The following is a guest post by Randall Davis.
Amidst the tapestry of human experience, religious freedom–the right to worship in accordance with one’s own conscience–is a deeply-valued principle that forms the bedrock of much goodness in our world today. Having associated with people of various faith traditions over the years, I have seen the enriching influence of religion in their lives, and from our discussions, they recognize that religious freedom carries both duties and responsibilities that honor the sanctity of other beliefs.
One of those duties should be to respect another’s choice to enter or leave a religion in the spirit of graciousness and understanding. This more readily occurs when a religion sees its existence as but a small part of some divine plan and spiritual transformation as an essential part of individual growth.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints emphasizes the need for religious freedom and states that members have the responsibility to “respect the religious beliefs of others and the beliefs and opinions of those with no religion” and continues by stating that we should be civil in our conversations with others (see https://newsroom.
However, there are times when a religion sees itself as the ultimate guardian of divine truth, and anyone who leaves the fold may be viewed in a less favorable light because there exists no paradigm by which to view faith transition, even to another Christian tradition or other religion, in a positive or even neutral light.
Such could be the case with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints which proclaims unique truths and priesthood powers not found in any other religion, and Church leaders at times refer to it as “the one-and-only true church.” However, a current member who formally joins another church is committing the sin of “apostasy” according to the Church’s ecclesiastical handbook (see Article 126.96.36.199; https://www.
Churches can certainly exercise their religious freedom to label people in apostasy for joining another church if they so choose, and the current definition within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is clear: “When individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel, they are in a state of apostasy” (See https://www.
Whatever the case, if a person no longer desires to retain affiliation with the former faith, a name removal could be a simple administrative procedure; however, the emotionally-charged and archaic use of the term of “apostasy” carries a terrifying stigma of unwarranted disgrace and shame among one’s family and other members and goes against the ecumenical charge we have to build bridges, and not barriers, among those who see their faith differently. What current members need is not protection from others who leave because of a faith shift; rather, they need radical empathy and understanding for those whose spiritual moorings are now grounded somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the term, “apostasy,” can breed incivility and divisiveness that delegitimizes a person’s heartfelt search to go elsewhere and pathologizes spiritual growth that others do not understand. However, if we believe in religious freedom and respect as the Church’s website suggests, we should not alienate people further with the label of apostasy simply for finding a new spiritual home, nor should we use any form of fear to persuade them to remain with us. Rather, we should welcome them when they enter our religious fold, and we should wish them well, with dignity and grace, when they leave on their new spiritual quest, even if we do not agree with their decision.
If the Church wants to continue using the label, then reserve it for members who, as the Church Handbook states, are “acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its doctrine, its policies, or its leaders” and are “showing a pattern of intentionally working to weaken the faith and activity of Church members.” Joining another religion with no public activism and opposition toward the Church is in a different category of behavior.
A more pastoral change in tone within the Church’s General Handbook regarding a shift in religious affiliation would make great strides in mending fences, building relationships, and displaying humility with all that we still do not know. Fortunately, the Church has made similar changes to outdated language when it removed the terms “excommunication,” “disfellowship,” and “disciplinary council” from its ecclesiastical guidelines in 2019 (see https://newsroom.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield spoke of religious pluralism and inclusion in his book, You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right:
Religions are especially adept at creating a shared language and practice to help their adherents feel closely connected. But religion must always be on guard about the cost to those who don’t embrace them or who embrace other religions. It is so easy to forget that the system that is right for you, even one that you believe God wants for you, may not be right for everyone. After all, how could the will of an infinite God ever be made so small as to fit into one finite system? Ironically, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we should be making the most room for one another; but it seems that instead, we make the least (page 112).
These ideals should embody the duty of religious freedom for all humankind, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Randall Davis, an English language specialist and MA TESOL graduate from Brigham Young University, lives in American Fork, Utah.
Apostasy. (n.d.). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. https://www.
Hirschfield, B. (2009). You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism. Three Rivers Press: New York.
Repentance and Church Membership Councils. (2022, August 24). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. https://www.
What is Religious Freedom? (2013, May 16). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. https://newsroom.