A recent Sacrament meeting in my ward focused on developing unity. Unity is a topic that often occupies my thoughts because, when I look around my ward, what I notice are the faces I no longer see. Unity isn’t what’s happening in today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Division is increasing. The orthodox stay. The heterodox leave. As an openly heterodox member, I’m getting more and more lonely in the crowd.
I pause to define terms. I use “orthodox” to describe Church members whose beliefs are aligned with the sanctioned teachings of the LDS Church. A heterodox member is someone whose perspectives or practices do not fully align in significant ways with those teachings. The orthodox member is embraced at Church while the heterodox member is “cause for concern.”
I’m an example of a heterodox Latter-day Saint. I believe in Jesus and the Restoration. I accept Joseph Smith’s prophetic call but find him a tarnished figure. I sustain my Church leaders according to the model that allows them “a personal, though well-considered, opinion” without that perspective being inerrantly of God. Because morality is an act of volition, not nature, the choice to form necessary attachment bonds is equally sacred in hetero and in homosexual marriage. I disagree that the Church’s patriarchal structure is good to and for women—or men, for that matter.
Of course, my most heterodox trait may be my openness about my heterodoxy. Most heterodox Mormons hide their thoughts, fearing rejection and alienation.
Their concern is valid. It’s been years since any leader has called me to serve in the Church beyond the presumed assignment of ministering sister, and I’ve not spoken in Sacrament meeting in approximately 15 years. One Sunday, when I persisted with my then-bishop in an offer to substitute for a teacherless, teen Sunday School class, he ordered, “Sister Downing, you are not to go near that class.” Two months ago I told my stake president I hadn’t been offered a calling in years, and he didn’t bat an eye.
This, in a church that advocates callings for everyone so that everyone feels wanted.
To be clear, I’ve never committed any major sin. Not even once.
I’ve come to enjoy my calling-less state but knowing I’ve been set aside (rather than set apart) stings occasionally. The reality is, I’m a heterodox Mormon. Jesus was a heterodox Jew. There are costs to public heterodoxy.
There is also reward. My heterodoxy has helped me understand my Savior in ways my former LDS orthodoxy never could. What some would consider my faith weaknesses are my strengths. Other heterodox Mormons report gaining similar faith strength.
Many also say they feel pushed out and that the orthodox treat them as if they aren’t right with God and shouldn’t be trusted. The orthodox march on with their Church existence, then one day, look over their shoulder to find the heterodox aren’t there anymore. We are the lost sheep, they say, and then they reach out. We stare back, wondering how they can pretend they want us.
Joseph Smith proffered some radical ideas. He once stated he feared the Latter-day Saints are “too much like the Methodists” because “Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church.” He added, “I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled.”
Mormonism’s founder was undeniably a heterodox Christian, someone who applauded freedom of thought and belief and reveled in the exercise of difference. Yet, today’s mainstream Mormonism too often behaves like old-timey Methodism, excising heterodox believers and thinkers, if not literally through discipline than socially by withdrawing approval. And yet, perhaps the truest form of Mormon orthodoxy is heterodoxy.
Our Church teaches that all truth belongs to the LDS. But it also teaches that heaven is a place of order. Here’s the rub. In the human realm, the pursuit of truth is a messy business. It will—and does—inspire heterodoxy. To create unity without the messiness of personal inspiration or the expansiveness of dedicated study, we must diminish the importance of the gifts of the Spirit and, in their place, delineate specific, approved answers for which to aim. Our Church has done this—and it has exchanged love-based unity for fear-based conformity.
I see two ways to achieve unity: we either push people like me out until the congregation is comprised solely of the orthodox, or we learn to value people for their differences. The number of my friends who have felt compelled to leave my ward and stake is painful. Most of these heterodox members deeply love their community, heritage, and yes, the Savior; they would stay but for their sense that they aren’t valued or wanted.
The Prophet finished his previous thought thusly: “It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
Erring in doctrine doesn’t remove the goodness in a person, be he the ward clerk or a general authority. We all see through a glass darkly. We all err. But we can push though error together, without denigration, fear, or condescension. This would be a much better choice than pushing people out.
Unity won’t happen until we forfeit our fear of “unapproved” insight and return to prizing manifestations of the Holy Spirit that come liberally to all who seek truth. We’ll never achieve unity if distrust compels us to accept the illusion of human unworthiness, as judged by humans, against standards delivered to us by humans.
When we cast aside the guidance of personal study, reflection, and yes, revelation—when we judge that which is good, evil—we cast aside the person who seeks as instructed and finds as promised. We separate the sheep from the flock. We do it. Us. We are pushing people away. Our contemporary parable is the parable of The Get Lost Sheep.
You say you want to retrieve the one. Instead, make room for all, for everyone who seeks even if what they seek is only to fill their lives with love, community, and self-improvement. It is good. Never forget that no one has to be right to be saved. Not you, not me. We don’t have to know the unknowable.
Likewise, the Church doesn’t have to always be right, or to know everything to be good and true, especially if “true” means loyal to the Savior. It only needs to be available, to be a place where everyone is invited to come unto Christ in whatever messy way they get there. Remember that those who stand in front of you saying “I don’t know” or “I see it differently” aren’t an enemy of truth but are seeking it. The proverbial dirt on their hands isn’t sin; it’s proof of the hard labor they’re performing to know God and Truth. Make room for them, for us, for me, and unity is created.
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And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. I Corinthians 12: 21