Our new prophet, President Nelson, in a Facebook post clarifying his press conference address, sorted living situations into two categories: unideal and other. Sure, he made up a new word for the one group, and didn’t actually name the other, but I guess that’s because it sounds better than less-than-ideal and normal.

And, sure, it’s not like we’re stuck in one group forever. Living situations change. Those pesky YSA can get married, widowers and divorcées can remarry, childless couples can get pregnant or adopt. Part-member families can convert the holdouts and get sealed properly. Gay people can put their feelings on hold until after the resurrection. President Nelson’s view seems to be that those whose lives are unideal will change and they will become normal. The problem with this is that the changes don’t only move in the more-ideal direction.

For example, the new temple policy states that young women now have the opportunity to offer towels to their newly-baptised peers – a privilege that was recently reserved for endowed women only. The letter from the first presidency doesn’t specifically state so, but I assume unendowed women over 18 are now also extended that privilege.

Those who live unideal lives aren’t specifically recognised in most policy or counsel. We have to fill in the gaps as best we can, all the while having the official narrative make clear that our lives are unsatisfactory to church leaders. Newly called First Counsellor Oaks has explained: “If you feel you are an exception to what I have said as as a general authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. […] I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that individually between you and the Lord.” [1]

The saviour did tell us to be perfect, and that we would be sorted like sheep and goats or wheat and tares. He was generally pretty clear that this sorting would happen after everyone was dead, and implied that perfection was measured at the end of our mortal probation by not calling himself perfect until after he’d concluded his, but I can understand the impulse to get started on that work a little early. We all want the millennium to run smoothly and efficiently, and it would be so much easier if everyone could just follow the general rules.

One of the things that drew me so strongly to the scriptures as a child growing up in the unideal category (though my father was in the bishopric, so we seemed to fit the normal case, and follow the general rules) was the fact that every single family was unideal. There’s not a perfect family in the scriptures. (Unless you’re counting those we only see from the outside, and I know for a fact that you can’t assume much from how it looks to outsiders).  The scriptures were written for me, in a way that the new First Presidency is saying that this church is not for me — or at least, not for me right now.

And, of course, we can find scripture stories where the families seem normal. We don’t hear the prayers of the mothers of the stripling warriors, we don’t see the actions of the boys as they prepare to leave, we aren’t privy to the exchanges between sisters and fathers and grandparents in those families. We have only one line from the young men, that they had been taught by their mothers, and that line is often used to categorise the entire community as full of other/normal/perfect/ideal families.

If we instead turn to a story of a family where multiple viewpoints are shown, we’ll see that reality can’t follow general rules except for very short periods of time. Look at the relationships between Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Esau. None of those people were perfect. We call two of those guys prophets, and the woman went against the wishes of her husband (a prophet), because she listened to the spirit and did as the Lord wanted so that the right son was the next prophet. We recognise that, but don’t call her a prophetess, and we don’t think too long about whether or not their family is ideal (because they’re not, but it’s kind of tricky to suggest that people who lead the church might be capable of belonging in the unideal category).

The truth is that we all belong in the unideal category, unless we flatten normal or ideal until they don’t have anything to do with our hearts. If this church is mostly for people who can follow general rules perfectly, and the general rules mandate young marriage and large families and stay-at-home-mothers, this church is only for a very small minority of people. And many times, those rules are in tension with the first and second great commandments. Above all, we are to love God with all our heart, mind and spirit, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whether they’re normal or not.

I pray that our new prophet and his counsellors gain a witness of that truth, and help the church focus on those two most important general rules during their presidency.


[1] “The Dedication of a Lifetime,” May 1, 2005 (link goes to a video clip)

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9 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    “Above all, we are to love God with all our heart, mind and spirit, and to love our neighbour as ourselves. Whether they’re normal or not.”

    Beautiful, Olea. I am so far away from normal or anything close to it— that I am probably unideal, but I look like normal. Or I look unideal. I’m just me. And I think that’s okay. But I do need to work on loving God more, and I am grateful for your reminder of this to do so.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I need to see this Facebook post, but it’s funny because my mom and I were just talking about the proclamation on the family last night. She said she finds great comfort in the line “Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.” Mostly because of this line, she believes that the proclamation gives her a lot of leeway. She’s defensive about it and dismissive. I love my mom, but in no way does this line solve my problems!

  3. Violadiva says:

    I think you are spot on. I really dislike our church use of “ideal family” as another term for “nuclear family with two married opposite gender parents with children who are all progressing in the church according to the checklist”
    A few weeks ago my son came home and said, “A kid at school said a ‘normal family’ has a mom, dad, a big brother, a sister, and a baby. But mom! There are no ‘normal’ families! All families are different and they’re all good!”
    For the next hour, we de-bunked the notion of the ‘normal family” — describing every possible permutation of what could make a family: kids and a mom, kids and a dad, two dads, two moms, a step-dad or mom, grandparents, married people without children, single people with siblings or roommates, and on and on as many as we could go.
    My son and I decided that day that the only thing you need to make a family is LOVE. It doesn’t matter what kind of people are in the family, as long as they love each other. Sometimes those are the people you’re born with, sometimes it’s the people we choose.
    I just HATE the notion that “we teach the ideal” — who in the world is arrogant enough to make the claim that they know the ideal, and that there is only one version of it?!?

  4. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    It is achingly sad when normal or ideal is narrowly defined. Normal is humanity in all of its varieties.

  5. Maegan says:

    YES. Exactly my feelings as well.

  6. Nat Whilk says:

    Sorry to hear that the word “unideal” is not in your dictionary. You might consider switching to the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Collins English Dictionary, or Wiktionary, each of which includes it.

  7. Em says:

    I’ve never understood the purpose of “teaching the ideal.” The “ideal” isn’t the goal, it’s a means to a goal. Happily married parents are a great way for children to have a loving upbringing, be taught the Gospel and brought to Christ. Coming to Christ is the goal for all of us. But nuclear family life is not the only, nor is the most common way that people come to Christ. When we teach the ideal it should be “ideally we’ll all be as much like Christ as humanly possible.” Ideally all young people would serve missions — nope. Ideally all young people will develop a deep testimony, dedicate themselves to service, recognize their dependence on God, become spiritually and emotionally mature etc. Serving a mission is a wonderful way to do those things, which help us to become more like Christ. But the mission is not an end in itself any more than any of our other “ideals” are. Just as an example

    • Ziff says:

      That’s a great point, Em. When people talk about “teaching the ideal,” it sometimes seems like just a way for them to pat themselves on the back and shame everyone else rather than actually getting at anything important from a gospel perspective.

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