This past week, I have watched as many of my Facebook friends (mostly Mormon) have expressed their feelings on the Kate Kelly/John Dehlin excommunication saga. For those who are not familiar with these names let me offer you a very brief introduction. Kate Kelly is the founder of Ordain Women: a group that is dedicated to bringing about gender equality by seeking ordination to the priesthood. John Dehin is the creator of numerous websites (most notably Mormon Stories) that are dedicated to discussing some of the more difficult aspects of Mormon history.
To make a very long story short, both Kelly and Dehlin have come under fire as of late, even being issued letters of warning from their local church leaders that included the possibility of excommunication. For Kate Kelly, the threat became a reality as she was excommunicated from the Mormon church early yesterday morning.
Excommunication is nothing new to Mormonism or to the whole of Christianity. Jesus himself even prescribed the appropriate situation in which to remove a fellow Christian from among the masses. In Matthew 18: 15-20 we read:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.The bolded text above has been used by many a Christian sect to justify the practice of excommunication. In other Bible translations, the word heathen is translated as gentile. In other words, he/she who will not heed the counsel of the church is to be cut off from that church.
What I find most interesting about this particular Bible passage is the fact that it is sandwiched between two other important teachings that Jesus emphasized regarding forgiveness. In verses 12-14 Jesus references the 99 and 1 sheep and the commandment to go to the one lost sheep. In verses 21-23 Jesus tells Peter that we are commanded to forgive "seventy times seven." In short, the guidelines for excommunication are neatly placed between Jesus' admonition to succor the one wayward sheep and his commandment to forgive as often as needed. Coincidence? I think not.
As far as Kate Kelly's excommunication is concerned, I know that feelings on both sides of the isle are quite tender. Kelly has had a great deal of support for her cause and many of her supporters see this action as an insult not only to Kelly, but to them as well. The following video clip from Kate Kelly's rally illustrates just how intense feelings have become over this issue:
It isn't my place or my intent to weigh in on whether or not Mormon women deserve to have the priesthood. Besides, what I have to say on the matter isn't going to change anyone's opinion. Instead, what I do hope will happen from all of this is people on both sides will come to a better understanding of how excommunication can be a great equalizing force for good.
First, let me say that I support the right of the Mormon Church (or any church for that matter) to implement disciplinary standards as they see fit. It is their right to do so. And to those who believe that Jesus' love would prevent him from ever excommunicating anyone, I simply say remember the Bible verses mentioned above, along with other verses such as:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matt. 5: 29-30).Jesus wasn't some hippie who accepted the beliefs, behaviors and ideas of everyone. Instead he was a revolutionary who believed in unconditional love and preached repentance.
Regardless of what we may think, excommunication is, in many cases, an act of love. It releases a person from further liability and condemnation. I realize that this interpretation of excommunication may come off offensive to some so let me explain:
When I was on my mission (in Antofagasta, Chile) I met a bishop who unfortunately lost his wife in an accident. It was a tragic event for his family and it completely rocked their world. In an effort to ease his burdens, the church immediately released him from his calling. He was very grateful for that. As he later told me, there was no way he could meet up to those responsibilities any longer.
And so it is with excommunication (at least in some instances). The person has had a life-changing event in which he/she needs to be released from their responsibilities as a Christian. They cannot live up to those responsibilities any longer and as a result, excommunication is a tool that can help them in the long run.
I am fully aware of the fact that this is easy for me to say. After all, I have never been a part of, nor have I witnessed a church disciplinary proceeding. I also recognize that my above description doesn't apply to all cases either. As hard as it may be to admit, there are good and bad cases of excommunication in all faiths, but in the end I believe they almost always lead to positive things.
Just this past week, Pope Francis (my favorite Pope ever) excommunicated members of the Italian Mafia for their lengthy and extensive history in committing a variety of crimes. I think most of us would applaud Pope Francis for this brave and bold move. But nearly 500 years ago, another pope made the terrible decision to excommunicate a young radical named Martin Luther, who opposed a number of teachings of the Catholic Church. And though most everyone would agree that the decision to excommunicate Luther was the wrong one, I also think that a great deal of good came from it. After all, Luther's excommunication became a galvanizing force for many of his followers and helped to pave the way for the Protestant Reformation.
And the same can be said of my own faith. During its early years, Mormon leaders excommunicated dozens of members who opposed the doctrine of polygamy. Some of those members were later reinstated following the 1890 manifesto that officially abolished polygamy in the church. There are even better examples in recent years. In 1942, a young 17-year-old German by the name of Helmuth Hübener was excommunicated for opposing the ideas of one Adolf Hitler. Hübener was later reinstated as a member, but only after being put to death for opposing Nazi tyranny. He never lived to see his reinstatement. And then there's the case of Douglas Wallace and Byron Merchant, who were excommunicated in 1976 and 1977 respectively for opposing the church's ban on Blacks not being able to receive the priesthood. It was only a year later that the priesthood ban on Black members was to be lifted for good.
Regardless of how this all plays out, I hope that we will all be able to glean some important lessons from this week's events. Here are a few lessons that come to mind for me personally:
1.) There are no winners here. Kelly's excommunication does not vindicate anyone. It is a sad day. Even if you disagree with her and her movement we should all agree that our job is to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who need comfort (Mosiah 18: 9).
2.) Jesus really was all about love, but that doesn't mean he was about accepting everyone and everything. There's enough in that statement to keep us humbly pondering for guidance for the rest of our lives.
3.) Excommunication really can be a good thing, so long as the individual or institution is humble enough to admit that change is necessary.
4.) Even though Jesus prescribed the manner in which to excommunicate, he sandwiched that teaching in between his commandments to care for the one lost sheep and to forgive as often as is necessary.In conclusion, I can think of no better way to help us all come to terms with these difficult discussions than to appeal to the Serenity Prayer, which next the the Lord's Prayer and the Jesus Prayer is my all-time favorite prayer. It's wisdom is endless:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,The courage to change the things I can,And the wisdom to know the difference."Amen, and Amen.