I was serving a mission in 1995 when President Hinckley announced to the church the new Proclamation on the Family. I was serving in an area where we did not get any sort of live broadcast of General Conference and instead had to wait for VHS tapes to show up several months later. Unfortunately, the women’s session of General Conference wasn’t usually part of those tapes (at least, I don’t recall it being part of them – I may be incorrect) so I don’t remember watching President Hinckley’s address.

I returned from my mission and was busy with college, marriage, and, some years later, family, so wasn’t, shall we say, “fully engaged” with the Church. I largely ignored what is now colloquially referred to as the Proclamation on the Family until several years later when my heart was turned regarding LGBT and women’s issues (perhaps I’ll detail that process another time). With that said, there is one aspect of the Proclamation on the Family I have found particularly interesting: it’s status as quasi-scripture.

As I understand things, text we consider binding and which we categorize as scripture has usually been submitted to the church body for ratification through common consent (I know there have been some exceptions to this, such as when the Lectures on Faith were removed, but by and large we have followed the trend, including with the inclusion of Official Declaration 2). It is interesting to me that the Proclamation on the Family has never been submitted to the church for ratification yet we treat it as if it has. We act as if the text is binding on the church members, or represents some sort of community statement, yet it has never undergone the process to achieve such status.

I don’t intend to cover the history of the Proclamation or its content. There are already all sorts of fantastic articles doing a much better job than I could ever hope to do, but as I have considered this over the years I have come to the conclusion that the Proclamation on the Family isn’t so much scripture or policy as it is a creed, and I submit that Elder Oaks’ talk in this past General Conference proved my conclusion to be correct.

No, not this Creed

A creed is a defined system of religious (often Christian) belief; a formal statement of belief; or a set of beliefs that guide someone’s actions. Probably the most famous creed is the Nicene Creed, which was a result of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. The primary purpose of the creed was to provide an official, authoritative statement of correct doctrinal belief, or orthodoxy, regarding the nature of God. The Nicene Creed was thought necessary given the many disputes within Christianity regarding the nature of God, and it was intended to stamp out heresies such as Sabellianism (i.e. modalism), various forms of Gnosticism, Arianism, and Manichaeism. To that end it was very effective as most of the texts from those sects have been lost (were destroyed) and those subsequently heretical adherents were run out of the Christian communities. Creeds are used to enforce orthodoxy and orthopraxy, which is why Joseph Smith rejected them, and subsequent Church leaders have used the Nicene Creed as the prime example of the apostasy of early Christianity – referred to as the Great Apostasy.

Let’s see what Joseph Smith said about creeds:

“I cannot believe in any of the creeds of the different denominations, because they all have some things in them I cannot subscribe to, though all of them have some truth. I want to come up into the presence of God, and learn all things: but the creeds set up stakes, and say, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further’; which I cannot subscribe to.”
Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 327

“… Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”
Letter from Joseph Smith to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, Liberty, Missouri, published in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, pp. 53–54; spelling and grammar modernized.

“I will endeavor to instruct you in relation to the meaning of the beasts and figures spoken of. I should not have called up the subject had it not been for this circumstance. Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was fall of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council.

I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
History of the Church, Volume 5, page 340

As Joseph Smith suggested, creeds were used as a cudgel to enforce the confession of orthodox beliefs within Christian religious communities. Either accept the creed or you were ostracized from that particular community. Creeds served as a sort of marker for boundary maintenance within the community, so as a result could be limiting in some fashion, potentially preventing one from seeking greater truth and instead “setting up stakes”, as Joseph said. Creeds were used to separate the orthodox from the heretical; those who belonged, and those who didn’t.

So, it was particularly interesting to me when, in this past General Conference, Elder Oaks, after first using inductive logic to compare those of “the world” with those who follow God, made the following statements:

The restored gospel of Jesus Christ and the inspired family proclamation, which I will discuss later, are essential teachings to guide mortal preparation for exaltation. Even as we must live with the marriage laws and other traditions of a declining world, those who strive for exaltation must make personal choices in family life according to the Lord’s way whenever that differs from the world’s way.

Inevitably, the actions of those who try to follow God’s plan of salvation can cause misunderstanding or even conflict with family members or friends who do not believe its principles. Such conflict is always so. Every generation that has sought to follow God’s plan has had challenges…But whatever the cause of conflict with those who do not understand or believe God’s plan, those who do understand are always commanded to choose the Lord’s way instead of the world’s way.

Those who do not believe in or aspire to exaltation and are most persuaded by the ways of the world consider this family proclamation as just a statement of policy that should be changed.

Converted Latter-day Saints believe that the family proclamation, issued nearly a quarter century ago and now translated into scores of languages, is the Lord’s reemphasis of the gospel truths we need to sustain us through current challenges to the family.

I testify that the proclamation on the family is a statement of eternal truth, the will of the Lord for His children who seek eternal life.

[Emphases mine]

As you can see, after using inductive logic to setup a “world” vs. “followers of God” dichotomy, Elder Oaks then goes on to stress that those who truly seek eternal life, exaltation, or are converted will accept the Proclamation on the Family, while those who are weak, don’t want exaltation, or are enticed by “the world” only view it as a policy, and thus open to change. One perspective closes off future possibilities, while the other holds open the possibility of future change as more light is received. Elder Oaks calls the latter perspective as unconverted. He is binning members into those who are orthodox (e.g., adhere to the Proclamation and view it as revelation) and those who are heretics (e.g., do not fully accept the Proclamation or view it as a policy statement rather than revelation). He is using the Proclamation as a creedal statement to “set up stakes”, and to circumscribe, dominate, and trammel others.

It is concerning to me that the Proclamation on the Family is being used in this way. It is not scripture. It is not binding on the church. It has not been ratified as such by common consent. Were it to be presented for ratification I have no doubt it would be approved (though I’d raise my hand in opposition), but even if it was approved, I believe using it as a creed to sniff out heresy and belittle the faith of those who disagree with it would be a mistake.

Elder Oaks’ language is concerning to me, not just because I don’t particularly like the Proclamation, but because I am very leery of one group making a claim that they definitively know the will of God on a matter like this and then using that “knowledge” to trammel those who disagree. It’s creedalism and our past history indicates that we should be very hesitant to claim knowledge of God’s will (e.g., priesthood ban, shifting views on homosexuality, etc.). Joseph Smith had some wise counsel regarding creeds and I believe we would also be wise to follow it.

What do you think?

  • What do you see as the status of the Proclamation on the Family? Scripture? Policy? Doctrine? Creed?
  • Do you agree with Joseph Smith that creeds are, by their nature, limiting? If not, why?
  • How do you think we can avoid becoming Balkanized as a community on this topic?