This is a guest post from Christian Harrison.
Today, Kate Kelly — our sister in God and our coreligionist for as long as we’ll keep her — is being tried for apostasy. She’s being tried in absentia, an act of shocking cowardice. Others, too, are facing Church disciplinary courts. It’s an uneasy season… and I’ve got a word or two to say about it all — from my spot, here on the sidelines.
Let me start with a story — true as I can recall…
Karl* is an articulate man with a manner about him that speaks to a good upbringing. He’s bright and his answers in Sunday School and Elders Quorum discussions are often insightful (though always a bit off-topic). Karl is handsome, too — tall, with a nice smile. His posture, though, speaks to decades of sleeping on the street. If I understand his history, he returned from his mission and soon after became interested in a number of out-of-favor teachings. Over time, his interest turned to obsession… and he took to the street, literally, to preach to anyone who’d listen about the failure of the Church and the Brethren in not heeding the Law of Consecration.
During the intervening years, he amassed an untold number of expulsions from Temple Square and from countless ward houses — some informal, but many under the authority of actual court orders. Eventually he made it to my stake and my ward house, where he found an uneasy home. He’s a full participant in ward life (much to many’s chagrin) — he participates in Sunday School and in priesthood classes; he bears his testimony on Fast Sunday; he even sings in choir.
Karl’s two favorite activities are, admittedly, our least favorite…
As I mentioned, he likes to sing. So it’s no surprise that he’s a member of our ward and stake choirs. But we reckon that he has ulterior motives. You see, when it comes time for ward or stake conference, there he is on the stand — the lone man to raise his hand in protest. Karl most certainly does not sustain his leaders, and he’s just itching to tell you why. Which brings me to his other favorite activity: whenever the ward gathers, you’ll see Karl corralling anyone who doesn’t know better (new members, visitors, the enfeebled) to lecture them on their duties under the Law of Consecration or about one of his other gospel hobbies. In each of these instances, leadership and other members in-the-know do their best to correct false teachings, soothe unsettled minds, and generally clean up the mess.
And it’s not like Karl is alone in his eccentricities.
Until very recently, we had a woman named Cookie*, who was well into her 300th year, I’d say, who greeted everyone with a hug — whether they wanted to or not. And she gave out Oreos to small children — whether their parents wished it or not (I rather liked the Oreos). And each Sunday, it was fun/uneasy to watch her make her way through the congregation leaving in her wake a tide of delight and discomfiture. Ward leadership and members in-the-know, tidied up after her, as well.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand: excommunication.
An Unwelcome Inheritance
As a church, we’ve inherited much from our Christian cousins. Most of it wonderful. But there are other things that we are less thrilled about… some, like infant baptism and the triune God, we jettisoned early; others, like science denial and bizarre Victorian sexual morés, we reinherit with every generation of new converts — ideas we just can’t seem to shake, like the stank of mildew on a wet towel left in the back of the boat over the weekend.
Excommunication is a similar inheritance. Sure… in its day, it was useful. For a community that wanted blood, excommunication — stripping a person of saving ordinances and damning them to an eternity in Hell and effectively rending them from the comfort of family and friends — was a fair bit more humane than beheading or stoning. By those standards, excommunication was a literal godsend! Of course with time and no small amount of groveling, you could always be welcomed back into the fold. And sometimes, just sometimes, you’d be welcomed back with fanfare. Unless, of course, you died before your time came. In which case you were totally (and eternally) out of luck.
Let’s face it: when the mobs want blood, you give it to them — figuratively, at least.
Pontius Pilate got it. The Catholic church got it. Our protestant forebears got it. And now we’ve got it. It passes from one generation to the next. We dress it up as best we can… but it’s unwelcome all the same. And we won’t rid ourselves of it without a great deal of effort.
Steadying the Ark & Intercession
When I think of excommunication, I can’t help but think of that well-meaning servant of the Lord, Uzzah, who was travelling with the Ark of the Covenant in a mighty procession. Along the way, the oxen pulling the cart which carried the Ark stumbled. The Ark tipped and Uzzah reached out to keep it from falling over. There was no one else — but God — who could steady the Ark. And in his zeal, Uzzah transgressed and was struck down‡. Today we throw the phrase of “steadying the Ark” around with too much ease — applying it to anyone who mettles in the affairs of people “who know better”. But that use misses the point, I think. There was no way for anyone but God to stop the Ark from tipping over… so someone in the heat of the moment did the unthinkable: they got in God’s way. It was for God to decide whether the Ark toppled or not — and not for Uzzah, who paid with his life.
Excommunication is doing for God what he has reserved for himself: judging his children. It puts our brothers-in-Christ between us and the righteous judgement of God. It prevents us from working out our own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord.
The Lord, in his wisdom, entreats us to serve each other, teach each other, mourn with each other, and rejoice with each other — but he forbids us to judge each other. For God, only, knows our hearts. He shares with us the various joys of membership in the kingdom, but reserves the pain of ultimate judgement to himself.
The Body of Christ, the Lost Sheep, &Amp; the Ward Family
I think it’s important, here, to reflect on a few metaphors we have but seem to have forgotten…
In the book called “The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians”, Paul writes to a congregation in upheaval. (It’s a wonderful read! You can just hear the frustration in Paul’s words — and the yearning he has for a Godly resolution.) In chapters 12 and 13, Paul comes around to address what I infer is an argument over which spiritual gifts are most important. In doing so, he calls out the damage being done to “the body of Christ” — which damage can only be healed by love. Love, Paul says, is the ultimate spiritual gift (charity, you see, never faileth).
Elsewhere in the New Testament, Christ speaks (time and again) of the lost sheep. Now, understand that Christ would have been intimately familiar with sheep and shepherds. He would have known — as a friend of mine who is a shepherd taught me: sheep are embarrassingly stupid and self-destructive creatures — always wandering away; always getting into trouble; always, it seems, in need of rescuing. My friend said, with no irony at all, that sheep are the only creature he knows that spends its whole life in search of a way to kill itself. So here we have Christ, speaking to others who know the wayward hearts of sheep, comparing us all to sheep — and himself to the shepherd. Always rescuing, always calling, always… always… always. We are all lost, we are all hopeless, we are all — surprisingly, miraculously, thankfully — worthy of being found.
Much more recently, we have the idea of the ward family — the comparison changes a little, depending on circumstance. The bishop is very often the father. Sometimes his wife is the mother — sometimes the president of the ward’s Relief Society is the mother. But always, it is a call to treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ — not perfectly, mind you, but with love and loyalty.
Disagreement & Defection
I can’t really speak on excommunication without speaking, in part, to the notion of apostasy. In a church that readily — or, perhaps, merely repeatedly — reminds us of the fallibility of our leaders, yet urges us to sustain them, we can’t help but ask ourselves how we sustain those who are mistaken (especially in light of D&C 121:39). Sometimes the mistakes are small or inadvertent. Sometimes they’re howlers. Sometimes they resolve themselves. And sometimes they persist for generations.
I think the problem is born of two errors: a mischaracterization of what it means to sustain our leaders… and a misunderstanding of what our responsibility is to those who might disagree with us.
The principle of sustaining our leaders is often coupled with the principle of obedience. It’s natural for leadership to feel sustained when they observe obedience… but this is an error of perspective. When I raise my hand to the square to sustain someone in their position — regardless of whether it be the President of the Church or the person who prints the ward bulletin — I’m not promising to obey them. I’m promising to sustain them.
The term “sustain” is rich with meaning. Food sustains us. Love sustains us. Unblinking obedience does not sustain us. My sustaining vote is evidenced and manifest when I pray for their success — when I’m rooting for them and helping them to magnify their calling. And, like food and love, the act of sustaining is reciprocative. My sustaining vote is accepted when those I sustain embrace and facilitate me in my work as the sustainer.
And when we disagree — and we will, it’s inevitable — we’re not called upon to simply succumb to the demands of begrudging obedience, which is a destructive act; we’re called, instead, to the godly and creative act of loving someone despite their failings. This is at the heart of the weighty calling of sibling-ship.
This is easier when the person we’re sustaining lives in our ward and when the lines of communication are vivid and vibrant — full of life and light. It’s much harder when the lines of communication have crumpled under the crushing weight of a growing and global membership. And since the act of sustaining is reciprocative, the difficulties that arise from broken or missing lines of communication don’t fall solely on the shoulders of those who have grievances. They must be shared by all parties, jointly and severally. Calling on those who feel wronged to bear their grief in silence is to reject their sustaining vote. And who, then, carries the greater sin? Instead, it behooves our distant leaders to open lines of communication and to clear the way for dialogue. Only then can the process work as it should — feeding the Body of Christ.
Sadly, the grieved don’t always want to be comforted. Sometimes, they want to simply walk away, to defect — which is the true meaning of apostasy. What, then, is our responsibility to the defector? It’s clear, really. Among the lost sheep there are those who were left behind accidentally… and there are those who simply walked off. But no distinction is made in the scriptures. The good shepherd goes after all of them. At no point does the shepherd cut them off or throw them to the wolves.
A Better Way
In the myriad approaches to dealing with offending eyes, wandering sheep, and erring siblings, there is one approach which I think deserves to be elevated above the rest. It’s seen in the approach taken in the story I shared at the start…
Karl, to my knowledge, was never excommunicated. His gruffness was smoothed over, his false teachings were corrected (sometimes privately, sometimes publicly), and when his belligerence was just too much to manage, he was asked to attend elsewhere. No one ever trifled with his salvation. They nudged him this way and that, keeping him in the fold as long as they could, before handing him off to another flock. Eventually Karl found a place where leadership had the skills needed. And, over time, he softened (a little) and ingratiated himself (a bit) to the flock and its shepherds.
One Sunday, after a long and rather vexing testimony meeting — where Karl was his old self and not the least bit charming — I was venting to a dear friend (who happened to be in the Stake Presidency). He listened for a bit, then stopped me, mid-sentence: “Christian”, he said (without irony) “a ward that can love Karl is a ward that can love you”.
My own shortcomings and failures glowed brightly in the darkness of my soul, and I felt duly chastened of the Lord.
This is the better, harder way of love, called charity — which is long-suffering.
* Not their real names.
‡ There was a study done at MIT, if I recall correctly, where students conjectured that the Ark of the Covenant was actually a giant capacitor that, when touched, would discharge obscene amounts of pent-up electricity. Gives new meaning to the place name “Perez-Uzzah” — “Bursting Uzzah”.