This morning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced policy changes that effectively reverse the policy from November 2015.
For those who don’t remember, that month the Church quietly updated it’s policy handbook in response to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States to prevent the children of LGBT+ parents from being baptized, and categorized same-sex marriage as apostasy. But the changes were leaked and quickly became a major news story.
Soon after the policy changes were made, President Russel M. Nelson, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, declared that this policy was the result of “revelation.”
Then today, less than three and a half years later, this policy has been effectively reversed. And how? “After fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord on these matters.” Which in the language of Latter-day Saints sounds like a revelation.
Does the First Presidency think we forgot that these policies also came from revelation so recently?
Or do they expect us to believe that God only a few years later simply changed his mind?
Latter-day Saints definitely believe in a God who changes His mind.
This is far from the first example of revelation that seems to change.
Recently many have also criticized the Church’s decision to emphasize its proper name, suggesting that either the decision to run the “I’m a Mormon” campaign or the decision to focus on the Church’s full name must not be revelation.
The Church changed the length of missions from 24 to 18 months in the early eighties, and about two and a half years later reversed course.
And in the case of local leaders, I can’t count the number of well-meaning, revelation seeking bishops who announced one policy only to reverse it the next year. (Or the next week in some cases.)
Are we supposed to believe that the old idea wasn’t revelation? Should we conclude the entire thing must be a fraud? Some might. Or we can simply believe that God really does change His mind.
Changing Your Mind
Sometimes when we use the phrase “Change Your Mind” it suggests admitting that we were wrong before. But that’s not always the case, and that’s not what I mean here.
What I mean is adapting.
A brand new start-up business probably wouldn’t want to invest in an entire HR department from day one. But if they don’t change their mind at some point, they are going to get themselves into trouble.
We can change our minds without being wrong before in the face of:
- Changing environment
- Changing needs
- Changing expectations
And the need to make adjustments to those changes is built into the very fiber of our faith.
If there would never be any need for ongoing changes, then the Lord could have revealed everything from day one, and no longer needed prophets, but instead relied on administrators and motivators.
I understand that many people believe exactly that. They believe the New Testament includes the sum total of information we need. It was revealed in a single generation, and the ongoing role of the Church is administer that rather than build on it.
But that’s not us. And leaning into that distinction is not an admission of defeat, it’s a defining characteristic.
Latter-day Saints believe the Lord is ” the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.” And while the phrase does appear once in the New Testament, it appears seven times in the Book of Mormon. This is not a trivial belief of our faith.
Then how can anyone rationalize that a God that stays the same also changes his mind?
Because change is often essential for remaining the same.
If your core attribute was thriftiness, so you always bought the store brand, but then for the first time margarine appeared at your grocery store, the only way for you to maintain your underlying value of thriftiness would be to abandon your store brand and buy the cheaper alternative.
As the circumstances changed, the only way to stay the same was to change.
When the Church changed it’s emphasis on the name change I wrote, “It’s entirely possible that the focus on the word Mormon was essential for helping the Church during that period in its history, but that we are now entering a new phase of the Church’s history where a different focus will help advance the work in a different way. . . . Plus in theory, one of the advantages of having a living church is that it will adapt to fit changing times. There is no reason why these changes can’t reverse back and forth to best fit different times.”
And just because we don’t always see or recognize the reason, doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. As far as we know the policy change for missionary lengths was enough to persuade one person to go on a mission, who converted one person, who will share the gospel with one person, who will have one child, who will have some as of yet unknown but significant role in the plan of God.
We may make up our minds based on trends and headlines, but God knows even the “hairs on your head.”
The purpose of the changes could also be sequential. My wife was inspired to seek out a new job, but when she read that the contract included a non-compete clause it solidified her desire to start her own practice, which she was then inspired to do.
I don’t doubt that both instances of communicating with the divine were valid. But my wife would never have been open to the idea of leaving her existing job to start her own business if she hadn’t first become comfortable with the idea of leaving her current job period.
Doctrine vs. Policy vs. Revelation
One of the major themes talked about with this change is the distinction between policy and doctrine. And that’s an important distinction. At the time of the new LGBT policy in 2015 I wrote, “These changes are to policy, not doctrine. Policy changes in the Church on a regular basis to best protect the Church and respond to ongoing revelation. This policy may be long-lasting or it may be short-term. These changes are only to be administered by church leadership, so direction on these matters can change and often do.”
There is another myth being perpetuated this time, that while policy can change doctrine never does. That’s not true. While underlying principles stay the same, like chastity, how that principle applies to us can change. As dating and marriage norms change, the only way that the principle could remain the same is for the application to change. And that could result in things that we call doctrine being changed.
But changes to doctrine are much less common.
But revelation is not unique to changing doctrine. I personally doubt the Lord reveals in clarity every policy the Church makes. But I believe He can, and I believe He occasionally does.
Anyone who believes that the Lord continues to need a prophet, should of necessity believe that revelations will continue to change, sometimes quickly, to meet the changing needs of the Church and world.
While I don’t always understand the exact reason for the quick change, I have no trouble understanding that there was one. And while I tried to explain that the previous policy did not need to be the cause for any angst, I understand that it was for many people. I’m glad the new policy will help to reduce that hurt.