I’ve decided to digest what I learned from General Conference that I believe is applicable to the ongoing conversations about same-sex marriage, same-sex activity, and the Church’s role in valuing and defending traditional marriage and family. It is hard (if not impossible) to argue that the leaders of the Church were silent on the matter this past weekend, or that their words are irrelevant to how we should feel and act concerning the matter.
I’m far from perfect at this, but I generally agree that we abuse the teachings of prophets when we use them as weapons to alienate those with whom we disagree. When teaching and sharing Gospel truth, it should never be done with a warring heart, and using the teachings of prophets and apostles as weapons is certainly the outgrowth of a heart at war. So that’s not what I intend to do in this post. If it comes across otherwise, at least know what my intent is. Remember that I don’t mean it that way.
So instead of sharing what others should have learned, I’ll share the important truths that I learned, and I sincerely hope that others will consider these truths as well. I’m going to try my very best to confine my entire analysis to specific quotes from this conference (with three deviations/exceptions only)—because I hope that by doing so, I can sidestep any criticisms that the messages I’m sharing are out-of-date (as if prophetic teachings have a built-in shelf life).
Gender Complementarity Is Essential to Marriage
One of the repeated teachings of prophets and apostles is that marriage is a priority here on earth and an essentiality in the world to come (for those who wish to enjoy all the blessings God has to offer His children). Further, it has been repeatedly taught that marriage is in its very essence a relationship between man and woman. This basic idea can be termed the gender complementarily of marriage. That is, that a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, cannot make a marriage, at least in the eyes of God by the very definition of the term.
This past General Conference, we saw a prophetic reaffirmation of this core doctrine. Elder Ballard reaffirmed it by saying, “Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without a man, so a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family without a woman.” In other words, neither man nor woman can fulfill their divine potential in the eternities without the other. A man cannot fulfill that divine potential with another man, and a woman cannot fulfill that divine potential with another woman. To build an eternal family, a man needs a woman and a woman needs a man. Elder Bednar reiterated this same doctrine:
After the earth was created, Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden. Importantly, however, God said “it was not good that the man should be alone” (Moses 3:18; see also Genesis 2:18), and Eve became Adam’s wife and helpmeet. The unique combination of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional capacities of both males and females was needed to enact the plan of happiness. “Neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:11). The man and the woman are intended to learn from, strengthen, bless, and complete each other. The means by which mortal life is created is divinely appointed. “The first commandment … God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife” (Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2010, 129). The commandment to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force today.
To me, it is significant that two apostles this past conference reiterated the essentiality of both genders in a marriage relationship, and both asserted that the Plan of Happiness can only come to complete fruition in the eternities through a relationship between a man and a woman.
Law of Chastity Forbids All Same-sex Sexual Relationships
Another repeated teaching of prophets and apostles is that same-sex activity—whether participated within a legal marriage or not—is a moral sin. This is a slightly different doctrine than the gender complementarity of marriage. Someone could believe, for example, that exaltation in the eternal worlds requires a man and a woman without believing that two men are committing moral sin by having sex with each other within a civil marriage. But once again, this past General Conference, it was reaffirmed quite strongly that the law of chastity forbids all sexual relationships between members of the same sex, regardless of their marriage status.
Elder Bednar said, for example, “[M]arriage between a man and a woman is the authorized channel through which premortal spirits enter mortality. Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage protect the sanctity of this sacred channel.” He followed by stating rather forcefully, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a man and a woman in the marriage relationship prescribed in God’s plan.” The message is clear: sex is not just reserved for marriage, it is reserved for marriage between man and woman.
Elder Packer made a similar claim. He said, “The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity.” While he does not directly reference same-sex activity, few us who know Elder Packer believe that this wasn’t foremost on his mind. I take this to mean that while legalized same-sex marriage may become the norm, we should not treat sexual activity between members of the same sex—inside or outside of civil marriage—any less seriously as a moral sin. Legal and societal approval does not lessen the seriousness of the sin. Even if it becomes legally recognized and socially normal, we should not condone or celebrate it.
Finally, Elder Perry also reaffirmed this doctrine. He said:
The doctrine of the family and the home was recently reiterated with great clarity and forcefulness in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” It declared the eternal nature of families and then explained the connection to temple worship. The proclamation also declared the law upon which the eternal happiness of families is predicated, namely, “The sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.”
In conclusion, sexual relationships between members of the same sex are forbidden by God, regardless of the marital status of the participants. This was specifically reiterated by three apostles during General Conference. I take this to mean that this subject has weighed heavily on the collective minds of the leaders of the Church.
Violation of the Law of Chastity Is Spiritually Destructive
Another point that was repeatedly emphasized in General Conference was that violating the law of chastity—which, we learned, forbids all same-sex sexual relationships—brings upon us serious consequences. Elder Bednar said,
Violating the law of chastity is a grievous sin and a misuse of our physical tabernacles. To those who know and understand the plan of salvation, defiling the body is an act of rebellion (see Mosiah 2:36–37; D&C 64:34–35) and a denial of our true identity as sons and daughters of God. As we look beyond mortality and into eternity, it is easy to discern that the counterfeit companionship advocated by the adversary is temporary and empty.
Further, President Packer said, “We live in a very dangerous world that threatens those things that are most spiritual. The family, the fundamental organization in time and eternity, is under attack from forces seen and unseen. The adversary is about. His objective is to cause injury. If he can weaken and destroy the family, he will have succeeded.” He also referred to the adversary’s attacks on the family and on our commitment to the law of chastity as lethal “snakes in the garden.”
Our Eternal, Divine Nature Should be Central to Our Self-Identity, Not Our Sexual Orientation
There are many who teach those who experience same-sex attraction to view and understand it as part of their core identity. Our society conveys the message that “gayness” or “straightness” is a central part of who we are—a critical feature of our unique individuality. Being “gay” can become a central part of our self-concept and self-identity. There are two dangers to this, both of which were addressed in General Conference:
(1) Those who take seriously church doctrines can sometimes feel deeply ashamed and self-hateful if they experience same-sex attraction. They can begin to feel that their very essence, their core identity is itself a moral transgression, or that they are an embarrassment to God for having those experiences.
I would like to deviate from my focus on this General Conference, and quote an article written by Elder Holland in 2007. In the article, Elder Holland reported saying to a young missionary who experienced same-sex attraction, ““You serve yourself poorly when you identify yourself primarily by your sexual feelings. That isn’t your only characteristic, so don’t give it disproportionate attention. You are first and foremost a son of God, and He loves you.” It is through this lens that I interpret the following passages from this General Conference.
In his talk Elder Bednar said, “We are agents blessed with moral agency and are defined by our divine heritage as children of God—and not by sexual behaviors, contemporary attitudes, or secular philosophies.” He is saying here that our self-identity should be first and foremost as moral agents and children of God. I also believe that President Uchtdorf’s talk in Priesthood meeting is relevant to this subject. He suggested that priesthood holders hold four titles as central to their self-identity: son of Heavenly Father, disciple of Jesus Christ, healer of souls, and heir of eternal life. He said, “One title that defines all of us in the most fundamental way is son of Heavenly Father.” I’m assuming this applies to women as well—the most fundamental self-identity woman should have is daughter of Heavenly Father. No other self-identity should get in the way of this.
I take this to mean that experiences of same-sex attraction, or “being gay” (a terminology I personally don’t like, but will use when necessary to communicate) should be way down the list of things that factor into our self-concept and self-identity. We should see our selves as loved children of God, disciples of Christ, healers of souls, priesthood holders, heirs of God, brothers, sisters, friends, servants, etc. We should prioritize all of these roles in the formation of our self-identity, and minimize the role of “being gay” in the way we see ourselves. At least, that’s how I interpret these specific teachings from this past General Conference—again, using the prior words of Elder Holland as a reference point for my interpretation.
(2) Many have decried the doctrines of the church as a war against our inherent nature as individuals. For example, many argue that by teaching that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful, we are teaching people that they cannot be who they really are.
I feel as though we have been taught in this past General Conference that this is simply not true. Another reason to minimize the importance we place on same-sex attraction in the formation of our self-identity is that same-sex attraction is product of our fallen nature, not our divine nature. Elder Bednar said,
As sons and daughters of God, we have inherited divine capacities from Him. But we presently live in a fallen world. The very elements out of which our bodies were created are by nature fallen and ever subject to the pull of sin, corruption, and death. Consequently, the Fall of Adam and its spiritual and temporal consequences affect us most directly through our physical bodies. …
I find it hard to imagine, given the context of Elder Bednar’s talk and his specific mention of the law of chastity as forbidding all non-heterosexual sexual relationships, that he is not including same-sex attraction in these comments. The matter of wether or not same-sex attraction is genetic, inborn, or a learned (albeit unconsciously and non-deliberately) behavior is inconsequential—in all cases, we can still consider it a product of the fall, a temptation resulting from our fallen nature that we must resist. We should not consider same-sex attraction part of our divine nature, nor should we expect it to persist through resurrection and exaltation. This is not the same thing as saying it is sinful to experience these things—it is simply saying that we experience them only because of the fall. Further, Elder Bednar said:
The precise nature of the test of mortality, then, can be summarized in the following question: Will I respond to the inclinations of the natural man, or will I yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and put off the natural man and become a saint through the Atonement of Christ the Lord (see Mosiah 3:19)? That is the test. Every appetite, desire, propensity, and impulse of the natural man may be overcome by and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We are here on the earth to develop godlike qualities and to bridle all of the passions of the flesh.
We must decline indulging the fallen parts of our nature. We must refuse to act on temptations of the flesh when those temptations would lead us from God and our divine inheritance. Focusing on our divine nature will help us do this. Elder Bednar taught:
[T]he “man [or woman] of Christ” (Helaman 3:29) is spiritual and bridles all passions (see Alma 38:12), is temperate and restrained, and is benevolent and selfless. Men and women of Christ lay hold upon the word of God, deny themselves and take up His cross (see Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; D&C 56:2), and press forward along a strait and narrow course of faithfulness, obedience, and devotion to the Savior and His gospel.
Seeing ourselves first and foremost and children of God and disciples of Christ will negate the false teaching that refusing to act on same-sex attraction is a denial of our core identity, because we will not interpret the fallen parts of our nature to be essential to our identity.
These Doctrines Will Not Change
Many, many of my friends and associates have argued that a shift in these doctrines is inevitable, given the shifting values of our society. Part of this is because of the civil rights metaphor that is being used as a lens through which many of us make sense of the issue. Many assume that the Church will adapt its doctrine to accommodate the unique desires of those with same-sex attraction, and eventually permit and celebrate same-sex unions as equally holy and divine—in the same way that the Church eventually bestowed the priesthood on men of African descent, contrary to the prior expectations of many. I’ll admit that at times, I feared that these arguments may very well have been right.
This past General Conference absolved my fears completely. I witnessed not one, not two, but several personal reaffirmations to my soul that the LDS Church will remain resolute in teaching the doctrines of chastity and the importance of traditional marriage. One could say that it was a running theme of the conference.
Elder Bednar, for example, said, “The doctrine I have described will seem to be archaic and outdated to many people in a world that increasingly mocks the sanctity of procreation and minimizes the worth of human life. But the Lord’s truth is not altered by fads, popularity, or public opinion polls.” He also said (to use this quote again), “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a man and a woman in the marriage relationship prescribed in God’s plan.” He specifically declared that this standard is undeviating, and will not be softened in the face of change cultural norms and public opinions.
A similar sentiment was expressed in President Packer’s comment: “The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality does not reduce the serious spiritual consequence that is the result of the violation of God’s law of chastity.” While I earlier interpreted this to mean that the prohibition against same-gender sexual relationships holds even in the context of civil marriage, I also interpret it to mean that the Church’s doctrine is not going to change in response to the changing laws of the land.
Elder Hales, in the Priesthood meeting, also said, “Standing obedient and strong on the doctrine of our God, we stand in holy places, for His doctrine is sacred and will not change in the social and political winds of our day.” I believe this is an additional reaffirmation that those who expect the Church’s doctrines regarding chastity to change to accommodate same-sex relationships are wrong to do so—the Church is not going to change its doctrines on these matters.
Elder Perry also declared that the doctrines of chastity are not going to change. Immediately following his reaffirmation that the law of chastity forbids all sexual relationships outside of marriage between a man and a woman, he said,
God reveals to His prophets that there are moral absolutes. Sin will always be sin. Disobedience to the Lord’s commandments will always deprive us of His blessings. The world changes constantly and dramatically, but God, His commandments, and promised blessings do not change. They are immutable and unchanging. … Surely there could not be any doctrine more strongly expressed in the scriptures than the Lord’s unchanging commandments and their connection to our happiness and well-being as individuals, as families, and as a society. There are moral absolutes. Disobedience to the Lord’s commandments will always deprive us of His blessings. These things do not change. … May we ever be a light on the hill, an example in keeping the commandments, which have never changed and will never change.
Bold? Yes, very bold. For some good fun, I recommend listening to this talk, and hearing the tone of Elder Perry’s voice. I personally felt that it was a booming, bold, stern warning to all who imagine to themselves that the Church will someday abandon its commitment to traditional marriage and the law of chastity.
We Are Strongly Invited to Choose to Stand with the Church on these Matters
I believe this General Conference was an invitation to all members of the Church everywhere to remain strong and resolute on matters of the family and chastity. I interpret it as a call not just to behavioral fidelity to the church, but also attitudinal fidelity. I noticed, for example, a nuance in this quote from Elder Bednar: “How we feel about and use that supernal power will determine in large measure our happiness in mortality and our destiny in eternity.” I believe that he is teaching that our attitudes towards the law of chastity—not just our behavior—will factor into both our mortal happiness and eternal salvation.
There were multiple references to the doctrine of moral agency, and we were reminded by President Packer that moral agency is the ability to choose between right and wrong. Elder Perry reminded us that we are at war with the adversary:
Today we find ourselves in another war. This is not a war of armaments. It is a war of thoughts, words, and deeds. It is a war with sin, and more than ever we need to be reminded of the commandments. Secularism is becoming the norm, and many of its beliefs and practices are in direct conflict with those that were instituted by the Lord Himself for the benefit of His children. … Each choice you and I make is a test of our agency—whether we choose to be obedient or disobedient to the commandments of God is actually a choice between “liberty and eternal life” and “captivity and death.”
I interpret this to mean that we cannot maintain neutrality. When we fail to choose “liberty and eternal life,” when we fail to stand with the doctrines of Christ, we are choosing to aid the adversary and his attempts to thwart the happiness of God’s children. Elder Perry further invited all of us to stand with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in defending the law of chastity in this day of change. He said:
In a world where the moral compass of society is faltering, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ never wavers, nor should its stakes and wards, its families, or its individual members. We must not pick and choose which commandments we think are important to keep but acknowledge all of God’s commandments. We must stand firm and steadfast, having perfect confidence in the Lord’s consistency and perfect trust in His promises.
To pick and choose is to choose wrongly. There is no way to aloofly but righteously remain neutral on these matters.
The world will disapprove of our beliefs and practices in this regard. But we must not let social pressures deter us from defending the truths we hold sacred. We must not compromise, negotiation, or try to “make peace” with those who despise our doctrine in any way that changes the central truths we adhere to. Consider this lengthy snippet from Elder Hales’ talk in priesthood meeting:
In the strength of the Lord we are able to stand against any philosophy or creed that denies the Savior and contradicts the great, eternal plan of happiness for all of God’s children. We are not authorized to negotiate the conditions of that eternal plan. Remember Nehemiah, who was charged with building a wall to protect Jerusalem. Some wanted him to come down and compromise his position, but Nehemiah refused. He was not intolerant of others; he simply explained, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease … ?”
Sometimes we become the lightning rod, and we must “take the heat” for holding fast to God’s standards and doing His work. I testify that we need not be afraid if we are grounded in His doctrine. We may experience misunderstanding, criticism, and even false accusation, but we are never alone. Our Savior was “despised and rejected of men.” It is our sacred privilege to stand with Him!
Be assured that all of the prophets before us stood strong in their day: Nephi performed the curious work of the Lord despite the buffetings of Satan and the persecutions of Laman and Lemuel, his brothers. Abinadi testified of Christ in the face of suspicion, scorn, and certain death. The 2,000 stripling warriors defended their families against those who despised gospel values. Moroni raised the title of liberty to preserve his people’s families and religious freedom. Samuel stood on a wall and prophesied of Christ’s coming while rocks and arrows were assailing him. The Prophet Joseph Smith restored the Savior’s gospel, sealing his testimony with his blood. And Mormon pioneers stood strong in the face of withering opposition and hardship, following a prophet in their great trek and settlement of the West. These great servants and Saints of God were able to stand strong because they stood with the Savior. …
My beloved priesthood brethren young and old, let us glorify God’s name by standing strong with our Savior, Jesus Christ. I bear my special witness that He lives and that we “are called with a holy calling” to participate in His work. “Wherefore, stand ye in holy places, and be not moved.” Standing obedient and strong on the doctrine of our God, we stand in holy places, for His doctrine is sacred and will not change in the social and political winds of our day. I declare, as did the Apostle Paul, “Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, [behave] like men, [and] be strong.”
I interpret Elder Hales’ remarks to be a bold invitation to remain strong in the face of social opposition, to remain resolute in the defense of truth, even if others claim that this will land us on the “wrong side of history.” In a panel discussion same-sex marriage on BYU campus this week, one of the panel speakers made a comment that fascinated me, which I think is relevant here. I quote imperfectly, but to the best of my memory (this is deviation #2):
There is a post-Christian myth that attempts to supplant the Divine judge of the living and the dead with the more impersonal judge of history itself. We talk as if history can separate the sheep and the goats, or as if we can find ourselves on the left hand or the right hand of history, as if history is the judge of our moral stature and the passage of time the final judgment. We assume that societal consensus is also superior at discerning the worth of any moral position, and that future societal consensus is a perfect metric against which we can measure our current moral worldview. I just don’t see how this is a Christian worldview, and I find no basis for it in scripture.
Finally, as further evidence that we should stand with God in the defense of the law of chastity and the central importance of traditional marriage, I could quote the entirety of President Monson’s Sunday morning talk on obedience. Here’s a small snippet of it:
There are rules and laws to help ensure our physical safety. Likewise, the Lord has provided guidelines and commandments to help ensure our spiritual safety so that we might successfully navigate this often-treacherous mortal existence and return eventually to our Heavenly Father. Centuries ago, to a generation steeped in the tradition of animal sacrifice, Samuel boldly declared, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” In this dispensation, the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith that He requires “the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days.”
I feel as though I have learned this General Conference that true conversion means that we “lay down the weapons of [our] rebellion, [and] not fight against God any more” (Alma 23:7).
I believe that we should take seriously Elder Perry’s warning against picking and choosing which commandments we will support, live, and teach. Now, I know that many of us are not fully persuaded of every doctrine or every teaching of the Church. This is not a condemnation of those who wonder or have unanswered questions. We are all growing in our testimony. I find no fault in those who have not yet been fully convinced that the Church’s doctrines on chastity are true. I feel as though I’ve learned, however, that there is a proper way to respond to these doubts when they arise: fan the flame of faith. Elder Holland, in by far my favorite talk in recent years, said:
In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited. … When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. … The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.
When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I am asking you to be true to the faith you do have. Sometimes we act as if an honest declaration of doubt is a higher manifestation of moral courage than is an honest declaration of faith. It is not! So let us all remember the clear message of this scriptural account: Be as candid about your questions as you need to be; life is full of them on one subject or another. But if you and your family want to be healed, don’t let those questions stand in the way of faith working its miracle.
Here’s what I interpret from this that is relevant to the present issue: If I have doubts about the exclusive sanctity of heterosexual marriage, if I have doubts about the current definition of the law of chastity, that’s ok. We all have ways in which we can grow, we all have further witnesses to obtain from God. But I should not rationalize rebellion against God’s servants on these grounds. When I openly teach a gospel that contradicts the Gospel taught by those we believe to be God’s prophets, I am not starting from a position of faith. I am not being true to the knowledge I do have. While I may not be fully persuaded that the doctrines in the Proclamation on the Family are true, if I am persuaded that the men who signed it are prophets and apostles, that should be enough for me to patiently wait for further spiritual witnesses, rather than allying with other ideologies and contrary doctrines.
I’m reminded of the scripture in the Old Testament (deviation #3): “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). This is not a statement that I must never ask questions, never have doubts, never wonder—it is simply a statement that if I believe the church is led by prophets and apostles, my loyalties should lie with them even if I haven’t been fully persuaded of some of the details.
Based on what I heard in General Conference, I would feel very uncomfortable with celebrating the possible defeat of Proposition 8 in the Supreme Court, and I would feel very uncomfortable advocating in favor of same-sex marriage in any way. Further, I would feel very uncomfortable believing or expecting the Church to amend its doctrines on this matter in any way—and I would therefore find myself straddling a threatening, widening gulf if I were to try to maintain a support for same-sex marriage as well as a loyalty to and testimony in the LDS Church as the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, I want to state that these are my own personal interpretations of the messages shared by prophets and apostles this General Conference about these particular issues. The issues I’m referencing are the issues described above in the headers in this article. Please don’t argue with me on different, unrelated topics, and please don’t accuse me of self-righteously condemning everyone who disagrees. This is just my personal take on what I felt was communicated during General Conference that might be relevant to the ongoing discussion related to same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage.