The Problem of Externalized Authority: A Response to the Mormon Gender Binary

To all the transgender Mormons, post or present, I want to make something clear: there are some things wrong in contemporary Mormonism, but you are not one of those things.

Our nearly 200-year history has bloated with one particularly harmful idea, namely that authority is external rather than internal. By this I mean that, as Latter-day Saints, we accept and celebrate the idea that someone else has authority that we don’t have. It starts in the family where tradition places the father as patriarch and final word. The bishop has authority we don’t have and the Stake President out-authorities him. Ultimately, we accept that one man (the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) holds the keys to the Kingdom of God on earth and in him rests all authority. The preference for external authority is so deeply ingrained that internal authority is viewed as highly suspect and we’re cautioned that it leads the “very elect” astray.

Most traditional LDS don’t view authority as something internal, as something forged through an autonomous relationship with the divine, or as a byproduct of the gift of the Holy Ghost or light of Christ. We give lip service to the idea of personal revelation when we teach that individuals should “pray to know for themselves.” But one of our unspoken truths is the expectation that the answers to those prayers will align with the teachings of those holding the external authority. Once a church member accepts the external authority of the men called as prophets, seers, and revelators, questioning God about their teaching can feel like a lack of faith.

So most won’t bother. This is how a religion and its culture reinforce a structure of external authority that insists on its own answers and mandates conformity as a representation of personal faith in God. This precludes individual autonomy and denies us the authority to know for ourselves what is best in our own lives.

Add to that that this structure of external authority is also a power system. The better some men are at externalizing authority the higher the position of influence they attain. This isn’t universally accurate, of course; we’ve all known, or have heard of, compassionate leaders who sometimes resist the external authority paradigm. But, as a general assessment, I find it fair.

This can work relatively smoothly until the external authority a man has subjected himself to is assigned to him. Then all bets are off. Suddenly the core of who he is as a man seems to him to be the authority of God, the Divine Will itself. If the man has a humble and compassionate heart, he will exude empathy, kindness, patience, and strive to learn and grow. If he has a legalistic, narcissistic heart, he will smile as he tenderly manipulates and condemns. While the Brethren govern and lead through a body of fifteen, that body is composed of men who are not aligned in their fundamental approaches, a reality we can witness if we pay close attention; and yet, each will continue to defer to the one who has the Keys (or the ultimate external authority). This doesn’t necessarily stop them from speaking disparate opinions (also an observable fact).

This is how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints winds up with a top leader who speaks against the inspiration and revelation transgender people know to be true through personal interaction with God. Such a leader prizes his own hard-won external (to others) authority over the internal authority others (specifically transgender people) glean from private interaction directly with God.

This week, President Oaks reiterated his views on gender at a leadership meeting, proving again that he is an operational thinker. He has accepted a set of ancient rules—rules that brought him to a place of power, rules he codifies as eternal truths. His rules are a system, not a guiding light, and he appears to see transgender people as a breach of that system, not as a part of it. He sustains his set of rules by manipulating his lived reality through willfully ignoring science. To make matters worse, he seems unable to objectively evaluate his rules and will sacrifice the mental health of transgender people in order to support his theological formula.

Such behavior is not God’s pattern. Jesus never asserted his authority in order to draw followers. He never used God’s law to marginalize people. Every word he spoke brought humble people to Him and repelled the authority-driven men of his day.  If someone is doing the opposite of that, that someone has a problem.

President Oaks doesn’t know squat about you, my trans friends. You know this. You’ve shared your testimonies with me and I’m grateful for that.

He may tell you that your internal authority is a deception from Satan, but that’s because people who cling to external authority rarely evaluate their paradigm for its flaws. To do so would be to risk too much.

I salute you for your courage and strength, for your ability to stand individuated in a world that would compel you into a pre-determined mold. And I salute you for being an example of the power of prayer and personal revelation, for living up to that revelation as it has guided you to accept yourself and to pioneer individuation in a collective society. I trust your self-determination.

What President Oaks said in this week’s general leadership meeting comes from his need to maintain his own paradigm. So, in conclusion, I give you a few of his other words, each better suited to this situation than he would likely acknowledge. Enjoy:

I think it’s important when we look back on the history of the church, which I’ve been reading and studying all of my adult life… It’s a great comfort to me to know that I don’t have to take the statement or actions of one particular leader as expressive of the doctrine and expectations of the church. ~~ Dallin H. Oaks  (Listen to it in his own voice here.)

~ ~ ~

…as they suppose… D&C 121:39

lone sunflower

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3 thoughts on “The Problem of Externalized Authority: A Response to the Mormon Gender Binary

  1. Jonathan

    TW for denial of revelation by transgender people (placed by LTD)

    I know of people who have received personal revelation contrary to the doctrine shared over the pulpit. Uniformly, each and every one of them has been able to express comfort and peace (and patience) knowing that the answers they received from God were all that they need — as well we could expect from a contact with the Divine. None have felt the need to either attack the Church or felt distress when the Church doesn’t get around to matching their revelation immediately. After all, if God has shared with you that you are in the right, what does it matter what anyone else says? Put another way (as Abraham Lincoln did), one is a majority when that One is the Lord.

    So I find it very striking that those claiming contrary revelation on this issue are so distraught when anyone in the Church contradicts them. They appear to be seeking social confirmation of what they claim to be spiritual communication. I find that highly implausible. Perhaps those claiming revelation are correct in their claims — I cannot presume to know the mind of the Lord or His communication with all of His children — but I find it doubtful both from personal experience and from those that I know that if they had truly received revelation from God the way they are saying that they would be all that concerned about what President Oaks happened to be saying.

    It seems, from someone on the outside looking in, to be more of a case of them wanting something desperately to be true to the point where they convince their surface minds (though not the deep parts of their souls, where the truth is still found), and being strongly affected by anything incongruent with what they have convinced themselves of (as it threatens the delicate illusion they have adopted). I certainly understand that, I have done the same thing more than a few times, but it is not a kindness to reinforce that by hiding the truth.

    In fact, it is that same impulse to convince ourselves that revelation matches whatever it is that we want that is one of the reasons for external authority. Personal revelation trumps the other sources of authority, as we are to follow instruction from God even above instruction from the Prophet (see Nephi killing Laban as just one example), but (and this is absolutely key) personal revelation is ALSO external authority — the authority being God. If what you claim as revelation is internal authority, then you are speaking of something other than revelation from God. While personal agency is an eternal principle, internal authority simply doesn’t exist. Your use of that term, unfortunately, seems more in line with something more akin to “wanting” or “thinking” than revelation. And, ironically enough, it this very reliance some have on such things as the very reason why external authority in the form of Church leadership is so necessary and important.

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    1. Jonathan, thank you for your considered reply. I’d like to offer a few things for your consideration.

      You say that you are “someone on the outside looking in.” I’m not sure what this means, but I *think it means you are not a transgender person and/or that you cannot speak to someone else’s personal experience. If its the former, its confusing why you then go on to interpret experiences someone else would have. This is precisely where the danger lies. None of us have any business dismissing someone who testifies to what God has revealed to them.

      I challenge your premise. You say that you “know of people who have received personal revelation contrary to the doctrine shared over the pulpit” and that “Uniformly, each and every one of them has been able to express comfort and peace (and patience) knowing that the answers they received from God were all that they need…” I understand your premise to be that, because you’ve known people who received a “comfort and peace,” that this is the revelation everyone would receive. This, in itself, denies that God can (and does) speak to each person according to their need and His need from them.

      But the question I have to ask is, how many of these people that you know who received this kind of revelation are transgender? I’m not suggesting *no transgender people would receive a revelation like you describe. I will say that the transgender people I’ve talked to or whose words I’ve read don’t describe their personal communication with God like that, per se. What I’ve encountered them communicate is the affirmation that God loves them, made them as they are, and that God wants them to live a happy full life as the person they want to be. They sense no condemnation, no othering, no disgust and especially no disharmony between their gender identity and spiritual ability. This is simplistic of me to say and should not be interpreted as me claiming a universal experience for transgender people.

      What I describe is a type of the spiritual experiences I have heard trans people report. I suspect you are reporting what you have heard cishet people report. Most cishet people are not impacted in the least by the rhetoric coming from the First Presidency, unless they are related to transgender people. To suggest that transgender individuals, with their unique situation (and considering they are the ones impacted), would be blessed with the same inspiration/revelation as the unaffected cishet members of the Church isn’t realistic. To suggest that their revelatory experience (that of divine acceptance and love) is a sad result of their need for social acceptance seems downright rude and shows a lack of careful reflection.

      As for me and how I fit into your prayer/answer paradigm? I’ve known by virtue of an unexpected answer to prayer made shortly after my baptism in my late teens that my LDS ministry would be to the marginalized and disaffected people associated with Mormonism. That was forty years ago. I’ve spent four decades listening and learning–I’m still listening and learning–and, more importantly pondering and praying. I know through both the whispering of the Spirit and the burning of the bosom that this ministry is divinely lead. Does that mean I always get it right? Of course not. And I extend that same caveat to the Brethren. I don’t need them to always be right. I actually have kind feelings for President Oaks, but those kind feelings do not mean I won’t follow the Spirit where it guides me.

      In other words, you can now say that you know (virtually anyway) someone who has fasted, prayed, pondered and received revelation that has not told her to be comforted and patient. To do so would be to fail to use the gifts I’m given. Here’s the thing: while the Holy Spirit comforts, he sometimes directs us to do the uncomfortable. You offered up the Nephi/Laban example. So will I. Nephi didn’t slaughter Laban because his father told him too. He did what he did because God told him to–directly. Surely he didn’t do it because he wanted social acceptance.

      Please prayerfully reconsider your assertion that people who don’t fit your paradigm must be doing what they do for the acceptance of the world (or for social acceptance). Mormonism is our world and the things transgender people who were raised LDS are telling us gets them rejected in the society of their birth and raising. They are excommunicated for following personal revelation. There is no justification for the claim they seek the approval of society when it is their society–their church and culture and the people in them–who reject them.

      Thank you for reading and for engaging.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful response. I’ll probably be a bit long-winded in my response because I appreciated your comments and this is an area worth having a discussion — I will admit to ignorance in some areas. The main point of my previous post, though, I still strongly hold to — it is important that it be external authority even (especially?) when it comes to revelation. Revelation is not, and cannot be, a purely internal experience or it is something else entirely.

    In any event, I will include some quotes with comments or responses.

    “You say that you are “someone on the outside looking in.” I’m not sure what this means, but I *think it means you are not a transgender person and/or that you cannot speak to someone else’s personal experience.”

    It was meant as the latter, meaning that I cannot know for certainty what the Lord tells any of His children other than me. To put it into perspective, while I am about as orthodox as you can get, I likewise believe that Mother Teresa had a legitimate theophany that called her to her work. In fact, I think orthodoxy demands that we recognize that God speaks to all of His children according to their knowledge and understanding and calls them where ever He will have them.

    The true and living Church means the only Church with the Priesthood Authority to perform saving ordinances and the only Church with the stewardships to receive revelation (including, through the Prophet, revelation for the whole world). This does not mean, of course, that all truth is found in our Church, nor that everything in our Church is true. It doesn’t mean that spiritual experiences outside our Church are illegitimate. We are the only true and living Church, but that goes only as far as it actual goes.

    “None of us have any business dismissing someone who testifies to what God has revealed to them.”

    Here I don’t fully agree with your premise that I am dismissing what someone testifies that God revealed to them. We know that people throughout time have mistaken the source or misunderstood the nature of what is revealed to them. If you haven’t, let me assure you that I have — discerning between what I want and what I am receiving as revelation is a remarkable challenge that takes time an introspection. We likewise know that people have had things revealed to them that countered conventional wisdom and current culture. In other words, people can think they are right when they are wrong, and people can be right even when everyone else thinks that they are wrong. Recognizing that a person can be wrong is not dismissing their testimony.

    There are patterns that accompany the Spirit, and peace is one of them. Is it possible that the Lord has in some way deviated from that pattern in the way He communicates with some of His children? Of course. After all, who are we to dictate to the Lord. But, like every other revelation that we believe that we have that conforms with our social, cultural, or political worldview (or our desires), we must be cautious we are not putting ourselves before the Lord. This is something that you clearly recognize — you all but explicitly say that Elder Oaks is doing just that — but it is applicable to every one of us. And the stronger the views or desires that are ‘matched’ by revelation, the more careful we need to be.

    It is sad but true that the opposite is also applicable — the revelation that contradicts what I want is all too clear at times. There is far less doubt when the Lord whispers ‘you’re wrong’ than when He whispers ‘you’re right.’ I expect most of us have had the moments when we knew, beyond any doubt, that the Lord was telling us that what we want or what we thought is just wrong…and it was up to us to pull ourselves into harmony with that.

    “I understand your premise to be that, because you’ve known people who received a “comfort and peace,” that this is the revelation everyone would receive.”

    Not quite — my premise is that because of the uniformity, in conjunction with personal experience and scriptural backing, this appears to be at a minimum a pattern followed by the Lord. Again, the Lord can vary that any way He wants — just because all we knew about were white swans doesn’t mean that black swans don’t exist — but it raises questions when a pattern approaching uniformity appears to be inapplicable in only limited circumstances (and those circumstances seem to match up with incredibly important wants and desires of those claiming the revelation).

    “But the question I have to ask is, how many of these people that you know who received this kind of revelation are transgender?”

    None, and that is a fair critique. The Lord may reveal His will to transgender individuals in a completely different way than He does to others. I find that implausible, and that is not where the balance of probabilities lie (in my estimation), but you are correct that I cannot disprove that they are receiving revelation in that way (which my first post, hopefully, made clear when I acknowledged that they could be correct in their claims).

    “What I’ve encountered them communicate is the affirmation that God loves them, made them as they are, and that God wants them to live a happy full life as the person they want to be.”

    I’ll agree with 95% of this. God loves all of us, made us as we are, and wants us to live a happy full life. If I can put it more bluntly (paraphrasing C. S. Lewis) Christ would have come down and perform the entire Atonement — He would have suffered in the Garden, and He would have been crucified on the cross — even if the ONLY person to be saved is one transgender person in some small corner of the world. Everyone has eternal value beyond comprehension.

    Where we disagree is in the last bit — “as the person they want to be.” My experience is that the Lord does not want me to be the person I want to be because the person that I want to be is incompatible with the Celestial Kingdom. If I wanted what I should want, then I would be sanctified and freed from sin — and I am a very long way from that. And so too with any and every transgendered individual (and, in fact, every single person on Earth who hasn’t floated up through the ceiling at this point) — we are not who we need to be because we do not want what we need to want. If we become what we want now, we are damned. We need to strive for sanctification, which means turning our wills over to God to allow Him to work within us to want what He wants — not what we want.

    I don’t necessarily presume to know how that applies to the immediate experience of a transgendered individual — again, the Lord could be telling any of His children anything He wants — but it is wrong to say that anyone is good enough the way that they are. All have sinned and all fall short of the Glory of God and we do no one any favors when we pretend that the Fall was not universal. When we say that someone is perfect just the way we are, we are contributing to their damnation — me, you, and everyone else in the world left just the way we are ends up in Hell. Fortunately the Atonement allows us to be, over time, better than we are. By all means, let everyone know that they, arm in Arm with the Lord, are enough — because they are. But saying someone is fine the way they are? That’s a different matter entirely.

    “Most cishet people are not impacted in the least by the rhetoric coming from the First Presidency, unless they are related to transgender people.”

    I think you make an unwarranted leap here. There are two issues I have with this statement. The first, and less significant, is that impact is less important than truth. If the First Presidency is speaking the truth (and we may disagree on that), then impact is far less important. Likewise if the First Presidency is not speaking the truth. So the question shouldn’t be one of impact except at the margins — the central question is whether the statement is True.

    Secondly, though, there is an unspoken assumption that not everyone struggles with the instruction and rhetoric from the First Presidency. But the truth is, taken seriously, many things they say are extraordinarily difficult and painful to a wide array of people. Prophets, if they are doing their jobs, are telling us what we steadfastly and determinedly don’t want to hear. If we leave a General Conference thinking it was all flowers and rainbows, usually that means we didn’t pay very close attention. God demands hard things from His children, and He often does that through His prophets. And that rhetoric impacts everyone who genuinely listens — and it should. Because that impact drives us to act.

    So again, here, the question isn’t the rhetoric — it is whether or not it is Truth that they are saying.

    “To suggest that their revelatory experience (that of divine acceptance and love) is a sad result of their need for social acceptance seems downright rude and shows a lack of careful reflection.”

    I don’t believe that I am obligated to accept anyone’s description of revelation on its face. You would not accept mine if I told you that I had received revelation that all transgender individuals are going to Hell (and, to be clear, I am claiming no such revelation). Likewise, I am under no such obligation to resolve that their revelation is genuine — especially when it deviates from established patterns. I think it is important that we recognize that it could be revelation, but in an examination of the balance of probabilities (admittedly always a risky matter when it comes to Divine intervention) we can come to our own conclusions.

    “I’ve known by virtue of an unexpected answer to prayer made shortly after my baptism in my late teens that my LDS ministry would be to the marginalized and disaffected people associated with Mormonism.”

    I think this is nothing short of fantastic. I think it is fair to say that you will reach people that I never could. And these people should be reached because God loves them and wants them home with Him. If that is where God has placed you, then stand where you are and lift. It should be obvious by now that I make no claim to know how best to minister to transgendered individuals (I am trying very hard to not get over my skis in a discussion I entered intro primarily to engage with the theology of internal versus external authority), so if you are reaching people and drawing them to God, please keep at it.

    “In other words, you can now say that you know (virtually anyway) someone who has fasted, prayed, pondered and received revelation that has not told her to be comforted and patient.”

    I’d be interested to know more about this. Are you saying that you have not been told to be patient in reaching out to others? Because if that is the case, I would say that is wholly consistent with the urgency with which we are called to the work. My reference was with those who were seeking changes within the Church as an institution, and their patience in waiting with the Church to ‘catch up.’ The best public example of this being Elder McConkie’s son who received revelation that blacks would get the Priesthood along with the assurance that the Lord was in charge. Now if you are claiming that you have been called to bring about institutional changes through urgency we would be having a different conversation and would likely not see eye to eye. After all, even if the ark is falling over we are not called to steady it — and the Lord won’t reveal to anyone how to change the Church except those He has called to change the Church. But I don’t want to presume that is what you are saying, here, and to the extent you are referencing an urgency to minister that is nothing but a wonderful thing.

    “Please prayerfully reconsider your assertion that people who don’t fit your paradigm must be doing what they do for the acceptance of the world (or for social acceptance).”

    I don’t agree with the word “must’ here. And they are His servants and His children and for Him to judge. If God is telling them something, then they should do what God is telling them to do. But each and every one of us must be careful when we perceive revelation that matches our desires or pre-existing views. And each and every one of us must seek the truth external to ourselves through revelation.

    Anyhow, sorry I went on for a while — please take it for the appreciation for your thoughtful response that it is.

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