The God Who Changes His Mind

The God Who Changes His Mind April 4, 2019

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.

Dueling Revelation

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.

So, why?

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?

The second.

Latter-day Saints definitely believe in a God who changes His mind.

Whiplash Revelation

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:

  1. Changing environment
  2. Changing needs
  3. 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.

Why Change?

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.

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  • Joseph M

    I ran across one of the most succinct explanations of the need for continuing revelation in a book on understanding the Bible (Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes). Roughly “the instruction to veer left is only good advice when you are going of the road into the right hand ditch.”
    Having been a bit of a sailor in my youth I learned that traveling into the wind often requires some seemingly contradictory changes of direction.

  • Michael Hoggan

    God doesn’t change His mind. He changes His instructions. I suspect that is what you meant, but I wish you had been more explicit.

  • Christopher D. Cunningham

    I meant what I wrote, I described what I meant by the phrase in some detail.

  • TinnyWhistler

    The changes were “leaked”? Were they supposed to be secret in the same way a leaked movie script was supposed to be secret?

    That said, considering the number of conversations I’ve had with people who’ve claimed that your doctrine doesn’t change, I appreciate your frank discussion of it.

  • Christopher D. Cunningham

    I suppose it depends on how you define doctrine. I was careful to write that it can change what some people call doctrine.

    Others might use the word doctrine the same way I used the word principle here.

  • Proletarius

    No, it wasn’t leaked. It was announced on the Church web site. A summary of the remarks from all three members of the Presidency was given, then the details of the policy change as presented by President Oaks were listed at the end of the post.

  • Proletarius

    Benjamin the Scribe provided an amazing, well-researched and documented analysis of prophetic revelation almost exactly one year ago. I highly recommend it, and all of the links he provided. Especially in the context of the policy changes.

  • LaneWolfley

    You make the God of the universe appear to occupy such a tiny world

  • The Last Danite

    People who assume God would never change a previous revelation should study Zions Camp

  • TinnyWhistler

    That’s what I thought. I’m confused by the use of the word leaked there.

  • Daniel Thornton

    The 2015 policy was leaked, not the recent changes.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Ok , was THAT policy supposed to be secret?

  • Daniel Thornton

    I wouldn’t use the term secret. Classified would probably be closer to the truth, though I tend to think in terms of confidentiality.
    Here are the facts:
    The policy in question was published as part of the church’s handbook for bishops and stake presidents (see Handbook (LDS Church) – Wikipedia). While access to this document is generally restricted to those currently serving in church leadership, keep in mind that the majority of those leaders only serve for a few years, so they aren’t some sort of elite class or cabal. And though I’ve never been a bishop, so I can’t actually say for certain, I doubt very much that they’re sworn to secrecy on the contents of the handbook.

  • Christopher D. Cunningham

    The God of the universe does occupy my tiny world.

    I certainly don’t intend to suggest that is the only place He exists, but it’s the only place I can speak to.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Huh, interesting. I didn’t realize there was so little transparency in how the church was structured and run. That’s pretty different from what I’m used to. Thanks!

  • JohnE_o

    God must have noticed that instead of repudiating their parents and falling in line with The Church when they turned 18, teenagers in that situation were abandoning Mormonism.

    Gotta rope the kids in when they’re young…

  • The Last Danite

    I cringe at how people mistake sarcasm for intellectual depth.

  • JohnE_o

    Well then, why do you think that God changed His mind about the policy?

  • The Last Danite

    I view it as a wheat and tare sifting. The outcry was ludicrous and zero doctrine has been changed. People who think God has never “changed his mind” should read the story of Abraham or Zions Camp.

  • JohnE_o

    Do you think that “The people who make policy saw that the children who were affected by the old policy were turning their backs on Mormonism and so in order to keep them in the religion, they reversed the initial policy” is an unreasonable explanation for what has been observed?

  • The Last Danite

    If that was true we would see far more reversals as an attempt to “keep them in”. The Word of Wisdom would be abolished, tithing would be reduced, chastity would be more lax, or LGBT relations would be permitted. Yet a minor policy reversal has people losing their minds.

    I have yet to see a single person who is wailing over this alleged “creutly” regarding the policy shed a single tear for the children of polygamists who have had the same policy for decades. Seems like selective outrage in the name of progressiveness.

  • JohnE_o

    Regardless of all the other things you mentioned, is the explanation I put forward reasonable or unreasonable?

  • The Last Danite

    If one denies the Church being led by living prophets than yes. If you accept the Church as being led by living prophets than no. It bears to much resemblance to past sifting times to be coincidence.

  • JohnE_o

    Sifting times being what? And how are they similar?

  • The Last Danite

    The sifted of the consecrated and the unconsecrated. Study Zions Camp March to see how similar these events are.

  • JohnE_o

    So in the current circumstances, who are the consecrated and who are the unconsecrated?

  • The Last Danite

    The consecrated are those who strive to live their covenants. The unconsecrated are those who don’t.

  • JohnE_o

    Well, that makes sense – so how does the current change in policy facilitate the sifting of these two groups?

    I read about Zion’s Camp and I gather that Joseph Smith tried to reclaim some real estate, failed to do so, and then blamed the church members for that failure, so I don’t really see the connection.

  • The Last Danite

    >so how does the current change in policy facilitate the sifting of these two groups?

    It helped test where our loyalties are. The Kingdom of God or the World?

    > Zion’s Camp
    A bad summary since you chose the word “real estate”. Being forcibly driven from your homes is not an attempt to reclaim some financial asset. The group was commanded to go and reclaim their stolen homes and redeem Zion. The group was then commanded to go home and disband. Just like today, many felt the march was pointless and criticized the prophet.

    Yet that march helped refine many men who would go on to lead in the Church and served as a great test of loyalty and faith to them.

  • JohnE_o

    So in your view, the reason God sent His Prophets a policy in 2015 and then sent them a policy reversal four years later was so that the faithfulness of the church members as a whole could be evaluated on the basis of which ones were upset about the change in policy?

  • The Last Danite

    Perhaps. When the policy was put in place the outrage puzzled me. Did people feel the Church would suddenly be okay with gay marriage because it was legalized nationwide?

  • JohnE_o

    Outsider looking in, but wasn’t the issue more along the lines that children being raised by parents who were in a gay relationship were being denied the opportunity to become members of the church until they reached 18 and then only if they denounced the people who raised them?

  • The Last Danite

    If this was a huge issue why was there no outrage over the same policy existing for decades over the children of polygamists? Also, the policy never required youth to denounce their parents. It required them to denounce their lifestyle. Big difference.

  • JohnE_o

    Along those lines, why do you think God told His Prophets to reverse the policy for gay families but not for polygamist families?

  • The Last Danite

    Sifting since the outrage over the issue proved many couldn’t handle anything that went against their political hedges. Expect this to become more common as time goes on.

  • JohnE_o

    But wouldn’t there be even more sifting going on if God had instructed His Prophets to reverse the policy for both the gays and the polygamists?

  • The Last Danite

    Why would there be? People view polygamists as creepy and patriarchal. They are not granted the same victim status as LGBT individuals. Look at the amount of people who are disturbed by early church polygamy.

  • JohnE_o

    But that is why the Mormon as a whole would be sifted – they would ask why the children of the creepy polygamists were allowed to join – thus showing that they do not trust God’s instructions as sent through His Prophets.

  • The Last Danite

    Nobody cares now that children of polygamists have extra hoops to jump through before they can join. If the policy was reversed nobody would care still. Look at the outrage over the same policy being directed toward a different group. Clearly people have differing views about the group. If sifting was one of the goals it worked.

  • JohnE_o

    Okay, I disagree on the ‘nobody would care’ thing, but that’s not important.

    So what are the groups that the population of ‘those who call themselves Mormon’ are being sifted into, in your view, and how does the outrage over policy demonstrate this?

  • The Last Danite

    “So let us look at ourselves. For the Church, the scriptures suggest both an accelerated sifting and accelerated spiritual and numerical growth—with all this preceding the time when the people of God will be “armed with righteousness”—not weapons—and when the Lord’s glory will be poured out upon them . The Lord is determined to have a tried, pure, and proven people and “there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it”.

    How can we, as individual members of the Church, survive spiritually if we do not honor our covenants? How can we survive spiritually if we break outright the covenants made at the time of baptism or in the holy temples? How can we be on the Lord’s side during the “great division” if we mirror the world’s materialism and selfishnes” – Neal A Maxwell

  • JohnE_o

    That’s not really an answer to my question…

  • Proletarius

    Where’d you go brotherman? Am missing your fresh takes

  • JohnE_o

    Yep – like an exercise on avoiding coming to grips with the obvious…

  • almon clegg

    Maybe Christopher D Cunningham left out an important reason for the change in policy and practice in the Church. It could be that God had a purpose in mind that had met its goal or solution and can be altered or given “mission accomplished” status. There are many examples of one given instructions from the Lord and later on given a new direction in life’s purposes. Apostle Paul is one such example. The consideration for change need not be restricted to those listed by the author.

  • Observer

    President Nelson covered this extremely well in his recent address to youth or young adults.