Members of the Church and interested outsiders have noted that the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ recently announced a change of its policy regarding same-sex behavior and the blessing or baptism by custodial parents in same-sex relationships.[1]

Such changes in policy are not unexpected. As President Boyd K. Packer taught:

Procedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. The First Presidency are quite free, indeed quite obliged, to alter them from time to time. But the principles, the doctrines, never change. If we overemphasize programs and procedures that can change, and will change, and must change, and do not understand the fundamental principles of the gospel, which never change, we can be misled.[2]

Many sincere members of the Church struggled with the previous policy. For them and many others, we should understand this change as removing a heavy burden, for which we can rejoice.[3]

Some are asking about the First Presidency “flip-flopping.” Tied with this concern is the fact that President Russell M. Nelson (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve) said of the earlier policy:

We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process…[4]

How, some ask, could the policy of 2015 be based on revelation, if revelation is now claimed for the 2019 policy? As Jana Reiss recently asked in an op-ed, “Mormon leaders reverse LGBT policy, raising the question: What is revelation?”[5]

The question of “What is revelation?” is broad, and I will not attempt an answer here. However, I’d like to address this current example of the process in action.

Policy and Context in 2015

It is worthwhile to remember the context of the 2015 announcement. The United States Supreme Court had held that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. (And, in fact, President Russell M. Nelson specifically noted that the policy change was in part “consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries.”[6])

In my experience on-line and in discussion with others, many members of the Church had convinced themselves that the Church’s policy on same-sex behavior and marriage would change, and this process would be accelerated with the SCOTUS decision. (One can understand the appeal of this view. It springs from a place of compassion, doesn’t require us to be out of step with public opinion, and would relieve gay members of the Church of a terrible burden.)

Part of the outcry against the 2015 policy came from those who were anticipating a liberalization of the Church’s stance—the policy was clearly unfavorable to those hopes. And, because of the clear import of the 2015 policy, the Church’s unchanging doctrine was made unmistakable (as it has been again in today’s announcement).

The Church’s 2015 policy made its stance toward same-sex behavior crystal clear: such behavior is inconsistent with Church covenant-keeping, and the Church is not going to refrain from clearly teaching that same-sex sexual behavior is everywhere and always wrong.[7]

The Nature of “Policy” in the Church

I fear that most outside the Church—and many in it—do not understand what “Church policies” are all about. Some treat them something like a corporate manual of policies and procedures—things that must happen. These are the rules, if you like, that the corporation agrees to be governed by, and violating those policies and procedures is always cause for censure.

This is not how policies work in the Church of Jesus Christ. The official policies are, in essence, the distilled experience of the senior leaders of the Church, often over generations. However, decisions in the Church are not made by policies—they are made by judges in Israel. At the local level, that is stake presidents and bishops, guided by revelation.

President Boyd K. Packer often expressed his worry that some could become too wedded to the policies:

There are principles of the gospel underlying every phase of Church administration. These are not explained in the handbooks. They are found in the scriptures. They are the substance of and the purpose for the revelations.

If you over-emphasize programs and procedures that can change, and will change, and must change, and do not understand the fundamental principles of the gospel, which never change, you can be misled.

Now, listen carefully. I do not imply that you should ignore the handbooks or manuals, not for one minute would I say that. What I do say is this: there is a spiritual ingredient not found in handbooks that you must include in your ministry if you are to please the Lord.

When you know the gospel, you will have a loyalty toward the instruction in the handbooks that you cannot have otherwise. By so doing, you will save yourself the innovations that cannot work.[8]

We note that there will be “innovations” that local leaders might adopt due to revelation. He later expressed the same worries:

The most dangerous side effect of all we have prescribed in the way of programming and instructions and all is the over regimentation of the Church. This over regimentation is a direct result of too many programmed instructions. If we would compare the handbooks of today with those of a generation ago you would quickly see what I mean. [Since this address the Church handbooks have been whittled down, no doubt in part because of the concerns President Packer expresses here.]

Local leaders have been effectively conditioned to hold back until programmed as to what to do, how, to whom, when, and for how long. Can you see that when we overemphasize programs at the expense of principles, we are in danger of losing the inspiration, the resourcefulness, that which should characterize Latter-day Saints. Then the very principle of individual revelation is in jeopardy and we drift from a fundamental gospel principle![9]

In the Church, then, we have often struggled with two extremes. Some will slavishly follow the policies, and thereby stifle the spirit of revelation that must accompany the government of the Church of Christ.

Others—a far larger group, in my experience—either do not know the policies, or do not pay them much heed at all. And so they get into unnecessary trouble.

Neither is the proper way. Judges in Israel (bishops and stake presidents) consider each individual circumstance that comes to their attention. Then, under the spirit of revelation, if they feel it appropriate, they can write to the First Presidency requesting an exception to policy.

(I served as a bishop, and did this myself. Approval for the requested exception was granted, but would have normally been contrary to the handbook’s policies. The situation was unique and required a unique response.)

Policy in the Church, then, is not a one-size-fits all, no-exceptions type of thing. It is general guidance that revelation may supersede.

An example

President Packer described a situation in which this principle played out:

A missionary had confessed to transgression, and the mission president was reluctant to take action. I was instructed [by the First Presidency] to see that a court [i.e., a Church disciplinary council] was convened and that the missionary was excommunicated.

I went, and I interviewed the elder at great length. I then went to a park to think and pray about it. It was an unusual case, most unusual. After two hours, I telephoned the member of the First Presidency from a pay telephone and told him a little of what I had learned and of how I felt about the matter. He asked what I wanted to do. Hesitantly I told him I wanted to delay, to take no action now. Then I said, “But, President, tell me to do it, again, and I will do it.”

His voice came over the telephone and seemed like thunder to me: “Don’t you go against the voice of the Spirit!”

I had learned a great lesson. I have never forgotten it, and the inspiration greatly affected the outcome when final action was taken.[10]

Here a leader on the scene was instructed what the Church’s policy in such cases was. He went, assessed the situation, and concluded than an exception to policy was appropriate, in his judgment. The First Presidency approved—and were very clear they would not contravene revelation.

Four Years Since 2015 policy

As soon as the policy was announced, on the FairMormon blog I wrote:

The decision whether to baptize adult children of same-sex married parents will not be made by local leaders. Local leaders can only recommend a course of action to the First Presidency. Such situations can be messy and complex; guidelines and policies probably cannot capture all the various circumstances or complications that will arise in a pluralistic society with widely differing views of marriage. The decision in all such cases will be made by the First Presidency, and not left to the sole discretion of local leaders.

This will help ensure uniformity among similar cases Church-wide, and also assure that those who make the decisions—the First Presidency—have the widest possible base of experience upon which to draw. As time goes on, as Church leaders seek to address individual cases, they will likely improve in their understanding of what best suits the needs of the child, the parents, and the Church.[11]

I think this analysis helps explain the  current policy change. We have had four years of experience—and during that time all potential exceptions to the 2015 policy will have been forwarded to the First Presidency for a decision. We also now have a President of the Church who does not have the health challenges which beset President Monson at the end of his administration, and is thus more able to assimilate this experience and formulate a more permissive policy if that is wise.[12]

This experience was painful for some. Unfortunately, that is the price of mortality—Elder Neal A. Maxwell observed:

it is clear that in our daily labors, in our families, and in our Church associations is a significant share of the clinical material that God has given us to practice on. This means we will experience at each others’ hands some pain, some lack of finesse, and certainly some genuine mistakes. In fact, as we see each other developing and growing (as well as sometimes when we are not at our best), we are privy to an intimate and precious thing.[13]

It is then not surprising that four years of further experience and information about a new legal environment (i.e., following the legalization of same-sex marriage) permits a more relaxed policy. As President Nelson explained of the 2015 policy: “Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise.”[14]

We note that these “could arise.” No one had experience with what might happen under the new legal situation. Only revelation could guide them.

“Good Inspiration is Based Upon Good Information”

So why did that revelation not give the answer of 2019 in 2015? I suspect that one reason is that, as President Nelson has taught, “good inspiration is based upon good information.”[15]

In his address concerning the 2015 policy, he noted:

The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively. And then we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord’s will….

My dear brothers and sisters, you have as much access to the mind and will of the Lord for your own life as we Apostles do for His Church. Just as the Lord requires us to seek and ponder, fast and pray, and study and wrestle with difficult questions, He requires you to do the same as you seek answers to your own questions.[16]

This is simply how the process of revelation works. We presume that the leading councils of the Church would benefit from further experience with these issues. The Lord thus revealed that they should put measures in place which had the effect of giving them a Church-wide base of experience concerning something with which they likely previously had relatively little exposure. Four years’ experience has led them to further revelation. They now know better which measures will best protect the interests of children, local leaders, same-sex parents, and the Church:

Children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender may be baptized without First Presidency approval if:

  • the custodial parents give permission for the baptism and

  • understand both the doctrine that a baptized child will be taught and the covenants he or she will be expected to make.[17]

It would be presumptuous to think we understood all the reasons behind revelation. After the fact, however, we can often see the wisdom of a course of action which we did not appreciate before. As President Oaks has warned:

Let’s [not] make the mistake that’s been made in the past … trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man–made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies.[18]

And so, these reasons are my own understanding. If you do not find them useful, you can safely jettison them.

But I am not surprised that such changes have come, though I am a bit surprised and delighted at how quickly they came.

The Church is led by genuine revelation

It is fashionable in some Church circles to argue that revelation rarely comes to the Church’s governing councils.[19] Instead, some claim, leaders are usually working only on their own best judgment.

As mentioned above, I had the privilege and burden of being a bishop for 5 years. I can attest that the Lord ‘interfered’ with the operation of my ward far more than rarely or occasionally. The more important a decision was, the less leeway I seemed to have. I can witness that I was pushed to decisions or actions that were extremely significant—and I had no way of knowing that until afterward. They often went against my inclination and personality. But the Lord knew when I needed a shove, and I got it. (Despite this, I doubtless made many mistakes on my own.)

I can only presume that if the Lord is that “hands-on” with a lowly bishop, he is even more involved with the Church as a whole. (Though arguably I might need the training wheels a lot more.)

Too many assume that revelation is a matter of simply asking a question, or a need existing, and God stepping in to give an answer. This simply isn’t how it usually works. We are commanded to “study it out in [our] minds” (D&C 9:8). Such study is a genuine effort, and can be a lengthy process. This applies to the rank-and-file member, all the way to the First Presidency, as President Nelson taught:

When we convene as a Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, our meeting rooms become rooms of revelation. The Spirit is palpably present. As we wrestle with complex matters, a thrilling process unfolds as each Apostle freely expresses his thoughts and point of view. Though we may differ in our initial perspectives, the love we feel for each other is constant. Our unity helps us to discern the Lord’s will for His Church. In our meetings, the majority never rules! We listen prayerfully to one another and talk with each other until we are united. Then when we have reached complete accord, the unifying influence of the Holy Ghost is spine-tingling! We experience what the Prophet Joseph Smith knew when he taught, “By union of feeling we obtain power with God.” No member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve would ever leave decisions for the Lord’s Church to his own best judgment![20]

Some will use the policy change to claim that the Church is not led by revelation, or that policies with which they disagree are not inspired. Others will have a witness of their own that the leaders are led by God, and be moved to sustain them.

There are at least two potential differences between these groups.

The second has revelation of their own which puts them at peace with current policies, but which can also incline them to welcome change if it comes. The first does not, yet.

The first group risks judging the Church and its leaders by whether their decisions accord with their ideas of how things should be, on the timetable that they think proper.

The second group understands that prophets, by their nature, may say or do things we do not expect or understand.[21] They have faith, which includes trust in both God and those he has called to lead.

I hope we can all eventually find ourselves in the second group. Otherwise, as Elder Maxwell observed:

Without real faith and its attendant submissiveness, people sooner or later find one thing or another to stumble over (Romans 9:32). After all, it is very difficult to show to the provincial and proud things which they “never had supposed” (Moses 1:10), or things they do not really want to know. When Jesus was speaking about himself as the bread of life, a powerful doctrine laden with behavior-changing implications, there was murmuring in the audience. Jesus asked them, “Doth this offend you?” (John 6:61.) “Blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me” (Luke 7:23).[22]

If we remain troubled, perhaps now is a good time to pause and seek a witness of the Lord’s approval of his leaders. We will need those leaders and their message in increasing ways in the coming years; faith and submissiveness are ultimately all that will save us.


[1] Dallin H. Oaks, “Details shared by President Oaks,” in “First Presidency Shares Messages from General Conference Leadership Session,” (4 April 2019),

[2] Boyd K. Packer, The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 65 [Address given at Regional Representatives seminar at general conference April 1984.]

[3] I discuss some of these emotions and issues here: Gregory Smith, “Some Mistaken Claims Associated with the Church’s Policies Regarding Same-Sex Marriage,” fairmormon blog (19 November 2015),

[4] Russell M. Nelson, “Becoming True Millennials,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, BYU-Hawaii (10 January 2016),

[5] Jana Reiss, “Mormon leaders reverse LGBT policy, raising the question: What is revelation?,” Religion News Service (4 April 2019),

[6] “Becoming True Millennials.”

[7] “Supreme Court Decision Will Not Alter Doctrine on Marriage,” official statement, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (26 June 2015),

[8] Boyd K. Packer, “Principles,” Ensign (March 1985); from Regional Representatives’ Seminar on 6 April 1984, emphasis in original.

[9] Boyd K. Packer, “Let Them Govern Themselves,” address to Regional Representatives’ Seminar, 30 May 1990.

[10] Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” BYU Studies 21/3 (Summer 1981).

[11] See “A Look at the Church’s New Policy on Children of Gay Couples,” fairmormon blog (6 November 2015),

[12] David Noyce, “At 87, Mormon leader Thomas S. Monson ‘feeling the effects’ of his age, LDS Church says,” Salt Lake Tribune (1 May 2015),

[13] Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2007 edition), loc. 879, kindle Edition.

[14] “Becoming True Millennials.”

[15]Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” general conference, April 2018,

[16] “Becoming True Millennials.”

[17] Dallin H. Oaks, “Details shared by President Oaks,” in “First Presidency Shares Messages from General Conference Leadership Session,” (4 April 2019),

[18] Dallin H. Oaks, cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.

[19] Those outside the Church in fact or in spirit will understandably claim that there is no revelation, or at least no revelation different from anything any other religious leader might get.

[20] “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,”

[21] I believe that it would be a suspicious—and useless—sort of revelation if it always agreed with what I think or want. But that realization has some painful corollaries.

[22] Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 32.

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