The church currently holds to a long standing unwritten position that requires administrative officials to revoke priesthood authority from any member of the priesthood who opts to live with his or her significant other prior to marriage.
Clearly, in the formative days of the church, such living arrangements were not deemed appropriate by society, and persons in such circumstances may have been viewed as immoral. However, it has now become normal for couples to move in together despite being unwed. In many cases, this is the only means by which a home can be afforded.
In the United States, some senior citizens who move in together, having found love after losing a spouse, would love to marry each other, but are unable to get married because doing so would negate benefits from a deceased spouse, and therefore impoverish them. So, there are couples in the church, living together, but opting not to get married again, in order to ensure that they can eat. Should such people be denied priesthood authority?
In Canada & the United States, along with many other first world nations, the unwritten position of the church clearly no longer reflects the standards of society. In many nations secular law protects the rights of common law couples. This would not be the case if such arrangements were regarded by society as immoral.
The unwritten position also has the result of being a judgment upon the person whose priesthood authority is revoked. At the root of the issue is the implication that the person in question is immoral. It is not acceptable to suggest that a person is immoral simply because he or she is cohabiting with his or her significant other.
It is also unacceptable that priesthood authority can be revoked for presumed conduct. Cleary, simply living under the same roof is not itself immoral. When society rejected such living arrangements, it did so obviously because intimate relationships between unmarried individuals were deemed immoral. However, the church should not take action over presumed conduct. To do so is to pronounce someone guilty of an alleged infraction without trial.
Furthermore, an unwritten position is lacking on the basis that it cannot (being unwritten), be tested. For example, if an unwed couple vacation together, are they, or are they not, in violation?
It is also pertinent to note that an unwritten position should not trump written positions. In recent years, the church has drafted statements on sexual ethics, and has also upheld the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants as the standard of authority of the church. The unwritten position is in conflict with these written church positions, as noted further below.
CONFLICT WITH CHURCH POSITIONS
Denying or removing a priesthood member’s authority solely on the basis that he or she is living with his or her significant other prior to wedlock is in conflict with established church positions and church law, for the following reasons:
The church’s Statement of Sexual Ethics makes no mention of cohabitation being immoral. We are told in this document, on page 3, section “H”, that:
“Sexual ethics should be the same for all people without discrimination”
It is true that this document (Statement of Sexual Ethics) is a draft. However, the fact that it states the above clearly indicates that this is the position of the church: Sexual ethics should be the same for all people without discrimination.
This position is reiterated in another document, which is not a draft. In the “Theology Foundations: Sin & Salvation” portion of the “Christ Mission, Our Mission: Exploring Our Faith – September 2012 Leaders Gathering” resource, the following is stated on page 28:
“From the perspective of Section 164:6, there should not be different standards in sexual ethics”
However, the church has created an environment in which different standards in sexual ethics do indeed exist, which of course makes the church hypocritical; and as I’ve stated in another blog, Jesus Christ was openly & strongly opposed to hypocrisy – it seemed to be an issue that really infuriated him.
With regard to sexual ethics, different standards apply because the church will permit someone to have priesthood authority if he or she is in a same-sex relationship, *and* living in a nation in which same-sex marriage is not secularly legal.
This is the case in Australia. Same-sex couples cannot get married, but, if they are living in a long term, committed relationship, it is possible to have priesthood authority.
However, a same-sex couple living in Canada, where same-sex marriage is legal, would not be able to have priesthood authority until marriage takes place.
This creates a different standard of sexual ethics for same-sex couples based on where they live, and also between those in Australia with heterosexual couples everywhere else.
The church rationalizes this imbalance as follows (as I understand it): The church wants all priesthood members who have a significant other to be in the highest covenant relationship available to them. Normally, this is marriage. The church regards marriage as the ultimate highest covenant relationship. Since marriage is available to heterosexual couples, marriage is the requirement, if living under one roof. Since marriage is not available to Australian same-sex couples, they must be in a “de-facto” marriage, which is the highest covenant relationship currently available to them.
But this is flawed. When all is said and done, some couples are required to be married, and others are not. That is a different standard. This current model presents various problems. What if a priesthood member in a same-sex defacto marriage in Australia moves to Canada, and becomes a Canadian citizen? Will he or she lose priesthood authority until such time, if ever, that wedlock takes place?
Also, does not the status of “engaged” demonstrate a committed, long term relationship? Or common-law marriage? By stating that a person must be in a “covenant relationship” (and the highest possible), what is this saying of the love and “commitedness” of other people?
There are sometimes reasons why a marriage cannot immediately take place, and a person’s commitment to his or her partner should not be questioned because of the realities of life.
Another dimension of this sexual ethics issue pertains to relationships of people who are not in the priesthood, and who have not been called. The church seems perfectly fine with such relationships. This then becomes another standard of sexual ethics being applied. Essentially, the church is saying “its ok for people to live together as a couple, prior to wedlock, if neither are in, nor have been called, to the priesthood.”
Now, obviously, the church does not truly advocate that. However, if the church truly regards living together prior to marriage to be so extremely inappropriate that it would prevent someone from being ordained *and* cause authority to be revoked from someone who already is, than surely *anyone* in such a relationship is an inappropriate candidate for any form of ministry, such as teaching Sunday school, being up at the front for any reason during a worship service, having any leadership position in the congregation, being on the church’s payroll, volunteering with children, youth & young adults, etc.
In fact, such people should probably be denied communion – if such a living arrangement is so unacceptable that priesthood authority would be revoked or denied.
However, the church does not require communion to be withheld from people on the basis of living arrangements, and does not forbid such individuals from providing leadership or ministry.
This clearly results in a different standard of ethic being applied despite the church’s positions that all people should be held to the same standard of sexual ethics.
Returning to the draft document Statement of Sexual Ethics, Section “A”, on page 4, states: “(In addition, we) Evaluate the morality of sexual activity by the degree of mature love, justice, covenant, and faithfulness present in a relationship.”
Again, marriage is not a basis, according to the Statement of Sexual Ethics, for determining if a relationship is moral. In fact, the statement goes on to describe, in section “C”, just what is immoral sexual activity: this is defined as:
“selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous, degrading, or abusive”.
According to this draft document, the church regards sexual activity that exists outside of a covenant as immoral. But, marriage is not listed as the required expression of said covenant.
Furthermore, while I do support encouraging the priesthood, and all church members, to live moral lives, and to avoid being immoral, I’m not sure that sexual activity, even outside of a covenant, can properly be said to be immoral. I think a more appropriate term and understanding might be “unwholesome”, but, even in the absence of a covenant, it strikes me as perhaps unreasonable to suggest that sexual activity outside of a covenant is immoral.
Think about it this way. If you do something that is immoral, you are an immoral person. Is it really appropriate to suggest that people who participate in sexual activity outside of a covenant are immoral people? Let us be clear, that is, in essence, what is being said here.
If a young man is a serial womanizer, caring nothing at all for the feelings of his partners or the ramifications of his actions & choices, that particular individual may indeed be an immoral person, and his sexual activity may be one manner in which his immoral nature manifests.
Therefore, we see that there *are* reasons to associate non-covenant sexual activity with immorality (this is something else I want to be clear about), but to make a blanket statement that renders judgment of immorality upon everyone who has sexual activity outside of a covenant seems like overkill to me.
CONFLICT WITH THE STANDARD OF AUTHORITY
As noted in the previous sections, the Theological Foundations essay on Sin and Salvation states:
“From the perspective of Section 164:6, there should not be different standards in sexual ethics.”
Note that this is an official church resource that is making a statement about a verse of scripture. This is important because….
The church recognizes three books of scripture: the Inspired Version of the Bible (aka “The Holy Scriptures”), the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants as it’s “standard of authority”, which is defined as follows:
“That this body, representing the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, recognize the Holy Scriptures, the Book of Mormon, the revelations of God contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and all other revelations which have been or shall be revealed through God’s appointed prophet, which have been or may be hereafter accepted by the church as the standard of authority on all matters of church government and doctrine, and final standard of reference on appeal in all controversies arising, or which may arise in this Church of Christ”
When it comes to church positions, policies, perspectives, principles, laws, etc., the standard of authority clearly takes precedence. Being composed (solely) of our books of scripture, nothing trumps it. This is the gist of the above resolution.
This is why the statement in the Sin & Salvation document is important. It offers commentary on a verse in Section 164, which is, being a portion of the Doctrine & Covenants, part of the standard of authority. Therefore, having already noted that the standard of authority indicates that there should not be different standards of sexual ethics, the church should not have unwritten positions that create different standards and which, by doing so, cause the church to be in violation of the standard of authority.
Also, another verse in the standard of authority is important on this matter:
“where there is no law given there is no punishment” -2nd Nephi 6:51
The church has no law that states that a priesthood member cannot cohabitate with his or her significant other prior to wedlock. Therefore, there should be no punishment for those who do. However, losing or being denied priesthood authority is a punishment. Furthermore, the judgment and stigma of being labeled in the eyes of the church an immoral person is an even greater form of punishment.
The church is putting itself, again, in a hypocritical situation by invoking an unwritten position to revoke or deny priesthood authority. It is clearly, by its own statement and actions, rendering itself in conflict with the standard of authority: that which is meant to be the final word on doctrine & controversies.
INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY
Another aspect of this issue, and one that greatly disturbs me, is that the church is taking action (when they prevent or revoke priesthood authority) based on a presumption.
What I mean by this is that there really is no issue with unmarried priesthood members living with a significant other. Not really. That is not the real issue. After all, why have we traditionally objected to such a living arranging? It of course comes down to what may transpire in the home.
In earlier days, sexual activity between unmarried people was deemed inappropriate. Therefore, society tended to look disfavorably upon unmarried couples living together. Had this stigma not existed, there would of course be no reason to hold a negative view towards cohabitation.
However, is it an act of justice to take action based on presumed sexual activity? Why do we presume that sexual activity has taken place? We might respond with suggestions that any claim that sexual activity has not taken place, or will not, is naïve. We can suggest that “ultimately, its going to, or already has, or will continue, to happen”
And we are all free to have such opinions. We are all free to conclude that if a couple lives together, something is going to happen.
But it is still a presumption, and frankly, its none of our business.
Ideally, under the current views, the church should take no action unless there is evidence that sexual activity has taken place, and then the church should convene an Elder’s Court to prove it. If it lacks evidence to prove anything, than no trial, and consequently no action, should take place.
However, the current views are flawed, because sexual activity should not warrant revocation of priesthood authority, unless it can be demonstrated that such activity is indeed truly immoral (again, using the example of a serial womanizer).
The other issue with our current custom is this. As noted above, it may strike some people that it is naïve to believe that sexually activity is not taking place in the home of an unmarried couple.
What about a couple who are living in separate homes? Especially for the sake of avoiding church disciplinary action? Do you really think that living in separate homes prevents a couple from being intimate?
The issue here is that it may be just as naïve to think that a mature, adult couple, in a long term, clearly committed relationship, must be abstaining from sexual activity on the grounds that they don’t live together.
In other words, the church seems to be turning a blind eye on those people who are, most likely, sexual active, but living apart. “But we all know what’s going on”. Do we? If we don’t, well, fair enough. No issues. If we do, than the church, by taking no action (by turning a blind eye), is guilty of hypocrisy.
It all becomes a matter of convenience. If a couple lives apart, we can just ignore the issue, and not have to ask difficult questions. And therein lies the hypocrisy (people, let’s be honest about this – this is the current reality, and it is hypocritical).
However, this hypocrisy would not exist if the church did not make presumptions about couples who are living under one roof. And, since there really is no basis as a process, to presume that immorality exists, the church need not question or take action on those people who are cohabitating.
THE QUESTION OF EVIL
In a recent conversation I had with someone, it was suggested to me that priesthood should not cohabitate to avoid the appearance of evil. He conceded that it might be possible that sexual activity might not take place, but, because people will presume that it is, priesthood members should not cohabitate, in order to avoid the appearance of evil.
Is it possible to do something evil and not be evil? I tend to think that the answer to that question is “no”. If you do something that is truly evil, than you must be an evil person.
Is sexual activity between unmarried people evil? Are all people who have been intimate before marriage evil people?
Do you associate with anyone who you know has had sexual relations outside of marriage? Are you friends with them? Any family members?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend not to hang out with evil people. But the whole notion that sexual activity outside of marriage is inherently evil is just absurd.
If people think that sexual activity outside of marriage is evil, then you are pronouncing all “offenders” as being themselves evil people. But to suggest that sex outside of marriage is evil I feel makes a mockery of the ordeals suffered all over the world by millions of people.
Governments who deliberately starve their populations are evil. People who kill in cold blood are evil. People who live off of drug addicts are evil.
People who express themselves sexually in a loving, committed, mature, adult relationship are not evil.
And as for the perspective that priesthood should avoid the appearance of being evil, I have to ask (for those who hold to such very traditional convictions): Have you ever eaten in a restaurant? Was it licensed?
EXPLORING THE SCRIPTURES
It is often suggested that cohabitation before wedlock is wrong because the scriptures say so. However, is that what the scriptures are truly telling us?
As I discussed in my prior blog, Pondering the Scriptures, we need to be mindful of the fact that the meaning of words in one era are not always the same as in another era, and there may exist confusion resulting from the translation of some words from their original languages into English. The issue of cohabitation warrants a careful exploration of the scriptures.
There are many verses that condemn fornication. However, the church has stated:
“In the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants fornication and adultery are used interchangeably, referring to sexual intercourse in which a marriage covenant is broken” -Question Time Vol. III page 320.
Therefore, based on this insight, the scriptural use of the word fornication does not convey the same meaning as it does in the modern era. When we understand this to be the case, we realize that the scriptural basis for condemning sexual activity prior to wedlock (and therefore the related condemnation of cohabitation) ceases to exist.
Now, if we were to reject the church’s statement above, and claim that fornication and adultery are two distinct sins, we then need to acknowledge that according to Biblical scholars, the original words used in the source manuscripts, which were translated into English using the word fornication, do not convey the same meaning as our modern understanding of that word.
It seems that the meaning of the original word translated as fornication was something along the lines of “forbidden forms of sexual activity”. So, its sort of a non-specific catch all. However, other parts of the Bible specify just what is forbidden, and again, sexual activity between unmarried people (neither of whom is not married to someone else), does not seem to be listed.
So, again, we don’t seem to have a scriptural basis to condemn sexual activity between unmarried people.
PLEASE DON’T MISUNDERSTAND ME (or misquote me)
I want to be clear that I’m not at all advocating or suggesting that sexual activity is appropriate for all people. Obviously, we need to continue to set clear expectations for young people, and we need to continue to promote responsible choices, and we need to continue to promote, in all things, conduct that is not destructive. What I personally struggle with is the belief that sexual activity between two mature, loving, consenting adults in a long term, committed relationship, is somehow immoral, or evil.