right.”

    • All possible, of course, and I do realize that disciplinary actions are handled at the local level. I do wonder, however why the brethren don’t want any consistency at all in certain fact patterns and just rely on the wiggle room of the Church Handbook of Instructions. I begin to wonder whether the pendulum swings are God’s will. For example, I am a gay man in a committed lifelong monogamous relationship with another man. I was subject to a disciplinary council, but not in previous wards despite attending sacrament meeting with my partner and not in the same stake earlier in time. I know lots of gay Mormons and the variation in practice is astounding. Some hold hands and are affectionate with their same sex partners. No action at all and they even tell the stake president they are in a committed relationship. Other places, they hold a council and you are ex’d. The variation happens in the same stake as leadership changes. I even have had bishops and stake presidents offer to re-baptize me because they would not have pursued disciplinary action. My own ward and stake has waxed and waned between compassion vs. the rulebook back and forth for decades. Apparently, God’s will is that I be excommunicated every 5 years and rebaptized every 5 years despite no changes in my romantic life. The Church handbook says “subject to” excommunication. Some decide to subject you to it and some don’t. I have had stake presidents tell me they will not excommunicate for homosexuality and others tell me they feel they must. The brethren have not really opined on this massive variation in practice and having seen huge pendulum swings back and forth about how they react to me, I cannot attribute it all to 4 points you make above. Their views on homosexuality is what seems to be the cause of the variation. There are even tons of web sites out there where gay Mormons will tell you which stakes are “safe” (and when they change) should you wish to live somewhere where you can be open about your same sex relationship and attend and have callings in the ward. One might think the brethren would want more consistency but apparently not. And people see that and don’t necessarily attribute that variation to the 4 points above.

    • Many individuals who have been on the receiving end of church disclipline seem to think that Bishops and Stake Presidents sit around “wanting” and “liking” to take such actions. Nothing could be further from the truth. My experience with disciplinary councils is that they are hard, definitely not looked forward to, but ultimately necessary to carry on the work.

      Section 121 states that leaders should “Reprove betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; ”

      I served for a time as a unit leader. When situations arose that seemed to merit church discipline, I didn’t try to act as deity and say I would never excommunicate an individual. I tried to follow the Spirit . My Stake President counseled the Bishops to excommunicate “very rarely.” I spent alot of time wrestling with the issue of discipline and actually found greater confidence before God in prayer by being more proactive. I used as my gold standard the requirement in Section 121, asking myself “At the final judgement, if I am called upon to witness to events that occurred on my watch, will I be able to state honestly and lovingly that I had done the best I could and had indeed showed forth an increase of love to him (or her) that were reproved (discipline being an extreme form of reproving). My conscious is mostly clear. Not a single person on the receiving end of discipline can say that I didn’t do all I could to encourage and support them in getting their lives in order. Not all came back. That was their choice. But they were never forgotten and rejected! I was fortunate enough during my few years of being in a position of responsiblity to help bring back into full fellowship about the same number of people that had been disfellowshipped or excommunicated. It required real effort but the rebaptisms validated the process.

      I saw the process work time and again. The whole purpose of the church is to provide a framework in which God’s children can experience God’s love and live their lives in a way that will allow them to return and live with Him. Giving kudos to someone who makes a blanket statement that they will never excommunicate a person seems to smack of a doctrine of a church of men and not of the church of God.

  4. @FJW
    Problem is, because we are indeed flawed humans prone to biases and judgements, we have to assume our ability to interpret “God’s will” in relation to another member’s life is, by it’s very nature, flawed. I believe there are few, if any situations in which excommunication should even be considered. Let’s face it, Christ wants all of us in his midst. Let love be the guiding force.

    • I too served as a Bishop for 5 years and never excommunicated anyone as a bishop. However, the Lord said: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:38) The essential focus need to be on obtaining and recognizing the whispering of the Holy Ghost. This is the continuing responsibility of the Bishop especially in counseling and disciplinary matters and the responsibility of All the members of disciplinary council making decisions. Every decision of this type in which I have participated (about 18 years) has been unanimous and Not just as a rubber stamp. As I said, 5 of those 18 years were as bishop, but the rest were as a bishop’s counselor or a member of the Stake High Council. I was always encouraged to voice my insights and opinions and felt obligated to seek to be lead by the Spirit in doing so. We fasted and prayed before such councils. I never felt any pressure to vote counter to my conscious in support of a presiding authority. Consensus was reached because we all studied and followed the principles of the gospel and listened to the Holy Ghost.

      We certainly held several disciplinary councils when I served as a bishop, but excommunication never happened to be a serious consideration. During my service as bishop one member in our ward went and remains inactive because of a disciplinary council that placed him on formal probation. I regret that outcome, but Not the decision since it was a fairly close call between formal probation and disfellowshipment. The Spirit reassured me of the correctness of that decision as I mourned for the inactivity of this friend, and directed me to be very diligent in following up frequently with member involved in the process. One member of our ward was excommunicated by a stake disciplinary council while I served as a bishop and has repented, become a better husband and person. He has been rebaptized. .

    • Although it looks like my next reply below beginning, “I too served as a Bishop . . .”, may be to Annie’s comment, it is to Trevor’s comment.

      Annie,

      We agree that excommunication should be rare and that human judgements in recognizing the voice of the Spirit can be flawed. (We disagree about the “if any” part.) That is part of why the Church operate though consensus decisions by councils. Counselors and other members of such councils are Not there to be rubber stamps. Reaching consensus can be a slow process, but works well in the restored gospel because we All seek the Spirit of the Lord. Those involved study the gospel carefully, try to apply true principles, and seek the Holy Ghost by fasting a prayer.

      Decisions made by Ward Disciplinary Councils are review by, and can be appealed to the Stake, and appealed to the First Presidency.

      Joseph Smith could say of the early member of the Church, I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves, based on the understanding that we are dedicated to the gospel, the Savior, and to following the Holy Ghost. We believe in the principle of ongoing revelation, Not just to the President of the Church, or even the 15 “prophets, seers, and revelators,” but through the calling and families in the church.

    • The underlying premises of this post are in error. This is the truth:

      1. Excommunication is an act of pure love.
      2. Excommunication is given with the intent to wake up and save the sinner, so that he/she can be with Christ.
      3. God has taught that his grace is able to overcome the human bias, and by revelation to clearly make his will known to those who submit to him. D & C 1:38, 68:1-5, etc.

        • I have presided over or participated in dozens of them, and ministered to many throughout the whole process including those who have been excommunicated, and yes, they have all been counsels of love, and unless you feel authorized to impugn the testimony of those who were the subject of such councils, you must accept their witness as they have all expressed to me that they felt the love and understood the purpose.

          • I was ex’d in 2005 and at that time I didn’t feel it was a court of love or in the best interest to save the soul of the transgressor. Although, I had made some poor decisions and at the time; perhaps it was better I not participate in the faith. Furthermore , using that same talk, that’s the similar talk they (post brigham young garb) used for blood atonements. If the church at that time used blood atonements for sin, that would be in err, and is not what joe smith set up. I have been rebaptised, not becsuse I requested it, but because my leaders said I was ready….I feel this has been a disservice to me. In fact my local ward can’t even get my records straight. It’s been over 6 months. I no longer put my faith in men. My faith is in Christ and only he determins my salvation…not some administrative church.

      • The experience of the presiding officer of a disciplinary council is generally equated to that of a temple sealer. The same Spirit attends both a sealing and an excommunication, because they are essentially dealing with the same set of covenants and power.

  5. Jana, I can’t help but think that the point of sharing this is to suggest that Kate may have been the tragic victim of having a bishop with an itchy trigger finger rather than perhaps having made the bed she finds herself lying in.

    Bishop Rees gives an example of a woman he had interviewed who was living with someone of the opposite gender contrary to covenants she had made. He called her to repentance, she didn’t act on it, and despite his threat of a discliplinary council he chose to let it go. Which was his prerogative, I suppose. He provides a happy ending that the guy ended up joining the church and that they had been sealed in the temple. I think we can all rejoice in the end result.

    Where the example fails to translate, however, is that there is nothing to indicate that the woman in question defended her prior conduct as being acceptable, nor did she create an organization and website demanding that the brethren alter the revelations of God to sanction her situation, nor did she demonstrate to that end during General Conference, inviting others to take a public stand against the church and its leaders with regard to the church’s established position on the law of chastity.

    The woman in question was acting alone, not insisting that the church bow to her choices, and ultimately returned to activity through making changes in her own life to conform to the teachings of the church.

    Such a happy ending is available to Kate, but the path of her own creation has its own challenges which only she can decide to overcome.

  6. Jana, you introduced Bishop Rees’ piece by commenting about how he had “made it a goal to avoid the nuclear option of excommunication,” describing his perspective as “compassionate and wise.”

    It bears mentioning that excommunication may well sometimes BE the “compassionate and wise” response to those who have seemingly made it a goal to excercize the nuclear option in publicly standing against the church and its leaders.

  7. I lived with a man in my early twenties. I was still LDS and was threatened with excommunication at the time. My father did the threatening. Then he begged me to go visit the bishop. So I did, nice man, long time friend of the family. Bishop X mentioned excommunication, after which I politely told him I didn’t think my sex life was anyone’s business but my own. He looked at his hands on the desk between us and paused for a while. Then he told me that my boyfriend of 5 years, whom he did not know, was only interested in one thing and that our relationship would not last. That boyfriend and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. But I never forgot my little flirt with LDS excommunication. Perhaps the priesthood holding men who consulted with me on the issue meant well; I’m sure they didn’t mean me harm. But what I took away from that experience was that:

    a) I didn’t really have the option to live by my own conscience and remain LDS
    b) my privacy was subject to the discretion of men leading the church of my youth, and
    c) good people… men who’d I’d perceived as spiritual leaders… presumed that because I was sexually active, I had nothing to offer *but* sex and that no man would be interested in sharing life with me for any other reason.

    Thus began a long and painful journey away from Mormonism.

    • Tammy, if your conscience permits you to violate the law of chastity, so be it. You cannot fault the church for that.

      As for our individual privacy, God knows all and sees all, and yet He has called a handful of judges in Israel to address matters of sin and worthiness. If that’s just too traumatizing for you, it is little wonder you have journeyed away.

      As for the last part, carnal man has a notoriously bad track record of behavior when it comes to opportunities to get the milk for free without buying the cow. You may judge your prior priesthood leaders all you wish if it helps you to excuse your decisions, but it isn’t exactly rocket science to suggest that free milk tops the list of carnal man’s decision-making tree.

      • TomW – Glad to see the “who ever is with out sin, cast the first stone.” is still alive and well. I am even happier to know who is with out sin. Thank you for making your presence known. Jesus asked that question years ago. It’s great we finally answer.

        Tammy I am sorry. Leaders can be deeply painful. Good luck where ever your journey takes you.

          • Tammy – I am glad you still care about something that hurt you deeply. I pray, hope, wish that your hurt will deminish and only joy will fill you.

        • Carrie, I’m the LAST person you will ever see proclaiming himself a sinless example for the world. But to the extent that there is distance between myself and the Savior, I am personally to blame for it, and I do not point my fingers at the church demanding that it change to suit my weakness.

          • Seeing judgemental comments like yours are precisely the thing that keeps me away. Go pat yourself on the back for hastening the separation of the wheat from the tares. Fancy yourself wheat I presume? I’ll take my life with the tares…they are much nicer and fare less judgmental.

          • TomW – I wish you Namaste.

            an ancient Sanskrit greeting still in everyday use in India and especially on the trail in the Nepal Himalaya. Translated roughly, it means “I bow to the God within you”, or “The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you” – a knowing that we are all made from the same One Divine Consciousness.

            May peace be with you TomW. This day and always.

      • TomW, I am not a cow and I have outgrown being chastised and condescended to by LDS men. If it makes you feel better, carry on. But your wagging finger has no impact on me. Get the milk for free, good grief. Sex is pleasant for both parties. I have always outearned my spouse. Perhaps it is I who was getting the milk for free and my boyfriend should have pressed me for marriage sooner. Such outdated and sexist thinking doesn’t serve anyone anymore. It didn’t then either.

        There are many good things I experienced growing up LDS. It wasn’t all bad. But an environment that encourages people to hold themselves in judgement of others and pry into private individual matters, that fosters permission for their members to scold strangers on the internet, and that uses excommunication as a means of control… are not among those good things.

      • Brian Johnson

        TomW:

        Your first response troubles me. I suppose that’s because it (at least in my small mind) presumes that, with respect to a couple, a wedding ceremony rather than the love and commitment of the participants sanctifies the couple’s union. I suspect that within the generations of slaves in America many entered relationships without marriage certificates. Without examining the quality of the love between those parties, I’d be darn reluctant to label them as not chaste. Frankly, I have observed a lot of couples operating with the benefit of a government or church sanctioned marriage behaving poorly.

        • Paul Belfiglio

          When is a couple ‘married’ according to the Mormon church’s highest standard, which according to them is the one and only ‘real’ standard? Scripturally and in the eyes of God, according to the LDS church and its ‘in-the-know’ members, my wife and I are not ‘really’ married because we are not sealed together for eternity in the temple, which I say again in that according to the LDS church is the only legitimate ‘marriage’. My current, whom the LDS church would regard as being just my ‘so-called wife’, is sealed to her first, deceased husband (and she presently has no say in this matter in any way). I personally, however, am not sealed to anyone (my former, ex-wife cancelled our sealing to marry someone else), hence, like I said being that my current, ‘so-called wife’ is already sealed to someone else, I’m ‘out in the cold’ so to speak. In other words, my current, ‘so-called wife’, is ‘married’ (sealed) in he eyes of God, but I’m just sort of shacking up with her in a temporal, ‘legal’ although perhaps also ‘pseudo’ at the same time ‘marriage’ sort of way, who will one day (in death) according to the script supposedly say to me, “Well, so long big guy, it’s been fun, but my wagon is hitched to a real star in the kingdom. But unfortunately…. Well, like I said, it’s been fun. Good luck!”

          A few years ago I had a very long conversation with a real nice fellow who was a counsellor in a temple presidency, and after explaining the details of my particular situation, in the end all he could only tell me in a sympathetic tone is that (paraphrasing), “There is nothing in our temple presidency handbook that has an answer that would satisfy you.” He also told me, perhaps in an attempt to help me feel better, that there are far worse, meaning more complicated situations than mine, but again, there are simply no explicit answers, only conjectures (and trite platitudes, I would add).

          When I think on this and read things what TomW posted (“…. He has called a handful of judges in Israel to address matters of sin and worthiness….”) I think I remember how I used to ‘think’ when at one time I considered myself most assuredly and irrevocably sealed for all eternity to my first wife and who is the mother of all of my children, all of whom, by-the-way, the church as no answers with regard to whom *they* are currently sealed to regardless of the fact that I ended up raising all of them, and was not guilty of any ‘sin’ in the eyes of the church (I received a letter from the church stating as much when I made a written enquiry about my sealing to them). I think I used to ‘think’ somewhat disparagingly, condescendingly, or judgmentally towards both members and non-members of the church who were either divorced or just not sealed in the temple no matter how committed their relationship was by virtue of a either a civil marriage, common law marriage, or whatever. No doubt I had this air of arrogance thinking that I was far beyond these ‘lesser beings’ who couldn’t pass the test of staying, or even wanting to get married in the Lord’s only recognized way. Yeah, perhaps I really did think this way. It’s what the church ‘breeds in the bone’ in that we are the Elect; we are the Lord’s chosen people who will one day rule in the eternities; we are the stalwart members of the ‘Not Even Once’ club; and for some of us, even had our second anointing and so now we are ‘in’, etc., etc..

          Brigham Young had fifty-five wives and Heber C. Kimball said that he thought no more of taking another wife than he did of buying a cow. And these men are at the top of the pyramid; they’ll have the ‘fullness’! But alas, although my one, and just only one ‘so-called wife’ and I are in a legal, extremely committed, happy, healthy and loving relationship as best friends, lovers, helpmates, etc., apparently it still sucks to be me, and others like me who are in more or less the same situation. Apparently, in the eyes of God and the truly vested, bona fide members of the LDS church, even if I only stepped over a broom handle, but as long as I also went before some official to be granted a legal document that says my ‘so-called wife’ and I are ‘married’, the LDS church will accept this to some degree for what it’s worth. However, all that it is just really worth is only for the sake that is has the outward appearance of making me and my ‘so-called wife’ look respectable, which serves the church’s purpose of making it look like it only has respectable, law abiding members. But the real, bottom line LDS church’s stance is that my ‘so-called wife’ and I are only married in a ‘wink and a nod’ sort of way.

    • john zimmerman

      And I expect you would not care if your children thought as you do – that their having sex outside of marriage is their business – and apparently to you, not sin.

      • It is their business. And if they ask me, I will advise them to have sex *before* marriage. Promiscuity is a bad idea. But sex before marriage is not. I’m all grown up now and attempting to scare me with talk of sin doesn’t work anymore. I won’t be doing that to my kids. I want them to be sexually healthy. Bed hopping won’t promote sexual health but neither will oppressive abstinence.

  8. I am on a high council right now. The notion that excommunication is “an act of pure love”? Ridiculous.

    I believe firmly that it is *perceived* that way by the members of the council: certainly it would be unusual for a council to contain folks with genuine ill will toward the person facing the action (I’d bow out if that actually happened). But to the person being excommunicated? C’mon. It is a wrenching, terrifying, spiritually violent act, and the stats show that if its purpose is to “wake up and save the sinner,” it doesn’t do that very well.

    I do think there’s a good idea in there somewhere — certainly any organization has the right to determine who is a member in good standing and who is not –, but it’s a sword that should be wielded rarely, and with fear and trembling, given what is happening.

    I think the question is: would excommunicating this person actually be a better way of bringing them to Christ than would counseling with them, working with them, showing them love in more obvious ways (excommunication, even if done in a spirit of love, sure doesn’t *look* like love to the recipient), etc?

    I guess it’s possible that sometimes the answer would be “yes.” And I’d willingly receive that answer if it came. But it would sure surprise me.

    • The late Truman Madsen told an experience one time that really sticks with me. A woman was brought to a council. After all the deliberations were done the Bishop in charge asked the council what should be done. The council said excommunicate or disfellowship – I can’t remember. The Bishop then said, “I have lived longer than you, and I believe she has repented – I am not going to punish her. These proceedings are finished.” Truman said the women later became a leader in the church – if she had been disciplined her talents might have been lost for good.

      Madsen’s point was mercy. It’s a story of hope I keep with me every time I hear of a council being called. May mercy prevail. We are all sinners before God.

    • Raymond Takashi Swenson

      Some people need to be “shocked” in order to take responsibility for their spiritual condition, which is the case with people suffering from varuious addictions. But apart from love towards the member being removed from membership, certain behaviors endanger OTHER members of the Church, especially when a person uses the access he has to others because of his membership to abuse them through fraud or sexual abuse. Excommunication of such an abuser is an act of love toward the OTHER members of the Church. And, believe it or not, there are times when the member needs to undergo excommunication so he can feel that he is truly repenting for a serious sin. And they have told us that when they came before the high council that I sat on.

      The “court of love” idea is a standard that bishoprics and high councils are enjoined to use when making their judgments. It speaks to their own motives. In other words, if they cannot honestly believe that they are acting in the best interest of the member who is before them, if they are not acting out of Christ-like love, then they should refrain from imposing sanctions. You might accuse us of being hypocritical as individuals when we fall short of that high standard, but that is hardly justification to attack the standard. It is a far better standard than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” and the other standards we lawyers use in public trials.

  9. It’s my understanding the church excommunicates men at 3 times the rate than women. Perhaps excommunicating this young lady would be a step towards equality for female members.

  10. Part of this whole discussion seems to miss a point. The young lady is the one who went to the temple and of her own free will took an oath and covenanted to remain chaste and not have sexually relations with someone not her husband. She’s a returned missionary having taught chastity and it’s compliance. She’s the one when asked to repent….defied the Bishop and didn’t. And the focus is on the Bishop and courts of compassion???? And the men who preside over the them..??? I will not pass judgment on the good Bishop, but the young lady’s behavior mocks the whole effort of temple and missionary work.

    • Harry – I key line in the piece is this “However, surprisingly, I did nothing. I was not completely comfortable in doing so, but something prevented me from taking disciplinary action against this woman.”

      The line before it explains that he was prepared to proceed with a council but just something wasn’t right. Was she defiant? Maybe. Was she sinning? Possibly. But something greater than both of her choices opened a door for her to take her life in her hands, play her own cards, and have the grace to move forward.

      Bob Rees nor you or I know what went through her heart in the years after their discussions. What didn’t happen was a soul wasn’t pushed out the door in haste. And the end was very redeeming.

      I can’t answer every excommunication. I can see instances where someone needs to be cut off. In those cases I see it as needing to protect another person from soulful harm. We have enough pain when we don’t live up to our own expectations. Her repentance would forever be her own.

  11. Perhaps because I am gay and in a lifelong committed monogamous relationship that I don’t find ex communication to feel very loving. I was subject to a disciplinary council years ago. I am told they are less common now for practicing homosexuals, at least in some places (though still plenty of inconsistency; some bishops and stake presidents ignore it; others do a council and resort to excommunication). There is quite a range on this particular “sin” if you believe it to be so and accept church teaching. I don’t. I had not gone to the temple anyway, just was hoping they’d leave my membership intact. But not my decision to make. I value my faith – perhaps not enough because if forced to choose the love of my life, even though it’s same sex, or stay in the church, love wins every time. Love is louder.

    • Matthew, amen my friend. I’m sorry you went through that. In my experience, love really is what matters the most. You can’t go wrong with the golden rule: )

      • Sometimes love requires that one act on truth. Setting aside the counsels of God for a temporary reprieve of consequences for behavior isn’t necessarily loving at all.

  12. Sometimes it’s not so much for the person who is excommunicated, but for the church as a whole. It sounds to me that Kate Kelly’s bishop gave her every opportunity to stop her apostate-ish behavior, before he ex’d her, but had to in the end, both for her AND for the other church members. She might not like it but she does not speak for me or most of the women in the church, and I totally resent that the mainstream media is making it sound like she is.

    • I don’t think Kate Kelly ever claimed that she was speaking for all the women in the church. And how exactly did her excommunication help “the other church members?”

      *i hope that doesn’t come across as snarky. I certainly don’t mean for it to.

      • She may not have have explicitly stated that she spoke for *ALL* mormon women, but she and her group certainly didn’t do much to counter the idea either. Headlines at the WP, NPR, NYT, and others alluded to “How Mormon Women feel…” etc. without Kelly clearly disclosing the fact that hers views contradict those of most Mormon women.

        The number of letters to the editor and blogs that essentially state “Kate Kelly doesn’t speak for me!” outnumbers the number of OW profiles.

    • Kate Kelly has at least disagreed with that version of events in interviews. She said she was very close to her bishop. There was a going away party for her. The bishop attended and gave her a big hug. Then as she’s in route to her new residence, she gets the papers, which is why she didn’t think it came from him but from the new stake president or from the top. And because she couldn’t easily return, caring for a sick family member, as soon as she moved away, she didn’t attend the council. The timing is odd. Either the bishop is a coward and refused to counsel her about her behavior face to face, or it came from higher up.

      • That her Bishop refused to counsel her about her behavior face to face was Kate Kelly’s version–especially before her excommunication. She also said all of the disciplinary action was done as or after she was moving. However, there was apparently a December 12, 2013 joint meeting between Sister Kelly, President Wheatley and Bishop Harrison in which both leaders urged her to disassociate herself from Ordain Women and cease her campaign (See http://www.deseretnews.com/media/pdf/1365030.pdf ). This was almost 7 months before she was placed on informal probation by President Wheatley and over 7 months before she moved. Someone is clearly, at the least, misrepresenting what happened. The question is “Who?”.

  13. Paul Belfiglio

    There may be an analogue with regard to why excommunication, as it is currently practiced in the Mormon church, ought to be considerably modified: Doing away with the death penalty, at least for one cogent, defensible reason in that an innocent person wrongfully convicted won’t be put to death.

    What is the ‘worth of souls’ to LDS local leadership? Answer: All over the map.

    @Tammy. Reading about your experience reminded me of the time a branch president and myself (his first counsellor) excommunicated a newly baptized young lady because we learned she was living with, or started to live with a man (I don’t recall now which it was). There we were, the two of us in the basement of an old ramshackle building we used for our branch meeting house, going through the ‘handbook of instructions’. And the dumb cluck that I was, and even the branch president because he didn’t know anymore than I did, there we sat and talked while scratching our heads, so to speak, only to eventually conclude, ‘Yeah, I guess she should be excommunicated’, and so that’s what we did. Looking back I don’t know how just the two of us were even able to conduct a procedure like this. Maybe the branch president had clearing from the stake president, I don’t know (or remember), but there we were, just the two of us making a decision of this magnitude.

    Wow. Oh, wow.

    What a terrible thing we did. Instead of reaching out to this young lady (she was very young—late teens or early twenties) we cut her off from her new-found faith and anchor in Christ. We never heard from her or saw her again, and although I don’t recall now, I’ll bet you a dime for a dozen donuts we didn’t really care, either. I suppose we thought she received her just and due Divine comeuppance! She certainly wasn’t ‘worthy’ to associate with us ‘Saints’!

    Again, a subdued, “Oh wow.” What somewhat arrogant, ignoramuses we were to do this as God’s representatives to an innocent, young person. And I do mean ‘innocent’ in the sense of presuming that we were more worthy, more precious to God than she was. You can’t put old heads on young shoulders. The young girl that she was should never have been dealt with that way. We should have reached out to her withholding harsh, ‘spiritual death penalty’ judgement. There were better ways and means we could have deployed in dealing with this situation instead of casting her out. I can only hope that she found another spiritual path that did benefit her in a manner that would have delighted the Christ.

    I have been privy to enough errant excommunications (three more, to be exact) for me to justifiably declare that they should *only* be done in the rarest and most extreme cases such as, for one example, someone who is vehemently and openly against the church—wants to and works toward destroying it. And when I say “against the church” I am not speaking about someone who has differing opinions about doctrine, church governance and policies, etc.—the so-called ‘dissenter’ or ‘apostate’ (What? You can’t, in a civil tone and manner express your opinions, but rather have to cower and hide them away in the recesses of your mind like some kind of a sneak with a hidden agenda or wish?). Sure, if someone is outside the accepted moral and other comportment standards of the church something needs to transpire, but to be sure, these people need to be fellowshipped MORE not less, i.e., disfellowshiped or worse, excommunicated. Excommunication is not for us—all of us!—sinners who are trying to and want to be Christians according to our own individual capabilities and understanding, but instead fall short of the mark a lot of times. Other than cases of abject evil, very outward, radical, destructive agendas, and fraudulently declaring oneself authorized to speak or write for the church, excommunication should only be for those persons who feel within themselves that they need to be given ‘time out’ in order to completely repent so that they can then be re-baptized as a symbol of feeling ‘clean’ again. This should be a personal decision only, and not a decision made by anyone else. No one else has that right—the right to cast someone out from having formal communion with Christ in His church established for the purpose of inviting ***ALL*** to come unto Him.

    Just my thoughts. And who knows, maybe I’ll be getting a call to be excommunicated for expressing them.

    • Nice comment, Paul. I agree with you. Excommunication also contributes to an “us vs. them” mentality inside *and* outside the church and this is never a good thing. Does the LDS church really want to create more “thems?” This has been an Achilles for the Mormon church since it’s beginning, frankly.

  14. I was recently re baptized after 6 years of excommunication. There is no question that the high council acted in a spirit of love and concern. It was an opportunity to completely repent, change my life, and return with a fresh, clean start. Though very difficult, the process served me well and my life is changed in many ways for good because of the experience. That said, we live in a world full of imperfect men and women and there is no question that mistakes have been made in church discipline proceedings. Even in my case there were a few details surrounding my situation and timeline that I felt were mis-handled. And I believe The Lord in time and in his own way and mercy will make them right. I also believe that even in those cases the leaders involved had a genuine intention to do good, to do the best thing for everyone involved. The spirit and intention of love does truly prevail in these situations even if mistakes in human judgement are made from time to time. I can and do fully appreciate this bishops intention and attempts to avoid excommunicating in every case if possible. I support every decision that errs on the side of mercy and less discipline whenever and whenever possible, because the road to re baptism is extreme and often too difficult for some. I am thankful I endured. But I hope that more church leaders feel to avoid this level of discipline except in the most extreme circumstances.

  15. I like the sense of compassion, lack of knee-jerk reaction and ultimate resolution of this piece, but even as a completely inactive member for 30 years, I have a real problem with people who call themselves “active” members of the LDS church somehow thinking that their “private” lives and what they do in the privacy of their homes or bedrooms is no one’s business but their own. I am far from one who is in a place to judge anyone, and would never cast the first or any stone, but when one chooses to become a Mormon, they obligate themselves to the rules of the club. Those rules include being a member of a ward in which the Bishop is responsible for their welfare, which includes making sure they are abiding by the “laws” of the church. When a Bishop, for whatever reason, decides to turn a blind eye to one of his flock willfully choosing to break the law of chastity, or any other law of the church, he sends a message, whether intended or not, to the rest of his flock, that they can do the same thing without fear of negative action. This is utterly contrary to the entire idea of what membership in the kingdom is all about. If you don’t like the rules of the club, get the hell out of the club! Don’t expect the leadership of the club to turn a blind eye to every rule you break and send the message to the rest of the membership that they’re free to do the same! How utterly self-consumed! One of the reasons I have been inactive for 30 years is that I decided I didn’t want to be subject to a Bishop, Stake President or anyone else thinking they had the right to mess with my personal life, but if I WAS still active, I would damn well have enough integrity to not expect my Bishop to either stay out of my personal affairs or condone my living an adulterous life. While I do agree with the idea that compassion and love should be the way we all live our lives, I do not agree with those who have opined here that those values should be the ruling forces within the confines of LDS church membership. Sin is sin – and all of us fall short, but expecting a Bishop to ‘mind his own business’ where it involves willful breaking of the laws of the church (the rules of the club) just smacks of self-indulgence, self-consumption and unreasonable expectation of membership perk. Once again, do what you want with your life – live it in whatever way you want, but if you “choose” to be a Mormon, and “choose” to call yourself an active member, have enough integrity to do your best to follow the rules, or get the hell out, instead of expecting the church leadership to look the other way or give your errant ways a pass. Jesus will be the ultimate judge, but until that time, your Bishop IS your judge, and if he doesn’t hold up his end of the bargain, the entire enterprise goes to hell in a hand-basket. Too many people these days expect a free pass for whatever they choose to do instead of taking personal responsibility and following the rules of the club they have chosen to be part of. Nobody wins when we choose anarchy over order, sin over abstinence or a free-pass over personal responsibility.

  16. Bishop Pogner

    I find it interesting that some see his ideas as so progressive and radical. I think this is much more the norm nowadays. I have presided over several disciplinary councils as a bishop and have participated in many as a high councilor. I’ve yet to see one end in excommunication. I understand it as being the very very last resort and it has to do with the person’s attitude every bit as much as the transgression. Excommunication is something no church leader zealously pursues. It must remain as an option, but it is extremely rare that such is done in the contemporary church and– again, it has much more to do with the attitude of the member than the actual transgression. There really are very few instances where excommunication seems “automatic.” In fact, I was told by a member of the quorum of the twelve, “Bishop, you need to know that handbook inside and out so that when you choose to deviate from it you don’t do it out of ignorance.”

  17. This article has hit close to home for a number of reasons:
    – I served in a bishopric of this same ward as Bishop Rees (not at the same time as him)
    – I have been personally affected by the excommunication of one of my parents as a teenager. It is difficult to express the devastation I felt and that our family went through–extremely difficult years followed. Do I believe the men on that council did the right thing? Absolutely! Despite the many negative consequences I encountered in my life as a result of it, I believe 100% it was the right thing to do.
    – I have participated in multiple disciplinary councils in that ward. I can say that every one I participated in was conducted under an abundant spirit of love, compassion, and mercy. Of course my family experience and its consequences on others weighed heavily on me every time we went through the process. Furthermore, I felt a great spirit of accountability; I felt a certainty that whatever decision I supported, at some point after this life I would be held accountable for it–meaning no “rubber stamping” just because others in the room have one opinion.

    I believe the procedures behind church discipline are inspired. I can also tell you that it isn’t a black and white process. Just because two people are perceived to have sinned via the same action does not mean they merit the same discipline. So much more context and inspiration go into each decision, and those of us on the outside of any proceedings will never know those details and we should not judge or compare.

  18. While I was reading the article and comments, the thing I kept remembering was comments by Pres. John Taylor warning the leaders that if they permitted sin in the Church by turning a blind eye to it, then they would have to suffer for it.

    While none of us are perfect, there seems to be a line that we should not cross and that has to be respected. Of course, in accordance with the Lord’s will, which may at times treat different people differently as He did when the woman caught in adultery was brought to him. Even in that case, He warned her to sin no more.

    Steve

  19. Former Bishop S

    I don’t understand the point. Now we’re not supposed to excommunicate people because it has negative membership results in families? I can give you a completely different example where failure to excommunicate someone who richly deserved it had negative effects on all his children out of 8, 1 remains active 20 years later, but not a temple goer. His ex-wife the victim of his abandonment and shackup also went inactive and gave me an earful that the message communicated to the children was that there are no moral rules. I tried to hold a council but was stymied by the stake president. The truth is that disciplinary councils ought to be held far more often than they are and the result of not holding them is that a unit’s MLS is full of inactives living in situations inconsistent with church membership. The D&C is clear that we ought not have these things among us. I found the fact that this former bishop gave only that example to be somewhat bogus and thoughtless as to the realities which actually exist including the fact that true repentance ought to reach shame for poor behavior and generally doesn’t, we wouldn’t want people to feel embarrassed no would we? The example given is far, far from the norm and the odd case is no basis on which to make policy or fail to carry out the instructions in the Handbook.

  20. This reminds me of a story I heard about Calvin Coolidge. He said if you see 10 problems coming down the road, don’t do anything. Nine out of ten will fall into the ditch before they even get to you.

  21. My stepfather was excommunicated for having a child out of wedlock during a time when he was not active in the church. He strayed from the church for about 20 years and when returned, was excommunicated for his action during that time he strayed. Four years after he came back to the church (still working on getting back in) the Stake President was caught having an affair with a married lady in another ward for several years and neither the Stake president not the married lady were excommunicated. It was then that I started believing that there were those that were above excommunication. It took my step father 5 years of earnest and dedicated proof to be allowed back in. He never spoke of his hurt that the ward president (who of course stepped down) was not excommunicated. He persevered with his own spiritual path. I, as a 17 year old, could not understand why my stepfather was excommunicated and these other people were not. I couldn’t swallow the unfair treatment and judgement that took place on one and not applied to others evenly. I guess my sense of right and wrong needed to be tweeked to fit whatever was going on in out stake.
    The stigma on my family held for years even though we, as the children and wife, did nothing but love a man who took great care of us.
    I do not know if there are guidelines in excommunication but if there are, they need to be applied to all equally, or not applied at all.

  22. My coments after reading Bob Riess’s article and all of the blogs.

    I have two experiences to share…The first was when my father served as Bishop a half century ago. Why I remember this experience is interesting to me. I was just a teenager and it occurred so long ago. My father excommunicated or disfellow shipped a ward member I am not certain which. I don’t know the infraction but what was heart warming for me was my father kept a close contact with him for all the years after his family’s move some great distance away. Years passed My father never ceased being a friend and a spiritual influence in this person’s life. The good news…Year passed and this man himself was called as a Bishop.

    This second story is most current. For thirty years I lived and raised my family in a ward in a city that was known as a gay community in southern California. As a ward priesthood leader over 30 years I met and knew a number of gay members. Some were hurting and other defiant. Two I hope called me friend. One I home taught. He was a returned missionary and lived with his companion. I met his companion but but never had any interaction with him. He subsequently died of HIV aids. My friend, his companion, was devastated but continued with sporadic church attendance. One of the last times the ward members saw him in church he was on a chaise lounge in sacrament meeting. He did not partake of the sacrament and hadn’t done so for years. It was a time when the cocktail medicines so showed promise. He miraculously recovered and went on to do great work in the temple. He died in full fellowship.

    My lessons learned. Disfellow shipments or excommunications are not always fair nor right is all cases. When an ecclesiastical church authority takes an action it imperative for him or the court court to follow that individual for as long as it takes to bring him or her back. We are not the final judge nor are we to shun and dissociate ourselves from them. If we do the greater fault lies with us. The Lord has not given up nor disassociated himself from us.

      • PaUl M. Weenig

        If I typed Riess, it was a typo. I have known Bob and his family personally for over 35 years. We lived in the same neighborhood in West LA. I admire his positions in some cases and not in others..

        Thanks for the correction if his name’s spelling, if I made it.

        Paul

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