Claiming to speak for God is a tricky business – especially when God changes his mind, often, on hot-button political issues after receiving immense public backlash.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, widely known as the Mormon church, is facing the challenge of explaining why God seems to have dramatically flip-flopped on his stance regarding the inclusion of LGBT families.
In 2016, Russell Nelson, the current prophet and president of the Mormon church, declared that God had personally revealed to senior church leaders that they should ban children of LGBT parents from baptism, an ordinance essential for salvation, according to Mormon doctrine.
This policy change was met with widespread public backlash, with 1,500 Mormons renouncing their church membership in a publicized protest. Since then, many – including Ellen DeGeneres – have argued that there is an apparent correlation between the policy change and rising youth suicide rates in Utah.
Just 3½ years later, Nelson announced Thursday that after “fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord,” the church is reversing the policy. The church also announced that married gay Mormons would no longer be treated as “apostates” within the church.
This reversal significantly expands the doctrinal shades of gray within an overwhelmingly black-and-white faith. Within the realm of policy implementation, it places the onus on local bishops to determine the nature of their inclusivity regarding gay members and their families.
While the hard-line 2015 policy made it impossible for bishops to allow the baptism of children with LGBT parents, or allow same-sex marriage to go undisciplined, this reversal will create an implicit “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy within many church congregations – particularly those in urban cities that have wrestled with how to meet the needs of millennials while adhering to the prescriptions of church headquarters.
Now, each bishop has the choice of how to respond to same-sex marriage within his congregation – a sin that once, technically, would necessitate excommunication. While the church states that same-sex marriage is still a “serious transgression,” this policy will allow more liberal bishops to determine ecclesiastical discipline (or nondiscipline) on an individual basis. For many congregations, this will likely mean welcoming gay members and their families with open arms.
However, this change still relegates LGBT Mormons to a second-class status within the church, one that is deemed inherently “unworthy” of full church participation.
The church has framed this concession as compassionate – effectively saying the pews are still open to sinners, even if God really doesn’t like the sin. While the reversal creates flexibility within the church’s policing of sexuality, it does not offer acceptance, rendering wholehearted inclusion a form of subversion.
Nonetheless, this change will likely have an erosive effect on homophobia within the church, representing a slow mainstreaming of LGBT inclusion within a highly conservative faith.
Beyond implementation, this reversal also raises questions regarding the nature of revelation itself – the central tenet of the church and one that differentiates it from other Christian denominations.
The church has a long history of revelations enabling social progress: In 1890, after legal threats from the federal government, Mormon prophet Wilford Woodruff announced a ban on polygamy; in 1978, well after civil rights legislation of the previous decade, a revelation allowed black men to be ordained to the church’s priesthood.
However, a revelatory whiplash of such social magnitude has never happened so fast. For many Mormons, this will lay bare the razor-thin (and some would argue strictly semantic) distinction between divine direction and bureaucratic will.
Now, some Mormons are left wondering how fast God’s mind – or that of church leadership – might change on other policies considered archaic in some circles, including the exclusion of women from the priesthood.
To some, Thursday’s reversal offers a blueprint for a more activist approach to change within the church – a beacon of hope to some who believe that they must go beyond “fervent prayer” to get God, or the church, to pay attention.