I’m out in Florida, pedaling as fast as I can to stay on top of an exceptional family situation as well as trying to keep up with professional obligations. But I can’t help seeing a great deal of comment about the unfolding cases of John Dehlin and Kate Kelly.
Some of it — much of it, really — has bothered me.
So here’s a follow-up to last night’s post on the topic:
Among other things, I’m reading many expressions of compassion for Sister Kelly and Brother Dehlin. People are praying for them. This is fine. It’s good. Despite the reputation that’s been crafted for me by others, I actually endorse compassion, and, as I’ve said, I wish only the best for Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly. (There may of course be disagreement as to what, specifically, “the best” would entail.) Moreover, I’m in favor of prayer.
But I hope that compassion will also be felt, and prayers also offered, for those whose testimonies have been destroyed and whose families have been grievously wounded over the past several years — often, in my judgment and in that of many families and many who claim to have benefited, as a direct result of the activities of John Dehlin and (to a far lesser degree) of Kate Kelly. I know quite a few of them, and I’m aware of many more.
I’m firmly convinced that disciplinary councils and, yes, even excommunication, can and very often do serve a salutary purpose in clarifying doctrinal boundaries and behavioral limits, and that such clarification can prevent spiritual harm. (Some critics may not believe in such a thing as “spiritual harm,” but I do.) Indeed, I’m convinced that, on some occasions, such clarification is urgently necessary. I think it vital for the Saints, and not merely for (as some very hostile critics see it) their supposedly power-hungry and control-obsessed leaders, that the integrity of the Church be preserved, and that innocent and unwary members of the Church be protected.
I also believe that Church discipline can be helpful to the person disciplined. It can genuinely aid in the process of repentance. I’ve seen many such cases (having served on high councils, in bishoprics, and as a bishop, I’ve participated in a fair number of disciplinary councils), but I’ll mention just one: Quite a few years ago, I found myself seated on an airplane next to somebody with whom I had served very closely in the Church two or three decades earlier. A delightful personality, and a person whom I had really, really liked. We had lost contact, though, so I was happy to see him again. I asked him how he was doing. He was doing very well indeed, he replied. He was going to be re-baptized next Wednesday! I’m sure I looked somewhat speechless, so he proceeded to explain that he had drifted seriously off course — he never said, and I never asked, precisely how — and that excommunication was one of the best things that had ever happened to him. It was (and this is my image, not his, though it captures the spirit of what he was saying) as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown in his face. A shock. Bracing. But it awakened him to an awareness of how far astray he had gone. And now, he said, he was absolutely hungering to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost again.
I’ve remembered that encounter very distinctly for a long time now, and have hoped that others going through the process of Church discipline would have similar, and similarly positive, experiences. Whatever the specific outcomes for Kate Kelly and John Dehlin over the next few weeks, I hope that their ultimate positions will be something like that of my friend.
I’ve seen a great deal of overt hostility and contempt expressed online, by at least nominal members of the Church, toward Kate Kelly’s (and perhaps also John Dehlin’s) bishop and stake leaders, and I’ve wondered where the compassion for them is.
They didn’t choose to be placed in their positions, and they certainly didn’t volunteer to be involved in these painful and now nationally publicized situations. They’re just ordinary members of our common church, assigned to attend to their responsibilities as best they can. They’re not members of some foreign caste or professional elite, and they don’t deserve to be condemned, ridiculed, pilloried, and damned by ostensible fellow-Saints — let alone to be thus damned, ridiculed, pilloried, and condemned on the basis of one-sided reports, hostile rumors, and innuendo.
I’ve also seen a very great deal of overt hostility and contempt expressed toward the general leadership of the Church, and this disturbs me greatly. Not only because, again, these men don’t constitute a separate clerical caste — until not too long ago, they were local bishops and stake presidents, ordinary Mormon husbands and fathers; they didn’t seek the positions or covet the stewardships they now hold — and not only because I know many of them and respect all of them, but because respect for Church leadership is, or ought to be, such a fundamental part of what it means to be truly Mormon.
I’m fully aware, yes, of the danger of “deifying” Church leaders, and I myself have thought that we sometimes go too far in putting them on pedestals. But I’ve found myself thinking, as I’ve read recent expressions of disdain for them, of a statement made by Harold B. Lee to the students of Brigham Young University back in September 1973:
“The measure of your true conversion,” he said, “and whether or not you hold fast to those ideals is whether or not you are so living that you see the power of God resting upon the leaders of this Church and that testimony goes down into your heart like fire.”
And, as I’ve seen at least a few nominal Church members declare that, for them, there seems no more reason to remain within the fold now that “the Brethren” are “threatening” Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly with excommunication, I’ve thought of John 6:66-69, where some of the earliest Christians are “offended” by certain teachings of Jesus:
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.
“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?
“Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
“And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And I’ve thought of this remark from the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives.”
The Salt Lake Tribune cites John Dehlin as saying “I love the church and its people. I value my membership.” The New York Times says that his stake president sent him a letter on 7 June “calling on him to either resign from the church or face a hearing before a disciplinary council.”
The actual letter from the stake president, though, doesn’t quite seem to support the accounts given in the newspapers. Not, at least, without considerable nuancing.
The stake president’s letter cites a public post written by Brother Dehlin earlier in the month, in which Brother Dehlin declares that he “no longer believe[s] many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims.” It also cites a January email from Brother Dehlin to his bishop in which Brother Dehlin apparently asks that he not be contacted by leaders or members of the Church, not even in their capacity as “visiting teachers” or “home teachers,” and that he no longer be considered a member of his local congregation.
The stake president’s letter then says that, in view of such statements and requests — which don’t, frankly, seem to indicate much “value” placed upon Brother Dehlin’s membership — the stake president “need[s] to know exactly where you stand regarding your membership in the Church.” (In Mormonism, it’s effectively impossible to be an active and committed member of the Church while completely unaffiliated with any Church congregation.) Does Brother Dehlin wish, asks the stake president, to have his name removed from the membership rolls of the Church?. If so, the letter says, the stake president would be bound to honor that request. But the letter outlines some of the implications of such removal, and expresses hope that Brother Dehlin will seriously consider whether that’s the course he wishes to take. It invites Brother Dehlin to speak personally and privately with the stake president about the matter.
The stake president’s letter also expresses concern about the impact that Brother Dehlin’s statements and actions are having upon fellow members of the Church within the stake, and, at that point, invites him either to respond to the question of name removal or, failing that, to appear before a stake disciplinary council to be convened by the stake president at a mutually satisfactory time.
Some have described the looming disciplinary councils for Kate Kelly and John Dehlin as effectively penalizing those who study Mormon history and ask questions.
But this formulation strikes me as either grossly naïve or quite disingenuous. It’s not just a matter of studying history or asking questions. Many people do both, and remain faithful members of the Church in quite solidly good standing. I’m one of them, but very far from the only one.
Finally, several have cited this passage from Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:340:
“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
The implication is that the Prophet Joseph, a more liberal sort, would, on principle, have opposed any sort of disciplinary proceedings in such cases as those of John Dehlin and Kate Kelly.
But this seems far-fetched to me. The Church in Joseph Smith’s day was scarcely an anything-goes doctrinal free-for-all. Excommunications, including excommunications for apostasy, occurred on numerous occasions in numerous cases.
Posted from Orlando, Florida