My petition for a bill of…

The law that God gave to ancient Israel was pretty clear and unambiguous: divorce isn’t part of the program. Then the people sued Moses for a bill of divorcement. I have no idea what that conversation between Moses and God was like. Maybe it had parallels to the one where Moses talked God out of destroying the Israelites and starting over. Whatever the conversation, God granted the petition and gave Moses that bill of divorcement.

Then came Jesus of Nazareth. Divorce was a normal part of society in his day (even if not anything like divorce in our day). And Jesus spoke out in straightforward and unambiguous terms. Divorce was granted because of the people’s unrighteousness. Because they weren’t willing to keep the higher law. But together Moses and God had realized it was better for our people overall to grant the bill.

I personally believe in that original law, reiterated by Christ. I believe that divorce is not part of the Eternal Plan. But I’m incredibly grateful for the fact that our Church is not struggling with this in the same way that the Catholic Church is currently struggling with it. I think we are able to better fulfill the goals of this dispensation and in our personal families not only because we universally grant this exception to the Eternal Law as we understand it, but also because we don’t think we need to look down on or alienate or make uncomfortable or not baptize or not give callings to or otherwise exclude those who have gone through divorce (or their children).[fn1]

If we can grant a universal exception to an Eternal Law that is at the very heart of our doctrine of Eternal Families and that Jesus publicly commented on without ambiguity (i.e., divorce), then can we grant a similar exception to that Eternal Law on a condition that did not exist in Jesus’s day and about which he never made a scriptural comment (i.e., same sex marriage)?

Theologically, it’s clear we can. That is, divorce makes it absolutely clear that we’ve got plenty of room to be completely consistent and maintain full continuity with our past and our eternal doctrines while changing our practical operations — especially since the scriptural record is so explicitly biased against divorce and comparatively silent about same sex marriage.

I don’t believe that the outcry over the last few days has been any less significant a petition to the Lord’s prophet than was that of ancient Israel to Moses. I also don’t believe our current leaders are any less willing to listen. May we all be patient as we wait upon the Lord.


* * * *

  1. Alas, I know this isn’t true in every case, and CES isn’t the only one excluding or treating as second-class citizens those that are divorced. But I don’t think either our leaders or our laws or our general operations or the majority of our people do this. The overwhelming majority of the stories I hear are about ward families putting their arms around and loving and including those who’ve gone through divorce — and this is clearly our rhetoric. We’re not perfect, and I know personally those who’ve really struggled feeling like the church doesn’t do as well as they should in loving divorced families. We still have room for improvement. But I believe that compassion is the norm, even when we’re not terribly good at it, and bigotry on this level is the exception.

26 comments for “My petition for a bill of…

  1. Brad L
    November 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    Thanks, James. Good observations.

  2. Jack
    November 8, 2015 at 2:42 pm

    Whatever the underlying cause of divorce may be it’s evil. And as such, your logic would suggest that SSM is evil in spite of it becoming an exception.

  3. James Olsen
    November 8, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Jack, no that doesn’t follow. An exception like divorce allows a very wide range of people with very different “ultimate” beliefs concerning divorce to recognize that the Lord has granted an exception to Eternal Law because this exception is an overall benefit to Zion. The analogy does imply that the church’s current stance on the nature of the eternal (heterosexual) family is correct. But the precedence of divorce opens us to a range of different ways to proceed even there.

  4. November 8, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I have pondered painfully and extensively and written a little on divorce. To me, my divorce is much like Nephi killing Laban. I know it was commanded by God, but still the scars of that action run deeply into my soul.

    Divorce is a broken covenant. That an exception is given is only because of the wickedness which breaks that covenant. But, if we believe that the Church truly represents God, then God has said that there is no marital covenant possible between people of the same gender.

    An exception is therefore not possible without encouraging a relationship that can never be of God.

    That does not mean that we are any less obligated to mourn, comfort, and stand as a witness to those who choose a same-sex marriage than someone like me.

    It IS possible to love and still stand for the policies implemented by the Lord’s anointed representatives. It IS possible, though perhaps the hardest path of all: to maintain love in both directions.

  5. November 8, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    I’m finding it frustrating that so many are trying to use the scriptures to justify or deny this policy. Didn’t we already go through this?

    If you’d prefer to go back to Moses’ time before the bill was asked and have no allowance for divorce, do we also want to go back to stoning being a punishment for adultery? Of course not.

    Do we truly want to go to a time where we have no divorce, and say to those who are in a bad marriage, “sorry, but you’re stuck for eternity, better learn to deal with it”. I feel like this is an appropriate time to say “God forbid!”

    Jesus was right in saying that divorce was necessary because of wickedness; not to allow people to be unrighteous, but to allow those joined to someone unrighteous to find an escape and peace. It is not divorce that is sinful, but the actions that necessitate divorce are sinful.

    No one is going to be stuck for eternity to someone they can’t stand to be in the same room with. Nor is their card punched and they’re stuck with a choice of a bad marriage or no marriage ever at all.

    And arguments of “but this you’re not dealing with this moment is worse” aren’t really good arguments. It’s like the pickpocket complaining about his arrest “cause there are murderers out there”.

  6. adano
    November 8, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Frank: “Nor is their card punched and they’re stuck with a choice of a bad marriage or no marriage ever at all.”

    Isn’t that exactly the choose lgbt Mormons face? Bad hetero marriage, or no marriage at all. Or else excommunication, of course.

  7. Rob Osborn
    November 8, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    I believe the Lord has spoken and has decreed ssm an abomination. What then truly is the question? Are we willing to follow the prophets or not?

  8. November 8, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks. I have no substantive comment, because I’ve argued essentially the same thing elsewhere but not nearly so well. Worthy of a bookmark.

  9. SeanB
    November 8, 2015 at 9:55 pm


    I believe the Lord has spoken and has decreed that blacks bear the curse of Cain and it is an abomination to ordain them to the priesthood or to enter the temple. What then truly is the question? Are we willing to follow the prophet or not?

    Those who will not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

    Or perhaps Goethe’s observation is more applicable:

    As man is wont
    So is his God
    And thus is God
    Oft strangely odd

  10. Jack
    November 8, 2015 at 10:14 pm

    Even more odd than a god of our own making is one who lives and reveals His will to living oracles.

  11. Mark
    November 8, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    I’ve been thinking about the church’s stance on divorce lately too. I have Catholic friends who can’t be married in the Catholic Church because one of the couple was previously married and divorced. The LDS church heritage really came from a protestant background in Palmyra and New England where the protestant churches all split from Catholicism and one of the major changes was they accepted divorce. The Mormon church “grew up” never challenging the acceptance of divorce nor ever considering that it might be something that should be forbidden by the church. The proclamation on the family doesn’t mention divorce but says that children deserve to be born to two parents and the parents should honor vows with fidelity. It also says: WE WARN that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. These things may cause divorce (or not) but divorce is not specifically mentioned. I recognize there certainly have been speeches by church leaders that discuss the ideal of avoiding divorce. From my 50 years in the church I am not aware of immediate consequences in church policy for divorce itself. Why doesn’t the church push the ideal of no divorce more stridently or consider policies which would forbid it or make it more unacceptable? The Catholic church in my cursory reading of Jesus’s teachings could be argued is on the right side of doctrine on this one.

  12. nl
    November 9, 2015 at 12:57 am

    adano: That is exactly the choice many Mormons face regardless of sexuality.

  13. Brad L
    November 9, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Jesus says in Matthew 5:31-32:

    31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

    32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

    And Jesus says in Matthew 19:8-9:

    8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

    9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

    Jesus’ words seem quite clear. Men should not “put away” (translation of Greek apolyo, meaning to dismiss from the house) their wives, except in the case that one partner has had illicit intercourse with other person. For in so doing, they cause the woman to commit adultery. I suppose that Jesus considers this to be the case since by being dismissed/banned from the house by her husband, she is likely to be married off to someone else, and he regards the marriage to be an adulterous one. Jesus believes that Moses allowed his Hebrew followers to divorce because they were hardhearted, but he doesn’t appear to justify Moses allowing this. Men commit adultery by dismissing their wives from the house and marrying another woman, and also by marrying a woman who has been divorced.

    Indeed, the LDS church’s stance on divorce is completely different. They don’t consider a male marrying a divorced female to be a form of adultery. Jesus’ position and the current LDS position are irreconcilable. They are in diametric opposition.

  14. Jerome
    November 9, 2015 at 9:45 am

    A lot of commenters seem to think this blog post is about divorce…

    You’re right, James Olsen. In addition, we have this statement from Joseph Smith: “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”

    That leaves a big enough theological loophole for the brethren to drive a truck through, an easy way out of the same sex marriage dilemma.

  15. Jared vdH
    November 9, 2015 at 10:45 am

    “From my 50 years in the church I am not aware of immediate consequences in church policy for divorce itself.”

    A bishop who enters divorce proceedings while in office must be released. This happened in a local ward just recently. Also men who have been divorced cannot be called as bishops (and I’m assuming Stake Presidents, etc though I’m not as certain on that one).

    On a somewhat related note, in my ward when I was growing up one of my youth leaders that I really liked and admired went through a a very bitter divorce after it was discovered that his wife was cheating on him with another member of the ward. During the proceedings his wife accused him of abusing her and sexually abusing their children. Some of the children corroborated the claim and others denied it. He was released of all of his callings and was eventually excommunicated. No criminal charges were filed against him.

    To this day I’m still sad about it – was he a terrible human being that I unknowingly admired, or was he wronged by an aggrieved, philandering spouse? I have no idea. Either way no one came out of that situation unscathed and unbroken. It was all just… sad and we all mourned despite most of the membership of the ward inevitably taking one side or the other.

    I’m feeling those same feeling now, and from everything I’m reading I’m not the only one.

  16. Morgan
    November 9, 2015 at 11:29 am

    This is certainly the most controversial and dividing thing to happen to the church in my lifetime (born in ’82). I think you’re right, James, we have leaders willing to listen and petition the Lord on our behalf. It is my prayer they do so and are able to offer comfort to those who so badly need it now.

  17. VVilhelmus
    November 9, 2015 at 6:31 pm

    For many decades prior to this policy change the church has had an identical policy pertaining to children of polygamous households. The church has wished to separate itself completely from the practice of polygamy, and has therefore in the exact same manner denied allowing any church ordinances, from baby blessings to baptism, to these minor children in order not to be seen as sanctioning polygamy in any way.

    The silence regarding this policy on polygamy (which has already affected actual people) would indicate that no one much cared about it (or cared enough to even know about it). And yet, when the church decides in the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision to institute an exactly analogous policy to likewise refrain from being affiliated in any way with the sanctioning of gay marriage, suddenly SHTF. Why would that be? Is it because polygamists are a moral out-group, and therefore they and their children are afforded a corresponding low status? Ew! Nobody wants to be low status. And those huge hair-bump having, prairie-dress wearing women.. yeash! Talk about low status, amirite?

    Over the past decade, gays, on the other hand, have been made not only part of our society’s moral in-group, but their relationships are increasingly held up by entertainment media and the press as moral paragons and thus given a corresponding high status.

    It is difficult not to conclude that much of the negative response to the recent policy change and the previous non-response to the identical policy re: polygamy are indicative of status-signaling or virtue-signaling on the part of negative responders. Real psychological angst is felt when there is the possibility of being considered and thus shunned as part of the moral out-group. So you get the negative responses that have been so common on social media, which, when translated as the virtue-signaling they are, come to read something like, “Please know that by feeling badly about this new policy I too should be considered part of the moral in-group. I have come to see over the past decade that caring about gays–especially married gays, and most especially their children–is kind, decent and virtuous. I therefore wish to register my kindness and virtuousness and thus be afforded the high status of an in-group member.”

    If the church had instituted this exact policy after the legalization of gay marriage in Canada a little less than a decade ago prior to the ramping up of the current pro-gay virtue signaling, I venture to guess it would be experienced and understood no differently than the sanctions against children from polygamous households.

  18. Nate W.
    November 9, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    VVilhelmus @ 17:

    For many decades prior to this policy change the church has had an identical policy pertaining to children of polygamous households.

    This is not quite true. First, minor children of “parents who have practiced or are practicing plural marriage” may be baptized if they “are not living in a home where polygamy is being taught or practiced.” (CHI-1 § 16.3.9, at 145 (2010).) Children of “a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship” may only be baptized when they are “of legal age” AND they do “not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.” Second, there is no provision in the Handbook (or at least the 2010 version) prohibiting a baby of parents in a polygamous relationship from being named and blessed.

    Also, while I am not 100% sure of the purpose behind the Church’s requirement that children of parents practicing plural marriage must obtain permission from the First Presidency before they are baptized, my understanding is that it was a response to the requirement of some polygamous communities that a young man could not remain in that community unless he brought a wife into the community from outside. Young men from those communities would convert, get married to LDS women, and then go back to the polygamous communities. It was a policy designed to protect young LDS women from being pulled into polygamous marriages. Children of a parent in a same-sex relationship do not pose the same hazard of “false conversion” to their peers, so applying that policy to them does not make sense.

  19. DQ
    November 10, 2015 at 12:14 am

    Your point is very good, but argues literally in favor of the slippery slope.

    I think the issue at hand is there is a lot of confusion over the plan of salvation, the nature of God and Godhood, as well as our eternal destiny as children of God.

    Does allowing divorce cause that level of confusion? Mostly not, but you could probably argue at the margins a bit. The state of marriage is where it is, in large part because of our attitude towards that divine mandate.

    But does allowing gay marriage cause further confusion about God’s ultimate plan for his children? Yes. We do not need confused soles testifying of an eternal family in an unGodlike pattern. This may sound harsh, but that’s literally what it is. Our most sacred truths, which are only foreshadowed through the temple or prophetic teaching point to Godhood as man and woman.

    Divorce may undermine marriage, but it does not cause confusion about the ultimate goal. We recognize divorce is a failure. Do you recognize gay marriage as a failure?

  20. DQ
    November 10, 2015 at 12:31 am

    ” Children of a parent in a same-sex relationship do not pose the same hazard of “false conversion” ”

    Nate, I disagree. Not only do children post a hazard, to use your word, but adults do as well. It’s a badge of courage among the more progressive liberal members to profess their confidence in the equality of traditional marriage with same sex marriage in God’s eyes. That false conversion is taking place among adults who should know better. Why would you not assume it would be even more pernicious among children?

    I’m not teaching my children that those in homosexual marriage or relationships are evil by any means, but when the subject comes up I am not at all ashamed to let me children know that many people in the world are confused about what God wants for his children. We don’t need that confusion brought into the church.

  21. Brad L
    November 10, 2015 at 12:58 am

    DQ, I’m just not seeing where the major confusion is in the LDS community over the plan of salvation, the nature of God, Godhood, and eternal destiny. Perhaps there is some minor disagreement over whether God was once as man was and whether humans will eventually become like God is. But members appear to be largely in harmony over the issues that you mentioned. i do suspect, however, that maybe what you meant to say is that the LDS community is increasingly in disagreement about what the status of gays should be in the church. If that is what you meant to say, then I would agree with you.

    Divorce may undermine marriage, but it does not cause confusion about the ultimate goal. We recognize divorce is a failure. Do you recognize gay marriage as a failure?

    I’m not sure that you understood the OP. What I gathered from the OP was that if the LDS church can have a policy on divorce that is at clear variance with Jesus’ stance on divorce as recorded the the New Testament and yet still claim consistency with the doctrine in the standard works, then why couldn’t they potentially reverse their stance on same-sex marriage down the road (a matter that Jesus does not even explicitly forbid anywhere in the scriptures) and claim to maintain consistency and harmonious continuity with the past. The post has nothing to do with what is and isn’t good for the institution of marriage, but the viability of policy change.

  22. DQ
    November 10, 2015 at 1:23 am

    Thanks for your reply. I do not think you understand my deeper reading and comment to the post.

    Divorce is a failure and the Savior taught that we should be be perfect, knowing full well we can’t live up to it. He didn’t excuse the commandments, he asked us to live them. So he didn’t teach divorce, knowing full well, we would still have failures in marriage requiring it.

    Gay marriage is not a “just” failure in marriage. It’s an active pursuit in an opposite direction from the outset. It’s not an acknowledgement of “we tried to do the right thing and failed”, but asking someone from the outset to acknowledge the wrong thing as a step in right direction.

    Again, it’s one thing to try and fail. It’s another thing to try to fail.

  23. Brad L
    November 10, 2015 at 1:56 am

    DQ, I think that perhaps the current majority of LDS in the chapel would agree with you about gay marriage, and your views certainly seem consistent with that of the current LDS leaders’; however, the fact of the matter is that the tides are shifting against the current LDS leaders’ stance and more towards acceptance of gay marriage. Call it what you will (apostasy, adults who should know better, etc.), it is an undeniable fact. If it so happens that a greater number of active members in the future begin to favor gay marriage (even to the extent of asking what’s the big deal about denying temple marriages for same-sex couples), might the future church leaders 1) begin reconsider the church’s official policy on gay marriage and 2) find themselves in such a position where they would risk damaging the church membership by reversing course? I think the OP makes a convincing point that given the fact that church’s policy on divorce is not consistent with what Jesus said, leaders may actually be able to reverse their policy on gay marriage and still convince the members that they have acted consistently with the scriptures and have maintained continuity with their historical positions. Heck, they did it with blacks and the priesthood and polygamy. Many members whom I have had conversations with seem to have no gripe with church leaders over those policy changes and don’t see them as a challenge to the authority of Brigham Young or other past prophets regardless of the things that they said about interracial marriage, the curse of Cain, and the necessity of polygamy for salvation.

    I will say that I agree with what you suggested in comment 20 about the potential influence that the children of openly gay parents who are cohabiting with or married to a person of the same gender. They are more likely to be accepting of gay romantic relationships than your average church-going child and would probably sway them to accept gay marriage and gay rights. I think that the motivation behind this new policy can be explained in part as an attempt to curb the influence of gay-rights-supporting children (as small of a number as the children whose parents are in gay relationships might be) at church.

  24. Scw
    November 10, 2015 at 11:42 am

    I know of an area 70 who has been divorced, so divorce does not preclude additional callings.

  25. Nate W.
    November 10, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    DQ @ 20:

    1. I’m not exactly sure how “progressive liberal members … profess[ing] their confidence in the equality of traditional marriage with same sex marriage in God’s eyes” has anything to do with someone joining the Church under false pretenses.

    2. At any rate, in responding to my argument, you omitted an important qualifier–the words “to their peers.” Even if a child of a parent in a same-sex relationship had a motivation to join the church under false pretenses, it is unclear how that might pose a hazard to their peers above and beyond the hazard posed by any other person doing this.

  26. Syphax
    November 10, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    In Eastern Orthodox theology and praxis this is called ‘oikonomeia.’ It includes divorce. Basically, pastors have the discretion to release some from the strict demands of the law in cases where mercy needs to be satisfied.

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