Church Disciplinary Councils: Scriptural, But Not Revelatory
When you read Doctrine & Covenants section 102 as part of your Come Follow Me readings this week, take a moment and pause at the first word. No, I’m not talking about the word This, which is the first word of verse one. I am talking about the first word of the introduction: Minutes.
Compare that word, Minutes, to the first word of the section that follows: Revelation. Or the first word of the section that precedes it, which is also Revelation. Section 102 is one of a minority of sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that makes no pretense at being a revelation. It is just the minutes of a meeting where a group of men came together to decide on some policies and voted on them; majority rules. (No women were invited.) This distinction matters because D&C 102 is often cited as the scriptural mandate for the punitive (and often traumatizing) practice of holding church disciplinary councils within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). These church courts continue within the LDS Church decades after most other churches have abandoned church courts in favor of more uplifting pastoral care approaches.
In February 2020, the Church Handbook gave church discipline a facelift, renaming Disciplinary Councils as Membership Councils, and their most severe outcome, Excommunication, as Withdrawal of Membership. However, most of the processes and penalties associated with the practice remain the same. They may not call it excommunication anymore, but withdrawal of membership continues to involve the same shunning-style punishments. Just like excommunication, withdrawal of membership renders null ordinances that are requisite to eternal salvation according to LDS theology.
The good news is that more meaningful policy changes did come alongside these superficial name changes, bringing long overdue correction to some of the most blatantly sexist aspects of prior church discipline policy. Until 2020, bishops were allowed to excommunicate women but not men, who could only be excommunicated by higher-level stake presidents. Three times as many volunteer staff were required to terminate a man’s membership compared to a woman’s. While the removal of these sexist clauses is an important and welcome step, church discipline policy is not yet even close to treating women fairly. Current policy still allows women to be punished by disciplinary—ahem—membership councils, but does not allow women to call councils, staff them, or judge their outcomes.
The meeting minutes that would become D&C 102 were written in 1834, at a time when punishing women in courts staffed entirely by men was the norm in America. In 1867, Elizabeth Cady Stanton described the attitude of the male-only American government of her time this way: “We [men] will be judges, jurors, sheriffs; and give woman the right to be hung on the gallows.” (The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, pg. 83) In fact, the year 1834 was closer in history to the years of the Salem Witch Trials than to our modern time. It is unsurprising that the group of men who participated in that meeting decided on a system that was less than progressive.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for a revelation to overrule a policy a group of men voted on about two centuries ago, even if it happens to have a section number in Doctrine and Covenants. Call another meeting. Vote for a more compassionate, less punitive, more egalitarian approach.
Oh, and don’t forget to invite women to the meeting this time.