Welcoming Difficult Questions Personal / Spirituality

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.

Brandon is a location independent entrepreneur, musician, worldschooling father, and the principal author of this blog. He's all about reaching his potential and enjoying life to the fullest in each moment.


  1. You care what others thin, or you would not written the post. You are still healing. It is hard to do, But inevitable. Go for it.

    • Very perceptive, Ronnie. Yes, I don’t know if I’ll ever permanently be free of thoughts of what others think of me, or stop healing from my life experiences. But I do care deeply about people, and about love, and I want my actions to contribute to peace. If this blog post encourages someone to be true to themselves, or treat someone else more kindly, my mission will have been accomplished.

  2. Jennifer Pearce Says: June 24, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    I think it’s sad that in answer to their questions and in trying to ask them publicly, they are being served a letter of exclusion instead. It reminds me of the scriptures, “And I say unto you, ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent?” In accordance with their calling as representatives of Jesus Christ, I would expect church leaders to honor that message in their responses to church members. It’s only healthy and natural for those with similar questions and views to come together in sharing their thoughts and feelings, and to seek help and answers from those in authority. They need more love, support, understanding, and inclusion–not less.

  3. I have come to believe that Certainty hates Questions. And many people deeply want… or need… certainty in their lives. And they cling to that certainty like a life raft. They believe that it saves them… and that it will keep them from drowning.

    People who cling to certainty will always be fearful of questions. Because questions erode certainty. And many people are terrified of having their certainty eroded… because they believe they will drown without it.

  4. The issue here isn’t that members can’t speak out about their concerns for fear of excommunication. That was never the issue. The issue is whether or not members can create organizations to promote their alternate interpretation of doctrine and rally other members to join their way of thinking (and in the case of OW agitate for change in favor of their agenda).

    If you read the actual excommunication letter served (http://img.ksl.com/slc/2526/252687/25268764.pdf) the bishop who served it repeatedly said she was entitled to have questions about the church and views.

    “The difficulty, Sister Kelly, is not that you say you have questions or even that you
    believe that women should receive the priesthood. The problem is that you have persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others. *You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them and proselyte others to them while remaining in full fellowship in the Church.* This is the basic point that President Wheatley has sought repeatedly to explain to you, but to no avail. You have also heard from President Lee and me on this. Your disregard of our advice and counsel left us no alternative but to convene last evening’s council.” (emphasis added)

    I mean, wouldn’t agree that there’s a huge difference between having questions about doctrine as a single entity vs. creating organizations to promote your way of thinking?

    To use a computer analogy, it would be like if at my company I had some objections to the way our system architecture was set up. I bring my concerns to the principal engineers and system architects and they assure me that it was setup that way for a reason and that I shouldn’t mess with it. However, instead of reconciling my concerns with the answer I received, I instead go and start writing new source files using the architecture I think it should have and start petitioning the VP and CEO to adopt my new source files. Not only that, but I start a promoting my new architecture publicly and I try to convince my coworkers to help me in my cause. Am I helping or harming my company? I may be well-meaning, but I can’t blame anyone but myself when I’m fired.

    TL;DR: The issue is whether or not members can create organizations to promote their alternate interpretation of doctrine, *not* whether or not they can voice concerns.

    • I never said that the church shouldn’t excommunicate Kate or John. They have every right to do so. But when they say “You are entitled to your views, but you are not entitled to promote them”, to me that sends a very serious message that the church is not welcoming of those with alternate views. Neither John or Kate are speaking for the church. They’re sharing their own opinions, which they have every right to do. Would you like to belong to a government which kicked you out of the country or put you in prison for writing blog posts about the contradictions you noticed in some aspects of how the government was run? These guys aren’t building armies to start an insurrection! They’re faithful members who love the church, but who have unanswered questions that the church leaders are not addressing. What else are they supposed to do? Do you think they should just shut up, ignore their feelings, and disregard their integrity?

      • Well, how you interpret that message is up to you, but I see it as just being consistent against apostasy. The church is welcoming of those with alternate views, just not the preaching and propagation of views deemed apostate by its leaders.

        If I have an apostate view (regardless of how well-meaning I am or whether or not I personally believe my view is apostate), and I’m trying to promote it, it’s in the church’s best interests to put a stop to it (otherwise you have a Nehor on your hands). The brethren prayerfully decide whether or not the view I’m promoting is apostate or not, and if it is, give me a few warnings to stop preaching said view.

        If you have a problem with that, then you have a problem with the church’s core defense mechanism against apostasy. And apparently they aren’t faithful members of the church if they are unwilling to comply with the counsel of church leaders.

        John and Kate aren’t building armies to start an insurrection, but they are building armies of loyal followers who drink up their philosophies of men.

        I don’t think they should shut up and ignore their questions. I think they should talk to their leaders and do their own personal research until they resolve them. If you have a doubt about X doctrine, but Jim doesn’t, why try to convince Jim to doubt X doctrine as well? Why not resolve X doubt for yourself first, and then post how you resolved X to the public? That way you are strengthening the faith of your followers instead of amassing doubters who are demanding answers from the brethren?

        Also the church doesn’t “kick you out” when you apostatize. You are still free to attend church. There are just (heavy) restrictions on what you can do now. As a member of the church you agree to certain terms and conditions (remember those covenants you made at baptism, when you got Melchizedek priesthood, or when you went through the temple? Those are all things you agreed to do in order to be a member in full standing.) These people signed on the dotted line so to speak and nobody made them do it. If you break said terms and conditions, there are consequences. If you break the terms and conditions of your employment (i.e. start convincing coworkers to switch companies, etc.) then you’ll be fired. If you break the terms and conditions for being a US Citizen, then you’ll you get thrown in jail. I fail to see why enforcing the terms and conditions that these people agreed to is such a crime against humanity.

        • As far as I can tell, John Dehlin has done all the things that you advised — talked with his leaders, resolved many issues, and then posted how he resolved them to the public. I wouldn’t doubt that John’s websites has had more influence to strengthen the faith of members than to tear it down. As I said earlier, thousands of members who otherwise would have left the church, have chosen to stay because they found his work. And this work, I will add, has not been about trying to convince anyone to his way of thinking, or teaching things contrary to church doctrine, despite John’s stated lack of belief in many core principles of Mormonism (which you and the church have agreed is not grounds for excommunication). His work has mostly just been asking people questions about their experiences with Mormonism. He’s interviewed church leaders, scholars, historians, doubters, ex-Mormons, and anti-Mormons. He listens to all sides, as any good scholar would. He asks them questions, listens to their stories, and doesn’t dictate to anyone how they should believe.

          Now, John hasn’t been excommunicated yet, and maybe he won’t be. But the fact that church leadership is concerned about the content of his blog sends a message that it’s not okay to listen to all sides of an issue. It makes it look like the church is trying to silence free speech, and hide something they don’t want members to see. If the church is true, why would leaders and members fear this kind of website? Maybe his local leaders (and apparently some general leaders) were intimidated by something John wrote, but is it really right for them to ask John to take down his website which has helped so many? Perhaps this is an example of church leaders issuing orders that are less than inspired. (Please refer to the Joseph Smith quotes in my above article)

          President Hinckley said, “We have nothing to hide. Our history is an open book. They may find what they are looking for, but the fact is the history of the church is clear and open and leads to faith and strength and virtues.” (Dec. 25, 2005 interview with The Associated Press).

          John is helping to uncover that history, and is doing so with integrity, unlike those who only show one side of an argument, and try to keep others from hearing alternate perspectives.

          • Bryan G Says: June 27, 2014 at 9:02 pm

            I’ll wait and see what the outcome of John’s C&D is before commenting further, because if what you say is true, his appeal should go through.

            It could be that the church leadership is concerned with him listening to and weighing anti-mormon views (and his LGBT rights activism), which could prompt his followers to do the same. That practice alone is a poisonous activity that erodes faith, and from what I’ve seen, it’s very difficult to resolve the doubts faster than you can accumulate them. It’s like climbing a mountain. Building faith is like climbing uphill whereas building doubts is like biking downhill. Everyone I’ve known who has “fairly weighed” anti-mormon arguments over a period of time has lost all or part of their faith. It looks like even John stated on his blog that he no longer believes core doctrines of the church.

            What kind of message does that send to his followers? That it’s ok to dabble in anti-mormon material (in the name of being scholarly) and pick and choose which core doctrines of the gospel you believe and still be a member in good standing?

          • If everyone you know who has listened to and “fairly weighed” all sides of an issue, chose to believe aspects of the other side, doesn’t that show that maybe there some truth to that side? And if there is, wouldn’t you want to know it rather than believe something that isn’t true? Why fear “anti-Mormon” material if you’re sure that you have the truth? (Look at the James E. Talmage quote I posted above) Most of it isn’t “anti-Mormon” anyway, it’s just church history. Sure, there are some people (on both sides) who’ve used sly tactics or printed lies, but it’s not the majority, and these are easy to spot when you know you’re history and look at the sources they’re pulling from.

            As for picking and choosing which core doctrines you believe in and follow, doesn’t everyone do that to some degree or another? It’s impossible to live everything in the gospel perfectly all the time. You have to pick and choose which parts are most important to you. But lack of belief doesn’t (or at least, didn’t) disqualify someone from being a member in good standing (again, see Joseph Smith quote above). Even if someone has no belief in God and doesn’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but wants to be a member of the church because it’s their heritage and they love parts of it, and how the church supports their family life or whatever, can you and other members still welcome them in the church like Pres. Uchdorf does when he says, “Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church.”?

            Jeffrey R. Holland said something similar. It’s too long to post here, but you can read it at the top of this document: http://staylds.com/docs/HowToStay.html

            So yes, like some LDS church leaders, I also believe that it’s ok not only to dabble, but to thoroughly study all sides of an issue, and that whatever you choose to believe with your increased knowledge should be respected, and not be grounds for others to reject you, either personally or in church membership.

  5. SHALL the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood

    You seem like a smart and successful guy. Did you get there in your own? You got there by being definite in your decisions and by some blessings in the area where luck meets preparation. This post and your beliefs on mormonism and Kate Kelly and other members facing excommunication is one area in which you have short changed yourself. Temporary happiness and success is yours, or so it seems from your blog. If that’s what you want to settle for long term so be it. Don’t use your status to direct others away.

    • I also got where I am by following my heart and my integrity (or what you might call the “Spirit”). I believe this is what John, Kate, and others like them are doing, and that is all they are encouraging others to do. How am I short changing myself? When we follow our hearts, the results and answers we get don’t always turn out the same for everybody. Sharing our beliefs is a way to connect as humans. And I think welcoming it all does bring more happiness and peace (and connection) than shutting out that which doesn’t resonate with personal firmly held beliefs.

      Article of Faith 11: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” I think this applies both in and out of the church. Let’s show some compassion for those who have alternate beliefs and interpretations of doctrine.

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