I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like Methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be trammeled.
Joseph Smith, at a sermon delivered at the General Conference of the Church at Nauvoo, Ill. 8 April 1843.
MormonThink provides the Wikipedia definition & procedural details and then we provide the reality including experiences of members who actually went through this.
Note: The editor commentary is primarily geared toward the disciplinary councils being convened for members regarding the publicizing of accurate but unflattering Church history by members of the Church. These members are now being brought to disciplinary councils for the blogs they write, websites they contribute to and even for FaceBook comments.
Wikipedia definition [as of 6/10/2015]: In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), a disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical trial during which a member of the Church is tried for alleged violations of church standards. If a member of the LDS Church is found guilty of an offence by a disciplinary council, he or she may be excommunicated or their church membership may be otherwise restricted. Disciplinary councils are also referred to unofficially as disciplinary councils.
History of the term "Court of Love"
As far as we can tell, the term was coined by Robert L. Simpson, First Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric and Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, at the April 1972 General Conference for his talk titled, "Courts of Love." During the talk, Simpson said (emphasis ours),
Priesthood courts of the Church are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Oh, that members of the Church could understand this fact.
According to the LDS Church's Handbook 1, the purposes of its disciplinary councils are to:
1. save the souls of the transgressors;
2. protect the innocent; and
3. safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church.
Most disciplinary councils are convened by a bishop of a ward. In such an instance, the council is composed of the bishop and his two counselors. The ward clerk will also be present to take notes of the proceedings. After hearing all of the evidence in the case, the bishop and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the bishop has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
A stake disciplinary council is convened by the stake president in instances where it appears that a holder of the Melchizedek priesthood has committed an offence which may result in excommunication or when the subject is a member of a bishop's immediate family. In such instances, the council is composed of the stake president, his two counselors, and the twelve members of the stake high council. After hearing the evidence in the case and the submissions of the high councilors—one half of whom speak on behalf of the accused—the stake president and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the stake president has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
A mission president can convene a disciplinary council to try a full-time missionary in his mission or a member in a district of his mission. He can also authorize branch or district presidents in a district to convene disciplinary councils.
If the need arises to convene a disciplinary council for the President of the Church or one of his counselors in the First Presidency, the Common Council of the Church must be convened by the Church's presiding bishop. The Common Council is made up of the presiding bishop and his counselors and twelve other high priests selected by the presiding bishop. The Common Council has only been convened twice: In August 1838, after the return of Zion's Camp, the Council formally convened for the first time to consider charges made by Sylvester Smith against Joseph Smith, Jr., who was eventually cleared. In September 1844, Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney convened a Common Council which excommunicated Sidney Rigdon, who was the senior surviving member of the First Presidency after the death of Joseph Smith.
The council begins by the presiding officer stating the reported misconduct and asking the accused person to admit or deny it. If the person denies the misconduct, the presiding officer or a designate presents the evidence of the misconduct. Evidence may be presented in the form of written or oral statements by witnesses or other documents. An accused person's previous confession cannot be used as evidence in a disciplinary council without the member's consent. The accused member is given a chance to question the witnesses against him or her. After the evidence against the accused is presented, the accused is permitted to present evidence in response. The accused can comment on the evidence and make any other statement he or she wants to make. All witnesses and the accused may also be questioned by any member of the disciplinary council. No witness is placed under oath. Because the disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical court, rules of evidence that govern domestic courts do not apply. The church has instructed leaders that "procedures in a disciplinary council must be fair and considerate of the feelings of all who participate."
If the accused person admits to the conduct in question, no evidence is presented before the council.
Once a decision has been reached by the disciplinary council, the decision is announced to the accused person and the presiding officer explains the conditions that are imposed by the decision. The accused is also informed of his or her right to appeal the decision of the council. The decision of the disciplinary council is not announced in a public church meeting unless the case involves (1) the preaching of false doctrine, (2) a transgressor who is a predator, or (3) "other flagrant transgressions", such as participation in plural marriage, "cultist teachings to attract a following", or ridicule of church leaders.
An accused member may appeal the decision of the disciplinary council within 30 days of the decision being made. Appeals of a ward disciplinary council are made to the stake disciplinary council (i.e. the stake president, his two counselors, and the high council). An appeal of the decision of a stake disciplinary council or a disciplinary council convened by a mission president is to the First Presidency of the Church. An appeal of a decision of a disciplinary council convened by a branch president or a district president in a mission is to the mission president. The body hearing the appeal may vary the decision of the council in any way or let the original decision stand.
The proceedings of the disciplinary council are summarized on a Report of Church Disciplinary Action form. This form is sent to the office of the First Presidency where the information it contains is permanently stored. It is also reviewed by the body hearing the appeal if an appeal is made.
The membership record of a member that is disfellowshipped or placed on formal probation is updated to note the status of the member. If the member changes congregations while under church discipline, the membership record will inform the new ward or branch leadership of the disciplinary action. After church discipline has ended the membership record will again be updated to remove notice of the disciplinary action. The membership records provided to ward and branch leaders normally do not contain information regarding past discipline; however, a membership record is annotated when a person has been disciplined for incest, sexual or serious physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, an elective transsexual operation, repeated homosexual activities by adults, embezzlement of church funds or property, or other conduct that, in the Church's view, "threatens the well being of other persons or of the Church." Annotations may be removed from a membership record if a stake president makes a request to do so and the First Presidency approves the removal.
Stake presidents are permitted to request records of past discipline of members of their stake from the office of the First Presidency. Bishops may request records of past discipline of members of their ward.
In the case of excommunication, the excommunicated person is removed from church records.
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council is mandatory when evidence suggests that a member of the Church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the Church:
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council may be appropriate when evidence suggests that a member of the Church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the Church. Whether or not a disciplinary council will be held will depend on the facts of the situation and is generally left to the discretion of the bishop or stake president.
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that disciplinary councils are not appropriately held to resolve or deal with the following circumstances:
A disciplinary council may reach one of four possible outcomes:
Reference: "Disciplinary Council," Wikipedia.
Regarding the statement given in the Wikipedia reference, "The accused can comment on the evidence and make any other statement he or she wants to make," is not always true.
It depends upon the stake president. In many cases, "the accused" is not allowed to discuss the issues. For example, Simon Southerton was a bishop and plant DNA expert and he wrote a very damaging book called Losing a Lost Tribe in which he comments on the studies of DNA which show that the Native Americans are not descended from Israel as related in the Book of Mormon but rather have their origins in Asia as scientists have believed for decades. However, in Simon's court he was brought up on charges of adultery because he had sexual relations with his ex-wife. When he tried to bring up the DNA issues (which he said was the real reason a court was called on him), his stake president told him if he said one word about it that he would end the proceedings.
Many people who leave the Church because of Church historical problems, have disciplinary councils called upon them. Those threatened with having their Church membership revoked want to discuss these issues with the court to show that their beliefs and actions are warranted. However, many stake presidents will not allow it (one can only assume that they do not want other members of the court exposed to the issues that 'the accused' might bring up, regardless of its truthfulness).
In 2007, Lyndon Lamborn was excommunicated from theChurch. At his court he started discussing the issues that led to his disbelief. The stake president quickly shut him down and told him to not bring up the issues in his defense. Lyndon recorded the court and you can listen to it for yourself.
This is different than a regular 'court' as the stake president is more like a dictator and can do what he wants and can prevent the accused from providing any evidence at all to defend himself except for answering Yes or No questions.
In cases involving apostasy in which the accused knows accurate things about Church history, many times the people involved in the court have almost no knowledge of the evidence. Examples include:
Rock Waterman had a blog and was excommunicated for it and none of the 12 members on the court had even read his blog.
Reference: Link is here.
Grant Palmer had a court called on him about his Insider's View of Mormon Origins book and none of the accusers even read his book.
How can these people properly 'judge' these members without looking at the evidence of what they wrote?
One of the founders of MormonThink did not attend his court and chose to resign instead as he knew they would not discuss the contents of MormonThink nor discuss the issues which is really what his court should have been about. The stake president told him in a prior email that he would not debate these issues with him.
Regarding witnesses, the stake president can disallow some witnesses from even appearing in the courts to defend 'the accused'.
For cases involving apostasy, which these days often involves people who find out that actual Church history is different than what the Church teaches, and then the newly informed member tells other members about it. In such cases, the accused is often asked who else in the Church did they enlighten. Lyndon Lamborn's brother, who does not even live in the same state as Lyndon, was contacted to see what Lyndon had told him about Church's historical problems. In such cases it seems the Church is more concerned about 'halting the defection' than the person being brought up on charges. Such proceedings often turn into witch hunts where they try to out as many non-believers as they can.
In a meeting where the bishop informed David Twede, a former Managing Editor of MormonThink, that he was to face a disciplinary council, he was specifically asked "Who are the other individuals you work with on MormonThink.com?" David recorded that session and you can see it at the 17:34 mark.
In a 'real court' the proceedings are carefully recorded and documented in order to protect everyone's rights and to have a record if needed to show that proper procedures took place and can be used to grant a retrial if the rules of law were not followed properly. LDS disciplinary councils are not recorded so if the court was prejudiced against an individual then the person found guilty by the court would have no recourse to provee they were wronged.
In 2007, Lyndon Lamborn secretly recorded his disciplinary council and made it available on YouTube. When John Dehlin had his disciplinary council on apostasy in 2015, he was asked to sign a form stating that we would not record or broadcast the proceedings with any digital device..
The Church used to publicly announce excommunications over the pulpit. In fact, some decades ago you couldn't even resign from the LDS Church, you had to be excommunicated. That was changed when someone challenged this in the 'real court room' and then the Church was instructed that once someone resigns from the Church, they were no longer to be considered a Church member and the Church can't take any action against them such as excommunication.
In the current era, although the Church often claims that the courts are completely private and will not divulge details publicly, that is not always the case. In Lyndon Lamborn's case, the stake president told Lyndon he was going to have all eight bishops in his stake announce over the pulpit that Lyndon Lamborn was excommunicated. Lyndon did not want to have the court disparage his good name without giving him a chance to defend himself so he went to the newspapers and announced it first in a front page headline 'Mormon ousted as an apostate'. Lyndon then went to the chapel that week to face the stake president as he gave the announcement. The stake president backed down and did not make the announcement telling Lyndon later that he saw no need as Lyndon made it public already.
When 15 people in the court know what happened in a court, someone often leaks out some details of the court hearing and a member or former member's life can be ruined. Although that is not the Church's direct fault this happens, it is human nature. Although not allowed to do this, a person involved in the court may tell his wife in confidence what happened and then it spreads from there. The ward rumor mill starts up the moment anyone else becomes aware of a disciplinary council being called on someone with speculation often far worse than any crimes the member was accused of doing. The 15 people in the court are not paid employees and invariably some may become inactive or even leave the Church and they may no longer feel bound by keeping things confidential. This is unfortunate but a sad by-product of the flawed process.
It should be noted that one of the former MormonThink founders resigned from the Church after a disciplinary council was called on him and he stated in his resignation letter that his leaving the Church was to be treated as a private matter and the local church leaders seemed to have completely honored that.
According to LDS theology,
…to atone is to suffer the penalty for sins, thereby removing the effects of sin from the repentant sinner and allowing him or her to be reconciled to God.…
…When we give in to temptation, we are alienated from God, and if we continue in sin, we experience spiritual death, being separated from His presence.…
The only way for us to be saved is for someone else to rescue us. We need someone who can satisfy the demands of justice—standing in our place to assume the burden of the Fall and to pay the price for our sins. Jesus Christ has always been the only one capable of making such a sacrifice.
"Atonement of Jesus Christ," Topics on LDS website. (emphasis added)
As unsavory as many progressive Mormons find the penal substitution theory, that's pretty much what the LDS Church teaches as far as the atonement goes as shown in the quote above. However, excommunication, one of the outcomes of a disciplinary council, is sometimes taught by the Church as a form of punishment (they sometimes teach it isn't a punishment also).
The following are several examples of the Church teaching that Church discipline is not a punishment:
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.
The purpose of Church discipline is not to punish but to facilitate full repentance and fellowship for a person who has made serious mistakes.
"Church Discipline," Newsroom. (emphasis ours)
Priesthood courts of the Church are not courts of retribution. They are courts of love. Oh, that members of the Church could understand this fact.
"Courts of Love." Robert L. Simpson, April 1972 General Conference. (emphasis ours)
Retribution means "punishment for doing something wrong" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
In Simpson's same talk he also says (emphasis added)
Even excommunication from this church is not the end of the world; and if this process is necessary in carrying out true justice, I bear you my personal and solemn witness that even this extreme penalty of excommunication can be the first giant step back…
Penalty means "punishment for breaking a rule or law" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
Those definitions are nearly identical. Which is it, punishment or not?
Spencer W. Kimball said,
The offender may realize that disfellowshipment or excommunication is the penalty for heavy petting, adultery, fornication and comparable sins if there is not adequate repentance…
Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball, pp. 81, as quoted in "Morality and Modesty," Eternal Marriage Student Manual, (2003), 219–36. (emphasis added)
The function of proper Church leaders in the matter of forgiveness is two-fold: (1) to exact proper penalty—for example, to initiate official action in regard to the sinner in cases which warrant either disfellowshipment or excommunication; (2) to waive penalties and extend the hand of fellowship to the one in transgression.
Miracle of Forgiveness, Spencer W. Kimball p. 326, as quoted in "Enrichment I Judges in Israel: Watching over the Church," Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, (2002).
Excommunication means being cut off from the Church and the atonement of Christ. Excommunicants are punished for their sins until a designated representative of the Church deems them worthy to receive Christ's atonement again and be admitted back into the Church.
Jeremy Runnells faced a disciplinary council for apostasy because of his document "Letter to a CES Director." We'll let the reader decide how loving it was.
Jeremy gave a brief statement after the disciplinary council. In part of that statement you may get a glimpse of how he felt about the council:
After speaking with President Ivins and the High Council tonight, it became very clear that it was a kangaroo court. They refused to answer any questions that I asked them. I've asked questions over and over for the last three years, and a year and a half with the stake president. And they have not answered at least—not answered one question.
It has become very clear to me that the church does not have answers to a truth crisis. The questions that I have asked the stake president over and over for the last year and a half have been:
- What errors or mistakes are there in the CES letter or on my website that I can publicly correct?
- If there are no errors or mistakes, why am I being punished for seeking and sharing the truth?
- What questions am I being punished for?
And he never answered any of those questions once. Yet that didn't stop him from attempting to spiritually execute me, and I find that very, very disturbing. How they're trying to take somebody's salvation while not answering their sincere, reasonable questions.
I am disgusted by the LDS Church's President Ivins attempts—multiple attempts—to place me in the same category as murderers and rapists and child molesters for simply seeking official answers to church problems.
I have attended priesthood meetings in which the speaker said that he has never seen such greater examples of love than in a disciplinary council, hence the term "court of love". However, this is clearly a one-sided view that is rarely shared by all parties in the court room. We have talked to many people involved in disciplinary councils ranging from people threatened with their church membership to those actually sitting on the courts alongside the stake president. Here are some candid comments from them:
The room was eerily sober. No emotions, no subtle smiles of welcome. The spectrum of facial expressions were between blank and indignation. This was not a court of love by any means.
I asked how many in the council had read the Church essays [the basis for the charges against me]. No one said anything, or even changed their facial expressions.
In conclusion, I'm not certain I ever want to go to a disciplinary council again [as a member of the High Council]. It was intimidating, cold, and emotionally taxing. The practice of excommunication is barbaric, and has no place in the 21st century.
The council seemed to already have decided how the court was to be conducted before the hearing ever took place, and that it was accusation after accusation.
We have heard from many women over the years that said it was the most humiliating thing they have ever experienced. In cases where a woman was accused of having a sexual relationship with someone not her husband, it wasn't enough that she admit her sin and sin no more. She is often instructed to provide extremely explicit details of the sexual encounters in front of 15 men and then answer any question that any of them pose to her no matter how personal or irrelevant it may be. These women are often emotionally scarred for life—not because of their sexual encounters but because of the humiliating and unnecessary ordeal these women endured in their 'court of love'.
The disciplinary courts are courts in name only especially given the more current rash of courts called for those researching Church history and freely discussing these facts with other church members. There are only superficial rights granted to the accused based on the whims of the stake president involved. Far too often the accused cannot really discuss in detail the issues involved if it will either make the Church look bad or expose the 15 members of the court to problematic areas of Church history that they don't already know about which in turn could cause them to doubt the truthfulness of the Church.
Members are often brought up on charges of apostasy or conduct unbecoming a member of the Church for merely posting their opinion on a blog that polygamy was wrong when the people involved in the court admit they never even read the blog. Or someone being disciplined for writing an accurate book on Church history when none of the prosecution have even read the book. This clearly shows how warped this system of claimed justice is.
Although six of the people in the court are supposed to represent the accused, this is misleading as often these people say absolutely nothing during the court because most have no knowledge of the details to really help the accused in any meaningful way. Also, the cases are effectively decided in advance by the stake president. The court is just a formality. Even if all the other 14 men sided with the accused, the stake president's word is final. Of course none of the 14 men would even dare go against what the stake president wants to do.
While I believe that any organization has the right to set the boundaries required for membership in their organization, Mormonism seems to want to project a Big Tent image while at the same time trying to cram all of its members into a very small pup tent. Basically the precedent is now out there that if you publicly share an opinion that differs from the Church on doctrine you are putting your membership at risk. It's certainly reinforcing the practice of surveillance of blogs, websites, forums, Facebook, etc. In John Dehlin's case, there were 'Digital Danites' asked specifically to spy on John's activities and report back to the stake president on any subversive thing he said. This Internet spying for the Lord is appalling.
A plea to the LDS Church: Please stop calling them courts and especially referring to them as being done out of " love" when the accusers don't even look at the evidence, will not engage in significant discussion on the issues brought up by the members and show little to no compassion or understanding of the members' concerns over disturbing Church history that they discovered but were never taught by the Church.