Those who disagree with the the LDS Church's stance on same-sex marriage often cite the Church’s former Priesthood Restriction as a precedent for the church to make further changes to accommodate their views. They suppose that because the Church discontinued its policy of withholding priesthood from black members, it may change these other positions as well. From this perspective, just like the Brethren were wrong about the priesthood ban, they are also wrong about same-sex marriage, and will eventually change and disavow the previous teachings.
We believe that God holds us accountable for how we respond to his living servants and the warnings and directions they give for us now, not what he may or may not require of us in the future. To reject the teachings of current prophets and apostles because of what we anticipate they might say in the future is no better than rejecting those teachings because of what prophets have said in the past. The doctrine of the family is central to the Latter-day Saint faith, and it will be deeply surprising if these teachings were to change.
Those who disagree with the the LDS Church’s stance on same-sex marriage often cite the Church’s former Priesthood Restriction as a precedent for the church to make further changes to accommodate their views. They suppose that because the Church discontinued its policy of withholding the priesthood from black members, it may change on these other positions as well. Convinced that their words and actions are in harmony with what the future prophets will undoubtedly teach, they proceed to act right now as if the future prophets have already made the change that they anticipate. Many who use this objection claim that they have received personal revelation, or have use sound personal reasoning, to arrive at their position.
One popular scripture that some use is the 9th Article of Faith: “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” The argument is that we believe in continuing revelation, and should therefore not cling so tightly to or defend so rigorously what we think is current revelation that we end up unprepared for and ignoring future revelation. From this perspective, just like the Brethren were wrong about the priesthood ban, they are also wrong about same-sex marriage, and will eventually change and disavow the previous teachings.
We do believe in continuing revelation. However, we do not think that a belief in continuing revelation should be used to rationalize a rejection of current or past revelation. To do this is not to embrace the 9th Article of Faith, but to reject two of its three clauses. In addition, we think that the extension of the priesthood to blacks and accommodating same-sex marriage in our doctrine and practice are wholly different in both degree and kind — there is simply no way to draw a strong comparison between the two.
Prioritizing Past and Future Prophets
The scriptures are full of stories of how the people of the church rejected the messages of the living prophets, often justifying themselves by appealing to the words of previous prophets. Even Jesus was rejected by appealing to Moses or Abraham. As President of the Twelve Apostles, Ezra Taft Benson warned: “Beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained further: ”…the most important difference between dead prophets and living ones is that those who are dead are not here to receive and declare the Lord’s latest words to his people. If they were, there would be no differences among the messages of the prophets.”
The Objection from Blacks and the Priesthood presents what to us seems like a troubling parallel: Rejecting living prophets in favor of what we anticipate future prophets will do. When people employ the Objection from Blacks and the Priesthood, the assumption is that we know that the same thing will happen with the issue of same-sex marriage. Whether by reason or supposed personal revelation, they are claiming to know which direction the church should take better than the current prophets do. But just like fundamentalists who reject the living prophets by following dead prophets, progressives reject the living prophets by following anticipated future prophets.
In reality the future prophet that they are following is just a projection of their own views in the present. In other words they are setting themselves up as an alternative authority to the current prophet by attributing their contrary positions to a future prophet who does not yet exist. Even if progressive members of the church are correct that the future prophets will change the church’s position regarding same-sex marriage (though we believe it is very, very unlikely), their public opposition to the directions of the current, living prophets is still a violation of the order of the church.
Those who anticipate that the church will change to accept same-sex marriage need to ask themselves, “What if it never happens? What if, on the contrary, the prophet receives a revelation in which the Lord reaffirms and entrenches the church’s current position, it is unanimously accepted by the presiding councils of the church, and the new revelation is canonized? What then?” If the answer is that they know that that is not the Lord’s will, then they have set themselves up as a prophet themselves in competition and opposition to the prophets and apostles of the church. They may be right or they may be wrong, but there should be no illusion about what they are claiming (even if it is obscured by projecting their prophecies onto future prophets) — they are somehow more spiritually in tune with God’s will on these issues than God’s chosen servants are.
This appeal to the priesthood ban as a precedent for additional changes leaves out a couple of key details that undermine the parallelism to these modern trends.
The Long Promised Day
From the very beginning of the priesthood restriction, Brigham Young himself prophesied that the “time will come when [black members] will have the privilege of all we have the privilege of and more.” (February 5th, 1852 Speech before the Territorial Legislature). Subsequent prophets reiterated this prophecy that eventually the Lord would lift the ban and the priesthood would be bequeathed to all. Many of them didn’t believe it would happen until the Millennium, after Jesus returned. In addition to the prophecies, we have very solid historical examples of black men being ordained to priesthood offices by the prophet Joseph Smith himself before the priesthood restriction was declared by President Young.
These are essential details. The disagreement in the decades culminating in ending the restriction was about the the validity of the reasons that had been suggested for the restriction, or whether or not blacks really were descended from Cain or Canaan, the proper time frame for lifting the ban, and whether it could be ended without an explicit revelation. But the idea that the priesthood could be and would be extended to blacks at the proper time was not in dispute. That is why in Official Declaration 2, in which the end of the restriction was announced, President Kimball specifically refers to these prophecies when he says they are “Aware of the promises made by the prophets and presidents of the Church who have preceded us…” and says “the long-promised day has come…”
It is this concept of an explicitly “long-promised day” that is missing from the appeals for additional changes in the church to accommodate modern sensibilities. Putting aside controversies about whether or not the priesthood restriction was a mistake or an inexplicable decree from the Lord, the priesthood was always supposed to be extended to black members eventually. A similar example of a “long promised day” is the extension of the gospel to the gentiles by the prophet Peter. Jesus himself had prophesied that the gospel would eventually go to the gentiles, both before His crucifixion and then again after His resurrection. So when Peter received his vision and then extended the gospel to Cornelius the Centurion and his household, upon whom the Holy Spirit had fallen, it fulfilled the earlier prophecy. Putting aside controversies over whether gentile converts needed to be circumcised, the gospel was supposed to be extended to the gentiles eventually.
There is no “long-promised day” prophesied by latter-day prophets and presidents that preceded us to which one might appeal for same-sex marriage. Neither are their solid historical examples of Joseph Smith approving of or sanctioning homosexual relationships in the way that there are of extending the priesthood to black members. For these reasons lifting the priesthood ban is not really comparable and cannot be legitimately cited as a good precedent for new changes through agitation and public pressure by liberal members of the church.
Central Doctrine on the Family
Another challenged with the Objection from Blacks and the Priesthood is that while many people believed that the Priesthood Restriction was inspired, few people believed that it was immutable, unchangeable core doctrine of the Church. Even Brigham Young, who started the ban, taught that it would someday end. In contrast, the doctrine of eternal marriage and gender complementarity are widely considered to be core, unchangeable doctrines of the Church. To put it simply: the Church’s teachings on sexuality have a relationship with eternal principle that is wholly different and degrees of magnitude more strong than the relationship between the Priesthood Restriction and eternal principle.
Ever since Joseph Smith himself taught the principle of eternal marriage, prophets and apostles have taught us that exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom of God requires that men and women participate in the great and everlasting covenant of marriage. The doctrine has been that a man cannot be exalted without a woman, and a woman cannot be exalted without a man — that each gender needs to other to fulfill their divine destiny and inherit all the blessings God is eager to bestow upon His children. Latter-day Saints believe that the greatest blessing that God can give His children is the ability to live in eternal families and continue to procreate into the eternities — that procreation, as either a spiritual or physical process (we do not know much about it, except that it seems to require both genders), is not limited to mortality, and that this is intrinsically connected to the ultimate goal of exaltation.
While the priesthood could be extended to blacks without any significant retooling of Latter-day Saint doctrine, and only minimal ramifications in Latter-day Saint practice, the same simply cannot be said for accommodating same-sex marriage. To change its teachings on homosexuality, the Church would have to revisit some of its foundational doctrines. It cannot do this without dramatically and wholly changing the institution, departing dramatically not only from its current teachings, but the teachings of its founding prophet and its foundational scriptures (the canonized doctrines in the Doctrine and Covenants). Simply put, the extension of the priesthood to blacks cannot be seen as in any way comparable to accommodating same-sex marriage — they are different not just in terms of degree, but in kind.
In conclusion, we believe that God holds us accountable for our how we respond to his living servants and the warnings and directions they give for us now, not what he may or may not require of us in the future. To reject the teachings of current prophets and apostles because of what we anticipate they might say in the future is no better than rejecting those teachings because of what prophets have said in the past. While we believe that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God,” we also believe all that He “has revealed,” and “all that He does now reveal.” To elevate the last clause over the first is to ignore two-thirds of the verse.
In addition, while the Church does at times change its policies and practices in response to further revelation and changing contexts, we cannot expect that the core teachings of the Church will bend in response to socio-political pressures. Some may argue that this is precisely what happened when the blacks were given the priesthood. But even if this were true, the question at hand is whether the end to the Priesthood Restriction is paradigmatic of how revelation works, or simply an exception to the rule. We argue that it is neither, and that the extension of the priesthood to blacks was a long-prophesied day that did not amount to a significant change in foundational doctrine; but even if it did amount to a significant change in doctrine, we reject the idea that this change is the lens through which we should interpret everything else the Church does.