LDS ‘excommunication’ is a term from the past, but the pain, shame and anger are still very much present

Is ousting critics, dissidents and members guilty of “serious sin” a practice that in itself should be X’d?

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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To the modern ear, excommunication evokes images of dueling popes, Protestant heretics, the Spanish Inquisition and Henry VIII.

It is seen as spiritual violence that excludes members from the communion of believers — figuratively and literally — that should have no place in contemporary worship, an anachronistic practice by religious tyrants.

A Latter-day Saint blogger once called Mormon excommunication “the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments.”

That could be why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints last year dropped the term and its companion, “disfellowshipment,” from its lexicon of discipline in favor of the more benign “membership restrictions or withdrawal.”

But religious discipline under any name continues to prompt outrage — and news stories — by outsiders, along with embarrassment, shame and hand-wringing by some insiders.

Sex therapist Natasha Helfer, for instance, made headlines recently when she was expelled for “publicly and repeatedly” opposing Latter-day Saint doctrines, policies and leaders on sexuality.

It is unclear how many members are excommunicated in a year, but such actions are meant to help members repent of a “serious sin,” according to the church’s General Handbook, and that may require a bishop (congregational lay leader) or stake president (regional leader) to “restrict some church membership privileges for a time. In some situations, he may need to withdraw a person’s membership for a time.”

Restrictions and withdrawals can protect others, the book says, from “predatory behaviors, physical harm, sexual abuse, substance abuse, fraud, and apostasy.”

These consequences also can preserve “the integrity of the church,” the leaders write. “The integrity of the church is not protected by concealing or minimizing serious sins — but by addressing them.”

Though the church insists such steps are motivated by love and done in a spirit of compassion, not everyone experiences them that way. And revising rhetoric won’t change that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Natasha Helfer, center left, a sex therapist who lost her membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is joined by supporters as they petition the First Presidency to repeal her expulsion on Friday, May 7, 2021. Helfer later lost her appeal.

“Some people are helped when they want to be excommunicated,” says Latter-day Saint therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks. “They are released from their promises and covenants and can slowly come back.”

Those are the cases where discipline “can be healing,” she says. “Good things can happen. I’ve seen that.”

But, she notes, that is not the majority of cases. “Not a lot of people come back after they’ve been excommunicated.”

Hanks is particularly troubled by the high-profile ousters in which critics — like Ordain Women’s Kate Kelly and “Mormon Stories” podcaster John Dehlin — lost their membership for publicly challenging church practices.

The problem is, Hanks says, there is no mechanism for members to offer valuable feedback to church higher-ups on what they see as amiss.

“We need to get to a point where instead of excommunicating them, we thank them for calling such problems to our attention,” she says. “That is my hope.”

Hanks does see the Utah-based faith “moving toward a more loving, inclusive church where disciplinary councils are very rare, mostly held for heinous sins like child abuse.”

But, she says, there is much room for improvement.

‘Blotted out’

Though shunning is a biblical concept, “excommunication,” as a distinct system, sprouted from the early Christian church to signal exclusion from “communion,” the ritual remembrance of Jesus, and, down through the centuries, churches found ways of setting boundaries for the faithful.

In the 19th century, Mormonism adopted the practice, if not always the word. (Their bread-and-water ordinance is not called “communion,” just the sacrament.)

Believers in the American-born church more often preferred talking about people being “blotted out,” or cast out, explains Latter-day Saint historian Spencer Wells.

Eventually, though, the term “excommunication” became more common among Mormons, used to separate the disobedient, disrespectful and dissident members from the flock.

As church founder Joseph Smith “formalized church disciplinary procedures, he organized a ‘high council,’ to judge members who disobeyed church doctrine or conventions,” write Wells and Isaac May in a recent Salt Lake Tribune commentary. “The council, made up of high-ranking male church officials, was to present ‘evidence’ on both sides of cases with both ‘equity and justice.’”

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church founder Joseph Smith put in place a system for disciplining members.

They argue that the system was, in its way, more progressive and humane than some of the Protestant denominations of the day.

Wells, a lecturer at Southern Utah University, says Mormon councils were convened largely for three reasons: property disputes; marital infractions, including polygamy, fornication and adultery; and theological differences.

The third cause accounted for only about 5% of the cases, he says. “But it was hard to disentangle what was religious and what was material.”

The women’s Relief Society, established in 1842, was tasked with monitoring participants’ behavior, Wells says, and “purging out iniquity.”

Smith’s vision “for a female society capable of chastising its own members,” Wells writes in a forthcoming article, “also tapped into his desire to erect a pure and undefiled Zion on the banks of the Mississippi.”

There is always “boundary maintenance in churches,” the scholar says in an interview. “You define yourself by what you don’t allow, and you can’t allow everything.”

There is definitely, Wells says, “a need for discipline.”

‘It was very painful’

(Courtesy photo) The message "Just got excommunicated" appears on a vehicle in Salt Lake City in June 2021. Photos of vehicles with the message have been appearing online.

LDS Church courts of the 1800s functioned as a kind of “dispute resolution mechanism,” says Nate Oman, a law professor at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., who read and analyzed every church handbook from 1898 to the present.

Formal proceedings would begin when a complaint was filed by members about their neighbors. A male priesthood leader would initiate the hearing, instruct “ward teachers” to investigate, and then the council would adjudicate.

It was hardly a confidential system initially, Oman says. “Church courts were advertised in the newspaper — members were invited to watch. Publicity of it was a feature, not a bug. You want people to see that the dispute will be fairly resolved.”

By the 1920s, however, the church got out of dispute resolution and used the disciplinary practice as a “pastoral tool,” Oman says, “a repentance process overseen by church leaders.”

After the 1960s, it was overwhelmingly dealing with sexual sin in which the “contours of the misbehavior continued to change,” he says, and “confidentiality became really important.”

Tales of uneven treatment by various local and regional leaders — and unending consequences — during the past few decades continue to pour out. Most asked to be unnamed, due to the private and painful nature of the experience.

• Bobi Jensen was raped at 18 some 25 years ago. The perpetrator confessed in the Missionary Training Center and named her. She was called in and asked her part in it, then was disfellowshipped for not being “apologetic about it….I couldn’t name what my guilt was in it.” [Today, the church has reaffirmed that sexual assault victims “are not guilty of sin.”]

The discipline had a more lasting impact than the assault itself, she says. “Priesthood brethren love to say what a blessing [church discipline] is in the life of the sinful party. They can’t see the 38-year-old with a nervous breakdown 20 years later, having panic attacks in sacrament meeting.”

• In the early 1980s, a woman in England had a baby out of wedlock. An inexperienced bishop excommunicated her and released her mother as a Relief Society president “for being a bad parent,” the woman’s sister reports. “It was very painful for both my mother and my sister, who had no desire to return to the fold but is still with the father of this child almost 40 years later.”

• A woman’s mom was excommunicated three weeks before the daughter was born in 1975. The mother was called to a hearing when eight months pregnant and begged the leaders to wait until after the baby came. They refused and, consequently, the daughter is the only one of her four siblings not “born in the covenant.” Her mother did get rebaptized, the daughter says, “and finds a lot of joy in her beliefs. Probably been her one true constant positive in her life.”

But the daughter lost her faith in 2013, which was a “relief,” she says. “I could live my life on my own terms and with my own values rather than ... in hopes that I could have my family [in the afterlife].”

• A St. George woman has been through two church courts with two husbands: The first was with her husband of 18 months, who was disfellowshipped at some point for having sex outside of marriage with men.

“I loved my first husband very much. I would have stayed with him,” she writes. “I was told that he was not excommunicated, because of me, that they wanted to give us a chance to work things out and felt that if he was excommunicated he would just leave.”

At the time, she thought it was “merciful,” she says, “but now I see how toxic it was.”

The second was her husband of 17 years. He was excommunicated for porn, sexual misconduct, lying and stealing money from her family.

“By the time it came for the court, I had no love for him at all. But I didn’t wish him ill either,” she says. “It was humiliating because I had to talk about how this had affected my life in front of all these men who were friends and neighbors. But I didn’t feel judgment from them. I could feel their horror at the things I’d gone through, and they knew I was telling the truth. I didn’t feel anything but love and support from them.”

If they had not excommunicated her second husband, she says, “I would have been very angry.”

‘God created me like this’

Wade Leak, a returned missionary from Morgan, hadn’t been in the church for more than a decade in August 2004, when he got the letter, accusing him of “conduct unbecoming of a member” and summoning him to a disciplinary council.

Leak, an entertainment attorney in New York City, wondered what had triggered the action but speculated that it may have been a small item in a Nebraska newspaper a few years earlier about his commitment ceremony with his future husband.

In a hearing he did not attend, he was cast out of the church and off its rolls.

“I believe God created me like this,” Leak says through his tears. “To this day, I believe it was a good thing for me in my life journey. I never could move past the ‘one true church thing.’

We are members of the Methodist Church, and I no longer feel it is wrong to go to another church.”

He remains close with his Utah family, and engaged in Mormon history, doctrine and controversies.

“I am proud that I survived that brutal experience and held onto the things that matter,” Leak says. “My mom loves the fact that I retain my Mormon values and compass that still guide my life.”

In 2015, the church declared that gay members in same-sex relationships were “apostates” and that a disciplinary hearing was mandatory. It reversed that policy in 2019, though some gay members were still excommunicated. Nathan Kitchen, president of the LDS-LGBTQ support group Affirmation, resigned his membership after being summoned to a disciplinary council.

‘Broken souls like mine’

A Salt Lake City businessman living abroad confessed adultery to his bishop, though he had not been active in the church for some years, he says, to “make it right with his tradition” and with his wife, who was a practicing member.

For some years, he had been attending a nondenominational Christian church, where he also confessed.

The contrasting responses to the heartbreaking episode were stark.

“The Latter-day Saint view is guided by the Book of Mormon, where all but the righteous get killed when Jesus arrives,” the man says. “In the Bible, Jesus is having dinner with sex workers and tax collectors.”

At his church hearing, he was told, “the spirit of God has been withdrawn from you. You are on your own. The finality of the words does penetrate.”

Yet, in his experience, he felt more in touch with a higher power than he ever had, he says. “While I don’t think God gets that involved, God is real and listens to us in our most desperate hours. I felt no withdrawal of spirit or connections.”

The expatriate continued to attend Latter-day Saint services with his wife, where the message was to do more temple work, more praying, more “home teaching,” he says. “One of the missions of the church is to perfect the saints. It’s not for broken souls like mine.”

At the Christian church, the husband says, he got a gentler message: “We love you.”

In that space, he felt “sunnier.”

‘I needed a spiritual reset’

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "Living Water," by Simon Dewey, depict Jesus talking to a woman at a well. Some Latter-day Saints who get removed from the church's rolls point to the healing power of Christ.

Though she readily acknowledges the church’s system is “barbaric” and “male-dominated,” a Utah woman, who was excommunicated for adultery about four years ago, says she needed it.

“If we belong to a church and we proclaim to believe it’s against the rules to commit adultery and then we break those rules,” she says, as her voice catches, “what other rules can be taken seriously if something as significant as that aren’t?”

Her bishop offered to put the woman “on probation,” a milder form of discipline, but she felt that wasn’t enough.

“I needed a spiritual reset, something dramatic to bring me back,” she says, now that she has been rebaptized. “I see all the flaws in the church, but I need to be in a church building every week and think about Jesus Christ and his atonement.”

Her marriage is better than ever and so is her faith, she says, but she’s still “working it out with God.”

‘What is there for the victims?’

For most people, though, this pastoral tool was “not effective,” Oman says, and so the church did some “rethinking.”

Now, high councils have been eliminated from the process and most members, including all temple-attending women, will be tried by stake presidents, rather than bishops.

The number of issues that call for mandatory discipline has been reduced to abuse of spouses or children and financial crimes.

“That suggests leaders want to limit the number of church discipline actions,” Oman says, “and limit the number of people involved.”

If you have been betrayed by a spouse, though, the new system may seem lenient on the offender.

Consider the case of an East Coast woman, whose husband was a serial adulterer for decades. His wife discovered his betrayal when she found she had a sexually transmitted disease and had no partners outside of her husband.

The husband was excommunicated but hardly grilled about his behavior and assured he would be back in good standing soon.

The wife, however, felt that she was treated as if she was part of the problem.

“There’s a plan in place for sinners,” she writes. “Church leaders regularly check in with the sinners to try to help them back. What is there for the victims?”

Part of the issue, says Hanks, the Latter-day Saint therapist, is that “it is all men making the decisions. The female perspective is missing, and we are half the population.”

Men may let their friends “off the hook because they golf together, or do business together,” she says. “The men are going to see it from a male perspective and can identify with them more.”

Hanks would like to see female Relief Society leaders involved in these proceedings.

Modern apostasy

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ordain Women co-founder Kate Kelly speaks about her excommunication from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City in 2014. The church has since replaced the term in favor of “membership withdrawal," but the effect is the same.

For Latter-day Saints, disciplining has been “a fairly predictable response to uncomfortable moments in the church’s cautious reconciliation with modernity,” Kristine Haglund writes in an essay about Kate Kelly, the co-founder of Ordain Women.

It has included conflicts over evolution, new methods of Bible interpretations, church history, the Equal Rights Amendment.

Apostasy, “then as now,” says Haglund, a Latter-day Saint writer and editor, “had more to do with intangible qualities like loyalty and humility.”

Thus Fawn Brodie, who penned an unflattering biography of Smith, was excommunicated, she says, while Sterling McMurrin, a liberal University of Utah philosophy professor who frequently criticized the church, was spared due to his friendship with then-church President David O. McKay.

In practice, though, Oman says, very few cases of apostasy over the years have included progressive dissent. Overwhelmingly, most apostasy charges were leveled at polygamists.

The church abandoned its early practice of plural marriage more than a century ago, but tens of thousands of polygamists continue to live in the Intermountain West, sometimes drawing converts out of the mainstream faith.

In recent years, rules developed to deal with polygamy were not easily transferred, Oman says, to those “writing critical articles in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.” Or promoting the ERA, the ordination of women, or dealing with faith crises.

You shouldn’t “kick out your struggling members,” Hanks says, “who might have something to teach you.”

Case in point: Peter Bleakley, a member in southeast England, faces a disciplinary council for apostasy at the end of this month for raising issues on his “Mormon Civil War” podcast.

“I’m in a somewhat weird position in that my stake president is an absolute hero for his proactive efforts to be LGBTQ inclusive and implement a much more robust child safeguarding policy for our stake than the church requires,” Bleakley writes in an email. “He is a lovely, thoughtful, academic man, but [my] calling out the leadership of the church — and saying they are promoting what Mormonism frames as Lucifer’s plan of salvation through command and control authoritarianism and unquestioning obedience ...has been too much for him to handle.”

The British saint has no wish to be booted, but he feels compelled to point out what he sees as leadership failures that have led to a massive decline in church attendance in the United Kingdom.

“I still absolutely love Mormonism as my religion and its deep theology, which I believe does hold a lot of the answers to solve the fundamental flaws in mainstream Christianity,” he writes. “I believe in its purpose to contribute to healing the world’s largest religion and making it relevant in the 21st-century information age.”

Excommunicating critics is unnecessary in the LDS Church, says sex therapist Jennifer Finlayson-Fife. The global faith is “strong enough to tolerate dissent.”

Correction • Saturday, June 12, 8:25 a.m. • This story has been updated to correct the explanation of Nathan Kitchen’s exit from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.