Recently, Latter-day Saint law professor Nate Oman posted an essay that argues for “the theological possibility of same-sex marriage sealings within Latter-day Saint theology.” We will address his overall project in this essay and his specific theological and historical claims in a second essay to be published soon.
It’s clear that Oman is intending to do great good and extend a hand of compassion to those struggling with these kinds of questions. In what follows, we will highlight some fundamental flaws in this attempt at outreach. In particular, Oman’s essay is motivated by his belief that “homosexual acts within the context of an ethic of chastity organized around marriage are moral.” We will show how this is contradicted throughout scripture, disproven by unanimous prophetic teaching, and arising in a manner contrary to the structure that God has ordained for the Church to receive revelation concerning His will and eternal truth. Given all that, we maintain that it is neither loving nor compassionate to urge people to believe otherwise.
“If we get a good start first we can go right, but if you start wrong you may go wrong.”
Oman says that he “take[s] very seriously the need for continuity and loyalty to the Restoration.” If so, then our history of consistent teaching needs to be faced squarely. As early as 1831, Joseph Smith was producing textual changes and amendments to the Bible which intensified the condemnation of same-sex activity in the story of Sodom. By June 1832, Joseph’s revision of the New Testament likewise strengthened the prohibition of homosexual behavior in Romans 1:26-32.
Virtually every latter-day church president has spoken or written against homosexual behavior. This includes Brigham Young in 1857; John Taylor in 1845, 1858, 1881, 1882, 1884, 1886; Wilford Woodruff in 1879; Lorenzo Snow in 1873; Joseph F. Smith in 1882; Heber J. Grant in 1942; David O. McKay in 1942; Joseph Fielding Smith in 1944; Harold B. Lee in 1972. Spencer W. Kimball is well-known for his repeated teachings as broader society began to embrace such behavior. His successors have been likewise clear: Ezra Taft Benson in 1982; Gordon B. Hinckley in 1975, 1998; all fifteen apostles and prophets in 1995; Thomas S. Monson in 2015; and Russell M. Nelson today (see below).
Other early apostles and leaders who taught similarly include George Q. Cannon in 1887, 1886, 1897; J. Reuben Clark in 1934, 1942, 1952; Bruce R. McConkie in 1958 and 1980; Parley P. Pratt in 1853 and 1855; B.H. Roberts in 1902. More recent statements from other apostles are too numerous to include here.
If loyalty to the Restoration is highly valued, Oman must take seriously that scripture and modern prophets and apostles are literally unanimous in teaching God’s concern with same-sex sexual activity and that literally none have ever so much as hinted that this teaching could or would change. Furthermore, no church leader has ever performed a same-sex marriage or struggled to articulate the scriptural and theological basis for our marriage and chastity doctrines.
By contrast, consider church leaders’ teachings regarding racial restrictions on priesthood and temple access. The rationales offered were ambiguous from the start, contradicted Joseph Smith’s performance of priesthood ordinations of black men, and church leaders almost universally acknowledged the restrictions were temporary (though disagreeing as to when the “long-promised day” of change would arrive). Our best example of significant change to a long-standing church practice is totally dissimilar to the situation regarding marriage and sexuality.
Present-day apostles and prophets. Oman could argue that all these prohibitions on homosexual sex were in place before societal acceptance of gay marriage—and so there were no moral outlets for homosexual behavior in previous eras. But once again, no prophet or apostle has ever even hinted that same-sex marriage will be endorsed by the Lord or that legal recognition of same-sex marriage validates sex that was previously illegitimate for being nonmarital. In fact, they have clearly and consistently taught precisely the opposite.
It is hard to imagine how much more clear they could be on this point. President Russell M. Nelson taught in 2013:
Regardless of what civil legislation may be enacted, the doctrine of the Lord regarding marriage and morality cannot be changed. Remember, sin, even if legalized by man, is still sin in the eyes of God! [Italics in original.]
Our commission as apostles is to teach nothing but truth. That commission does not give us the authority to modify divine law. For example, let’s consider the definition of marriage. In recent years, many countries, including the United States, have legalized same-sex marriage. As members of the Church, we respect the laws of the land and abide by them, including civil marriage. The truth is, however, that in the beginning—in the beginning—marriage was ordained by God! And to this day, it is defined by Him as being between a man and a woman. God has not changed His definition of marriage. God has also not changed His law of chastity. Requirements to enter the temple have not changed.
These changes [in policy] do not represent a shift in Church doctrine related to marriage or the commandments of God in regard to chastity and morality. The doctrine of the plan of salvation and the importance of chastity will not change. [italics added]
The 1995 proclamation on the family[‘s] … declarations are, of course, different from some current laws, practices, and advocacy, such as cohabitation and same-sex marriage. Those who do not fully understand the Father’s loving plan for His children may consider this family proclamation no more than a changeable policy. In contrast, we affirm that the family proclamation, founded on irrevocable doctrine, defines the kind of family relationships where the most important part of our eternal development can occur. [italics added]
Church leaders aren’t just sermonizing about marriage and chastity, either; they’ve taken pains to include it in formal policies and guides for struggling members. From the Church Handbook, section 38.6.16:
As a doctrinal principle, based on the scriptures, the Church affirms that marriage between a man and a woman is essential to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. The Church also affirms that God’s law defines marriage as the legal and lawful union between a man and a woman…Only a man and a woman who are legally and lawfully wedded as husband and wife should have sexual relations. Any other sexual relations, including those between persons of the same sex, are sinful and undermine the divinely created institution of the family.
The “Life Help” section of the Church’s website asks the question: “Will the Church ever change its doctrine and sanction same-sex marriage?” and then answers it: “Central to God’s plan, the doctrine of marriage between a man and a woman is an integral teaching of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and will not change.” [italics added]
Elder Dale Renlund taught in the August 2020 Liahona magazine:
The law of chastity is an eternal law, given by our Heavenly Father to all His children in all ages. It remains in force and is as applicable today as it was in earlier times in history. As with other commandments, the law is given by Heavenly Father to bless and help His children achieve their divine potential … Sexual relations are to be limited to marriage between a man and a woman … We were created by loving heavenly parents to grow up to become like them. Male and female spirits were created to complement each other. That is why gender is not fluid in the eternities—because it provides the basis for the ultimate gift Heavenly Father can give, His kind of life.
How would you know you were wrong? Revelation and teaching by church leaders may not always be perfectly clear-cut, but on the topic of chastity and marriage, it’s as clear and definite as it’s possible to be. These doctrines (1) have been commonly taught over a long period of time by a large percentage of leaders; (2) are foundational, to the point of being the subject of a rare proclamation and a centerpiece of our temple worship; and (3) have been taught with literal unanimity on important details like gender complementarity. For how long and how definitively would the prophets have to say, “This is eternal truth, and it cannot and will not change,” before you accept that this is so?
For how long and how definitively would the prophets have to say, “This is eternal truth, and it cannot and will not change,” before you accept that this is so?
The strength of the evidence that same-sex sexual activity is sinful is overwhelming, and we’ve only quoted a small portion of it. Since even this is apparently not enough to falsify Oman’s belief that homosexual acts can be moral and that the Church will eventually acknowledge this, we would ask him (or anyone else who sympathizes with his stance): What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?
Our own position is easily falsifiable. We would be convinced that such a change was the Lord’s will when the presiding apostles unanimously announced such a change. We think it unlikely in the extreme, but we do have a clear-cut set of circumstances that we accept would require us to change our minds.
But once again, what more would it take for Oman et. al. to change their minds? For how long and how definitively would the prophets have to say, “This is eternal truth, and it cannot and will not change,” before you accept that this is so? If the Church went another decade without a change, would that be enough? Or half a century?
In the meanwhile, the practical consequences of our decisions (or indecision) are immense. Either same-sex romantic activity is moral, or it isn’t—and if it isn’t, that has enormous implications for what we teach and promote. How long would Oman have us refrain from teaching the truth while waiting on a new revelation that will never come?
Stupor of thought? Oman tries to place his advocacy within the scriptural framework for receiving revelation. He writes that “the Doctrine and Covenants teaches that a ‘stupor of thought’ can be a prelude to revelation”—quoting the Doctrine and Covenants—before stating, “I believe this describes the present position of the Church.”
Depending on one’s definition of “the Church,” this claim is not only demonstrably false but extremely misleading. Are some members of the Church emotionally invested in their certainty that the Church is wrong and will necessarily change, despite their contradictory belief in the principle that God works through prophets? Clearly, yes, and especially in the western, educated, online milieu in which Oman often participates. Perhaps some such people are suffering a stupor of thought.
But do Church leaders, to whom the Lord has given the exclusive responsibility to reveal His will and doctrine, suffer any such dissonance? No, not in the slightest, as we demonstrated at length by listing their recent statements above. Any “stupor of thought” here belongs to a subset of western church membership, not to the majority of members or to church leaders. (A visit among African saints, for example, would find no confusion about whether same-sex sexual acts are moral.)
So if Oman were correct that a “stupor of thought” is a prelude to revelation, it could only lead to individuals’ revelation within their personal circumstances, not to any Church-wide change.
But Oman is not correct that a “stupor of thought” is a prelude to revelation. He says, “the way forward [from a stupor of thought] is to study a question out in one’s mind and then ask the Lord if the answer arrived at is correct (see D&C 9:8-9).” But this misrepresents the scriptural text:
But, behold, I say unto you, that you must  study it out in your mind; then  you must ask me if it be right, and [3a] if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But [3b] if it be not right, you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong;
So, Oman has it backward. A “stupor of thought” is a revelatory answer to a personal conclusion that is false. It is not a prelude to “the Church” getting revelation—it is the revelation.
Oman intends that we understand his offering as the fruits of the Doctrine and Covenants 9 process—of studying it out and presumably asking God. While he is careful to indicate that he has no ecclesiastical authority, he goes so far as to provide a sample statement that could be used to announce the revelatory change that he believes is coming. This is presumptuous given the sheer lack of evidence that there’s any open question regarding marriage and chastity upon which church leaders might receive transformative revelation. The doctrine is clearly settled.
Insisting, against all evidence, that it’s actually an open question may, in fact, be what creates a genuine “stupor of thought” in the scriptural sense. “I assure you,” said President Marion G. Romney, “that the spirit of the Lord will never direct a person to take a position in opposition to the counsel of the Presidency of His Church.”
Principles of revelation. Given that Oman grants that revelation is necessary for the change he desires, apostolic teaching in the most recent general conference demonstrates why his essay is fundamentally misguided.
In his conference address, Elder Dale G. Renlund cautioned that “improper motives to promote our own agenda or to fulfill our own pleasure” may lead to false revelatory “answers.” He described “the framework within which the Holy Ghost functions to provide personal revelation” and thereby avoids deceiving ourselves or others.
The first element of the framework is the scriptures. In the case of marriage and chastity, the scriptures oppose homosexual acts without any exceptions or caveats.
Elder Renlund warns: “A second element of the framework is that we receive personal revelation only within our purview and not within the prerogative of others.” To use the image that Elder Renlund borrowed from Elder Uchtdorf, as we might in suggesting that Oman needs to stay on his own runway and off of the prophet’s runway.
Revelation about new doctrine is reserved for the prophets. Many church leaders have taught that anyone who received genuine revelation about what the Church should or will do in the future would know—through that same revelation—never to disclose it. (See here for details and quotes from church leaders.)
“A third element of the framework,” continued Elder Renlund, “is that personal revelation will be in harmony with the commandments of God and the covenants we have made with Him.” As we have seen, the prophets have been adamant and clear about what God’s commandments and covenants require—and these teachings leave no room whatsoever for Oman’s proposed change.
Elder Renlund used a pointed analogous example:
Consider a prayer that goes something like this: “Heavenly Father, Church services are boring. May I worship Thee on the Sabbath in the mountains or on the beach? May I be excused from going to church and partaking of the sacrament but still have the promised blessings of keeping the Sabbath day holy?” In response to such a prayer, we can anticipate God’s response: “My child, I have already revealed my will regarding the Sabbath day.”
We can imagine a variant: “Heavenly Father, I’m attracted to someone of my same gender. May I alter my covenants by entering a same-sex marriage and still have the promised blessings of exaltation?” In response to such a prayer, we can anticipate God’s response: “My child, I have already revealed my will regarding marriage, chastity, and same-sex sexual activity.”
Oman’s essay violates all three elements of Elder Renlund’s framework for receiving revelation. First, his desired conclusion violates the scriptures. Second, his prescription for revelation is an improper trespass on the prophet’s “runway.” Third, Oman urges leaders and members to seek revelation contradictory to what the Lord has already revealed, a spiritually dangerous practice. The entire project is worrisome.
And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received … until they repent and remember … the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written.
“Seeking revelation” provides a veneer of spirituality and sincerity but doesn’t change the fundamental problems with this advocacy. Asking the Lord for more light and knowledge doesn’t work when He has already given us the answer. Elder Renlund also discussed how Joseph Smith kept asking for a different answer when he wanted to let Martin Harris take the Book of Mormon manuscript. The Lord eventually did let Joseph do as he wished but didn’t spare him from the heartbreaking consequences of his disobedience. Rejecting revelation and demanding a different answer never ends with the Lord validating our stubbornness. It is far better to humble ourselves and ask for help to believe and accept what the Lord has already revealed.
We haven’t yet addressed Oman’s argument about sealing theology, temple practices, and historical changes (see our forthcoming part two). That in itself is a demonstration of an important point: before even getting to his specific claims about history and theology, Oman’s actions and arguments violate prophetic pronouncements, scriptural teachings, and well-established principles about revelation in the Church of Jesus Christ. If we take seriously the scriptures, the revelations God has already given us, and the consistently unanimous teachings of Church leaders regarding doctrine and the principles of revelation, Oman’s project fails before it even really begins.
Compassion and unacknowledged consequences. Oman says a great deal about the suffering of those most affected by these doctrines. We admire his compassion and desire to help. But compassion without truth is worthless at best and likely to be spiritually harmful. He writes:
For most Latter-day Saints directly impacted by these teachings—gay and lesbian members and their families—the teachings create grief and unhappiness. They are sometimes grimly accepted as a test of allegiance to the authority of the Church and its teachings, but I seldom see them joyfully celebrated.
This may be true of those in Oman’s circle and of the voices whose message is most magnified by a media implacably hostile to the Church’s doctrine. We have, by contrast, heard many others offer a different account—but as some of them have pointed out, the very real risk of persecution or dismissal by those within the Church leads them to be less vocal than they might. As Blake Fisher pointed out, ”This is partly due to exhaustion with patronizing pushback from other LGBT+/SSA individuals and “‘allies’.”
If Oman is opining that gay sex can be moral and gay sealings valid theology, he is less likely to hear from those who have learned otherwise at great spiritual cost. Members of the Church do not seek out conflict about such things, and pearls obtained at great price are not to be disclosed to just anyone.
Jeff Bennion reminds us that “draping yourself in a rainbow flag” doesn’t help everyone “feel loved” either. “In an effort to show compassion to our LGBT+ brothers and sisters,” wrote Skyler Sorenson, “we should resist the urge to enable them in excluding themselves from the Plan of Salvation.” And Ty Mansfield has observed:
While these well-meaning Latter-day Saints may be acting in good faith according to their understanding and hope, what they don’t understand is that they are unwittingly but directly contributing to confusion, conflict, pain, and betrayal that LGBTQ+ individuals feel … The betrayal is real, and it does damage. It isn’t actually loving, and it’s not the Church doing the harm here.
Oman’s framing risks an even more dangerous and misleading assumption, however: that God would not ask us to do things that could cause “grief and unhappiness” in the here and now. It further implies that the only options to handle such things are either “grim acceptance” of “Church authority” or a change in God’s law. There is certainly nothing in this reading to “joyfully celebrate.”
Sacrifice is foundational to Christianity and certainly to the restored Church’s theology. Sacrifice that costs nothing is not sacrifice. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon has some key ideas about what saving sacrifice looks like, and it has nothing to do with the grim affair described by Oman:
God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent, it profiteth him nothing. For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness. For behold, if a man being evil giveth a gift, he doeth it grudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.
Simply put, anyone who obeys the law of chastity with gritted teeth and white knuckles, grimly holding on only as a test of allegiance to “the Church” (rather than as a willing gift to God Our Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) has likely not yet completed the trial of faith that true sacrifice requires. To put our chastity on the altar under such duress is ultimately no more sanctifying or joyous than grumbling under our breath as we write out a tithing check. There are few things crueler, though, than offering a false escape from real difficulty.
There are few things crueler, though, than offering a false escape from real difficulty.
In another talk this past general conference, Elder Jeffrey Holland commended David for refusing to offer a sacrifice to the Lord, which “cost [David] nothing.” He continued: “may we follow [Christ]—unfailingly, never faltering nor fleeing, never flinching at the task, not when our crosses may be heavy and not when, for a time, the path may grow dark.”
When the path has been so consistently and clearly identified, we have no good choice but to take up our cross and move forward. No one is justified in inducing people to stay still or wander off in search of an easier path that will never arrive. And to do so openly and proactively feels, at best misguided and, at worst, a damaging kind of spiritual malpractice.
Do not misunderstand—we have both (as we imagine everyone has) sometimes started our journey of obedience and sacrifice somewhat reluctantly, with some grudging handing over of our “gifts.” We do not mean that what is being asked is not difficult. It is extraordinarily difficult. As Elder Maxwell once warned us: “If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do.”
For some, that will involve choices about sexual activity. For others, it will require being an ally while being a staunch witness to the revealed doctrine about family and sexuality. As Elder Christofferson once taught:
There are those today who challenge even the authority of God. Because it is now so pervasive, if you are not careful, something of that attitude could seep into and infect your own feelings. … It is yielding to the discipline of God’s will and His love that brings true freedom—the freedom to excel, to create, to bless. …This path is one of increasing knowledge and capacity, increasing grace and light. It is the freedom to become what you can and ought to be. But for your freedom to be complete, you must be willing to give away all your sins, your willfulness, your cherished but unsound habits, perhaps even some good things that interfere with what God sees as essential for you.
The Twelve Apostles of the Lamb. Finally, Oman’s framing also risks making him and those who agree with him appear more in touch, more compassionate, and more concerned about genuine suffering than the leaders of the Church. We trust this was not his intention—but what other conclusion would a desperate gay member draw?
A charlatan who promises certain and easy healing from devastating illness will find an eager and grateful audience. Apostolic physicians who point towards a more arduous and soul-stretching journey of healing are easy to see as unfeeling or ignorant.
There are few things crueler, though, than offering a false escape from real difficulty. As Elder Holland recently said, church leaders “are not deaf or blind to the feelings that swirl around marriage and the whole same-sex topic”:
I and many of my Brethren have spent more time and shed more tears on this subject than we could ever adequately convey to you this morning, or any morning. We have spent hours discussing what the doctrine of the Church can and cannot provide the individuals and families struggling over this difficult issue.
Though Oman concedes his lack of ecclesiastical standing to receive revelation for the Church, this doesn’t mean he’s innocent of impropriety and harm. His advocacy is likely to weaken other members’ faith in:
1. The true doctrines of marriage and chastity, which are necessary to “liv[e] after the manner of happiness” and achieve eventual exaltation
2. Church leaders’ ability to receive revelation
3. The Church as a force for good (including being the only source of crucial saving ordinances) as opposed to an oppressive force for suffering and bigotry against vulnerable sexual minorities
Breeding cynicism about the Lord’s Church, leaders, and doctrines causes real harm. In particular, Oman’s posture as a faithful member who (at least partially) sustains church leaders, yet faults them for failing to reveal the Lord’s will to relieve His suffering LGBT+ children, will, we fear, harm even more testimonies than does more strident advocacy from those who harshly criticize the apostles.
Some members might read Oman’s essay and conclude that if even this faithful brother who professes love for church leaders can see how wrong and stubborn they are, it goes to show, through that lens, just how egregious and harmful church leaders are guilty of being! From this vantage point, it is they who are unlovingly misleading others about reality—a reality that can only be discerned by people looking into their own hearts.
Who to trust in knowing the truth is a decision we all have to make. The Lord’s commandments and plan of salvation offer joy and exaltation—eventually. The short term of mortal life can feel more like an unending weary battle against painful limitations than a hopeful progression toward eternal joy. It is understandable that some, like Oman, want to offer more palatable options. But “this feels too hard” doesn’t mean “there must be an easier way.” The truly loving option is to teach and testify of the Savior’s power and the gospel’s promised blessings, not to induce despair because impossible alternatives are being withheld by intransigent leaders.
As always, the Book of Mormon has gotten there before us. This foundational text emphasized the importance of apostles within its first ten verses. The great and spacious building is not (as you might think) those who fight Jesus. It is those who “fight against the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
The Lamb should remind us of sacrifice and its costs. The apostles called by the Lamb point to the truth and assure us our sacrifices will be worth it, now and forever.