Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on a story about a Sunday School Teacher who was released from his calling because he used the essay discussing race and the priesthood that was published by the LDS Church on its own website.
The explosion of public access and use of the Internet in the mid 90’s has made far more information available (both pro and con) regarding all things related to the Mormon world. With the onset of social media, that information is now being shared and discussed more widely than ever before. Discussions groups of all flavors related to Mormonism have popped up. Blogs espousing a wide range of opinions related to the issues of Mormonism have proliferated. Strident debates have spilled out on Facebook timelines. A connection between this combined use of the internet/social media and the increasing number of members leaving the Church has been drawn by LDS General Authorities and its most ardent ex-Mormon critics. That is one point that those two completely opposite groups actually agree on.
Some have characterized this mass apostasy as members leaving in droves even as many as several tens of thousands yearly. Others would question that number characterizing the apostasy as much much smaller. But a general apostasy is happening. This is another point on which both LDS General Authorities and ex-Mormon critics of the Church agree. Regardless of the actual size of the apostasy, the apostasy is big enough to be of concern to LDS authorities who have made preventing apostasy a theme of many recent general conference talks.
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, there is a common refrain heard from devout members of the Church. They assert that it is ok to have questions even difficult ones. But that those difficult questions should not be entertained and discussed publicly. They should not be raised in Sunday School classes. However, they do all say with great unanimity that those discussion can be discussed “…in the proper place.” I have heard that exact phrase or some variant of it from many of my devout LDS friends. The Bishop in this article even mentions that “…the church was not the right venue for the discussion.”
So my question to devout LDS members and leaders is quite simple.
Where is the right place?
Where can a sincere devout member with difficult questions regarding church history, doctrine, and culture go to discuss those questions?
- Can you discuss this with your spouse? In too many instances, spouses have threatened divorce for daring to question the church. Spouses have reported their husbands or wives to the Bishop. Often the unquestioning spouse is completely unfamiliar with the issues and feels threatened by the questions which in turn threaten the very foundation of a temple marriage. Consequently, they respond to the threat with the biggest hammer in their arsenal. The threat of divorce. They run to their Bishops for help with their questioning spouse who is then summoned by the Bishop. Many LDS discussion groups are filled with anonymous posters all afraid of losing their marriages because of their questions, some of them pretending to believe just to keep their marriages intact while painfully sacrificing the integrity of their belief. Alternatively, there are just as many LDS discussion groups filled with spouses looking for support because their husbands and wives are questioning. They do not know how to deal with the situation. .
- · Do you talk about it with friends & fellow members? Some friends are very willing and knowledgeable to discuss these items. But those are few and far between. Many are not. Many are uncomfortable with the topics and have just shelved them to discuss with God in the next life. Others will worry about you or worry that your questions will hurt someone else’s testimony that might not be as strong. That’s right, you guessed it, among them all one of them will eventually report you to the Bishop.
- · What about Sunday School? As the article in the Salt Lake Tribune pointed out, Sunday school is not the place to have this discussion either. Parents complained to their Bishop about this Sunday school teacher as well. The Bishop himself even stated that the Church was not the proper venue for the discussion. Sunday school is a place to be spiritually edified and not necessarily the place to engage in academic debate, so when a difficult or controversial question is raised and entertained, it isn’t long before someone complains to the Bishop. A second comment is often added here. Teachers should stick to the lesson plans and not teach outside it. A report to the Bishop is also the common response here when people try to use Sunday School as the “proper venue for discussion.”
- · What about Institute? Institute would actually be a great place to have these discussions. But access to institute is limited. Adults over 30 (probably comprising the largest group of people asking questions) are not eligible to participate in Institute.
- · What about a gospel discussion group or a scripture study group either on social media or in person? These are frowned upon. Plenty of people have tried to start these and told to shut them down by local leadership after hearing a report from a member who has been exposed to a group attempting to digest the difficult questions. In some cases, local leaders have actually assigned someone to monitor those groups, discussions, writings for any sign of apostasy. Others have been asked directly by their local leaders to stop it.
- · What about Bishops and Stake Presidents? Great answer! Except do we really want to send every member who has a difficult question to the Bishop? Don’t they have enough to do already? As this article clearly pointed out, not every bishop is even aware of the problems and the issues, and the resources to respond to them. Many Bishops are totally unprepared for the onslaught of questions and do not have answers. The impact to the faith is startling to those with questions when they realize that their local Bishop is unaware of the issues and unaware of resources to deal with those issues. The two Bishops that I know who actually understood these issues were actually released for daring to attempt to provide direction and answers to those coming to them with questions. Ironically, they were reported on to their Stake Presidents. Perhaps more guidance should be given to the bishops on how the Church would like them to handle difficult church related questions, in addition to the marital issues they are facing, in addition to helping many chart their repentance as a judge in Israel, in addition to dealing with welfare issues in a ward, and…well, we all know they are incredibly busy. By default, Bishops are becoming the only person in the ward with whom one is allowed to have such a “discussion” since many are reporting those with the courage to openly ask questions to the Bishop. And sadly, many Bishops are not ready to have those discussions. Yet, many are pointing to their Bishops as the only person and the only place where someone is allowed to have those discussions.
Is the Bishop really the ONLY proper venue to ask these difficult questions? Well then, let’s send everyone with a tough question to the Bishop since apparently there is no other church sanctioned place to send those doubters!
Do you think I am exaggerating? Stories abound of people with questions being reported on to their bishops for just trying to understand the difficult issues associated with Mormonism. Members with hard questions are told that they should not turn to ex-mormons for information about the Church. They will only fill them with “anti-mormon lies and opinions” As the Apostle Neil L. Anderson put it in his October 2014 talk in General Conference “…studying the Church through the eyes of its defectors is like interviewing Judas to understand Jesus” Ok then,…let’s cut out the evil ex-Mormons from the discussion. Instead of asking defectors, these sincere people with hard questions have attempted to raise those questions with devout members of the Church either in person, in online groups, in Sunday School…anywhere…seeking faith promoting answers. Instead, they get turned in to their Bishops perceived on their path to apostasy and accused of daring to raise publicly a difficult question that might hurt the testimony of others.
Are LDS members so afraid of open discussion of difficult questions that a proper venue is required as the only location those questions are allowed? I ask again. Is there a proper venue other then the Bishop? If so…..Where is that place?
Let me add this thought. If there had been a right place, a proper venue for discussion…there would be no need for discussion groups, Mormon themed podcasts, and Facebook groups. The environment that gave rise to someone like John Dehlin would not have existed. And frankly, if there had been a proper place, a place where a questioning member could feel safe to fully entertain in depth these difficult questions without fear of being reported onto the bishop, without fear of somehow being seen as a lesser member for even having doubts, the size of the apostasy would probably have been much smaller and many who are ex-mormons might still be devout.
But as of today, there is no safe place church wide for a devout member to ask difficult and direct questions regarding history, doctrine, and cultural issues of the Church. If there is, I challenge someone to point out what the “proper venue” is for those questions church wide. Where is it? Many have already apostatized in part because they could not find such a place and felt pushed out for pushing to find answers. Thousands more are looking for it.