Friday, November 13, 2015

Redefining ‘General Authority’ in the Church: “This Watershed Moment,” Part 2

The LDS Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, Utah.

As I have said in an earlier post, the recent policy change involving LDS Church members in same-sex marriages, and the status of their children, is a catastrophic disaster from the point of view of the pain that it is causing to the people involved. However, this policy change has also created a watershed moment for Mormonism, the implications of which I am exploring in this series of blog posts (see the Introduction). In this post of the series, I look at how the idea of “General Authority” in the Church might develop because of this watershed moment. First, we need to consider the policy change, and its implications for the meaning of “general authority” in the Church.

The Policy Change Is an Unmitigated Disaster

 Many members have wondered about the purpose of this policy change, which declares members in same-sex marriages as apostates, and bans the children of same-sex marriages both from being blessed in church as babies, and from being baptized until they are legal adults and “disavow” same-sex marriage. The official position, as expressed in a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, is that the policy change is meant to “protect” the children in same-sex marriages from being put in the position of being Church members while under the parental authority of apostates.

I have heard alternative explanations for the policy. One speculates that some leaders of the Church are increasingly uncomfortable with the large number of American Saints who support the idea of accepting homosexuality and legalizing same-sex marriage. (In a national survey reported in 2014, the Pew ResearchCenter found that 36% of Mormons stated that homosexuality should be supported by society. In a national survey reported in April of this year, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 27% of Mormons favored legalizing same-sex marriage. Of course, this was all in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in late June of this year, legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.) According to an alternative explanation, the policy is a move to reduce the number of people in the Church who are supportive of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. I find this to be an interesting notion; certainly, the policy change will have that effect—although at an immense cost (see below). It is certainly possible that both the official and the alternative explanations are true: one operating on a conscious level, the other on an unconscious level.

Whatever the real rationale for the policy—stated or tacit, conscious or unconscious—one thing is absolutely clear. The policy change is a monumental failure on multiple fronts:
  •  Calls to suicide hotlines in Utah have spiked considerably since the policy change became known a week ago. One person working at such a hotline said that calls to her hotline doubled on the night that the policy change was discovered. (Unfortunately, I suspect that those who call such hotlines are only a fraction of people who seriously consider suicide.)
  • Many members of the Church have expressed anguish and pain over the policy change. While I am personally aware of dozens of families who have expressed this privately and in confidence, others have expressed their feelings publicly.
  •  Thousands of Latter-day Saints have investigated formally resigning their membership in the Church over the policy change. Some of these people have explained their reasons to the public. As of this writing, a “Mass Resignation from Mormonism Event” is planned for tomorrow, November 14, with a protest on Temple Square in Salt Lake City; the Facebook event page for this lists 1,200 people as planning to attend, and 2,200 people as “interested” (as of 9:15 a.m., Friday, November 13). (The Washington Post and Slate have reported this week on this forthcoming event.)
  • It has been observed that the policy change is confusing, and can have many extremely negative consequences for parents and children in many types of family, whether these consequences are intended or not.
  •  Little, if any, of these effects have been mitigated by the clarification issued by the First Presidency today (November 13).

When a policy change is made to “protect children,” resulting in those very children having suicidal thoughts—when a policy is made by a Church that values families so very highly, and yet which forces those children to “disavow” the marriage that raised them in order to partake of the saving ordinances of the gospel—when a policy causes such pain and anguish within families—when a policy, not even a doctrine, brings thousands of people to the point of resigning their membership in the Church—when a policy with so many extremely negative potential consequences is issued—one must conclude the following:
  1. The policy was very poorly thought out and framed.
  2. The policy itself is, in terms of its stated objectives, a failure.
  3. The policy could not be the product of people unerringly guided by the Spirit of God.

And all of this has consequences.

How Church Members Should Treat the General Authorities

What is the upshot of all this? It is simple to state, although enormous in its implications:
Church members should not treat the General Authorities as if they infallibly speak for God at all times and in all places (including formal General Conference addresses, other talks, articles, or policy statements).
This should be obvious. But in practice, this represents a sea change in the way that the Latter-day Saints look at their leadership.

It is nowhere in our scriptures. But the unwritten guideline that so many of the Saints seem to live by is something like the following:
“The General Authorities speak for the Lord—pretty much all the time, and most especially when speaking in their official capacity. If a General Authority says something from the pulpit in General Conference, in a Church-sponsored press conference, in an article printed in the Church magazines, or in some policy statement, we can all be assured that this is the Word of the Lord.”
And yet this is completely against what the first LDS prophet, Joseph Smith, believed. As he put it, in a journal entry of February 8, 1843:
This morning I … visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet;” but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 278; Documentary History of the Church, vol. 5, p. 265; see the original page at the Joseph Smith Papers Project.)
 If this applies to the Prophet, then certainly it applies to all General Authorities. The location in which a General Authority stands when he makes a pronouncement—such as the pulpit in General Conference—makes no difference in the matter; the pulpit of the Conference Center is not some magical or enchanted place. One acts as a prophet when moved upon by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s seal of approval is not guaranteed by time or place of the utterance involved.

The Saints have put such an emphasis on “following the Brethren” that, as a group, we sometimes seem to act as if we are obligated to follow the Brethren without any thought. This is not what President Joseph Fielding Smith taught when he wrote the following:
It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. (Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 3, p. 203)

In this connection, it is noteworthy that even certain First Presidency statements have been later repudiated by the Church, essentially implying that such earlier statements were uninspired writing. Perhaps the best example of this is the August 17, 1949 statement of the First Presidency, stating that not giving the priesthood to men of African descent was “not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord.” (See also this article on the website of the BYU Religious Studies Center, which quotes this statement.) This official statement, in essence, reiterated a private letter of this First Presidency to a member who had questioned the Church’s teaching on this matter. Of course, this entire position was repudiated, without referencing this First Presidency statement, in the recent Gospel Topics essay on the Church’s website, titled “Race and the Priesthood.”

So, given all of this, how should the Saints treat the General Authorities and what they say? I suggest that the attitude to take should be something like the following:
“The General Authorities are special servants of the Lord. They have special priesthood keys regarding certain ordinances, and setting apart Church officers. Their experience means that their thoughts have special weight as we consider matters of faith and practice. As the scriptures state, as is the case with all those ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood and sent out into the world, when it comes to the General Authorities, whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation (D&C 68:4).
“That said, the General Authorities’s official statements are not necessarily the Word of God. Knowing whether a General Authority is speaking or writing by the Spirit in a given instance is a matter of discernment, and prayer: it is not a given that something said in General Conference, or written in an article or presented as a statement, is the Word of God. When something that one or more General Authorities say or write violates one’s conscience, in good faith we should make that clear to the General Authorities involved.”
Of course, this raises another issue as well.

How the General Authorities Should Treat the Saints

Perhaps it is just me, but it seems that in recent years we have heard a number of statements made from the pulpit in General Conference that suggest that General Authorities either do not need feedback from the general membership of the Church, or even that they are positively obliged to ignore such feedback.

Certainly, the debacle created by the recent policy change suggests that the General Authorities could indeed benefit from considering the specific views and feelings of the general Church membership. Let me put it this way: When regular rank-and-file faithful-as-all-get-out members of the Church raise questions to me—I, who have no special administrative responsibility in the Church—questions, I say, about basic doctrinal issues that seem to conflict with this policy, this suggests to me that the Brethren who framed this policy could have benefited by consulting with some families.

Herewith, some suggestions for how General Authorities should treat the Saints:
  1. Realize that, as a group, the Saints are intimidated about bringing concerns to the Brethren. This is because, in some eyes, raising concerns smacks of not being sufficiently “supportive” of the Brethren. This has created a situation where, like it or not, the Brethren actually do live in a kind of “bubble” where they are somewhat insulated, especially from the concerns of Saints who are somewhat marginalized.
  2. Read your own mail. Some have said that all concerns expressed in writing to a General Authority are simply bounced back to that individual’s stake or local leadership. This is a huge mistake. The General Authorities cannot claim to be in touch with what is going on in the lives of the membership of the Church if they confine themselves to contacts with people around the time of stake conferences and so forth. If they are getting so much mail that it seems inconvenient to have to deal with it all—well, that should tell them something about the urgency of the issues being addressed in those letters. If the Church has the resources to finance the City Creek Mall in Salt Lake City, which will cost $3 billion in total, then certainly it has the resources to hire more staff to help the General Authorities with their mail.
  3. No, the Church is not a democracy, and in that sense the General Authorities are not the “representatives” of the Church membership. However, the Church is not a corporation, either: it is a Kingdom, and the GAs are certainly supposed to be the eyes and ears of the King in serving His people, and it is hard to do that without actually listening to them. In this case, that means going the extra mile and take the initiative to pierce the reticence that most Saints have to bring up concerns to the Church leadership.

What Is To Be Done?

So what can the rank-and-file member do to promote this approach to the relationship between the General Authorities and the Saints? I suggest the following steps:
  • We can familiarize ourselves with the issue, the “Brand X” approach that so many Saints take towards the General Authorities, versus the improved approach that is recommended above.
  • We can familiarize ourselves with the sources quoted in this post, specifically in relation to (1) the limitations of authority that are indicated in Joseph Smith’s and Joseph Fielding Smith’s statements above, and (2) the documents related to the former priesthood ban, quoted above, which indicate that even First Presidency statements are not utterly sacrosanct.
  • We can respectfully request that the General Authorities make clear the limitations on their own authority, in General Conference, from the pulpit. This needs to be clear, it needs to be specific, and not just a vague “hey, we’re just people, too” sort of thing. Perhaps it would be appropriate to suggest something like the approach that I mention above, in relation to how the Saints might better relate to the General Authorities.
  • While we’re at it, we can respectfully request that the General Authorities do more from their end to help fix the relationship that they have with the general Church membership, perhaps along the lines of what I have suggested above.


The recent policy change is a fiasco. But fiascos can be useful if they spark people to make changes in how they interact with one another, including in institutions. We can and should take steps to make clear that we want a better-defined relationship between the Saints and the General Authorities, along the lines that I have suggested above.

- - - - - - -

Readers are welcome to comment on this post, below.

I invite you to become a “follower” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner of this page, to be informed of future posts.

I discuss the growth of the Church of Jesus Christ in my book, The Rise of the Mormons, and I discuss another important issue in my book, Latter-day Saint Women and the Priesthood of God (both available here.)

Visit the Facebook page of “That Mormon Guy Mark.”
Visit Mark Koltko-Rivera’s website.
Mark Koltko-Rivera’s LDS bio.

[The photo of the LDS Church Office Building was taken by Ricardo630 on 1 July 2013, and appears here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.]

Copyright 2015 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.


  1. The "all-knowing" culture perpetuated by church leaders has finally met it's match. Much in the way the printing press freed the masses from the need for a priestly interpreter of the Bible, the internet has forever opened the eyes (and minds) of those who are willing to look. This fiasco as you rightly call it isn't the first, but it may serve as a final straw for many who just want to follow Christ's example of love.

    1. sallgood, thank you for your comment. I think you and I differ on some important issues here. I do agree that the Internet has forever changed the context of the Church; it is no longer possible to take a stick-one's-head-in-the-sand attitude about Church history, practice, or so forth, because the Internet makes everything available instantly and all the time, to everyone.

      However, I do see an important purpose to the Church organization. The thing is to have the organization facilitate our journey to follow Christ's example of love. Improving this capacity is the purpose of my blog, this series, and this post.

  2. As a non-believing but still entangled member, I see a lot of good ideas in your post, and have to thank you for putting it all together in such a coherent and comprehensive way.

    An end to the practice of "GA worship" is long overdue.

    1. I watched a talk by Elder oaks at byui recently on this issue. He claims the Presidency and the twelve all an outpouring of the Spirit confirm to them that this policy change was the will of the Lord.

  3. Thoughtfully and tastefully done. Thanks for the time you took to synthesize your thoughts.

  4. This may mark a swing towards once more becoming a closed church. I have long suspected that the church was not what the more liberal members always pretended it was.
    What the church does next will either prove me right, or compromise power in a way the church has never done before. For the church to admit such falliable leadership would free members to ignore commandments without the consolation prize of increased membership (unlike the ending of the priesthood ban). The insulation between us and the rest of the world would be torn away and with it the sense of ingroup that gives us cohesion.
    I am stepping away from the church, a decision I made several weeks before these events, but I am interested to see what the church does. I think it will become more conservative and lose American members but keeping the ultra rich Utah members and the Latin and African members who are more conservative.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Ryan. I see things differently in terms of what an admission of fallible leadership would lead to. I don't think it would give anyone license to ignore legitimate commandments. And, as far as cohesion in the Church is concerned, I think that an admission of fallible leadership would cease the alienation that so many members feel, and make us _more_ cohesive.

      As far as the possibility of the Church becoming even more conservative is concerned: there is a reason I am writing these blog posts.

    2. I just stumbled upon this post and I am curious to your thoughts on what Elder Nelson said at the recent YSA fireside. He explicitly stated that the policy was the will of the Lord. That sounds a lot like your requirement of a "thus saith the Lord" type revelation. The other option that you haven't really explored is that this policy actually is a revelation from God, and that despite the short term pain and anguish it may cause, in the long run it will be exactly what the Church needs-even if it may not be in the way we think (like Zion's Camp was to the early members). I agree wholeheartedly that the Prophet, Apostles, and GA's are not infallible and are absolutely capable of and do make many mistakes, but we also need to be careful of swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and counting the callings of Prophets, Seers, and Revelators as of no worth and not acknowledging that they are indeed called to be God's spokesmen on earth. Thanks for the post.

    3. This is an issue, not just for another blog post, but for a chapter in my forthcoming book on the Gospel and homosexuality. (Subscribe to my newsletter--box above--to be informed when this comes out.)

      I may be stepping on the third rail here, but I am obligated to tell the truth as I understand it.

      With regards to Elder Nelson's doubtlessly sincere statement: I don't buy it. Not one word of it. Not at all.

      This is just not how revelation works in the Church. Announcing a revelation from the Lord--at a FIRESIDE?!? And not even announced by the one to whom the revelation was given? No, this is not remotely a "thus saith the Lord"-type revelation.

      Then there is the larger issue. Look at the sequence of events. There is a policy change--not even announced at first, but leaked to the public--that then has to be seriously revised in reaction to outcry over the poorly thought-out way it was written. THEN this "revelation" is retroactively trotted out. No, this is not how revelation works either, and it's not how the Lord works. I am not impressed with the option you mention.

      Let's go farther.

      It is an open secret that Pres. Monson is suffering from dementia. This does not make him less of a prophet--but we need to recognize that there are consequences that come along with this condition. One is that people with dementia are relatively easy to manipulate. I think that too many members of the leadership around Pres. Monson are simply so uncomfortable with the very notion of same-sex marriage that they may have "mentioned" the possibility of a revelation to Pres. Monson. A person with dementia will often take a notion for reality. And that's just the plain unpleasant truth (states the man who worked as the in-house psychotherapist at two nursing homes).

      I do not understand why you would mention that "we also need to be careful of swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction and counting the callings of Prophets, Seers, and Revelators as of no worth and not acknowledging that they are indeed called to be God's spokesmen on earth." I have made no suggestion at all that their callings are of no worth, and I certainly acknowledge that they are called to be the Lord's spokespeople.

      But that is very, very far from saying that whatever they say is so. That simply is not true.

      Thank you for your comment.

    4. Thank you for your quick reply, First off I would like to apologize, I am not the best writer and I am sorry if I came across as saying that you personally were discounting callings of the prophets and apostles and saying they are of no worth. I was meaning to speak in general terms that we as a people need to watch out and not fall into that trap. I have known those who personally have heard the prophet say something that they don't like, so then they feel free to ignore everything he says and eventually leave the Church, and it seems like that is becoming more and more common (or maybe I am just more and more aware of it), but I was not trying to say that you personally are doing this (I am absolutely not in a position to judge anyone and I apologize again if I came across that way) but only that it appears that there are many who do. I agree with you that President Nelson's statement was sincere-I think he absolutely believes that it was a revelation from God. I have no problem with the comparison to Zion's camp-the endeavor looked like a complete failure: nothing was accomplished that was set out to be, 14 men died of sickness, and a lot of time was wasted. But at the same time it also served to strengthen the leadership of the Church and increase the leadership abilities of Joseph Smith. I obviously don't know but I have no problem believing that God did inspire the policy change, but not for the reasons we may think-there may be other purposes. Also, I think that the Lord inspires some things to occur because we as a people are not ready for the changes. I really don't know the answer but I still believe that even if one disagrees with the policy, it is still possible to believe that it came as a revelation, but that the purpose of it may not be what we think (or even may be the complete opposite of what we think). Thank you again for your posts, and I apologize again if anything I said in my previous comment was out of line.

    5. I appreciate your clarification.

      If we as a people are not ready for the changes--then we as members have a responsibility to become ready. I hope that blog posts like mine help to further that effort.

      Be well.


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