Frequently a client will come into my office who has difficulty setting boundaries. For example, she may have a rule in her home that you take off your shoes at the front door, but even when she reminds her adult children to remove their shoes, they track mud all over her house. She may have a rule that people can’t smoke in her home, but her children continue to light up in the living room.

Such women work very hard to set boundaries– “If you can’t abide by the rules of my home, you are not welcome here,” but they are so afraid the children won’t come back, they often let the kids rule the roost. In the end, when such a woman fails to enforce her boundaries, she feels exploited and taken advantage of. She recognizes that her lack of backbone is not good for her, and it’s not good for her children.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has set boundaries for those who want to be a part of their organization. One of the boundaries is fidelity in marriage. Another is fidelity to Church leadership. To its credit, the Church is not afraid to enforce those boundaries, and it won’t be manipulated by the threat of leaving.

Surprising is the fact that so many are critical of the LDS Church for setting boundaries in the first place. Some are aghast that we would “kick out” a person for not abiding by the rules of the organization. I am aghast that anybody would advocate manipulation and exploitation. Why should we let our members track mud all over the carpet, and continue to invite them back?

Boundaries Are Appropriate

An activist group near my home recently campaigned to turn a public beach into a nudist beach. The City Council denied their petition, and people who come to the beach without any clothes on are kicked off the beach. Nobody criticized the City Council for enforcing their boundaries. The nudists who campaigned for a nude beach aren’t whining because their petition was denied. They asked, they were refused, they don’t get to set the rules, the organization sets the rules, they were good sports, they tried, they didn’t prevail, they wear swim suits (however small they may be).

I belong to a book group where one of the requirements is you host once a year. If it becomes too burdensome for a member to host once a year, she drops out of the book group. She finds another book group with different requirements. She doesn’t fault the book group for its requirements. Those rules work for those who choose, of their own free will and choice, to be in the group. She is free to leave if she doesn’t like the rules.

There are restaurants that have a rule, “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” We don’t condemn them for their dress code. They are allowed to “kick out” those not in compliance with their boundaries without being publicly criticized. Why does the LDS Church get so severely criticized for enforcing its boundaries–boundaries the members agree to when they join the organization!

Leaving vs. Never Joining

From a non-LDS perspective that fact that somebody chooses to leave the church should be no more shocking than the fact that they failed to join in the first place. They didn’t agree with the rules/boundaries/tenants of the religion so they choose not to join. Yawn. It happens all the time. Why, then, when somebody has been a member of the Church and they decide they don’t agree with the rules/boundaries/tenants of the religion, is it so shocking when they leave, or when they are asked to leave?

Leaving, or being asked to leave, is often the same thing because excommunication frequently occurs not simply because somebody hasn’t complied, but because they refuse to comply with the tenants of the organization. They excommunicate themselves, in a sense, when they choose not to adhere to the requirements of the organization. Why be outraged when an organization requires the members of the organization to adhere to the rules of the organization? People who get shocked when excommunication occurs, deny the Church the right to set its own boundaries.

Of course, from a Latter-day Saint perspective, it’s far more tragic to have someone leave the church than it is for them to refuse to join in the first place. We assume when someone leaves the church that at one time they embraced the guidelines, the boundaries, the rules. We are aware that along with those guidelines, boundaries and rules come tremendous blessings–life saving blessings. For someone to leave because of the rules means they also choose to forfeit the blessings, and that is tragic.

Nevertheless, we don’t look down on those who leave the church. We don’t condemn them as they might fear but we look upon them with compassion. We feel terrible for them that they have made such short-sighted choices. We mourn the potential loss of souls we treasure. Our celebration is interrupted.

Not Forced to Join

Nobody joins the LDS church because of coercion. Everybody has their free will. They don’t get “tricked” into putting on white clothes, walking into a pool of water, and allowing themselves to be completely immersed. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not like there is a big long contract with a lot of fine print, and the contract is shoved in front of their face with a sticky note that says “sign here.” It’s not that easy.  

Baptism doesn’t occur because you attended one service, got wrapped up in the excitement, and walked to the front of the building to be “sprinkled.” Baptism occurs after a series of detailed lessons, a thorough explanation as to the commitments you are making and a sit-down interview to make sure you are, of your own free will and choice, choosing to make those commitments. You know the boundaries before you join.

Mosiah invites those who have a desire to enter into a covenant. In the Doctrine and Covenants those with a desire are invited to serve. If you no longer desire to abide by the rules of the organization you have joined, you’re free to leave. Neal Maxwell asked a poignant question, why, when these folks leave, the church can’t they leave the church alone?

The answer is always the same: pride. Perhaps their feelings were hurt (their pride was hurt) and they are bitter.

  Offended members start looking for fault in the Church because they were offended, and when they criticize the Church for excommunicating them, it is not necessarily the excommunication that is so offensive, but whatever hurt their feelings in the first place: nobody came to visit when they had a premature baby, nobody appreciated them when they worked diligently in a hard in a calling, a member who did not live the gospel took advantage of them in business, etc, etc.

Perhaps when someone has been publicly critical of the church it’s too embarrassing to admit they were wrong, and therefore in justifying their criticisms, their pride propels them further and further away from the faith, like the child who has to tell one lie to cover up another lie to cover up the first lie. In order to save face, those who were offended, just like those who lost their fidelity, want the Church to be wrong. It’s simply too humiliating to admit that they, themselves, were wrong.

President Benson called pride “the universal sin.” Those who condemn the Church for enforcing its boundaries as well as those who condemn the people who chose to leave, might ponder President Benson’s advice and swallow our pride.

JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from Jacksonville, Florida. She is the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, available at