Answer/Elder Robert L. Simpson
Regaining the presence of God, the Eternal Father, is what membership in this Church is all about. Eternal life or exaltation should be the goal and objective of every Latter-day Saint. Recognizing the hazards and pitfalls of mortality and the power of the adversary to deceive and persuade in wrong directions, a kind and understanding Heavenly Father has provided a process by which we might receive the help we need to cleanse ourselves and to make the necessary corrections. This pathway is commonly referred to as repentance. All of Heavenly Father’s children have need of this principle in their lives from time to time. When the irregularity has been major, the Church court system plays an important role in helping the transgressor to find his way back. It is all for our benefit and blessing.
The bishops court and the high council court have properly been referred to as courts of love. The sole purpose of a Church court is to bring about in the Lord’s way a spiritual judgment for every Church member that will hopefully eliminate for all time an irregularity or transgression that could prevent him from the ultimate blessing of exaltation.
The Lord’s plan is totally positive. His work and his glory is to provide a way whereby as many of his children as possible may return to his holy presence as family units (Moses 1:39), there to share in all that the Father has (D&C 84:33–39). He has no process or plan designed to block the progress of any of his children. His goal is singular; his work and his glory is that all might be edified and exalted.
The process of Church court discipline might well be likened to fresh, clean water that is ever flushing out the constantly forming cesspools of sin and corruption common to mortality and continually thrust upon man by the power of Satan.
All Church members who have need to repent must first of all find the courage to seek out their priesthood leaders for help. Relatively few transgressors are excommunicated. Some are disfellowshiped for a season; many, many more are quietly placed on probation by the bishop or stake president. The great majority of those who talk to their priesthood leaders about their personal problems are worked with confidentially without even the need for a court hearing or a formal disciplinary action. The attitude of the individual is all important as he comes to his priesthood authority. If we seek help and correction with a contrite spirit and an unmistakable desire to do right, the priesthood leader can frequently bring about the miracle of forgiveness without the need for court action. This is particularly true of those who are in the beginning stages of transgression and particularly those young people who have fallen prey to the adversary on a one-time or so-called experimental basis.
When excommunication from the Church is necessary, however, we must not regard the penalty as an end to all blessings and eternal possibilities. Even excommunication, serious as it is, can have the effect of restoring the proper perspective of the offender. Once deprived of Church membership, it is interesting to note how vitally important rebaptism becomes. The truly repentant excommunicated person will strive diligently to regain the waters of baptism. In the Church there are scores of members who have earned their way back into the Church through true repentance and who now stand on more firm ground than ever before in their lives. They have learned their lesson well. They are not likely to make the same mistake again; and surely the blessings of eternity are once again a possibility, thanks to the sanctifying influence of true repentance coupled with the miracle of forgiveness.
A bishop has the authority to convene a bishops court. The court consists of the ward bishopric, and they may consider the matter of excommunication for any member of the Church living in the ward except for one who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood. The bishops court, however, may render a decision of disfellowshipment for any member of the ward, including Melchizedek Priesthood holders. This court may also place any ward member regardless of priesthood status on probation.
The high council court under the direction of the stake president consists of the stake presidency and members of the high council. This court has the authority to conduct hearings for any member of the Church residing in the stake, including both Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood holders, and also the authority to impose a decision of excommunication where appropriate. Church members to be tried are notified in advance of the date, the hour, and the place the court will convene. The court should convene in the attitude of fasting and prayer. Total justice in harmony with the revealed word of the Lord should be the prime objective of the court. Judgment that is too light or too harsh often defeats the purposes of the Lord. A fair hearing and a final decision of the court that is ratified by the gifts of the Spirit will always be in the best interest of the member being tried. 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.
Excommunication need not be the end of all hope. Although the mistake has been grievous and a serious violation of God’s commandments, a person who really loves the Lord and has the desire and the fortitude to now do right can most often reestablish his life and in due process and time may possibly qualify himself for the lofty and ultimate blessings of exaltation.
There are very few reasons for excommunication in this Church. I can only think of three.
Church members can become candidates for excommunication as they involve themselves in gross iniquity.
Church members become candidates for excommunication as they become involved in or advocate plural marriage.
Church members become candidates for excommunication as they apostatize from the teachings of the Church.
Gross iniquity involves such transgressions as murder, adultery, sexual perversion, or serious civil court conviction such as a felony.
It should also be made clear that an apostate is not an indifferent or an inactive member of the Church but rather one who flatly denies the divine nature of the Church or one who is antagonistic against or unresponsive to his priesthood authority.
Where serious transgression requires a court hearing, may I promise you that the procedure is kind and gentle. The Church court system is just; and as has been stated on many occasions, these are courts of love with the singular objective of helping Church members to get back on a proper course.