“Church Discipline,” Church History Topics
The Articles and Covenants of the Church, now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 20, outlines the procedures for administering Church business, including how to discipline “transgressors” in the Church. Received by revelation to Joseph Smith and presented in June 1830 at the first Church conference, these guidelines refer to the Book of Mormon for the sacramental prayers and procedures for baptism and ordination. Likewise, they direct Church leaders to turn to the scriptures when overseeing cases of Church discipline.1 The Book of Mormon highlights the importance of forgiveness, gives Church leaders the responsibility to judge, and explains that “whosoever will not repent of his sins the same shall not be numbered among my people.”2
According to the Articles and Covenants, matters of Church business, including decisions about discipline, were to be made at Church conferences or formal gatherings of elders or members. Participants at these conferences discussed any charges made against Church members, listened to testimonies and confessions, and then made decisions regarding the status of the accused. A variety of cases were settled at early conferences, including instances of domestic abuse, public opposition to the Church, and other misconduct.3
In November 1831, a revelation to Joseph Smith outlined more specific procedures for disciplining Church members. The revelation identified the bishop as “a Judge in Israel” who is charged with making disciplinary decisions with help from his counselors. It also allowed for difficult cases to be forwarded to the “president of the High Priesthood,” or President of the Church, who could call as many as 12 other high priests to assist him.4
In February 1834, Joseph Smith organized the first high council in Kirtland, Ohio, following a pattern similar to the one outlined in the November 1831 revelation. A few months later, he authorized the formation of a second high council in Missouri. These two councils, presided over by the First Presidency and the Missouri Stake presidency, respectively, settled all disputes and disciplinary cases that could not be handled by bishops. The councils also served as courts of appeal when an individual was not satisfied with the decision made by a bishop’s council. The minutes of the first high council meeting, now included in the Doctrine and Covenants, contained detailed instruction on how councils were to approach disciplinary cases.5
Early revelations placed limits on the authority of Church disciplinary councils. For example, while cases of murder did result in the withdrawal of fellowship, such cases were referred to legal authorities for judgment. An 1835 Church statement clarified that ecclesiastical courts had no authority to try individuals for their lives or property but at most could “excommunicate them from their society and withdraw from their fellowship.”6
Some features of Church discipline have changed over time and in accordance with continuing revelation. In the early Church, disciplinary decisions were made public, and member confessions were often given in Church meetings. As many cultures have placed increasing value on personal privacy, the Church has treated disciplinary cases with greater confidentiality. Additionally, in early Church history, members often brought charges against each other before Church courts under broad categories such as “unchristian-like conduct.” Over time, the Church has issued more specific guidelines for local leaders. Today most disciplinary cases involve serious violations of established Church standards, or, in some cases, sustained public opposition to Church leaders or policies.
The language used for Church discipline has also changed. In the early Church, disciplinary councils could “silence” a member or revoke an elder’s “license,” barring him from serving a mission, preaching, or functioning in other official capacities. In more extreme cases, councils would “cut off” a member, meaning revoking his or her membership. Today disciplinary councils choose one of four outcomes: (1) to give counsel rather than pursue formal discipline; (2) to initiate a formal probation, which suspends certain activities for a time, such as partaking of the sacrament; (3) to disfellowship, which allows the individual to retain membership but suspends most participation during the repentance process; or (4) to excommunicate, which revokes the person’s membership.
Some basic features of Church discipline have remained the same over time. Church members are expected to hold themselves to high moral standards as disciples of Jesus Christ. Those who do not exercise this self-discipline may be restricted in their participation or have their Church membership withdrawn.7 However, no earthly judgment is final: members who repent can have their blessings and fellowship restored. Church discipline merely decides a person’s standing within the Church. Some cases, though, are referred to civil courts, such as when legal guidelines or the safety of victims make it necessary. In all cases, decisions of the councils are to be made after counseling, by the guidance of the Spirit, in an attitude of charity, and with attention given both to the needs of the individual and the obligations of the Church. Elder M. Russell Ballard noted, “Church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process—rather, it is designed to be the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the Church.”8
Related Topics: Dissent in the Church