There’s a rumor circulating that the Church is preparing to rescind or modify its horrific policies regarding homosexuals and same-sex marriage. Let’s pray it’s more than a rumor because the consequences for the Church of the existing uninspired policies have been devastating: rising suicide rate among gay LDS; excommunications of otherwise devoted members; worldwide opprobrium at a time when the Church is trying to burnish its public image; and the exodus of moderate Church members.
(I’m always dubious about Church rumors. I’ve heard rumors for 30 years about the Church reducing the meeting block to two hours.)
How the Church can extricate itself from this mess? Recognize the existence of what I call “The Fourth Way.” We always hear the Lord communicates His will through the prophets and the scriptures. In the early 20th Century, Mormon General Authority and scholar B.H. Roberts added a “third way” – science. He was a strong proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution and believed the geological record revealed God’s creative methods.
While not placing myself anywhere near Elder Roberts in terms of intellect or inspiration, I would humbly suggest there is a “Fourth Way” God reveals himself in our day: the Spirit communicating to people individually and collectively. In my own case, my conscience burns intensely as think about The Policy. The “still, small voice” sometimes blares in my mind and heart: “These policies aren’t from the loving Savior I worship!” As these collective impressions find voice through private meetings, prayers and in our day, blogs, they reach our leaders. People like John Dehlin, the late Dr. Lowell Bennion, and Natasha Helfer Parker, Mitch Mayne, and Jana Reiss are acting as moved on by the Spirit. The Spirit then helps the leaders discern what the Lord is trying to communicate.
One of the first historical manifestations of the “Fourth Way” was the Lord’s appearance to Saul (Paul). As you recall, Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee and a ferocious persecutor of the early Saints (they wouldn’t be called “Christians” for another century). He had looked on while his Pharisaical comrades stoned Stephen, who saw Christ standing on the right hand of God in his dying moments. Later, while traveling to Damascus to scourge the Saints, Paul was temporarily blinded by a brilliant light and fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou me?” and recognized it as belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said he actually saw the Lord and understood the vision as a call to the ministry as an apostle, defined as “a special witness of Jesus Christ.”
This incident intrigues me because it runs counter to the prevailing attitudes in the modern Church about callings, revelation and succession. In our day prophetic succession has become formalized, bureaucratized and programmed. The official position is that the President of the Quorum of the Twelve automatically becomes Prophet and President upon the death of the sitting prophet. There’s absolutely no provision for spiritual serendipity or, perhaps, unorthodox divine inspiration. I understand the argument that the inspiration occurs when a man (and I use that term advisedly) is called to the apostleship and attains a certain ranking. But I don’t think that completely precludes the Lord from intervening as required for the wellbeing of the Church.
In Paul’s cased, he was called in an unorthodox, unscripted, serendipitous way because the Lord needed to move the Church in a different direction. The first First Presidency of the new church– Peter, James and John – and the other apostles were holding forth in Jerusalem. As practicing Jews, they administered the new sect like a variant group within orthodox Judaism. And that was the problem the Lord needed to rectify. When the Lord ascended into heaven, he admonished the Brethren to take the gospel to every “nation, kindred, tongue and people.” However, the good brothers had a hard time reconciling that directive with their traditional views that the Jews were the Chosen People and the gospel should be reserved for them. They required converts to the Christ movement to adhere scrupulously to the Law of Moses, including dietary restrictions and, most problematically, the law of circumcision. From my vantage point, that would be a major deterrent for a non-Jew to accept the gospel; undergoing the painful procedure as an adult would not be considered “Good News!” as the gospel was supposed to represent.
So the Lord reached out to the most unlikely person, Paul, to hand-deliver a message to the Church leadership, which apparently wasn’t listening to the Spirit. Why else would the Lord have called Paul! Just think of what a modern-day Paul might be: probably an anti-Mormon, maybe one of those street preachers who ring the Conference Center, waving their Bibles and screaming at Conference- goers. Can’t you imagine Joe Evangelical (maybe his name would be Paul) having a blinding vision on his way to the Center and journeying across the street to the Church Office Building for a meeting with the First Presidency!
The real Paul, of course, told Peter, James and John the Lord had called him to the apostleship for the express purpose of taking the gospel to the Gentiles. I don’t imagine the first meeting went all that well; maybe Paul was told that he “shouldn’t counsel the Brethren.” Maybe they said the Lord would only communicate with his chosen apostles via “proper and approved channels.” After Paul’s pronouncement, however, Peter had his infamous dream in which the Lord ordered him to eat certain “unclean” foods that violated the Mosaic dietary code. The Lord essentially said: “Peter, don’t tell me what’s clean or unclean!” Peter assented and interpreted the dream to mean the Gospel needed to go to the “unclean,” non-Jewish nations. Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles, and the Church broke free from the Jewish cultural and theological restraints.
I believe the Lord has called a new “Paul” for our time and circumstances – members of the Church collectively feeling promptings from the Spirit that all’s not well in Zion. This is not as heretical as it may appear to some. Brigham Young feared the day in which members automatically accepted their leaders’ pronouncements without seeking a personal confirmation. In retrospect, President Young probably was ruing the members’ benign acceptance of his 1852 edict that black men could no longer hold the priesthood. Certainly no one would have received a personal spiritual confirmation of that accursed decision if they had bothered to inquire. It wasn’t until 120 years later that inspired members began to question what had evolved into “the Negro Doctrine.” One such inspired member – President Spencer W. Kimball – finally decided in 1978 to use his position as prophet to ask the Lord about the practice, and new light flooded from heaven, ending the priesthood ban. I can imagine the Lord saying, “Spencer, what took you so long!”
The revelation would have come much earlier if we as a Church had been more receptive to the promptings of the Spirit, the Fourth Way. The Lord was waiting for sufficient members of the Church to want the blessings associated with obeying the Second Great Commandment: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” He wouldn’t force us to do it, and for decades we carried the burden of an uninspired practice. It took the turmoil of the Sixties, including the Civil Rights movement and the worldwide opprobrium of the Church’s practice, to raise our collective consciousness, our collective Spirit.
I remember being asked by a well-meaning bishop, “Curt, do you think Blacks should have the priesthood?” I realize now that was a “trap” question of sorts, potentially putting me in the position of “counseling the Brethren.” My answer now would be: “My spirit is telling me, as an individual, that the priesthood ban is not of God, and I want to communicate that to my leaders. I’m praying for them to seek ‘new light’ on this matter and would consider revoking the ban a great blessing.” That’s how I would answer the questions: “Do you think gays should be allowed to marry?” or “Should women have the priesthood?” “Dear brethren, my spirit is telling me, as an individual, that we need ‘new light’ on these issues, and I pray you will earnestly go to the Lord.” As he said in the Doctrine and Covenants, “How often I would have gathered ye together, but ye would not.”
In various informal ways, the Church has long acknowledged the Fourth Way by:
-- Asking members at each General Conference to sustain their leaders as “prophets, seers and revelators.”
-- Asking members to approve canonization of scriptures, including the Prophet Joseph’s revelations; the Pearl of Great Price; and Joseph F. Smith’s great Vision of the Dead. Perhaps that approval mechanism should be extended to The Proclamation on the Family, which many treat as canonized revelation even though it has never been formally accepted by the membership.
We could treat policies and practices that impact the worldwide Church – such as support of Proposition 8 in California – in the same way. Our leaders could make General Conference more meaningful by proposing and explaining initiatives and policies and then asking the membership to confirm their rightness through prayer. Members’ feelings could be communicated up the channel through bishops and stake presidents or, better yet, through the internet. Our leaders would still make the final decisions, of course, but with the benefit of feedback from millions of inspired members.
-- Running “pilot programs” around the Church regarding length of Church services, for example. A good example of the dangers of ignoring The Fourth Way was the misguided decision by someone in the mid-1990s to eliminate Spanish-speaking wards in California. The next Sunday, sacrament-meeting attendance declined precipitously and the policy was quickly rescinded. The faithful Spanish-speaking members – the embodiment of the Fourth Way – expressed their will with their feet.
Which brings us full circle to my opening statement: that recognition of the Fourth Way could help us extricate ourselves from the spiritual and political straitjacket imposed upon us by the current interpretation of The Proclamation on the Family.