Not far from my house, there’s a large tract of land that’s been set aside for extending Highland Boulevard deeper into Sandy. It’s been vacant for the 15+ years since we moved into our home, and I hope the road is never completed, because that area is where I walk my dog, and I get my best prayers in while I’m walking my dog.
None of these prayers would pass muster in General Conference. They aren’t solemn invocations offered up with eyes closed in King James English, but rather conversations a la Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sometimes they’re little more than me ranting at the sky as I look up at the mountains or, at night, a shining moon behind the clouds. Often I feel like I’m just talking to myself. But on occasion, I feel like there’s two-way communication. Because it was during one of these prayer-filled, dog-walking sky rants that I received a profound revelation from God.
I know revelation seems like a common occurrence to some Latter-day Saints, who apparently can get direction from divinity about anything and everything, like what toothpaste they ought to use. To me, my experience was anything but commonplace. I can probably count on one hand the times that I’ve had the kind of significant outpouring of light and knowledge from heaven that I would describe the way Church founder Joseph Smith described it – moments “when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you.”
There’s something very useful in that description that helps us to put the Church’s current situation in context.
As Church members continue to deal with the fallout from the reversal of a hurtful policy that, just three years earlier, was described as the product of revelation, there’s been a great deal of discussion about what it all means. And more often and not, three words come up repeatedly in these conversations. “Revelation” is one of them. Another is “doctrine,” and a third is “policy.” Yet as these three concepts are bandied about, there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on a definition of any of these three words.
For example, what’s the difference between a policy and a doctrine? The conventional wisdom seems to be that a policy can change, but a doctrine cannot. But if a policy is rooted in revelation from God, then how can it change? Doesn’t revelation make something doctrine by definition? Aren’t we told that God is unchanging? If that’s true, how can he issue a revelation in 2015 that is directly contradicted by a revelation in 2019?
Those are good questions, and, in an attempt to answer them, I want to go back to my own revelation, which came after a great deal of frustrating dog walking in the wake of the original November 2015 policy that denied blessings, baptisms, and priesthood to the innocent children of gay parents labeled as “apostates” and among the most heinous sinners on earth.
I knew, as well as I knew anything, that this policy was wrong.
That conclusion didn’t come from any earth-shattering revelation; it came from the light of Christ that, according to the Book of Mormon, is given to all people to allow us to know good from evil. I wanted God to tell me why my Church was doing something so clearly and profoundly wrong. I wanted to know how I could stay in such a Church, which, through this policy, was violating some of its own most sacred principles – the Second Article of Faith, for instance, which tells us that innocents are not to be punished for the sins of another, or the words of Christ, who told us to “[s]uffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
And after a long wrestle, I received my revelation.
“Be patient,” the Lord said. “It will all work out in the end.”
At least, that’s how I tell the story when I describe how I came to terms with this policy. But, really, that’s not the whole story. Not even close. Because those words didn’t appear in my brain as a mental telegram with each letter being typed out in some kind of cable news ticker. Indeed, the revelation didn’t come in the form of language at all. Rather, it was just as Joseph Smith had described it – pure intelligence flowing into me.
The call for patience was accompanied by a feeling of peace, an assurance that God was aware of the larger problem and of my own personal struggle with it, of God’s love for me and his patience with my doubts and frustrations. It also included a plea not to leave the Church and an assurance that, regardless of my disagreements, I should stay planted where I was and sustain the authority of leaders with whom I disagreed. It also was neither an endorsement nor a repudiation of the policy itself. And all of this was wrapped up in a sense of kindness and gentility that was antithetical to the anger and rage that, just moments before, I had been directing at the heavens during a particularly agitated dog walk.
And all this information came to me in an instant. One second, I didn’t know any of this, and in the next second, I knew all of it. Even the time I take to recount it in the ten words I usually use is longer than the time it took me to get the revelation.
This informs how I read scripture. I see all scriptural texts as attempts to express moments of pure intelligence in language, and every time you try to distill divine communication into mundane words, something will always get lost in the translation. Words are the best communication tool we mortals have, but when they’re used to describe pure intelligence from heaven, words will always be inadequate to the task.
That’s why I think the three words being used in the current conversation – “revelation,” “doctrine,” and “policy,” need to be supplemented with three additional words – “light,” “knowledge,” and, above all, “truth.”
“Truth” is the word I believe people are thinking of when they use the word “doctrine” and claim that doctrine can never be changed. Of course doctrine can be changed. Jesus spent much of his mortal ministry changing doctrines wherever and whenever he could. “Ye have heard it said of old time,” he began several injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount, following it up with “but I say unto you…” and an accompanying change in doctrine. Jesus’s enemies opposed him because he was constantly upending centuries of doctrinal teaching about the Mosaic law.
Some may pedantically argue that, no, Jesus didn’t really change doctrine, he changed policy. The Law of Moses, after all, was a lesser law which Jesus came to fulfill. But what that argument does is highlight the meaninglessness of the distinction between doctrine and policy. We believe in our policies when we teach them, and, according to the infallible Google dictionary, the word “doctrine” simply means “a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group.” We teach things; the Catholics teach things, and even the Scientologists teach things. They’re all doctrines, even though not all of them are right. As we’re warned repeatedly throughout the scriptures and even in the temple, there is such a thing as “false doctrine.” There is, however, no such thing as “false truth.”
It is truth, not doctrine, that does not change.
With that in mind, the doctrinal changes in the Sermon on the Mount make a great deal more sense. The Mosaic law taught that killing people was wrong, which is true. Jesus adds further knowledge on the subject and teaches that it’s not enough just to avoid killing; we have to avoid being angry, too. So now we teach a new doctrine, but it’s often consistent with the truth at the heart of the old one. The doctrine changes, and yet the truth does not. Instead, we have greater illumination and understanding of an unchangeable truth that is reflected in a new, richer doctrine. Light and knowledge change doctrine to provide a deeper understanding of unchangeable truths.
Which brings us back to the policy, both its establishment and revocation. We’re told that both were a product of revelation, despite the fact that they directly contradict each other. Is that even possible?
I don’t think so, no. At least, it isn’t if you are trying to argue that revelation only comes in the form of language and the words in the handbook are dictated by the Lord Himself. But I don’t think revelation is ever solely linguistic. The Doctrine and Covenants describes the “spirit of revelation” as being information told to us “in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.” I see this as a clumsy description of imparting pure intelligence in the way I received revelation while walking my dog.
In my most generous interpretation of events here, I can imagine a circumstance where the Lord communicates his concern for the children of LGBTQ families to Church leaders, and well-intentioned apostles trying to protect those children then decide that they ought to be allowed to be raised in an environment where there is no contradiction between Church teachings and what’s taught at home. They could therefore accurately say this came by revelation, but their own mistaken assumptions and human fallibility applied the pure intelligence they received toward crafting a policy that did far more harm than good.
Now I can also think of less generous interpretations, and so can you. I don’t think that’s necessary. Revelation does not override agency, and even after the imparting of pure intelligence, we are all capable of making mistakes. Despite the pain and misery this policy caused, there are still some powerful lessons to be learned here if we are willing to receive them.
First, we ought to see a renewed commitment by every member to seek revelation for themselves. You and I have as much direct access to heaven as Russell M. Nelson does. You do not approach God through any mortal man as a mediator, and God’s wisdom is something he “giveth to all men [and women] liberally,” not just apostles and prophets. That comes from James 1:5, the verse that drove Joseph Smith into the Sacred Grove, making it arguably the foundational scripture of the entire Restoration. We all lack wisdom; we should all ask of God. We don’t punt our responsibility to do that to anyone else, including prophets and apostles.
Second, we should recognize that “sustain” is not a synonym for “agree.” Sustaining President Nelson and the leaders of the Church does not require me to sacrifice my God-given and Spirit-informed conscience. What is required is a willingness to receive their words “in all patience and faith.” If our leaders were infallible, we wouldn’t really need to be patient with them. My disagreement doesn’t license me to rise up and try to oust President Nelson in some sort of coup. Just as I sustain a bishop who gives me a calling I don’t like, I remain in the Church, apply the lessons of D&C 121 with regard to long-suffering and kindness, and wait for the Lord to accomplish His divine purposes despite the weaknesses of His servants.
Third, and most importantly, this ought to be a wake-up call with regard to how we treat not just the innocent children of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters but our LGBTQ brothers and sisters themselves. Whenever I raise this issue, I get people telling me that Church doctrine is an insurmountable obstacle to any greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community. But, again, doctrine is not necessarily truth. Doctrine changes with further light and knowledge.
If you doubt that, you need only look to our doctrine with regard to homosexuality, which has undergone a significant and drastic reversal in my own lifetime. Growing up, Church doctrine was consistent with Spencer W. Kimball’s counsel in his book “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” Then-Elder Kimball called homosexuals “perverts” who are afflicted with a “curable” condition. He counseled them to pound on the door of change until their hands were bloody stumps, and eventually the door would open. Church doctrine taught that being gay was a choice, and an evil choice at that.
Now if you want to argue that, no, this was never “doctrine,” you would be wrong. This is exactly what the Church taught, and the word “doctrine” simply means “teachings.” And if you insist that doctrine is always synonymous with unchangeable truth, then you have to do all kinds of mental gymnastics to reconcile this with the fact that this doctrine is directly contrary to what the Church teaches today.
The Church now recognizes that sexuality is not a choice, and that pounding on the door will just bloody up your hands. Ironically, this is a case where the words “doctrine” and “policy” do have a significant distinction between them, because the doctrine has changed but the policy has not. In theory, we teach the idea that people do not choose to be gay, but, in practice, we still treat them as if they do. In the long run, such a logically untenable position is unsustainable. Eventually, we will have to reconcile doctrine with policy one way or the other. We need to either recognize that the Lord has a righteous purpose for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, or we need to go back to embracing the Spencer W. Kimball doctrine with generation after generation of bloody stumps.
Is there anyone who can look at this situation and argue that we have all the light and knowledge we need on this issue?
If you search all of the Standard Works, you can only find clear denunciations of homosexuality in the Law of Moses, which uses the same words to denounce gay relationships that it uses to condemn the consumption of shellfish. These days, we eat shellfish with impunity, because we don’t live the Law of Moses anymore. That doctrine has changed.
The New Testament isn’t helpful, either. Jesus says nothing about LGBTQ issues. True, there are a few references from the Apostle Paul that have been interpreted as condemnations of homosexuality, but they come without any greater context that tells us what to do with them. We ignore Paul’s recommendation to have women shut up in church, so we why are we so eager to give inordinate weight to his stray thoughts on homosexuality? Also, Paul didn’t have any problem with slavery, so I’m not sure his opinions are directly applicable to our current situation.
When we look at the scripture given for our day, we find precisely zero mentions of LGBTQ issues. Scour the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price and you will find absolutely no light and knowledge to inform our doctrine on this subject. With so little revelation to show us the truth, how can anyone believe there is no room for the doctrine to change?
The final lesson from this whole experience is that revelation generally only comes when we ask for it. The Father and the Son did not appear to Joseph until he went into the grove. Those who rigidly insist that the doctrine cannot change have missed the whole point of the Restoration. In the Articles of Faith, we are promised the Lord “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Won’t those great and important things change the doctrines we have now? Isn’t this the Church that is specifically designed to welcome greater light and knowledge rather than refuse to accept more than we already have?
I’m glad I listened to the revelation I received, and I’m glad that, at least as far as this rescinded policy goes, things have worked out as the Lord revealed to me that they would. Yet I think my personal revelation has not yet been entirely fulfilled. The Lord told me that “it will all work out in the end.” There is more to work out, and this isn’t the end. If we’re honest with ourselves and willing to accept further light and knowledge, this is a grand and glorious beginning.
In the meantime, check out the Canonizer camps below and add your own opinion on the subject. I’ve gotta go walk my dog.