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The LDS Church Handbook of Instructions defines “apostasy” to refer to members who:
- Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.
- Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop or a higher authority.
- 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.
- Are in a same-gender marriage.
- Formally join another church and advocate its teachings.
The Handbook also states that a disciplinary council is mandatory when a member is deemed to have engaged in any of these five activities.
While these criteria may seem clear and straightforward, as worded they reveal a number of ambiguities that give considerable leeway to local leadership to determine whether any of the criteria have been fulfilled, thereby triggering a mandatory disciplinary council for a church member.
Take the fifth criteria, for instance, regarding joining another church and advocating for its teachings. In an LDS context, there are clear formal procedures for joining. One is baptized and confirmed by a holder of the LDS priesthood and a unique membership record is created that is transferable through the central database in Salt Lake City to any congregation in the world. Few other religious organizations, however, have a similar central database and unique membership recording system. Many Protestant congregations, consider someone a member if they attend semi-regularly, make financial donations, and are on the email list. Formal initiation rituals are often available if desired but not required to be considered a member. Other religions simply have no formal mechanism to join, you simply adopt the identity and and try to live the teachings.
Also, what does it mean to “advocate” a church’s teachings? Is claiming belief in a doctrinal statement sufficient? What if the particular church, congregation, or religion has only a few “official” beliefs but otherwise allows a good deal of discretion for its members?
Finally, “church” is a specifically Christian term. Should we assume that, in this context, “church” means “religion” or “religious community”? If not, one could argue that converting to Judaism or Islam would be excluded from this definition of apostasy because they are not churches (technically).
Consider the following hypothetical scenarios:
- A baby’s mother is Mormon and father is Catholic. The parents agree that they will raise their child in both religious traditions. The baby is baptized Catholic and receives a Mormon baby blessing, then at age 8 is baptized in the LDS Church. Her parents regularly take her to religious services in both communities. In early adulthood, she decides that she would like to claim both religious identities and receives a Catholic confirmation, attends both churches, and publicly advocates belief in the Book of Mormon as well as the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. She regularly shares social memes with quotes from LDS General Authorities as well as Pope Francis. She regularly takes the sacrament at the LDS Church and communion at her Catholic parish.
- Same example as above, but she is raised exclusively in the LDS Church and as a young adult begins investigating Catholicism due to her father’s religious background. She decides she wants to be a part of both religious communities to honor her family’s heritage and proceeds according to the example above.
- An LDS Church member becomes less active for a couple of years. He begins to attend a local Protestant congregation but does not formally take steps to join the specific denomination. Nonetheless, the congregation claims him as a member on their roster because he attends a few times a month, makes an occasional financial donation, and participates in their activities. Nonetheless, he is more interested in advocating his political views and sports teams on social media than the specific teachings of his Protestant congregation.
- Same example as above, but he also publicly advocates for the teachings of his congregation’s denomination which include: belief in God, Jesus Christ, traditional marriage, and the Bible.
- An LDS Church member visits a local Presbyterian congregation with a friend and feels God’s spirit there. As a result, he begins to attend Presbyterian services a few times a month along with his regular LDS meetings. He fulfills his callings in the LDS congregation and also accepted a small volunteer assignment in the Presbyterian congregation. He finds that the rituals, traditions, and teachings of both communities help him draw closer to God and strengthen his faith in Christianity. After a few years he decides that both congregations are meaningful spiritual homes and so undergoes the short “re-affirmation of faith” ceremony in the Presbyterian congregation, which considers his LDS baptism a valid Christian baptism. He tells others about the happiness he feels at his LDS congregation and also the spiritual value he finds at his Presbyterian congregation. He also shares with them the ways he wishes that the LDS Church were more similar to the Presbyterian Church (USA) and vice versa.
- Same example as above, but he occasionally accepts invitations to preach a guest sermon at the Presbyterian Church, similar to a Sacrament Meeting talk.
- Same example as #5, but attends the Presbyterian congregation more often than his LDS ward, makes financial donations only to the Presbyterian congregation, and has a volunteer assignment at the Presbyterian congregation but not the LDS ward. Nonetheless, he continues to attend his LDS ward a few times a month because that is where most of his family worships, he is proud of his Mormon background and identity, and wants to stay connected to his Mormon religious heritage.
- An LDS Church member reads a few books on Buddhism and decides that mindfulness meditation would make an effective spiritual supplement to her spiritual practices. In Sacrament Meeting talks and Sunday School lessons she occasionally shares that, along with fasting, prayer, and scripture reading, the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path have helped her grow spiritually and she recommends it to others.
- Same example as above, but she stops attending LDS meetings and instead attends weekly meetings at her local Buddhist center and shares with others that Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path have helped her attain a greater degree of peace and happiness in her life. She claims Buddhism as her religious identity, but has never “formally joined” Buddhism as there is no formal conversion ritual or ceremony.
- An LDS Church member, after reading the Holy Qur’an, prays and receives a spiritual witness of its truthfulness. While not desiring to officially convert to Islam, this church member publicly advocates that Muhammad ought to be considered by Mormons to be the prophet of a dispensation and that the Qur’an should be considered canonical, supporting this claim with First Presidency statements.
- Same example as above, but he begins to identify as a Muslim-Mormon (or Mormon-Muslim) and attends both LDS church meetings as well as services at his local mosque.
For each of these examples, should the individual in question be declared an “apostate” in the LDS Church and summoned to a disciplinary council for possible excommunication? Why or why not?
Also keep in mind that in the LDS Church, excommunication means a cancellation of the person’s baptism and temple ordinances. A literal interpretation of LDS doctrine means that this person is then barred from the Celestial Kingdom, and thus God’s presence, in the afterlife. This person is also not eligible for an “eternal family” or “exaltation.” Perhaps this person be eligible to accept a posthumous proxy baptism in the Spirit World to restore his or her blessings, assuming that such baptisms are performed for members who were excommunicated but declined to be rebaptized?