MormonFAQ/Church Discipline FAQ


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Resources.png    Frequently Asked Questions about Church Disciplinary Councils

If you have a question about the whys, hows, or wherefores of Church Discipline in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, our FAQ has the answer.

Question: What is a “disciplinary council”?

A disciplinary council is a private meeting between Church leaders and a member that has either confessed to or been accused of behavior which could threaten their right to full fellowship in the Church.


Quotes

, "What is Church discipline?"

Church Newsroom
In rare instances, we may commit serious transgressions that jeopardize our progress. Church discipline — restrictions and conditions of repentance that prompt a person to reevaluate their situation and return to full fellowship and activity — is a process designed to help us overcome sin in these instances.

For all sins, large and small, it is the sacrifice and suffering, mercy and grace — or Atonement — of Jesus Christ that makes repentance possible. Church discipline is designed to help an individual more fully apply the Atonement of Jesus Christ, be cleansed of their sins and move forward in their eternal progression.

The term “discipline” is an important one, especially in this religious context. It shares the same Latin root as the word “disciple,” meaning a true follower. Learning to discipline ourselves is what makes us better people. Any athlete, artist, scholar or musician would acknowledge that discipline is the key to improvement. And so it is with our spiritual progression as well. Christ Himself taught repeatedly that we need to be disciplined in our thoughts, words and deeds. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ requires self-discipline.

The purpose of any counseling or discipline in the Church is to help the individual to obtain the peace and hope provided by Christ’s Atonement. It should not be confused with punishment.

Click here to view the complete article


To learn more



Question: How is a disciplinary council different from a “church court”?

“Church court” is an older term for the same thing.


To learn more

  • Church courts—Learn something of the history of this now-dated expression, and its use in anti-Mormon polemic. (Link)



Question: What is the purpose of a disciplinary council?

Disciplinary councils have three purposes, in order of priority:
  1. to save the soul of the transgressor;
  2. to protect the innocent;
  3. to safeguard the Church’s purity, integrity, and good name.[1]


Quotes

N. Eldon Tanner (First Councilor in the First Presidency, 1972–1982), "Our Responsibility to the Transgressor"

N. Eldon Tanner (First Councilor in the First Presidency, 1972–1982),  Ensign
"A person who is guilty of a serious transgression cannot progress, and he is not happy while the guilt is upon him. Until he has confessed and repented he is in bondage. The transgressor who is dealt with as he should be, with love and with proper discipline, will later express his appreciation for your concern, your interest, and your leadership. As he is properly dealt with, he is in a position to repent and come back to full activity."

Click here to view the complete article



  • Why Church Discipline?—Steve Densley, Jr. discusses the rationale for Church discipline through citations from Church leaders. (Link)



Question: What behavior requires that a disciplinary council be held?

Disciplinary councils must be held for:
  • Murder
  • Incest
  • Physical or sexual abuse of a child
  • Apostasy

A council must also always be held in the case of:
  • Serious transgression by a prominent Church leader
  • A pattern of serious transgression
  • Transgression involving someone who is a predator and thus a danger to others


Quotes
The First Presidency has instructed that disciplinary councils must be held in cases of murder, incest, or apostasy. A disciplinary council must also be held when a prominent Church leader commits a serious transgression, when the transgressor is a predator who may be a threat to other persons, when the person shows a pattern of repeated serious transgressions, when a serious transgression is widely known, and when the transgressor is guilty of serious deceptive practices and false representations or other terms of fraud or dishonesty in business transactions.
Disciplinary councils may also be convened to consider a member’s standing in the Church following serious transgression such as abortion, transsexual operation, attempted murder, rape, forcible sexual abuse, intentionally inflicting serious physical injuries on others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, child abuse (sexual or physical), spouse abuse, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, theft, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, or false swearing.

— Elder M. Russell Ballard, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles[1]

, "Why would someone be disciplined by the Church?"

Church Newsroom
The Church has zero tolerance for abuse of any kind, including child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse or child pornography, and anyone engaged in these practices would rightly face both criminal prosecution and Church discipline.

Click here to view the complete article




Question: Can the reasons for Church discipline be determined from the formal letter sent by Church leaders?

No. Letters which inform a member of a pending disciplinary council, as well as letters which formally inform them of the council's decision typically read only that the member "has been accused of conduct unbecoming a member of the Church," or "has been found guilty of conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church."

Such language is simply "placeholder" phrasing that comes directly from the Church's handbook for leaders. It is intended to avoid disclosing the specific grounds for discipline to anyone else who might happen to see the letter.

Thus, a letter for a violation of the law of chastity, or a financial felony, or apostasy would all read the same. The member, however, is always informed personally about specifically what he or she is charged with. It simply isn't put into writing, save in the confidential report that is forwarded to the stake president by bishops, and by the stake president to the office of the First Presidency.




Question: If "apostasy" is grounds for Church discipline, does this mean members cannot disagree with the Church or its leaders?

No. Apostasy, in the context of disciplinary council, has a very specific meaning:
  1. Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.
  2. Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop or a higher authority.
  3. Continue to follow the teachings of apostate sects (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishop or a higher authority.
  4. Formally join another church and advocate its teachings.[2]
Any member charged with apostasy would already have been given clear warning that their behavior would put them at risk. Bishops and other leaders would have cautioned the member prior to instigating a disciplinary council, unless the member had refused to meet with them, or asked that they not have contact with the Church.
We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.

Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.

—First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles[3]


Quotes
We could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.

President George Q. Cannon, First Councilor in the First Presidency (1889–1901)[4]

, "Why would someone be disciplined by the Church?"

Church Newsroom
[Church discipline] is also used to address apostasy — the repeated, clear and open public opposition to the Church, its leaders and its doctrine. If someone seeks to teach as doctrine something that is contrary to the Church’s beliefs, attempts to persuade other Church members to their point of view or publicly insists the Church change its doctrine to align with their personal views, they would be counseled by a local Church leader and asked to cease that practice. If they fail to do so, Church discipline may follow. This also applies to an individual who subscribes to the teachings of apostate groups that engage in practices contrary to Church doctrine, such as polygamy.

Click here to view the complete article




Question: What constitutes “a serious transgression”?

A serious transgression is a “deliberate and major offense against morality.” The following are defined as “serious transgressions” for the purposes of determining whether disciplinary councils ought to be held, but the list is not exclusive:
  • Felonies (e.g., attempted murder, rape, burglary, theft, robbery, perjury, fraud, sale of illicit drugs)
  • Adultery, fornication, or homosexual conduct

Question: What behavior may require a disciplinary council?

Any of these may prompt a disciplinary council.
  • A serious transgression other than those which require a disciplinary council
  • Abortion while a member of the Church (this includes paying for, submitting to, encouraging, or performing abortions)[5]
  • Transsexual operation

Question: What acts are not to be treated in a disciplinary council?

Leaders are instructed not to hold disciplinary councils for the following:
  • Civil disputes
  • Failure to live the Word of Wisdom
  • Masturbation
  • Pornography use
  • Failure to pay tithing
  • Failure to attend Church
  • Failure to fulfill Church callings.
  • Business failures or non-payment of debt (though felonious business practices might prompt a council as described above)


Quotes

, "Why would someone be disciplined by the Church?"

Church Newsroom
Church disciplinary councils are not legal proceedings and are not held to legally try civil or criminal cases, nor are they meant to address things such as failure to attend church regularly, to obey the Church’s code of health or to fulfill Church responsibilities or to settle disputes among members. Disciplinary councils are not used for members who want their names removed from Church records or who have joined another church. Those issues are handled through a simple administrative process.

Click here to view the complete article




Question: Who decides to convene a disciplinary council?

Only bishops and stake or mission presidents may convene a disciplinary council. Bishops must have clearance from the stake president before initiating any council.




Question: What role do higher Church leaders (e.g., those in Salt Lake City) play in disciplinary councils?

As with all matters, local leaders may seek counsel and advice from higher Church leaders. This could include questions about whether a disciplinary council is appropriate or needed. All decisions about the outcome of disciplinary councils, however, are made at the local level.


Quotes

, "What is Church discipline?"

Church Newsroom
Church discipline is administered at a local level by those who know the circumstances and the individual best and who can be at his or her side throughout the repentance process.

Click here to view the complete article




Question: Where are disciplinary councils held?

Councils are usually held by the leaders of the geographic unit in which a member lives. If a member moves, a Church leader can place a “hold” on the transfer of records to another ecclesiastical unit. Leaders from the old and new unit then confer, and determine who is best suited to conduct the disciplinary council.

Factors which may influence where a disciplinary council is held include:
  • how familiar leaders in the old area are with the issue—for example, if leaders in the old area had met with, counseled, or cautioned a member repeatedly, they may be better suited to judge whether that council has been followed or rejected.
  • the availability of witnesses. Since the misdeed occurred in the old area, witnesses from among Church leaders or members may be more available in the old than the new area.
  • whether the disciplinary process has already been started. If a leader in an old area has already implemented some form of Church discipline (e.g., informal probation), then it may be more appropriate for that leader to complete the process prior to transferring the record to the new leader.

Question: What determines if a council is handled by the bishop? When is the stake president involved?

The stake president is the president of the Church’s higher, or Melchizedek priesthood. Thus, any accusation against a Melchizedek priesthood holder must be resolved by the stake president. In practice, this means that experienced adult males tend to require stake disciplinary councils. Men who do not hold this priesthood, teens, and women are typically managed by a bishop’s disciplinary council.




Question: Who participates in a bishop’s disciplinary council?

The bishop’s disciplinary council consists of:
  • The member accused of transgression
  • The bishop
  • The bishop’s two counselors
  • A clerk or secretary to take minutes
Witnesses requested by either the bishop or the member for whom the council is convened may also attend. They will be present only to give evidence, and then will be excused. They do not participate in the rest of the council, and are not made aware of the decision reached.




Question: Who participates in a stake disciplinary council?

The stake disciplinary council consists of:
  • The member accused of transgression
  • The stake president
  • The stake president’s two counselors
  • A clerk or secretary to take minutes
  • Twelve members of the stake high council
Witnesses requested by either the bishop or the member for whom the council is convened may also attend. They will be present only to give evidence, and then will be excused. They do not participate in the rest of the council, and are not made aware of the decision reached.




Question: Besides the difference in those who attend a stake council, are there any other procedures which differ from a bishop’s council?

Yes. In accordance with revelation in D&C 102:13-17, members of the stake high council draw lots. As the scripture notes:
Whenever this [stake high] council convenes to act upon any case, the twelve councilors shall consider whether it is a difficult one or not; if it is not, two only of the councilors shall speak upon it....But if it is thought to be difficult, four shall be appointed; and if more difficult, six; but in no case shall more than six be appointed to speak. The accused, in all cases, has a right to one–half of the council, to prevent insult or injustice. And the councilors appointed to speak before the council are to present the case, after the evidence is examined, in its true light before the council; and every man is to speak according to equity and justice. Those councilors who draw even numbers, that is, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12, are the individuals who are to stand up in behalf of the accused, and prevent insult and injustice.




Question: How are members informed about disciplinary councils?

The bishop or stake president will inform a member in writing of a disciplinary council. Church leaders make every effort to accommodate the schedule of those subject to Church discipline. Councils may be rescheduled as needed to allow all necessary parties to attend.

Members who refuse to attend a disciplinary council in person (or who are unable to do so because they are in prison, for example) may provide written evidence, or long-distance teleconferencing or secure Internet video conferencing may be arranged to allow any who wish to participate an opportunity to do so.




Question: Are disciplinary councils like adversarial court rooms?

No. Councils should function in an atmosphere of mutual respect and concern for the well-being of the member. The presiding officer or other members of the council may ask questions in a respectful manner. Unlike civil courts, there is no mechanism in place to compel or require a member to answer a question.




Question: Are those charged in a disciplinary council allowed to defend or explain themselves?

Yes. Members subject to potential Church discipline may present evidence, call witnesses, or provide written testimony. They are also permitted to question any witnesses who testify against them. (In many disciplinary councils, the member has confessed to transgression, and so there is little need for witnesses or fact-finding, since the member voluntarily discloses the nature and severity of his or her misdeeds.)




Question: Who makes the decision about a disciplinary council’s outcome?

The decision is made by the bishop or stake president after hearing the evidence, consulting with the other members of the council, and after prayer. Latter-day Saints believe such leaders are entitled to divine revelation regarding God’s will in the matter.

When the decision is made, the bishop or stake president asks the other members of the council whether they agree with or sustain the decision. Every effort is made to achieve unanimous support, but the decision is the bishop’s or stake president's.

A decision may be rendered immediately, or the council may opt to dedicate time to further reflection and prayer if they are not yet confident that they have ascertained God's will and the best course of action.




Question: What are the possible outcomes of a disciplinary council?

A disciplinary council's outcome may include:
  • A decision to take no action
  • Formal probation
  • Disfellowshipment
  • Excommunication

Question: What is formal probation?

Formal probation restricts some privileges of Church membership. These privileges are determined by the council according to the circumstances. Members under formal probation may also be invited to participate more fully in some Church-related behavior. The duration of formal probation varies.




Question: What is disfellowshipment?

Disfellowshipped members remain members of the Church, but have some privileges of membership restricted. They may not take the sacrament, hold Church callings, preach sermons, offer public prayers in Church meetings, perform priesthood ordinances, or vote to sustain Church leaders. Other council and cautions may be provided by the council (e.g., to refrain from reading pornographic material). Disfellowshipment usually lasts at least one year.

This period of time should not be seen as a punishment. Instead, the intent is to relieve the member of many of the duties and responsibilities of full membership. The member is absolved of any duty or assignment in the Church except the necessity to focus upon the reestablishment of their personal relationship with God and Christ. They can then dedicate the necessary time and energy toward becoming willing and able to keep the covenants which they have made.




Question: What is excommunication?

Excommunication is the most severe outcome which can be imposed by a disciplinary council. It is reserved for the most grave offenses. Excommunication achieves the purposes of Church discipline by:
  1. it releases the member from the weight of their covenants so that they can focus on repentance and rebuild their ability to recommit to their covenant obligations and return to a state of full blessings in the Church.
  2. if the offense involves a harm to innocent victims, excommunication protects the innocent by removing the ability of the offender to use his or her Church membership to access victims.
  3. if the offense might harm the good name of the Church, excommunication signals to others that the offender cannot claim membership while persisting in behavior which the Church regards as unacceptable. It also avoids the impression that the Church condones or winks at inappropriate behavior.
Excommunicated members are no longer considered to be members of the Church, and they are under all the restrictions of disfellowshipment. They are also not entitled to pay tithes or offerings, or wear temple garments, since these are a symbol of the temple covenants that are set aside by excommunication.

Such an individual may continue to attend Church if their conduct is orderly. Excommunication always lasts at least one year.




Question: What determines which penalty is imposed in a disciplinary council?

Leaders rely upon the facts of each case and revelation from God to determine the proper outcome of a disciplinary council. Murder always requires excommunication as does incest in virtually all cases. Other factors considered include:
  • Whether those involved in the sin have made temple covenants
  • Age and maturity of the sinner
  • Whether marital covenants (one’s own or others’) were violated by the sin
  • Frequency of the sin
  • Whether one confessed voluntarily
  • Whether one has committed similar past serious sins
  • Whether the sinner was in a position of trust or authority
  • Whether the sin has become broadly known in the community
  • Whether the sinner held a visible position of Church leadership or responsibility
  • What the interests of innocent parties affected by the sin require
  • Time elapsed since the sin
  • Evidence by word and deed of sincere and complete repentance

Question: What if a member disagrees with the council's decision, or believes that proper procedure has not been observed?

At the conclusion of every disciplinary council, the presiding officer informs the member that if he or she wishes to appeal the decision, he may so indicate in writing within thirty days. Bishops' councils may be appealed to the stake president. Stake councils may be appealed to the Church's highest body, the First Presidency.




Question: Are Church authorities informed of the outcome of disciplinary councils?

The outcomes of all disciplinary councils in which a member's status are affected must be reported to the Office of the First Presidency. The forms for such reporting describe the transgression, evidence, elements involved in making a decision, and names of all those involved in the counsel.




Question: Is anyone local informed of the outcome of a disciplinary council?

In most cases, the matters discussed in disciplinary councils remain completely confidential. Ward leaders are privately advised if a member’s privileges have been restricted, but they are not told the details of why this was necessary. (This prevents embarrassment, since leaders can avoid calling on a member under restrictions to pray or teach.) A more public announcement is made if the transgressor is found guilty of:
  1. Apostasy
  2. Predatory behavior which threatens other members
  3. Other flagrant transgressions (e.g., teaching plural marriage, public ridicule or opposition to Church leaders)
In such cases, only a general announcement is made to the adults of a ward, informing them that the member has been either disfellowshipped or excommunicated “for conduct contrary to the laws and order of the Church.” Members are asked not to discuss the matter with anyone or gossip about it.


Quotes

, "What details are shared about the discipline?"

Church Newsroom
All Church discipline is carried out in complete confidence. Church leaders have a solemn responsibility to keep confidential all information they receive in confessions and interviews. To protect that confidence, the Church will not discuss the proceedings of a disciplinary council. A confidential record of the proceedings is kept by a clerk, but even if an individual decides to publicly share information about the process and seeks to position that process in their own light, the Church will be circumspect in any public statement. In rare cases, the decision of a disciplinary council may be shared publicly to prevent others from being harmed through misinformation.

Click here to view the complete article


To learn more

  • Publicizing excommunication—The Church may reveal that a member has been disciplined, but will not reveal the specifics of their transgression or the evidence upon which the decision was based. (Link)



Question: Can the consequences of Church discipline ever be overcome?

Of course. This is the goal of all discipline—to encourage the member to repent and return to full fellowship. If possible, bishops hope to be in closer contact with a disciplined member (or former member) than they were prior to the discipline.

When sufficient time has passed and when the disciplined member and the bishop agree that he or she has manifested sufficient, consistent repentance in thought and deed, a disciplinary council is again convened. The evidence of repentance and reformation is reviewed, and the council determines whether the member may be returned to full fellowship.

Thereafter, former members (i.e., those who were excommunicated) may be rebaptized into the Church. Members subject to probation or disfellowshipment are regarded as full members with all privileges at the conclusion of such a council.


Quotes

, "What happens following Church discipline?"

Church Newsroom
Church discipline is not designed to be the end of the process, but the beginning of the road back to full fellowship. Depending on the severity of the sin and the resulting decision of the disciplinary council, the discipline may last from a few weeks or months to a period of years. The length is determined by the progress of the individual.

When someone has received Church discipline, their local Church leaders meet with them frequently and in confidence to provide encouragement and counsel on their repentance process. During that time, the leader will help them avoid repeating their offense and encourage them to seek personal forgiveness through the Atonement, make restitution for their mistakes and focus on completing any steps outlined for them at the time of the disciplinary council.

Church discipline is ended when another council is convened and concludes that the progress of the individual warrants a return to full fellowship.

Click here to view the complete article




Question: What happens to information gathered from a disciplinary council?

All records and evidence are destroyed following a member's successful return to full fellowship. For a few especially grave transgressions (e.g., child abuse or embezzlement) a member's record is permanently annotated. This allows their bishop to be certain they will never be in a position to harm others again.


Quotes

, "Will the discipline remain part of their Church record?"

Church Newsroom
For most disciplinary actions, no record of the discipline is retained once the person has been restored to full fellowship. Following restoration after loss of membership, a new membership record is created with the original dates of baptism and other ordinances, with no record of the loss of membership. In some cases, including domestic abuse, incest, sexual or physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, predatory activities or embezzlement of Church funds, a permanent annotation remains on the record of the individual to ensure they are never again in a position to harm another.

Click here to view the complete article




Notes

  1. 1.0 1.1 M. Russell Ballard, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings," Ensign (September 1990), 12.
  2. Discussed in James E. Faust, "Keeping Covenants and Honoring the Priesthood," Ensign (November 1993). Also in Handbook 1, 6.7.3
  3. The Council of The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, letter (28 June 2014).
  4. George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 493.
  5. This does not include abortions performed in cases due to rape or incest, or where the health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or where there is little chance that the infant would live after birth.
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