Much of the angst (and the gloating) surrounding the latest excommunication scares is fed by what I believe is a slight misunderstanding of the church. In general, I would say that those who gloat over potential excommunications believe that the church and its prophets are pretty close to perfect, reflecting the glory of heaven on earth. John Dehlin and Kate Kelly represent destructive cancers that must be cut away because they blind the eyes of other members to the truth and beauty of the kingdom. Those who moan about the potential excommunications believe that the church SHOULD be perfect, a reflection of the glory of God, but that it currently isn’t. People like John Dehlin and Kate Kelly are fighting to bring the church to it’s great potential. In my opinion, both these groups are somewhat wrong about the church, both what it is, and what it can be expected to be.
The Church: The Bride of Christ
In the Bible, the God’s church is sometimes referred to as “the Bride of Christ” where she is often accused of “whoring after idols.” Nevertheless, God bears patiently with His bride, in spite of her wickedness. Occasionally, the bride becomes so wicked that God divorces His bride and marries a new one, as He did with the Jews and the new Christian church, and again with the Restoration. But these are rare occurrences, and only come after many centuries of wickedness. Most of the time, God is patient with the imperfections of His bride.
Let us carry the bride metaphor one step further. If Christ is the groom, and the church is the bride, who are we? I believe we can be seen as the symbolic children of the union. God is our Father. The Church is our metaphorical Mother. Our personal relationship with God is intangible and varied. God sometimes seems present, and sometimes distant. But He has left us with something much more tangible and accessible, though much less perfect: our spiritual Mother Church. As our spiritual “stay at home” mom, the church is always there, to nurture us, teach us, lecture us, discipline us, as she sees fit, and according to her particular strengths and eccentricities.
The Mother Church
Like our real father and mother, Christ and the church may not always agree. An earthly father might feel a mother’s discipline is too harsh, and vice versa. But for the sake of unity, one often concedes to the other. It is the same with God and His church. God says, “whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same.” He says this, not because his servants always speak exactly what He wants, but because He gives them His support, even in their imperfections, just as a husband would to his wife. He tells His Church, “I do not command in all things,” “study things out in your own mind.” He allows the church to stumble and learn from its stumblings.
Honor Thy Mother Church
We can’t expect our earthly mothers to change just because we perceive that they are wrong about something. Though our mother may sometimes be abusive, or controlling, she is still our mother, and we are commanded to “honor her, that our days may be long upon the land.” So we submit, we respect, we listen, we disagree sometimes, but we avoid confrontation and contention, because we love her. Likewise, the authority the church exercises over us is similar to that of a mother over her children. Even if we recognize she is wrong, it is not our place to appeal to the New York Times to embarrass her and force her to change. That is disrespectful of the parental relationship she has towards us, and the authority God has given her on our behalf.
Kate Kelly: A Modern Day Hagar
Abraham cast Hagar out of his tent, because his wife Sarah, felt threatened by Hagar’s arguments that her son Ishmael should be the legitimate birthright son, as Ishmael was the firstborn. Abraham did not want to cast Hagar out, and he was sympathetic to her arguments. However, he was commanded to “hearken unto the voice of his wife.” Sarah came first, and God honored the authority she had been given, in spite of her weaknesses.
Kate Kelly likewise has threatened the church (metaphorically Sarah), by arguing to extend priesthood authority to everyone, which the church adamantly disagrees with, both collectively, and in the leadership. Whether or not God is sympathetic to Kate Kelly is beside the point. God (like Abraham) must hearken to the voice of his church (Sarah), and He must cast Kate Kelly (Hagar) out of the church if she does not relent. For the church is the bride of Christ, to whom He has given His allegiance and authority. God cannot separate himself with His beloved church over this issue.
If Kate Kelly leaves the church, and this indeed is God’s will for her, He will not abandon her, but rather take her on other paths which will lead to greater growth and opportunity for her, just as Hagar was visited by an angel, and promised that a great nation would arise from her seed. Not everyone is destined for membership in the church, and God could have missions for some people currently in the church, on the outside. This is completely Biblical. God says, “I will shut their eyes and stop their ears that they see and hear not.” “Other sheep have I which are not of this fold.” “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” “He who is not against us is for us.” “You are called to gather the elect, those who hear my voice.” It is obvious if you look around a bit that many of the 99.9% of humans who are not Mormons also having spiritual experiences and being led by God on important personal missions that have nothing to do with whether or not they are Mormons. I reject the idea that excommunication is a “nuclear” option, as was suggested in a recent BCC post. The important thing is to follow God’s voice to you personally, whether that leads you into the church, or away from it.
John Dehlin: A Modern Day Uzziah
I think most people who’ve run across John Dehlin and his podcast recognize that he is acting according to good moral instinct, even if they see him as misguided. Who could not be moved by his passionate appeal to embrace the outcasts in the LGBT community? Excommunicating such a person seems like a terrible wrong. When Uzziah reached out to steady the Ark, I’m sure God wasn’t happy about striking him with lightning (or with the scribes who invented the story as a cautionary tale). But in fact, it was probably good for Uzziah to leave the Old Testament culture of war and fanaticism, and enter the Spirit World, where he could come to know Christ and His mercy. Since his electrocution, Uzziah may have entered the Celestial Kingom, as it was always in his nature to keep things steady and upright.
So I wonder if John Dehlin would also be better off without the church, even for a time. The church is supposed to be a nurturing mother, who comforts, consoles, and warns her respectful and obedient children. But if someone has an antagonistic relationship with his mother, constantly criticizing her, demanding that she change, and focusing only on the negative things he sees about her, maybe it’s time he left home and stayed away from his mother for awhile. This is obviously not a productive relationship.
Our Relationship with the Church: Familial, not Democratic
In our day, it is hard to understand the church as “The Mother Church.” We are obsessed with individuality, with inalienable rights, with democracy. We expect “the only true church” to be characteristically perfect, and when it’s not, we think something is wrong, that we must act! When Kate Kelly complains to the New York Times, she acts like a citizen in a democracy. As a citizen, she has the right to have her voice heard and to advocate for change. But the church is not a democracy. It is a familial relationship, like the relationship of a mother to a child, a father to a mother.
Understanding the nature of this familial relationship would help us interact with it in a more appropriate way. We would understand that some things cannot be forced. We would not expect perfection or change from the church. We would be able to separate the church from our understanding of God. The church doesn’t have to be a perfect reflection of God’s glory and will. As imperfect children ourselves, we may complain to our Father in prayer, and to our leaders in the Mother Church, but we would recognize that there are limitations for change, just as there are limitations in all family relationships. The beauty of a family relationship is not that it provides ultimate self-fulfillment, (to “live authentically,” as Kate Kelly puts it) but that we are shaped by having to deal with its weaknesses and eccentricities. Our family shapes our identity and turns us into something different and, most of the time, better than we would be all by ourselves.
- Is the Mother Church metaphor an accurate representation of our relationship to the church?
- Are there limitations to the church that we need not expect to be overcome?
- Is there virtue in submitting to an imperfect church?
- Could Dehlin’s and Kelly’s preoccupation with getting the church to change be hampering their own personal growth? Could they find greater spiritual growth by starting with a clean slate, and perhaps a new path?