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Gangrenous Limbs and the Body of Christ: A Defense of Excommunication 

The meme is from a friend in response to a Dutch rabbi’s harsh response to documentarians trying to shoot footage in his synagogue for a piece on Jewish excommunicant Baruch Spinoza. I’m not posting it to make a point or as some kind of an argument; I just thought it was funny.

Recently, whenever there is an excommunication that makes the news a common response has been to invoke 1 Corinthians 12, a powerful discourse on the importance of diversity and unity in the Church that uses the metaphor of the Body of Christ as the Church. I get the sense that the historical use of this particular metaphor has its roots in Protestant more than Latter-day Saint exegetical thought, but I might be wrong, and besides it’s fine to borrow emphases from other traditions as long as they stay within the bounds of orthodoxy, which this one does. 

Still, I think the use of this metaphor as an attack against excommunication per se is a misappropriation. Some rhetoric I’ve seen will even go so far as to call excommunication “violence,” but when one slows down and thinks through the issue, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that, regardless of one’s position on a particular action, excommunication should be a thing.    

When people argue for or against a certain religious practice in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints there are a number of approaches they use; here I’ll categorize these as 1) appeal to scriptural authority, 2) appeal to the practice of other Christian traditions, 3) appeal to early Church theology or practice, 4) appeal to current Church practice, and 5) appeal to extra-religious ethical sentiment. I think the use of excommunication passes muster in each of these cases. 

1. Appeal to scripture

Maybe because I was raised in the faith, but I’m not a big “appeal to the Bible” kind of person. One of the advantages we have is that we don’t have to rely on copies of copies of copies of texts that may or may not have actually been written by the person who is identified with writing it. In cases where it looks like the Bible blatantly contradicts Latter-day Saint theology (Matthew 22:30), I have no problem simply seeing that as a mis-copying or error that drifted in. From an academic perspective, the confidence intervals for any particular scripture in the Bible are pretty wide given how far removed they are from the purported source. 

Still, like in the case of excommunication and the Body of Christ, occasionally one finds Protestant-like biblical exegesis that creeps into the Latter-day Saint discourse, so it’s a valid question about what the Bible has to say about this. 

In the Old Testament, banishment and being cut off from the Lord’s people was a commonly used penalty commanded by YHWH. As the modern day Israel, it would be reasonable to see excommunication as a successor to this practice. If anything modern-day excommunication is a more liberal version of this, since it doesn’t necessarily require physically removing the excommunicant from the congregation.  

It appears that the The New Testament continues the practice (Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, Romans 16) of removing people from the society of Christians who cause dissension or are otherwise in a state of grievous sin.  

Finally, with Latter-day Saint specific scriptures, being “blotted out” and “cast out” are both used in the Book of Mormon and the D&CIn terms of appeal to scripture, it’s clear that some version of excommunication is not only tolerated among the Lord’s people but in some instances commanded directly by God. 

2. Appeal to other Christian practices

This category isn’t used much by most pew members, but still occasionally finds its way into the discussion from religious studies types, so it’s worth noting that some version of excommunication is practiced just about all the other major faiths where concrete membership is a thing. Even the Unitarians have policies for banishing people from participating in communal worship. While never turning anyone away from this or that religious activity or ritual might sound nice, it’s one of those things that becomes very hard to execute in practice when you’re dealing with a real institution and not just abstract ideas. 

3. Appeal to early Church theology and practice

D&C 102 clearly outlined the procedures for a church disciplinary council, which were used in the earliest days of the Church, including among some who had been in Joseph Smith’s most innermost circles (and who presumably would have been in on it with him had the witnesses been intentionally fraudulent, but another point for another day.) Appealing to Joseph Smith-era teachings and practices as representing a more authentic restoration habitus doesn’t help the case against excommunication, even excommunication specifically against dissenters. 

In these discussions people sometimes refer to a particular statement by Joseph Smith:

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 [Looks like Joseph Smith also had a hard time finding a noun that wasn’t “Mormonism!” SC]. 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 tramelled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine.

However, here it’s important to read the whole context of what he was speaking about. Evidently “Elder Brown” (who, according to Joseph Smith in the same talk, was “one of the wisest old heads we have among us,”–he was clearly trying to defuse a situation without causing offense and turned on the sincere concern and charm as he was wont to do) had some sort of esoteric interpretation about what the beasts in Revelations meant. This was essentially the forerunner to the classic High Priest group discussion about where the Ten Tribes went, or what part of the Americas the Book of Mormon took place in, only in this case the guy with the weird opinion had been called up to a disciplinary council because of it, and in this talk Joseph Smith established a precedent on 1) not worrying about the mysteries (in the same talk, “to have knowledge in relation to the meaning of beasts and heads and horns and other figure made use of in the revelations is not very essential to the Elders. If we get puffed up by thinking that we have much knowledge, we are apt to get a contentious spirit, and knowledge is necessary to do away contention”), and 2) not disciplining people for their own possibly eccentric personal interpretations of scripture. 

This was a sincere man who came to Joseph Smith in good faith who happened to have what was considered an eccentric interpretation of a low-importance issue. Given the history of the Church, if Elder Brown had chained himself to the temple site or wrote op-eds to the Warsaw Signal to try to embarrass the Church into changing its teachings or behaviors, things wouldn’t have ended so benignly. The fact is that Joseph Smith could and did do boundary maintenance when he had to.   

4. Appeal to current Church policy

This and # 5 is personally where I tend to put my legal-theological eggs, and on this one the use of removal of membership is clearly supported by the leaders we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators. 

5. Appeal to extra-religious ethical sentiment

Arguments 1-4 are pretty airtight; if there is a category of reason that mitigates against excommunication, it stems from sort of an extra-religious ethical sentiment that little bits of scripture here and there can be welded onto. That’s not to say that #5 is an illegitimate basis for religious argument. For example, although the 19th century abolitionists in Britain that were at the forefront of the then-radical idea of abolition were seen as the religious weirdos of their day, the Bible itself is ambiguous enough about slavery that I’m okay saying that the moral innovation that slavery is bad was at least partially rooted in a gradually developed, extra-religious moral sentiment. There should be and usually is something more to our ethical sense than “because the Bible/prophets/Joseph Smith said so.” 

However, for people that invoke #5 to decry excommunication in general, I would push them on the counterfactual: do you think the Church should categorically never excommunicate people? Or is there a line that somebody would cross that you think should cause the Church to remove their name? Would you excommunicate genocidaires, or would you still not support removing their name from the Church because “excommunication is violence”? Of course, the genocidaires is an extreme situation, but I’m using the counterfactual to point out that the issue of whether excommunication should ever be warranted is a separate, and much less messy, question of whether a particular case merits excommunication, and that when pushed to extremes most people would agree with the former. 

This latter is much more complicated, and there’s more to say on it (much of which I’ve already said in regards to boundary maintenance applies here too), but once we’ve established excommunication should be a thing, the particulars of when that is warranted is a much more complex post for another day.

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