The 1912 course of study for priests (Aaronic Priesthood) was entitled First Steps in Church Government. Lessons focus on the basic functioning of the church organization on the personal level (“”Moral and Spiritual Duties,” “Citizenship in Church Government”), the family level (“Home Education”), the quorum level (“Priesthood and Office,” “The Lord’s Supper”) and the ward level (“Revenue for Church Government,”“Help for the Poor and Unfortunate”). It seems to be a well-organized plan for initiating young boys and men into the roles they will play in a church where lay members are responsible for all functions.
This is all very interesting to me, who despite a lifetime in the church, a Melchizedek Priesthood-exercising father (now deceased), and the filling of a full time mission, has never really felt like I had much of a grasp on the nuts and bolts of priesthood government. It isn’t clear to me exactly why I feel that way – I certainly see the functioning of the priesthood in the organization of the ward and stake, in the weekly administration of the sacrament and occasional witnessing of other ordinances, in the temple ritual. I have an academic understanding from scriptural, scholarly, and historically documented writings. But I always feel one step removed from the priesthood, as though not only do I not hold it, but I have no access to it, no involvement with it.
It seemed quite different to me as I read First Steps in Church Government, which addressed me (the reader, that is; the author couldn’t have known I would be a feminine reader, and it was easy to slip mentally into the position of one to whom this manual was written) with the intention of initiating me into a system of which I was or would become an integral part. I wonder if priesthood-holding readers can understand the oddity of this experience. It is like the through-the-looking-glass experience I have when I, Mormon to the bone, step outside of myself to explain some facet of Mormonism to a non-Mormon questioner – but it was in reverse, because I felt like an outsider temporarily assuming the role of an insider.
But I digress. The original purpose of this post was to share a very clear and detailed outline of the steps leading to and culminating in a bishop’s court (or a “disciplinary council” – is that the current jargon?). Unless we have reason to be personally involved in such a matter, our awareness mostly comes from the one-sided publicity of a few who call in the secular media for whatever purpose. An overview of the system as it is intended to function, not as it is sometimes distorted by the bitter or cynical, was very helpful. I appreciated this lesson for two reasons:
First, it includes the pre-hearing efforts to resolve problems (which include both temporal difficulties – “his kids trampled my tomatoes!” – and spiritual ones – “his affinity for Political Cause X is leading him to advocate open rebellion”). Too often, we either don’t think of arbitration as being part of the process, or one-sided press coverage brands as threatening a bishop’s preliminary attempts to counsel with a wayward member.
And second, it reminds me of a time in our cultural history when so many of the ordinary disputes of a community were carried to the bishop, not the civil court, for formal resolution. Today’s bishops probably don’t mind being relieved of much of that burden, coming as it would on top of heavy duties which cannot be delegated to anyone else on earth. But still, the existence of such courts to settle neighborly disagreements, and not only to try for church fellowship, was a marker of Mormon culture for several generations. I can be sentimental about that. I’m not a bishop.
The Peacemaker and Bishop’s Court.
The Purpose of Courts and Judicial Bodies – Their Antiquity – The Private Settlement of Disputes – Teachers’ Investigations – Procedure of the Bishop’s Court.
Courts of Justice form a very important branch of government. They exist for the purpose of administering justice and equity between man and man, by punishing the wrong doer, and protecting the life and property of the citizens from violence of others. Each government has its own system of courts and its own methods of dealing out justice. These institutions are necessary, because if men could not get justice in an orderly way, they would take such matters in their own hands. This would bring about a state of anarchy – which is a condition of no law and no government. Intelligent people the world over place a high estimate on courts, and such like organizations, because they mete out justice and apply the law in a regular, systematic, and satisfactory manner.
Of Ancient Origin. – Courts and councils for the trial of causes, and of the adjustment of differences, are of ancient date. We read of them in the time of Moses. Without doubt, some kind of tribunals existed even from the beginning. The most important court among the Jews was the Sanhedrin, or “The House of Judgment.” It was composed of seventy-one or seventy-two members, and presided over by the chief Priest, (Aaron’s successor) who was assisted by two counselors.
In the days of ancient Israel, and since then, when God has had a people and authorized servants, the head Priests of the Lesser Priesthood have taken a prominent part in the settlement of disagreements between members, and the administering of the law of God to the evildoers.
The Best Way to Settle disputes, Etc. – Sometimes men may settle their own disputes without coming to trial. This is the best of all known ways. “Let not the sun go down upon thy wrath,” was the wise counsel of Paul to the Ephesian Saints. Jesus also said, “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and he alone; if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained a brother.”
Now if this splendid counsel were followed by everyone who has difficulty with his neighbor, there would be no need of peacemakers, or of courts. Disputes thus settled are usually settled for all time.
The Teacher’s Part. – In our day the rule of the Church for members to follow who have committed offenses against each other, is to make peace privately, where the nature of the case will admit it. Failing in this they are to follow the instructions of Christ: “But if he” – the unrelenting brother – “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 neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church.”
One of the express duties of the Teachers is to act as peacemakers, and to help the brethren to be reconciled. The Teachers do not hold a trial; they hold only an investigation; and endeavor to find the real cause for dispute or angry feelings between members. Then with love in their hearts, and a desire for peace and good will, they try to bring about an understanding of the differences and to clear the way for reconciliation. When Teachers are not successful in doing this, then the matter in controversy may be taken before the Church in the ordained way; namely, before the Bishop and his counselors.
The Bishop’s Court. – This court consists of the Bishop as judge, who is assisted by his two counselors; and the clerk. The Bishop is styled a common judge in Israel.
The first steps taken toward bringing a case into the Bishop’s court is by a complaint. A complaint is a written statement made by a member of the church, charging another member for dereliction of duty, for a wrong done, or for a crime committed. The complaint is always signed by the person injured or aggrieved, or by a Teacher who knows of the offense. The person charged is given a copy of the complaint, so that he may know what he is accused of, and how to meet the charge.
In due time the bishop sends a Teacher with a summons, which is a paper notifying the accused person to come to trial, on a given day at a certain place.
The defendant, or the accused, brings with him his witnesses, if he have any. The other party, also, comes with witnesses, and whatever evidence he may have to offer.
When all the parties are present and ready for trial, the court is opened by prayer. Then the bishop reads the complaint; and asks the accused person if the charges against him are true, or not true. If he says they are true, then there is no need for further inquiry, and the Bishop states what the penalty is. If the accused says the charges are not true, either in the whole or in part, in other words if he pleads “not guilty” – then the trial goes on.
The one who has made the complaint or charge, (called the “accuser”) proceeds to show by witnesses, and otherwise, that the defendant is guilty as charged. This the bishopric patiently hears, and they also try to bring out the truth by asking questions. For the truth and the truth only, is what a court of this kind desires to know.
Next comes the accused with his defense. His endeavor will be to show that he is not guilty. His witnesses, and other evidences are also carefully examined. Witnesses for both parties are asked questions by the principals on either side. The accuser and the accused are both permitted to speak on their own behalf. After all the evidence has been brought forward that might have a bearing on the case, the Bishop may render his decision.
This he may do there and then, or at some future time. The decision of the Bishop’s court is made in writing, and the parties thereto are given a copy. The bishop then makes a report to the High Council, if the case is important. This body is a higher court, consisting of twelve High Priests, presided over by the Presidency of the Stake. Either of the parties if they are not satisfied with the decision of the Bishop, may appeal to the High Council.
The extreme penalty that a Bishop’s Court can inflict on a guilty member, is to cut him or her off the Church; except in the case of a man’s holding the Melchisedek Priesthood, this court can only disfellowship.
In the above explanation, you have been briefly informed of the methods by which disputes, differences, and the wrong doing of members, are settled in Church government. There are other tribunals of a higher order, but the Lesser Priesthood takes no official part in them. Of these you may learn something later on. It is sufficient to say here, that in the Church and government of God, there is a complete system of tribunals, so that the misconduct of any member, or any officer thereof, from the least to the greatest, may be investigated.
Church courts and my personal angst are both fair game for discussion. If you draw on notorious cases for illustration, let’s keep ’em general enough that this doesn’t turn to a discussion over any particular case. Thanks.