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Review: “Understanding the Handbook” (2015)

By Eric Johnson

The LDS Church has received a firestorm of criticism for adding a new section to its Handbook 1 (16.13) that prohibits children living in homes with homosexual parents from being able to participate in naming/blessing rites or baptism at the age of 8. For more on that and to better understand my comments found in this article, please go here. In response to the criticism that the church received concerning its new policy, the Mormon Newsroom ( published an article titled “Understanding the Handbook” on Friday, November 13, 2015. It was written by Michael Otterson, the “Managing Director” of “Church Public Affairs.” Here is the entire text of that article (underlined), with my commentary in non-underlined type:


If there’s one thing that virtually all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus Christ’s tender love of children. Both the Bible and Book of Mormon deliver touching accounts of His love for “little ones,” blessing them and forbidding His disciples from keeping children from Him.

In public relations terms, this opening statement is what is known as “damage control.” The LDS Church made a decision prohibiting children from undergoing special rites (i.e. naming/blessing and baptism) because of the homosexual sins of their parents or guardians, critics have lambasted the leaders for not caring about children. And, yes, homosexuality apparently is considered to be worse than other types of sins since it was singled out and the others were not.  The adjectives (tender love, touching accounts, little ones) are meant to deflect the criticism by showing how children are adored in Mormonism. Agree or disagree with the church’s stance on homosexuality–for the record, I happen to side with the idea that homosexual behavior is wrong–the church is not consistent because homosexual (and also polygamous) parents are named. For the sin of their parents, these children are punished for something they did not do. (How many times have Mormon leaders complained about the original sin doctrine taught by Evangelical Christian churches that says all people have inherited Adam’s sin?) The fate of the “little ones” is out of their control.

Because the letter was an instructional document to leadership throughout the world, and not a Church-wide announcement through or through Church Public Affairs, there was no additional information or context on the usual Church websites.
This sentence is an admission that the news was never intended to be leaked. Handbook 1 is not a public document made available to outside sources or even members in good standing; instead, only those  in official church positions who enforce the rules have access to this file. No public announcement was made because the church didn’t want the firestorm that has taken place this past week (through 11/13/15). I don’t think the church leaders are really so naive to think that an addition such as 16.13 could be made in the politically environment in which we live without it getting leaked. For heaven’s sake, though, the way the church has mismanaged the situation sure makes it appear that way. I also find it interesting how, it was claimed, the church’s release of the Gospel Topics Essays  between 2013-2015 was intended for full disclosure. Although the information wasn’t always as complete as I would have liked, troubling historical information not known by all members was released, and the church took lumps for events that were admitted, including Joseph Smith having between 30-40 wives. If the church wants to be transparent, then why wasn’t some type of “announcement” or “additional information” given with the release of Section 16.13? The appearance is that this policy change affecting many families was made in a secretive, underhanded manner. Announcements from the First Presidency happen all the time in letters read to the local congregations, so why not here? Making it appear that the information wasn’t supposed to be released makes the church look culpable and is certainly a public relations gaffe.
That prompted questions from many Church members, who were mostly reading media headlines portraying the instructions as a rejection of children and refusal to name babies. Members understandably had specific questions about how the announced change might affect their loved ones. 
Of course LDS Church members are going to have a lot of questions. The church secretly made a change to a policy that would affect brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends. And they had to hear about it first from John Dehlin, an excommunicated former member? Of course, the church doesn’t turn every policy change in the handbook into a press conference. But the issue here is politically charged and obviously a very sensitive issue. Perhaps the church could get away with promoting policy changes in the past, including not allowing children of polygamous parents to get baptized as the 2010 Handbook 1 (Section 16.3.9). But not this.
The episode demonstrates clearly the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information. The Church quickly responded to many of those concerns with a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. By the end of the weekend, that interview had been viewed by millions. 
The video where Christofferson was interviewed was released after the leak had taken place. As Otterson admitted, it was never meant to be released in a public statement or interview. Read what blogger Zina Jacobs-Smith-Young had to say about this:

The church never planned to make their new Handbook policy public, so they were ill prepared to defend it so publicly. On Friday, after several hours of delay, they released a video of a staged interview between Michael Otterson (head of church PR) and Elder Christofferson (taking one for the team because he has a gay brother.) This video was an opportunity for an “apostle of the Lord” to speak to the world about this widely-despised new policy, and calm down members of the church who failed to see Jesus Christ in this change from so-called inspired men. . . . In true victim-blaming style, Mormon Newsroom felt it necessary to mention, “the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information.” One of your apostles had the chance to provide the necessary context and accurate information you speak of a week ago, and failed to do so! Can you really blame anyone for their reactions?! It’s the “We all knew about the seer stone and if you didn’t it’s your fault!” all over again. Oh, and you really want to play the “accurate information” game, Mormon Newsroom?

Just because “millions” of people saw the interview doesn’t mean the apostle was able to fix everything. When I took public relations classes at San Diego State University in 1984, one professor constantly talked about the “cuttlefish syndrome” (his term). The cuttlefish is known for spewing out ink when it is poked and prodded, as it’s a natural defense mechanism to fight against predators. This video was nothing more than “cuttlefishing” (if I can make up such a term). Just because someone offers a response doesn’t necessarily mean the response is valid or worthwhile.

Today, a letter clarifying what the Handbook changes mean and do not mean has been posted on the primary Church website,

That letter can be found here: Read First Presidency letter providing clarification on Handbook changes (November 13, 2015). Signed by the First Presidency, it reads:

Dear Brethren and Sisters:

The Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles provides the following guidance in applying provisions on same-gender marriage recently added to Handbook 1:

Revealed doctrine is clear that families are eternal in nature and purpose. We are obligated to act with that perspective for the welfare of both adults and children. The newly added Handbook provisions affirm that adults who choose to enter into a same-gender marriage or similar relationship commit sin that warrants a Church disciplinary council.

Our concern with respect to children is their current and future well-being and the harmony of their home environment. The provisions of Handbook 1, Section 16.13, that restrict priesthood ordinances for minors, apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship. As always, local leaders may request further guidance in particular instances when they have questions.

When a child living with such a same-gender couple has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church, provisions of Section 16.13 do not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld. Decisions about any future ordinances for such children should be made by local leaders with their prime consideration being the preparation and best interests of the child.

All children are to be treated with utmost respect and love. They are welcome to attend Church meetings and participate in Church activities. All children may receive priesthood blessings of healing and spiritual guidance.

May the Lord continue to bless you in your ministry.

The church claims that the “welfare of both adults and children” and “the harmony of their home environment” are at stake. As I stated in my previous article, the church has every right to deny membership or privileges to anyone it desires. This includes polygamous or homosexual folks who act immorally and contradict the LDS Church’s standards. And, yes, if they want to deny the children any benefits as well, then the leaders has the right to punish them too. This is not the issue. Rather, prohibiting children–the “little ones” talked about in the first sentence of this article–for something they have no control over is what is at stake.

The letter above says that this policy does “not require that his or her membership activities or priesthood privileges be curtailed or that further ordinances be withheld.” That is not true. Not receiving baptism does affect the child’s role in church. According to a church website:

The Aaronic Priesthood also opens the door to a remission of sins through baptism and the sacrament. Baptism is an ordinance of the Aaronic Priesthood. Priests in the Aaronic Priesthood hold that authority. Baptism allows people to enter a covenant relationship with the Lord, receive a remission of their sins, and become members of Christ’s Church.

Based on this information, someone who is not baptized:

  • does not have an open door to remission of sins
  • cannot hold the Aaronic Priesthood
  • cannot enter a covenant relationship with the Lord
  • cannot become a member of Christ’s Church

Instead, this child must wait until he or she turns eighteen before being allowed to receive this baptism and the priesthoods that would follow. Girls, meanwhile, would be denied entering into that covenantal relationship with God or becoming a member of the Mormon Church. There is no doubt that these children “are welcome to attend Church meetings and participate in Church activities.” But if this child dies after the age of eight and before eighteen, that child’s eternal future in Mormonism is at stake.

One difficulty was a general lack of understanding of the Handbook itself, which is a guide for lay leaders of the church in 30,000 congregations across the world. A purpose of the Handbook is to provide bishops and other leaders with a standard reference point when they make decisions. Because it is a policy and procedural manual, the Handbook is not written in language that is necessarily contextual or explanatory. Church leaders are encouraged to use the Handbook in conjunction with the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Sensitivity to individual circumstances is learned through the Spirit, Christ’s teachings and example as found in the scriptures, from talks and teachings of General Authorities, and from the leaders’ own experience and exposure to real-life situations.  No handbook can answer every question or address every circumstance.

A muddled paragraph, if I’ve ever read one. So is Otterson implying that this policy (16.13) wasn’t written in a way that could easily be understood by the leaders who are supposed to use this in application to their decision? If this is supposed to be “a standard reference point,” it most certainly ought to have enough context or explanation so the judge (bishop, stake president, mission president, etc) can make the correct judgment. Here is the added section, word for word:

16.13 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.

How much more context is needed? From what it says, those parents/guardians who are “living in a same-gender relationship” cannot have their natural or adopted child receive a new name and a blessing OR get “baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service.” And with no authority to participate in church as the other kids do, the child is relegated to limbo. When it comes to church leaders being “encouraged to use the Handbook in conjunction with the guidance of the Holy Ghost,” Otterson is referring to a way to appeal the policy to the Office of the First Presidency.

Here are the key points to understand as background to the recent changes and additions to the leaders’ Handbook:

  • It is not a sin simply to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Some faithful members of the Church experience those attractions yet participate in the Church without breaking the Lord’s commandments. They serve missions and attend the temple.  The Church teaches its members to embrace these brothers and sisters and encourage them in their faithful lives in the Church.
  • There is no change in the doctrinal position that sexual relations between people of the same sex are sinful.
  • There is new information in the Handbook that addresses a narrow range of situations involving the children of same-sex couples.

This is what is called a straw man argument, which is a logical fallacy. Nowhere have the critics whom I have read brought up any of these points. Certainly some may have felt betrayed because the way the church leadership has handled the issue in the past months has certainly been confusing (i.e. moving a bill through the Utah legislature outlawing discrimination on sexual orientation, staying silent in June after the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages, etc.). At the same time, I doubt there is anyone who, realistically, has thought that the Mormon Church would allow homosexuals to get married in its 140+ temples.

With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the Church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders. In particular, Church leaders are concerned for children–whether biologically born to one of the partners, adopted or medically conceived. In reality, very few same-sex couples would bring children for the formal Church ordinance of naming and blessing, since this creates a formal membership record. But Church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug-of-war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.

Doesn’t this policy create a tug-of-war between the same-sex couple and the child? I can only imagine how many children who wanted to fit in with their neighbors and classmates in a highly LDS populated area (i.e. Utah, Idaho, and Arizona) would scheme to move out of the home. Whether the church likes it or not, homosexual families are not the future; they are the present. While I might not like the fact that homosexuals can legally adopt children and become the legal parents, this is a fact. In essence, they have become Mom and Dad, whether it’s two men or two women. Should the Fourth Commandment (“Honor your Mother and Father”) be thrown out the door depending on the lifestyle of the parents? Encouraging kids to find a new home is not the answer. If it is, shouldn’t the children whose parents are sinning in any number of other ways also figure out ways to move out of the house before they’re 18? 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).

This is a Pandora’s box, for sure, and I’m not sure the church’s policy is any help.

This sensitivity to family circumstances is practiced elsewhere. For example, the Church doesn’t baptize minor children without parental consent, even if the children want to be associated with their LDS friends. A married man or woman isn’t baptized if the spouse objects. Missionaries don’t proselytize in most Muslim countries or in Israel, where there are particular sensitivities with family. In some African and other nations where polygamy is practiced, anyone whose parents practice polygamy needs special permission for baptism so they know that a practice that is culturally acceptable for many in the region is not acceptable in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  

Section 16.13 does not fall under any of these examples. Of course the church shouldn’t baptize minor children without parental consent. That’s a given. Referring to the situation brought up by 16.13, though, a homosexual (or polygamous) couple could give permission for the child who wants to get baptized and yet that child is not allowed to receive the ordinance. This is different from any example given above.

Of course, there are always situations that fall outside general guidelines and principles, which is why local leaders may ask for guidance from more senior leaders in particular cases where they may have questions.

The context of 16.13 makes it very clear that the only way a child from homosexual parents could get baptized is if that child repudiates the parent’s lifestyle and is now living outside that home. If the Office of the First Presidency made an exception for any other circumstance than what is laid out there, then why even put anything into the handbooks?

The vast majority of Church members understand that there has been no doctrinal change with regard to LGBT issues. Church doctrine is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. There is a strong tendency today for many to talk of Jesus Christ as if His teachings on love were somehow inconsistent with his teachings on divine commandments. Of course the Savior’s love was never withheld from anyone and His words on the cross exemplify that. But, He also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected Him. That is where Church leaders stand today – holding firm to the doctrinal position of right and wrong, while extending love to all people. Church members who believe in modern prophets and apostles understand and appreciate the intent of their leaders to guide the Church through the complexities of diverse societies and rapidly changing social circumstances.
To conclude:

  1. Children of parents who have sinned are being punished for sins that are not their own.
  2. If polygamous and homosexual parents can get children disqualified from LDS ordinances, then what about other sins some parents commit? A consistent policy is needed.

It will be interesting to see how this situation continues to play out as the LDS PR mess isn’t over. Our prayer is that people would leave Mormonism, hopefully for the right reason (i.e. Mormonism is not of God) and not for retaliation of a policy they don’t like or is even affair. May they consider what it means to have a relationship with the true God of the Bible.

For more on how to know God personally, see How can a person get into heaven?


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