In the last few days, social media has become a veritable battleground over the new policy barring Church leaders from baptizing children of same-sex couples until the age of 18, and then, only when they’ve denounced same-sex relationships. The quiet way in which the policy was enacted has become a PR nightmare with members and non-members alike scrambling for answers. Elder Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles released an interview Friday, November 6th giving some clarification about the ‘why’ behind the policy, but any reasons for or against it are not what I want to discuss, as they’ve been endlessly discussed since the news broke. I wish to talk about the way many Church members have reacted to the well-meaning questions and concerns of other members, reactions which, in many cases, have been ostracizing and uncalled for. Let me take you through my experience hearing about the policy change and observing the consequent aftermath, as I’m sure many of you will relate.
Before leaving for work on Thursday, I briefly saw a tweet about an update to the definition of “apostasy” in the Church handbooks. As you probably know, the definition now includes ‘being in a same-sex marriage’ as a qualification for apostasy. While I found this particular change to be somewhat pointed, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, considering that same-sex relationships go against Church doctrine. Later, though, when a friend sent me a message informing me of the policy change for children of same-sex couples, my heart sank. I stared at my phone in disbelief and grappled with my immediate gut reaction that this was wrong and unnecessary. I sat and performed incredible feats of mental gymnastics, hoping to justify what I could only see as unjust, but despite my best cognitive acrobatics, I couldn’t do it. After some prayer and discussion with others, I came to a position of uneasy understanding. When I logged onto Facebook and then Twitter, the reactions of many were similar, but varied. Many posts were immediately vitriolic, accusing the Church and its leadership of bigotry and hate. Many were more reserved, posting that they had concerns and were hoping for more context from the Church. Many simply posted resolute, testimonial support. As the conversation progressed and became a heated debate, I noticed a disturbing trend begin to surface. Many members began to express in various forms that if you don’t agree with the policy, you should probably just leave.
Now, let’s make one thing clear before I continue: I am not claiming perfection in this regard, nor that Church members have some intentionally insidious agenda to weed out the “unbelievers.” But I do think there is value in taking this issue as an opportunity to discuss what it means to “question” the policies of the Church and when and how those questions have a place in the dialogue about Church issues. Here are a few points I think it’s important that we discuss.
1. It is OK for members to question the policies of the Church.
People, policies are just policies. They are not statements of doctrine, although they are inspired by them. The Church handbooks are policies, and those policies have changed many times, and in many cases, drastically over the years. There is no heresy in suggesting that perhaps missionaries should be allowed more phone calls home, or that convert confirmations should occur on the day of their baptism, or that the Church should hire out the cleaning of their buildings (I’m not advocating for any of these things; they’re purely for example). Similarly, the policies regarding children of same-sex parents are just policies, and it’s not heretical for someone to suggest that they may not be the best idea.
In the Book of Mormon, Nephi makes a wonderfully applicable statement,
“Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.
“Behold, hath he commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship? Behold, I say unto you, Nay” (2 Nephi 26:25-26).
These verses have been used as justification for opposing the aforementioned policies, but I think their true application lies with how we treat each other as members of the Church and members of the human family.
Often in the Church, we get policies and revealed doctrine all intertwined in our heads to the point that we start believing that if Patrick the deacon wears a blue dress shirt to pass the Sacrament, he’s committed some grievous sin, or if Greg the new move-in has a beard, he must not have a strong testimony. These kinds of feelings are absurd when you take a step back to examine them, but all of us at some point have probably held similar prejudices. I know I have. When we ostracize people for questioning policies, whether intentionally or not, we are kicking them at a time when they may feel most spiritually and socially vulnerable. It is our solemn duty as members of the Church and rational human beings to welcome and celebrate a diversity of opinions within our congregations. That diversity of opinions is what can improve the effectiveness of the home or visiting teaching programs in a ward, or help guide the youth in their respective quorums and groups, or even appropriately call for changes to ecclesiastical policies. When we push people out for their questions, we lose those opportunities for growth and improvement.
For these reasons and more, it is never okay for us as members of the Church to suggest that those with questions would be better off if they just left. Never. Ever. Ever.
Now, I understand that this policy is not comparable to less important policies, like meeting schedules or linger-longer menus. This policy has immediate spiritual consequences for the most vulnerable members of our society. Which brings me to my next topic:
2. Church policies are inspired.
If we truly believe that the Church is led by our Savior, Jesus Christ, then with that belief comes a certain degree of reverence for decisions made by the leaders of the Church. The First Presidency and apostles are not idiots. They had to have anticipated in some way the kind of social implications this policy change would engender. But regardless, the timing of the change and the lack of an immediate statement from the PR department led many to venture into the dangerous territory of speculation. The headlines from major news outlets provide an appropriate swath of opinions. Headlines like:
“Mormon Church Issues Rules Aimed at Gay Members, Their Kids” – ABC News
“Mormon Church bars same-sex couples and their children” – The Boston Globe
“Mormon Church to Declare Gay People—and Their Children—Apostates” – Slate Magazine
These misleading articles have left many feeling and exclaiming that the Church clearly hates gay people. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I’m not going to get into the justifications for this policy. Elder Christofferson provided some context in his video interview, and I will refer you to him. The merits for and against are both compelling, but I think it would behoove members of the Church to consider that the Church takes matters directly affecting the salvation of God’s children very seriously. I would be surprised to hear that this policy was enacted without some serious prayer and lively discussion amongst the councils of Church leadership. While we may feel uncomfortable with the decision, I think there’s something to be said for trusting that the intentions are pure. The Church does not hate gay people. Period.
3. We all need to be patient.
This policy is fresh on the books. How it will be implemented and who it will affect are purely matters of speculation at this point. Before passing judgement, I think it would be fair to wait to see if the horror stories predicted by the media and others actually come true. My prediction is that they will not. Anyone who has spent any time in different wards or branches of the Church knows that policies are often interpreted and carried out in vastly different ways. Handbooks are guidelines, and provisions are made for exceptional cases. The Church is a ministry, not a bureaucracy, and while there may be a minimal amount of red tape involved in Church administration, the leaders of the Church are not unempathetic or unyielding. People will be taken care of in a loving and caring manner.
4. Fighting solves nothing!
Both sides of this argument have in many ways acted atrociously. Those opposed have, in some cases, said needlessly offensive things about the religion of their friends, and many members have reciprocated with equally vitriolic reactions. I myself have been guilty of saying things in this discussion that I probably shouldn’t have. Nothing will be accomplished if we can’t look past our own opinions, however deeply held, to see the merits of our opposition. Everyone has good intentions in this debate, and that fact alone should enable us to treat each other with kindness.
The debate over this issue will be temporary. Kim Kardashian will probably do something outrageous tomorrow, and the media will move on. Whether this issue resurfaces or not, there will always be things to argue about. To you Church members: your posts, comments, and tweets combine together to represent the membership of the Church to the world. Whether you intend it or not, what you say and do online will affect how others view the Church. And to those not of or formerly of our faith, please have respect for our beliefs as we strive to respect yours.
I am not calling for an end to discussion. Talking about issues like these is what leads to positive social change. What I am advocating is to replace needless bickering with genuine discussion. I’m calling for an end to social exclusion for opinions and beliefs. As followers of Jesus Christ, may we follow His example of kindness and respect, especially at times when it seems most difficult.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.