Mormon Disciplinary Councils

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (inadvertently referred to as the “Mormon” Church by the media and others) defines a disciplinary council as “an ecclesiastical trial during which a member of the church is tried for alleged violations of church standards.” [1] Unofficially, disciplinary councils may also be referred to as church courts. The most serious transgressions, such as serious violations of civil law, spouse abuse, child abuse, adultery, fornication, rape, and incest, often require formal Church discipline. If a disciplinary council finds a member of The Church of Jesus Christ guilty of an offense, formal Church discipline may be used to restrict Church membership privileges, or the member may be excommunicated from the Church.

Overcoming Transgressions through Repentance

Mormon confession
Members are accountable to the Lord for the way they conduct their lives, and personal worthiness is requisite for enjoying the full blessings of Church membership. The judge of such worthiness is in most cases the bishop of the ward, who is appointed "to be a judge in Israel" (Doctrine and Covenants 107:72) and is "to judge his people by the testimony of the just, and by the assistance of his counselors, according to the laws of the kingdom which are given by the prophets of God" (Doctrine and Covenants 58:18). [2]

The purposes of 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. [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 105.]

Formal Church discipline begins when a presiding priesthood leader deems it necessary to hold a disciplinary council. It is the responsibility of bishops and branch presidents, and stake, mission, and district presidents, to help members overcome transgression through the process of repentance. General Authorities may also, in some circumstances, exercise judicial responsibilities.

Church discipline is an inspired process that takes place over a period of time. Through this process and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, a member can receive forgiveness of sins, regain peace of mind, and gain strength to avoid transgression. Church discipline is designed to help Heavenly Father's children in their efforts to be purified from sin through the Atonement, return to full fellowship in the Church, and receive the full blessings of the Church. [3]

The Appropriateness, and What Makes a Disciplinary Council Mandatory

The Church of Jesus Christ has instructed its leaders regarding the appropriateness of disciplinary councils. Disciplinary councils are not held to resolve the following circumstances:

  • A member fails to comply with some church standards such as obeying the Word of Wisdom, paying a full tithe, attending church meetings, or fulfilling church callings or assignments.
  • A member experiences a business failure or does not pay his debts.
  • Civil disputes that occur between two or more members.

A disciplinary council is also deemed inappropriate if a member voluntarily confesses a serious transgression (as previously defined) that “was committed long ago” [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 111].

The decision of whether or not a disciplinary council will be held is dependent upon the facts obtained regarding the situation, and is generally left to the discretion of the Bishop or Stake President. A disciplinary council may be deemed appropriate when substantial evidence is provided to convict a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of committing any of the following offences against the standards of the Church:

  • A member commits a serious transgression (as previously defined).
  • A member submits to, performs, encourages, pays for, or otherwise arranges an abortion. Disciplinary councils are not held, however, if the pregnancy resulted from rape or forcible incest; if the life of the mother is in jeopardy; or if it is shown that the fetus has severe defects which will not allow it to survive the birth [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 111].
  • A member has an operation to change their sex.

Leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ are instructed that a disciplinary council is mandatory when evidence suggests that a member of the Church may have committed any of the following offenses against the standards of the Church:

  • Murder defined as the “deliberate and unjustified taking of human life." The Church does not classify killings performed by police or soldiers in the line of duty as being murder. The subject of abortion, however, is a different matter. Concerning the subject of abortion, The Church of Jesus Christ teaches:
In today's society, abortion has become a common practice, defended by deceptive arguments. Latter-day prophets have denounced abortion, referring to the Lord's declaration, "Thou shalt not . . . kill, nor do anything like unto it" (Doctrine and Covenants 59:6). Their counsel on the matter is clear: Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion. Church members who encourage an abortion in any way may be subject to Church discipline.
Church leaders have said that some exceptional circumstances may justify an abortion, such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. But even these circumstances do not automatically justify an abortion. Those who face such circumstances should consider abortion only after consulting with their local Church leaders and receiving a confirmation through earnest prayer.
When a child is conceived out of wedlock, the best option is for the mother and father of the child to marry and work toward establishing an eternal family relationship. If a successful marriage is unlikely, they should place the child for adoption, preferably through LDS Family Services.
  • Incest defined as "sexual relations" between a parent or grandparent and a natural, adopted, or foster child or a stepchild. Incest also includes sexual relations between siblings.
  • Apostasy referring to members who "repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders." Those who repeatedly present information as church doctrine that is not church doctrine, as well as those who repeatedly follow the teachings of apostate sects, or those who formally join another church are guilty of apostatizing. Failing to attend church meetings, however, does not qualify as apostasy.
  • The commitment of a serious transgression while holding a prominent church position. “Serious transgression" is defined as "a deliberate and major offense against morality" and includes "attempted murder, rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, sale of illicit drugs, fraud, perjury, and false swearing" [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 110]. "Prominent church position" includes the positions of Area Seventy, Temple President, Mission President, Stake President, Patriarch, and Bishop [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 110].
  • The transgressor is a predator.
  • A pattern of serious transgressions (as defined above) is established.
  • A serious transgression (as defined above) is widely known.

Types of Disciplinary Councils

There are several types of disciplinary councils that may be convened by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most disciplinary councils are convened by the Bishop of a ward, or the Branch President of a branch. Such councils are referred to as ward disciplinary councils. Those present for this type of council include the Bishop, his two counselors, and the ward clerk who is present to take notes of the proceedings. After all of the evidence has been presented in the case, the Bishop will prayerfully counsel with his two counselors in an effort to obtain a unanimous decision on the outcome. However, it is the Bishop who has the final say on the matter, even if one or both of his counselors oppose the decision that he makes.

In instances where it appears that a holder of the Melchizedek Priesthood has committed a transgression which may result in excommunication, or when the transgressor is a member of the Bishop or Branch President’s immediate family, a stake disciplinary council is convened by the Stake President. Those in attendance at this type of council are the Stake President, his two counselors, and the twelve members of the stake high council. If a member of the high council is unable to be present for the proceedings, the Stake President may appoint another worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder to take his place. After hearing all of 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 will counsel with his two counselors in an effort to obtain a unanimous decision on the outcome. However, it is the Stake President who has the final say on the matter, even if one or both of his counselors oppose the decision that he makes.

A Mission President can also convene a mission disciplinary council to hear the case of a full-time missionary that is found guilty of a transgression while serving his mission. He can also authorize branch or district presidents in a mission district to convene disciplinary councils.

If the need arises to convene a disciplinary council for the President of The Church of Jesus Christ 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 then made up of the Presiding Bishop, his two counselors, and twelve other High Priests selected by the Presiding Bishop.

In the history of The Church of Jesus Christ, the Common Council of the Church has only been convened twice, In August 1838, after the return of Zion’s Camp, the Common Council convened for the first time to consider allegations made by Sylvester Smith against the prophet, Joseph Smith. The prophet was eventually cleared of all charges. In September 1844, Newel K. Whitney, the Presiding Bishop at that time, convened a Common Council which resulted in the excommunication of Sidney Rigdon who served as a senior member of the First Presidency after the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in the Carthage jail in Carthage, Illinois.

Disciplinary Council Procedures

A disciplinary 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. [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 108].
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. However, the church has instructed leaders that "procedures in a Church disciplinary council must be fair and considerate of the feelings of all who participate." [LDS Church (2006). Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 1: Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics. Salt Lake City: LDS Church, p. 110].

If the accused confesses to having committed the conduct in question, there is no need for evidence to be 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. At that time, the accused is also informed of his or her right to appeal the decision of the council within 30 days of the decision being made. The decision of the disciplinary council is not announced before the congregation at a church meeting unless the case involved: (1) the preaching of false doctrine, (2) a transgressor who is a predator, or (3) other transgressions such as polygamy, teachings of cults in order to champion a following, or the open ridicule of church leaders.

An appeal of a ward disciplinary council is referred to the stake disciplinary council. An appeal of a stake disciplinary council or a mission disciplinary council which is convened by a Mission President is referred to the First Presidency of the Church. An appeal of a disciplinary council that was convened by a branch or a district president in a mission is referred to the Mission President. The decision of the council hearing the appeal may either differ from the original decision, or the original decision may 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. The information is also reviewed by the council hearing the appeal if an appeal is made. The member being disciplined is not permitted to see what is written on the form.

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. In the case of excommunication, the excommunicated member is removed from church records. [4]

Concerning church disciplinary councils, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, in an article in the September 1990 issue of the Ensign titled “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings” [5] stated:

Church disciplinary action is not intended to be the end of the process—rather, it is designed to be the beginning of an opportunity to return to full fellowship and to the full blessings of the Church. Priesthood leaders try hard to be sensitive to the disciplined person’s needs for understanding, encouragement, counsel, and assistance. They work to see that he or she has regular visits with his or her bishop; that the person has mature, caring home teachers or other specially assigned individuals; and that his or her family receive the attention, counsel, and fellowship they need during this difficult time.
The desired result is that the person will make whatever changes are necessary to return fully and completely to be able to receive the marvelous blessings of the Church. When the person has progressed to that point, his or her current bishop or stake president has the authority to convene a new disciplinary council to consider what action needs to be taken—even if the person is now living in a new ward or stake or if a new bishopric or stake presidency is now serving.