Author: Hafen, Bruce C.
To aid the spiritual development of its members, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has developed a system of counseling, rehabilitation, and, where needed, disciplinary action.
Members are accountable to the Lord for the way they conduct their lives, and personal worthiness is requisite for enjoying the full blessings of Church membership. The judge of such worthiness is in most cases the bishop of the ward, who is appointed "to be a judge in Israel" (D&C 107:72) and is "to judge his people by the testimony of the just, and by the assistance of his counselors, according to the laws of the kingdom which are given by the prophets of God" (D&C 58:18). General Authorities and stake, mission, district, and branch presidents may, in some circumstances, also exercise judicial responsibilities. The term "bishop" in this article usually refers to any Church officer acting in such a judicial role.
Bishops function as judges and also as counselors when they hear voluntary, private confessions from members. They must also determine a member's worthiness before signing the temple recommend that permits a member to participate in temple ordinances. Moreover, bishops judge worthiness before recommending persons to serve as full-time missionaries, before calling officers or teachers to serve in Church organizations, or before a member enrolls at a Church-owned college or university. Although required standards of worthiness vary somewhat in these different situations, most worthiness interviews focus on conduct-oriented questions concerning personal morality and chastity, payment of tithes, observance of the Word of Wisdom, sustaining local and general Church leadership, obedience to gospel commandments, and general activity in the Church.
Because bishops are primarily concerned with the spiritual development of each member, they have wide discretion to make judgments and to give the counsel most likely to assist the member's spiritual progress and, where needed, the member's repentance. A bishop may simply accept a confession from a repentant person without imposing a penalty, may decide not to extend a proposed call for Church service, or may temporarily withhold other privileges of membership. In the most serious cases, bishops may impose disciplinary sanctions ranging from informal, probationary restrictions to formal proceedings that can result in disfellowshipment or excommunication from the Church.
Church discipline may proceed from any or all of three purposes: 1. To aid the transgressors' repentance, thereby helping them receive the Savior's Atonement for personal sins (see Justice and Mercy). The Lord has said, "Whosoever transgresseth against me, him shall ye judge according to the sins which he has committed; and if he confess his sins before thee and me, and repenteth in the sincerity of his heart, him shall ye forgive, and I will forgive him also . And whosoever will not repent of his sins the same shall not be numbered among my people" (Mosiah 26:29, 32; see also D&C 64:12-13). Toward this end, bishops often encourage repentance without the necessity of formal disciplinary proceedings. However, in certain cases, unless a bishop invokes formal discipline, a transgressor may be unable to experience the change of heart and behavior necessary to achieve complete repentance.
2. To identify unrepentant predators and hostile apostates and thereby protect innocent persons from harm they might inflict. "But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people" (3 Ne. 18:31).
3. To safeguard the integrity of the Church.
Standard guidelines for conducting disciplinary proceedings are provided to Church officers in the general handbook of instructions. Disciplinary councils are not normally convened to resolve civil disputes among members (see D&C 134:10), nor are they convened simply because a member does not attend Church meetings or is similarly neglectful. Furthermore, members who request to have their names removed from Church membership records for reasons of personal choice unrelated to serious misconduct need not appear before a disciplinary council to have their request honored.
When there has been transgression, bishops must decide each case according to its unique circumstances, including the extent of the member's repentance. Therefore, the Church does not impose rigid requirements on bishops; rather, they are instructed to weigh all relevant factors and to seek spiritual guidance to accomplish the purposes of Church discipline as the individual case requires. When a bishop imposes discipline informally, the proceedings are strictly confidential and no official Church record is made.
Formal proceedings may involve a three-member ward bishopric or a fifteen-member stake presidency and high council. Formal disciplinary councils are typically convened only for such extraordinary behavior as murder or other serious crimes, incest, open and harmful apostasy, and flagrant or highly visible transgressions against the law of chastity. Members for whom a formal disciplinary council is convened are given advance notice of the reasons for the council and an opportunity for a hearing. Although legal procedures do not govern the proceedings, the Church observes basic standards of fairness. The proceedings are officially recorded by written minutes. Both the hearing and the formal record are treated as confidential information, and disciplinary penalties are announced only to those Church officers who have a need to know, except when the offender poses serious risks to uninformed Church members. Those subjected to disciplinary sanctions have a right of appeal.
A formal disciplinary council can result in four possible outcomes: (1) no action; (2) a formal probation involving restricted privileges; (3) disfellowshipment; or (4) excommunication. Disfellowshipment is a temporary suspension of membership privileges. A disfellowshipped person remains a Church member but may not enter Church temples, hold Church callings, exercise the priesthood, partake of the Sacrament, or participate openly in public meetings. An excommunicated person is no longer a member of the Church, and all priesthood ordinances and temple blessings previously received are suspended. Excommunicants may not pay tithing and, if previously endowed in a temple, may not wear temple garments. They may attend Church meetings. Excommunicants may later qualify for rebaptism after lengthy and full repentance and still later may apply for a formal restoration of their original priesthood and temple blessings.
Authorization to reinstate disfellowshipped persons or to rebaptize excommunicated persons must be given by a disciplinary council in the area where the applicant resides. In some cases, clearance by the first presidency is required. The ordinance of restoration of temple blessings may be authorized only by the First Presidency.
The isolation of the Latter-day Saints during the settlement era in the Great Basin gave a broader jurisdiction to Church judicial courts than is presently the case, in part because of the absence of a developed state court system. In addition, Church policy has in recent years given greater protection to the confidentiality of disciplinary decisions. For example, until the 1970s, decisions of excommunication and disfellowshipment were announced openly in ward Melchizedek Priesthood meetings, although the nature of the transgression was usually not announced.
Because the fundamental purpose of Church discipline has always been to save souls rather than only to punish, formal disciplinary councils are considered "courts of love," marking the first step back to full harmony with the Lord and his Church, rather than the last step on the way out of the Church.
Ballard, M. Russell. "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings." Ensign 20 (Sept. 1990):12-19.
"The Church Judicial System." In Seek to Obtain My Word: Melchizedek Priesthood Personal Study Guide 1989, pp. 29-36. Salt Lake City, 1988.
Firmage, Edwin Brown, and Richard Collin Mangrum. Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830 -1900. Urbana, Ill., 1988.
Kimball, Spencer W. "The Church Will Forgive." The Miracle of Forgiveness, pp. 323-37. Salt Lake City, 1969.
Moss, James R. "The Historical Development of the Church Court System." Church History Symposium Paper, 1977. Abstract published in First Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Symposium, pp. 75-77. Salt Lake City, 1977.
Preston, James J. "Expulsion." ER 5:233-36.
Simpson, Robert L. "Courts of Love." Ensign 2 (July 1972):48-49.
BRUCE C. HAFEN