If families couldn’t be together forever, the church could likely avoid many of the controversies concerning its history and contemporary practices. It would be one thing to merely assert that families are forever, much like the Book of Abraham posits Kolob as the star nearest to God’s residence, as something that may be true but is entirely abstract and otherworldly in significance. But the church almost from its beginning has exerted considerable effort to make eternal marriage a doctrine with real consequences, to render it visible and comprehensible to the society in which the church finds itself. We might say that this is the practical difference between a doctrine and a mere teaching: as a core doctrine, the eternal family has reordered everything it comes into contact with, whether theology, liturgy, or policy. As an abstract principle, eternal marriage sounds nice; when it is rendered into concrete practice and articulated in policy, the results have been controversial. For example:
Polygamy. The doctrine of eternal marriage shares the same scriptural foundation in D&C 132 as plural marriage. Even beyond that, in a nineteenth-century society with high mortality rates and frequently incommensurate life spans of spouses, a doctrine of eternal marriage all but required polygamy as a post-life possibility in order not to render the idea of eternal marriage nonsensical. Even as a formerly lived practice, polygamy makes the duration of marriage beyond the death of one spouse (and into the remaining life-span of the surviving spouse, which might involve remarriage) highly visible. Due to the connections between polygamy and eternal marriage, I don’t see the church disavowing plural marriage as a mistake until it closes down its temples.
Racial restrictions on temple and priesthood participation. The gospel and its doctrine of eternal marriage, including the Nauvoo-era expansive view of sealing, was restored in a white America that held deep-seated racial animosity and a widespread abhorrence of interracial marriage that persisted into the late twentieth century. Where marriage and priesthood were intrinsically connected, racial bans on temple and priesthood activity anchored eternal marriage to the here-and-now reality of white Americans; the few black members of the church were forced to bear the cost for articulating the doctrine within a culture of racial animosity.
Modern sealing practice. The church continues to treat eternal sealings not as mystical entities that God will deal with in his inscrutable wisdom, but as a real fact with practical consequences. When sealed couples divorce, sealings are not automatically dissolved. When children have been sealed to parents who later divorce and remarry, there is the possibility for difficult situations where not everyone will be happy.
Part-member families and temple marriages. Mormonism has elevated marriage to its highest sacrament, while also having a very definite idea of sacred space. Today it’s inconceivable that an eternal marriage would not be performed in the temple. The spatial sacrality of the temple is constructed by limiting access, leading to the hurt feelings of younger siblings and nonmember parents. The church could avoid this by lessening the sacralized separateness of the temple, or by diminishing the notion that eternal marriage should have real consequences.
Proxy ordinances. Everyone likes the idea of family history and the notion that families will be together in the afterlife, but enacting that belief through ritual in Mormon sacred space has been a source of constant controversy. Mormon ways of seeking solace at the death of others are naturally based on Mormon teachings about the afterlife and the possibility of eternal connection, which find concrete expression in temple ritual and a massive program of recording and analyzing family records from around the world. But when the Mormon way of grappling with death collides with a celebrity culture that invites fan participation in the star’s life including its end, or with the imperative not to let the victims of the Holocaust be forgotten, controversies arise that will never be possible to prevent entirely.
This list is not exhaustive. There are probably other controversial issues that arise from Mormon teachings about marriage. Someone who didn’t find the prospect of eternal family relationships appealing might decide that the cost wasn’t worth it, but many members of the church cite eternal marriage as a doctrine that is especially important to them. There is a cost to reducing controversy, if by so doing one makes a vital doctrine less real. As much as I wish the controversies could all be avoided, and that some of the particular historical paths taken could have been skirted, we don’t get to choose between hypotheticals. Instead we only get the choice between a doctrine within Mormonism that is expressed in concrete ways with stubborn historical consequences, and, outside of Mormonism, at most, a vague feel-good hope with no scriptural foundation, no ritual expression, and no practical consequences.
Knowing the costs and considering the alternatives, I’ll take the package deal.