Excommunication of Mormons does not happen frequently and is a very misunderstood practice. I have been a member of the church all my life and have first-hand knowledge of how the procedure works, so I am happy to explain.
There are three reasons for the practice of excommunication: (1) It allows the individual a way to re-start in the gospel with a fresh slate, (2) It prevents the good name of the church from being smeared, and (3) It protects the innocent. I’ll expound on each of these reasons in separate sections below, as well as many other frequently misunderstood questions.
Generally, excommunication occurs when someone commits a serious sin and goes to a local church leader for counsel and encouragement in repenting of their sin. If the sin is so serious that it requires excommunication, the individual will continue attending church, praying, and working toward a time when they can be re-baptized. This process is almost always private and not made known to the rest of the congregation.
In most cases, the person who is excommunicated is a not antagonistic toward the church or those involved in the excommunication. They are people who simply made mistakes and want to be better, and are grateful for the support of the local leaders who want to see them feeling whole again. They understand that excommunication can be a long and painful process, but one that will lead them back to their Heavenly Father.
What Happens to Someone Who Is Excommunicated?
A person who is excommunicated from the church is encouraged to continue attending church. We love them, we visit them, we encourage them, we want them to be happy and to return to full fellowship in the church.
When someone is excommunicated, the promises they have made to God through baptism or other promises they have made in the temple are broken. It is as if the person was not a member of the church. For a time, they do not give public prayers or speeches in church while they are focusing on their own salvation.
I want to emphasize again that those who are excommunicated are not “disinvited” from church. They are encouraged to continue to come to church, be with all the members of the church, read the scriptures, pray, etc. Excommunication is just a formalization of what they have already done–broken their promises to God. This promise helps them to start over in the church.
Excommunication is NEVER used as any type of “shunning” or “public shaming.” In fact, bishops and other church leaders spend a tremendous amount of time helping anyone who has been excommunicated so that they can return to the fold. In all but the most extreme cases, excommunication is done privately between the individual and just a handful of local leaders.
How Does Someone Get Excommunicated?
In most cases, an excommunication proceeding begins when someone sins and talks to their bishop about their mistake to try and reconcile their mistake with God.
Most sins do not require excommunication. We are all imperfect and make mistakes. However, some sins are serious enough that they may require excommunication. For example, committing a felony crime, fornication or adultery, molestation, murder, etc. Even those who commit these sins are not automatically excommunicated. A person who is new to the gospel, or who is unmarried, or young, or who does not understand the commandments would certainly not be given the same scrutiny as a prominent church leader or an experienced member of the church.
Even those who commit serious sins are not automatically excommunicated. A person who is new to the gospel, or who is unmarried, or young, or who does not understand the commandments would certainly not be given the same scrutiny as a prominent church leader or an experienced member of the church.
When someone confesses (usually) a very serious sin to a bishop, the bishop tells the person that he will help the person to repent and to become clean again. The bishop will work with either the high council or the counselors in the bishopric depending on the circumstance to decide on the best course of action. It may be that no further action is taken and the bishop simply keeps working with the individual to help them. In other cases, the person may be put on probation for a time in which they do not pray in church or partake of the sacrament (for example) as they work through the issue. Only in the most serious cases is excommunication considered.
Excommunication Is Rarely Made Public, and Only to Protect the Innocent
In nearly all cases, members of the church will never even know if an individual was excommunicated. Excommunication is almost always a very private occurrence between local church leaders and one individual. When someone is excommunicated, that is not shared with the congregation except in rare circumstances.
When someone is excommunicated, that is not shared with the congregation except in rare circumstances. For example, if there were a situation where someone molested children and that person had contact with lots of children through the church, it would be made public so that anyone who had been hurt by that person could know the issue was dealt with.
Or, for example, if a church leader began teaching things which were not true and contradicted the doctrines of the church, that leader could be excommunicated for apostasy in extreme circumstances. In a situation like this, an announcement may be made to the congregation so that they would not be confused by the conflicting teaching.
Excommunication is never used as any type of public shaming AT ALL. In all but the most extreme cases, it is dealt with privately between the individual and a handful of local leaders.
Excommunication Allows the Individual a Way to Re-start in the Gospel
When a person is baptized, they make promises with God to obey his commandments and to serve Him to the end. They understand that these are solemn obligations to become a new person.
We all make mistakes and fall prey to sin. None of us is perfect. However, some sins are more serious than others. Murder, for example, is obviously far more serious than a white lie.
At some point, an individual may have strayed so far from the promises made to God that their salvation is in serious jeopardy. God loves all of us–no matter how far we have strayed. In these circumstances, He has provided a way back–through re-baptism and re-introduction to the gospel.
Without any exception, every single person who has been excommunicated is welcomed back to church with open arms. We want to encourage them to make the changes necessary in their lives so they can be re-baptized and welcomed back to the fold. God will never give up on a soul who desires to be saved.
How Long Does and Excommunication Last?
This entirely depends on the circumstance. It may be a period of many many years, or it may be much shorter. However, excommunication is not done lightly, so it generally takes some time for the person to come back to being in a better place with God and ready to promise service to God through baptism again.
Does the Bible Teach About Excommunication?
Yes. Actually, there are a number of Bible verses showing that the ancient church. Here are just a few examples:
- Matthew 18:15-18 – “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone…But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established…And if he shall neglect to hear them…let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”
- 1 Corinthians 5:11 “But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.”
- Leviticus 18:29 “For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be cut off from among their people.”