Earlier this year, Bryce Cook published the article “What Do We Know of God’s Will For His LGBT Children? An Examination of the LDS Church’s Position on Homosexuality”, which discusses the logic and history on Mormon LGBT views and raises the question whether a revelation accepting gay marriage could ever be possible.
The most important event in the 1970’s for the LDS Church is no doubt the 1978 revelation that President Spencer W. Kimball gave, announcing that black members of the church could receive the priesthood. A lesser known event, but you could argue it was the second most important in the 1970’s, was five years prior in 1973 the publishing of the article “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview”. In this article, Lester Bush, laid out a very detailed history of how this doctrine came about and gave point by point logic refuting many of the common assumptions on the doctrine. The result was a very strong argument that the LDS position on black members had no strong theological standing and had very likely been passed from one generation to the next by well-intentioned but misinformed Church leaders. President Kimball’s grandson later produced his grandfather’s personal copy of this article with red pen notes all through the margins and said that this article had a huge impact on his grandfather. I believe this article by Bryce Cook has the potential for just as much of an impact on the church.
I strongly encourage you to read Brother Cook’s article, but I will do my best here to summarize the important points.
What is Doctrine?
*I’m using some of Brother Cook’s logic here, but this section is mostly my own injection to introduce the topic*
Ask 10 members what is official doctrine of the Church, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers.
Joseph Smith said:
The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.
We all agree on the very, very basic. But after that, it starts getting confusing very quickly.
Elder Christofferson attempted to clarify how we define doctrine in a conference talk in 2012. Here is my list of important bullet points from this:
- doctrine is what is taught by living prophets and apostles
- but just because it’s taught it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is doctrine
- doctrine doesn’t change, it is absolute truth from God, but policies and practices do change
- our understanding of doctrine does change, ie sometimes apostles and prophets teach “non doctrine” in error
Bruce R. McConkie said this about the possibility of Church leaders teaching incorrect doctrines.
I do not know all of the providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality.
I’m OK with this. I think we as church members have a responsibility to accept the teachings of the Church as taught by living prophets and apostles. We know the core message is true. But on the finer points, we should never be surprised if there are revelations and clarifications that show us that what we previously accepted as doctrine was not always perfect. As members of a true and living church, we know that’s how it works.
Back to the anecdote of Pres. Kimball being impacted by the Lester Bush article…we sometimes find it troubling or lacking in faith to talk about the evolution of doctrine and revelation with such scrutiny. Some members might have a view of revelation that if the prophet reveals something, it’s because the Lord has directly revealed it to him, with no prompting or asking or any other impact from exterior issues. Some of us might imagine God coming down from heaven and grabbing the prophet by the neck to get his attention. And I believe that’s possible. But we know this is not how revelation has typically occurred historically. Joseph Smith didn’t think about asking about the priesthood until he was prompted by reading the account of Christ in the Book of Mormon. The Brother of Jared found a solution and then went to God to bless it. Peter received the revelation to take the gospel to the Gentiles in a dream. But it was his long standing disagreements with Paul over the issue that had the idea percolating in his mind. The 1978 revelation was a result of decades of prayer and study and discussion of the issues. When Pres. Kimball received the revelation on black members, there were two equally important factors. 1) a priesthood receptacle that was studying out the matter, actively asking God for an answer, and prepared to receive an answer 2) of course, the Lord, who revealed the doctrine. Both were required to make that revelation happen.
So to answer the questions:
What is doctrine? Absolute truth from God revealed to prophets which never changes
Are things taught by prophets and apostles that are not doctrine? Yes, but we should assume and treat them as doctrine.
How do we know if a teaching is doctrine? We assume everything taught by living prophet and apostles is doctrine, but we have no way to know for sure. The only way to know is to go 100, 200, or 10,000 years into the future and see if it is still being taught.
Can something currently taught as doctrine by prophets and apostles later be changed? Yes, and it has. In those cases, further light and knowledge has shown a prophet that prior teachings were incorrect. It’s not our practice to “call out” or embarrass a prior prophet. Some people expect us to apologize for things that prior prophets and apostles have said. We don’t typically do that. But it is implied that we are acknowledging mistakes have been made.
Some examples of teachings taught as doctrine that later were reversed
Bryce goes into good detail showing some examples of these. Many of these were based on tradition and assumed to be doctrine by prophets.
- Women are not to speak or pray in church meetings.
- Suicide is equivalent to murder.
- Position on slavery
- Belief that black people inherited a curse from Cain and Ham.
- Birth control is immoral.
- Certain sex acts are never appropriate even between married people
- Proper length of garments and when and how they should be worn
- Evolution is a heresy.
It’s interesting to look at the history of these ideas, how they became “doctrine”, how understanding on these first seemed to come to humans by secular basis, ie through science or historical understanding or social acceptance of certain ideas. Then a prophet sought revelation from God and changed how the Church was teaching on the subject. We don’t view these as doctrinal changes. We view these as misunderstandings that were clarified by God through a prophet.
Some LDS authoritative perspectives on LGBT+ issues have already changed
The church has changed already on LGBT+ related issues…a lot. This implies more change should be expected. What will it be? That’s impossible to predict. But what we can easily assume there will be more change. Some changes:
- Is homosexuality a choice?
- What causes homosexuality?
- Is homosexuality curable?
- What is a sin? Homosexual attraction? Or acting upon it?
- Counseling gay members to marry and endure in a heterosexual relationship
- What is the desired path for someone with homosexual attraction?
Please read how Bryce goes through each of these and shows how prophets and apostles have taught certain things on these points and how they have changed.
Theological argument against gay marriage is unclear and perhaps weaker than assumed
The Old Testament condemns homosexuality. However, this is only mentioned in the section of the Bible that goes on in esoteric detail on Law of Moses items, many of which have long been dropped and frankly are pretty ridiculous. ie rules related to menstruating women, extremely specific dietary restrictions, etc.
Jesus never addressed gay marriage or what gay people should do related to relationships.
The Book of Mormon, meant for our day and considered the most correct book of scripture, never addresses gay marriage or sexual activity.
The New Testament briefly mentions homosexuality. Paul condemns it. But it’s a brief passage with little clarification, and many people interpret his condemnation of it not against gay marriage and relationships in general, but the specific activity of homosexual promiscuity and prostitution, which was how gay behavior was practiced at the time.
The nature of the sex. *warning sexually explicit language to follow in this paragraph* For centuries, Judeo-Christian morals implied that all sex acts outside of vaginal sex were considered deviant and sinful. Homosexual activity had always been associated with non-vaginal sexual activity. And those acts were considered inherently immoral whether they be between a man and woman or between couple of same sex. As late as the 1970’s, the Church was counseling against these sex acts among married people. There was even a controversy for a while where leaders were asking members in temple recommend interviews whether they engaged in these sex acts. That was a short lived experiment. It’s since been clarified that what a married couple does in the privacy of their bedroom is their own business. No sex acts between married couples are now considered sinful. 40 years later, this almost seems comical to young people who didn’t live through it. But we see how much prior misunderstandings have influenced church teachings and practices. Now that this is all changing so quickly, we must reconsider how this affects our views of gay marriage.
Much of the logic behind the rightness of heterosexual sex and marriage and wrongness of homosexual sex and marriage has to do with the Lord’s commandment to multiply and replenish the Earth and the identifying as the purpose of sexual activity to be primarily for the purpose of procreation. Gay marriage and sexual activity obviously can’t result in procreation, so it is assumed to be wrong. However, it can be strongly argued that an equally important purpose of sexual activity is to express love and intimacy within a relationship. Since the church has rescinded it’s practice forbidding birth control, and since couples with no possibility of having children are allowed even encouraged to have a healthy sexual relationship, we have a different understanding of the proper view of sexual relationships within marriage.
In this section, Bryce makes an argument that gay marriage should be viewed as equally valid as heterosexual marriage. My gay friends won’t be happy with my assertion here, but I disagree. I think it’s fine to view heterosexual marriage as the priority and the model. Maybe I’m relying on old fashion standards and information, but it’s hard for me to go all the way on this, I guess. My personal view is that marriage between a man and woman is the ideal and the best case for raising children. I also believe couples shouldn’t divorce. But we allow for divorced people, single people, etc, to serve and function in the church and find the right path for them. And gay members should have a path as well. I think it’s very possible to reconcile the Proclamation on Family as the ideal, and then allow for other relationships and possibilities as alternate and acceptable paths.
Celibacy. Bryce makes a very salient point on celibacy. Many other churches have ministers who take celibacy vows. We have seen how easy this can backfire. We often have distinguished ourselves from other religions on this matter, stating emphatically that we do not believe any human should ever take a celibacy vow. Single LDS are expected to be celibate. But this is never a lifelong vow. They can marry. They’re not required to look ahead at a long life of celibacy and no hope for romantic relationships. Since we have moved away from a position that gay members can change and live heterosexual lives and marry, we now have put ourselves in a position of supporting a celibate life for gay members. This is a new position. It hasn’t been that long that we’ve made this change. But certainly this is not a long term position we can hold before reconciling this logical inconsistency.
Opinions on gay marriage are changing rapidly. In 2001, Americans opposed gay marriage by margin of 57% to 35%. In 2017, that has flipped with 62% for it and 32%. Even among religious people, Americans favor gay marriage. The major factor appears to be education. Adults with high school degree or less of education are 56% more likely to oppose gay marriage than college graduates.
Mormons are one of the few religious groups that still oppose gay marriage. In a 2016 study, Mormons opposed gay margin 55% vs 37% support (for comparison Catholics were 62% in favor and mainline Protestants were 63% in favor). But the change in just one year from 2015 to 2016 for Mormons is staggering. The opposition to gay marriage dropped from 66% in 2015 to 55% in 2016 in just one year.
What has changed?
I’m not a sociologist, but here is my theory. I think it’s primarily due to a person having a close, personal connection with a gay person.
20 years ago and prior, gay people were not coming out of the closet as frequently, especially in the Mormon church. Few people had a brother or a child that was gay. Further, there were very few examples and positive role models for gay marriage. Most people’s perception of gay sexual activity was that it was done promiscuously and irresponsibly.
In the last 20 years for society at large and especially the last few years within Mormon society, the social cost of coming out as gay have dropped enough that many people are now feeling comfortable coming forward. Now, gay people are not pushed aside to the dark corners of the world to act out their sexual desires and needs. They can pursue loving relationships and marriage like the rest of us. And what we are observing is that when 20 years ago it was rare, now it’s somewhat common to have a close connection with a gay person. And when one empirically observes the situation up close, often they change their mind about what is the best course for a gay person, ie whether to fight it or suppress it or whether to accept themselves and pursue a loving relationship. I believe that’s why those numbers are changing so rapidly.
Further, the support for gay marriage among young people is about double the rate of the older generation, per Jana Reiss’ study. That further cements my theory about the correlation between support for gay marriage and whether one has a close person that’s gay, because a higher percent of our millennial kids have a close friend that’s openly gay.
<end of my soapbox and beginning of Bryce Cook’s arguments>
Bryce references a few studies done both within the Mormon world and outside that is looking at this data from a scientific perspective but mentions that these studies are new and critics are pointing out methodology and data sufficiency issues, so he focuses on his personal experience and anecdotes. These are his observations of hundreds of gay LDS, being heavily involved in this community since his son came out as gay 13 years ago.
Impact of gay LDS resisting the acceptance of themselves as gay and denying themselves a loving, romantic relationship:
Early stages (acknowledging being gay/same-sex attracted)
- Extreme guilt and self-loathing (even when living church standards)
- Depression and despair with occasional suicidal thoughts
- Extreme religiosity and scrupulosity (perfectionism and unhealthy obsession with righteous living and rule keeping in hopes of changing or proving worthiness)
Later stages (realizing sexual orientation isn’t changing)
- Periods of depression and despair with suicidal thoughts, sometimes leading to suicide
- Social/emotional detachment, inability to form relationships with others
- Stagnation, apathy, hopelessness
- Overcompensation, perfectionism, overachievement
- Obsessive/compulsive behavior associated with pornography and masturbation made worse by feelings of shame, worthlessness and hopelessness
- Living in a perpetual cycle of shame trying to suppress innate sexuality and live according to the church’s standards but always falling short (periodic hookups, pornography, etc.)
- Loss of faith, anger and bitterness against the church and God
- Vast majority leave the church to preserve emotional and mental health
- Extreme guilt and self-loathing (even when living church standards
This is heartbreaking. If I had a gay child, I worry I wouldn’t be as patient as Brother Cook. I’m grateful for the people who are taking such a patient approach with the church on this issue. I hope we change fast enough to minimize the damage to these good people suffering with this.
In contrast, these are the fruits Brother Cook sees in those that have made peace with their inability to “fight being gay”, and have pursued healthy loving relationships.
- Happiness and fulfillment
- Stability and commitment
- Sincere love and concern for each other
- Greater emotional and spiritual well being
- Light in their countenance, the fruits of the Spirit in their lives
Bryce gives these observations and then gives the personal stories of several gay LDS in both categories. The stories are both heartwarming and heart wrenching, depending on the category. Please read these stories if you’re on the fence about whether or not gay marriage should be accepted.
Where to From Here?
In the last section, I love how Brother Cook is not demanding the Church to change. He is doing exactly what the brethren have told us is the right way to express disagreement. To express your opinion, make your case, and then ask for change. Don’t campaign against the brethren. Don’t try to embarrass the Church. It’s OK to disagree. It’s not OK to protest. It’s OK to voice opposing positions. It’s not OK to attack the character of Church leaders. It’s OK to voice constructive criticism. It’s not OK to publicly persuade people to leave the church. Brother Cook is doing exactly this. He’s simply asking for us to study this issue. Asking us to talk about it. Asking the brethren to ask God.
Two Possible Solutions
Easier Step: allowing non-temple marriage for gay couples. Looking at a path forward. I actually think it would be quite simple, doctrinally, to acknowledge the validity of gay marriage and modify the current Law of Chastity to allow sexual relations between a gay, married couple. There are some statements that have been made by Church leaders that would have to be explained to have been men speaking as men, and not with full understanding on the principle. But that’s been done before. We wouldn’t need to modify scripture. I see it as a pretty easy change. Just like large policy changes in the past, like rescinding polygamy or allowing black members the priesthood, some people would be upset and it would affect testimonies. Each year that passes, that number gets smaller and smaller. Part of the responsibility for this to happen lies among the members. When the majority of the members are for it, then the brethren might see it as a more pressing need to seek an affirmative answer from the Lord.
I see this step as being somewhat likely to occur within 20-30 years. For this scenario, temple marriage would still be reserved for marriage between a man and woman. Gay marriage would be seen as a solution for the telestial world. A world with anomalies and imperfections. A doctrinal view might be that gay people would be made straight in the hereafter and have opportunity for celestial marriage. I understand how this view is offensive to the LGBT+ community. But I view this as an important first step in the process.
More Difficult Step: allowing eternal marriage for gay couples. This is not as easy. Bryce makes mention that this can easily be done because Joseph’s views on couples relations and spiritual procreation in the next life are vague and underdeveloped. I agree. But it’s not that simple. There are many for whom these doctrines are a big deal. Some Mormons have a very material view of the afterlife, with humans becoming Gods populating worlds that will worship them as a Heavenly Father and Mother. Doctrine on plural marriage intersects here as some think that will be the mechanism to logistically produce so many spirit children through spiritual copulation. For me, these are speculative doctrines that are not important to my testimony. But we have a lot of theological work to do before we can either dump them or somehow fit eternal marriage for gay couples into the theology. Every time I get into a discussion with a conservative member about the possibility for temple marriage for gays, this topic seems to come up, with accusations like “You don’t understand exaltation if you think that’s possible!”
I am optimistic this will happen eventually, but I don’t see it in the immediate horizon, like I do the easier step above.
My goal here is to get people familiar with Bryce Cook’s great article. Please read it. Information has changed so rapidly on this issue over the last 50 years and even the last five years. Let’s get educated. Let’s put aside the “folk knowledge” on this subject. Let’s talk about it.