There is very little left to say about the LDS discipline news stories which has not already been said.
Among the parts that remain, there is a distressing thread in Mormonism’s internal discourse. I made an effort the other day to describe the mandates of unity which Mormonism’s doctrine and history impose on its followers. But there are limits to the methods we Mormons can use to foster that unity without breaking it. Some of it works against Christian unity, even as it appears to call for it.
Church leaders have spent more time than I think many people consider contextualizing the terms “excommunicate” and “disciplinary council” for LDS uses, teaching that they are councils of love, where discipline and discipleship are synonyms. That work did not begin with Kate Kelly’s circumstances. I can remember lessons about it in Church meetings going back as far as 20 years. The institutional Church has worked for decades to move the attitude of our “judges in Israel” in these councils from boundary maintenance to inclusive guidance. They, at the very least the 15 men right at the top, really don’t want anyone to think of “excommunication” or “disfellowshipment” in traditional terms, as a shunning.
They don’t want us to shun the ex communicant. The fear of that shunning has produced a few commentaries which heap mockery on the LDS perspective. America at large will use the narrative the New York Times has supplied, that excommunication is a rejection; that Kate Kelly and John Dehlin are alarmed and feel terribly misunderstood; and that the Mormons have moved into realms of intolerance. We cannot control that narrative, any more than we can control the outcome of a local disciplinary council.
We can only control ourselves, and in that sense, the press has supporting evidence for its narrative from too many Mormon places. One alarming response to the news of disciplinary councils has been for Mormons to reason with each other, “If this were a club, or my employer, and I offered this kind of dissent in that way, I would expect to be kicked out!” Or, “If they’re so dissatisfied with the way things are, it remains that this is a volunteer organization, which they’re welcome to leave any time they want to.”
Perhaps those are true statements. But not all true things are useful. An open invitation to leave is the language of shunning. It is enmity, rejecting the aspirant, and it supports the false assumptions found in the mainstream American press, and multiplies the fears of those who have traveled with Kelly and Dehlin.
Because the context of Church discipline is inclusive guidance and because it defers to local volunteer authorities, lining up behind such sentiment is to risk acting in a way similar to the behavior which appears to concern those authorities, whether or not those leaders have been directed from the Church’s general leadership to convene a disciplinary council. It risks condemning another because they “sin differently than [we] do.”
In every case, the challenge to any person in the Church is how to behave towards a frightened or disaffected fellow Latter-day Saint. What if an ex communicant paid a visit to a local ward? Mormon scripture and tradition supplies the answer, and there is no enmity in it. Leaders are charged by God to govern “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned… by kindness, and pure knowledge… without hypocrisy, and without guile.” “When we undertake… to exercise control or dominion or compulsion… in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the… authority of that man.” I am confident that most LDS leaders, perhaps virtually all of them, govern according to those principles. I am just as confident that the American press has not correctly captured that facet of Church discipline.
Members without those responsibilities are burdened with the simpler commandment of unconditional fellowship. We are required to “love one another” and to “love [our] enemies.” The rhetoric of exclusion does not permit us to do that for anyone at all, least of all those who fear the loss of their places among us. We, as members in unquestioned good standing, ought to be better than to use the rhetoric of exclusion. By omitting it from our discourse, we can show the world that our way of life is not the thing they think it is.