Does Excommunication Make Any Sense?

Does Excommunication Make Any Sense? December 4, 2018

This weekend some numbers from the upcoming “Next Mormons Survey” broke suggesting large numbers of Latter-day Saints are bothered by high profile excommunications.

43% of temple-recommend holders say they are troubled. 66% of millennial members say they are troubled. Unsurprisingly those who reported less commitment to the church were more troubled by the excommunications (though several commentators conflated those numbers suggesting without basis that the excommunications caused the lower commitment.) But across the board, a large number of Latter-day Saints say they are troubled.

Being Troubled By Excommunication Makes Sense

The vast majority of excommunications happen for pretty ugly behaviors. These tend not to be advertised. And they don’t generate much outrage or troubled feelings.

The “high profile” excommunications, on the other hand, are people who first appeared in public because they were criticizing the church.

These aren’t adulterers, or predators, or criminals. These are people who talked, and at some point, you may have even nodded along.

So if they can be excommunicated, maybe you can be excommunicated? Or maybe if you notice something about the Church you don’t like, you could be next. Or perhaps, you simply want more diverse voices welcomed within the tent of our faith.

These are all reasonable concerns. So I understand why so many might describe themselves as troubled.

“Excommunication” is Wrong

And by, “Excommunication is Wrong” I mean excommunication is the wrong word.

The word “excommunication” does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. And the word is weighed down with the baggage of religious debates about whether or not excommunication should include shunning.

The word “ex” “communication” comes from roots meaning that they should no longer participate in the sacraments of the religion. But combined with the shunning baggage, the word suggests that we should no longer communicate with that person.

But this is simply not the reality in the Church of Jesus Christ. Those who are excommunicated are welcome in our homes, buildings, meetings.

And a significant number of those who are excommunicated rejoin the church.

So if excommunication isn’t the right word, what is?

What Does Excommunication Do?

Like all people, Latter-day Saints are complex multi-faceted individuals who are trying to make sense of the various conflicting parts of their identity. When we have behaviors that don’t align with our faith, repentance is the process for reconciliation of those disparate parts of ourselves.

But perhaps you’ve managed to reconcile your identity together in a different way. Perhaps you mistreat women, but rationalize it based on a misunderstanding of Church teachings on gender roles. Perhaps you murder and rationalize it based on esoteric church history references and the doctrine of justice. Or perhaps you are simply unkind or judgmental and shrug saying everyone does it.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, there are likely places in each of our lives where we have used rationalization rather than repentance to make sense of our complicated lives.

Sometimes the sins we commit do especially damaging harm to our spiritual selves or to the physical or spiritual well being of other members. In these cases, is the Church serving us well by allowing us to persist with our rationalizations? If we are leading others astray with the seal of Church membership, is the Church doing its duty by allowing us to continue?

Church discipline is, in essence, the process of convincing someone that in this case, their rationalizations do not work. There is some specific behavior that they must repent of rather than rationalize away. Each step of the process sends the message “this is not okay,” with the hope that the message gets through. At any point, a participant can effectively end the process by expressing remorse, and beginning the repentance process.

Excommunication is as far as the Church can go in trying to get that message through. And for a surprising number of people, it works, and they eventually return to the Church.

Excommunication Isn’t What Jesus Would Do

Others are uncomfortable with excommunication, even though they agree with the underlying purpose, but because they feel that it is a step too far. That the Savior acted in kindness and love, and that while some may protest otherwise, excommunication is about ends.

In fact, fellow Latter-day Saint Patheos blogger, Natasha Helfer Parker, said that excommunication is, “a spiritually violent, unnecessary act that does not represent the beautiful ministering messages we can read from Jesus Christ.” Dan Peterson goes into depth on her quote.

But suffice it is to say here that not only is excommunication Christ-like, it was his idea. In Matthew 18, Jesus instructed that if someone trespassed against other members of the Church, and the offender would not listen to the Church that they should be treated like a “heathen,” which in this instance simply meant someone who was not a member of the Church.

Perhaps the best example comes from the world of academia. In many institutions, someone with a GPA lower than 2.0 cannot graduate. If they persist on that course, they aren’t going to get graduation. The first step is probation. Nothing substantial changes about their life, but they are informed they are headed down the wrong path. They are also usually pointed to the best counseling and tutoring services the school has to offer.

But some students don’t think there’s anything wrong with their study habits. And they continue down the same path. Usually, a suspension comes next. The student is still a member of the college but has their rights taken away, such as attending classes, for a period of time.

Only after these steps, if the student continues to refuse to change are they no longer members of the college.

Would the college be doing the student any favor by allowing them to continue down a path that doesn’t lead towards graduation? Church discipline is similar in both purpose and process—with the significant distinction that there is no expulsion, only a final indefinite suspension that can be ended by the student as soon as they are ready to make the necessary changes.

Excommunication Shouldn’t Be For People’s Opinions

But, Christopher, you may object, we’re okay with the idea of excommunication. We believe it is often the right course of action, but it seems like all excommunications recently have been about people’s opinions. We don’t think you should be excommunicated for your opinion.

I agree. I don’t think people should be excommunicated for their opinions either. Neither does the Church, by the way.

Most excommunications are private affairs. The Church won’t comment on them. The reason it seems that excommunications are increasing for those with contrarian opinions is that those people have built large platforms for their voices where they speak often about their excommunication.

I suspect that one of the reasons this troubles so many people, especially young people, is that there is virtually no barrier to publishing an opinion.

Thirty years ago, for someone to regularly publish and speak against the Church and its leaders, it would require a substantial investment in time and relationships. Perhaps, in fact, it would be an entire career. In this case, it feels a little less like an opinion shared on a couch among friends, and more like a deliberate effort to harm the Church. And because of the barriers to entry, no one would be worried that they could be next.

Today social media has replaced both publishing and those conversations in living rooms and hallways.

Since Latter-day Saints are encouraged to be seekers of truth, I imagine virtually all of us have had conversations where we question or criticize the Church as we are looking for answers. Now those perfectly normal conversations are public. And we’re all convinced that are 500 Facebook friends are going to turn into an “engaged audience” any second.

But you aren’t. The people who have been excommunicated “for their opinions” are building media platforms. And take it from someone who’s building his own, the barrier to entry isn’t small. To do it successfully, it must become either a primary or secondary career. Building podcasts, blog posts, forums, social media followings, and advocacy groups are time-consuming tasks undertaken by people who want their opinions criticizing the Church to be amplified as loudly as possible.

They teach false-doctrine and won’t stop.

This is a problem because in our Church, membership bestows legitimacy. Any member can be called into leadership at any time.

Kate Kelly who tried to embarrass the Church into changing priesthood ordinations called excommunication “a medievel solution to a twenty-first century problem.” But her excommunication had the distinctly modern effect of ending the media cycle that had previously discussed her cause breathlessly.

Several years ago, a different member of the Ordain Women group posted that her Bishop had expressed concerns about what she was writing on a sizable blog and asked her to stop. She posted her decision to stop writing for the blog and keep her membership in the Church. She made clear that her opinions hadn’t changed. She made clear that her Bishop didn’t ask her to change her opinions, only her efforts to recruit others into opposing the Church.

Excommunication is sad and regrettable. But it’s ultimately the most Christ-like action the Church can take to protect its members, both those who are leaving and those who remain. I hope as more members consider the possible alternatives, they’ll accept that they are ultimately the best way through a bad situation.

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  • TinnyWhistler

    “The reason it seems that excommunications are increasing for those with contrarian opinions is that those people have built large platforms for their voices where they speak often about their excommunication.”

    Sounds like they’re being heard for the first time, even *gasp* by people who are still in the church. There’s a lot of stuff going on these days that’s more *visible* because the people it happens to can more easily build a platform to be heard, whereas before they were pretty effectively silenced. If all those excommunications are really for the purest of reasons, there’s no harm in this.

  • The Last Danite

    They are getting excommunicated because they are openly encouraging people to leave the faith and are also making a lot of money off their apostasy.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Of course. There’s absolutely no danger that it’s anything less!

  • The Last Danite


  • Christopher D. Cunningham

    I guess the distinction I was trying to make sense got lost.

    I think if a Latter-day Saint heard someone criticizing the church on the TV, radio, and newspaper, they wouldn’t be bothered about an excommunication. And I think part of the reason is that those people don’t know how to get on the TV, radio, or newspaper. They know the effort that person made to criticize the church and publicize that criticism was substantial. But now with YouTube, Podcasts, and Blogs, people feel like criticizing the church in public is so easy, it’s probably not as big of a deal.

    I was trying to make the point, that while access to those tools is easy, the high profile excommunications are people who are spending lots of time and resources to build audiences on those platforms, to try and convince others to criticize the church. They are spending just as much time and effort to distribute their criticisms as before, even though the tools they are using are more openly accessible. So while posting a Facebook video for some is akin to having a family conversation, for these media personalities, it’s more similar to booking a television appearance.

    That’s the way I frame the issue in my mind, and it makes what has happened make more sense. So for those who are frustrated by the excommunications, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my framework in the hopes that it might be useful for some of the people it’s bothering.

    P.S. I appreciate all your thoughtful engagements with my posts.

  • Sharee

    Excommunication is beneficial. It releases the excommunicant from his or her covenants until such a tie as they are ready to make them again.

  • Benjamin Rich

    Chris, I blogged about this a few years ago during the heat of the John Dehlin/Kate Kelly excommunications.

  • Andrew Currie

    Too many so called “Christians” perceive Christ as a mambly-pambly, anything-you-do-is-ok, forever tolerant deity. He is not your mom. Maybe more studying in the Old Testament would help people develop a better understanding of Jehovah’s character and expectations of us. May I suggest a deep-dive into the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah for starters. Also, it would be good to ponder the scriptural lessons about the wheat and tares and about the sheep and goats. A latter-day saint should examine his reasoning when he is out of sync with the leadership of the Church. Just because we think or feel differently doesn’t mean we are correct. The Lord warns us that His ways are not man’s ways and that His are higher than ours. Sometimes people need to be shaken to get their attention. Excommunicating is, hopefully, a ‘spiritual shaking’ that will wake people up to the realization they are on the road to hell.

  • John Purssey

    Sometimes it’s the leader’s ways that are man’s ways and not Gods.

    Jesus’ greatest criticisms were of the religious authorities that misused their powers. These stories were included in the Gospels precisely because the church authorities are liable to abuse their powers in the same way as the Jewish religious authorities did.

    The parable of the sheep and the tares is precisely against rooting about those perceived to be tares as they woiuld unwittingly root out sheep. As is the parable of the sheep and the goats.

    Matthew 18 is a whole discourse about the need to forgive and strictures against those who refuse to forgive when God has forgiven so much.

    Paul to talks about excluding people for a short while only for the specific purpose of bringing them back into fellowship.

  • Andrew Currie

    You are absolutely right about rooting our the tares too early. However, when a leader mistakenly or even unrighteously excommunicates a perceived “tare”, that person isn’t ‘uprooted’. Only that person may uproot himself. This article was focused on those members who are not part of the disciplinary action–the observers who ‘uproot’ themselves over another’s excommunication. Excommunication has always been about helping the wayward–even the ‘mistakenly perceived’ wayward–understand just how eternally dangerous the path is that they are currently traveling. As the author says, excommunication never prohibited someone from
    attending church or having their blessings eventually restored. It’s
    always the excommunicated member who decides to uproot himself.

    I differ with your assessment that “Jesus’ greatest criticisms were of the religious authorities that misused their powers” relates to excommunication. The OT is replete with his condemnation of Jewish leaders letting and even leading their chosen people astray by tolerating all of the worldly debaucheries the Israelites embraced. Throughout the OT Jehovah is constantly telling them to reject Babylon and separate themselves from the pagan practices of the world–even to the extent of completely destroying every trace of certain nations. I think Jehovah’s greatest condemnation is of the hirelings who are not true good shepherds, and let their sheep wander in dangerous paths. If we were to assesses the current number of members of record who no longer attend church regularly (or ever), we wouldn’t conclude it was because leaders were overzealous in excommunicating them. It’s the wandering into dangerous paths without effective shepherding by leaders and we other members that leaves them by the wayside “as the caravan moves on” (as Elder Bruce R McConkie said).

  • Andrew Currie

    Excommunication is beneficial, but it cannot release one from his covenants. That is false doctrine. A covenant is eternal. The covenant breaker disqualifies himself from the promised blessing of the covenant still in force. Having the promised blessing restored to the covenant breaker (e.g., by being re-baptized) is an act of mercy and grace from the Lord, because He is under no obligation to honor an agreement broken by an unfaithful mortal.

  • Sharee

    Thanks, Andrew. I had only been stating what I had been told. By the way, I have some Currie ancestry. Where does your Currie line come from? Mine comes from Islay, Scotland. Maybe we are related.

  • Andrew Currie

    Mine are also from Islay via Canada. has my stuff.

  • Imnoaheinstein

    All institutions (religious and otherwise) double down on contrarian members because they fear financial and cultural damage should the opinions spread. But that model never works because it’s fear based. Maybe ask the Puritans who hanged their heretics in Boston Square until members with larger minds began to see that the real sin was in the authoritarian leadership of their church. Hence, religious leaders like Roger Williams and William Penn escaped the iron grip of frightened zealots and founded colonies for religious tolerance and free thought. Rhode Island and Pennsylvania endured; Puritanism did not. Lesson learned. The answer to any speech problem is more speech, more thought, not less. If contrarians are speaking the larger truth of God (not the smaller truth of a a religious institution) the larger truth will prevail against all odds. If they are not, the institution has noting to fear but its own clinched fist.

  • Sharee

    I will check out your tree onAncestry. I know there are a lot of Currie lines from Islay, but they all ultimately go back to Muiredach O’Daley (that isn’t spelled correctly, but I don’t remember how it’s spelled). I also have a tree on Ancestry.

  • HematitePersuasion

    How can you tell?

    They teach false-doctrine and won’t stop.

  • The Last Danite

    If you think anyone is excommunicated for being a contrarian you are mistaken.

  • Sophotroph

    No admission that the church could be wrong. No admission that the critics could be right. An attempt to characterize mean-spirited, controlling, cult shunning techniques as loving parental behavior.

    There’s nothing to be learned here other than why your church is dying with the others.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I wish catholic church would excommunicate people like the mormons do.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    precisely why i am not christian. the followers are just as ruthless as their god.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    Blah blah. Did you forget jesus never wanted a religion, he probably didnt want a relationship either. But thats ok, because youre going to turn around and ignore this non believer because she knows things that you dont.

  • Donald

    “Since Latter-day Saints are encouraged to be seekers of truth”

    LOLOLOLOLOLOL I’ve had a bad weekend and needed that.

  • John Purssey

    Hi Brianna. I’d be quite happy to hear your special insights.

    Actually, I never class anyone as a non-believer. People always believe something that leads them to do something, such as posting on this blog. I think the questions of “Who am I? What is the purpose of life? How shall we live?” can be useful to us. They may not end in religion (however that is understood) but can help us to construct meaning, and I think constructing meaning is what makes us human.

    It’s hard to say that Jesus did not want relationships. Relationships are a lot of what makes life worthwhile, which is why so much of culture and art focuses on relationships. You may be meaning the religious expression of a “personal relationship with Jesus”. It’s hard to tell from what you wrote. However, what we know about Jesus comes from the stories of people’s relationships with Jesus. And having right relationships with others, ourselves, and the Ground of our Being (as Tillich puts it) seems to be central to the message of Jesus as received in Christian faith traditions.

  • Andrew Currie

    We both know that is not the reason you are not a Christian. As a wise man once said, “The hit bird flutters.”

  • John Purssey

    Here is a list indicating Jesus criticisms of religious authorities. Some people take this to be simply historical and that the criticisms were just of the Jewish religious authorities. My view is that they were included in the Gospels precisiely because the Christian religious authorities could be tempted into the same sins.

    Unfortunately, the blog article has a shallow understanding of Matthew 18. The verses in the middle are highlighted while missing that the whole of chapter 18 is a discourse in its own right on how the church is to be a caring and forgiving community, with a structure of :

    1-4: The greatest in the kingdom are thos who become humble like a child.
    5-10: Do not despise or cause these little ones to stumble.
    12-14: If one of His little ones strays then is brought back there is more joy than for those who have not strayed.
    15-20: A three step process for one who continually sins and the seriousness of taking such steps
    21-22: Forgive beyond count
    23-35: The seriousness of the church that is not forgiving.

    A list of Jesus’ criticsm of religious authortities:

    Luke 6:26
    Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.

    Matthew 23:33-34
    You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.

    John 8:43-44
    Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him.
    When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

    Matthew 7:15-20
    Watch out for false prophets.they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?
    Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.
    A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
    Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
    Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

    John 5:37-42
    And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me.
    You have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.
    And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he has sent, you do not believe.
    You search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they testify of me.
    But you will not come to me, that you might have life.
    I receive not honour from men. But I know you, that ye have not the love of God in you.

    Matthew 23:13
    But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for you neither go in yourselves, neither do you allow them who are entering to go in.

    Matthew 23:24
    Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.

    Matthew 15:14
    Let them alone: they are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.

    Luke 20:46-47
    Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.

    Luke 12:1-2
    Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hidden,
    that shall not be known.

    Luke 11:52
    Woe unto you, lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in [the Kingdom] yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered.

    Mat 23:25-28
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
    You make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within are full of extortion and excess.
    You are blind, first cleanse the inside of the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
    You are like whitewashed tombs, outwardly beautiful, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
    So you also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

    Matthew 23:16-19
    Woe unto you, you blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!
    You are fools and blind: for which is greater, the gold, or thetemple that sanctifies the gold?
    And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty.
    You are fools and blind: for which is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifies the gift?

    Luke 11:43
    Woe to you, Pharisees! For you love the best seats in the synagogues and to be greeted [by flattering title] and bowed
    down to in the marketplaces.

    Jesus said to them, [Pharisees] “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are
    entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not
    believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

    Matt. 21:43-45
    Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.
    When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them.

    Matthew 23:2-5
    whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do,but do not do according to their works; for they say,and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.

    Luke 3:8
    Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

    Matthew 23:14
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

    Matthew 23:15
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

    Luke 11:44
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are as graves which appear not, and the men that walk over them are not aware of them.

    Matthew 23:16
    Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor!

    Matthew 23:23
    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

    Matthew 23:25
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.

    Matthew 23:27
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

    Matthew 23:29-31
    Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
    Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the
    children of them which killed the prophets.

    Luke 11:46
    And he said, Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for you lay on men with burdens grievous to be borne, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.

    Luke 11:42
    But woe unto you, Pharisees! for ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

    Luke 11:47
    Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them.

    I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.

    Luke 6:25
    Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    Such a bad weekend you started laughing hysterically for no reason. Too bad, but glad you’re better now.

  • trytoseeitmyway

    I think Jesus mostly had a problem with religious people who did not live their religion. This is exactly the problem addressed by church discipline, which by the way has applications well beyond apostasy.

  • Kiwi57

    Evidently the Church has been “dying” since 1830, the year of its founding, as those members who oppose its mission, proselyte against its core teachings, and rebel against the leaders they claim to sustain, have been excommunicated ever since.