Another September Six?
This past September, Sam Young was excommunicated by the Mormon church. Young, a former Mormon bishop, had publicly criticized the Mormon church’s practice of asking minors sexually explicit questions in interviews with bishops. Young even went on a 23-day hunger strike to draw attention to the issue.
The Mormon church’s response?
Young’s excommunication was the latest in a series of high profile excommunications in recent years, including Kate Kelly, founder of the LDS Ordain Women movement, in 2014, prominent podcaster John Dehlin, in 2015, and former Bishop and podcaster Bill Reel, earlier this month.
It’s starting to look like a slow motion version of the September Six incident, when six prominent Mormon historians, theologians, and feminists were excommunicated in September 1993. (In fact, Young’s excommunication came on the 25th anniversary of the September Six.) I suspect we will continue to see more prominent Mormon voices being excommunicated over the next few years.
Forgetting the One Lost Sheep
As frequent readers of this blog know, I am a former Mormon myself. I left the Mormon church when I was 25. My wife continued to identify as Mormon and both my children were raised in the Mormon church (at least until my son came out as atheist). Over the years, I have written critically of the Mormon church on several occasions, usually when the church has done something to draw wider criticism. (I have summed up many of my issues in my post, “12 Reasons Why I Wish I Could Quit the Mormon Church All Over Again”.)
Recently, it was announced that another prominent Mormon, Gina Colvin, is facing excommunication because of her criticism of the Mormon Church on her blog, Kiwi Mormon, and her podcast, A Thoughtful Faith. Gina’s disciplinary hearing is scheduled for later this week. The outcome is not in doubt.
As someone who voluntarily left the Mormon church, what I find remarkable about all of this is that the Mormon church is deliberately pushing away people who want to be a part of it and who want to see it become better. Whether you agree with them or not, you have to acknowledge that there is something admirable about people who choose to stay in a broken church because they have faith that it can be better than it is.
The excommunication of Gina Colvin and the others shows that the Mormon church cares more about the 99 sheep than the one who has “strayed”. They are more concerned with maintaining the integrity of the institutional boundaries than caring for the souls of the people on either side of that boundary.
“For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
— The Parable of the Lost Sheep, The Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 18 (NIV)
Over 25 years of membership and another 18 years watching the the Mormon church from the periphery, I think this is maybe the most damning criticism of the Mormon church. And nowhere it this more manifest than in the Mormon practice of excommunication.
“From the perspective of LDS leadership, excommunications are necessary to protect other members of the church from whatever ‘spiritual threat’ is being posed by the ideas, words, and actions of those being disciplined. It is an exercise in boundary maintenance.”
How the Mormon Church Doesn’t Get Jesus
I had a lot of reasons for leaving the Mormon church, but at the top of my literal list was my complaint that the Mormon church really doesn’t get Jesus. On the spectrum of Pauline grace and Jamesian works, the Mormon church falls pretty heavily on the “works” side of things. Though they talk about Jesus and call him “Savior”, most Mormons really have a poor understanding of the theology of grace. (It’s not uncommon to hear Mormons mocking other Christians for believing they are saved.)
When I left the Mormon church, I really felt like the church had done me a disservice in this regard. It took my leaving the church to finally be able to experience God’s grace. Before I left the Mormon church, I had begun studying the Book of Mormon and the Bible to better understand what salvation through Christ really meant. After I left, I added 20th century Protestant theologians and Buddho-Christian mystic Alan Watts to my reading, and I discovered a whole new conception of what it means to be Christian. This journey culminated for me in an experience of what many Christians call “being saved”. I don’t think I would have ever had that experience had I remained within the bounds of Mormon Christology.
There are, of course, Mormons who find the saving grace of Jesus Christ within the Mormon church. My father-in-law was one of those. He struggled with the Mormon church for many years of his life, but in his later years he found peace in his relationship with Jesus. It was a beautiful thing to see. But I think some aspects of Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture act as obstacles to many Mormons really experiencing God’s grace.*
A good example of this is a recent post by Mormon apologist and new Patheos blogger, Christopher Cunningham, entitled, “Does Excommunication Make Sense”. Christopher defends the practice of excommunication and responds to the criticism that it is unchristian by comparing salvation to graduating from school. Basically, in Christopher’s mind, they are both something you have to work for and occasionally we children need a firm parental hand to make us stop partying and buckle down and study. This is actually the common understanding of salvation among Mormons, and it is sadly lacking in any consciousness of God’s grace.
Is Excommunication Christ-Like?
The recent excommunications by the Mormon church have prompted a debate on the Mormon channel at the interfaith hub Patheos about whether excommunication is right or wrong. I’m not going to rehash all the arguments here. (Though I do want to say that Dan Peterson needs to educate himself as to what spiritual abuse is.) But there is one I would like to focus on: The question of whether excommunication is Christian (or Christ-like).
Dan Peterson, prominent Mormon apologist and Patheos blogger, addresses this issue in his essay, “In Praise of Excommunication”, where he responds to the criticism that “excommunication is foreign to the beautiful, accepting, always-affirming message of the gentle Jesus.” Peterson acknowledges that God is love and Jesus is loving and the disciples of Jesus are those who love one another. But, says Peterson,
“let’s not forget about the Jesus who carefully braided the whip and drove the moneychangers from the temple, who called the Pharisees ‘whited sepulchers,’ who distinguished between ‘sheep’ and ‘goats,’ who spoke extensively of Hell, who warned of ‘false prophets’ who would appear ‘in sheep’s clothing’ while ‘inwardly they are ravening wolves’ (Matthew 7:15).”
I actually agree with Dan. We should not forget about the critical Jesus, the angry Jesus, the righteous Jesus.
But here’s where I think Dan misses the point. Jesus’s criticism and his righteous anger were almost always directed at the powerful and the privileged. Jesus was not a representative of the institutional religion. Jesus was a critic of the institutional religion and its representatives. Jesus’s whip lashed out, not at the widow and orphan, but at the moneychangers who were profiteering from their faith.
Jesus’s primary was not concern was not maintaining the boundaries of holiness which benefited the privileged, but breaking down the boundaries which stand between the poor and God. If Jesus were here today, I am confident we would not find him inside the Mormon church–or any other Christian church, for that matter. We would find him on the outside, associating with people who Christians call “sinners” and calling hypocritical religious leaders to account. It would be more likely that Jesus would be at the Sunstone symposium for heterodox Mormons than in a Mormon temple–and more likely that he would be at a soup kitchen than in either of those places.
No Prophet is Accepted in Her Own Church
Jesus was very much in the line of the Old Testament prophets, like Jeremiah and Amos, Ezekiel and Isaiah. (Or if you prefer Book of Mormon prophets, think of Lehi or Samuel the Lamanite.) It was these prophets who inspired the modern day prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dorothy Day. (A lot of people today don’t realize or remember that MLK was not popular before he was killed.)
Historically, prophet and priest were distinct religious callings. The priest operated within the the religious institution, maintaining it, while the prophet operated outside of it, critiquing it. In the Mormon church, these roles are melded in the fifteen men who run the church, who are called “prophets”, but do not actually fulfill a prophetic role. In reality, they function more like the high priests of ancient times, privileged men in a religious hierarchy who placed themselves between God and the people.
Historically, the prophets were the loyal opposition. But the Mormon church has absorbed the title of prophet into the church hierarchy and then actively silences all loyal opposition–at times through excommunication. The attitude of the Mormon hierarchy toward loyal dissenters was made clear by Mormon apostle Dallin Oaks in 2016, when speaking to all Mormons in the church’s general conference:
“Some of this opposition even comes from Church members. Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies—’the loyal opposition.’ However appropriate for a democracy, there is no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not.”
— Dallin Oaks, “Opposition in All Things”
A similar statement was made by Russell Ballard in a 1999 general conference. “In the Lord’s Church there is no such thing as a ‘loyal opposition,'” said Ballard. I remember that statement well, because at the time I identified myself with the loyal opposition within the Mormon church. But I took Ballard at his word, and a year later, I had my name removed from the church rolls.
In merging the roles of prophet and priest, the Mormon church has insulated itself from the prophetic critique, and in so doing, removed the impetus which drives institutions to change. A religious organization which has silenced the prophets cannot help but fall into apostasy.
What the Mormon church desperately needs is a real prophet. But most Mormons would probably be unable to recognize a real prophet, so twisted has the concept become in Mormon doctrine. As Gina Colvin explains in her recent post, “Why Not Just Resign?”, the men who run the Mormon church could never be true prophets:
“Prophets don’t come from the religious elite. They emerge from the margins, condemn the religious elite, and return to the margins when their job is done. Their title doesn’t make their words prophetic. Their words make their prophetic role uncomfortably clear. What prophets say is usually received with the fear and fury of the privileged, and relief from the underprivileged.”
Gina uses Mormon apostle Russell Nelson to illustrate the true function of a prophet. (One of the reasons Gina is facing excommunication is because of her criticism of Nelson.)
“I’ll know when Russell Nelson is being a prophet. He’ll be a prophet when he liquidates the church’s assets in order to take care of the poor and needy. He’ll be a prophet when he collapses the religious hierarchy; when he quits his job and heads to the margins from where he’ll speak to the center about its corruptions. He’ll be a prophet for the ages when he then disappears from public view without having taken a cent for his troubles.”
With this understanding of the role of prophets, it is Gina Colvin who appears more like a prophet–far more so than Russell Nelson or any of the other men who lead the Mormon church. And to paraphrase Jesus, “No prophet is accepted in her own church.” (Luke 4:24) Which is why the outcome of Gina’s disciplinary hearing this week will be no surprise.
* You might be wondering where this self-described pagan gets off talking about Jesus. The best way I can explain it is this: After leaving the Mormon church, I found Christ and was saved. I never left that experience behind. Rather, I just built on it. I explain more in my post, “Jesus Saved Me From Christianity … So I Could Become Pagan”.