I was glad to have the First Presidency issue a statement on recent events. The excommunication of Ordain Women co-founder, Kate Kelly (along with pending disciplinary actions against other Mormon individuals) has thrown the Mormon world, not to mention my world, into a furor.
The First Presidency’s statement reads:
In God’s plan for the happiness and eternal progression of His children, the blessings of His priesthood are equally available to men and women. Only men are ordained to serve in priesthood offices. All service in the Church has equal merit in the eyes of God. We express profound gratitude for the millions of Latter-day Saint women and men who willingly and effectively serve God and His children. Because of their faith and service, they have discovered that the Church is a place of spiritual nourishment and growth.
We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.
The Council of
The First Presidency and
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
This statement is, to my knowledge, the first time the LDS Church has publicly disclosed the definition of “apostasy” as provided in the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions (Vol.1). Volume 1 of the Church Handbook outlines the responsibilities of Church leaders and provides detailed information about Church policies and procedures, including how disciplinary councils are held (i.e., ecclesiastical trials during which a member of the Church is tried for alleged violations of Church standards). Coincidentally, this particular Handbook is only available to certain ecclesiastical leaders in the Church, and so the procedure of disciplinary councils, and even what constitutes an ex-communicable offense, is often a mystery to the average LDS lay member.
Why is apostasy such an important word here? Generally, it is the reason why members are currently being excommunicated from the Church. In the end, apostasy is the charge by which, if proven at a disciplinary council, the Church revokes an individual’s membership and temple covenants.
Oh snap. That’s clear, isn’t it? The Church says its okay to ask questions. It’s sad the First Presidency even has to iterate this point, but if my recent Facebook discussions have taught me anything, it’s that this point actually needs to be made. So, for the record, ASKING QUESTIONS = OKAY.
In asking these questions, you’re only in danger of committing apostasy if you do one of two things: 1) Repeatedly act in clear, deliberate and open public (CDOP) opposition to the Church or it’s faithful leaders; or 2) Persist, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. First, acting in CDOP opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders. That obviously means you can ask questions if the answers correspond with Church doctrine, but you can’t ask questions in a way that opposes the Church leaders…doctrine…practices…customs…culture….wait, have I gone too far afield here?
1. Repeatedly Acting in Clear, Deliberate and Open Public Opposition to the Church or its Faithful Leaders.
What is the right way to ask controversial questions, without acting in opposition to the Church? Should we not talk about topics that might make the Church or its leaders look bad, or un-clarified doctrine? Are we allowed to regularly disagree with our Sunday School teachers? Write opinions that differ from the Mormon mainstream on a blog post?
Acting “in clear, deliberate and open public opposition” may seem like a sufficiently restrictive term; but it can actually be applied to a wide range of behavior and discourse, whose characterization as CDOP opposition would be almost entirely based, not on how the agitator feels about his or her actions, but on how the recipient of the agitation perceives this opposition. The Science magazine offers a wonderful analysis of this behavior: simply put, we judge others’ behavior primarily by what we observe (their actions), but we judge our own behavior by our actions, thoughts, feelings and intentions. So we can often misperceive the intentions and feelings behind others’ actions.
Ally Isom and the Church Public Affairs department have a real problem with improper tone. However, if our brief foray into psychology has taught us anything, it is that we don’t all measure impropriety the same way. Therefore, behavior that may seem like deliberate antagonism and rebellion to an institution, may be perceived as necessary agitation and debate to the actors. Without defending their actions, I believe this is the disconnect that exists between some Ordain Women members and their ecclesiastical leaders.
In a June 19, 2014 press statement, Jessica Moody, from the Church Public Affairs department, emphasized just how important an individual’s perceived intent is when the Church analyzes his or her behavior: “How and why one asks is as important as the questions we’re asking.”
Ms. Moody continues, “What causes concern for Church leaders is when personal motivations drive those conversations beyond discussion, and a person or group begins recruiting others to insist on changes in Church doctrines or structure. When it goes so far as creating organized groups, staging public events to further a cause or creating literature for members to share in their local congregations, the Church has to protect the integrity of its doctrine as well as other members from being misled.”
So, sharing your opinions in local Sunday School meetings is okay. Asking questions in chat rooms, on Facebook, and on a blog seems to be okay too. It’s the tone and the persuasiveness of your arguments that could get you into trouble. And your tone will be judged by what the Church, as your ultimate judge, perceives your intentions and motivations to be.
On the one hand, I feel like the Church spokeswoman is saying, “You will know if you have proper intentions in asking your questions. If you publicly air controversial views, make sure you’re not trying to persuade others to take that winding path. Learn from Ordain Women. Don’t petition, demonstrate, or put out informative pamphlets trying to change Church doctrine or structure.”
On the other hand, my cynical mind would add the following interpretation to Ms. Moody’s Public Affairs statement: “If you advocate for a position that isn’t strictly in keeping with Church practice, feel free to express your opinions—just don’t oppose current Church practice/doctrine/policy. And if you do, act alone; don’t make your arguments too persuasive, so that other people follow you.”
Following this logical trail leaves me with several concerns. How effective an examination of Church doctrine/practice/policy can we make, before running the risk of a disciplinary council? Should we just keep the difficult questions a private matter as Kate Kelly’s leaders counseled her? I want to voice my questions and opinions and have a sounding board for these thoughts.
There’s merit in public discussion: when you publicly discuss and develop your ideas, you get to see if they make sense. If your ideas are logically sound, won’t others be attracted to your ideas, and start to share them, then possibly follow them…and is this wrong, even if the ideas are controversial?
It seems, with Kate Kelly’s excommunication, the Church is trying to set some clear boundaries about what its members cannot do—recruit others to insist on changes in Church doctrines or structure (that’s an interesting one); organize into groups; stage public events to further a cause [to change doctrines or structure]; or create literature for members to share in their local congregations. All of which Ordain Women has done. To this list, Elder Whitney Clayton would unofficially add that public advocacy for the ordination of women is apostasy, advice which Kate Kelly’s local leaders took all-too literally.
At this point, I feel I should mention that neither the Church Public Affairs statements, nor Elder Clayton’s private remarks, are doctrine. I’m not sure if, under the strict meaning of the word, even the First Presidency Statement is doctrine. However, at the very least, these comments reflect current Church culture, practice, and the standards by which questioning minds will be judged today.
2. Persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. The First Presidency press release also cautions against statements that contain “false teachings” or which mislead other members. This corresponds with the second part of the definition of apostasy provided by the First Presidency: persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine. Clearly, Kate Kelly’s local leaders felt impelled to correct false doctrinal teachings about women and the priesthood. To that end, Ms. Kelly’s stake president asked her to take down her website, disassociate herself from Ordain Women and publicly repent. Her refusal to do so led to her excommunication.
Putting aside for a moment that women’s ordination to the priesthood is neither fully supported nor contradicted within Mormon doctrine, it’s difficult for us on the blogosphere, who are interested in this topic, to know from this ecclesiastical counsel exactly what we can and cannot say on the subject.
Let’s just say we won’t advocate for the ordination of women. Then we’ll be safe from charges of apostasy, right? Unfortunately, Kate Kelly is only one of several Mormon activists facing disciplinary action for airing their opinions: those facing charges of apostasy include John Dehlin, gay rights advocate and founder of the Mormon Stories podcast; Alan Rock Waterman, founder of the Pure Mormonism blog; and now-excommunicated Denver Snuffer, Jr., author and founder of the Denver Snuffer blog. Their writings analyze, and advocate, the writers’ beliefs about a diverse range of subjects—same-sex marriage and attraction; church history and theology; the corporate arm of the Church; and doctrinal topics like priestcraft, the Word of Wisdom, current tithing practices, and polygamy.
I can only assume their local leaders relied on the definition of apostasy provided in Church Handbook of Instructions (Vol. 1), in deciding to charge these members with apostasy. And the truth is, each and every one of these individuals could be found guilty of the charge—because, in the end, the definition of apostasy is, well… so darn broad.
Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.
To be fair, the local LDS leaders did instruct these individuals (I’ll call them the Foursome) what they could do to avoid excommunication. However, these leaders did not always iterate what specific beliefs got the Foursome into trouble in the first place, or why these beliefs contradicted Church doctrine. This concerns me, a blogger, because in some instances the individuals were actually excommunicated, without knowing why their beliefs were false.
What’s more, local leaders have a lot of discretion in deciding whether individual has taught false doctrine, or acted in opposition to the Church and its faithful leaders. Church spokeswoman Jessica Moody recently commented on this subject, “[The] standard procedural handbook says: ‘Local presiding officers should not expect General Authorities to tell them how to decide difficult matters. Decisions on Church discipline are within the discretion and authority of local presiding officers as they prayerfully seek guidance from the Lord.’ ”
So, even if the Foursome’s ecclesiastical leaders had clarified the false doctrinal teachings for these individuals, their leaders’ explanations would not apply to any interpretations my bishop or stake president might have of Church doctrine.
There are undoubtedly positive results from giving local Church leaders discretion in convening disciplinary councils and defining apostate behavior and beliefs. Disciplinary councils are at times referred to as “councils of love” because they can offer a repentance process based on that member’s particular sins (and there are a multitude of ways to sin). Many leaders who have participated in these councils will say they have felt the presence of the Lord’s Spirit attending them during the process.
But even with all those positive accounts, there is no member of the Church who wants to be in front of a disciplinary council. And, unfortunately, even with recent statements by Church Public Affairs and the Office of the First Presidency outlining some unacceptable behavior, I’m not sure a critical thinker and writer within the Church will know how to clearly avoid prohibitive Church actions in the future.
The New York Times and the Huffington Post report at least dozen Mormons in the U.S. are facing discipline for expressing criticisms of the Church or support for same-sex marriage or women’s ordination on-line, with several more unofficial reports of disciplinary action coming in across the blogosphere.
I’d hope an LDS member with questions finds his or her Church leaders to be a generally tolerant group; but our leaders’ current scrutiny of social media is troubling. And there is still a lot of gray area when it comes to defining what makes an online discussion acceptable or unacceptable; not only because apostasy is so broadly defined, but because our local leaders have great discretion when disciplining the members in their jurisdiction.
I’ve heard a fair number of stories where local Church leaders responded to questions about LDS doctrine and practice with acceptance, respect and even support. I’ve also heard several accounts when the individuals were very surprised their bishops had taken exception to their online comments. It’s important to note here that no disciplinary action takes place in a vacuum. I’d like to think it takes more than just one online comment, Facebook post or discussion group to violate Church policy and irk your local leaders.
For good or for ill, the Church disciplinary process is a very localized affair that relies on subjective interpretations of, not only doctrine, but also an individual’s behavior, intentions, and beliefs. Done under the perfect guidance of the Holy Spirit, I actually believe this can be a good implementation of ecclesiastical judgment.
However, when such an active community of bloggers, writers, chatters and Facebook posters is given only general guidelines, and varying implementation of those guidelines, it’s also hard to know when we risk Church discipline for an expressed thought. As someone who explores her faith through questioning, exploring and discussing her ideas, I’d like to know before I’m in danger of the judgment; facing the great unknown of the disciplinary council is a gamble I just don’t want to make.
For a list of references used in this post, click here. This is not an official web site of the LDS Church.