I’ve been thinking a lot lately about diversity. We believe that we can celebrate diversity, and that there is room in this Church for everyone. And we mean that when we say it. President Uchtdorf, for two conferences in a row, has talked about the importance of diversity in the Church. He highlighted the fact that we need everyone, no matter their differences. I love his remarks and think that he is absolutely, one-hundred percent right.
As wonderful as diversity is, I think that we sometimes misuse President Uchtdorf’s remarks in ways that he did not intend. President Uchtdorf, for example, was certainly not saying that the Church should celebrate all diversities in opinion and belief amongst its members. This past General Conference, for example, made it quite clear that Latter-day Saints should not and indeed cannot condone same-sex relationships as moral. Yet I’ve seen bloggers use President Uchtdorf’s remarks as if they somehow vindicated those who clearly contradict established Church teachings in just these sorts of ways. That is, I’ve seen people act as if President Uchtdorf just signed off on their errant views on sexuality. This is just one example.
So I’ve been giving this subject a lot of thought. How do we respond to those who don’t just see things differently, but see things differently in a way that clearly contradicts established, core Church teachings? Is this diversity that we should celebrate and encourage? Or is this heresy that should be discouraged? Note: I’m not talking about being a Democrat. I’m not talking about believing that the lost tribes of Israel were abducted by aliens. I’m talking about central issues like the law of chastity, the Proclamation on the Family, the immorality of elective abortion, etc., and I’m defining these as “central” issues because they are what prophets and apostles have recently expressed concern about in recent conferences. Are they core doctrines in the same sense that the Atonement of Christ is? Maybe, maybe not — but when Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson explicitly say that Latter-day Saints cannot condone same-sex relationships, I feel like they are sending a clear message.
Heresy and How to Respond to It
I’m going to make a bold claim: there is really such a thing as heresy, and there really is such a thing as potentially dangerous and soul-destroying heresy. I think, for example, that the idea that same-sex activity is not a sin has the potential to be a soul-destroying heresy, if it begins to influence your actions and lifestyle. I think, for example, that the idea that the scriptures are inspired fiction, having no historical basis, can also be a soul-destroying heresy, as it can jeopardize our loyalties to scriptural teachings when we are under pressure from external forces. I think that the belief that elective abortion is harmless can be another soul-destroying heresy, as it can lead us to commit and celebrate something that, at its very best, is “like unto” murder. Others may disagree with any or all of these examples, but that’s what I think. By using the word “heresy,” I’m not trying to convey the “burn them at the stake” kind of heresy of times past when those with different beliefs were persecuted and killed merely for holding them — I’m just referring to ideas that directly contradict core teachings of the Church, and in ways that are potentially dangerous to the soul. I choose the word “heresy” because it’s a good companion to the word “apostasy,” which I will discuss later.
Now I’m going to make another claim: You can believe whatever you want and claim membership in this Church. You can, for example, believe that the Book of Mormon is “inspired fiction,” and be a member of the Church. You can, for example, believe that two men having sex really isn’t a sin, and be a member of the Church. You can believe that abortion is just fine and dandy. You can think that the modern prophets and apostles are kind of behind the times with the whole marriage and family thing. Whatever your favorite heresy, you can certainly still believe it, and come worship God with us in our meetings and find fellowship in our congregations. We want you to feel like you have friends here. We want you to serve with us, minister with us, and experience the joys of Gospel service, despite your eccentric and at times errant beliefs. Believing wrongly should never warrant mistreatment from others. We as Latter-day Saints should ensure that no one feels alienated for mere heresy alone.
After all, sometimes — not always, but sometimes — we’re the ones who are wrong and they are right. This can certainly happen when the heresy they commit is to disbelieve some favorite folk doctrine that actually isn’t revealed or official doctrine of the Church. But even if we’re dealing with genuine heresy, let’s open our arms and embrace our fellow saints anyways. We are all at different points in our personal progression. We are all at different points in our conversion to Christ and His doctrines. Joseph Smith is reported to have said:
I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled.
Why, after all, should we chase people from the fountain of Truth for not yet having the truth? I firmly believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one place in this world where the doctrines are pure. I believe that this Church and its ordinances are a wellspring of revelation, a fountian of light and knowledge from the True and Living God. Why chase anyone from that fountain — even if inadvertently — because they haven’t been fully persuaded of those doctrines yet?
Because I believe that some heresies are dangerous, I sometimes do fear for some of my fellow saints who continually resist the teachings of the living prophets and apostles. But because membership in this Church offers the best context, the best environment, and the best chances of saving their souls, I’d rather they be here than anywhere else. I think we should carefully scrutinize our behavior and make sure that we do not do anything to alienate, distance ourselves from, or exclude other Latter-day Saints merely for believing differently. That’s the message, for example, that I got from President Uchtdorf and others this past weekend and last conference. There is room in this Church for anyone and everyone, no matter their belief system or background. Observers will note that the Church hardly ever — if not never —excommunicates someone for heresy alone. And we, I think, should be careful not to do so either with our words and deeds.
Now, I think that we have every prerogative to instruct, correct, and to teach, especially if we have a priesthood stewardship and a teaching calling. We can and must teach true doctrine, and we can extend gentle, loving correction to those who err. But I think we should be conscientious to ensure that those who err feel welcomed and wanted nevertheless. This Church is the place where they can and will learn true doctrine through the Spirit, and we must therefore ensure that our meetings are full of the Spirit of love, not the spirit of contention. If we can find ways to teach true doctrine without putting others on the defensive, we will be much better instruments in the Lord’s hands, and much less likely to alienate those who need Spiritual instruction from the one place where they are most likely to receive it. Let’s be meticulous about this. We should embrace heretics with love, fellowship, and friendship — and perhaps by so doing, we’ll be the instruments through which God sends His correcting, testifying Spirit.
The Line in the Sand: Apostasy
This, however, is not the end of the story. While I firmly believe that having a different opinion does not make someone a bad Mormon (because don’t we all have some way in which we aren’t fully converted?), there are behaviors that are simply unbecoming of members of the Church. President George Q. Cannon once said:
A friend … wished to know whether we … considered an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the Authorities of the Church was apostasy. … We replied that we had not stated that an honest difference of opinion between a member of the Church and the Authorities constituted apostasy, for we could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing those differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term.
When President Cannon uses the phrase, “enforce them upon the people,” I don’t think he means, “forcing one’s beliefs on others.” I also doubt he’s talking about a heretic who happens to express his opinion at a dinner party, or who, when asked, offers a different perspective on an issue. But I suspect that he is certainly talking about those who are earnestly trying to persuade their fellow saints to depart from the teachings of God’s spokesmen and to embrace contrary doctrine instead. President Cannon identifies these individuals as more than just heretics — he identifies them as apostates.
President Cannon’s quote has been repeated by prophets and apostles on multiple occasions, has appeared in Church manuals, etc., so I don’t think we can take his words lightly or as without weight. And observers will notice that while the Church does not typically excommunicate people for having errant opinions, it does sometimes excommunicate people for publishing and earnestly persuading others to depart from sound doctrine and to embrace heresy instead. Just recently, a man named Denver Snuffer was excommunicated for publishing a book that, in essence, teaches that the modern prophets and apostles have lead the Church into apostasy. So long as he held those views, he was a heretic. But the moment he published them in a book and started going speaking tours, he became an apostate.
But even then, the Church is really patient and awfully reluctant to even excommunicate these sorts of people. Why? Because they want them in the Church. It’s the Gift of the Holy Ghost and the instruction they receive in Church that gives them the best chances to be corrected and return to true doctrine. But sometimes, they starting causing more damage than the patience is worth. When apostates begin to have a large following and large groups of people begin to be swayed against true doctrine, the Church will then probably be more likely to take action, just as it did with Denver Snuffer. But that is a prerogative of the Church and its designated leaders, not you or I.
In short, if you have a different opinion, if you disbelieve certain core Church teachings, you are fully welcome to worship with us. It’s ok to have questions and doubts. That doesn’t make you a bad Mormon. We want you with us. But when you start to publish opinions that directly contradict the established teachings of the Church, and earnestly try to persuade others to believe such an opinion, you are engaging in apostasy. For example, if you believe that same-sex activity is not sinful, you might be a heretic, and that’s ok. We can accept you. We will try and teach you, but we will embrace you with open arms and fellowship nonetheless. If you publish a book about it, or write a blog post about it, in which you try to convince others that the established teachings of the Apostles on sexuality are wrong and misguided, you are not longer just a heretic — you are an apostate.
How to Respond to Apostasy
So how do we respond to the apostates among us? Actually, not much differently than we respond to the heretics. We welcome them with open arms. We embrace them in fellowship. We include them in our activities. We make sure they feel loved and welcomed in the Church, and we don’t alienate them with cold stares and unfriendly hearts. And, like heretics, we use opportunities to teach and to correct, as guided by the Spirit. The apostates among us should feel as welcome in our Church meetings as the heretics among us. It is the prerogative of priesthood leaders and priesthood leaders alone to sever those ties.
But there’s one thing I want to make clear: their public agitation against the Church is fair game for criticism. When you publish a blog post saying that Mormons can and should embrace same-sex relations, we can and will, in the same public venues, denounce your opinion as in contradiction to the established teachings of the Church. Once you take your heretical opinions public, you should feel no right to be free from public criticism of your opinions.
There are some who, taking their opinions public and trying to persuade others to join their dissent, argue that compassion and good will requires that the rest of us remain silent. If we speak out and say, “Actually, you are currently in open contradiction to the Church’s teachings,” and warn others to steer clear of your public advocacy, they respond, “They are trying to create a hostile environment in the Church for those with diverse opinions!” When their perspectives are publicly denounced by members as heresy, and their actions as apostasy, they sometimes cry, “Don’t we want diversity in the Church? Why are you trying to silence me for merely disagreeing or having doubts or questions about the Church’s positions?”
No — we are not trying to chase you out of the Church for believing differently. We’re not trying to chase you out of the Church at all. But we can and will respond with clarity when you contradict the teachings of the Church’s leaders and try to confuse our fellow saints into thinking that you are not (or that this is ok). Having doubts and questions is fine. Teaching others to doubt and question is not. Publicly spreading heretical perspectives using argument, persuasion, public advocacy, is not just “having a different perspective,” it is open rebellion against the Church and its teachings, and this will elicit a strong response from faithful Latter-day Saints. To think that it shouldn’t is rather silly.
So we’ll welcome you at Church. We’ll include you in activities. We’ll do everything we humanly can to make you feel loved and as welcome as anyone else. But we’ll not stand silently by while you lead our brothers and sisters to believe worldly doctrines and false ideas that the Church has repeatedly denounced as wrong. Once you take your errant views to the public, we have every prerogative to publicly respond to them. We have no obligation to sit back and silently watch. To claim that criticizing the prophets and apostles is fair game for Latter-day Saints, but to in turn criticize those who do this is somehow uncompassionate and unchristian, is just plain hypocritical.
A further note: there is a scene in a recent James Bond film in which the title character (played by Daniel Craig) shaves with a single-bladed razor. Single bladed razor sales increased by 400%. I have no idea if it was deliberate product placement, but the effect was enormous. So here’s my point: while a heretical opinion expressed over the dinner table is likely just run-of-the-mill heresy and not apostasy (as defined here), a heretical opinion expressed by a respected blogger on a public blog with thousands of readers might have much, much more weight and much more serious consequences. So while having a different opinion — and even expressing that opinion in everyday conversation — may not amount to public advocacy, blogging about that opinion, especially when your blog is highly read and highly respected, can very well constitute public advocacy.
So when you — a popular blogger — publish on your blog that you think that same-sex relations aren’t immoral, you can’t cry, “But it’s not wrong to just have a different opinion.” By making this defense, you are ignoring the immense power that you wield in your hands for both good and evil. You are ignoring the kind of influence that you have, and with that influence comes greater responsibility. This doesn’t mean you are unwelcome in the Church — quite the contrary, I’m trying to say that you are welcome in the Church and should be embraced as a fellow saint. But your publicly expressed views are fair game for public counter-criticism and correction. To imply that we cannot publicly respond to, correct, or contradict your views (because it creates a “hostile environment” for those with dissenting opinions), while you can publicly discuss and advocate opinions that are in contradiction to Church teachings, slants the playing field in entirely unfair ways.
When we publicly comment on your publicly expressed views, we’re not trying to chase you away or create a hostile environment in the Church. We respond publicly to your public writings for the sake of the thousands of viewers who might otherwise be swayed by your advocacy. We try to do so in as Christlike a way as possible, with as much compassion and gentleness as possible, but I know we are not always perfect. But this is our prerogative and, I think, our duty. That’s not creating a “hostile environment” or “discouraging diversity,” that’s simply fulfilling our ministerial duty to teach true doctrine and protect our brothers and sisters. Further, me calling out the sin of apostasy here doesn’t mean I want to exclude or hate people who commit that sin any more than it means that the people who read this and say that in writing it I lacked sufficient charity or sufficient good judgment means they hate me or want to exclude me.
I suspect that some will respond that the use of the word “apostate” is itself an insult that encourages shunning. However, when someone tries to publicly convince others to disregard the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, they are engaging in apostasy, and I don’t think that we can walk back on that in order to make them feel more welcome. In my view, public contradiction of current prophetic teachings by members of the Church may at times be tolerated because of charity, but it can never be considered acceptable and must be called what it is. But as long as their apostasy is labelled as such, they will consider it an insult (while knowing full well at some level that it is accurate) and will feel marginalized, because they know that in the mind of many members it delegitimizes their point of view. But by marginalizing their point of view through public criticism and counter-commentary, I do not think we are being unloving. Come to my Sunday School class, and I’ll make you feel as welcome as anyone else. Come to my home, and you’ll be seated for dinner as an honored guest.
There are some in this Church who believe that Zion is a open-minded collective pluralism where all worldviews and perspectives are valued equally. This is not true. Zion is a place where the Lord’s saints are knit together in love, with one heart and one mind, collectively unified with the will of God as taught by His chosen servants. Zion can certainly accommodate diversity on a lot of things — but not diversity that includes promoting false and pernicious doctrines that lead us away from God’s teachings. Now, as we progress towards Zion, we can charitably embrace those among us who haven’t yet been converted to the teachings of the prophets. They should feel as welcome in our meetings as those who haven’t yet quit smoking, or who have a pornography addiction, or aren’t paying their tithing. I mean, really, we are all sinners and none of us should feel superior to others. But this doesn’t mean that we have to publicly tolerate and silently accept public contradiction of God’s servants by our fellow members, and especially not in the name of building Zion.
In closing, I’m going to extend four invitations to those whose views on important issues differ from the established teachings of the Church — particularly those teachings that the current Church leaders have prioritized in our day (which we can gauge using General Conference):
(1) Consider reconsidering your views. Harold B. Lee taught: “You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views … [or] your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if [we] listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that … ‘the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.’”
(2) Don’t proselyte your dissent. Let’s say that you aren’t ready to give up your contradicting opinions and accept the core doctrines of the Church yet. That’s fine. It’s OK to have different opinions, and it’s OK that you aren’t ready to accept the teachings of the Church on some issues. People of all opinions are welcome. In fact, it’s even OK to talk about these views. We’re not advocating a tight-lipped silence. But the moment you publish your views, and try to persuade others to join you in your dissent in public venues, you are engaging in apostasy.
(3) If you do, don’t claim immunity from criticism. We will try to make you feel as welcome as possible in our services, our activities, our congregations. So even if you are engaging in public dissent, we have a duty to welcome you in our congregations. And we will do our best to do so. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying. But try for a moment to see our point of view: from our perspective, you are trying to lead our brothers and sisters away from the established teachings of the Church. So when you publicly try to persuade others to deviate from the teachings of the Church, we will respond. If you publish a blog post trying to persuade people that the Church is wrong on the law of chastity, we will welcome you into our meetings, but we will also write a blog post about how your perspectives are misguided and your behaviors inappropriate. That’s life. Deal with it.
(4) Come and worship with us nonetheless. Please, stay with us. Don’t leave. Don’t be chased away. We want you in this Church, because this Church is where you will find the words of eternal life. This Church has the saving ordinances of the Gospel. When you publicly dissent, we may publicly correct you — but please consider us brothers and sisters in the faith. Please stay and participate in the ordinances of the Gospel. We need you. We want you. And we love you.
And, finally, I’m going to extend two invitations to everyone else: Whether you think your fellow saint is a heretic or an apostate, embrace them in fellowship. Love them. Include them. Help them make the Church a permanent home. Those with priesthood stewardship may have to use moral discernment when extending callings of influence, but the rest of us can just do our very best to make the Church an inviting place for them. When they talk about their doubts and concerns, listen to them. Love them. And, as moved by the Spirit, share your own thoughts and testimony. Recognize that it’s OK to have doubts, to have differing perspectives, and to be at different stages in our journey of discipleship. It’s OK to discuss and have conversations about those differing views. When your friend begins to persuade others to share those doubts and concerns, recognize that this behavior is inappropriate — but love and fellowship them anyways, even as you respond with corrective clarity and testimony to their ideas for the sake others.
Note to commenters: If you are going to object to the use of the word “apostasy,” first explain how that is NOT the appropriate word for publicly contradicting God’s chosen representatives on central Church teachings, and attempting to persuade others to do the same. Further, as you do this, please answer this question: “Is there such a thing as apostasy at all, and if there is, how do you define it?”