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Latter-day Saint sexual orientation conversation inside an LDS chapel, depicted in a naturalistic style.

Conversations at the Crossroads: Latter-day Saints Discuss Sexuality and Doctrine

The Church's teachings on gender, sexuality, and family are deeply rooted in doctrine and observable reality, suggesting limited scope for drastic changes.

Why does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have the doctrines on marriage and family that they do? At a time when many of the most popular worldviews are incompatible with the Church’s approach to these subjects, clear and precise explanations are important.

We sat down with Jeff Bennion and Dan Ellsworth, long-time contributors and creators of a seven-hour lecture series with Latter Day Presentations on sexuality, gender, and The Family: A Proclamation to the World, to discuss the state of discourse on these important questions.

Public Square Magazine: In our culture, there’s a lot of information about identity, gender, and sexuality. How do you think the Church and its members should navigate this landscape, especially with the potential for misunderstandings or criticisms about the Church’s stance?

Dan Ellsworth: We have seen a real gap in commentary on these subjects, especially during Pride month, when church members are bombarded with all kinds of messaging around identity, gender, sexuality, theology, and more. We know many church members who are feeling overwhelmed, and aside from our friends at the resource site thefamilyproclamation.org, we have seen few ongoing efforts to make a rigorous case for the Church’s doctrines and answer common criticisms and misconceptions. We decided to plant a flag and show people that it can be done. The Church’s stances are, in fact, very well-founded and defensible.

Jeff Bennion: We have also been noticing for a long time that Latter-day Saints, in some key ways, have been pre-emptively disarmed in the cultural battles being waged all around us. Our laudable good-heartedness has sometimes been used to lower our defenses and lead us to accept dangerous untruths. 

For example, we are told that we shouldn’t judge and that we should love everyone. These are true principles, and principles with which I wholeheartedly agree. But does that mean that we shouldn’t exercise our gifts of discernment in determining which principles are life-giving and truthful and which ones are limiting and false (as opposed to passing judgment on individuals, which we should not do unless we are set-apart judges in Israel)?

Elder Bednar, among others, has spoken eloquently about the importance of the gift of discernment. Does that mean that we must take what everyone says at face value when we know that people can be deceived and others might not have as pure of motives as they claim? 

Certainly not. So, we don’t want our brothers and sisters in the Church to abandon their good-heartedness and accepting natures, but we do want to encourage our fellow Saints to pair those virtues with additional virtues, like discernment, a love of truth and our neighbor—the kind of love that wants not merely what people say they want, but what timeless gospel truths have revealed are the best ways to attain happiness in this life, and the life to come. 

As Elder Maxwell taught, “The doctrines of Jesus Christ are so powerful that any one of these doctrines, having been broken away from the rest, goes wild and mad … The principle of love without the principles of justice and discipline goes wild … The doctrines of the kingdom need each other just as the people of the kingdom need each other.”

PSM: What are some of the specific intellectual and spiritual traps that you are trying to help people avoid in regard to these topics?

Jeff Bennion: I think the biggest one is the trap of the false dilemma, which causes us to believe our options are limited to two bad choices. For example, the common belief is that Latter-day Saint sexual minorities are limited to either meaningless lives of forced celibacy or being trapped in a loveless, unfulfilling traditional marriage. But are those really your only two options? No! 

So then, who is really helped by oversimplifying the very real challenges sexual minorities face, simplistically collapsing it down to a bleak choice between two unattractive options? Certainly not the sexual minorities themselves. 

What I want to point out is, as Latter-day Saints covenant-bound to lift up the hands and strengthen the feeble knees, we aren’t doing that; we aren’t being Christ-like (no matter our intentions) if we make people feel trapped and hopeless. 

PSM: Who do you think could benefit from messages that buttress the principles behind the Family Proclamation? 

DE: For the series on the Family Proclamation, we see every adult church member as the audience. The series on understanding and ministering to sexual minorities has some material that general church membership will find helpful. We also include material that is focused on the unique experiences of sexual minorities and the unique considerations of ministry to their needs for those who love them. 

PSM: How should Latter-day Saints approach these issues in the discourse?

JB: We really see our job in these two series as helping people to carefully examine all the presuppositions and underlying the positions they currently hold. While we obviously have a point of view, we’ve tried to fairly represent opposing views so that those who disagree with us will hopefully still see their positions and assumptions fairly portrayed. 

Noted preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick once said, “The tragic evils of our life are so commonly unintentional … Look to the road you are walking on! He who picks up one end of a stick picks up the other. He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to.” 

So by pointing out the implications and ramifications of these worldviews, we want people to understand what’s at the end of that stick, where the road ends. Furthermore, if it’s understood where people are coming from, the ensuing conversations on all sides are richer and more helpful.

You see, a lot of people are simply talking past each other because they haven’t made their worldviews explicit. Through our video series, we hope that people will be able to understand each other better and also better attune members to understand the incompatible worldviews behind seemingly innocuous catchphrases and slogans that they otherwise might unthinkingly repeat and repost. We also want to equip members to understand why the Church’s positions are the way they are. As funny as it may sound, we are preaching to the converted and want to help keep them converted. But even if we don’t change any minds but just help people see the assumptions underlying their beliefs, understand their ultimate implications, and make those choices consciously, we’ll be happy. Our goal isn’t so much to convince people that our side is right but to provide greater clarity and agency. 

We definitely don’t want people to use these series as a bludgeon, as a way to dunk on people who are making different life choices,  to marginalize them as wrong and immoral because they have different spiritual priorities than we do.

PSM: Why is it important to know how to engage in these conversations now?

DE: We are really at critical mass in terms of messaging around the Church’s doctrines and how those are lived out by sexual minorities. And we’re among those feeling an urgency to counter a number of destructive narratives that are undermining people’s confidence in church leadership when it comes to these issues. And yet, there has also never been a time in history when the Church’s doctrines have been more vital to individuals and families.

PSM: How do you believe that uncritical acceptance of certain beliefs can lead Latter-day Saints away from the Church, and how can we better bridge that gap?

JB: See our series “Gospel-grounded understanding of and ministry to sexual minorities.” I know it’s a mouthful, but it captures the core message and audiences we’re trying to address. Understanding comes first because, as I said previously, most people aren’t even aware of the assumptions and presuppositions of the LGB identity construct. Once you understand those and have made them explicit, you realize everything else the world believes about sexuality naturally and logically follows from that. 

Therefore, the spiritual danger for Latter-day Saints comes when, in the name of being loving or being non-judgmental, we uncritically and unconsciously adopt these suppositions. Right from the beginning, that introduces tension with the propositions of the restored gospel (and, in fact, all traditional religions to one degree or another). And if that continues long enough, it almost inevitably leads people away from the Church. 

It’s hard, as David Foster Wallace said, to explain to a fish what water is. Likewise, it takes a lot of effort to explain the “water” of sexual orientation essentialism and the sexual revolution. That’s one of the reasons this series is so long, because you can’t take shortcuts with these kinds of fundamental questions, or very little after that will make sense. 

But once people can investigate assumptions at that level, we can talk about the more nuanced (and scientifically accurate) way of viewing sexuality; then, we can show how the gospel provides more liberating options than the false binaries I discussed previously. All of that, we feel, is really useful to everyone. 

Finally, we talk about ways to minister to sexual minorities in a way, as our title suggests, that is grounded in the gospel rather than in worldly concepts like moral therapeutic deism or expressive individualism.

PSM: How do you believe questions of identity tie into the understanding of the concepts presented in the proclamation, and why do you think this is fundamental to church doctrine?

DE: I don’t believe any of the concepts in the proclamation can be really understood without a solid grasp of how we think about questions of identity. It is one of the most frequently addressed questions among writers at Public Square, and that is because it is core and foundational to all of our doctrine. 

Another core principle in the series is the disparity in information between church leadership and their critics. There are vast amounts of information that critics are simply not willing to consider because the information undermines the narratives of the ally movement. But church members and leadership who have spiritual stewardship over members considering life-giving or life-destroying beliefs and behaviors do not have the luxury of ignoring those realities. So we repeatedly ask the question, “What are church leaders seeing?” And the more comprehensive and honest our answer to that question, the more we will understand church doctrine and policy.

PSM: Jeff, would you say there is space in the Church for people who disagree with the Church’s teachings on gender, sexuality, and the family?

JB: Well, it depends on what you mean by “space.” Certainly, I would love to see our pews full of more same-sex couples, more transitioned transgender individuals, along with all kinds of other people I want to feel welcome in our chapels. But not at the expense of watering down our doctrines, which are literally life-and-family-saving. I want everyone to feel welcome, but I also want everyone to understand what they’re going to hear when they come. While there is space for seeking to influence or even change the Church, people often don’t appreciate how personally demanding that can be; it’s about a lot more than just holding a sign or posting your wishes on social media. (Dan has a nice presentation on it here.) 

Additionally, there is certainly space for people in the Church who have doubts and concerns about these (and other) doctrines. And there is also some nuance and space for individual adaptation to these principles as well. But where it becomes disruptive and contentious is when there is open rebellion or (perhaps worse) covert subversion of these core doctrines. I think there’s room for discussing the why of these doctrines and even for people to bring up personal hurts and concerns. But open disagreement or sly subversion of these principles only leads to contention, and our chapels and classrooms are simply not the place for that. These are places for fellowship and spiritual strengthening (see Moroni 6:1), not debate, subversion, and social advocacy.

PSM: What would you say to members who see adjustments in how the Church approaches these issues and anticipate even further, potentially dramatic changes still to come?

DE: I certainly can respect people’s agency to hope for changes. But for everyone’s well-being, I would encourage people to first make an honest attempt to understand the reasons for the Church’s stances on these issues. I do not personally believe it is possible to honestly explore those reasons in-depth and simultaneously maintain a view that the Church’s teachings are going to change. Those teachings are too well-grounded in both long-standing doctrines and ongoing, observable reality. Jeff and I often quote M. Scott Peck’s critically important insight that “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.”

JB: I would warn anyone openly advocating or speculating on this to carefully consider the impact you are having on vulnerable individuals. Most likely, you are setting people up for disappointment and failure. While there almost certainly will continue to be policy adjustments (which may not all go in the direction progressive activists hope), church leaders have repeatedly said that the doctrine will not change. This means there is a limit to how far policies can go, practically speaking, and still conform to the doctrine. I respectfully contend that anyone suggesting otherwise is not being loving or helpful to those impacted by these policies and doctrines.

PSM: Throughout your years working with criticisms of the Church, how have your beliefs and understandings evolved, especially when confronting controversial topics like Joseph Smith’s polygamy or the Mountain Meadows massacre?

JB: Dan and I were talking the other day and discovered we were both surprised by the same thing that has happened to both of us. Both of us have worked for many years now with rhetoric coming from critics of the Church. 

In the past, both of us have had the experience of being confronted with an issue, say, about Joseph Smith’s polygamy or atrocities like the Mountain Meadows massacre. You can’t really confront the evidence around those and other issues without being changed somewhat; our beliefs about prophets—about the Lord’s church, have had to gain some nuance and sophistication; Joseph Smith wasn’t just some all-knowing, all-powerful superhero who never did anything wrong, and neither are the other members of this church. 

And so even though we still very much believe in the restored gospel, working with some of these aspects of faith and belief has caused us to dig deep and re-examine and adjust some of our prior, possibly naive assumptions about various aspects of the Church. As we were comparing notes, we both fully expected to encounter challenges to our faith with this project, but this time with the topics of sexuality and gender, marriage, and family. 

But here’s the surprise: that didn’t happen to us this time. We both came through this project more convinced of the strength and correctness of the Church’s position on all of these issues. We thought it was possible that some aspects of the Church’s claims around these topics might be a little wobbly or in need of a little finesse, but we actually both were pleasantly surprised that the Church’s stance is actually stronger than we originally appreciated. Now, some of this is because of what’s going on out in the world. We might not have been able to say that as easily 10-15 years ago. But just looking at all of these areas and extrapolating trends into the future, we believe the contrast between how the world views these issues and how the Church does have become even more stark and clear, all that to the benefit of the Church’s position, when contrasted with the ever-expanding chaos, confusion, and entropy we see in the world..

PSM: Anything else you’d like to add by way of clarification or explanation?

JB: In a way, we probably won’t ever be completely done; as new trends emerge and new controversies arise, we will add to the series. But we already have planned (and in some cases, recorded but not yet edited and posted) some more specific ideas on how to minister to particular categories of individuals and scenarios, like how to better help single individuals or what to do when someone says they received a revelation that they should start same-sex dating. I’ve also noticed that some of the controversies and pain from sexual minorities come from misunderstandings about normative sexuality (i.e., straight people). So I have prepared a presentation on “understanding heterosexuals” for my fellow sexual minorities with some material they may not have realized or adequately appreciated.

Perceptive listeners will also notice that we don’t talk about gender at all in my series. Though Dan covers it well in his Family Proclamation series, there is a lot more to say and do on the ministry side and personal application side for Latter-day Saints wrestling with this issue personally or a loved one who does. We acknowledge that there’s a gap in what we’ve offered, but we’re also humble enough to know that we need to wait for other individuals with personal experience to step forward and share their stories and witness. We know a few such individuals now, but they are not yet ready to step out in such a public way where there will be inevitable attacks and opposition, some of them possibly quite nasty. So that isn’t the sort of thing you can or should rush anyone into. But when they are ready, your readers should rest assured that we have some powerful and helpful information to present regarding gender.

About the authors

Jeff Bennion

Jeff Bennion is a marriage and family therapist practicing in Murray, Utah, and a co-founder of the Gender Harmony Institute.

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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