Saturday, July 07, 2012

Forgiving the Excommunicated and Disfellowshipped

The church's topic study page for "forgiveness" includes a link to a talk by Elder Theodore Burton in 1983 on the subject of forgiving those who are working through the process of church discipline. This is a topic I don't recall ever having heard addressed in general conference in my adult life. He had some really profound stuff to say. All emphasis added by me.
To teach people to overcome sin and change their lives for the better is the sum and substance of Christian service. We must do everything in our power to help sinners to change their lives for the better. Otherwise, as the scriptures warn us, we will have to shoulder their sins ourselves. Our obligation is to teach and help them, and the sinner’s obligation is to listen and learn. He will have to bear the whole burden himself if he refuses. But regardless of his present attitude, we must never abandon him nor think his reformation is hopeless. There is hope for everyone, and we must never cease trying to help people understand that through the atonement of Jesus Christ not only the sins of mankind in general but also their personal sins can be forgiven.
I've struggled with this myself--to forgive and forget when people in the church who know better commit serious sin. One of Elder Burton's responsibilities was to prepare the materials for the First Presidency about people who were seeking to be rebaptized into the church after having been excommunicated. Some of those materials included letters from people who had been harmed by the transgressor. Sometimes very seriously wounded, in fact. 
One thing causes me great concern as I read letters from those who have been injured. I am concerned with the feeling of resentment and hatred some individuals have expressed against the spouse that betrayed or abused them and their children. ...Some individuals have expressed such resentment against a former spouse that they write that nothing that spouse could ever do could right the wrong he or she committed. They insist they can never forgive a spouse for the pain and suffering that spouse has caused.

A person with that attitude can hardly be called a follower of Jesus Christ. Even of those who were so wicked they crucified their Savior, he said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34.) So, when Peter asked the Lord how often he should forgive a person who sinned against him, “Till seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” (Matt. 18:21–22.) People can and do change, and our duty is to forgive them.
Ouch. That is a pretty blunt statement I've highlighted in bold above. He is warning us that, no matter how seriously someone has sinned against us, their eternal debt is not to us but to their Redeemer. Jesus paid the price for their sins and it is He who must decide when forgiveness is appropriate.

I don't believe he is saying that people are not expected to pay their debt to society. One who abuses his family may suffer the punishment of the law, perhaps evening serving time in jail. But in our hearts, we must not image that we can deny them forgiveness without poisoning our own souls.

This is also not to say that we should institutionally forget about those who have committed past crimes. Especially when children are at stake, the church keeps a record of such offenses so that those people are never placed in a position in the church where they will be alone with children. Far from representing a failure to forgive, this policy helps to shelter previous offenders from a situation that may present them with a challenging temptation. It is a policy of mercy and wisdom.


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