Dave Keller is a practicing dentist in Vancouver, WA. He has 6 amazing children and married the love of his life, Rachel, 23 years ago. He has served in many callings in the church, including as bishop and now as an early morning seminary teacher. He has more hobbies than space in his garage. Right now he’s been focusing on handgun shooting and obstacle course racing. He loves principles of leadership and enjoys enthusiastic gospel discussions that draw us closer to our Savior Jesus Christ.
I write from the perspective of an ordained but non-functioning bishop, having served for 5 years in a typical ward in Washington State in the USA and as a sinner. I love the gospel of Jesus Christ and remain very active in the Church. However, I do not speak for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nor can I be considered an authority on the doctrine of the Church. I am writing primarily to bishops seeking to understand this topic more fully.
Much has been said recently about the sacredness of the ordinance of the sacrament. The following from President Dallin H. Oaks is exemplary:
“The ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church. It is the only Sabbath meeting the entire family can attend together. Its content in addition to the sacrament should always be planned and presented to focus our attention on the Atonement and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Of all the ideas introduced in that paragraph, I call particular attention to the idea that the sacrament is an ordinance. From the ordinance section at lds.org,
“In the Church, an ordinance is a sacred, formal act performed by the authority of the priesthood…Ordinances and covenants help us remember who we are. They remind us of our duty to God. The Lord has provided them to help us come unto Him and receive eternal life. When we honor them, He strengthens us spiritually.”
Priesthood ordinances are usually broken down into two categories: saving ordinances and other ordinances. Saving ordinances have a set of requirements prescribed by scripture or modern revelation that qualify one to participate. Generally, the way they work is that a person is taught what the requirements to participate are, they make a commitment to keep those requirements and then they are interviewed by one with authority to assess their understanding, desire, and preparation to make the covenants associated with the ordinance. If approved, they then participate in the ordinance.
Other ordinances are similar but less rigid. For instance, consecrating oil, blessing the sick, or naming children do follow certain priesthood patterns but do not require an interview by one in authority prior to participation.
So where does the sacrament fit? It is not a saving ordinance, but it is very similar. There are requirements to participate, one must do so voluntarily and it is done through priesthood authority. However, unlike all other saving ordinances, one is not interviewed to participate in the sacrament ordinance and it is done repeatedly throughout one’s life for oneself, not just once.
What are the requirements for participating in the ordinance of the sacrament? One must have made the covenant of baptism and not be restricted from participating. So let’s look at that first doctrinally, and then culturally.
It is commonly understood that only those who have made the covenant of baptism are obligated/entitled to participate in the ordinance of the sacrament. Indeed, having been baptized is the primary requirement to participate in the ordinance of the sacrament. Culturally, we also allow children under the age of 8 to participate, justifying that they are not yet accountable and therefore cannot possibly offend God by so doing. However, the Savior Himself taught His Nephite disciples:
“And now behold, this is the commandment which I give unto you, that ye shall not suffer any one knowingly to partake of my flesh and blood unworthily, when ye shall minister it; For whoso eateth and drinketh my flesh and blood unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to his soul; therefore if ye know that a man is unworthy to eat and drink of my flesh and blood ye shall forbid him.” (3 Nephi 18:28-29)
What does it mean to knowingly partake unworthily? How do individuals and bishops balance, “for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Romans 3:23) with, “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v.24)?
Let’s look at the footnotes to the word “unworthy” used in 3 Nephi 18, verses 28 and 29. In verse 28, we are linked to scriptures that further teach us that we need to be worthy to partake of the sacrament. Because we are not interviewed by one in authority to participate in this ordinance, it stands to reason that this worthiness is self-determined. One scripture linked to 3 Nephi 18:28 is Mormon 9:29, which links the requirements for baptism with the requirements for partaking of the sacrament. So it is helpful to link in our minds that those entitled to participate in the sacrament should be similar to those entitled to baptism: have an understanding of the doctrine, have a desire to keep the requirements of the covenant and have demonstrated some level of commitment to those requirements. The same word “unworthy” links to a different set of scriptures in verse 29, this time to Doctrine & Covenants 46:4, which seems to promote the idea that “unworthy” refers to those who have committed sin but not repented of it yet.
Where does that leave bishops and members? In general, doctrinally these passages seem to indicate that if you are a member and you have a desire to persist in keeping the covenants you’ve entered into (all of them, not just those made at baptism) and you have not been restricted from doing so, you are entitled to partake of the sacrament.
Small tangent: as defined in the bible dictionary, repentance=change (see Repentance, bible dictionary). Priesthood key holders cannot grant repentance and while restriction is a tool used to help people to change, restriction does not grant repentance either. In other words, real change can and often does occur without the need to restrict a member’s privileges.
So, then, who should be restricted and who has the authority to do so? Let’s begin with a reminder of the purpose of church discipline: to save the sinner, protect the innocent, and defend the integrity/good name of the Church, as an organization. In reverse order, generally the Church will not be nor does it need to be defended through sacrament restriction except in obvious situations such as a generally well known and serious sin of those in positions of authority such that excommunication is likely. Protecting the innocent will also usually not be served through sacrament restriction. Therefore, from a discipline standpoint, the primary purpose of considering a restriction would be to save the sinner.
If a member feels unworthy to partake of the sacrament, he or she should decline. Having said that, careful observation during the ordinance allows a bishop the chance through the spirit to be prompted to minister to members not on restriction who choose to not participate in the ordinance. His call is to ensure they understand the purpose and significance of the ordinance, to assist them as needed through the repentance process and to also help those who are unnecessarily restricting themselves from participating in the ordinance.
Now, who should be restricted? In answering this question, three guidelines are helpful to bishops.
In my mind, the most productive way to consider restricting the sacrament center on these two ideas:
- If this person is allowed to participate in the ordinance, will it hasten his or her repentance (change, transformation) and/or deepen his or her personal connection to Jesus Christ?
- Is there any evidence of repentance and/or desire to persist in making and keeping covenants?
A second guideline comes from the idea introduced in Doctrine & Covenants 121:43: “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost” (emphasis added).
The second guideline strongly connects to the third guideline: allow God to make the decision, not you.
Consider the following scripture: when Christ first introduced the ordinance, He was with his disciples, and said to them, “with desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you,” (Luke 22:15). Paraphrasing, in essence, isn’t he say, “More than anything, I want to spend time with you. My purpose in giving you the sacrament is to give us a weekly date where we can spend time together, me reminding you that I really can change you and rescue you and heal you and forgive you and you reminding yourself that you really want me to.”
The authority to break that date, so to speak, in my opinion should remain with God. Too often priesthood leaders can either become formulaic in their administration, handling all sin and all sinners in a predetermined way, or they rush to decisions, not taking the time to include God in the rescue of His children. President Nelson’s words must constantly ring in our ears, “One of the things the Spirit has repeatedly impressed upon my mind since my new calling as President of the Church is how willing the Lord is to reveal His mind and will” (April, 2018). The decision to restrict or not restrict doesn’t need to be made immediately. If we take the time to ask our Father what to do, He will teach us.
That is perhaps the only pearl in this article but one of a truly great price. Bishops: allow God an opportunity to reveal His will. When He wants someone restricted, He will move upon you through His spirit. When He doesn’t He will not. When unsure, ask, ponder, pray and wait upon Him to teach you His will, and in the meantime, persist in loving and serving His children.
In my experience as a bishop, I have infrequently restricted the sacrament. When I have done so, it has been obvious to me through the spirit that either the person did not want to repent or that the person needed the restriction to allow them to believe that they could truly be forgiven of their sins. Sometimes weeks or perhaps even months have passed between receiving a confession and instituting a restriction. Each time I imperfectly tried in my heart to find ways to allow them the privilege of deeply connecting with Jesus Christ through participating in the sacrament and ways to limit the duration of restriction to as short of a time as possible to accomplish its purpose.
Bishops-consider the following, asking yourself, “Is this why I am considering restricting the sacrament?”:
- Culturally, you’ve seen people who have gone to their bishop and come out of the office restricted from taking the sacrament, so you assume that’s just how it works.
- Personal experiences the bishop has with the atonement in his own life, especially if he has experienced serious sin or addiction. These experiences, of course, influence how he will view such events in the lives of his flock. Going back to #1: if he looked at pornography as a youth and was restricted for a time from taking the sacrament, and now, 30 years later, finds himself on the other side of the desk, he may simply think that’s the way it’s done because that’s what helped him or what his loving and helpful bishop did for him.
- Stake culture. What gets emphasized changes as leadership changes. Usually, stake culture persists longer than ward culture. If in a stake the pattern has always been to restrict the sacrament, that idea can persist for decades. As leaders change callings, sometimes even they don’t remember or understand what started the tradition but they continue to follow it because they think they’re doing what they’re supposed to.
- Preparation. Many times bishops are completely surprised by who walks in the door and what they walk in the door and dump on him. When that happens, sometimes, in an effort to do something to help, they administer sacrament restriction almost the same way a physician might give an antibiotic: if you walk in with these symptoms, you get an antibiotic and we’ll see if that improves things. If it does, you’re a hero, even if it wasn’t needed or wasn’t the only way to address the symptoms, like prescribing it for viral strep throat. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.
- Expectations. Many come into the bishop’s office expecting to be excommunicated for relatively minor sins, like drinking a beer or looking at a pornographic website. Sometimes I believe bishops restrict the sacrament because it allows the sinner to receive the punishment they are expecting and desiring. While punishment is not part of repentance, it certainly plays a central role in too many of our lives. Giving the expectant sinner the “punishment” of no sacrament for a period of time may actually allow or accelerate their healing because without it they may constantly doubt their forgiveness or worthiness.
- Upbringing. Related to #5, if every time you misbehaved in the home in which you were raised you were spanked, as an adult you sort of expect a spanking when you screw up. If you don’t receive one, sometimes, even if it’s just on a subconscious level, you wonder if the repentance process can be completed. So many of us view punishment as a way we pay for our mistakes and naturally extend that to sins, which of course we have no capacity to pay for on our own. Nevertheless, many will still try to do so and perhaps sometimes bishops restrict the sacrament to meet that perverse but real need in their members.
As a sinner, I am grateful to have not been restricted from taking the sacrament. While I have not ever participated in sin such that my membership might be questioned, I am well acquainted with sin. I rejoice in my weekly privilege of spending time with my Savior as I remember Him and reach for Him. That weekly ordinance is foundational to the iterative process of repentance and I am grateful for how it has changed me over my lifetime.
I conclude with a quote from the bible dictionary:
Soon after Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord gave them the law of sacrifices, which included offering the firstlings of their flocks in a similitude of the sacrifice that would be made of the Only Begotten Son of God (Moses 5:4–8). Thereafter, whenever there were true believers on the earth, with priesthood authority, sacrifices were offered in that manner and for that purpose. This continued until the death of Jesus Christ, which ended the shedding of blood as a gospel ordinance. It is now replaced in the Church by the sacrament of the bread and the water, in remembrance of the offering of Jesus Christ. Sacrifices were thus instructive as well as worshipful (see Sacrifices, bible dictionary; emphasis added).
Words fail to convey the intimate connection to Jesus Christ that is possible through participating in the ordinance of the sacrament. What a blessing it is to personally spend time with the Savior of the world each week, to allow Him to cleanse us, strengthen us, and inspire us to be more true to our divine nature.
Bishops-may God bless you as you follow His direction in using this most important tool created to help bring to pass our immortality and eternal life.