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.


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