Guest Post: The Doctrine Does Change

Guest Post by Nicole Sbitani. Nicole is an adult convert, a non-Black woman of color, and a professional diplomat. She blogs at nandm.sbitani.com and writes microfiction @nsbitani on Twitter. The content of this post does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of State or any other U.S. Government agency, department, or entity. The thoughts and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no way should be associated with the U.S. Government.

I’ve recently had several difficult conversations with members regarding the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on same-sex marriage. One common refrain I heard over and over again is: “Policies change, but the doctrine doesn’t.” This is frequently coupled with a variation of the following: “If the Church allows same-sex marriage, I’ll leave. Not because I oppose LGBTQIA+ rights, but because that would mean the doctrine changed and the Church isn’t true.”

Your friendly convert with a passing interest in Church history is here to tell you that, in fact, doctrine and not just policy does change. It has changed many times and it can change again. The narrative that doctrine never changes is harmful in two ways. First, it closes members’ minds to the possibility of truer, more correct doctrine. Second, it incentivizes members to dismiss any accurate theological history of the Church.

Because the context where I hear this falsehood the most is in conversations about same-sex marriage, let’s focus on the doctrine of marriage. Here are a few examples of times that the Church’s marriage and sealing doctrine deviated from what we now understand it to be, backed by faith-affirming and Church-approved sources:

  • Plural marriage as infidelity to living husbands: Zina D. H. Jacobs Young married Henry Jacobs in 1841. Months later, she was “sealed for eternity to Joseph Smith.” She was then “sealed to Brigham Young in 1846 [for this life] while still civilly married to Henry [Jacobs].” She had children with both Henry Jacobs and Brigham Young.
  • Sealing to prominent, familially unrelated Church leaders: The Law of Adoption practiced in the early days of the Restored Church engendered political squabbles, power struggles, and a mistaken belief that sealing to powerful Church leaders would be necessary for exaltation. This also included the practice of not sealing children to deceased non-member parents and not sealing wives to deceased non-member husbands because the non-members’ lack of belief was seen as a threat to the members’ salvation.
  • Sealing of at least one member as an eternal “servitor”: Jane Elizabeth Manning James, pioneering African American woman in the early Restored Church, fought for decades to receive her Endowment and be sealed in the Temple. She was denied those ordinances for being Black, and she was eventually sealed in proxy to Joseph Smith not as an adopted daughter as she requested but as a “servitor” in eternity.

The Restored Church is one of revelation; it is one of the theological miracles that drew me to the Church and continues to bolster my testimony. Revelation has changed doctrine, and I am hopeful it will do so again. As just one example, President Wilford Woodruff received a revelation on the aforementioned Law of Adoption that he announced in the April 1984 General Conference. He said:

“We have not fully carried out those principles in fulfillment of the revelations of God to us in sealing the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers…the duty that I want every man who presides over a Temple to see performed from this day henceforth and forever unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise is let every man be adopted to his father…that is the will of God to this people…Have children sealed to their parents and run their chain through as far as you can get it. When you get to the end let the last man be adopted to Joseph Smith who stands at the head of this dispensation.”

Even this portion of the changed doctrine on adoption has changed yet again. (Or did I miss the part of the Family History lesson where they said I’m supposed to seal all the ancestors at the top of my family tree to Joseph Smith?) President Woodruff himself leaves that door open in his revelation when he says “unless the Lord Almighty commands otherwise,” an important reminder that even when changes come they may not be the Lord’s last word on the subject.

Most members of the Church today would agree that our current understanding of marriage and sealing is much closer to what our Heavenly Parents would want for us than the previous examples I mentioned. Asking women married to non-members to cheat on their husbands, ignoring the exhortation in the Scriptures to turn the hearts of the children to the fathers by cutting non-members out of sealing ordinances, and sealing anyone in eternal servitude clearly do not match our modern doctrine.

Something as monumental and fundamental to our religion as the nature and practice of sealing is not a mere policy. These are core doctrinal changes. Moreover, this changing doctrine should be celebrated rather than feared because it is bringing us closer to where God wants us to be.

Let’s not rob ourselves of the opportunity to benefit from the truer, more correct doctrine God is waiting to reveal unto us. If we close our minds and refuse to believe we have anything to learn, then we will not have the meekness of heart to receive the truth even if it is delivered line upon line, precept upon precept. Only with a clear-eyed view of our own complicated history and improving doctrine can we open ourselves to all the possibilities of what and who we can be.

 

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15 Responses

  1. anitacwells says:

    I think the real question here is what is actually doctrine. There are some basics: God loves us, created this world for us, Christ atoned for our sins, we follow the “doctrine of Christ” to get back to heaven (faith, repentance, baptism, enduring to the end). All the rest, from Law of Moses to shifting sealing policies, isn’t actually “doctrine” but policies and practices in historical time.

    • Nicole Sbitani says:

      I like this minimalist approach to doctrine that focuses on the core truths of the Gospel. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Elisa says:

    Yes, and – doctrine is every bit as cobbled together by imperfect people as policy. I don’t see how people who could be wrong and evolving about “policy” couldn’t also be wrong and evolving about “doctrine.”

    Doctrine is just what people label things when they want to say it can’t change and shut down a discussion. There is no coherent, meaningful distinction and it comes from the same flawed humans.

    • Nicole Sbitani says:

      Yes! I often get the feeling in these discussions that the words themselves have become so selectively garbles as to lose all meaning.

  3. Anna says:

    I remember back in 1970 that “doctrine doesn’t change” argument was being used to say that blacks will never be given the priesthood until all the descendants of Able have the priesthood, and some people claimed that meant after the second coming of Christ because Able was killed before he had children, so we were talking about all the spirits that *should* have been born into Able’s line, but Cain killed him, so until Able is resurrected and starts having children, the descendants of Cain cannot have priesthood. Ah, but the doctrine changed and blacks are not even considered the children of Cain anymore.

    And that doctrine got demoted to policy, then it could be changed, and now the church pretends it was never taught as doctrine.

    So, when no college will play BYU basketball team because it is homophobic, that doctrine on gays being married and still worthy members will change too. But meantime, me and my gay child are out of the church.

    • Nicole Sbitani says:

      How horrible to see that the same awful playbook and lines appear to get dusted off and recycled for the same justifications of different discriminatory practices. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  4. Katie Rich says:

    Thank you, Nicole. I’ve had many similar thoughts and you highlighted great examples. I especially appreciated the way you articulated the harms of the narrative that doctrine doesn’t change: “First, it closes members’ minds to the possibility of truer, more correct doctrine. Second, it incentivizes members to dismiss any accurate theological history of the Church.”

    • Nicole Sbitani says:

      Thank you for reading! I had this conversation so many times with so many people I finally just had to put it down in writing.

  5. Moss says:

    I imagine that when we allow all of our family to be sealed to the person of their choice in the temple we will say that the doctrine is ‘Marriage is ordained of God’ and ‘Eternal Marriage is important’ is the doctrine and heterosexual marriage was an application.

    • Nicole Sbitani says:

      That sounds like a massive improvement, though I wonder what that would look like for our ace spirit siblings who may not want the companionship of marriage.

  6. EmilyB says:

    Love this post. I have tried discussing this topic so many times, but I always get shut down by people who tell me “THE BRETHREN HAVE SAID that the doctrine never changes,” therefore whatever questions I have or points i raise are moot. So we can discuss it like this in women-friendly spaces, but it remains moot where patriarchy reigns

  7. Jack says:

    Here’s a paragraph from an article by Brian and Laura Harris Hales. It sheds light on the fact that, while Zina’s sealings may seem a bit “skiwampus” by current standards, there is no evidence of sexual polyandry in any of her marriages:

    “Like the experiences of other women with legal husbands, Zina’s plural marriages are odd even by polygamy standards. They are polyandrous in a ceremonial sense, but sexually, they seem to represent consecutive matrimonies to Henry and then Brigham. That her sealing to Joseph Smith was for eternity only and without conjugality or for time and eternity and consummated is undocumented, except for Zina’s one statement in the Wight interview, and will probably never be known. Regardless, there is no evidence of polyandrous sexuality in any of Zina’s marriages.”

    Here’s the link to the entire article:

    https://josephsmithspolygamy.org/plural-wives-overview/zina-diantha-huntington/

  8. Jack says:

    I think there’s doctrine–and then there’s Doctrine. And, IMO, it’s important to be settled on those doctrines that are *not* likely to change before we explore possibilities vis-a-vis those doctrines that *are* likely to change. Otherwise we’re likely to end up somewhere out in the theological weeds.

    That said, there are mysteries that are incomprehensible to us at this time–so who knows but what we may learn one day that *nothing* is as it seems. Even so, we’ve been given certain doctrinal touchstones that serve to stabilize us and keep us moving in the right direction.

    How would our faith be affected if we were to learn that God is not the Creator? Or that Christ is not the Redeemer. Or that there is no literal resurrection? Or that familial connections do not continue in the hereafter? Or that there is no continuity of being as we move from one sphere of existence to another?

    I don’t think it’s by coincidence that we happen to have four canonical accounts of the Creation, Garden Story, and the Fall. And while the fact that they’re not identical may open the door to wondrous views–I think it behooves us to pay very close attention to those elements that are consistent between the four tellings before we launch into alternate interpretations of what I would call: Cardinal Doctrine.

    And if there is to be a change in the “cardinal doctrines” then, IMO, it will come from the only source that trumps the canon–and that’s the collective voice of living prophets and apostles if not the voice of Lord himself.

  9. This post is fascinating! Thank you.

  1. September 30, 2021

    […] Exponent II guest blogger Nicole Sbitani notes that change happens within the faith not just with cultural, peripheral and procedural practices but even with doctrines. […]

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