In praise of excommunication

In praise of excommunication November 22, 2018

 

The Adelaide Australia Temple (LDS Media Library)  Part of what makes the sacred sacred, what makes a temple a temple, is the setting of boundaries and the exclusion of the literally “profane.”

 

Well, the click-bait headline worked.  Gotcha.

 

First of all, let me make it plain that I’m saddened by excommunications.  I don’t, as one very small pod of my somewhat unhinged personal critics pretend to believe, rejoice when people are excommunicated.  More precisely, though, I’m saddened by the acts of immorality, the abandonment of once-treasured covenants, the loss of spiritual confidence and trust, the angry rejection of Church leadership, the repudiation of central teachings of the Restoration, or whatever else it may be that has led to excommunication.  What saddens me isn’t so much the excommunication itself, which, in important ways, merely acknowledges a defection from the Kingdom, as it is the original straying from  fellowship.

 

Rumors of my glee over excommunications have not only been greatly exaggerated, they’ve been invented out of whole cloth.

 

(I’ll supply an unusually clear example, not entirely unrelated, of how such things are manufactured entirely ex nihilo.  I apologize for its somewhat gross character:  Several months ago, at the principal place where my most obsessive critics spin their fantasies about me, it was revealed that I believe that those who fail to gain the highest level of the Celestial Kingdom in the hereafter — the males, anyway — will be mutilated, that they will literally be anatomically emasculated, in the resurrection.  And I’m supposed to relish this, and to find it enormously funny.  As it happens, I had never even heard the idea before.  I’ve never thought any such thing, never imagined any such thing, never written about such a thing — not so much as a line, at least until I felt that I needed to deny holding such an opinion — and I absolutely don’t believe it.  Period.  More recently, though, several in that exceedingly weird place have taken to using the “fact” of my gleeful anticipation of the neutering of unbelieving men, including several specific, prominent, agnostic scientists of the past generation or so, as a revealing window into my allegedly cruel and vengeful soul.)

 

Anyway, back to the idea of excommunication:

 

I’ve just read a denunciation of the practice of excommunication from a person who, I think, may still be at least a nominal member of the Church.  I’ll respond, very briefly, to some of the points raised by this person:

 

  •  Excommunication is “outdated.”

 

Truthfully, I don’t even know what that claim means.  How does the mere passage of time, in and of itself, render a truth or a (divinely-commanded) practice obsolete?  Granted, conditions change.  But when did excommunication pass its sell-by date?  Was it on 12 May 2009, by any chance?  At 1:17 PM?  Or perhaps earlier, sometime in, say, the Fall of 1997?

 

In the Latter-day Saint understanding, the Church as a whole, in its doctrines and its organizations and its practices, represents the restoration (indeed, the Restoration) of very old things.  We believe temples, apostles, priesthood, baptism, prophets, and other such matters to be exceedingly old, but faithful members of the Church certainly don’t regard them as “outdated.”  Age isn’t a very potent argument against orthodox Latter-day Saint doctrine.

 

  •  Excommunication is “abusive.”

 

Well, I suppose it could be.  And perhaps, in a few cases, it has been.  Church leaders are, after all, human, and subject to all of the limitations to which mortal flesh is heir.  (Although I would imagine that there are more excommunicants who feel that they’ve been abused than there are actual cases of ecclesiastical abuse.  Just as there are more criminal defendants who claim to be innocent than there are actually-innocent defendants.)  But I’ve been involved in enough ecclesiastical disciplinary councils to be quite confident that many and probably the vast majority of them, even when they involve quite grave offenses, are conducted with utmost seriousness, prayerful sensitivity, a profound desire to get things “right,” and a genuine concern for the wellbeing not only of the Church but of the individual whose fellowship is in question.

 

  •  Excommunication has the effect of ostracizing people, socially.

 

Well, yes.  In several senses.  That’s rather the point of the term  כרת‎ (karath, to “cut off”), which occurs in various forms throughout the Hebrew Bible.  It’s also certainly the point of such New Testament passages as

 

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.  (Matthew 18:15-17)

 

It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.  And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you.  For I verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed . . .  to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.  Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?  Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:  Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.  I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators. . . .  But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.  (1 Corinthians 5:1-4, 6-9, 11)

 

But, according to the New Testament, such “ostracism” isn’t reserved only for cases of gross immorality:

 

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.  (Romans 16:17)

 

If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed:  For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.  (2 John 1:10-11)

 

And, needless to say, the practice of excommunication has continued by revelation in modern scripture, as well, and under the leadership of contemporary prophets and apostles.

 

Ostracism from Latter-day Saint society as such, however, seems to me to be, as often as not, substantially self-imposed.  Certainly the Church advocates nothing like formal “shunning.”

 

I recall reading a letter, many years ago, from an elderly ex-Mormon lady to a monthly Baptist tabloid that was focused on attacking the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In her letter, she lamented how, supposedly urged on to it by Church leaders, her children had begun to avoid her, to fail to invite her to social events, and the like.  But then, seemingly without the slightest tincture of self-awareness, she also told how, at every family birthday party and picnic, she spent as much time as she could on denouncing Joseph Smith, attacking their faith, and trying to bring her grandchildren out of the cult of Mormonism.  It didn’t take much imagination to realize that no directive from bishop or stake president to her kids was required for them to stop inviting such a tiresome anti-Mormon bore, Grandma though she was, to their family barbecues.

 

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.  (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-44)

 

  •  Excommunication is “spiritual violence.”

 

Again, I don’t know exactly what this is supposed to mean, except that it’s plainly designed to portray as evil those who advocate the Church and the Restoration as the Church and Restoration have long been understood and taught.

 

Couldn’t that be viewed as, itself, a form of “spiritual violence” and “abuse”?  It’s certainly a case of attempted rhetorical manipulation.  However, I strongly prefer retaining the word violence for . . . well, you know, for actual cases of violence.  Excommunication isn’t remotely comparable to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, nor even to a brutal carjacking.

 

  •  Excommunication is foreign to the beautiful, accepting, always-affirming message of the gentle Jesus.

 

God is love.  Jesus is loving.  By this shall men know ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

 

Quite true.

 

But let’s not forget about the Jesus who carefully braided the whip and drove the moneychangers from the temple, who called the  Pharisees “whited sepulchers,” who distinguished between “sheep” and “goats,” who spoke extensively of Hell, who warned of “false prophets” who would appear “in sheep’s clothing” while “inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

 

  •  The Church’s message should always be “Come unto Christ,” never driving anybody away.

 

That is its message, and it always has been.  But coming unto Christ means accepting him as lord and master, not as uncritical playmate and always-affirming pop psychologist:  He didn’t say, “I’m OK, you’re OK, and isn’t it beautiful?”  He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”  He commanded us to repent.

 

  •  The leaders of the Church have no authority to determine who gets to belong and who doesn’t, no right to decide who fits and who doesn’t fit in.

 

On the contrary, for believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that is precisely their right and their authority and their responsibility.  The Kingdom isn’t an open-ended debating society in which every doctrine is up for grabs, every commandment subject to focus groups and polling and negotiation, every policy a matter to be worked out by means of street demonstrations and town hall meetings but always subject to revision if even a single person objects.

 

The Kingdom should, of course, always be led with compassion and love, and we can hope and pray and work to include as many within its boundaries as are willing to affiliate themselves with it on conditions of repentance.  But the Kingdom does have leaders, and it does have boundaries.  The Kingdom means something specific, and the very definition of definition is to set borders and limits — which is why the term is also used to refer to the degree of distinctness in the outline of an object, an image, or a sound.

 

Excommunication is one way in which those facts are made plain.

 

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?  (1 Corinthians 14:8)

 

 

 


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