Excommunication part 2: "If I am repentant, is Excommunication necessary? I'm willing to change, I'm ready to change, so why isn't being disfellowshipped enough?"
First, I want to dispel a rumor about excommunication. As far as I know, there is no list of things a person might do that will trigger an automatic excommunication. There certainly are things that make it more likely, however there are always many factors that go into a council's decision including how repentant the individual is and what evidences he can provide that he has changed and turned his life away from sin. We have to remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about punishment. It is about compassion. The goal of every council is to help the member draw closer to their heavenly Father and take advantage of the atonement of Christ. The men in those councils carry a heavy responsibility as they administer the justice and mercy of the kingdom.
The church seems to have changed its stance in recent years on why and when an excommunication is favored over being disfellowshipped. As a former Bishop I witnessed this change first hand and felt a real tenderness in this shift. But, to our great sadness, many of our excommunicated brothers and sisters simply never return to activity. Their reasons for inactivity may result from embarrassment, humiliation, loss of testimony, the struggle to recover from addiction and sin or any number of things. It’s my opinion that the church might have felt that they were doing some of these good saints a disservice by cutting them off from membership altogether. When they become excommunicated, their connection to the church may have felt severed and in that loss of connection came a lack of motivation and an increase of temptation from the adversary.
On the other side, those who are disfellowshipped maintain their membership. They have a lifeline of hope and a connection to support. They keep the gift of the holy ghost and are able to rely on his assistance when they are worthy of his influence during this difficult journey. I have no data to back up my assumptions but I would guess that there is a much higher level of retention with fewer excommunications.
That is not to say there aren't cases in which excommunication is necessary. Obviously there are. I am evidence of that. One could spend hours contemplating why this case ended in excommunication and that one ended in disfellowshipment. But, this is both a fruitless and useless waste of time. The reasons are so varied that trying to dissect them is foolishness. Each council is taken case by case and done completely in connection with the spirit. It comes by way of a great deal of discussion and prayer, weighing what is best for the individual.
My case was one such case. I lived with a pornography addiction most of my life. I lied to cover it up not just once but hundreds of times. I accepted assignments that I was not worthy of. And I ultimately committed adultery and broke the covenants I had made to my wife and my Father in Heaven. I believe my council could have gone either way if those were the only facts. But my good stake president and his counselors knew that this had been a plague in my life for more than a few months or years. They knew that I did not simply wake up one morning and trip into an affair. They understood that its root was a dark and corrosive addiction that had plagued me for most of my existence on this earth. And so after over an hour of private prayer in the stake president's office, they emerged with the decision of excommunication. I could not have been more grateful to hear those words. I almost think that it would have been a disappointed to have been disfellowshipped.
If I were to ask my stake president to share with me the process of the council, I imagine he would say something like this.
1. I met with the High council prior to your arrival and shared with them the very basics of your transgression.
2. You were invited to join us and I asked you to share in your own words what had happened, how you felt you got here, and where would you like to see your life moving forward.
3. I allowed the High Council to ask you questions, to which you answered honestly.
4. Two of the brethren were given the responsibility to restate your words to make sure that we all understood properly and that there were no misunderstandings.
5. We dismissed you and then spent 20 minutes discussing their thoughts, concerns, and love for you.
6. The stake presidency dismissed ourselves into the Office and spent the next hour in discussion and prayer. We went back to the Lord several times seeking his guidance.
7. After feeling confirmation of our decision we returned to the council and shared with them our decision and asked for a sustaining vote.
8. We invited you back into the room and shared with you the decision of the council.
This is the process. This is how a council works.
At the end of my council I was invited back into the room. As I sat at the end of that large intimidating conference table next to my Bishop, who had come to be my advocate and support, I looked around and realized I was in a room full of friends. The decision of the council was announced and I was given a series of instructions to live by over the next year or more. We concluded with prayer. I stood to exit the room… and was swamped by brethren who came to embrace me with tear filled eyes and whispering words of love and compassion. This was going to be a rebirth.
In a post council visit I asked my stake president, what was the deciding factor? He said, (I am paraphrasing his words) “We really struggled. We really truly wanted to err on the side of compassion and if possible only have to disfellowship you but we just didn't feel comfortable with that decision. So we went back to the Lord over and over trying to understand the conflict we felt. Then the first counselor offered an insight that helped us understand why the Lord needed excommunication for you. He Said, "Do you remember the story of Joseph Smith's leg when he was a boy? It was riddled with infection. The Dr. recommended a course of medicine at first but he could not guarantee that the infection would be completely eradicated and there was a chance it would flare up again. Then he said that there was a treatment that he could offer. It required opening up his leg and cutting out all of the disease. It needed to be rooted out completely in order to allow the leg the best opportunity to heal. Well, Brother Arnold is just like that diseased leg. We can't just treat his disease with an ointment. The infection has run far too deep and for too long for that. He needs to have the disease completely cut out. Excommunication, in this case, is his best chance to heal.”
With that, they had received both their understanding and their decision. And they were right. Excommunication was the right decision for me. Here's why:
1. I had filled my life with so many toxins over the years I began to believe there would be no way for me to recover. I felt my soul was lost. My eternity was taken from me. Excommunication represented a way to change that mind set. Only a complete loss of everything would help me to see an open door that was waiting for me off in the distance. And for the first time in my life, I wanted to walk through that door completely and totally worthy to do so.
2. Baptism is a physical representation of the spiritual rebirth I have been experiencing. So deep is the corrosion of one who has let themselves degenerate from pornography to lust to adultery, that although the process of repentance can cleanse me from my sins, I also needed this physical act to show to my wife, my leaders, my Savior and myself that I am truly willing to take upon me the name of Jesus Christ and to stand as a witness of Him and His Atonement.
Excommunication is not a punishment but a blessing. Those who see it for what it is know that it is not exile but instead, the death of a broken, sin filled life that can be used, if we choose, as an opportunity to truly be Born again.