Every bishop has to deal with church discipline. That just comes with the territory. Of late, excommunication appears to be the preferred method of dealing with dissidents. While perhaps not quite as drastic as Torquemada’s wheel or rack, punishment of the individual and purification of the church still lie at the heart of this use of church discipline.
On one level, church discipline would seem to be wholly inconsistent with a buddhist perspective. But I believe that church discipline is an important tool to help individuals stay on the path of transformation, and is indeed consistent with a buddhist perspective. However, the way church discipline is administered today, largely as punishment, I believe to be at odds with the gospel of the restoration.
Church discipline has two great uses: repentance of the sinner, and protection of the church. The rest of this post deals with the second use.
Protection of the Church seems to be a rationale for the latest spate of excommunications. There is clearly a need for the church to be able to protect itself from individuals who threaten the peace and stability of its members.What kind of individuals would pose this kind of threat? Predators come quickly to mind, particularly if they are or have been church leaders. Church leaders as whatever level are held in high esteem by the membership. No one would think twice about excommunicating a bishop who was also a child molester. A bishop involved in consensual sex with another adult member would likely also be a candidate for excommunication, because a serious trust has been violated. There will of course be a continuum of more to less threat as as we progress to lower callings and less serious violations, and judgement would have to be exercised in these borderline areas. But there is no doubt wide agreement that action must be taken to protect church membership from these kinds of predators, and to protect the good name of the church.
Are dissidents predators in some form or fashion? Do they threaten the peace and stability of church members? I suggest they do not, at least not this current crop of dissidents. The key question for me would be whether or not church members might confuse these individuals as church leaders, or as representing official church positions. It is hard to believe that any church members would be confused about these people. That they hold or espouse views at variance with standard doctrine there is little doubt.. As far as I can tell, none of them show up in church trying to control the agenda or otherwise sow dissension among the members.
In my ward, there are many members who no longer have strong testimonies of the church. A good many of them have much weaker testimonies and evince more bitterness than many of our recent high-profile excommunicants. Should I track these members down and excommunicate them? Most of them are inactive. If like Torquemada, I wish to “purify” the church, perhaps this is exactly what I should do.But of course, in reality they pose little or no threat to the members of my ward and it would be a complete waste of time to persecute these folks.
Recently, a fellow bishop from a nearby stake told me he was told by his stake president to have a talk with one of his members who had posted a profile on the Ordain Women website. I know this member, and he is not particularly active. He could in no wise pose a threat to any church members. Clearly this request came through official church channels–perhaps through the area presidency, or perhaps this stake president was contacted directly by fabled Strengthening Church Membership committee. By whatever channel the message came, the request is basically asking this bishop to ferret out “iniquity” that might exist amongst his membership. Why should he stop with this member? Perhaps he should start monitoring facebook posts and other internet postings by his membership –and apparently many bishops feel called to do this.
It is disturbing that the time of church leaders at any level would be spent on this kind of activity. But it is even more disturbing to me to think that someone on the church payroll is monitoring Ordain Women and who knows how many other websites. This is definitely not an appropriate use of sacred funds.
In spite of this perverted use of church discipline to establish a lighter and even kinder version of the inquisition, I am still a firm believer in the use of church discipline. Proper use of this tool can be cathartic for the penitent.