On Sunday, the LDS Church is expected to proceed with the excommunication of Mormon Stories founder John Dehlin.
Sadly, I don’t think I’m premature in assuming that his excommunication is a foregone conclusion.
I’ve nothing to add to the copious analysis of whether John personally deserves excommunication. There are already plenty of thoughtful takes on that, including Nathaniel Givens’s argument in Real Clear Religion that the problem is not John’s support for same-sex marriage or women’s ordination, but his criticisms of the basic religious truth claims of the Church.
I’d rather evaluate what John’s excommunication could actually accomplish for the Church as an institution.
The word excommunication means, literally, placing someone outside the communion of gospel fellowship. In Mormonism, not just that person but his or her entire family can be affected. John’s wife and children can retain their church memberships, but their temple sealings to one another will be automatically canceled for all eternity.
That’s an extreme severance, so it’s important to be sure it’s the right one.
Which means we should all ask: How might excommunications for apostasy help the Church?
1) Punish the offenders
In the best of circumstances, excommunication is supposed to lead to repentance and, one hopes, an eventual rebaptism into the fold. Church discipline is, in the words of Elder Ballard, “a chance to start over,” a time-out from church activity in order to help people grow. In the case of apostasy, however, excommunication has more of a punitive and less of a redemptive feel. How does one repent of an idea? Of a doubt?
2) Clarify doctrine and policy to insiders
Verdict: Not persuasive
One potential advantage of excommunication is that it can clarify what is and is not kosher by current standards. I say “potential” because in Mormonism what may be an excommunicable offense to one stake president isn’t necessarily that for another. The Church has stated that these past months of discipline for John, Kate Kelly, and others have not been coordinated from Salt Lake City. While it’s good to be reassured that such acts don’t signal an institutional purge, the local nature of these efforts means that excommunication fails to clarify the Church’s overall standards of behavior and belief. What, then, does it accomplish?
3) Exercise strong leadership
A basic principle of organizational behavior is that good leaders sometimes need to demonstrate who is in charge. Ecclesiastical discipline (of which excommunication is the most severe form) successfully reinforces the structure and leadership of the entire organization, contributing to its overall stability and endurance.
4) Protect the Church’s reputation to outsiders
The LDS Church, like most institutions, is justifiably concerned with the way it is perceived in the world. How are outsiders to understand the Church’s standards when some people within the organization appear to have radically different views? One way of protecting the Church’s reputation is to communicate to outsiders what is and is not acceptable behavior. However, as the Church undoubtedly saw with Kate Kelly’s excommunication, such actions can also generate angry responses, inaccurate or hasty reporting, and unfair caricatures of Mormons—which in the end defeats the purpose.
5) Deter others from similar behavior
Usually, Mormon excommunications are quiet affairs that no one hears about. But in high-profile apostasy cases, excommunication becomes a visible threat that may succeed in preventing similar behaviors or expressions of apostasy. At least in theory. In practice it sometimes has the opposite effect, galvanizing those in the moderate middle to speak out in defense of the excommunicant or even to leave the fold themselves.
In sum: John Dehlin’s excommunication stands to help the Church advance as an institution that exercises decisive leadership. But on the other four fronts an excommunication may have an undesirable effect — not just for John and his personal circles, but for the Church as a body.
A final thought. It’s often said in Mormonism that the Church is a perfect institution that’s composed of imperfect people. As I grow older I find myself agreeing instead with Reinhold Niebuhr, who said that individual persons are, perhaps counterintuitively, typically more moral than institutions.
Institutions behave in ways that are consistent with the advancement of those institutions: corporations emphasize profits over people, and churches choose purity over people. It’s the way of the world.
Whether it’s the way of the Savior is another question.