“There is a war going on in this world in which our most cherished and basic doctrines are under attack. I am speaking specifically of the doctrine of the family. The sanctity of the home and the essential purposes of the family are being questioned, criticized, and assaulted on every front.”
Bonnie L. Oscarson, General Young Women’s President
General Women’s session conference address. March 28, 2015.
This modern day declaration echos an older sentiment penned by Wilford Woodruff in his diary dated December 31, 1886.
“The year 1886 is passed and gone. It has been an important year in the history of the Latter-day Saints Church. It has sent to prison hundreds of leading men of the church and driven into exile the presidency and the 12 apostles and many other leading men all for obeying the celestial law of God and the patriarchal order of marriage.”
It is evident from their words that both Oscarson and Woodruff feel a relentless attack. While both feel at war for the exact same reason: the assault on the doctrine of the family, their definition of the doctrine is completely different.
Oscarson bases the doctrine of the family on “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” with marriage between one man and one woman as core.
Woodruff bases the doctrine of the family on “the celestial law of God and the patriarchal order of marriage” with polygamy as core.
How can two leaders of the same Church separated by a mere ~130 years have completely different definitions of the doctrine of the family but yet the doctrine of baptism by immersion and the Gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands by those in authority has remained exactly the same over those same 130 years?
What is happening here? What is this thing called “doctrine?”
A primer on what constitutes doctrine
Before we can discuss the doctrine of the family, we need to calibrate our definitions of “doctrine.” There are two fundamental approaches to take when considering what constitutes doctrine.
Approach One: doctrine with a little “d”
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism concedes that “the word ‘doctrine’ has a broad meaning in Mormon vernacular, where it is used to mean virtually everything that is, or has been, taught or believed by the Latter-day Saints. In this sense, doctrinal teachings answer a host of questions. Some relate closely to the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ; others are farther removed and unsystematically lap over into such disciplines as history, psychology, philosophy, science, politics, business, and economics. Some of these beliefs qualify as official doctrine and are given to the Saints as counsel, exhortation, reproof, and instruction. Continual effort is made to harmonize and implement these principles and doctrine into a righteous life. Other teachings, ones that lack official or authoritative standing, may also be widespread among Church members at any given time.”
Did you catch what was said there in the last sentence?
tl;dr: doctrine is the culmination of everything ever taught or believed by the Latter-day Saints until repudiated by a current church authority.
This first approach I would call “doctrine” with a little “d”, with the “d” standing for “dependent” on current church authority interpretation. We can do this of course because one of the doctrines of the restoration is an open cannon and continuing revelation.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise to any of us when we see we see a “doctrine” fall out of favor; (Attention Randy Bott) often in one authoritative fell swoop as in the recently released “Race and the Priesthood” essay that officially “disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.” Source
I still have books, articles, and pamphlets on my bookshelf from past church leaders who taught as doctrine these now disavowed teachings. Heck, I still have faithful and stalwart “in the leadership” living relatives that believe blacks were less valiant in the spirit world.
Oh little “d” doctrine! Like Heidi Klum says:
Approach two: Doctrine with a capital “D”
Not only does the Encyclopedia of Mormonism address the phenomenon of little “d” doctrine, but it spells out exactly what is considered big “D” Doctrine in the church (the real thing, the nuts and bolts, the respectable way to define DOCTRINE) and organizes it into three subsets: Doctrine, appendages, and additional teachings.
- Doctrine: Jesus is the Messiah, the Redeemer. The “doctrine of Jesus Christ” is the only teaching that can properly be called “doctrine.” It is fixed and unchanging. It cannot be modified or contradicted, but merely amplified as additional truths that deepen understanding and appreciation of its meaning are revealed. It is the basis on which the test of faith is made, and the rock or foundation of all other revealed teachings, principles, and practices.
- Appendages: Explicitly identified in the scriptures as part of the doctrine of Jesus Christ which are (1) faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; (2) repentance of all sins; (3) baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; (4) the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying-on of hands by those in authority; (5) enduring in righteousness to the end; and (6) the resurrection of all human beings to be judged by Christ.
- Additional teachings, or “things we know”: Things that are closely associated with this foundation include knowledge about the nature of God, the creation and the Fall of Adam, agency, continuing revelation, an open canon and the continual search for the truth of all things, premortal life, the gathering of Israel, the role of a covenant people, sharing the gospel, hope and charity, the establishment of Zion, the second coming of Christ, Christ’s reign on earth for a thousand years, temple ordinances for the living and the dead, the preaching of the gospel in the postearth spirit world, the need for priesthood, degrees of glory in the hereafter, eternal marriage, and the concept of ultimate exaltation in the presence of God to share his glory and life.
It is this third subset of Doctrine where we can say that the points of Doctrine don’t change over time but the application (or how this point of Doctrine is accomplished) does.
In other words, if Oscarson were to be transported back to the time of Brigham Young, what would she recognize and find exactly the same in the Doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
She would be very familiar and comfortable hearing addresses on the first two subsets of Doctrine: Jesus is the Christ; as well as sermons on faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying-on of hands by those in authority, enduring to the end and the resurrection.
But it is the third subset, once expounded upon, that would sound very different to Oscarson. In other words if Brigham Young stood in general conference and asked the early Saints and Oscarson to ponder upon the creation, the Fall of Adam, the gathering of Israel, the establishment of Zion, the role of a covenant people, temple ordinances, or eternal marriage; those words would sound familiar to Oscarson but in reality she and the early Saints would be pondering completely different things about each point. And I dare venture to say that if such ponderings were spoken aloud, it would sound foreign and quite possibly troubling to Oscarson.
Little “d” doctrine of modesty in 1850: The “Deseret Costume.” Designed by Deseret Project Runway’s Brigham Young.
Little “d” doctrine of modesty in 2002. Brigham would have a heart attack to see such leg showing on such a grand scale on the side of the sacred church office building. Fantasy Journal of Discourses address: “It offends Moroni who must look upon her nakedness from sunrise to sunset. We simply do not have enough hymns in the hymnal for such a daily assault.”
Now back to the Oscarson/Young church thought experiment…
Concerning the third subset of Mormon Doctrine: The points of Doctrine are still the same for both the early and modern Saints, but the little “d” doctrine of the big “D” Doctrine has changed over time.
It’s a case of the little “d” wagging the big “D”
This doctrinal inception of doctrine in the Doctrine is what we are dealing with in the church right now with the definition of the family.
This is why Marlin K. Jensen’s interview on Frontline in 2007 for “The Mormons” documentary was so “inception-y.”
Jensen: There’s no room in doctrine, and there’s no room within the plan of salvation, as we call it, or God’s plan for our life, for homosexuality to be accepted. …
Frontline: At several points in your history there were changes in your doctrine. Is there any way, through revelation, this ban could be changed?
Jensen: Again, through revelation, I suppose anything could be changed.
Does this mean that there is an unchanging big “D” Doctrine concerning the family that is currently being defined by a bunch of changeable little “d” doctrines? This is interesting to contemplate as we wonder what has changed and what has remained the same in the doctrine/Doctrine of the family in 1886 vs 2016.
It is true that much of what the lay members of the church define as doctrine is actually just application. We are sorely in need of an accessible definition of what constitutes doctrine. Why is a sound, working definition buried away in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism but there is no entry for “doctrine” in the Bible dictionary found in the hands of every member of the church who owns the LDS version of the standard works?
It is a more logical and humane approach for members and all future apologists alike to take that wide swath of little “d” doctrine: those things that can be changed by the revelation through the most current prophet, first presidency, and quorum of the twelve apostles and give it the more honest title of “application.”
Big “D” Doctrines are those things that survive the test of time. The things that would make Oscarson as comfortable sitting in general conference in 1866 as she is in general conference of 2016. Big “D” Doctrines are the things that survive into the “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church”manuals for Priesthood and Relief Society lessons while the dated applications of yesteryear teachings are discarded for more modern applications. Understand exactly what the “Doctrine of the priesthood” and the “Doctrine of continuing revelation” is and no apologist would ever get ulcers explaining why one essay on “Race and the Priesthood” can erase previous decades of copious contradictory spoken and printed positions by church leaders. Such positions were just erroneous applications of Doctrine and subject to change.
Back to the war:
So what have we been seeing in 2013, 2014, and 2015 that would lead Oscarson to lament that we are in the middle of a war?
It is a disturbance in the church organization and the membership on what exactly is the little “d” doctrine (applications) and what is the big “D” Doctrine of the family in the wake of marriage equality becoming the law of the land in the United States, the cradle of the restoration.
We saw a prime example of this disturbance when “the Policy” was made public. There is more disturbance to come as we as a church petition the Lord for answers.
Right now, today, we are witnessing the leadership and the membership grapple with real time questions on what is the doctrine/Doctrine of the family.
Are two men legally married with children a counterfeit family? Is it scriptural Doctrine that an 8 year old child of two civilly married women must be turned away from the ordinance of baptism while her peers from heterosexual civil marriages are welcomed into the waters? Why are promiscuous heterosexual adults guided into the stabilizing institution of marriage and given a pathway to full fellowship and respectability yet when two committed gay men marry they are branded apostates and must endure church discipline never to enjoy full fellowship with the Saints? Why is the burden of lifetime celibacy written into the law of chastity for homosexual members and no one else? How can you hold church courts and potentially excommunicate the dozens of LGBT couples you just welcomed back into your Stake with the promise of “safe space” without it looking and feeling like a mass inquisition betrayal?
These are not rhetorical questions, but a small sample of real life issues being discussed as we all ask where exactly homosexuals fit into the plan of salvation. Are they equal? Equal but separate? Not equal ever in this life and only in the next when they are healed and turned heterosexual? Is there even such a thing as a gay person or are they all just heterosexuals suffering from same sex attraction?
The cynic would say, “For a church with an open cannon and continuing revelation we sure do a lousy job at utilizing it in a timely fashion… if ever…”
However, I see this as a time for the LGBT who wish to remain, who believe, who desire to sit in the pews, worship, participate and find fellowship with the Saints to stand tall, to tell our stories, to expect and ask for inclusion.
WE are the church. Yes, even we the LBGT. We LGBT who are believers in Christ are a part of the body and have the privilege to mourn when we are wounded and can have hope that our burdens too will be borne by our fellow saints of the church who travel with us.
As you are personally able, realize that we have the privilege and duty to speak and create dialogue with the other individuals who also comprise the body of believers whether they may be our mothers, fathers, siblings, aunts, uncles, ward members, bishops, stake presidents, or even general authorities.
God hath set the members every one of them in the body as it hath pleased him.
There are many members yet one body.
The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Much more, those members of the body, which seem more feeble, ARE NECESSARY.
There should be no schism in the body and Christ himself desires that members should have the same care one for another. Ask for it at every opportunity. Expect it.
When even one LGBT member suffers, we all as an entire Church suffer. We LGBT have a responsibility as a part of the body of the church to honor each other and rejoice with each other. And at this important juncture in time it is up to us as LGBT to cast off our shackles of shame, our hostage mentality, and our doubts and minister to the body of fellow believers not as children, but as equals.
We are needed. And when we are told we are not needed, it offends these very words of Paul:
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
1st Corinthians 12:12