by John Gustav-Wrathall
I used to be really mad at Russell M. Nelson. I assumed, admittedly without solid evidence, that he was the main architect of “the Policy.” I feared the worst of a Nelson presidency. But in the course of that presidency, I’ve actually grown in my admiration of him. I’ve come to believe that he may actually be the president who, more than any before him, will shepherd the Church into a much more LGBTQ-understanding and affirming space.
I have seen the adjustments he’s instituted in terms of priesthood structure, the concept of “ministering,” and the temple endowment ceremony, having an enlightening and enlivening impact on the Church membership in general, and in specific on Church members’ ability to relate to and minister with LGBTQ people. The revocation of the Policy was an unprecedented, unexpected move that took no small amount of institutional courage, and that was made acknowledging harm done to families.
If you look at the actual content of President Nelson’s recent talk at BYU, most of it is really good stuff. In relation to LGBTQ issues, much of it is neutral and some is even positive. There were two statements in the talk that were upsetting to many LGBTQ Mormons. One was his reiteration that there remains no place within the doctrine of the Church for same-sex relationships. Also upsetting, combined with that, was the insistence that church leaders always teach the truth, and the advice they give us is always for our happiness and eternal well-being.
Before I share my thoughts in relation to the parts of the talk that upset people, I would like to share my thoughts about the parts of the talk that I appreciated and that I think are positive in relation to LGBTQ issues.
The first positive had to do with the absence of any suggestion that being LGBTQ was something that should or could be changed. Indeed, the talk seemed to operate under the assumption that these things don’t change. The second positive had to do with language. President Nelson was very conscious about the use of the LGBT acronym, and he even acknowledged that there were other letters that could be added to that acronym that are recognized within the LGBTQ community. His commentary on language about sexual and gender diversity was straightforward and non-stigmatizing. He showed a willingness to use language about us that we prefer to have used about us.
I consider these both “minor positives.” They are not in and of themselves, especially in 2019, particularly earth-shattering. If you have read Greg Prince‘s book on Gay Rights and the Mormon Church, you will, however, recognize the significance — the historic significance — of these two aspects of his talk. Whether these “minor positives“ represent his personal thinking on the subject or whether they represent a concession to what is clearly a majority and growing opinion in the Church, they represent a seismic shift in how are Mormons think about sexual orientation and gender identity. The importance of that can be better appreciated in relation to what I consider the “major positives” of his talk.
The central focus of President Nelson‘s talk was on the value and the nature of truth. In addressing this topic, President Nelson presents two very Latter-day Saint models of truth. One is naturalistic, and the other is legalistic.
The naturalistic model looks at truth as a progressive unveiling of all that is. This is a very scientific approach to truth, something that I am sure President Nelson, as a former, very talented heart surgeon, appreciated. Without an appreciation for and understanding of the nature of scientific truth, President Nelson could never have thrived in such a profession. This approach to truth is very characteristic of the Restoration. It’s a vision of the nature of truth that was nowhere better articulated than in the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who also saw truth in terms of a continually progressive unveiling, in terms of an evolution from the lesser light to greater light. This view of truth is embedded in the DNA of Mormonism, and you find it in some of the most important revelations contained in the Doctrine & Covenants.
For those of us caught in the double bind between our experience of what it is to be LGBTQ and the Church’s current understanding of sexuality and gender, this is a very hopeful element in the doctrine of the Church. It carries within it an implicit promise that current conundrums, or lack of doctrinal knowledge, will not always remain.
The legalistic model of truth is evident in President Nelson’s words about loving Heavenly Parents having given us a series of rules and precepts that we need to follow in order to be happy. In this model of truth rules and principles tend to be presented as static and unchanging. You can’t really question them, you just have to accept them for what they are. It is this legalistic approach to truth that is most distressing for those of us who don’t seem to fit into the Church’s current paradigm of gender, sexuality, and marriage. It is distressing, when you don’t fit, to be told this is the way things are and you can’t question it and it’s not going to change.
The legalistic model of truth exists within our church in tension with the naturalistic model of truth. They are both elements of our doctrine and theology, and I believe that they must be understood together. The naturalistic model of truth offers a leavening understanding of the legalistic model of truth that is best captured in the phrase, repeated numerous times in the LDS canon, “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little…” (Isaiah 28:10; D&C 98:12; D&C 128:21; 2 Nephi 28:30). What that means is that whenever we run up against the legalistic model of truth, we can trust that even there we will find evolution as we exercise patience and faith.
The final, and I think most important “major positive“ in President Nelson‘s talk was his exhortation at the end to seek our own spiritual confirmations of truth that is presented to us by leaders. Again, in making this exhortation, President Nelson stands firmly within the teachings of the Restored Gospel from its inception.
This teaching, like the naturalistic model of truth which he embraces, stands in tension with the teaching, also presented in the talk, that leaders always teach us the truth. The importance of the teaching is that there’s nothing that any of us needs to accept on blind faith. Faith in the sense of trusting our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ is different from the idolatrous notion of blind faith. God offers us clear signs and personal revelation to help us make choices that can result in a strengthened relationship with him. God would not, and could not, expect us to just take somebody’s word for the truth. We could never distinguish between conflicting truth claims if that were the case. All truth is evaluated against the standard described in Alma chapter 32. Every truth presented to us has to have certain qualities in order for us to trust it. It needs to produce growth. So you are eminently within your rights as a Latter-day Saint to question and test every teaching and every doctrine presented to you, and to reject anything that does not contribute to your personal growth and deepen your relationship with and trust in our Heavenly Parents and our Savior. In doing so, you stand firmly within the doctrine and the tradition that President Nelson and other general authorities of the Church teach.
Hope for Further Light and Knowledge
So that brings us to the parts that upset people. I will confess that at one time in my life those two elements of President Nelson‘s talk — especially the insistence that the Church’s doctrine on marriage hasn’t changed and won’t change — would have been very upsetting to me. They are no longer. And I will explain why in just a minute. But I think it is here worth acknowledging simply that in relation to LGBTQ issues doctrinally the Church is where it is right now. It’s not going to move from this position without revelation on this topic. And I think it is not helpful to get upset every time a church leader restates what church leaders have already stated so many times before. You can accept that that is so, and if you have reason to believe that this will not always be so then you can, like me, continue in faith, embracing the good and waiting for the rest to evolve as we collectively receive new light and knowledge.
Collective processes always take longer than individual processes. If you are distressed by that fact, or if you don’t believe that the Church is ever going to change its position on this issue and that distresses you, the best thing you can do is separate yourself from the Church, and find influences and communities that will support you in your own growth process, as defined by you.
Yes, you get to decide what is healthy, what is good, and what is growth-inducing. You are the one who is best equipped to evaluate what is true and false in your life and how to live up to the best of the highest truths that you have discovered for yourself.
Those called to leadership within the Church always teach the truth as they understand it and as it has been revealed to them as of this current time and place. The day before the arrival of Cornelius’ servants and Peter’s rooftop vision of the canvas filled with unclean animals, Saint Peter’s understanding of the truth was that Gentiles were unclean and could not become members of the Church without fully converting to Judaism and becoming circumcised followers of the Law. That was the truth that he understood, and he believed it and taught it and never thought it would change. Until the Lord showed him something different.
On the other hand, Cornelius had to wait until the Lord was ready to reveal it to Peter, or till Peter was ready to accept that revelation from the Lord, whichever came first. (All indications in the Book of Acts chapters 10 & 15, are that this was not an easy process, either for Peter or for the Church.) One of the things that makes Cornelius a faith hero in my mind was his willingness to strive for righteousness as he best understood it, with humility and with a willingness to wait upon the Lord.
Invaluable Lessons Learned
Once upon a time, I wished that I could be anything but gay. I pleaded with the Lord to change me and make me something else. Now I wouldn’t trade my life as a gay Latter-day Saint for anybody else’s. The challenges of embracing both my experience and identity as a gay man and my 28 years in relationship with my husband Göran, at the same time as I embrace and affirm my love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and my testimony of and love for the Church of Jesus Christ have taught me invaluable lessons about faith, about trust, about patience, about life, about community, about relationship, and most importantly about God, and my own divine nature and relationship with him.
Embracing all of these aspects of me, whether others find them congruent or not, and not excluding or alienating myself from any part of me, my faith, my sexuality, or my inherited and chosen families, has given me the greatest joy that it is possible for me to have either as a gay man or as a Latter-day Saint.
I can’t wait to see what the Lord has in store for us next, and I’m determined to be right here waiting for it with my beloved fellow Saints of every sexual orientation and gender.