We call it church discipline–and I suspect that most of us think of it as punishment for things done wrong, things bad enough that confession to a bishop is required. Things like fornication and adultery. Perhaps serious robbery as well–but apparently not the kind of malfeasance associated with Enron or with the profiteering associated with the meltdown of 2008, but that is another story. Someone comes in to confess–or more rarely we might call them in if outside reports have come to us –and the bishop metes out an appropriate punishment. The bishop has quite a bit of leeway about how to carry out this discipline. A bishop can use “informal” probation even for relatively serious sins. With informal probation, the repentance process is sorted out between the bishop and the member, without bringing in a “disciplinary council”–at least another 3 men. If informal probation doesnt produce the desired results, then a disciplinary council is convened. For men with the Melchizedek Priesthood, the bishop must pass the case up to the Stake President–but only if the bishop believes the outcome of the council would likely be excommunication.
The Handbook of Instructions (No 1) is the formal guide on how to handle church discipline. Church discipline is framed in the handbook mainly in terms of restrictions–but not entirely. The bishop is to handle the entire process in a spirit of love, and for “minor” transgressions may even require greater participation in church activities. Most of the discussion in the handbook however is about the level of restrictions to be meted out–from formal probation (things like limiting participation in the sacrament) all the way up to excommunication, where the transgressor is no longer considered a member of the church.
I struggle with finding a coherent way to administer church discipline. I have come to believe that it is more important for a bishop to function as an “escort” for the penitent on the path of repentance. This may of course involve some restrictions. But I think viewing these restrictions as “punishment” is not only counterproductive, it takes away from a view of penitence as a process of purification and sanctification. Coming in to speak with a bishop and confess is a ritual exposing of weaknesses, and a demonstration of resolve to pursue the path of penance. To be effective, I find that a bishop needs to mete out much more than the usual restrictions. There must be additional “burdens” and instructions. Perhaps the penance that I mete out becomes much like the Catholic recital of 10 Hail Marys or the like. But I find that having the penitent (I like this term so much more than the “transgressor” that is used in the handbook) memorize relatively long scriptural verses and the lyrics to certain hymns helps them to focus their minds on the path of penance. For example, Nephi’s soliloquy in 2 Nephi 4 is extremely powerful in helping to focus in this way. I have also experimented somewhat with requiring community service. Such a requirement of course is not mentioned in the handbook, but it is good for the penitent to feel they are “making up” for damage caused. This kind of service can be customized to the character of the transgression of course.
It is important to see the repentance process is ritualistic terms. if informal probation is not helping the penitent to make progress, then a disciplinary council can be convened. Not so much to punish as to focus the attention of the penitent. Baring one’s soul to a group of men can be quite cathartic. For a woman of course this can be quite traumatic. If we get away from the idea of discipline as punishment, then could a Relief Society president not act as the mentor or escort of the female penitents in the ward?
In any event, viewing the disciplinary process as a path of penance changes how we see church discipline. Excommunication in this view would be reserved only for grievous issues affecting the well being of other members or people. Time is spent only with those penitents who want to travel the path of penance. There is no point worrying about those who dont want to come in.