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Catching a Vision of the Doctrine of the Family

Are Latter-day Saints too focused on teachings about the family? Or are prophets emphasizing exactly what God knows will lead to our greatest happiness?
Photo by Hana El Zohiry on Unsplash

This week an article by Nate Oman got some attention for wondering whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could change its doctrine to allow gay temple sealings. While this article was much more nuanced and deferential to the teaching of the Prophet and Apostles than other similar attempts that I have read, it suffered from some major flaws similar to those that I pointed out in my review of Blare Ostler’s “Queer Mormon Theology.” Most significantly, Oman seems to discount the exalting importance of marriage between men and women in God’s plan.

I am not going to respond in depth to Oman’s essay, though I hope to see others do that well. Instead, I want to focus on a common issue that I see crop up repeatedly whenever the Church’s position on marriage and family is discussed online. Inevitably those who support the Family Proclamation and the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are accused of focusing too heavily on teaching about the family to the exclusion of other gospel doctrines that critics would prefer that we focus on. They may even argue that supporters of church doctrine are losing sight of the Savior and God’s plan for us and worshiping at the ‘Church of the Family Proclamation’ rather than the Church of Christ. 

When I first joined the Church, I shared this criticism. I thought that discussions about the family were a distraction from the true essence of the gospel, which was faith in Jesus Christ and love for others. Every time a talk in Conference discussed the family, I would cringe or tune out even if I didn’t disagree with the message. On my mission, I would glaze over the part of the first lesson that discussed eternal families, eager to get on to other things that I thought were more important. I felt about those who repeatedly brought up the Family Proclamation as I would feel towards the person who gets up in a fast and testimony meeting to say another word about their extensive food storage collection—not necessarily wrong, but surely off the mark. 

I was wrong. Very wrong. Our church doctrine related to the Family is not some gospel hobby horse or picadillo. It is the essence of God’s plan for us. 

Elder D. Todd Christofferson put it best in his landmark talk Why Marriage, Why Family. He explained how marriage and family form a core part of God’s plan by providing the opportunity for both physical birth and spiritual birth. He then declared boldly that marriage “is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the fall and the atonement.” That is a dramatic assertion, to say the least. We wouldn’t say that “food storage is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the fall and the atonement” or even that the “word of wisdom is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the fall and the atonement.” Each of those commandments and principles is good and important—pointing to areas that can increase peace and happiness. But ultimately, they do not constitute a fundamental part of God’s plan of happiness in the same way that divine direction about the family does.

Our church doctrine related to the Family is not some gospel hobby horse or picadillo. It is the essence of God’s plan for us.

President Dallin H. Oaks, in the April 2022 general conference, explained that while many people recognize that the Church encourages happy and healthy families, it is “not well understood … that our family-centeredness is not limited to mortal relationships.” Instead, “Eternal relationships are also fundamental to our theology.” He then added, “Fundamental to us is God’s revelation that exaltation can be attained only through faithfulness to the covenants of an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.”

That’s a pretty big deal! If we are to take it seriously (as we should when prophetic teaching is so consistent), it means that without marriage between a man and a woman, becoming like God is not possible. Without marriage, God’s plan would not be a plan of exaltation. It could not lead us to eternal life. No wonder the role of the family “is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the fall and the atonement.”

Do you understand and believe that? If not, then you may struggle as I used to when church leaders talk about the family. You may wonder why the Church would risk public shaming, hostility, and apostasy to stand up for its understanding of marriage and family.

On the other hand, if you catch the Church’s vision of the family as the most important institution in time and eternity, then you will understand and embrace the teachings of inspired leaders and understand why the Church is willing to stand up and stand out in this important area. You will know that the teachings contained in the Family Proclamation are “founded on irrevocable doctrine,” which “defines the kind of family relationships where the most important part of our eternal development can occur,” as then-Elder Oaks put it.

As he further explained, “Latter-day Saints who understand God’s plan of salvation have a unique worldview that helps them see the reason for God’s commandments, the unchangeable nature of His required ordinances, and the fundamental role of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” In our day, this is increasingly a key dividing point between fully “[c]onverted Latter-day Saints” who whole-heartedly sustain prophets, seers, and revelators and those who ultimately reject their teachings as “no more than a changeable statement of policy.”

With Elder Oaks, I truly believe that “our attitude toward and use of the family proclamation is one of those “tests” that will allow this generation “to stand and prove itself.” As with me, it may take each of us some time to gain the vision of the family Elder Oaks and others have outlined. But as we remain open to the words of the prophets and personal revelation from the Holy Ghost, I pray that each of us will catch the vision of the family and pass this test.

About the author

Daniel Ortner

Daniel Ortner is a public interest attorney focusing on the first amendment and the administrative state. He has clerked for the Utah Supreme Court and the Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals. He has a J.D. from BYU
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