If you’re connected at all with Mormonism, you may have heard about the recent situation in which LDS church leaders have sent letters warning of excommunication to about a dozen members who are publicly asking difficult questions about church history, policy, and doctrine. The two most well-known individuals include Kate Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement, which raises questions about gender inequality in the church; and John Dehlin, author of the Mormon Stories podcast, staylds.com and several other websites which seek to help LDS members like himself who struggle with troubling issues within the church. He is also an advocate for LGBT rights.
Both Kelly and Dehlin see themselves as active and faithful members of the faith, and not apostates. They do not want to be excommunicated. They want to remain members of the church to which they have dedicated their lives. John has already helped thousands of individuals who were considering leaving the church, to reconcile their doubts and stay. His purpose is not to convince a person one way or another, but to foster open and honest dialog and to encourage individuals to follow their own conscience. He humbly writes about where he stands and his motivations here.
Excommunication is a serious punishment for an active believing Mormon, as it affects their eternal salvation and connection to their family in the afterlife. Even for those who don’t believe, excommunication usually causes a loss of respect and trust, rejection by loved ones, and in some communities and with some employers, it can even effect one’s job status. Choosing to leave the church or resign can have similar social effects. I have met many former LDS members who were told by their parents, “You are no longer my child”, “It would have been better if you’d died”, and by friends that they can no longer be friends.
The thought that the church might excommunicate people such as John and Kate troubles me, because it sends a message to members that asking questions, having doubt, or sharing your own interpretations of doctrine is not okay, and that people who do are not welcome among the ranks of Mormonism. Yet I know many members of the church who want to believe, and do believe much of what is taught, but who also struggle to understand some of the contradictions and difficulties within church history and doctrine. Some feel that they must hide their feelings and their doubt, rather than discuss their honest feelings openly, which might give them a chance at being resolved.
I was glad to see the church starting to post on its website about some of the more challenging issues in its history. It gave me hope that it was going to give more clarity to the issues that people like John Dehlin and others have wrestled with, and that so many people have left the church over. I chose to leave Mormonism because it didn’t make enough sense to me and I didn’t see enough value in continuing to participate. I asked many questions that remain unanswered. Thousands of members are asking similar questions, longing and waiting patiently for official answers from their prophet. The Letter to a CES Director gives a good summary of the common ones.
But I know many faithful Mormons who, despite not being able to come up with satisfactory answers to these questions, continue on in the faith. Some put their questions on the shelf, maybe indefinitely; and some come up with their own answers either through reason and study, or prayer and personal revelation. What the church seems opposed to, is when those answers are shared with others. And in the cases of John and Kate, where those answers have garnered the attention of wider audiences, the church for some reason feels threatened. But rather than issuing official statements clarifying the church’s position on these issues, the leaders are seeking to silence those who continue to share their own opinions.
There are many ways to interpret Mormon doctrine, and many different ways people live the faith. Even apostles have some opposing views on different doctrinal matters. What reason is there to be afraid of open dialogue? Many members are open to it, and are still strong in the faith. I do not see this as an act of apostasy worthy of excommunication, and while church leaders have every right to disagree, I wonder what they hope to accomplish by excommunicating members who are doing so much to help their cause. While some church leaders today seem intent on eliminating those from the church who may not share their beliefs or live the religion the same way they do, not every leader shares this view. Consider these quotes by the church’s founder, Joseph Smith:
“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (History of the Church, 5:340)
“We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them—even if they knew it was wrong. But such obedience as this is worse than folly to us. It is slavery in the extreme. The man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings until he turns from his folly.
“A man of God would despise this idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary…
“When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.” (Millenial Star, Archive Volume 14, Number 38, Pages 593-595)
And some words from LDS church apostles:
“Convince us of our errors of Doctrine, if we have any, by reason, by logical arguments, or by the Word of God and we will ever be grateful for the information and you will ever have the pleasing reflections that you have been instruments in the hands of God of redeeming your fellow beings.” (Orson Pratt (1853) The Seer. p. 15. http://www.archive.org/details/OrsonPratt)
“The man who cannot listen to an argument which opposes his views either has a weak position or is a weak defender of it. No opinion that cannot stand discussion or criticism is worth holding. And it has been wisely said that the man who knows only half of any question is worse off than the man who knows nothing of it. He is not only one-sided but his partisanship soon turns him into an intolerant and a fanatic. In general it is true that nothing which cannot stand up under discussion or criticism is worth defending.”
James E. Talmage Improvement Era, Jan 1920, p. 204
John and Kate are acting out of integrity. They still love the church and want to be a part of it, but they can’t in good conscience (or good logic) reconcile some of the messages of the church. Like many members, they just want clarification. In recent PR statements, the LDS church has made it clear that they welcome members with doubts and questions, as long as they don’t talk about them with others. But they’re sending a mixed message in their attempts to silence the questioners, instead of answering the questions, and I wonder how this will affect the many members who have doubts but no safe place to express or explore them. I know from personal experience the problems that come from suppression.
Does the church today want members who question, to shelf their questions, push away their doubts, and close their mouths, holding out for hope that some of what they’re being told must be true, even when it doesn’t make sense? Does it want them to resign from the church (or else be excommunicated) and risk losing their loved ones and social standing? Does it mind if they wrestle with the Lord, seek learning by study and faith, and maybe get an answer for themselves that’s a little bit more specific than what the leaders preach in general conference? Is it okay for some members to hold different doctrinal beliefs than other members, including some leaders, and to share them as their own beliefs? Is that really grounds for apostasy? Why would church leaders seem to view the questions as a threat? When questions are seen as a threat, isn’t is usually because the receiver is insecure about the answer?
Why do I care?
You might ask, “Brandon, you’ve left the church. So why do you care what the church does, or who it excommunicates? Why are you getting involved?” Good question. It’s true, I don’t believe the church has any real authority from God, or performs binding ordinances. I don’t believe that Joseph Smith restored the church that God set up for Adam, or the church that existed in Jesus’ day. Actually, I feel that I have good reason to doubt that Adam even existed, and that Jesus even created a church.
But Joseph Smith did create a church. And although it’s changed in numerous ways since the day of its founding in 1830, and split off into dozens of sects, the sect that I grew up in for 30 years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meant everything to me. My entire life revolved around this church. And it still does for many of my dear family and friends. I understand what it’s like to believe it with all my heart, and have no doubt. I also understand what it’s like to have questions, and to put doubts on the shelf. And I understand how scary it is to fear the rejection of family and friends for expressing belief in something different. And my heart reaches out to all these people, especially those who feel they do not have a voice. If members can’t safely speak out about these issues, then I will, because I believe that everyone deserves a voice, no matter their opinion.
I love and support my family and friends regardless of what they believe about the church, or how they serve within or without it. The church is a powerful force for good in some of their lives. But for many, it’s a challenge. For some, the only reason they stay in the church is because if they left, they fear that their spouse or children would abandon them and treat them like a dangerous criminal. I know how painful it is to be shamed for having a question. To be shamed for feeling a certain way or believing something different. Many LGTB members know shame within the church at an even deeper level, as they have been taught that their very nature is shameful. I now see shame as a completely unnecessary and unhealthy motivator, and hope that more people in the church will start using more helpful and healthy teaching methods.
Of course, the church can establish any doctrine or policy it chooses, and can excommunicate who it will. My question, which hopefully won’t go ignored or silenced like the questions in the CES letter, is if doubters are truly welcome in the church, by both members and clergy. If not, then I feel for my Mormon friends, and hope that they will follow their own integrity and commitment to truth, wherever it leads them, be it in or out of the church, and that their actions will be driven by the pure love inside of them, rather than the fear that resides around them.
Update June 23, 2014: Kate Kelly has now been excommunicated. John Dehlin’s disciplinary council is still pending.