Excommunication is a disciplinary process used only in extreme situations. It includes removal of a member’s name from the records of the Church. Those who are excommunicated can return and have their Church membership restored through the process of repentance and baptism.
The majority of personal sins are those which can be handled through personal counsel with the bishop, who receives the confession of the repentant member. Such meetings are confidential. The bishop guides the person through the repentance process and checks up on the progress of the person. The repentance process need not include disfellowshipping or excommunicating the member confessing the sin.
Occasionally, serious sin is involved and a Church court is convened.
- Where serious transgression requires a court hearing, may I promise you...that the procedure is kind, and it is gentle. The Church court system is just. As has been stated on many occasions, these are courts of love, with the singular objective of helping Church members get back on a proper course. There is no plan in Heavenly Father’s realm to degrade his children. Everything is designed to aid our progress, not to impede it. I wish I could introduce you to the scores of people I know personally who have been excommunicated from this Church but who have come back through the waters of baptism, who have found their way and who have had a restoration of all their blessings. They now stand on more firm ground than they have ever been on during most of their lives. Without appropriate priesthood discipline, I am doubtful that they could ever achieve the position of renewed confidence they stand in today.1
The bishop's court "consists of the three members of the ward bishopric. They may consider the matter of excommunication for any member of the Church living in the ward except for a member who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood. The bishop’s court, however, may render a decision of disfellowshipment or probation for any member of the ward, including Melchizedek Priesthood holders."2
The high council court, on the other hand, "is under the direction of the stake president and consists of the stake presidency and members of the high council. This court has the authority to conduct hearings for any member of the Church residing in that stake, and they have jurisdiction over both Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood holders and may impose a decision of excommunication where appropriate."3
- All Church courts usually convene after fasting and prayer. Total justice and harmony with the revealed word of the Lord become the prime objectives of a Church court. Judgment that is too light or too harsh often defeats the purposes of the Lord. No case should be prejudged. Only after hearing the facts and judging the spirit of the individual can proper justice be administered. A fair hearing and a final decision of the court, ratified by the gifts of the Spirit, will always be in the best interest of the member being tried.4
Reasons for Excommunication
There are very few sins which mandate excommunication to begin the process of repentance. Gross iniquity can qualify a person for excommunication. "Gross iniquity" could include "murder, adultery, sexual perversion, or any serious offense against society that has resulted in conviction by the civil courts. A good example would be a major criminal charge."5 The practice of or advocacy of polygamy qualifies a person for excommunication from the Church. Apostasy can also result in excommunication. Apostasy is not inactivity in Church programs. A person who drifts away and becomes inactive is not apostate. Apostasy involves will-full rebellion, overt criticism of the Church, fighting against the Church.
Coming Back to Full Fellowship
It must be understood that the object of excommunication is not to get rid of a person who has committed transgression, but to begin the process of repentance:
- When excommunication from the Church is necessary...we must not regard the penalty as an end to all blessings and eternal possibilities. Even excommunication, serious as it is, can have the effect of restoring the proper perspective of the offender. Once deprived of Church membership, it is interesting to note how vitally important rebaptism becomes. The truly repentant excommunicated person will strive diligently to regain the waters of baptism. In the Church there are scores of members who have earned their way back into the Church through true repentance and who now stand on more firm ground than ever before in their lives. They have learned their lesson well. They are not likely to make the same mistake again; and surely the blessings of eternity are once again a possibility, thanks to the sanctifying influence of true repentance coupled with the miracle of forgiveness.6
- Excommunication need not be the end of all hope. Although the mistake has been grievous and a serious violation of God’s commandments, a person who really loves the Lord and has the desire and the fortitude to now do right can most often reestablish his life and in due process and time may possibly qualify himself for the lofty and ultimate blessings of exaltation.7
- Footnotes 1 - 5: Robert L. Simpson, “Cast Your Burden upon the Lord,” Tambuli, Jul 1977, 27–28
- Footnotes 6, 7:
To read a definitive article regarding excommunication from the Mormon Church, click here. This article by Apostle M. Russell Ballard is recommended by the Church to anyone desiring to understand why the Church excommunicates members.