Excommunication for Apostasy in the Present Age: An Argument For Its Dissolution

The Church Handbook of Instructions provides the purposes of disciplinary councils:

  1. save the souls of the transgressors;
  2. protect the innocent; and
  3. safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church.

I’m not going to debate the thousands of possible scenarios wherein one’s behavior may or may not merit excommunication. I am, however, wary of the notion, somewhat popular nowadays, that excommunication could never, under any circumstances, be justifiable, if only for the reason that all such absolutist statements stand on shaky grounds. Even scientific facts, about which we are confident and certain, are are not inherently un-revisable. Something is nearly always capable of being qualified, conditioned, exceptioned.

With regard to excommunication for apostasy, I think in general that the above purposes are not on the whole well-served. Number 1 is relatively subjective, depending on the offense: those who are guilty of murder or serious sexual offenses could very easily still consider themselves within the faith narratives of the Mormon world. Appeals to the spiritual state of their souls could still find purchase. But with those who are acting in clear opposition to the teachings of the Church, such faith narratives–including, potentially, beliefs about the state of their own souls–might not find any such holding. As for the argument that severing such individuals from the ordinances of the Church somehow objectively saves them from damnation, I would respond that for all intents and purposes those in a state of apostasy likely have already ceased to act in such a way as to tie them to any ordinance of the Church. Even if they continued to ritually participate in some fashion, the idea that one’s own agency and desires are essential for the efficacy of ordinances is basic. If it wasn’t, we could not have a problem baptizing infants or insisting that the dead for whom vicarious work is performed have a choice in accepting their ordinances. I fail to see how excommunication could contribute to saving the souls of those deemed to be in serious apostasy.

In the present age, number 2 is extremely problematic. Plugging ourselves into modern communication technology exempts us from any presumed innocence. Debates regarding virtually any conceivable topic or position that might render one an apostate in the context of public advocacy have been raging in public forums for years. In any case, excommunicating someone on these grounds does nothing to “protect the innocent.” If anything, it further publicizes and polarizes the very issues such a person is charged with apostasy for in the first place.

Number 3 comes the closest to adequate justification for excommunication for apostasy. Any organization, religious or otherwise, will promote and protect itself. Any organization has rules for how structural integrity is promoted and maintained, and it’s not “anything goes.” However, this is where John Dehlin’s impending disciplinary council offers what I believe is a much more tenable response to this issue.

Excommunications tend to polarize as much as publicize, particularly if they involve people (like Dehlin and Kate Kelly) who have received national attention. Instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and debate what makes Dehlin a public, popular, and polarizing figure, the news of the worst discipline the Church can bring to bear on an individual has rallied his friends and supporters in unequivocal support and stoked the wrath of his enemies. Now even more than before he is either an angel or a demon, when in fact we know that the truth is much more complex. What is getting lost in the furor are the underlying issues, events, and narratives that brought us to this point.

Dehlin is not just problematic for the Church because of so-called public opposition to its teachings and the ways it tells the stories of its history; he is also problematic for many similarly liberal progressive members of the Church. These members, similar to Dehlin, are sympathetic in various ways to gay rights, women’s ordination, and other political or social issues. But many of them do not identify with Dehlin’s general modus operandi, his often one-dimensional interpretations (or blatant ignorance) of history and the intellectual tradition, his general disdain for the work of ostensibly faithful Mormon scholars, and his rather shallow secular humanist worldview. In other words, there are broader themes and issues at play here than simply a man who publicly supports gay marriage and women’s ordination, or even a man who vigorously defends his disbelief in traditional narratives.

But instead of severing him in all possible ways from the fold, why not rather insist that he should remain, not just because people “like” him can be included and accepted in a broad definition of fellowship, but because it is crucial that we speak about what makes his views so attractive to so many people, why the tradition itself is suffering, and that we can only really work through this as a family, because within a family certain familial obligations hold us together when mutual affection cannot. Hold his feet up to the fire, make him articulate his position more clearly, persuasively, and create spaces for others to do the same. If there is something shallow or repugnant about his views, do the hard work of exposing them as such and continue on in works of love, the fruits of which are the only truly valuable returns for fully living one’s religion. Be confident that the body of Christ is broad enough and deep enough to allow space for such hard work to take place. Excommunication for apostasy is the ultimate ad hominem–we sever the person, but the person’s ideas continue to travel and expand, virtually untouched, and probably given even more momentum if the person is reborn as a martyr.

In the present age, an age where every nook and cranny is exposed and ideas seep through the cracks like water, excommunication for apostasy is a practice whose time has expired, if nothing else than because of its ineffectiveness. We lost an opportunity to do this work of love with Kate Kelly. We lost the opportunity to speak together, argue together, weep together, listen together. Instead, only pain and polarization were the results, and her work did anything but fade away and die. What if, instead of trying to remove them from our sight, (which with the aforementioned access to modern communication technology is truly not possible) we insist that there is no place they can hide, because this house is too expansive, there is too much light, and where they go we will follow? Here is my heart, there is yours. We will argue and sometimes scream at one another, but at the end of the day we sleep in the same house, and the issues that cause you to seem wholly different from me will continue to be present no matter where we exile you to. Excommunication for apostasy, in this sense, is the deceptively easy way out. It is a temporary reprieve, a distraction from what is truly at stake. For the Church, it provides the false security of assuming the problem is removed, the Church is safe, the “innocent” are not longer in danger. For the excommunicant, it removes the incentive to continue to do the hard work of working within the family, of having to listen to others who disagree, of having to revise and negotiate and compromise and tolerate, because that’s what you do in a family. Instead, both entities can now feel free to dig in, put up walls, retreat to pure partisanship. And the work of love, already enormously difficult in the family context, no longer is front and center, but a demolished hope of the past.

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