How LDS Church disciplinary councils work, change lives

Published: Friday, June 20 2014 7:20 p.m. MDT

Chloe moved to a new ward this winter. Like each of the six members interviewed for this story, she initiated the contact with church leaders. In February she went to the bishop and told him she needed to repent.

It was difficult. A lifelong member, she hated that his first impression of her would be this meeting. She described it as "terrible, overwhelming and embarrassing." Still, she said as she left she felt some of the weight come off her shoulders. She felt relief.

Placed on informal probation, she experienced loneliness and feelings of rejection prior to her disciplinary council. She now believes that was part of the process, and those feelings turned her to Heavenly Father.

Her meetings with the bishop quickly became "very warm and very comforting. I felt he became 100 percent my advocate rather than the determiner of my fate."

The ward disciplinary council was more of the same and healing began.

"It became so apparent they were rooting for me," she said. "I was nervous about what the outcome would be, and I was embarrassed to be with this group of people and tell them my darkest secrets. As soon as we started talking, I felt nothing but love and support. They were not a group of judges.

"For me it was such a wonderful growing experience. Since that time I have felt the intense mercy, love and support from my bishop and my Heavenly Father. I don't know why they are called disciplinary councils and come off as so negative, because I experienced nothing but light, warmth, forgiveness — nothing negative."

The council placed Chloe on formal probation for six months. She has had setbacks, but continues to feel loved and supported, she said.

"I have a great appreciation for people who feel lost and like they are never going to be the same. I know better now," Chloe said. "Now I feel so much encouragement. It makes me feel bad to know some people see this process in such a negative light, such a condemning light. I don't see it that way any more."

Why discipline?

Church discipline is in the news.

Some leaders in the evangelical community, for example, are engaged in a new social media meme one writer in April dubbed "excommunitweets." A United Methodist minister was defrocked six months ago for officiating his son's same-sex wedding, but he has appealed and expects a decision as early as Saturday.

And last week, two members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that their respective local leaders had scheduled disciplinary councils for them — one for Sunday, one for June 29 — due to concerns about possible apostasy.

Some outside these and other faiths like the Catholic Church that practice church discipline seem surprised by it, but church discipline in Christianity has existed since Jesus Christ described it in the New Testament (Matt 18:16-17); Peter corrected Simon for offering to pay for the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 8:9-24) and Paul discussed it in his letters to far-flung church members. (1 Timothy 1, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, 11)

In 1536, John Calvin described what he called ecclesiastical discipline as a remedy "which Christ enjoins, and the pious have always had in use."

The object of excommunication, Calvin wrote in his book "Institutes of the Christian Religion," is to bring the sinner to repentance, "to bring him back to himself, so that he may rather rejoice than be grieved at the correction."

President Ron Southworth, president of an LDS stake an hour north of Seattle, has served for 14 years in positions that sit on stake disciplinary councils. He estimates that he has been a part of 30 to 40 stake councils, and that half to two-thirds ended in excommunication.

Southworth said all but two have returned to the church, and one of those continues to work his way back: "I would describe what I see at the successful end of church discipline as a miracle," he said.

On his doorstep

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