Thursday, June 26, 2014

Women and the Priesthood, 2014 vs Blacks and the Priesthood, 1978

There has been significant public controversy recently, concerning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint's initiation of Church Disciplinary actions against several prominent Church members, because of their public and vocal actions concerning various aspects of Church doctrine, practices, teachings, etc. (Kate Kelly, John Dehlin, Rock Waterman). This seems to be gaining considerable national media attention, with some referring to this as the real ‘Mormon Moment.’

There are several aspects of these controversies that deserve comment and perspective. but here I just want to address the issue of Women and the Priesthood.

Many orthodox Church members simply affirm that God leads the Church, that whatever Church leaders do and decide is God’s will, and that if those members are not willing to abide the rules, choose not to be obedient to the leaders, or ‘fight’ against the leadership, they have basically forfeited their right to maintain their membership, and deserve to be excommunicated.

But if you stop and give this matter some thought and research, things are not quite as simple as they might seem, even for an Orthodox, believing Mormon. While not an exactly comparable situation, I still find it useful to examine the topic of the previous restriction of Blacks from holding the Priesthood.

Consider this official statement from the First Presidency (George Albert Smith President) on August 17, 1949:

"The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time." 

"The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality..."

This was the official Doctrine of the Church, and not simply a 'policy,' as declared by the First Presidency. Seems fairly clear-cut.

Now consider a recent document published by the Church online on its official website. In trying to explain the ban, it states:

"Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church." 
"In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination." 
"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 actions in a premortal life..."

The take-home point here is that what was formally declared as official Church Doctrine in 1949 is declared as not being Doctrine in 2014. What was explicitly identified as not simply being a policy in 1949, is now declared in 2014 as simply being a policy.

And to respond to an expected objection to this line of reasoning, this is different from the concept of ‘Continuous Revelation’, where additional light and knowledge is supposed to expand on previous understanding, fill in details previously not known, reveal new knowledge, etc. This recent declaration directly contradicts matters previously declared as being the official Doctrine of the Church.

I found it fascinating to read about Byron Marchant, who was excommunicated in October, 1977, in connection with his public opposition to the Church's withholding the Priesthood from Blacks. Just a year later, and his membership might not have been threatened. This may provide insight into the current excommunications.


I'm not advocating any position here. I simply think it would be healthier if all sides of any controversial issue have a more complete understanding of the matter at hand, and in particular to have a full understanding of how and why others come to different conclusions. This seems to me to offer a greater opportunity for mutual understanding and respect, which is so often missing at times like these.

And all of this makes one wonder if, down the road, Church doctrine/policy will change to allow women to hold the Priesthood, just as it did with the Blacks.

Prior to 1978, it was basically inconceivable for most members to see a change in Church doctrine/policy to allow Blacks to hold the Priesthood, believing that the Brethen, and therefore God, had already clearly spoken on this issue. Further, there were (and still are, unfortunately) multiple scriptural passages justifying this practice.

With regard to the Priesthood being restricted to males, it is interesting to note that there aren't even any actual scriptural passages that justify this practice. Ally Isom, official Church spokeswoman, during an interview with RadioWest's Doug Fabrizio, was asked, "Where does it say in Mormon doctrine that women can't have the priesthood?" She replied, "It doesn't."

Time will tell.