So my frustration with the current LDS policy that withholds crucial gospel ordinances from innocent children has led me to a number of online discussions where I’ve encountered people just as angry, or far more angry, than I am over this state of affairs. What I’ve learned is that there is a template for many of these discussions which requires that participants speak the language of Dissident.
And I’ve discovered that, for all my objections, I don’t really speak Dissident.
To speak Dissident, one has to always assume the worst possible motives for the leaders of the LDS Church. They can’t just be wrong; they supposedly have to be exposed as lying fascists. Every mention has to include snide asides about how they’re all in it for the power/money/babes, and frequent mention of Thomas S. Monson’s presumed senility and dementia is de rigeur.
So, as I encounter hardcore Mormons who now defend the Brethren with arguments about how the Gift of the Holy Ghost is not really a big deal – a position that would have been unthinkable to them two months ago – I also encounter equal levels of rigidity from those who think it impossible to imagine the men inflicting this policy on them are anything but devils in disguise. Certainly the Lord’s church wouldn’t ever be capable of such egregious error, and so, clearly, this isn’t the Lord’s church.
I find both of those positions equally ignorant of the principle of agency. We all have it, even prophets and apostles. And the Lord will never, ever interfere with it, even in the case of prophets and apostles. That’s why the prophets and apostles need us to sustain them – not because they’re perfect, but precisely because they aren’t.
Much has been made, for instance, of President Russell M. Nelson’s talk where he states that this policy is “the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord” and that he and the other apostles have received “spiritual confirmation” that this is the case. Those who speak Dissident are quick to note that this elevates this policy to the level of doctrine, making it infallible. End of discussion, right? Consider these words of the First Presidency: “We feel very sure that you understand well the doctrines of the Church. They are either true or not true. Our testimony is that they are true. Under these circumstances we may not permit ourselves to be too much impressed by the reasonings of men however well-founded they may seem to be.”
That last bit predates Elder Nelson’s talk by six decades or so. It was a letter from the First Presidency to Lowry Nelson, a BYU professor of Applied Sciences who had written Church President George Albert Smith about his concerns about the church policy of withholding the priesthood and temple blessings from black members. In 1947, over the course of a series of letters, President Smith stated that the idea “that all God’s children stand in equal positions before Him in all things” is “contrary to the very fundamentals of God’s dealings with Israel.”
He went on to state that those of African descent were less righteous in the preexistence, and that is why “it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by any of the Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” He goes further to decry the “repugnant” concept of “the intermarriage of the Negro and White races” which has “has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now” and “is contrary to Church doctrine.”
These letters were signed by the full First Presidency, including my great-grandfather David O. McKay, who succeeded George Albert Smith as President of the Church. Seven years after this letter was written, President McKay had this to say on the same subject:
“There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”
That’s inconsistent with the 1947 letters, but it’s entirely consistent with the Church’s current essay on the subject.
“Today, the Church 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. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
From the LDS.org essay “Race and the Priesthood.”
So how do you reconcile these contradictory positions? The only intellectually and spiritually honest answer is: you don’t. They are irreconcilable. One prophet was right, and one prophet was wrong. One prophet called it doctrine; another denied it was doctrine. And then another got rid of it altogether.
Doesn’t that mean the Church is a fraud? Quite the contrary. It means the Lord teaches his people the way he always has – “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” (2 Nephi 28:30) If that’s the process, then surely it means that the Church is going to move away from positions of error when it receives greater light. Infallibility never, ever comes into play.
But why is that the process? Why does he permit leaders to stumble in darkness and say and do things that are later proven to be incorrect by an application of greater light?
The answer is agency. Agency is the central purpose of our existence, and that’s true of prophets and Webelos leaders. (That’s me, incidentally. The extent of my current ecclesiastical authority is the supervision of 10-year-old boys learning how to conduct flag ceremonies. And even in this capacity, I’m far from infallible.)
One of the preeminent challenges of discipleship is sustaining leaders that are capable of error, who are just like you, me, and everyone other than Christ who has ever and will ever live. It means speaking Dissident is the wrong approach. It means when the Lord tells us to follow the prophet “in all patience and faith,” (D&C 21:5) he was right to put the word “patience” first. We recognize the importance of being patient with an imperfect bishop or relief society president, but we somehow think that once someone enters the Quorum of the Twelve, they have their agency extracted and patience is no longer necessary. That’s bad reasoning. Even more importantly, that’s bad doctrine.
So how do I explain Elder Nelson’s report of spiritual confirmation of a policy that, to me, contradicts fundamental gospel principles and remains wholly wrong? The answer is that I’m patient. I certainly don’t question Elder Nelson’s motives. I may not believe what he believes on this point, but I believe he believes it, and I respect the authority of his office. I don’t bolt from a church that has proven, time and again, that it is a force for great good in this world, that it is home to the influence of the Holy Ghost and the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and, that, not on my timetable but on the Lord’s, it will eventually get it right.