Today’s guest post is from long-time respected commenter Janey. Janey is a single mom who was active in the Church up into her 40s. She’s lived in Utah pretty much her entire life and currently works as a lawyer.
The second time I heard a nice LDS woman describe child sexual abuse as a mistake, I realized the Church had done some real damage by dropping the word “sin” and replacing it with “mistake.” A few years back, I spent all ten hours of General Conference listening to see if any of the speakers used the word “sin.” One speaker referred to both “mistakes” and “serious mistakes,” but no one called anything a “sin.” There’s a difference between committing a sin and making a mistake, and it’s an important one. Christ never used the word “mistake” (see Topical Guide). He called people to repentance for their sins; mistakes are not a religious issue.
Combining sins and mistakes has really messed up the definitions of right and wrong. To further confuse the question of right and wrong, the Church has turned morally neutral personal preferences into tests of faith and obedience.
Let’s untangle mistakes, sins and personal preferences.
Mistakes. A mistake is an unintentional action that is generally morally neutral. You make a mistake when you mix up a date, for example, so you aren’t prepared to teach the Primary lesson. Mistakes can cause a lot of harm – like a moment’s inattention while driving can cause an accident. Mistakes are, at most, irresponsible, but they aren’t a sign of moral decay. You don’t need to repent for a mistake; you apologize, do your best to fix it, and move on.
Sins. A sin is a deliberate action that violates God’s laws. God’s laws can be summarized into two categories: love God and love your neighbor (see Luke 10:27). So let’s break sin into two categories: sins against God and sins against your neighbor.
The sins against other people condemned in the scriptures include adultery, physical violence and murder (unless God commands a war), lying, stealing, taking advantage of widows and orphans, oppressing the hireling in his wages and refusing to help someone. Sins hurt people. Many sins against people reflect universal morals and form the basis of some of our secular laws.
Sins against God listed in the scriptures include actions like taking the Lord’s name in vain, not keeping the Sabbath day holy, not observing religious feasts, worshiping other gods and failing to pay tithes. Religious believers take these sins seriously, but non-religious people would consider them morally neutral. Sinning against God doesn’t really cause objective harm to another person. No one gets hurt if you quit keeping the Sabbath day holy, or quit paying tithing. These actions are important to a church community, but not to secular society.
Personal Preferences. A personal preference is a decision you make about yourself. Probably the most famous “personal preference turned into a commandment” story is the Earring Story. In 2000, President Hinckley announced that women should not have double-pierced ears (among other instructions). Hinckley, Gordon B. “Your Greatest Challenge, Mother.” Ensign, October 2000. A few years later, Elder Bednar told a story about a young man who was dating a young woman with double-pierced ears. After President Hinckley’s announcement, she didn’t remove her second set of earrings. Because this young woman did not heed the prophet’s counsel, the young man broke up with her. Elder Bednar clearly approved of this.
Before President Hinckley’s talk, ear piercings were just a matter of personal preference and were morally neutral. After President Hinckley’s talk, ear piercings became a way to judge someone’s faith and obedience.
Another personal preference turned into a test of faith is accepting callings. How we spend our free time, and what we’re willing to do or not do as a volunteer, should be a personal preference but instead it is a test of our faith and obedience. The Word of Wisdom takes some morally neutral drinks and turns them into tests of obedience. Whether or not you like the word “Mormon” used to be a personal preference.
The Church has backed off on some personal decisions. The Church used to discourage birth control, but now that’s a decision left to the husband and wife. Traditional gender roles are still seen as an obedience test, though it’s one that many women are willing to fail. A woman’s decision to stay at home full-time or have a career is a personal preference and family decision.
The Church pushes hard at personal boundaries, whether expecting our free time and money, or just insisting that we defer to priesthood leaders on matters of opinion. The following statements ought to be seen as morally neutral, but instead are more likely to be seen as disobedience, or at least a bad attitude:
- “No, I don’t want to spend my Saturdays as the building cleaning coordinator.”
- “I’m choosing to get offended; you owe me an apology.”
- “I like the word Mormon.”
- “We’re not planning to have children until we both finish school, and then we’re hoping for just one or two.”
- “I don’t think the world’s greatest problem is the breakdown of the family. I’m more worried about climate change and wealth inequality.”
- “I’m not going on a mission.”
The Church has essentially created a new category of wrongdoing – disagreeing with modern prophets. Most of these decrees from modern prophets were morally neutral actions until the Church leaders made them a test of our obedience and faith.
Much of the guilt that an ordinary Church member feels may just be disagreements with modern prophets. Is it a sin to hate your calling? No, it’s a personal preference about the way you spend your free time. Is it a mistake to have fewer children than your mother had? No, that’s a personal decision. Is it disobedient to not go on a full-time mission? Well, now it is.
Prayer and faith may change some of your personal preferences. Some things really are just about your attitude. I’ve learned to like people that I didn’t like at first. I’ve liked callings that I initially didn’t want. But there are people I never liked no matter how much I prayed to have charity for them, and callings I asked to be released from. It took a long time for me to stop feeling guilty about these “sins and mistakes” and realize that they were really nothing more than ordinary likes and dislikes.
The Church spends more time instructing its members about these “prophetic personal preference” sins than it does in preaching against scriptural sins, or other actions that hurt people. It comes off as controlling and petty rather than concerned with making the world a better place. It also leaves some members confused about whether it’s worse to get a tattoo or to verbally abuse your kid.
For the Church (any church) to remain relevant, it needs to be seen as a credible source for morality. The hard work of being a moral beacon involves holding wrongdoers accountable and being very clear about right and wrong. Calling serious sins a mistake leaves the impression that the Church doesn’t understand how to distinguish between right and wrong and that it won’t hold wrongdoers accountable. Turning personal preferences into commandments trivializes real morality. Ultimately, the Church weakens its moral authority when it mashes sins, mistakes and personal preferences all together.
- Have you seen Church members confused about the relative seriousness of sins against other people, sins against God and personal disagreements with modern-day prophets?
- Do you think that all sins and misconduct are basically equal because we all need to repent?
- Do you think committing scriptural sins against God and/or sinning against the teachings of modern-day prophets causes harm?
- What would restore/strengthen the Church’s moral authority for you personally?