Questions About Excommunication


by Caroline

In one of my religion classes last semester, my professor announced that there are only two religions that currently and routinely excommunicate people. Who are they? The Catholics and the Mormons. This is due at least in part to the strongly centralized authority structures both religions maintain, said my professor. Other religions might have disciplinary processes called excommunication, but it doesn’t compare to the expulsion from the church that Catholics and Mormons face.*

I hadn’t realized that Mormons were alone with the Catholics in the excommunication world. I came home from class that day wondering why we had to have this practice, since so many thousands of other religions manage just fine without it. I was particularly concerned for those that are excommunicated for publicly disagreeing with Church leaders. That just seems so sad to me.

Other Mormons are particularly concerned about leaders using excommunication to deal with sexual sin. I was very sympathetic to this comment from Kelly Ann, that she left on my last post.

She said:

“If I was to give you the answer I learned in Sunday School, I would say that the purpose of church discipline is to call a sinner to repentance, to protect the innocent, and to protect the name of the church. I can see the purpose of excommunication in criminal cases – instances of murder, rape, or incest (like the Church Handbook suggests). However, what scares me is how it can be used in cases of adultery or fornication – where an endowed individual (stereotypically male) had sex outside of marriage.

My question is why is it necessary? Yes, we believe sex outside of marriage is a sin. But why is church discipline necessary in these cases? I believe in a personal God. I pray and receive personal answers and revelation and forgiveness for my mistakes. Why is it that forgiveness cannot be achieved by the individual even for such a large mistake? What bothers me in particular is when an endowed female errs and is called before the high council composed of all men. My mom has a friend who was ex’d for adultery and absolutely humiliated in the process. What does this do to a woman’s sexuality who is already apparently struggling? Furthermore, let’s say a young 20 year old something sleeps with her boyfriend. Even the thought of having her go before a bishop’s council bothers me. Why does she have to go before men even if she has already felt forgiveness from God?”

I think these are great questions. One of my biggest feminist epiphanies a few years ago was the conviction that I didn’t necessarily need middlemen to mediate between me and God. I could go to God myself for insight, forgiveness, etc.

Not that talking to a bishop about one’s problems/sins is necessarily a bad thing – I can see it being very healing for some people to do so, and I can also see a leader acting as a counselor with great compassion. It just strikes me that personalities and circumstances vary. What could be a wonderful and healing experience for some in going to talk to a leader could turn into a nightmare for another.

Kelly Ann does a good job of illustrating that second possibility, and she also brings up the important factor of gender in the disciplinary process. I myself would be a thousand times more likely to talk to a bishop if that bishop were a woman. I hurt for the woman who, having committed some kind of sexual sin, has to face a counsel of men who have the power to decide her future membership in the Church. I imagine it would be traumatic enough if both men and women were present. Having only men there could make it much worse, it seems to me.

What do you all think? Do you see a place for excommunication in the Church? What about for sexual sin? Do you think that’s one area that can be left up to the individual and God?

*I assume she was talking about major religions, since I imagine some smaller ones might have this practice.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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25 Responses

  1. Tori says:

    I admit I’m biased on this one. I don’t feel there is a place for excommunication in the church. If someone is committing such a serious sin, there isn’t a need to ‘terminate’ their blessings. They aren’t worthy of them anyways. So hammering the sinner with paperwork seems excessive and unnecessary.
    I also think three can be a crowd when it comes to confessing sexual sins. In most cases, it seems better left to that person and god. No one needs permission from a third party to participate in the repentance process. I think many church leaders are confusing humility w/humiliation.

    My intense feelings come from watching my husband suffer through the experience of having been excommunicated. Raised in the church, he was ex’d at 19 (not endowed, didn’t get the chance to go on a mission) for having oral sex with a non-member. He always willingly confessed all his indiscretions and had been struggling with masturbation for years. Even though he was always very ‘repentant’ about it, the bishop felt he should have a severe consequence since he was a ‘repeat’ offender (with the masturbation.. then escalating to oral sex.. especially since it was so “unnatural” he was told it was worse than if he’d just had intercourse).

    He’s been actively coming to church since he met me (these last 5 years). Even though he’s done everything he’s supposed to, to ‘get back in’, the paperwork is still in process. In the meantime, church members treat him like a pariah and the knowledge of his status will forever color their view of him in a negative way. People always assume the worst. They asked me if he raped someone or had been selling drugs to kids.

    It would be interesting to see just how often excommunication is used by leaders on a power trip looking to ‘make an example’ of someone. For the purpose of scaring others out of following in the footsteps of the sinner. I believe that was the case here, since he was friends with the other youth in the ward (including the bishop’s kids… ).

  2. DavidH says:

    Actually, excommuncation continues to exist in many Christian churches, not just LDS and Roman Catholic. However, excommunication means different things in different traditions. As I understand it, excommunication in the Catholic faith often simply means that the member is forbidden from communion and from participating in certain other rites. Sort of like a bishop in the LDS Church directing a member on private probation to refrain from partaking of the Sacrament or from attending the temple or participating in priesthood ordinances. Unlike the LDS view, excommunication in the Catholic traditions does not revoke membership or the blessings of baptism.

  3. Emily U says:

    Oh, Tori, that is tragic. I’m very sorry to hear about what happened to your husband. I don’t know what the purpose of excommunication is. I’ve heard some people say it helped them repent, so I guess I’ll take them at their word. But obviously, it can also make matters worse.

    A boyfriend I had in college had become an accidental father in high school. The baby was adopted, and my (ex)boyfriend was not excommunicated and allowed to serve a mission, although the official rules were that if you’d fathered a child you couldn’t serve a mission. I believe his stake president had to get a special dispensation from Salt Lake. It was the best thing for everyone. In his case, I’m sure excommunication would have increased his pain and possibly driven him away from the church. For a person who is repentant in their heart, mercy is better than punishment. For someone who’s not sorry, punishment won’t make a difference.

  4. Tori says:

    Emily U, it IS tragic. It DID drive him away from the church. After he’d been booted, he gave up entirely and figured his salvation was a lost cause. So what you said “For a person who is repentant in their heart, mercy is better than punishment. For someone who’s not sorry, punishment won’t make a difference” is spot on. I personally cant imagine a situation where it’d actually help someone come to repent.

  5. Caroline says:

    Wow, what a nightmare for your husband and you. I can’t believe he was ex’d because of masturbation and oral sex. Geez, I bet there would be tens of thousands more excommunicated people if that standard were routinely enforced. And I bet many out of those thousands who did the same things your husband did are currently active and happy members of the church because their particular bishops showed compassion. Or because they decided to just repent to God by themselves. I really applaud your husband for even trying to become a member again. I would find it hard to overcome the experience of being treated with so little mercy.

    Davidh, yes I saw that Wikipedia entry as I was writing this post. It does appear that other religions do do it occasionally, and particularly in the past. Maybe what sets Mormons and Catholics apart is in the frequency and the fact that it’s currently done, not just a process on the books that pretty much never used? Dunno. I hadn’t closely read the part about the Catholics. Interesting that their excommunication doesn’t revoke baptism.

    EmilyU, that’s a great story of compassion. I’m so glad that bishop chose to lean towards mercy.

  6. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you, Caroline, for raising these questions in a new thread.

    I think that the church is unique in how it handles excommunication. There are grades of church discipline – probation, dis-fellowship, and excommunication. It is hard to describe how excommunication blots someone off the record – like they never existed, that they are not worthy to be numbered among the saints. From my experience, I think most other churches discipline would fall under the category of probation or disfellowship – a temporary censorship to call one back to the flock. The Mormon paradigm (specifically in terms of modern dissent) was unique enough to be considered a distinctive characteristic of the Mormon experience in PBS’ “The Mormons” special.

    I can understand why a branch president or other prominent member who embezzles tithing funds or vocally lives a sexually-active homosexual lifestyle or who publicly persecutes the church is disciplined and might be excommunicated (all cases I saw on my mission). I have been grateful that the church excommunicates those who practice polygamy and indicates that to the public to clarify the perception that the church still practices it. And I vaguely remember a murder case in California, where the local news took note that the perpetrator was Mormon, where I was relieved to find out that he had been excommunicated so I could dismiss the “He is Mormon” comments with “He was Mormon.” It is sometimes really nice to have it clear what type of activity the church condones (even sometimes in terms of major dissent, although I won’t touch that subject now).

    However, as mentioned in the thread “does chastity lead to (manipulate) people into marriage,” I think we are “manipulated” by the threat of church discipline for sins that don’t merit it. Excommunication is not all that common but I have always been uncomfortable when people would joke “you could be ex’d for that.” For a long time, I felt I couldn’t speak my dissenting opinions for fear that people would perceive “apostasy.” In terms of the law of chastity, I think a lot of people are good because they know there are severe consequences for their behavior – that a certain standard and conformity is necessary to remain “a Mormon in good standing.”

    Like you mentioned, it has been an epiphany for me to realize that my personal relationship with God can continue in spite of my doubts, fears, mistakes, and sins. I’ve respected the council that I have received from Priesthood leaders when I have gone to them but am coming to better appreciate personal revelation and direct forgiveness. The constant pushing for need of confession (let alone church discipline) to “talk to your Bishop … to obtain the forgiveness available to those who truly repent” regarding sexual sins bothers me. Why is it necessary even in cases where a temple covenant was broken if the offender goes to God and to the affected individuals? If a wife cheats on her husband why cannot that stay between the two of them and God? Afterall, we don’t confess all broken temple covenants. Why is that our culture is particularly prudish?

    I definitely don’t think excommunication was intended for those who masturbate or who have oral sex (as both of which could even be debated for being sins). I think it unfortunately has become a “scarlet letter” of sorts and I can’t help wonder as well how much is about the example of what happens to the sinner – that the church for whatever reason is too quick to expunge itself from any error. I think Priesthood leaders can make mistakes in regards and will be held accountable.

    I, too, would have a hard time coming back if I was excommunicated. To not be extended mercy for a case such as described by Tori. Specifically to her, I say the following in the best possible regard – five years is a long time! My mom’s temple cancellation (something else that has to be approved by SLC) remained “in processing” for years because the paperwork was sitting on the stake president’s desk. While I don’t know the specifics of your husband’s situation, I would encourage him to routinely ask about what the exact status is. This also comes from my opinion that he could have probably petitioned the initial excommunication (which one can do) and won as well.

  7. Tori says:

    Kelly Ann,

    You’re right. On both counts. I cant believe he puts up with church members. They are unbelievably nasty to him. But, he raised with the mindset that what the leader says goes, so he’d never petition the original court. He still thinks he “deserves” whatever he gets as “part of the repentance process”. Also, 5 years IS a long time. We had both been in the AF, so in the beginning it was because we moved so much. Each new bishop wanted to see him attend all his meetings for at least 18 months before they would even *consider* starting the process. When the paperwork had been submitted… months went by only to find out (like you said!) it’d been sitting unsigned on the Stake President’s desk (he’d gone out of town, and it was apparently lacking some information, so he sent it back to the bishop… who was also out of town… now it’s back to the SP… who again… is out of town). One day it might happen 😛

  8. Brent Hartman says:

    Considering that Kinsey found 95% of males masturbate by the time they reach 21, I’d say that using this as a criteria for church discipline is laughable.

    I’d be more inclined to punish the other 5% for lying.

    Advocacy of masturbation was one of the reasons my grandfather, Dr. William E. Hartman, was excommunicated.

    The Church viewed his work as evil, but his treatment of sexual dysfunction saved hundreds of marriages.

    My view is that treating masturbation as a grave sexual sin, actually causes more harm than good. If a young man thinks he’s already sinned a grievous sin, then it makes it easier for him to take it to the next step.

    There is a lot of sexual dysfunction within the Church, and I believe that much of this is caused by the policies of the Church regarding sexuality.

  9. Rebekah says:

    The only way I can personally reconcile teh above subject is that (hopefully) the Church leaders in the end will be accountable. I am the only one still active of all my siblings, my mother was excommunicated for apostasy after ALREADY asking to have her name removed from the Church records. Why the need to humiliate her by calling a disciplinary counsel when she’d already said she didn’t want to be a member anymore. Probably setting an example like some previous comments said. But in my mind, certainly unecessary.

  10. EmilyCC says:

    Brent, I think you make a good point. I think a more enlightened view of sex and what constitutes as sinful would save many members a lot of heartache.

    I’m wondering about the way it appears to me that excommunication is used. I’ve seen people get in trouble for unethical business practices with the law, and yet, they’re not excommunicated.

  11. anon perma says:

    My dad was excommunicated: twice.
    Both times it was for extra-marital affairs.
    It was really difficult on our family, but my dad has always believed that he was loved by the men in the council (with one specific incidence excepted) and that they really wanted him to repent.
    For him, I think excommunication was a good way for him to understand the seriousness of his sin and to struggle through repentance. I believe he felt love and fellowship as he worked with the church to come back to the fold.
    My mother, however, hasn’t found the love and fellowship of the church as she’s struggled with forgiveness. She’s been put off by male church leaders commanding that she forgive her husband and others that counseled her, against a message from God, to stay with her husband after the first excommunication.
    Looking at them now, I see that the church has helped my dad, but not my mom and I find that very tragic.

  12. anon perma says:

    oops, I forgot to mention, they’re still married, although unhappily.

  13. MJK says:

    Yeah… The whole masturbation thing is a big issue for me as well. I fully intend to teach my sons and daughters that masturbation is a private matter and the danger is when it becomes entangled with pornography, but in itself it is not something to be ashamed of. I am also going to teach them that if the bishop or any other church leader asks them a question about masturbation in an interview, the response to give is, “I don’t have a problem with that.” Not lying, not saying “I don’t do it” but that it is not a problem, or an addiction.

  14. Caroline says:

    Rebekah, that’s horrible about your mom. Talk about senseless. What were her leaders thinking?

    Brent, you make a good point. I don’t know if I had actually ever articulated that to myself before, but your point about young people going even farther since they’re already masturbating sinners resonates with me.

    anon perma, thanks for your story. Fascinating that excommunication turned out to be a good thing for your dad, but that church counsel about staying with him was a bad thing for your mom. I’m a big fan of mercy from church leaders when it comes to sexual sin, but in this case, the mercy emphasis really put your mom in a horrible bind.

    MJK, I like that response ‘I don’t have a problem with that.’ Beautifully vague. A good option. Another option I’ll consider is calling the bishop beforehand and telling him not to ask my son masturbation questions – that he’s been instructed to not respond.

  15. Rebekah says:

    Yes, the response “I don’t have a problem with that” is an excellent one. A priesthood leader asked my husband if he had a problem with masturbation in his last TR interview that he answered with that same response!! Very wise!

  16. Brent Hartman says:

    The running joke with the young men that I grew up with was this:

    Bishop: Do you have a problem with masturbation?

    Young Man: Nope, it always works for me! 🙂

  17. Tori says:

    The “I dont have a problem with that” response is great. My oldest is turning 8 this year and I’ve been starting to worry about how to approach the subject. I’m of the opinion that masturbation in and of itself is not a sin but know my kids will be taught differently in church. I’m expecting some friction from leadership. Although I don’t think they’re likely to “leave it at that” since that answer above is intentionally vague. I’m sure it’ll throw up some red flags for them.

    I can almost see the side of excommunication really helping the sinner understand how “serious” the sin was… but I still have to believe there is a different option that would be just as effective without being as destructive.

  18. Debra says:

    Back to something in Caroline’s original post, about women being interviewed/tried before a council of men, I think it is a boundary violation, and that these kinds of interviews should happen with women in leadership callings, such as the RS president.

    I particularly feel troubled and outraged by the personal and pointed questions that our young women are asked by male leaders during their twice yearly interviews, which are to make sure they are not committing sexual and other sins. These interviews can be highly embarrassing and intrusive to our young women; they likewise should be conducted by YW leaders.

    If I were raising my daughters at this time, I would instruct them that they do not need to submit to these interviews, and express my concerns to the bishopric.

  19. Bonesflint says:

    More than 15 years ago, I committed adultery. It is devastating when you find out that you can sin so grievously. The notion of the atonement, before then, was known to me but as a rather nebulous idea. Now, I knew that it was for me. Luckily, my bishop was fantastic to deal with. I was put on “probation” but only for a short time. How grateful I am that he understood that humiliation and more would not have helped me or my family. Today, I’m thankful for a loving kind bishop, yet I wish that I had realized that I didn’t need a third party to mediate my repentance with God. Also, I wish I hadn’t told my husband–a condition of repentance. Now he has to live with those images and realities forever. Gratefully, he has NEVER EVER mentioned my adultery since that day when I had to tell him.

  20. Kelly Ann says:

    This has been a very interesting discussion. For now, I just have one comment (I’ll make more later).

    The idea of confessing to the spouse in the case of adultery seems more important to me than confessing to the Bishop or maybe even the Lord. Granted I’m not married, but in all the relationships I have had complete honesty has been important. I know it could jeopardize the relationship but I feel they have the right to know the marriage covenant has been betrayed and that the door has been opened for STDs and other consequences that could directly impact them. We need to confess to God for forgiveness of our sins but we also need to ask for the forgiveness of those we have offended. We don’t have to continually bring it up but a sincere apology I would think would be crucial to the continuation of a healthy marriage. At least it would be for me.

  21. holly says:

    I think we need to sustain our church leaders like we say we do. If you believe the church to be true and the leaders to rule by inspiration of God, then we should not questions so much how or why these things are done the way they are. It is a touchy subject, but being part of this church, I have chosen to trust our leaders on the way these things should be handled.

  22. Debra says:

    Regarding confession to a bishop in the case of adultery/infidelity, in my view, adultery is a violation of a most basic, sacred committment between both the person and her/his spouse, as well as God and the Church.

    While personal repentence is crucial, only a Bishop or Stake President has the KEYS and authority to help a person rectify themselves with the CHURCH. This is their role, and in my observation, cannot be completed without their help.

    Personal repentence restores one to “right relationship” with God, the Bishop or Stake President has the role and responsbility to act as representative for the Church in assisting the individual to regain “right relationship” with the Church, this is part of what it means to be a Judge in Israel.

    Regarding confessing adultery/infidelity to a spouse, sexual fidelity is part of the basic premise and committment of marriage, to cleave to one another and none else, in part because of the symbolism and meaning of sexual union, as well as the sacred nature, intention and power that sexual union is.

    Violating this is a very serious spiritual error, that often calls into question the very nature and continuance of the marriage relationship itself.

    To rebuild the marriage relationship, trust must be rebuilt usually from the beginning, and fundamental building blocks of trust, are HONESTY and INTEGRITY.

    The spouse who was not unfaithful has a right to know, and I believe it is crucial, as hard as it is, for he or she to be informed.

    Infidelity/adultery does not happen in a vaccuum. Whatever was going on underneath, whatever the hidden roots of it are, must be addressed and healed, both for the individuals, as well as within their marriage.

    This is the only way that true reconciliation, and healing will take place, otherwise the marriage relationship is built on a foundation of sand.

    I know what I have shared may feel hard to some; in my personal and professional experience and observation, this is the only way for TRUE and LASTING healing and reconciliation between the individual and God, the individual and the Church, and the two spouses, to be achieved.

  23. JAVeca says:

    Actually, Jehovah’s Witnesses have ‘excomunication’, but they don’t call it that. JW’s Call it “disfellowshipping” or “shunning”. It is the same thing as excommunication

  24. CD-Host says:

    I run a blog dedicated to the topic of Church discipline.

    A few comments… actually Catholics rarely do excommunications anymore and generally not of lay membership. They have many offenses like abortion for which the policy is which the member excommunicated themselves, but there is no formal pronouncement. Jehovah’s witnesses, fundamentalist protestant Scientology are where you see this the most.

    I know this is a two month old post, so I figure there is unlikely to be follow up but I do offer information for people who are facing this issue.

  25. Jason says:

    I’ll go ahead and sound like the evil apistate here. First, no organization, church or otherwise, should be involved with the intimate issues of our lives (sex being at the top of that list). It just seems pervy. Second, I know it seems noble to confess to the cheated spouse, but I believe it would be prudent to weigh the pros and cons. Is it worth a potential divorce, ESPECIALLY if there are children to raise? You may releive your own guilt, but all you’ve really done is place a burden on your spouse to deal with. But above all, the church needs to take a hike on this issue. Members’ sex lives should be off limits. Just seems so pointless, and voyeuristic!

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