I have been studying the repentance process and was wondering, is repentance something that is individual? I have friends who committed similar sins and one received church penalties and the other did not. Does it just depend on the individual’s repentance and the inspiration received from the priesthood leader? Can one commit a serious sin and still be forgiven without church punishment if the priesthood leader doesn’t require it?
First things first… church discipline is not about punishment! At least, not in the traditional sense of retribution for wrongdoing. Church discipline is not there to shame people, or to make someone who did something wrong feel bad. Instead, church discipline is there to help someone who has committed a serious sin truly leave it behind and become worthy again to someday be in the presence of God. It also exists to help the person grow spiritually so that they will not fall to that sin again. Truly, church discipline is all about love and meeting an individual’s spiritual needs.
It is true that a bishop may provide different forms of church discipline for two people who committed the same sin and on the outside both appear to be penitent. This is because bishops pray very deeply to have the Holy Spirit when they are administering church discipline.
In 1990, M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve wrote an Ensign article called “A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings“. In the article, Ballard states that, “When a bishop learns of a transgression, usually through the confession of the member involved, he first counsels with the member. When the sin is not grievous, the bishop may decide, through inspiration, that no disciplinary action is needed. He may continue to give counsel and caution, helping the member resist temptation and avoid further transgression.” On the other hand, “the spirit of inspiration may move the Church leader to convene a disciplinary council” or place the member on informal probation.
Ballard notes that “repentance and reformation are the primary objectives of any Church disciplinary action” and therefore, depending on circumstances, “the bishop may feel that the person has done or is doing everything necessary to repent and that a disciplinary council would serve no useful purpose.”
The Holy Spirit knows what an individual needs after a major sin to be healed, to be worthy, and not to commit the sin again. As we are all unique, what one person needs can be very different from what another person needs.
So, it is actually a wonderful thing that two people can receive different types of church discipline for the same sin. It means that a loving Heavenly Father deeply desires that both people to return to His presence. He has looked into the thoughts and soul of each person, and has provided a personalized way for each person to repent that, in the long term, will help each person the most.