What is Church discipline?
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe that men and women are placed on earth to learn, grow and become better by following Jesus Christ. In the Church, this process is described as “eternal progression.” Central to that process is freedom of choice, which shapes who we are. Inevitably, as we make choices, we also make mistakes. Most of life’s mistakes are easily overcome through simple, sincere repentance, a process common to nearly all religious people.
In rare instances, we may commit serious transgressions that jeopardize our progress. Church discipline — restrictions and conditions of repentance that prompt a person to reevaluate their situation and return to full fellowship and activity — is a process designed to help us overcome sin in these instances.
For all sins, large and small, it is the sacrifice and suffering, mercy and grace — or Atonement — of Jesus Christ that makes repentance possible. Church discipline is designed to help an individual more fully apply the Atonement of Jesus Christ, be cleansed of their sins and move forward in their eternal progression.
The term “discipline” is an important one, especially in this religious context. It shares the same Latin root as the word “disciple,” meaning a true follower. Learning to discipline ourselves is what makes us better people. Any athlete, artist, scholar or musician would acknowledge that discipline is the key to improvement. And so it is with our spiritual progression as well. Christ Himself taught repeatedly that we need to be disciplined in our thoughts, words and deeds. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ requires self-discipline.
The purpose of any counseling or discipline in the Church is to help the individual to obtain the peace and hope provided by Christ’s Atonement. It should not be confused with punishment.
Church discipline is administered at a local level by those who know the circumstances and the individual best and who can be at his or her side throughout the repentance process.
What are the purposes of Church discipline?
The purpose of Church discipline is not to punish but to facilitate full repentance and fellowship for a person who has made serious mistakes.
Written instructions for lay Church leaders outline three purposes for Church discipline:
To help the individual repent and return
Repentance brings peace when we place our lives in harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Church discipline is a process that helps the individual feel that change of heart and change of behavior necessary to bring full forgiveness and peace. Someone who has fulfilled the requirements of Church discipline can be completely forgiven and return to full participation in the Church.
To protect the innocent
When someone poses a physical threat to others or a spiritual threat to other members, Church discipline is conducted to provide protection to potential victims. This includes predatory practices, physical harm, abuse, fraud and apostasy (see below).
To protect the integrity of the Church
The Church teaches its members to follow the example of Jesus Christ in leading moral, faith-centered lives. Anyone who does not meet these standards and significantly harms the integrity of the Church by their actions may face Church discipline.
Why would someone be disciplined by the Church?
Church discipline, because it is part of the repentance process, is most often initiated when an individual comes to their local ecclesiastical leader to confess a significant sin and seek help in repenting. Their leader would counsel with them on how to resist and overcome temptation and the steps required for full repentance. Depending on the seriousness of the transgression, this kind of counseling may prove sufficient to guide the Church member back on the path they seek.
Church disciplinary councils are not legal proceedings and are not held to legally try civil or criminal cases, nor are they meant to address things such as failure to attend church regularly, to obey the Church’s code of health or to fulfill Church responsibilities or to settle disputes among members. Disciplinary councils are not used for members who want their names removed from Church records or who have joined another church. Those issues are handled through a simple administrative process.
Church discipline may be required for someone guilty of serious criminal offenses. It is also used to address apostasy — the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the Church, its leaders and its doctrine. If someone seeks to teach as doctrine something that is contrary to the Church’s beliefs, attempts to persuade other Church members to their point of view or publicly insists the Church change its doctrine to align with their personal views, they would be counseled by a local Church leader and asked to cease that practice. If they fail to do so, Church discipline may follow. This also applies to an individual who subscribes to the teachings of apostate groups that engage in practices contrary to Church doctrine, such as polygamy.
In addition, other serious sin may require Church discipline. The Church has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind, including child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse or child pornography, and anyone engaged in these practices would rightly face both criminal prosecution and Church discipline. Criminal activities, including fraud, robbery, burglary, the sale of illegal drugs or the abandonment of family responsibilities, also warrant Church discipline. And serious personal sin, including abortion or sexual sin, may require disciplinary action as part of the repentance process.
What happens at a Church disciplinary council?
Before Church discipline is ever considered, a local leader will meet with the individual — often many times — to discuss the nature of the behavior in question and to help them prepare to overcome their challenges. If the local leader feels that Church discipline is a necessary step, he will discuss that with the individual and notify them that a disciplinary council will be held.
The large majority of disciplinary councils occur at the ward, or local congregational level. For these councils, a bishop and his two counselors invite the individual into a private meeting that begins with prayer. The person is invited to participate in a discussion where the bishop and the individual describe the behavior and any steps that have been taken to repent. There is opportunity for questions and discussion, and the individual may ask that others give testimony on his or her behalf.
Following that discussion, the bishop and his two counselors meet privately to pray, deliberate, consider Church policies and doctrines and counsel together about the possible outcomes. They take into consideration many factors, including whether the member has broken marriage covenants; whether a position of responsibility or trust has been abused; the repetition or seriousness of the transgression; the age, maturity and understanding of the individual; the degree of the individual’s understanding and evidence of repentance; and the interests of victims or family members. As the conclusion of this discussion, the bishop proposes a course of action, which must be ratified by his counselors.
At this point, the individual is invited back into the room, where the decision is presented and instructions are given about the timeframe, restrictions and conditions associated with the repentance process.
Those who have participated in disciplinary councils often describe them as some of the most significant, spiritual experiences of their lives. Deep feelings of love, sorrow, hope and gratitude for the Atonement of Christ are prevalent in these proceedings. The individual seeking reconciliation is supported and encouraged in every way to meet the conditions of repentance and to look forward to a full restoration of his or her membership.
A similar process may be conducted at a stake level by a stake president, his counselors and members of the stake high council. Stake disciplinary councils are required for men who hold the higher levels of the priesthood or Church leadership positions of significance and whose Church membership may possibly be ended through the proceedings.
What are the possible decisions of a disciplinary council?
The outcome of a disciplinary council is greatly influenced by the outlook and understanding of the individual. Someone who is repentant and contrite, as the scriptures describe, is likely to recognize that the discipline may be necessary and will welcome any action that will help them overcome their mistakes. An individual who is defiant, unrepentant and contentious will face a longer road back. The Church is always eager to welcome back any person who sincerely repents.
In counseling with an individual, a Church leader may determine that no formal discipline is required. He may conclude that temporary restrictions on Church participation (including partaking of the sacrament — or communion — holding a Church responsibility, or participation in temple worship) may be all that is necessary. This is sometimes referred to as informal Church probation.
If a disciplinary council is held, there are four possible outcomes:
The council may determine there is no need for any further action and that the individual should continue to work with their local Church leader to overcome their challenges.
Formal probation is a temporary state of discipline where the member may be asked to refrain from taking the sacrament, holding Church positions, participating in meetings or engaging in temple worship. During this probationary period, the individual meets frequently with their ecclesiastical leader to help encourage progress toward repentance.
Like formal probation, disfellowshipment is usually temporary, though the timeframe may be longer and is generally at least a year. Someone who has been disfellowshipped is still a member of the Church, and they are encouraged to attend meetings, though they are not permitted to pray, teach, take the sacrament, attend the temple or give sermons in public settings. Men are not able to perform priesthood duties.
Loss of membership (excommunication)
The most serious sanction the disciplinary council may prescribe is a loss of Church membership. This is a course of last resort and is only taken when less serious disciplinary measures are insufficient. Those who have lost their Church membership may continue to attend public Church meetings, though they are restricted in their participation in the same way as someone who has been disfellowshipped. Additionally, they would not be permitted to pay tithes to the Church. Though they are no longer a Church member, their local leader may offer continued counsel and guidance.
If a person shows sincere and full repentance and wishes to return to the Church, they will be welcomed. Rebaptism is necessary in such cases.
What if someone disagrees with the decision?
If there is dissatisfaction with the process or outcome of a disciplinary council, decisions made at a ward level are appealed to the stake, and decisions at a stake level may be appealed to the First Presidency of the Church. Such appeals are uncommon.
What happens following Church discipline?
Church discipline is not designed to be the end of the process, but the beginning of the road back to full fellowship. Depending on the severity of the sin and the resulting decision of the disciplinary council, the discipline may last from a few weeks or months to a period of years. The length is determined by the progress of the individual.
When someone has received Church discipline, their local Church leaders meet with them frequently and in confidence to provide encouragement and counsel on their repentance process. During that time, the leader will help them avoid repeating their offense and encourage them to seek personal forgiveness through the Atonement, make restitution for their mistakes and focus on completing any steps outlined for them at the time of the disciplinary council.
Church discipline is ended when another council is convened and concludes that the progress of the individual warrants a return to full fellowship.
Will the discipline remain part of their Church record?
For most disciplinary actions, no record of the discipline is retained once the person has been restored to full fellowship. Following restoration after loss of membership, a new membership record is created with the original dates of baptism and other ordinances, with no record of the loss of membership.
In some cases, including domestic abuse, incest, sexual or physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, predatory activities or embezzlement of Church funds, a permanent annotation remains on the record of the individual to ensure they are never again in a position to harm another.
What details are shared about the discipline?
All Church discipline is carried out in complete confidence. Church leaders have a solemn responsibility to keep confidential all information they receive in confessions and interviews. To protect that confidence, the Church will not discuss the proceedings of a disciplinary council. A confidential record of the proceedings is kept by a clerk, but even if an individual decides to publicly share information about the process and seeks to position that process in their own light, the Church will be circumspect in any public statement. In rare cases, the decision of a disciplinary council may be shared publicly to prevent others from being harmed through misinformation.
God loves all His children and wants them to feel the peace and restoration that come from the Atonement of His Son, Jesus Christ. Discipline at any level, from personal repentance and self-discipline to formal discipline in a Church setting, is intended to make us better, to help us overcome weakness and sin and to lift us as we seek to become true followers of Jesus Christ.