Rules We Don’t Know About

Poor Wayfaring Man

My previous two posts (Confession and Polygyny?) deal with topics that are quite different on the surface, but share certain underlying concepts, namely

  1. there are circumstances in which it is necessary for an LDS Church member to approach his or her local Church leader, seeking something that only the leader can provide;1 and
  2. the Church rules governing such circumstances are usually unclear or unknown to the Church member.2

Situations like this are the norm in the LDS Church. Non-leaders are not supposed to have much (if any) access to the Church’s rules and procedures. The Church publishes a rulebook for select local leaders called the “Church Handbook of Instructions” (the “CHI”).

The CHI sets forth the Church’s official rules regarding a variety of topics, as well as the official Church doctrines under which many of those rules arise. For example, the CHI explains why Church members are disciplined by the Church3 for committing serious transgressions. The purpose of discipline is three-fold: “1. to save the souls of transgressors, 2. to protect the innocent, and 3. to safeguard the purity, integrity, and good name of the Church.”4 The CHI provides that formal discipline is mandatory for murder, incest, child abuse, apostasy, serious transgression while holding a prominent church position, a transgressor who is a predator, a pattern of serious transgressions, or a transgression that is widely known.5 Formal discipline is sometimes necessary for “serious transgression”, an abortion, or a transsexual operation.6 The concept of “serious transgression” is defined to mean “a deliberate and major offense against morality”, including, but not limited to, “attempted murder, rape, sexual abuse, spouse abuse, intentional serious physical injury of others, adultery, fornication, homosexual relations, deliberate abandonment of family responsibilities, robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, sale of illegal drugs, fraud, perjury, and false swearing.”7

When I was a 19 year-old missionary standing outside of that MTC classroom/confessional, fretting over my fate, it would have been nice to have known that “masturbation and/or viewing pornography in years past” was not included on the “serious transgressions” list. In fact, that bit of information would have probably spared me a sizeable portion of the angst and personal torment that hobbled my spirituality, not to mention my social life, during my teenage years.

But keeping Church members informed is not how the LDS Church uses the CHI. In fact, the Church zealously enforces its copyright with respect to the CHI when anybody attempts to distribute it to unauthorized recipients.8

I don’t know exactly why the Church keeps its rules such a big secret, but the effect of the secrecy is clear: (1) It gives local Church leaders an informational advantage over the rest of the flock, which creates or augments an aura of authority and wisdom; (2) it makes local Church leaders almost wholly unaccountable to the members they serve for the decisions they make, and for the quality of their leadership; and (3) the combination of 1 and 2 above leaves members in a position of subservience and vulnerability in nearly every interaction they have with local leaders (the higher-up the leader, the greater his dominance). It is a formula for maximum control over members of the Church by local leaders.

If those are the Church’s reasons for secrecy, then I get it. I just strongly disagree, on ethical grounds.9 Basic fairness demands that people be allowed to know the rules for which they are to be held accountable. Even if the Church’s policy in this regard has been adopted with the best intentions, it has the real-world effect of being unfair, oppressive, and enabling ecclesiastical abuse of powerless members of the Church (the very people the Church should be trying its hardest to protect). 



  1. When I met with a counselor in the branch presidency, I was seeking a way to be forgiven of my sins; when my mom met with her bishop, she was seeking cancellation of her temple marriage []
  2. Neither my mom nor I had a clear idea of what kind of process to expect, or what would be required of us by our Church leaders in connection with our respective request. []
  3. i.e., put on probation, disfellowshipped, or excommunicated; see CHI p. 109 []
  4. CHI p. 105 []
  5. see CHI pp. 110-11 []
  6. see CHI p. 111 []
  7. CHI p. 110 []
  8. A full copy of the latest (2006) CHI has been made available on Wikileaks, but to avoid a cease-and-desist letter from LDS Church attorneys, I won’t directly link to it. Just google it. []
  9. As an aside, the Church’s expectation that it is inappropriate for Church members to ever criticize a Church leader (even if the criticism is true) makes its policy of withholding the CHI from the members (and therefore removing a key means of formulating criticism) understandable, though cynical, unethical and self-serving. []

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