The news media has reported that two Mormons are facing excommunication for questioning the LDS Church’s policies, doctrines, and history*. I’m certainly not privvy to the details of their situations, as I don’t know either of them, nor do I know their local congregational leaders (not that they would share any details since they are under an obligation not to divulge those details to other parties). But, I think there are a few misunderstandings floating around out there about these, and related, situations that I’d like to discuss…
First of all, I wish all the best to Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. I don’t know their hearts, and only hope that their stories are eventually full of faith and happy outcomes.
Secondly, I don’t think either one of them is facing the possibility of excommunication for having questions about the church’s stances on issues (not all, but some of the media outlets have painted that picture). In this church, you may face church discipline for your actions that lead others to leave the faith. And that makes perfect sense. Here is a thought from a paper titled “Mormonism and Intellectual Freedom” by Rick Anderson:
As a member of the Church one may believe, without sanction, any number of things that fall outside the realm of official or approved doctrine—but to teach such things in church as a youth leader or a class instructor or bishop would be to set oneself up for correction by those in authority over the Church. To resist such correction would mean, in all likelihood, being released from one’s position as a leader or teacher, and in some cases might mean disfellowshipment or excommunication (the mechanism by which the Church separates itself from the teachings and/or behavior of a member who refuses to submit to its strictures).
In other words, you can believe whatever you want, question whatever you want, and have any opinion you’d like. But when you begin to try to lead others to believe your opinion, and that opinion is in disagreement with the church, of course there may be action taken against the status of your membership in that church.
3. The church doesn’t have the right to limit a person’s ability to express their thoughts. At the same time, the church doesn’t have to allow a dissenting individual to express those thoughts as an official member of the church. The church and the local leaders would not tell Kate Kelly or John Dehlin to stop talking. But the church may eliminate their opportunity to speak as a member in good standing, of course. Anyone can blog, yell from the steps of their local courthouse, write letters, start a podcast, circulate a paper, etc., all they want, church or no church. The church cannot, and will not, limit the freedom of speech we all enjoy. Being excommunicated doesn’t limit one’s ability to teach anything they’d like.
4. Imagine a church where anyone can teach anything, anytime, to anyone, and present it as “official”. The church has an official correlated group of ideas known as church doctrines. The church, of course, should define what is considered its own doctrine. No one has to believe it or follow it, but the ability to define official church doctrine isn’t the prerogative of the masses. Allowing for a member’s discipline if they try to re-define doctrine allows for the church to define its own doctrine, and that is the right of any entity. From the above-quoted article from Anderson:
All of us have the right to speak according to our conscience, but none of us has the right to insist on continued association with an organization whose expressed tenets and principles are at odds with the ones we publicly teach. I can no more expect the Church to let me teach what it considers false doctrine in Sunday School than I could expect People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to let me hand out free bacon in its meetings. (“Mormonism and Intellectual Freedom”, Anderson)
There’s more, of course, that I think about these situations and others like them, and many other writers and bloggers have chimed in on the stories. I don’t know what will happen with Dehlin and Kelly, and it really isn’t any of my business. In fact, if I learn the outcome of these cases, it will most probably be through the information that each individual shares with the media.
Not the most fun topic, but timely, I suppose…
*This post isn’t about whether Kate Kelly or John Dehlin are “right” about their views, it is about how the church may deal with these members of the church.