By Eric Johnson
Note: The following contains the personal opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the other staff members at Mormonism Research Ministry
Let’s face it. We live in a day and age where controversy moves very quickly. For example, Starbucks recently released a picture of its holiday cup that will be used in the franchise stores this winter. Immediately after the announcement, a raging debate ensued regarding its color and the company’s intentions. A Republican presidential candidate even encouraged a boycott of the company. There is no doubt that social media tends to exacerbate any issue, causing people to choose sides and get into a lather while advocating their particular positions.
Some thirty years ago I was employed at a Southern California grocery store. Working on the front end, we had a chance to hear the opinions of many customers each and every day. (If they had complaints, we were the first ones to hear about it! When cigarettes hit a $1 per pack, it appeared the world was ending!) I’ll never forget when Coca-Cola decided to debut its “New Coke” brand, thus displacing the original formula. This was the time when Pepsi-Cola was running taste tests at fairs and grocery stores, polling people about which soda tasted better: Coke or Pepsi. Since Pepsi has a sweeter taste and a person only got an ounce of each soda, Pepsi was regularly winning the competition. Coca-Cola executives decided to make its soda sweeter by creating a recipe change, thus replacing the original product with “New Coke.”
For weeks after the switch, we heard complaint after complaint from loyal Coke drinkers. The movement started slowly but continually steamrolled. About six months later, the company decided to back down by bringing back the original soda and call it “Coke Classic.” The product flew off the shelves while “New Coke” hardly sold at all. A few years later, the replacement soda was no longer available, fully replaced by the old formula. If a change like this was made today to, say, a popular beer or a certain candy bar, I wonder if it would take a week before the onslaught of social media criticism would cause the company to backtrack. I wonder if Starbucks considered a change to the design of its holiday cup. Or are the executives relishing in the controversy?
What does any of this have to do with Mormonism? In early November the LDS Church decided to make a policy prohibiting children under 18 who live in a home with practicing homosexual parents to get baptized into the Mormon Church. The new policy was quietly added to a private church handbook; the story apparently was broken by blogger/radio host John Dehlin. When the news became public, all public relations hell broke loose during the second week of November.
According to Salt Lake Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack,
No part of the new LDS policy on same-sex couples has generated more controversy—and criticism—than its prohibition against Mormon rituals for their children. Stories flooding social media tell of canceled bay blessings, postponed baptisms, shortened priesthood ordinances and withdrawn missionary applications. Even many devout Mormons—including congregational and regional leaders—report distress, despondence and despair over the upheaval. (11/11/15, p. A-1).
For anyone who follows Mormonism, the new policy should not have come as a surprise. In fact, several months before the news became public, there were more than a half a dozen articles in the August and September issues of the Ensign magazine specifically dealing with the family and emphasizing the importance the roles of parents and children. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, you may want to go through this article that contains dozens of quotes from these two issues. Click here to see some select quotes found in this article.
Determining which doctrines are “official” doctrine has been controversial during the past few years. Many Mormons have allowed their personal opinions and perspectives to supersede what the leadership is teaching. Thanks to the influence of Postmodernism, a number of Mormons have created an eclectic faith, taking some of this while neglecting some of that and thereby developing their own unique “LDS” worldview. In the past few years, though, we have seen the general authorities take a stronger stance regarding official Mormon doctrine. The leaders have not allowed freedom for its membership to pick and choose beliefs like one chooses food at a buffet; precision in the beliefs is emphasized by those in charge. For an article showing this to be true, go here.
Of course, the Standard Works—the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price—are vital to LDS teachings. So are the general conference addresses and the official manuals. And possibly even more important are the church handbooks. An article in the September 2015 Ensign written by Seventy Per G. Malm is titled “Church Handbooks: The Written Order of Things.” The subtitle reads:
As we follow the handbooks and use the collective wisdom they offer, the Lord will help us and those we serve to become “complete in him.”
Referring to his service as a missionary, Malm wrote,
Thinking back on that calling and on other callings, I realize that in addition to the Holy Ghost and the scriptures, what really helped me were the Church handbooks! They were a treasure of information—as a guide to my initial learning and as a valuable reference along the way. (p. 61)
Malm quotes Apostle Dallin H. Oaks who said,
“While [the] handbooks do not have the same standing as the scriptures, they do represent the most current interpretations and procedural directions of the Church’s highest authorities.” . . . Thus, the Church handbooks reflect the collective wisdom—derived from tested, proven experiences—of prophets and apostles. That wisdom teaches us the best way to achieve good results in carrying out the mission of the Church over time. (p. 62)
In a sidebar titled “Safety in Handbooks,” President Thomas S. Monson is quoted as saying,
Whether you’ve been a lifelong member of the Church or are a relatively new member, consult the handbook when you are uncertain about a policy or procedure. You may think you know how to handle the situation when, in fact, you may be on the wrong track. There is safety in the handbooks. (Opening Remarks,” 2010 Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting)
This article, along with the others having to do with marriage, family, and homosexuality, seems to have been a set-up for the membership. After all, it is hard to believe that these articles with such a specific emphasis were coincidentally inserted at this time.
The new policy
The controversial addition to Handbook 1: Stake Presidents and Bishops was made in section 16.13. Some background to the two church handbooks. Handbook 1 is the official “rule book” used by stake presidents, bishops, mission presidents, and other leaders to determine correct procedures. Although Handbook 2: Administering the Church contains similar information and has been available since 2010 as an online PDF file, Handbook I is not on the church’s official website. It cannot be purchased at Deseret Book Store. In fact, it is not meant to be read by anyone besides the church’s leaders. (I only have access to it because outside sources have (illegally?) published it on the Internet.) Church spokesman Michael Otterson explained why:
That blue volume includes information about counseling with members. LDS authorities worried that if it were widely read, some members “might decide they don’t need to go see their bishop. It made much more sense to reserve that volume for leaders.” Source
Question: Could it have been naive for the leaders to think that any changes to Handbook 1–especially on an issue as controversial as homosexuality– wouldn’t eventually become public? It seems highly doubtful, but still it’s suspicious.
The new section (16.13) added into Handbook 1 reads as follows (cited in whole):
Children of a Parent Living in a Same-Gender Relationship
A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.
A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may be baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service only as follows:
A mission president or a stake president may request approval from the Office of the First Presidency to baptize and confirm, ordain, or recommend missionary service for a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship when he is satisfied by personal interviews that both of the following requirements are met:
1. The child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.
2. The child is of legal age and does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.
NOTE: This statement was clarified on 11/13/2015. To read more about this, you can click on this link here, which is repeated at the end of this article.
A quick analysis
According to 16.13 of Handbook 1, those children who have parents / step parents / guardians who are in a “same-gender relationship” are not allowed to be given a name and a blessing; they are also prohibited from getting baptized. If the child wants to obtain membership, then there are two things that must be done:
- Promise to live according to the church’s rules and agree polygamy is wrong.
- Don’t live with the parent who lives “in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.”
Thus, a minor child has to denigrate her parents’ lifestyle and, to boot, find a new place to call home. There seems to be a loophole for the ingenious child. If he or she really wants to have these rites performed, the best way would be to figure out how to move out of the house, even before turning 18. Perhaps Grandpa and Grandpa would be willing to become the new guardians. Or how about an aunt and uncle? Yet, I wonder: If this is the only way to get baptized, then wouldn’t this be encouraging the splitting up of a childand her parents? Isn’t this contrary to a church that emphasizes family? Is this supposed to coincide with desiring the “current and future well-being and the harmony of [the children’s] home environment”?
Other prohibitions found in Handbook 1
Handbook 1 gives specific instructions on naming/blessing a child as well as baptism. Leaders are encouraged in the handbook to follow D&C 20:70, which says, “Every member of the church of Christ having children is to bring them unto the elders before the church, who are to lay their hands upon them in the name of Jesus Christ, and bless them in his name.” In section 16.2.2 of Handbook 1, specific instructions are given for dealing with babies born out of wedlock:
Children who were born out of wedlock may be blessed during fast and testimony meeting. If the family prefers, the bishop may authorize Melchizedek Priesthood holders to bless the child in the home, with a member of the bishopric presiding.
Meanwhile, 16.2.4 talks about how to proceed if a nonmember parent is involved:
When either of a child’s parents is not a member of the Church, the bishop should obtain verbal permission from both parents before the child is blessed. He explains that a membership record will be prepared for the child after the blessing. He should also tell them (1) that ward members will contact them periodically and (2) that when the child reaches age 8, the bishop or the ward missionaries will visit them and propose that the child be baptized.
Notice several things:
- Parents are encouraged to have their child named and blessed.
- Babies born out of wedlock are not disqualified from this rite. If there is embarrassment about the facts concerning the conception, the handbook says that the rite can be performed at the parents’ home.
- If nonmember parents are involved, a child can receive a blessing if both parents agree. In addition, the family will be contacted and, when the child nears 8 years of age, baptism will be proposed.
According to the new policy, however, a child with same-sex parents living together will be denied this opportunity. According to 16.13, such a child “may not receive a name and a blessing.” Period.
As far as baptism is concerned, Section 16.3.1 in Handbook I gives the instructions:
Bishops give special attention to 7-year-old children in the ward, ensuring that their parents, Primary leaders and teachers, and home teachers help them prepare for baptism and confirmation. Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society leaders also encourage parents to teach and prepare their children for these ordinances. When children reach age 8, the bishop makes sure they have every opportunity to accept the gospel and be baptized and confirmed.
Later, in 16.3.3 in Handbook I, it reads,
The bishop or an assigned counselor conducts interviews for the baptism and confirmation of 8-year-old children who are members of record and 8-year-old children who are not members of record but have at least one parent or guardian who is a member. The full-time missionaries teach and interview 8-year-old children whose parents are not members and children who will be 9 years old or older at the time of baptism.
In 16.3.6 regarding minors, it says this:
A minor child, as defined by local laws, may be baptized and confirmed only when both of the following conditions are met:
1. Consent has been given by the custodial parent(s) or legal guardian(s). The person who conducts the baptism and confirmation interview may ask for this consent to be in writing if he feels it will prevent misunderstandings.
2. The person who conducts the baptism and confirmation interview discerns that there is clear evidence that the child understands the baptismal covenant and will make every effort to keep it through obeying the commandments, including faithfully attending church meetings.
What about children in certain circumstances, such as those with divorced or polygamous parents? Handbook I is very clear:
- 16.3.7: A child whose parents are divorced may be baptized and confirmed only with the permission of the parent(s) with legal custody.
- 16.3.9: Children of parents who have practiced or who are practicing plural marriage contrary to the law must receive approval from the First Presidency before they may be baptized and confirmed. The mission president may request this approval from the Office of the First Presidency when he is satisfied that all three of the following requirement are met:
- The children accept the teachings and doctrines of the Church.
- The children repudiate the teachings upon which their parents based their practice of plural marriage.
- Minor children are not living in a home where polygamy is being taught or practiced.
The language here is very similar to the newly added 16.13. What is different, however, is that there doesn’t appear to be any prohibition of a child belonging to polygamous parents from participating in the naming/blessing. Unless something else in the handbook has been changed that I’m not aware of, this prohibition is only given to those children living in a home with homosexual parents.
How important is baptism in Mormonism?
According to Mormonism, getting named and blessed are not requirements for salvation. However, not getting baptized is a major problem. Without water baptism, any child over eight who is not mentally impaired is responsible for his/her own sins. Seventy Spencer J. Condie provided the exceptions:
Individuals exempt from the universal requirement of baptism are little children, and adults who are unaccountable for their actions because of mental disability. They are in an “infant state, innocent before God” (D&C 93:38)” (“The Savior’s Visit to the Spirit World,” Ensign, July 2003, p. 36).
Generally, baptism is expected to take place at eight years of age is required. According to Seventy Royden G. Derrick, “Baptism is the gateway to the celestial kingdom” (Temples in the Last Days, p.x). Twelfth President Spencer W. Kimball concurs:
Baptism into Christ’s true church by proper authority opens the doors for exaltation in the eternal kingdoms of glory, exaltation to be earned by repentance, by living righteously, keeping the commandments of the Lord, and service to one’s fellowmen (“The Stone Cut without Hands,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 1976, p. 7).
Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie taught,
Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; baptism in water and of the Spirit; baptism whereby men are born again into the kingdom of heaven; baptism which places fallen man on the path leading to eternal life-baptism is the ordinance of the ages. No accountable person can be saved without it (A New Witness for the Articles of Faith, p. 117).
A church manual puts it in a straightforward manner:
We Must Be Baptized to Enter the Celestial Kingdom. Jesus said, “Whoso believeth in me, and is baptized … shall inherit the kingdom of God. And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned” (3 Nephi 11:33–34). Baptism is the gateway through which we enter the path to the celestial kingdom (see 2 Nephi 31:17–18) (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 116. Italics in original.).
Again, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of exceptions regarding a child becoming responsible for his or her own sins at the age of eight. A church magazine article reports, “The Lord teaches that children shouldn’t be baptized until they are old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong, which the scriptures say is eight years old.” Source
Hence, the denial of baptism to a child with polygamous or homosexual parents seems to be a very serious denial. Unless a special exception is made through the Office of the First Presidency, this child will have to wait until the age of eighteen. (It would be awkward if the First Presidency allows one child in a homosexual home to get baptized but refuses others in the same situation.) Here is the problem: Suppose that child who is denied baptism because of his parents’ choices passes away soon after turning eight (say, between the ages of eight and eighteen).
Certainly many Mormons may claim that those who didn’t have a chance to accept the gospel will receive a full chance to receive salvation after vicarious work for the dead is done for them. Yet it is the Mormon Church that is keeping the child from doing what its leaders proclaim is an important requirement for any type of chance to enter the celestial kingdom. Again, the church manual states that “baptism is the gateway through which we enter the path to the celestial kingdom.” If that’s not ironic, nothing else is!
What about the Children living with Polygamous Parents?
For at least five years—probably longer—children who had polygamous parents have been banned from receiving baptism. Never once have I heard anyone complain about these children not being allowed to receive the Mormon baptism. It is obvious that the homosexual lobby has an agenda, with plenty of power and clout. The movement is on a winning streak. Since June 2015, it is now legal in all 50 states for homosexual couples to get married. The movement aims to attack anyone who would suggest that homosexual behaviors are repulsive and not what God intended for people. The point is, why should this ban be limited to children of homosexuals or polygamists? As Peggy Fletcher Stack rightly points out,
Sons and daughters of murderers, adulterers, fornicators, drug addicts, unwed mothers, divorced parents, and sometimes non-Mormons can be welcomed into the community with such special rites, born of the Mormon belief that children are born innocent, rather than carrying the weight of their parents’’ sins. (The Salt Lake Tribune, 11/11/15, p. A4).
Consistency would demand that parents with any type of sin should cause children in their home to be disqualified from naming/blessing and baptism. For those parents who think they are not guilty of any of the above characteristics in Stack’s list above, consider what Jesus said in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Verses 27-28 add these words from Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Shouldn’t every child be required to “repudiate” (the word used in 16.13) any sin of the parents, not just homosexuality?
On the other spectrum, the church’s reasoning as delivered by Apostle D. Todd Christofferson is just as inconsistent. In a 10-minute video, Christofferson said the policy involving children in homosexual homes was created in “compassion.” “It originates from a desire to protect children in their innocence and in their minority years,” he said. “We don’t want the child to have to deal with issues that might arise where the parents feel one way and the expectations of this church are very different.”
If the parents don’t want their child to get baptized, it is understandable that the child should have to wait for baptism. After all, the Bible says that a child should honor his mother and father. With an issue like this, creating division in the home is unnecessary. However, if the parents—regardless of their beliefs or practices—agree to allow their child to get baptized, why should the child be punished? Since Mormonism teaches in free agency—every person must make up his or her own mind about spiritual issues—this prohibition seems unnecessary when the parents are on board. Instead of being “compassionate,” withholding an ordinance from someone desiring it looks more like a cruel and unusual punishment, especially since the sin belongs to others (i.e. the parents).
Although I don’t agree with the new policy of ostracizing children with parents practicing a particular type of sin such as homosexuality, shouldn’t there be equal compassion for children living in polygamous homes who have been refused baptism for years? With that as a background, I find an 11/12/15 Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece by Kate Kendell to be quite disingenuous. Saying she has now resigned from the Mormon Church, Kendell writes,
It was the gratuitously cruel and stigmatizing treatment of children that pushed me to disavow the church of my childhood. It is impossible for me to be a part of a religion that would attack its own members and punish them by denying their children involvement in the church. The move is as clever as it is draconian. Members seeking to live lives of integrity as openly LGBT people must not only leave the church, but also take their children with them. It requires a particular streak of evil genius to manufacture such a “Sophie’s choice.”
Kendell is the “executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project.” This tells me she has an agenda. Her views and admitted lifestyle are contrary to the teachings of the Mormon Church. She reflects on the “compassionate” Seattle bishop who gave privileges to a married lesbian couple in his congregation. She writes:
The consequence of these policy changes is emotional carnage to individuals and families who simply wish to live as their authentic selves and remain part of a religion they love, but which does not deserve them.
What needs to be pointed out is that the Mormon Church leaders have every right to deny membership and privileges to those who practice behaviors contrary to its philosophy, no matter how “authentic” they might be. As a religion, church leaders are free to impose their standards and rules on the general membership. It is silly to claim “emotional carnage” being heaped on those who made the free choice to behave contrary to Mormonism’s standards. If nothing else, this begs the question: If you’re homosexual, why would you even want to remain a part of the LDS Church which claims eternal bliss is being married to someone of the opposite sex and populating your new world with spirit children? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Those who don’t like the prohibition should either not join or, if already in, get out. Kendell’s resignation on moral grounds is inconsistent. It appears that the time is ripe, complete with a convenient excuse, to say “enough is enough” by quitting the church. Furthermore, if Kendell did not want to “be a part of a religion that would attack its own members and punish them by denying their children involvement in the church,” then it seems odd that she didn’t take a stand for those polygamous folks (and their children) during these past years who would have liked to have kept their church membership–with all privileges intact–while they openly practiced plural marriage. Why didn’t she and the other folks leave because years before based on this inequality?
With all of that said, it very well could be the fault of the LDS Church that Kendell and other homosexual activists had any hope that Mormonism might be moving toward an acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. As Kendell writes,
The church launched a website and materials encouraging parents to embrace and support their LGBT children, and it supported a bill in Utah to expand employment and housing protections. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry, church officials were muted in response and suggested that this was now the law of the land and should be followed.
She brings up a good point. The way that the church has responded to homosexual issues during the past year has been confusing. I can see how she may have gotten false hope that homosexuality might soon be embraced by the church. However, this new policy–16.13–seems to be the proverbial line in the sand. For those who thought that the church leaders were becoming more “gay friendly,” it seems like their hopes were based on a misconception.
The PR machine known as Mormonism
The Mormon Church cares very much about what people think. In fact, many LDS policy changes over the years have been made based on public relations. Consider this information from Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly in his 11/11/15 column:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is looking for a social science researcher and, according to the ad it placed on the LinkedIn business network site, would like to fill the position by January. The job description explains that the candidate—preferably someone with an advanced degree in social and behavioral sciences—would provide the general authorities and other Mormon administrators with “timely, relevant and reliable information to help them respond to the diverse challenges and opportunities of a fast-growing church in a rapidly changing world. This information enables church leaders to focus their efforts to greater effect in helping individuals and families come unto Christ.”
Does God really care what people think about what ought to be considered right or wrong? I hardly think so. Instead, God desires only that which is godly and moral. Instead of creating man-made rules—something the Pharisees from 2,000 years ago liked to do—God’s desire is that He receives worship from His people in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:24). Thus, the front page story (“Edict is an LDS ‘policy’ that can change”) in the 11/12/15 Salt Lake Tribune is not surprising at all. The lead reads:
LDS Church guidelines that exclude gay couples and their children from some Mormon rituals may be official, but these new rules are not necessarily divinely endorsed — and could easily change. That’s because these instructions for lay leaders in the Utah-based faith are defined as a “policy,” not a “doctrine,” a distinction even many in the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints don’t fully grasp. Doctrines remain fairly constant, while policies are revised, updated and tweaked as circumstances arise.
As the article points out, the race ban on the Mormon priesthood forever changed in 1978. Whether the ban should have been considered a doctrine (as leaders taught for more than a century–for more, click here) or a “policy,” as ninth President David O. McKay insisted, it doesn’t matter. The LDS Church leaders took a teaching that was not supposed to change, and then they changed it.
It all boils down to this: Rather than stick to their guns because this is a church led by God with a modern-day prophet and apostles, the men in the LDS leadership seem to care more about the church’s image. I only wish that these same leaders would take criticism of its doctrines, including worship of a God who was once a man and the necessity for LDS temple work, just as seriously. If they did and wanted to be consistent with the teachings of the Bible, then perhaps there might be hope for the almost 16 million people who are lost in the impossibility of this religion.
Postnote: Otterson’s letter published on the Mormon Newsroom on 11/13/15
In a move that was didn’t take as much time at Coke “Classic” returning to store shelves, the LDS Church came out with an official revision of Section 16.13 in Handbook 1 on November 13, 2015. In addition, an article by church spokesman Michael Otterson titled “Understanding the Handbook” was published. Click here for a paragraph by paragraph review of Otterson’s article and commentary on the revision.