Don't Excommunicate Mormon Doubters
Recently ground breaking news hit the Mormon bloggernacle. Two Mormon activists Kate Kelly and John Dehlin face church discipline and may be excommunicated. Normally all church discipline is done at the local (stake) level. However, both activists are facing church discipline at the same time which gives the perception that this is happening under the direction of Salt Lake.
The reception has not been positive by LDS bloggers. Be glad you're not working in the church PR department right now -- they have their hands full.
The decision to hold church court is disappointing. This appears to be a classic lose-lose situation. Church discipline happens when an individual is accused of a serious transgression and generally has three aims. First, to save the souls of transgressors, second to protect the innocent, and third to safeguard the integrity of the church.
If we look at all of these options, church discipline doesn't seem to be the best option for this situation. Both Kate and John have expressed a strong desire to stay in the church. I am not sure how excommunication will help them repent or change. To members in the U.S., having a desire to stay in the church might not sound like a big deal, but according to the 2011 Estonian census, only 185 people self-identified as Mormon. This was about half of those who self-identified as Pagan (341) and a little more than those who identified as Satanists (120). This is after almost 25 years of intensive proselyting and hundreds of thousands maybe millions spent on translation and buildings. Anyone who is happy to be a member and trying to be a good person should be welcome in the church.
The excommunication of these two members would be harmful for the church image that has been carefully honed in recent years through the expensive "I'm a Mormon" campaign. This campaign celebrated the diversity of its members. Unfortunately, recent developments give the perception that the "I'm a Mormon" media campaign is just that, a media campaign and nothing more.
That leaves the last reason to hold a church court: protect the innocent. One aspect of protecting the innocent is apostasy which, according to media reports, is the reason both individuals have been called to a church court. This is the classic wolves in sheep's clothing concept. Here lies the golden question: are Kate Kelly and John Dehlin sheep or wolves? Kate and John certainly believe they are sheep and have a sincere desire to remain within the church. Church leadership obviously thinks otherwise or they would not have called for church discipline. In the minds of church leaders their status as members gives their wayward beliefs some legitimacy. Thus to protect the innocent they need to be disciplined thus giving a clear message of what is right and wrong.
While I can understand the church's concern with members who advocate beliefs that do not align with church teachings, excommunicating them doesn't seem to be a productive solution for protecting the innocent. Kate and John have become popular not because they have been leading others astray but because there are so many who have the same concerns about gay rights and women and the priesthood. In other words they are a result of thousands of doubters, not the cause of their doubt.
What then can the church do to protect the innocent? On a personal level local leaders could discuss the status of their temple recommends. If both of these individuals have problems sustaining church leaders or other issues then that could be grounds for the invalidation of their temple recommends. This would be a sign to other members that their message is not approved by the church despite their status as members. Yet, this would enable them to remain members and continue and ongoing dialogue with the individuals in the future.
Another way would be to constructively engage the thousands of doubters. While many conference talks have been given on these issues, they don't explicitly address the concerns and doubt some Mormons have. Concerning women and the priesthood, have church leaders received clear revelation that women should not hold the priesthood or is it just a continued tradition similar to the ban on blacks holding the priesthood? What about other situations when women have held the priesthood (the priestess Deborah in the Old Testament), and what about the times when women have performed priesthood ordinances? (in the early days of the church blessing the sick, currently performing temple ordinances). Regarding gay marriage and gay rights, to what extent are members supposed to support legislation based solely on religious beliefs? Can members choose to support legislation that differs from their personal religious convictions? Perhaps more church leaders could participate in subject based forums where they could go into detail on some of the topics. Though, at times it is beneficial for church leaders to not get into the detail of some topics. Church leaders in some cases are wise to teach correct principle and let people govern themselves. In some ways the diversity in the Mormon bloggernacle is a reflection of this.
The decision to discipline Kate Kelly and John Delhin will probably not help save their souls, it will probably not help protect the innocent nor will it safeguard the church. A classic lose-lose situation. To make it a win-win situation the church could instead do what President Uchtdorf recommended in his talk "Come join with us." The church should continue to welcome Kate and John as members but deal with any apostasy concerns on a personal level that would not endanger their church membership.
Church leaders should continue to engage and encourage doubters. Church leaders should continue to teach correct principles but also realize that by letting members govern themselves, a wide diversity of opinions will be the outcome. This diversity should be managed and guided not purged. When this happens thousands searching for truth will be impressed in their hearts to join the Church and thousands contemplating leaving will decide to stay a little longer.