The Hard Sayings
Jesus taught many things which were hard sayings that offended people (John 6:60-61). One of the harder sayings of Jesus is this: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Taking up the cross is a Christian duty, and it is not always easy. There are sacrifices associated with discipleship. We have to deny ourselves some things. For some of us who have become accustomed to the weight of our own cross, it may be difficult to watch others as they stumble under the weight of theirs. Compassion is a trait of Christ that we seek to emulate (Matthew 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:33; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 5:19; 6:34; 8:22; Luke 7:13). It is part of the duty of being a follower and imitator of Christ. Nevertheless, while our compassion for others who have a heavy cross to bear may lead us to want to help shoulder them—we should, after all, bear one another’s burdens (Mosiah 18:8)—it does not give us the right to remove them. As Jesus said, “he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). Removing another’s cross, claiming that they should not deny themselves of something that they are required to deny themselves makes them unworthy of Christ. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus extends this even further: “And he that will not take up his cross and follow me, and keep my commandments, the same shall not be saved” (Doctrine and Covenants 56:2). Those who would remove the cross of another without authorization run afoul of another teaching of Jesus: “Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Not understanding that we have no right to remove the burden that keeping the commandments may impose upon others, there are those who seek ways to relieve the burdens on others by having them deny the commandments rather than deny themselves. To do so, Jesus taught, puts us in spiritual jeopardy., The argument seeks to circumvent Jesus’s representatives by attributing an exemption from the law of chastity to the mouth of Jesus Himself.
The argument seeks to circumvent Jesus’s representatives by attributing an exemption from the law of chastity to the mouth of Jesus Himself.
President Russell M. Nelson explained this in detail to students at Brigham Young University:
Sometimes, we as leaders of the Church are criticized for holding firm to the laws of God, defending the Savior’s doctrine, and resisting the social pressures of our day. But our commission as ordained apostles is “to go into all the world to preach [His] gospel unto every creature.” That means we are commanded to teach truth.
In doing so, sometimes we are accused of being uncaring as we teach the Father’s requirements for exaltation in the celestial kingdom. But wouldn’t it be far more uncaring for us not to tell the truth—not to teach what God has revealed?
It is precisely because we do care deeply about all of God’s children that we proclaim His truth. We may not always tell people what they want to hear. Prophets are rarely popular. But we will always teach the truth!
My dear young friends, exaltation is not easy. Requirements include a focused and persistent effort to keep God’s laws, rigorously repenting when we don’t. But the reward for doing so is far greater than anything we can imagine, because it brings us joy here and “never-ending happiness” hereafter. Thus 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. …We of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles cannot change the laws of God.
It is in this light that we should view associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University Mark Ellison’s well-intentioned but misguided attempt to create an “exception” to “what we might call a heteronormative model,” that is “the paradigm of heterosexual marriage,” and to hold this exception up as “exemplary” (p. 183).
The argument put forth in Ellison’s article is for the “construction of a ‘spiritual home’ in the Church for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints” (p. 176). The argument runs as follows:
]It is claimed that Matthew 19:12 (“For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”) provides “some indication” of how “Jesus [would] have treated a nonbinary person” because it “indicates his awareness of individuals whose sexuality did not neatly fit the usual male-female paradigm. He shows no fear of them nor any sign that he perceived them as a threat, and there is no indication that he ‘healed’ them. Rather, … Jesus surprisingly held them up as exemplary and symbolic of devotion to the kingdom of God.” The reader is then asked, “If we let ourselves think of these scripture passages in this way, how might it help us?” The argument asserts without evidence that those who do not fit into heterosexual categories were “born that way.” It claims that there was a Rabbinic category of eunuch, saris hamma, for babies “discovered to be sexually atypical from the moment it came into the sunlight of this world.” The argument then notes that eunuchs made by others, i.e., castrated males, were looked down on. The argument then speculates without evidence that Jesus and his followers may have been castigated as eunuchs. To its credit, it acknowledges only for the last point that “such a reading, intriguing and plausible as it is, is ultimately speculative” and that it is baseless. Based on all this, the argument not only wants the “inclusion of this sexual minority among God’s people” but wants them to “have a place of belonging and honor in Israel.” Among all the various types of eunuchs, only “‘those who made themselves eunuchs’ were those who lived in voluntary celibacy.” (pp. 176-177, 179-182). When we substitute what we say for what God says, He is not bound by it.
When we substitute what we say for what God says, He is not bound by it.
Early Christian Interpretations
The subject of eunuchs and the interpretation of this scripture has a history in early Christianity that is important for understanding it. From the second through the fourth century, Christians struggled with various aspects of the law of chastity before settling on an understanding of chastity which did not match the first-century one.
Like our current day, the early Christians lived in a sex-saturated society. This is clear whether one reads Ovid or Lucian, Juvenal or Martial, Petronius or Suetonius, Apuleius or even the so-called magical papyri—all of which testify that Roman civilization constantly engaged in sexual activity of almost every imaginable variety. In contrast to what was going on in this surrounding society, for the first two hundred years, Christianity had a clear standard of chastity. Justin Martyr, in the mid-second-century, explains what that is in the earliest quotation of Matthew 19:12:
“Concerning chastity, He uttered such sentiments as these: “Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart before God” (Matthew 5:28). And, “If thy right eye offend thee, cut it out; for it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of heaven with one eye, than, having two eyes, to be cast into everlasting fire” (Matthew 5:29). And, “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced from another husband, committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:32) And, “There are some who have been made eunuchs of men, and some who were born eunuchs, and some who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake; but all cannot receive this saying” (Matthew 19:12). So that all who, by human law, are twice married, are in the eye of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her. For not only he who in act commits adultery is rejected by Him, but also he who desires to commit adultery: since not only our works but also our thoughts are open before God. And many, both men and women, who have been Christ’s disciples from childhood, remain pure at the age of sixty or seventy years; and I boast that I could produce such from every race [sic, genos “family” or “tribe”] of men. For what shall I say, too, of the countless multitude of those who have reformed intemperate habits and learned these things? For Christ called not the just nor the chaste to repentance, but the ungodly, and the licentious, and the unjust; His words being, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:13). For the heavenly Father desires rather the repentance than the punishment of the sinner” (Justin Martyr, Apology 1.15).
The standard of chastity of Christianity in the second century and into the third was that marriage was between a man and a woman, and any desire for or expression of sexual relations outside of a first marriage was a sin. There was, of course, room in early Christianity for those who were willing to reform their habits and repent of their sins. Justin (and, as we will shortly see, other early Christian writers) understood the eunuchs as those who remain pure, not those who have been castrated. Since he specifically included both men and women in the category, he cannot be understanding eunuchs as castrated men. This reveals eunuch to be a specific technical term that early Christians used in a different way than the society at large, as they also used Christ (Christos) and Lord (kyrios) in a technical sense different than the way they were used by society at large.
This peculiar usage of the term eunuch as one who abstained from sexual relations is demonstrated by other early Christian writers. Thus, at the end of the second century, Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Many are eunuchs; and these panders [mastropoi “pimps”] serve without suspicion those that wish to be free to enjoy their pleasures, because of the belief that they are unable to indulge in lust. But a true eunuch is not one who is unable, but one who is unwilling, to indulge in pleasure” (Instructor 3.4). While Clement claims that some of those who are eunuchs in the common understanding still engaged in sexual relations, he clearly understands a true eunuch in the Christian sense as one who is unwilling rather than unable to indulge in lust. The early third-century writer, Tertullian, also equates “men-virgins” with “voluntary eunuchs” (Veiling of Virgins, 10) and commends “virgins, and such as have become ‘eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’” (Resurrection of the Flesh, 27). The third-century writer Cyprian also interprets eunuchs as virgins (Treatises 2.4). “ “They teach for doctrines the commandments of men.”- Joseph Smith
“They teach for doctrines the commandments of men.”- Joseph Smith
Athenagoras also sheds light on the relationship between those who engage in same-sex sexual behavior and eunuchs: “But though such is our character (Oh! why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, ‘The harlot reproves the chaste.’ For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure—who do not abstain even from males … outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God),—these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods. These adulterers and pæderasts defame the eunuchs and the once-married” (Apology, 34). Athenagoras agrees with the argument that eunuchs are reviled but clearly states that those involved in same-sex relations are not eunuchs because they revile them.
The early Christian understanding of chastity was that sexual relations were only appropriate in the first marriage of a man and a woman. All other sexual relations were a sin. They were also willing to accept any who forsook their sins. Early Christians understood Jesus to say that there are some who refrain from sexual relations, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some who refrain from sexual relations, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be some who refrain from sexual relations, which have made themselves those who refrain from sexual relations for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. None of what Jesus says has to do with sexual identity or exempts any category of individuals from refraining from sexual relations outside of the marriage of a man and a woman. It may be significant here that the Syriac Peshitta version of Matthew 19:12 does not use the term for eunuch (saris) but uses mhaymneʾ “faithful” instead.
The Jewish Angle
Ellison mentions passages from the Talmud in support of the thesis. The cited passages in the Talmud address Levirate marriages. Levirate marriages figure in the scriptures in a couple of places, mainly in Ruth and the apocryphal book of Tobit. When a man died childless, his brother (or next of kin) was supposed to marry the widow so that the children born would belong to the deceased brother, thus continuing his offspring. The brother could decline the obligation, passing on the obligation to the next nearest kin, as happens in Ruth. The Talmud takes up the question of what should happen if the brother was a eunuch. The Talmud distinguishes three different types of eunuchs: the saris hammah (a male born with an undescended testicle or testicles), the saris ʾadam (a male who has been castrated), and the saris (an underaged male) (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 79b-80a). These three categories correspond to the categories that Jesus gave in Matthew’s gospel.
The argument, however, only acknowledges the saris hammah to assert by analogy that those who are inclined to homosexual activity were also born that way and, therefore, should not be required to renounce sexual activity. The approximately one percent of the male population who suffer from cryptorchidism are not the same as men who have sex with men in either ancient or modern times. Athenagoras is quite clear on that subject. Sadly, not only does the proffered argument not match with the early Christian interpretation of the passage, but it also fails to recognize that Jesus’s categories are distinctively Jewish in origin. It tries to dress the teachings and theology of those outside the Church in the garb of the prophets to make those teachings acceptable inside the Church.
It tries to dress the teachings and theology of those outside the Church in the garb of the prophets to make those teachings acceptable inside the Church.
The argument holds that the New Testament “regard[s] eunuchs not as disabled or flawed, but exemplary and included” (p. 183). That is not the way that Jews regarded the situation, nor how the earliest Christians regarded them. Origen, after all, argued that both of the first two categories were physically flawed and disabled, though not the third (Commentary on Matthew 15.1.1). Their situation is tragic but was part of the cross that they must bear. Insofar as the third category of eunuch voluntarily chose to be chaste, they certainly are exemplary and admirable, just as all who make sacrifices for the kingdom of God’s sake are.
The Dangers of a Reader-Centered Theology
Not being satisfied with what the prophets and apostles have said about the law of chastity (though tangential quotations of General Authorities are included), the argument seeks to circumvent Jesus’s representatives by attributing an exemption from the law of chastity to the mouth of Jesus Himself. Thus, the desire is to attribute this philosophy to the highest authority. Clearly, attributing one’s philosophies to the highest authority and them actually having the highest authority is not necessarily the same thing.
The argument aligns with what Rosalynde Welch, the associate director of Brigham Young University’s Maxwell Institute, calls “a reader-centered theology of scripture” (2020: 72). She advocates for such a theology claiming that “a reception theory of scripture treats scripture less as an established deposit of truth certified by ‘author’-ity and more as a field of potential ready for communities of readers to unlock its meaning and power” (2020: 77). This theology is based on post-modernist notions advanced by Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes that insisted that something in writing meant what the reader wants it to mean rather than what the author intended it to mean. A reader-centered theology of scripture thus claims that whatever the ancient prophet—or God, for that matter—meant is unimportant; the only thing that is important is that the text means what we want it to mean.
As such, a reader-centered theology contradicts the scriptures while also absolving us of any requirement to understand the world and environment of God’s chosen messengers. After all, God said, “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (Doctrine and Covenants 82:10). When we substitute what we say for what God says, He is not bound by it. We then find ourselves in precisely the situation that Jesus, in Joseph Smith’s First Vision, said was the apostate condition that required the Restoration of the Gospel: “they teach for doctrines the commandments of men” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). Furthermore, a reader-centered theology runs afoul of Nephi’s encouragement to his readers to understand “the manner of prophesying among the Jews” (1 Nephi 25:1). In such a situation, we must ask whether we are doing our fellow mortals any favors by twisting Jesus’s words into something He did not mean. We hold out a hope that is contrary to reality, and those who hearken to that false hope end up doing things that hurt rather than help them. Is that compassionate?
The argument propounded fits in nicely with common narratives surrounding same-sex sexual activity. The narrative claims that those involved in same-sex sexual activity were born that way and are thus exempt from putting off the natural man. And so the argument claims that Jesus held up those involved in such activity as exemplary. Whether looked at from the Jewish or the early Christian point of view, such claims are simply unsupportable and incompatible with what Jesus said. By reinterpreting what Jesus said about chastity to conform with modern narratives about same-sex sexual activity, “thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:6).
Importing outside theologies has other dangers. Elder Neal A. Maxwell used to say that while he borrowed the words of outside thinkers, he did not borrow their theology (1976:60). His approach was to clothe the teachings of the scriptures and modern prophets in the words of outside thinkers as a way of making those teachings understandable and acceptable to those outside the Church. The argument does the opposite. It tries to dress the teachings and theology of those outside the Church in the garb of the prophets to make those teachings acceptable inside the Church. President Nelson specifically warned against this as recently as the last General Conference: “I plead with you now—to take charge of your own testimony of Jesus Christ and His gospel. Work for it. Nurture it so that it will grow. Feed it truth. Don’t pollute it with false philosophies of unbelieving men and women.”
Where Will This Lead?
Instead of asking the question, “If we let ourselves think of these scripture passages in this way, how might it help us?” (p. 177) perhaps there is a better question to ask. President Dallin H. Oaks invites church members to consider “the effect on the future of decisions made in the present,” and to ask “Where will this lead?” “As we see threats creeping up on persons or things we love, we have the choice of speaking or acting or remaining silent. It is well to ask ourselves, ‘Where will this lead?’ Where the consequences are immediate and serious, we cannot afford to do nothing. We must sound appropriate warnings or support appropriate preventive efforts while there is still time.”
Where does it lead if we hold up those whose lifestyles will not lead to marriage according to God’s law as exemplary? We do not have to wonder because we can see what happened with the reinterpretation of that scripture over the course of Christian history.
At the beginning of the second century, Christian leaders emphasized the family and the duties of husband and wife to each other (1 Clement 1, 6; Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 4; Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 1.5; 2.5). In the early second century, Aristides asked that Christians not be persecuted because “they do not commit adultery, they do not fornicate” (Apology 15). The mid-second century Epistle to Diognetus (5.6-7) argues that Christians “marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table but not a common bed.” Justin Martyr, in the mid-second century, tells how the persecution that Christians were suffering at the time started because a Christian convert had repented and started obeying and teaching the law of chastity (Apology 2.2). This understanding is repeated by the third-century Christian, Minucius Felix: “We maintain our modesty, not in appearance, but in our heart, we gladly abide by the bond of a single marriage; in the desire of procreating, we know either one wife, or none at all” (Octavius 31.5).
The early Christian interpretation of chastity had its challengers from within Christianity. Starting in the second century, the Valentinians insisted that Christians had to be married (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 30). The Carpocratians allowed promiscuity and plural marriage (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.28.2). On the other side, the Marcionites forbade any sexual relations, even in marriage (Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.11). By the fourth century, there had been clear tampering with the scriptural text of Matthew 19:1-12 (the two fourth-century manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, have opposite readings for Matthew 19:9) (Gee, 2005: 186-87). Someone did not like how the text read and deliberately altered it. According to Jesus, we must learn to tolerate our crosses, not our sins.
According to Jesus, we must learn to tolerate our crosses, not our sins.
By the early fourth century, celibates like Anthony (and Origen) were held up as examples of holiness (Athanasius, Life of Anthony; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 1.21). After that, an influential group of intellectuals, including Jerome and Rufinus, tried to push the Church to change its approach to chastity and revoke the scriptural requirement that bishops and other clergy had to be married (Hunter, 2007). Jerome himself tampered with the text of Matthew 19:12 in his translation of the Vulgate to make it seem like celibacy or self-castration was required of Christians. “In the case of Jerome, we have an instance of a Christian ascetic who positively delighted in drawing contrasts between the mediocre life of the average clergyman and the spiritual heights achieved by the monk” (Hunter, 2007:56). Jerome reproved his friend, Heliodorus for abandoning the celibate monastic life, to become a mere married clergyman (Jerome, Letters 14). By the end of the fourth century, works like the Conversations of Zaccheus and Apollonius contrasted the mediocre Christians who married and the distinguished lives of those who did not (Hunter 2007: 58-60. This was finally set in stone when Jovinian was condemned as a heretic for claiming that married and non-married Christians were equal in God’s sight rather than that non-married Christians were more exalted.
What happened in Christianity was that by making the non-married state exemplary, those who were married were reduced to second-class status. Despite this, the exemplary non-married were often not chaste. It was well-known that some supposedly chaste monks used their claims to celibacy to gain access to women and take their virtue or money (Jerome, Letters 117, 147; Hunter 2007: 59).
In the light of Christian history, we should be careful what we hold up as exemplary. Jesus did not hold up sexual minorities as exemplary. Nor does He in modern times: “In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]; And if he does not, he cannot obtain it” (Doctrine and Covenants 131:1–3). Even if we can justifiably admire those who bear their crosses valiantly, including keeping the law of chastity, marriage is still the ideal and should still be held up as the ideal. We cannot change the ideal just as we cannot change God’s commandments.
Even the best of motives do not allow us to change the commandments or remove the crosses of others. Claiming to change Jesus’s commandment in the name of tolerance misunderstands what Jesus meant by tolerance. Astute readers will have noticed that the terms tolerate and tolerance do not occur in our scriptures. They do appear in other versions. For example, in Revelation 2:20 in the International Standard Version, Jesus says: “I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and who teaches and leads my servants to practice immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.” Jesus may not consider all tolerance to be virtuous. After all, He condemned the tolerance of immorality. As President Nelson noted: “The Lord drew boundary lines to define acceptable limits of tolerance.” What might those be? The Prophet added, “Your gracious tolerance for an individual does not grant him or her license to do wrong, nor does your tolerance obligate you to tolerate his or her misdeed. That distinction is fundamental to an understanding of this virtue.” The English verb tolerate comes from the Latin tolero. This is the same verb that is used in the Latin version of Matthew 16:24 for bearing one’s cross. According to Jesus, we must learn to tolerate our crosses, not our sins.
The argument addressed above goes further and asks us not just to tolerate individuals who identify themselves not primarily as sons or daughters of God but as sexual minorities but to further hold them up as exemplary. Someone who is exemplary is someone who sets an example worthy of following. Paul says that we should only follow the example of an individual to the extent that that individual follows the example of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Someone who defines themselves by their temptations or their sins does not seem to fit Paul’s understanding of someone whose example we should follow. We can and should bear one another’s burdens, but we should not hold up as exemplary those unwilling or unable to take up their cross, nor should we excuse individuals from taking up their cross.
Note: Contrary to the author’s normal practice, all quotations in this article are the translations of others. Scriptural quotations, except as noted, are of the King James Version. Quotations of Church fathers are from the editions of Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and Arthur Cleveland Coxe unless otherwise noted.
Crouzel and L. Odrobina, “Celibacy of the Clergy,” in Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 1:478.
John Gee, “The Corruption of Scripture in Early Christianity,” in Early Christians in Disarray (Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2005).
David G. Hunter, Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 87-129.
Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976).
Rosalynde Frandsen Welch, Ether: A Brief Theological Introduction (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2020).