The is a guest post by Michael Davidson
The Church has discontinued Handbook 1 and Handbook 2 in favor of a new volume titled “General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” It is available to all to peruse on the Church’s website and on the Gospel Library app. It has been several decades since the previous iteration of the Church’s general handbook of instructions has been given such an overhaul, and it is the first time that it is explicitly public.
And, despite its now completely public stance, not much of it has changed. The FAQ that accompanied the release recognizes that only nine of the thirty-eight chapters have been completed with the other chapters being largely copied word-for-word from the pre-existing handbooks. Chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 15, 18, 32, 36, and 37 are those completed chapters, but various changes have been made in the rest of the volume, particularly with regard to what we used to call Church discipline and disciplinary councils. There are also some important updates to various Church policies and guidelines in Chapter 38.
While each of the new chapters are well done, they don’t represent any changes in direction or the guiding principles that have always governed in the Church. I was not surprised, given that this volume is public, that time was taken to elucidate things that perhaps could be left unsaid when your audience is limited to stake presidencies and bishoprics. Chapter 1-4 provide a great introduction to the doctrinal framework that gives structure to all that we do in the Church. Out of the whole volume, these are the chapters that would be best for all members to read and understand. The rest of the General Handbook simply cannot be properly understood without an appreciation of these principles, and many of the critiques I have read today miss this entirely.
Perhaps the biggest change, in this author’s humble opinion, is in the significant revision to what is now Chapter 32, Repentance and Church Membership Councils. It bears reading in full for those interested, but it is interesting that the words “excommunication” and “disfellowship” are nowhere to be found in this volume. Instead, the results of a Membership Council may include no change or “remains in good standing,” “personal counseling with the Bishop or Stake President” on an informal basis, “formal membership restrictions,” or a “withdrawal of membership.”
Personally, I like this change as it has always been the duty and responsibility of leaders and members to continue to fellowship the disfellowshipped and continue to communicate with, and minister to, the excommunicated. In fact, as near as I can tell, the word “excommunication” is only listed twice in the LDS standard works; once in Section 134 in which the Church stands for the position that religious organizations should have the right to excommunicate members, but not to punish them in other ways. See D&C 134:10. The other time is in the historical headnote to D&C 81, in which it is noted that one person mentioned in the revelation had been excommunicated.
Instead, the scriptures refer to the names of unrepentant transgressors being “blotted out” from the membership records, and that they not be numbered among the membership of the Church. In almost all cases, excepting those who are wolves (see Alma 5:59-60), we are to encourage repentance for those who stray, rather than shunning them or celebrating their sin. I think that the new phraseology used here is better attuned to these needs and expectations.
This could not be considered complete without addressing a couple of the elephants a small but loud contingent have walked into the room. The first I will address is transgenderism. In reading the sections added to chapter 38 on the topic, and the attendant changes made throughout to harmonize with these additions, I find nothing that is not in harmony with what has been taught and explained from the pulpit by the Brethren for many, many years. What has changed is that the Church has closed a lot of loopholes that certain individuals thought existed in the written policy statements. Some critics of the Church have expressed gratitude for the increased clarity while bemoaning that the (arguably highly politicized) philosophical science of the day has not held sway against eternal truths announced by the Brethren.
We all know the Church encourages us to be loving and compassionate in these circumstances. In fact, it is the first thing said in this section and others. With all of that, members of the lgbt community and their allies often make the argument that the Church’s refusal to accept the currently promoted social narrative on these issues is evidence of hatred and bigotry, and certainly a lack of love. Aside from the obvious authoritarian bent of such pronouncements, we should still reach out in love and compassion and not allow the rejection of those expressions (if they are rejected) to dishearten us in so doing.
With that introduction, the teachings of the Church with respect to transgenderism are, as found in 38.6.21:
(1) gender is eternal;
(2) gender is first expressed physically in the developing child and that expression is the expression of the eternal gender of the spirit and body;
(3) in the statistically limited cases in which there is physical ambiguity, consult with doctors and questions regarding ordination and temple ordinances should be addressed to the First Presidency;
(4) leaders are to advise those considering medical or surgical intervention for the purpose of transitioning “will be cause for Church membership restrictions;”
(5) leaders are also directed to counsel against social transition, which “includes changing dress and grooming, or changing a name or pronouns, to present oneself as other than his or her birth sex;”
(6) “those who socially transition will experience some Church membership restrictions for the duration of this transition;”
(7) restrictions for those who surgically, medically, or socially transition are a prohibition from “receiving or exercising the priesthood, receiving or using a temple recommend, and receiving some Church callings;”
(8) other non-restricted Church participation is welcomed; and
(9) if someone is “prescribed hormone therapy by a licensed medical profession to ease gender dysphoria or reduce suicidal thoughts,” but does not otherwise medically, surgically, or socially transition, and is otherwise worthy, they may have Church callings and attend the temple.
None of this is new or novel, even though it is being spelled out in greater detail in the General Handbook in this edition.
Also, the Church is decidedly in favor of people observing the law of chastity, and “only a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband or wife should have sexual relations.” Anything outside of this, including same sex marriage, could subject the participants to withdrawal of membership.
To sum up, the handbook changes make the Church’s positions more public and more clear to all members and also the general public. But there are no indications the Church has made any significant changes on long-standing moral issues.