Sunday, May 16, 2010

Excommunication: Is it such a bad thing?

While my mother was watching "The Mormons," a woman was being interviewed about her excommunication. The documentary discussed, at length, excommunication, or the practice of removing an individual from membership. The slant in the documentary at this part is that excommunication is a horrid practice that splits families into fractures and that the LDS Church is awful for such a practice. This woman, Margaret Toscano, told the story of the Church Disciplinary Council that was held for her. After being told she was excommunicated, she related how the stake presidency and high priests offered to shake her hand: to quote directly, with niceness referring to the handshakes, she said, "the niceness covered over the violence of what was being done, because, in fact, excommunication is a violent action."

I watched momentarily as she spoke, and as my mother seemed relatively captured by the woman's words, I spoke up, saying, "If that's what she has to say about excommunication, she has no idea of it's purpose." My statement is truth. Fact.

The purpose of excommunication has nothing to do with shaming an individual, despite the fact that I guarantee more than one individual would argue this point with me. Just because you think it's about shaming, someone for doing something against the Church's doctrines, doesn't make it so. As much as I may want to float up to the stars, believing I'll suddenly be able to doesn't bring me any closer to those stars. For those who view it as shameful don't understand it's purpose.

It is viewed, undeniably, as a punishment for not keeping the commandments; no, for breaking the commandments to such an extent that simple repentance can't answer the ends of the law. When we break a law, there is a due that must be paid: justice demands it. However, I will argue with any who contend with me, that it's both a punishment and a blessing. And you'll see how and why by the end of this post.

When Jesus Christ was ministering to the peoples on the American continent after he showed himself to his disciples in Jerusalem and then ascended into heaven, he taught the doctrine of the sacrament. After administering the sacrament to the people, he turned to the disciples he had chosen there, and said this: "And now behold, this is the commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it; For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul; therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy to eat and drink of my flesh and blood ye shall forbid him." Whoa! That's some harsh doctrine, no? We can get into semantics about what it means to be unworthy, but I'll just point out one of the footnotes on "unworthily," and that says, "Go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you."

OK, so if we're unworthy, we don't want to be taking the sacrament, 'cause that's where the whole "eateth and drinketh damnation to [our souls]" comes in, and that just isn't something we want to be doing. So the Lord explained that "Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out from among you, but ye shall minister unto him and shall pray for him unto the Father, in my name; and if it so be that he repenteth and is baptized in my name, then shall ye receive him, and shall minister unto him of my flesh and blood." All right then, to be able to partake of the sacrament and not damn our souls, we need to repent, because that's the only way we can return to our Heavenly Father (to clarify for any Episcopalians who may be reading and think that last statement was blasphemous, I'll reword it: "we need to repent, utilizing the great Atonement performed by Jesus Christ, because that's the only way we can return to our Heavenly Father.")

On that note, have you ever noticed how often Heavenly Father is recorded as speaking to man? Not very often at all. Given this scarcity, one can assume that whenever God does speak, it's important and we 'ought to be listening, we 'ought to be doing what He tells us. In a vision, received by a prophet in the Book of Mormon, we're told that "...the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son." So it's important we do whatever it is God tells us. Now, how important would something be if He repeats it? He said, "Repent ye, repent ye," think about that.

All right, let's say we're unworthy to take the sacrament, and we've decided for whatever reason, not to repent. What do the scriptures say about that? Well, Jesus Christ continued, saying, "But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered." What does it mean to not be numbered among the people of Christ? The aforementioned scripture completely explains it. Christ said, "I know my sheep, and they are numbered," and therefore, those who are not Christ's are not numbered, and those who reject Christ after knowing him "shall not be numbered."

In an article by M. Russell Ballard, we're told in the first few lines that "When members need to have certain blessings withheld, the Lord’s object is to teach as well as to discipline. So probation, disfellowshipment, and excommunication, when they become necessary, are ideally accompanied by eventual reinstatement and restoration of blessings" (italics added). Justice demands the dues be paid, but if we repent and turn back to Christ, he will pay those dues for us: he's promised he will, and he's bound by those promises. Elder Ballard speaks of excommunication (probation, and disfellowship) as a way to start over, indeed, the main part of the title of his article is "A Chance to Start Over," and so to again quote Elder Ballard, "[The Lord] is pleased to extend the chance [to us] to start over."

Excommunication is a form of protection. If I break one of God's laws after having made the most sacred of covenants with Him that I wouldn't, I come under grievous condemnation. If I continue on with breaking those laws and don't repent, I have guaranteed my condemnation. However, if I'm called to sit before a Church Disciplinary Council, I should have much gratitude for those men! Let's say they excommunicate me - what does that mean? It means the consequences for the laws I break after excommunication will not be as severe as they would be had I remained a member of the Church. That's what it means, period, despite any emotions I may have at losing my membership because of poor decisions I made, and sins I committed.

In a Q&A in a Church distributed magazine for youth called the New Era, Elder Robert L. Simpson answered the question: "What are the reasons for and the process of excommunication?" In this article, he states, "It is usually those who are so far removed from the spirit of truth as to be imperceptive to the love of Christ and the need for proper priesthood reprimand who leave the Church court with belligerence and ill feeling toward their priesthood leaders. These people are seldom sorry for what they have done but only sorry they have been caught."

To relate this back to Ms Margaret Toscano, interviewed for The Mormons, I believe this statement applies, unquestionably to her. She questioned the divine nature of the church with regard to the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith, contended that women should hold the Priesthood and that it was something Joseph Smith actually taught, and also that he even bestowed the Priesthood upon women during temple ordinances. She also taught about Heavenly Father and the concept of a Heavenly Mother, which isn't alien to most members of the church (see Hymn 292, verse 3); the only twist she added was that Heavenly Father was both man and woman, the Father and the Mother in one. She believed in the false doctrine she was spreading, and as the Saviour himself stated, "...if [s]he repent not [s]he shall not be numbered among my people, that [s]he may not destroy my people..." Although this statement is harsh, such is the nature of truth. And why do I feel it's acceptable for me to analyze her this way? Because she's the perfect example, she spreads false doctrine that could unhinge the faithful, and she went on national television and spoke against the truth.

Excommunication is a saving grace. It is not meant to split up families, although families may choose to distance themselves from those who have been excommunicated - this is their right, just as it's their right to disagree with the beliefs or actions of one of their family members. I understand the distancing of oneself from a family member who has been excommunicated and refuses to repent and work towards having their ordinances, sealing, or priesthood restored to them. It is a practice that places a greater distance between God and the excommunicated, for the protection of the sinner. There can, and should be a happy ending for excommunicated members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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