On Church Discipline for Dissenting Groups

Editors’ NoteThis article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Mormon community here.

I am neither a Mormon Stories fan nor an advocate of ordaining women, so I write this column with some trepidation. No matter how hard I try to be sympathetic, some people will inevitably find me judgmental or condescending; try as I might to understand, some people will conclude that I have distorted their opinions to make mine look better by comparison.

Admittedly, these are inevitable dangers of the one-sided communication that is writing. I can neither see my readers’ faces nor hear their objections, and thus I cannot rephrase and explain myself when I’ve been misunderstood. Likewise, my readers cannot see me or be reassured by my face and body language that I am sincere and mean no offense.

But this column presents a special problem on top of the general problem of all writing. This special problem is that, to the people who care most about my subject, I am an outsider.

Let me explain. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, people are “fundamentally groupish.” This means that, by and large, we react differently to people we perceive as our own than to people we perceive as alien in some way. We are more likely to make sacrifices for their benefit, more likely to assume they have good intentions, and more likely to believe what they tell us. Outsiders, on the other hand, are likely to repel us. According to the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, for example, if a conservative hears evidence that clearly supports climate change from a source he perceives as liberal, it is likely to strengthen his disbelief in climate change rather than shake it.

So, to repeat, this is my problem: I am neither a member of Ordain Women nor a follower of Mormon Stories, and yet I am writing on a subject of great personal interest to people who are. It is nearly impossible—in fact, it may be impossible—for me to do so in a way that they will generally recognize as fair and insightful.

And this is exactly what troubles me about dissident movements within the Church, and why—though I know little about Kelly or Dehlin and do not wish to comment on their specific cases—I think church discipline is sometimes an appropriate response to such movements.

My point here is not that it’s always wrong to disagree with the institutional Church or with mainstream Mormon culture. I have such disagreements myself, and some are quite passionate if relatively small. Nor do I mean to say that dissidents are necessarily always wrong, and I would certainly never say there is no reason for their pain and anger. Mainstream Mormons are groupish, too, and their charity towards Mormons who see the world differently is often less than perfect. It grieves me that some members of the Church feel unwelcome in their congregations and seek out communities of like-minded believers online, but it does not surprise me.

Rather, my point is that dissident groups are dangerous regardless of the merits of their cause, precisely because they are dissident groups. Even when such groups’ motives are innocent, their theological objections reasonable, and their grievances just, they will face a constant temptation to become factions. That is, through self-selection and natural group dynamics, they are always at risk of developing their own dogmas, choosing their own authorities to follow, policing their boundaries, and so on. They risk becoming more tightly bound to each other than to the body of Saints.

Why is this a problem? Because instead of healing the divides that cause conflict among members, factions exacerbate them. They define themselves in opposition to each other, chronically misunderstand each other, and often seek opportunities to be offended and victimized so as to call attention to themselves and prove the justice of their cause. People who should be brothers and sisters in Christ become enemies, and think they do God a service when they hurt each other.

I will not say that Ordain Women and Mormon Stories have become factions of this sort. I don’t know whether they have, and I know people of good will who are drawn to each of them. But I will say that with movements like Ordain Women and Mormon Stories, the danger of faction is always present, and their adherents’ good will is not necessarily enough to stave it off. Indeed, that is the most dangerous aspect of factions: their ability to turn people of good will against each other and ignite the worst conflicts out of the best of intentions.

So, if you’re unhappy with the Church as it is, what are you supposed to do? I can’t answer that question for everyone, and I won’t say that seeking support among people who’ve had similar experiences is always (or even usually) wrong. But as for myself, I think the right answer is to focus my discipleship locally: to worry about the problems I see in my ward, not the problems I see in the Church at large; to work within the structures of the Church to improve people’s lives; and to turn first to family, close friends, and (if necessary) local Church leaders when I find aspects of life in the Church frustrating. Dealing with disagreements on this scale requires a different set of virtues than do protests and campaigns: humility, patience, tact, charity. But on the bright side, it does not make factions. It makes friends.

  • Derek

    I agree with all of the in-group/out-group stuff you explained in this post, but it is precisely those factors that lead me to the opposite conclusion about the appropriateness of church discipline (at least in these cases). How better to produce factions who are more loyal to each other than to the wider church than to take one of the dissident group’s most publicly outspoken members and cast him or her out? What better way to intensify the alienation that dissidents already feel toward the mainstream institution? By pursuing church discipline in such cases the church sends the following message, whether intended or not: You are not one of us, and your kind are not welcome here.

    • Jettboy

      What if that message is intended? The outcome will then be to make sure such groups are less likely to form inside the Church and therefore either conform or leave. To be a dissident means separate from the main body and therefore by definition a faction. These people are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

      • Derek

        I think the other commenters have addressed these points, so I don’t feel the need to respond at length. I will say two things, though:

        First, in my opinion the word “dissident” obscures the issue a bit because it doesn’t account for the wide variation of opinions, attitudes, and stances toward the Church among the so-called dissidents. It implies a degree of antagonism and opposition that simply does not exist in each and every person or group to whom the word is applied (though such antagonism certainly does exist in some). Furthermore, it implies that the Church membership can be divided into two groups: the dissidents, and the monolithic body of faithful members. The latter group is pure fiction; such a monolith doesn’t exist, nor has it ever.

        Second, if the message to conform or get out is intended, this strikes me as overly harsh. Of course this school of thought exists within Mormonism and it’s easy to find examples to support it, but it is by no means the only school of thought. I prefer to err on the side of love, compassion, and inclusiveness. As long as there are people who want to offer their talents and worship, serve, and commune with us, but who feel unwelcome, we should not presume to call ourselves Zion.

        If anyone is trying to have their cake and eat it too, it’s the Church, which insists on one hand that we not regard it as infallible, but on the other hand punishes us when we draw attention to the particular instances of perceived fallibility and attempt to have them addressed.

  • David Heap

    I think one of the dumbest things the Vatican did was to attempt to excommunicate Luther. I think that escalated what was a spat among monks to something that shook the church and divided it. Would Luther have formally split and organized a competing faction had the Vatican been less confrontational? I cannot say. But I think it would have been worth a try, because there were plenty of people within Catholicism who shared Luther’s views (including the great Erasmus) and who wanted to stay. And escalating things by trying to excommunicate Luther forced many to make a choice (Erasmus stayed but many others, who likely would have stayed had a choice not been forced, did not).
    In Mexico, the country of my mission, the third convention was a schismatic group that was faithful to the teachings of the church and in general to the leadership. They petitioned for things like a mission president from Mexico and greater leadership by locals, as well as the building of schools. For better or worse, the U.S. mission president chose to treat them as apostates, and excommunicated them. It was a sizeable group who conducted parallel missionary programs and church services for years. It was only after a subsequent mission president was assigned who was more conciliatory–and who listened–and a new church president–George Albert Smith, known universally for his kindness and compassion, that a reconciliation occurred. Many of the disciplinary actions were revoked during the reconciliation–i.e., no rebaptism and no re-entry courts. SLC leadership did make greater efforts to bring native Mexicans into leadership in Mexico and for a generation (under David O. McKay) and network of church schools was built in Mexico (they were largely all closed after David O. McKay died).
    Yes, I agree that formation of groups within Mormonism has a risk of schism. But I don’t think escalating matters and implicitly signalling to people that sharing those views is apostate avoid the possibility of schism.
    I may be in error in some of my recollection in the history of the Reformation and of the Third Convention, but I am confident and have faith that patience and long suffering are a better approach to schismatic groups (which I don’t think Ordain Women or Mormon Stories is) that kicking them out.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

    There will always be factions. Even Alan belongs to them…just none that will make him a target for expulsion. The conservative white male faction is a faction, it is just the dominant one (within the context of Mormonism).

    Madison argued that factions could be dangerous, but he also rejected the idea of eliminating them. The do so would require eliminated liberty and the diversity of opinion. So factions might be problematic, but the Church actively trying to do away with them might be even more problematic.

  • carriesedai

    Of course there will be factions. Those will always exist. The solution to factions though, is not to ban them, but embrace them. The beauty of local wards is that they are small enough that most members can get to know and love each other. That their may be the feminist cohort, or the local farmers cohort, or the mothers-of-toddlers cohort, or the MBA-students cohort, those are all reasons to further get to know each other and embrace the diversity of experiences. Its harder to be exclusionary to someone you’ve worked in the kitchen with during a ward activity.

    The same is true for factions that form across local boundaries, and a multitude of these exist. “California Mormons”; “Utah Mormons”; “BYU Graduates”; “Pioneer Stock”, to say nothing of the Feminist Mormon Housewives or Mormon Academics contingents. Members find value in the shared experiences of those like them. But once again, because of the small nature of wards, those factions often end up being secondary considerations as we come to know and love each other.

    So I’m not so quick to assume that a dissident contingent is automatically dangerous. Many of these dissident people are those who genuinely love the church and want to see it function better. Many of these dissident people are staying in the church because they’ve found solace in the shared perspectives and experiences of other dissidents, and because they’ve found hope in progress made thus far. I don’t see a reason to categorically fear dissident groups as opposed to critical individuals, or any other form of group.

    In my ideal world, dissent groups would be embraced at the institutional church level just as dissident individuals are embraced at the local church level. Sure they might be a little quirky, and even at times obnoxious, but we love them anyway because they add fresh perspectives. Sure we might disagree with them and the Church may never change, but we can still engage in robust debate and civil discussion. Cutting off part of the body of Christ merely because it’s a dissident faction seems unproductive.

  • PaulBohman

    I appreciate the lengthy disclaimer at the top more than the conclusion, which seems to be: if you see things that need to be changed, don’t. Just stay local and don’t rock the boat.

    That’s a sure fire way to never see change happen, and it’s a waste of one’s own good ideas. It’s peaceable, but it’s not particularly helpful when real things need to really get done.

  • Chris Harvey

    Thoughtful post as always Alan. My first response would be that if church discipline is an appropriate response to these groups as you claim, what should be the charge? If “apostasy” doesn’t fit, and many have argued that it doesn’t in the current cases, then what? Forming a group? Forming a group that the church finds threatening or embarassing? There’s a rule of law problem there that makes the church appear arbitrary, defensive and unfair, and makes the members feel unsafe.

    Secondly, while the group psychology tendencies you discussed are real it’s hard to discipline an individual for them. It will often be the case that while the existence of the group is a problem for the church, no individual member of the group has done anything that merits losing their salvation. Making an example of the leader will often appear unfair and reinforce the group dynamic.

    For me Maxine Hanks’ interview on the Mormon Matters podcast this week represents the way forward. She’s clearly more sympathetic to the church on the Ordain Women issue but she’s coming from a spiritual place where that doesn’t matter. I couldn’t possibly do it justice here but her plea was for everyone to recognize the influence that their actions have on others and recognize the humanity of those on the other side. As you mentioned in your article though, it’s so hard for us to let go of that group mentality. I think the church really needs to set the example here, and unfortunately I think it failed with Ordain Women. From the beginning it responded critically and defensively in a way that heightened the emotions on both sides. While I’m sure the church would love for everyone to follow your advice and not rock the boat, this is bound to be an issue again. Hopefully we can do it better next time.

  • Jim Cobabe

    Good discussion. I only wish to disagree on one minor point. The Church does not discipline “groups” as such. Disciplinary measures always seem to apply specifically to individual persons.