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Preservation of the saints

The LDS Church has a sort of hybrid organization similar to that of the governments in the United States.  There is a core organization, called the general authorities, who preside generally over the whole church, much like the federal government.  There are also stakes, each with a presidency and high councilors, similar to states, and wards and branches similar to counties or other smaller municipalities.  Sometimes there is a bit of interplay between the two, just as there is often struggle between the states and the federal government.  The doctrine teaches that all the priesthood leaders at every level of the church are guided by revelation, so theoretically everyone should be on the same page, since all of the direction should be coming from God directly.

The church has a disciplinary system in place, for members who disobey the teachings or who teach doctrines contrary to those of the church.  This has been called "church court", but I believe more recently the term "disciplinary council" or something like that has been adopted.  Either way, it consists of members of the bishopric or the stake leadership, depending on the standing of the member in question.  But, in virtually every case, it is not a decision from the general authorities of the church, but rather from the local leadership.  There are two different types of severe action taken, disfellowship and excommunication, the latter being more severe.  

Recently, there have been two (and quite possibly more) fairly prominent figures that have been given notice of pending disciplinary councils.  One is John Dehlin, a man who has been voicing his doubts concerning various doctrines, including those related to the church's teachings on homosexuality.  He has been a beacon to the gay members of the church, and many gay ex-Mormons as well.  Another is Kate Kelly, a woman who has voiced her desire to be given the priesthood, something which in most churches (including the LDS church) is reserved strictly for men.  As I understand it, she is the leader of a movement called Ordain Women and many other women have also expressed the desire to be given the priesthood, along with the responsibilities and duties that it entails.

The story has even reached national news, being published in the New York Times, and likely other sources as well.  I assume the church HQ has been getting many messages concerning the matter, and they have released an official statement.  As is the case with these kinds of things, everyone is voicing their own opinions on the matter.  Since I'm an opinionated person, I feel a need to do so as well.  I've been aware of these events over the last week as they first unfolded, but I've been reticent to say anything because I'm not sure what to say.  My opinion seems to be difficult to put into words.

First of all, I must say that the disciplinary action (or even the threat thereof) should not be surprising.  The church has set quite a precedent for that.  In 1993, there were six prominent Mormon scholars who were excommunicated for being too open about things relating to unpleasant aspects of the church's past.  But long before that, the final thing that Joseph Smith, Jr (founder of the LDS church) did to get himself in trouble before his martyrdom.  There was a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor which published things about Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, and other things which were unfavorable to his reputation.  Whether those things published were true is a topic for another discussion, but the fact is that Smith reacted to the publication by declaring martial law and destroying the press used to print the paper.  This is why the governor had him arrested for insurrection.  There is a quote that I've seen going around about how Smith didn't like disciplinary councils to punish people for teaching false doctrine (used as a defense of the persons threatened with excommunication), but I think that the man's actions speak much louder than his words.  

One reason my opinion is hard to put into words is because on the surface it sounds so similar to what a believing member of the church would say.  I say, if they don't like the church, why are they trying so hard to stay in it?  Well, that's not exactly how I feel.  Honestly, I see the benefit of staying in the organization and trying to do all they can to make it a better organization.  It can be seen from history that the LDS church, like nearly all organizations, has evolved over time and that most of those changes quite obviously came about by social pressure, such as the acceptance of black men to the priesthood in 1978 and the softening of homophobic rhetoric that was abundant in the 70s and 80s.  I applaud Dehlin and Kelly, and others like them, for their efforts in reforming the church and trying to make it a better organization.  I believe that with the efforts of people such as them, over time it will become better.

I do not criticize the church for using discipline for its own members.  First of all, it is a private organization and therefore reserves the right to grant or deny membership to anyone, and I think it should retain that right.  I don't think the law should be used to force the church to accept anyone they don't want to accept.  But, secondly, I believe that ostracism is a useful and effective method of correcting undesirable behavior.  I think that outcasting people socially for doing socially unacceptable behavior (such as murder, molestation, rape, theft, or other similar acts) can be a good thing.  That is precisely what is meant by disfellowship and excommunication in a church.  It can be taken too far, but anything can be.  

I do criticize the church for punishing anyone who disagrees with it or who voices doubts about it.  I believe that no one is above criticism.  In his letter to Joseph Smith, Governor Ford asserted the same belief (in reference to Smith destroying the press of the Expositor).
There are many newspapers in this state which have been wrongfully abusing me for more than a year, and yet such is my regard for the liberty of the press and the rights of a free people in a republican gov­ernment that I would shed the last drop of my blood to protect those presses from any illegal violence.
This is the reason I give that the church is in the wrong.  Not that they are disciplining their members, nor the method of the discipline, but the alleged crime giving the discipline.  The crime of doubting and questioning.

But, my criticism against the church (or, more accurately, the respective stakes of the persons involved) is not a big part of my opinion.  The large portion of what I feel is lamentation for people who feel so strongly about being excommunicated.  I know that these persons, Dehlin and Kelly, do feel strongly about their membership and wish to retain it, despite the doubts and questions that they have and have expressed.  I also know that them remaining in the church is important to many (perhaps thousands?  I don't know) of other members who have doubts but are afraid to voice them, or feel that they are alone in feeling those doubts.  I feel that it is so sad that membership in the church means so much to these people.

And I know it means a lot to these people because I know it means a lot to many of the active Mormons that I know.  Nearly every member of my family would be devastated if they received a letter from the church informing them of pending disciplinary action against them, and I know that other members of the family would feel the weight of that as well.  I wish that that wasn't the case.  I wish that the church didn't have such a strong hold on its faithful members.  I think it would be better if that pressure didn't exist in the hearts of those who know and love the church.

In the long-term perspective, clearly it does not matter whether the church excommunicates these particular individuals or not.  Certainly, it will matter in the lives of those individuals quite a lot, and for perhaps decades.  But as far as the organization of the church is concerned, it will make very little difference.  If they stay in the church, perhaps they will have more influence on bringing to pass the inevitable changes the church will undergo within the next few decades.  If they are excommunicated, perhaps several people of a like mind will end up resigning in response.  This may delay the changes (such as accepting gay people and allowing women to hold the priesthood), or it may accelerate them.  But even if it does delay them, it will only be for a couple more decades.  Social pressure from society at large will mount as the feminist movement and the gay rights movement progress.  Just as the church caved to the will of society on the issue of polygamy and black men holding the priesthood, they will cave again when it becomes no longer socially acceptable to discriminate against women or gay people.

In short, I don't really care what happens to these people.  I stand by them, but I don't think standing by them means putting pressure on the church to not excommunicate them.  I feel that if they are excommunicated, they are better off because they are no longer part of an organization that I believe is a bigoted and outdated organization, nor are they allowed to monetarily contribute to that organization.  If they are allowed to remain in the church, they will most likely make the church a better place than it is now.  Either outcome seems reasonable and favorable in its own way.  I stand by them in the sense that I support their right to voice their own feelings and opinions, even though those opinions are in opposition to the teachings of the church.  I feel like anyone should feel able to express their criticism of an organization they belong to without the fear of being punished for it.

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