In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), a disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical trial during which a member of the church is tried for alleged violations of church standards. If a member of the LDS Church is found guilty of an offence by a disciplinary council, he or she may be excommunicated or their church membership may be otherwise restricted. Disciplinary councils are also referred to unofficially as church courts.
- 1 Purposes
- 2 Structure and procedures
- 3 Qualifying offences
- 4 Possible outcomes
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
According to the LDS Church, the purposes of its disciplinary councils are to:
- save the souls of the transgressors;
- protect the innocent; and
- safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church.
Structure and procedures
Ward disciplinary council
Most disciplinary councils are convened by a bishop of a ward. In such an instance, the council is composed of the bishop and his two counselors. The ward clerk will also be present to take notes of the proceedings. After hearing all of the evidence in the case, the bishop and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the bishop has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
Stake disciplinary council
A stake disciplinary council is convened by the stake president in instances where it appears that a holder of the Melchizedek priesthood has committed an offence which may result in excommunication or when the subject is a member of a bishop's immediate family. In such instances, the council is composed of the stake president, his two counselors, and the twelve members of the stake high council. After hearing the evidence in the case and the submissions of the high councilors—one half of whom speak on behalf of the accused—the stake president and his counselors are encouraged to make a joint unanimous decision on the outcome. However, the stake president has the final say and can theoretically make a decision over the protest of either or both of his counselors.
Mission disciplinary council
A mission president can convene a disciplinary council to try a full-time missionary in his mission or a member in a district of his mission. He can also authorize branch or district presidents in a district to convene disciplinary councils.
Common Council of the Church
If the need arises to convene a disciplinary council for the President of the Church or one of his counselors in the First Presidency, the Common Council of the Church must be convened by the church's presiding bishop. The Common Council is made up of the presiding bishop and his counselors and twelve other high priests selected by the presiding bishop. The Common Council has only been convened twice: In August 1838, after the return of Zion's Camp, the Council formally convened for the first time to consider charges made by Sylvester Smith against Joseph Smith, Jr., who was eventually cleared. In September 1844, Presiding Bishop Newel K. Whitney convened a Common Council which excommunicated Sidney Rigdon, who was the senior surviving member of the First Presidency after the death of Joseph Smith.
The council begins by the presiding officer stating the reported misconduct and asking the accused person to admit or deny it. If the person denies the misconduct, the presiding officer or a designate presents the evidence of the misconduct. Evidence may be presented in the form of written or oral statements by witnesses or other documents. An accused person's previous confession cannot be used as evidence in a disciplinary council without the member's consent. The accused member is given a chance to question the witnesses against him or her. After the evidence against the accused is presented, the accused is permitted to present evidence in response. The accused can comment on the evidence and make any other statement he or she wants to make. All witnesses and the accused may also be questioned by any member of the disciplinary council. No witness is placed under oath. Because the disciplinary council is an ecclesiastical court, rules of evidence that govern domestic courts do not apply. The church has instructed leaders that "procedures in a disciplinary council must be fair and considerate of the feelings of all who participate."
If the accused person admits to the conduct in question, no evidence is presented before the council.
Once a decision has been reached by the disciplinary council, the decision is announced to the accused person and the presiding officer explains the conditions that are imposed by the decision. The accused is also informed of his or her right to appeal the decision of the council. The decision of the disciplinary council is not announced in a public church meeting unless the case involves (1) the preaching of false doctrine, (2) a transgressor who is a predator, or (3) "other flagrant transgressions", such as participation in plural marriage, "cultist teachings to attract a following", or ridicule of church leaders.
An accused member may appeal the decision of the disciplinary council within 30 days of the decision being made. Appeals of a ward disciplinary council are made to the stake disciplinary council (i.e. the stake president, his two counselors, and the high council). An appeal of the decision of a stake disciplinary council or a disciplinary council convened by a mission president is to the First Presidency of the church. An appeal of a decision of a disciplinary council convened by a branch president or a district president in a mission is to the mission president. The body hearing the appeal may vary the decision of the council in any way or let the original decision stand.
The proceedings of the disciplinary council are summarized on a Report of Church Disciplinary Action form. This form is sent to the office of the First Presidency where the information it contains is permanently stored. It is also reviewed by the body hearing the appeal if an appeal is made.
The membership record of a member that is disfellowshipped or placed on formal probation is updated to note the status of the member. If the member changes congregations while under church discipline, the membership record will inform the new ward or branch leadership of the disciplinary action. After church discipline has ended the membership record will again be updated to remove notice of the disciplinary action. The membership records provided to ward and branch leaders normally do not contain information regarding past discipline; however, a membership record is annotated when a person has been disciplined for incest, sexual or serious physical abuse of a child, plural marriage, an elective transsexual operation, repeated homosexual activities by adults, embezzlement of church funds or property, or other conduct that, in the church's view, "threatens the well being of other persons or of the Church." Annotations may be removed from a membership record if a stake president makes a request to do so and the First Presidency approves the removal.
Stake presidents are permitted to request records of past discipline of members of their stake from the office of the First Presidency. Bishops may request records of past discipline of members of their ward.
In the case of excommunication, the excommunicated person is removed from church records.
When a disciplinary council is mandatory
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council is mandatory when evidence suggests that a member of the church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the church:
- Murder: the "deliberate and unjustified taking of human life". The church does not classify killings performed by police or soldiers in the line of duty as being murder. It also does not classify abortion as murder.
- Incest: defined as "sexual relations" between a parent (or grandparent) and a natural, adopted, or foster child or a stepchild. It also includes sexual relations between siblings.
- Apostasy: refers to members who "repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders" and also includes those who repeatedly present information as church doctrine that is not church doctrine and those who repeatedly follow the teachings of apostate sects or those who formally join another church. Merely failing to attend church meetings does not qualify as apostasy.
- Serious transgression while holding a prominent church position : "serious transgression" is defined as "a deliberate and major offense against morality" and includes "attempted murder, rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, sale of illicit drugs, fraud, perjury, and false swearing." "Prominent church position" includes the positions of area seventy, temple president, mission president, stake president, patriarch, and bishop.
- Transgressor who is a predator
- Pattern of serious transgressions (as defined above)
- Serious transgression (as defined above) that is widely known
When a disciplinary council may be appropriate
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that a disciplinary council may be appropriate when evidence suggests that a member of the church may have committed any of the following offences against the standards of the church. Whether or not a disciplinary council will be held will depend on the facts of the situation and is generally left to the discretion of the bishop or stake president.
- Serious transgression (as defined in the section above)
- Abortion: a disciplinary council may be held for any member who submits to, performs, encourages, pays for, or otherwise arranges an abortion. However, councils are not held for persons involved in an abortion if the pregnancy resulted from rape or forcible incest, if the life of the mother is in jeopardy, or if it is shown that the fetus has severe defects which will not allow it to survive the birth.
- Transsexual operation
When a disciplinary council is not appropriate
The LDS Church has instructed leaders that disciplinary councils are not appropriately held to resolve or deal with the following circumstances:
- Failure to comply with some church standards, such as the Word of Wisdom, payment of tithing, attendance at church meetings, or fulfilling church callings or assignments
- Business failure or nonpayment of debts
- Civil disputes between two or more members
- In the case of a member voluntarily confessing a serious transgression (as defined above) that "was committed long ago".
A disciplinary council may reach one of four possible outcomes:
- No action. This is the result when the disciplinary council determines that no offence has taken place. However, even if it is determined that an offence did occur, the council may impose no formal discipline and instead give "cautionary council" or recommend consultation with the member's bishop for caution or counsel.
- Formal probation. This action temporarily restricts or suspends a member's privileges of church membership in the way specified by the council. Possible actions could include "suspending the right to partake of the sacrament, hold a church calling, exercise the priesthood, or enter the temple."
- Disfellowshipment. A person who is disfellowshipped is "still a member of the Church but is no longer in good standing." A disfellowshipped member may not hold a temple recommend, serve in a church calling, or exercise the priesthood. A disfellowshipped member may attend public meetings of the LDS Church, but may not give a sermon, teach a lesson, offer a public prayer, partake of the sacrament, or vote in sustaining church officers. However, disfellowshipped members may pay tithing and fast offerings and continue to wear the temple garment. If the disfellowshipped member expresses repentance and abides by the conditions imposed upon him or her, disfellowshipment usually lasts approximately one year. Only a reconvened disciplinary council can remove the condition of disfellowshipment. Disfellowshipment is considered a relatively severe action which is adequate for most serious transgressions.
- Excommunication. An individual who is excommunicated is no longer a member of the LDS Church. All of the restrictions of the disfellowshipped member also apply to excommunicated individuals. In addition, an excommunicated person is not permitted to pay tithing or fast offerings or wear the temple garment. Excommunication is the most serious sanction a disciplinary council can impose and is generally reserved for only the most severe offences. Excommunication is mandatory for murder and is almost always required for incest. Excommunication may also be appropriate for members who have been disfellowshipped and have not repented. Excommunication almost always lasts at least one year; only a reconvened disciplinary council may approve an excommunicated member for readmittance to the church through baptism.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.1.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.4.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.1.
- Doctrine and Covenants 107:73–76.
- These twelve could be the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but there is no requirement that the apostles be selected.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.9.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.10.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.11.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.13.3.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.13.4.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.9.3.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.7.3.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.7.2.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.7.1.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.10.5.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.9.1.
- LDS Church (2010). Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops (Salt Lake City, Utah: LDS Church) §6.9.2.
- Russell M. Nelson, "A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings", Ensign, September 1990
- Theodore M. Burton, "To Forgive Is Divine", Ensign, May 1983