Facebook is ablaze with dismay over statements made by Elder Russell M. Nelson in Sunday night’s Worldwide Devotional, titled “Becoming True Millennials.” Initially, when the details of the new provisions were first disclosed and when Elder Christofferson publicly defended them, they were simply portrayed as a policy. Now, many are suggesting Elder Nelson has declared that the policy regarding Mormons in gay marriages and the status of their children (hereinafter, the “New Policy”) is more than a policy, it is a Revelation. The media is now picking up on this: here is a CBS News story titled “Mormon leader says policy against gay marriage was word from God.” If you go visit the home page at LDS.org, you will indeed find a box with a link to the Elder Nelson broadcast — just below “Youth: Ask Your Questions Here” and a couple of boxes to the right of “Meet the New Presiding Bishopric.” Somehow I kind of expected a new big-R Revelation to get a little bigger headline at LDS.org. So … is it a policy or a revelation? What’s the difference? In light of the key LDS principle of continuing revelation, is the distinction between policy and revelation meaningful or simply confusing?
First, a couple of quick caveats. I can see how some listeners, especially journalists unfamiliar with LDS vocabulary and the Mormon habit of quietly exaggerating spiritual experiences, would misconstrue Elder Nelson’s words. All the more reason to get our own definitions of policy versus revelation straight. Also, I’m not defending the New Policy, I’m just trying to understand it. Not an easy task. I’m going to do it chronologically, so I will first review recent developments starting in November 2015, then come back to Elder Nelson’s statements at the end of the post.
1. Private Addition of New Policy to Handbook 1. In early November 2015, several sentences comprising a new policy for dealing with gay Mormons were added to Handbook 1, the non-public Handbook accessible to bishops and other local leaders but not to the general membership of the Church. The changes define any member “in a same-gender marriage” as being in a state of apostasy and mandate a disciplinary council for that member. In rather convoluted language, the new text added to the Handbook also bars naming and blessing, baptizing, confirming, ordaining to the priesthood, or recommending for missionary service *any* “natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting.” With approval of the First Presidency, such children can eventually receive baptism, etc., but only once they are legally adults, no longer live with a gay parent or parents, and in an interview with a local leader commit to living LDS commandments and specifically disavow gay marriage. This detailed summary is based solely on the new text in the Handbook. No prior public announcement of the changes was made. I have seen no report that any prior notice or supplementary explanation of the Handbook changes were provided to local leaders prior to the text being added to the Handbook.
2. The New Policy Goes Public. Within just a day or two of the New Policy text being added to Handbook 1 (where it was accessible to literally thousands of local leaders), three events happened in rapid succession: the New Policy text was publicly posted online, social media kicked up a storm over the New Policy, and mainstream media quickly picked up the story. A key event was a Washington Post article dated November 5, 2015, which posted a link to the text of the New Policy and stated that a “church spokesman” had independently provided the text of the New Policy to the Washington Post. The article confirmed that the wording of the text provided to the Washington Post by the church spokesman matched the wording of the text publicly posted online. So at this point the full text of the New Policy was essentially a public document, having been distributed to the media by an LDS official, apparently for publication — nothing in the Post’s article suggests that the Post was barred from quoting from the text of the New Policy or publishing the text in full.
3. Elder Christofferson Interview Attempts to Clarify the New Policy. Late on Friday November 6, 2015, a video interview of Elder Christofferson, conducted by LDS Public Affairs Managing Director Michael Otterson, was posted at the LDS Newsroom. In the interview, titled “Church Provides Context on Handbook Changes Affecting Same-Sex Marriages,” Elder Christofferson explains that a disciplinary council is now mandatory for members in a same-sex marriage but notes that the outcome is not dictated. He emphasizes that same-sex marriage, while now legal in the USA, “is not a right that exists in the Church.” He also states that the provisions barring naming and blessing, baptism, confirmation, ordination, and recommendations for missionary service for minor children with a parent living in a same-sex relationship are rooted in “a desire to protect children” from conflicts that would arise between teachings and expectations of the Church and what such children might receive at home. These children can, upon reaching the age of majority, make “an informed and conscious decision” about being baptized, etc. (subject to the requirements noted in paragraph 1). Finally, Elder Christofferson notes that these provisions of the New Policy are parallel to provisions limiting ordinances for children of polygamous marriages.
4. First Presidency Letter Significantly Narrows the New Policy. Spirited discussion and criticism (as well as defense) of the New Policy continued on blogs, social media, and mainstream media over the following week, during which time the Church remained conspicuously silent on the matter. Then, on Friday November 13, 2015, a letter from the First Presidency was posted at LDS.org. The letter, addressed broadly to all general, area, and local leaders, carries the title “First Presidency Clarifies Church Handbook Changes.” What the letter actually did was to significantly narrow the New Policy as it applies to children (1) by stating that priesthood ordinance limitations “apply only to those children whose primary residence is with a couple living in a same-gender marriage or similar relationship”; and (2) by directing that any child who would be affected by the policy change but who “has already been baptized and is actively participating in the Church” will be allowed to continue progressing in the Church just like other youth. I will refer to these new, narrower prohibitions as the Amended New Policy. A week earlier, Elder Christofferson gave no hint of these narrower applications of the New Policy in his video interview. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the Amended New Policy terms emerged from discussions by senior leaders in the hectic days following the video interview. It should also be noted that the Amended New Policy has not, to my knowledge, been incorporated into the actual language in Handbook 1. It is certainly possible that some local leaders will apply the original and still operative language of Handbook 1 (what I call the New Policy) without reference to the narrower provisions of the First Presidency letter of November 13 (what I call the Amended New Policy).
5. Elder Nelson’s Worldwide Devotional. After the letter of November 13, the Church provided no additional commentary that I am aware of until Elder Nelson’s devotional of Sunday January 10, 2015. His statements speak to the origin and status of the New Policy, not to any of the particulars. First, he gave a general description of how the Apostles as a committee or council of fifteen consider a problem and reach a decision:
[T]hese fifteen men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord. After fasting, praying, studying, and pondering and counseling with my brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned, and my brethren have the same experience. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel, individually and collectively. And then, we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord’s will.
The transcription is mine, direct from the video posted at LDS.org. I assume a transcript will be posted soon, which may supply different punctuation and of course may reflect post-delivery edits. Elder Nelson’s description of how senior leaders arrive at a decision is pretty straightforward: they prayerfully consider options, share their views and proposals in joint meetings, and at some point the President makes a decision. That’s not much different from how local leaders at the stake and ward levels go about making decisions. Think of how the Bishop decides when to schedule the Ward Christmas Party, after input from members of the Ward Council: “Thanks for your thoughts on this; let’s have it on Friday night rather than Saturday night.” Sound judgment, augmented at times by inspiration.
Elder Nelson then spoke directly to the specific decision to issue the New Policy, using the same general framework.
This prophetic process was followed … with the recent additions to the Church’s Handbook …. [W]e wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of his hope for eternal life for each of his children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer, and sought further direction and inspiration. And then when the Lord inspired his prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson.
So they formulated options, considered outcomes, shared views and recommendations, then President Monson made a decision.
Policy or Revelation?
If those who view Elder Nelson’s statements as a firm declaration that the New Policy is a big-R Revelation are correct, we ought to expect a document, an Official Declaration 3, to be published at some point. Revelations are not blank checks, after all — a big-R Revelation, at least in the Mormon view of revelation, entails that something specific is revealed. One can’t really claim that a big-R Revelation justifies the New Policy, then decline to offer any particulars about that Revelation. And it would be nice to know if what was revealed (the content of the big-R Revelation) corresponds to the New Policy as originally stated, the Amended New Policy as stated in the First Presidency letter of November 13, or possibly a third position not corresponding to either of those public statements.
Alternatively, one might view Elder Nelson’s statements as merely describing a policy, albeit one arrived at after considerable prayer, reflection, and discussion. If there is a distinction between a big-R Revelation and a small-p policy, it is that a policy suggests prudent, pragmatic, inspired decision-making that leaves open the possibility of changes should circumstances change or if the policy, as applied, turns out badly. A big-R Revelation seems to imply that a specific communication from God was received (not just the sort of general inspiration we attribute to all decisions made by senior or local leaders) and that such a Revelation is not subject to change except if amended by a subsequent big-R Revelation. Pragmatically, I think the New Policy is best viewed as merely a policy, because the times they are a-changing and it seems unwise for the Church to lock itself into a position that may turn out to be increasingly difficult to justify. Furthermore, a careful reading of the actual statements made by Elder Nelson doesn’t actually identify a big-R Revelation. He said he and his colleagues “diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord” and they “sought further direction and inspiration.” Then, according to Elder Nelson, President Monson made a decision. Well, he makes lots of decisions.
A third view is that the attempt to draw a distinction between a policy and a revelation is misguided and that, operationally, there really isn’t that much difference between the two. Is the Word of Wisdom a policy or a revelation? If you waltz into your bishop’s office with a Starbucks latte in one hand, saying “Hey, it’s just a policy” doesn’t get you off the hook. Just changing what you call it doesn’t suddenly make adherence optional. Was the priesthood and temple ban a policy or a revelation? Or a policy that, over the course of time and in the view of LDS leaders, somehow became a revelation? An intermediate concept is doctrine, which seems to be more than a policy but less than a revelation, and we all know how difficult it is to nail down exactly what LDS doctrine is on any particular point.
Without resolving the policy versus revelation question, let me close by simply emphasizing what happened between Elder Christofferson’s video explanations of November 6 and the First Presidency Letter of November 13. Whether you call the original statements a policy or a revelation, the November 13 letter was plainly a revision. If they can revise the New Policy, the can revise the Amended New Policy should circumstances require.
And that is an encouraging thought.