Easter this year (2015) fell on the weekend of 5th April. This was also the weekend of the Mormon Annual General Conference so you might expect a special theme to run through this conference weekend. A theme did emerge, one that has coloured the whole conference, although not one you might expect. Look at the themes running through the conference:
Filling our Home With Light and Truth
The family is of God
The Family is ordained of God
Defenders of the Family Proclamation
The Plan of Happiness
Why Marriage and Family Matter
Why Marriage, Why Family?
Fatherhood, our Eternal Destiny
Blessings of the Temple
Waiting for the Prodigal
Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom (see below)
The Eternal perspective of the Gospel (Families are Forever)
Be Fruitful, Multiply and Subdue the Earth
And these are the more obvious family-centred subjects. So why, on a weekend when you might expect a people calling themselves Christians to emphasise the flesh and blood atonement of Christ, do they emphasise the flesh and blood of progeny? Why does Calvary take a back seat to Kith and Kin?
The Mormon Church has figured much in the issue of gay rights in recent years. It began negatively when it emerged that as much as half the $40m donated to the campaign to ban gay marriage in California came from Mormons. At that time the church made an unequivocal statement saying “the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan,” and urging members to become involved with the cause. You can read about it here.
More recently, however, the Mormon Church has expended a lot of time, energy, and resources into building bridges to the gay community, even having their own official, dedicated web pages Mormons and Gays.org. Mormon leaders pledged to support anti-discrimination laws for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, as long as the laws also protect the rights of religious groups. You can find a report here.
The church has not changed its position on gay marriage, however. On 10th April 2015 the LDS Church joined with other faith traditions and religious organizations in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule against legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. Read more here.
This Spring Conference weekend has seemed to me a time of regrouping, consolidating, and nailing colours well and truly to the mast, lest the faithful felt the church leadership had gone soft on its central message; families are forever, marriage is for eternity, progeny its purpose, and men and women its natural heads. The church’s 20-year-old document, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” was dusted off and given a good airing.
Cheryl Esplyn, Primary Second Counsellor, reminded us that …‘in order for us and our families to withstand the pressures of the world, we must be filled with light and gospel truth.’
Carole Stephens, Relief Society First Counsellor, reminded us that, ‘Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for [us] to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.’
Bonnie Oscarson, Young Women General president, spoke of, ‘standing up boldly and being defenders of marriage, parenthood, and the home.’ and went on, ‘I would hope that as we encourage our children to reach for the very best in this life that we also teach them to honor and exalt the roles that mothers and fathers play in Heavenly Father’s plan.’
In a short film, President Monson reminded people that ‘The Family is Ordained of God’
The Saturday Morning Session centred on the family structure within Mormon practice and theology:
Boyd K Packer, President of the Twelve, spoke of God’s Plan of Happiness, saying, ‘the end of all activity in the Church is to see that a man and a woman with their children are happy at home, sealed together for time and for all eternity.’
Linda Burton, Relief Society President, warned, ‘of the scale is the degrading and mocking message that husbands and fathers are no longer needed. I plead with you not to listen to Satan’s lies!’
L Tom Perry, of the quorum of the twelve, taught, ‘Family is the center of life and is the key to eternal happiness.’ insisting, ‘the restored gospel centers on marriage and family.’
The Saturday Afternoon Session saw the most exciting moment of the conference. During the sustaining of church officers, a handful of members stood and shouted ‘Opposed!’ at the sustaining of President Monson, and of the quorum of the twelve. Reactions were mixed among the faithful, with some insisting they had a right to express their opposition, while others condemned them for disloyalty.
The most interesting reaction was that they had no business dissenting during conference, which is odd since it was in conference that their vote was sought. All who dissented were counselled by Dieter Uchtdorf to contact their stake presidents. I would give a lot to have been in the room when those conversations were had.
Todd Christofferson, of the quorum of the twelve, reminded members of God’s eternal plan, ‘God ordained that men and women should marry and give birth to children, thereby creating, in partnership with God, the physical bodies that are key to the test of mortality and essential to eternal glory with Him.’
Elder Quentin L Cook, of the quorum of the twelve, whose talk gave strong emphasis to families said, ‘The role of the family in God’s plan is “to bring us happiness, to help us learn correct principles in a loving atmosphere, and to prepare us for eternal life.” The beautiful traditions of religious observance in the home need to be embedded in the hearts of our children.’
The General Priesthood Session
M Russell Ballard, of the quorum of the twelve, insisted young single Mormons should be, ”anxiously engaged’ in righteous dating, courting, and marriage.’
Larry M Gibson, of the young men’s presidency, reminded young priesthood holders, ‘Now, you young men, whom I dearly love, you know you are preparing to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, receive sacred temple ordinances, fulfill your duty and obligation to serve a full-time mission, and then, without waiting too long, get married in the temple to a daughter of God and have a family. You are then to lead your family in spiritual things as guided by the Holy Ghost.’
The Sunday Morning Session
The man who is increasingly the acceptable face of Mormonism, Dieter Uchtdorf, spoke on ‘The Gift of Grace.’ This is a must read if you are to understand Mormonism’s Dog-Whistle Theology But again family loomed large this session.
Thomas S Monson, church president, spoke of ‘The Blessings of the Temple,’ sharing, ‘The blessings of the temple are priceless. One for which I am grateful every day of my life is that which my beloved wife, Frances, and I received as we knelt at a sacred altar and made covenants binding us together for all eternity.’
The sessions were filled with talk of family, calls to obedience, keeping the faith, and references to God’s ‘Plan of Happiness,’ which centres on the traditional family unit.
Elder Robert D Hales’ talk is entitled Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom. This is clearly a timely reference to the recent attempts at a quid pro quo with the gay community. We will fight for your freedoms but you must recognise ours. The key to the talk is the word, ‘Agency.’
To a Mormon, agency is a touchstone of their religion, a defining principle of their faith, a shibboleth to the faithful. Hales’ talk is an unpacking of Mormon cosmology against a very specific background. He defines the bad guys:
Some are “false accusers … [and] despisers of those that are good.” Others “call evil good, and good evil; [and] put darkness for light, and light for darkness.”
These are likened to Lucifer who, ‘In that Grand Council…used his agency to oppose God’s plan. God said: “Because … Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, … I caused that he should be cast down.”’
So that is ‘pre-mortal existence’ affirmed, with all its ramifications. We are all children of a Heavenly Father and Mother, Jesus is our elder brother, Lucifer the black sheep of the family, and our purpose is to build for eternity now on the wise use of our agency back then. All this passes through the mind of a Mormon hearing this. The bad guys are those who oppose this family-oriented world-view, this cosmological soap opera.
He presses home his point by defining the good guys and what they are up against:
‘As we walk the path of spiritual liberty in these last days, we must understand that the faithful use of our agency depends upon our having religious freedom. We already know that Satan does not want this freedom to be ours. He attempted to destroy moral agency in heaven, and now on earth he is fiercely undermining, opposing, and spreading confusion about religious freedom—what it is and why it is essential to our spiritual life and our very salvation.’
Jesus, on the other hand, is portrayed as volunteering to obey God’s plan and give mankind our agency to choose to follow the plan, to obey the commandments. This principle of agency is inevitably meant to chime with people who cherish the freedoms that democracy affords.
The message is, America is a democracy, democracy is God’s idea, religious freedom is God’s idea, so don’t mess with it. To Mormons specifically, the message is, American exceptionalism is part of the Restored gospel, with all its attendant liberties, egalitarianism, and individualism so if you are faithful you will stick to the plan.
What is at stake here, then, is not simply a redefining of societal norms, but the undermining of God’s plan, and the frustration of eternal hopes and ambitions. He ends with a dire warning and a call to action:
‘Our Savior’s Second Coming is drawing nearer. Let us not delay in this great cause. Remember Captain Moroni, who hoisted the title of liberty inscribed with the words “In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” Let us remember the people’s response: exercising their agency, they “came running together” with a covenant to act.
My beloved brothers and sisters, don’t walk! Run! Run to receive the blessings of agency by following the Holy Ghost and exercising the freedoms God has given us to do His will.’
Anyone who knows the Book of Mormon will know the story of Captain Moroni. It is the words on the banner that are important;“In memory of our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.”
Nothing could sound more Tea Party America. Did someone just say, ‘Families are Forever?’
The theme of faithfulness then follows throughout the session. Elder Kevin Pearson, of the seventy, urged members to ‘stay by the tree,’ a reference to Lehi’s dream in the Book of Mormon. The tree is contrasted with the dream’s ‘wide and spacious building,’ the forces of anarchy and change currently surrounding Mormons and threatening the plan.
Elder Raphael E Pino, of the seventy, urged members to take an ‘eternal perspective of the gospel. In other words, the meta-narrative of Mormonism, the Plan of Salvation, God’s great plan of happiness for mankind.
Elder Neil L Anderson, of the quorum of the twelve, painted a deceptive picture of the size of the church as a world-wide institution. It is only world-wide in the sense that there are Mormons across the world, but not in the sense that they form a significant majority of the faithful. Most Mormons live in the Americas, the greater part of them in the US. But this is meant to be reassuring.
He urged Mormons to remember ‘We live, brothers and sisters, in the days preceding the Lord’s Second Coming, a time long anticipated by believers through the ages.’ ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ is his theme and when Mormons think of this they think of eternal families and what would be lost if they were not faithfully having babies, going to the temple, and being eternal family units.
Referencing again the tree of life, Elder Jorge Zeballos, of the seventy, urged members to be responsible, the theme of agency coming to the fore again, ‘Let us press forward by learning our duty, making correct decisions, acting according to those decisions, and accepting the will of our Father.’ His will, of course, his purpose, is worked out in the plan.
Elder Russell M Nelson, of the quorum of the twelve, was the final speaker and said the Sabbath is a delight. The theme very much runs along the line of families, family times, family activities on the Sabbath, and so the theme continues.
But before he spoke there was a penultimate message from the first black African General Authority, Elder Joseph W Sitati. His culture and background are not insignificant I suggest. His theme was very much a closing off of the whole conference theme as he reminded True Believing Mormons that procreation is the name of the game, the centre-point of God’s plan. be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth is his theme, and he makes probably the most pointed observation of the whole weekend:
‘The body enables Heavenly Father’s obedient spirit children to experience life on earth. Bearing children gives other spirit children of God the opportunity to also enjoy life on earth. All who are born in mortality have the opportunity to progress and to be exalted if they obey God’s commandments.
Marriage between a man and a woman is the institution that God ordained for the fulfilment of the charge to multiply. A same-gender relationship does not multiply.’ (Emphasis added)
What Robert D Hales began with, pre-mortal existence, agency, and the plan of God, Joseph W Sitati rounds off with a clear call to stick to the plan, have babies the way God designed, and make this arrangement eternal by sealing it in temples.
This has to be one of the most political Mormon conferences I can remember and the agenda is clear. We may agree with Mormon teaching on gay marriage, sympathise with their being the focus of so much bad feeling because of their stand, and admire the way they stick to their guns, but…
What colours should be flying from the mast for Christians? What should be written on any Christian’s standard as he/she stands for truth?
It is notable that there is no reference to the clear teaching of Scripture on the issue of homosexual practice, even though the Bible is clear. There is nothing in the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, or the Pearl of Great Price on the subject. The only Scripture they can look to on this issue is the Bible and yet no real Scriptural argument, no Bible apologetic is put. Well, you wouldn’t if your agenda is poitical.
Nor, indeed, can they build from the Bible anything like the Mormon cosmology, soteriology, or eschatology. Their argument revolves around God’s plan of happiness for man and not God’s authoritative word in Scripture. They are making a stand for a gospel that puts man and man’s happiness at the centre, that seeks man’s exaltation. (Gal.1:6-9)
There is a plan and God’s purposes are clearly told in the Bible:
“The God who made the world and everything in it, (we are created and not procreated Gen.1:27; Is.45:12) being Lord of heaven and earth, (there is none beside him Is.45:5) does not live in temples made by man, (heaven is his throne and the earth is his footstool Is.66:1) nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
And he made from one man every nation of mankind (not from one god countless millions of spirit children) to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. (Our purpose is God, not us his purpose)
Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (In the sense of being made in God’s image Gen.1:28, being chosen for his purposes Ex.4:22, and finally being born again in Christ Gal.3:26)
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. (As God’s creatures, made in his image, we are to honour him, not in plastic image worship but in the God-centred lives he gave us)
The times of ignorance God overlooked, (We are profoundly sinful in our ignorance Ro.3:10-18, but God is scandalously generous, not exactingly demanding of us) but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, (patiently giving us the gift of repentance 2 Pet.3:9) because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world (his creation) in righteousness (we have none of our own Philip.3:9) by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (And it is in him, in Christ, that we have peace with God Ro.5:1, and will not be condemned Ro.8:1-2; John 5:24)
Thereafter, as the Larger Westminster Catechism has it; Man’s highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him for ever.
Here is what should emblazon the standard of every Christian:
‘For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.’ (Ro.11:36)