“I am the True Vine”

You might have heard that a young Latter-day Saint was barred from missionary service for his views on homosexuality and so-called same-sex marriage.

There are two things you can be fairly confident of at this point. The first is that there is almost certainly more to the story. The second is that, of course, I have something to say about it.

I found this to be a longer post than most of mine (which says something in itself). Because of that, here’s an abstract of sorts that gives the “Reader’s Digest” version of what’s below.

    • Jesus commanded those who minister in his name to abide in him as a branch abides in the vine. Apart from him, he teaches, we can do nothing. One way we can stay connected to Jesus, the True Vine, is to stand with those to whom this admonition was originally given – the prophets and apostles.
    • Bruce R. McConkie similarly taught that missionaries, who themselves are representatives of Jesus Christ, are called to say and do what the Savior himself would say and do were he personally ministering in their stead.
    • The writer who originally shared this young man’s story claims that he was barred from missionary service for believing that LGBT individuals are equal before God and deserve the same treatment as anyone else. Ironically, this is precisely the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet while Latter-day Saints believe that LGBT individuals are equal before God and deserve to be treated with love, respect, and dignity, they likewise believe that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.”
    • From the interview given by this young man, it is clear that he had no intention of teaching those elements of the gospel that conflicted with his particular worldview. What’s more, this attitude betrays a misunderstanding of one of the core tenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, namely that the Church is led by a group of men who guide it by divine revelation, as they are inspired by Jesus Christ. In other words, What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken… whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same (see Doctrine and Covenants 1:38). Bearing those two things in mind, it is no surprise that this young man’s priesthood leaders might have found him unqualified for missionary service, and also unprepared to make temple covenants.
    • This may seem to some like a gross overreaction, and yet the way in which we preach the gospel is appropriately taken very seriously. The fullness of the gospel is the only way that mankind can “gain peace in this life and eternal salvation in the life to come” (see Introduction, Book of Mormon), and to corrupt that gospel with personal whims and opinions is a serious offense indeed.
    • For more on these subjects, see What Makes Me Mormon or My Thoughts on Today’s Supreme Court Review.

If that short abstract isn’t enough for you, then, by all means, continue reading!

The True Vine

In the last hours of the Savior’s life, he gathered with his apostles to deliver what turned out to be some of the final instructions that he would give them during his mortal ministry. Some of that instruction, found in the beginning of John 15, focuses on the manner in which the Savior expected his apostles, those who he had chosen and ordained (see John 15:16), to minister. The lessons that he taught in this chapter apply not only to those in apostolic roles, but to each of us called to minister in his name. Jesus taught,

“I am the true vine…. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing….

“If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples.”

The Savior was very clear about a minister’s role – those who go forth in his name are to abide in him, as a branch abides in a vine. Those who separate themselves from the True Vine can do nothing. In reference to this concept – that we are nothing apart from the True Vine – President John Taylor said,

“As a (Latter-day Saint) you say, ‘I think I understand my duty, and I am doing very well.’ That may be so. You see the little twig: it is green; it flourishes and is the very picture of life….

“But could the tree live without it? Yes, it could. It need not boast itself and get uplifted and say, ‘How green I am! and how I flourish!….’ But could you do without the root? No….

“Just so with this people. When they are doing their part – when they are magnifying their calling, living their religion, and walking in obedience to the Spirit of the Lord, they have a portion of his Spirit given to them to profit withal. And while they are humble, faithful, diligent  and observe the laws and commandments of God, they stand in their proper position on the tree: they are flourishing….”

One important way to stay connected to the True Vine, and a way that is especially pertinent to this discussion, is shared by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He says,

Now it is not possible, in my judgment, for people in the world to accept Christ and come to salvation, unless at one and the same time they accept the prophets whom Christ has sent and receive the administration of holy ordinances under their hands.

“Christ and his prophets are one. We could not believe in Christ if there were not prophets to declare Christ and his saving truths unto us. The Apostle Paul reasoned on this subject, and he said: ‘ . .. how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?’ (Romans 10:14-15).

“Except for Christ, there would be no salvation. Except for the prophets of God, sent in the various ages of the earth’s history, the testimony of Christ would not be borne, the message of salvation would not be taught, and there would be no legal administrators who could perform the ordinances of salvation for men, that is, perform them so they will be binding on earth and sealed eternally in the heavens.

“So it is that the Lord has sent prophets. No one would suppose that he could believe in Christ and reject Peter, James, and John. The Lord and his prophets go hand in hand. Christ said, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman’; then he said to his Apostles, ‘Ye are the branches.’ (John 15: 1, 5.) The branches and the vine are connected. He taught also that if the branches were torn away from him, they would wither and die and be cast into the fire. If people in the world would pick the fruit of eternal life off the branches, they have to accept the prophets, for the branches are the prophets.”

In order to stay rooted to the True Vine, we must also stay connected to those to who testify of him, those to whom he originally admonished to abide in him as the True Vine.

My Missionary Commission

When I was a missionary, there were a number of recitations we’d do as part of our morning study. Along with Doctrine and Covenants 4 and the Hawaii Honolulu Mission Motto, we recited a piece by Elder McConkie entitled “My Missionary Commission”. It goes like this:

“I am called of God. My authority is above that of kings of the earth. 

“By revelation I have been selected as a personal representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is my master and He has chosen me to represent Him – to stand in His place, to say and do what He Himself would say and do if He personally were ministering to the very people to whom He has sent me. My voice is His voice, and my acts are His acts; my doctrine is His doctrine. 

“My commission is to do what He wants done; to say what He wants said; to be a living modern witness in word and in deed of the divinity of his great and marvelous Latter-day work. How great is my calling!

Did you notice the themes it has in common with the Savior’s teachings from John 15? When we minister in the Savior’s name, we are his representative, and we act in his stead as he would act were he personally ministering to those we serve.

A Costly Position

You may be asking, why this discussion? That’s a good question.

Just last week, the following was posted on Religion Dispatches by Joanna Brooks:

“Emmett C. is a twenty-year-old community college student in the Pacific Northwest.  Last year, he applied to serve as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a religious obligation he had long prepared for and looked forward to fulfilling. But in the course of preparing his missionary application, Emmett came out to his local LDS Church leaders—not as a gay man, but as a straight Mormon who believes that LGBT people are equal in the sight of God and should treated the same as straight members of the LDS Church. And on these grounds, he was told that he would not be permitted to serve.”

Joanna Brooks, the “Mormon-Lite” Latter-day Saint that drives me all kinds of insane, then proceeds to interview Emmett about the travesty that was his priesthood leader’s decision to bar him from missionary service. From this first paragraph, you can (hopefully) start to see that something sketchy is going on. It’s this disingenuous position that keeps me from taking Brooks’ interview, and the subsequent inferences made, at all seriously.

As an early example of the misrepresentations in the interview, let’s look at the last phrases above. Brooks writes that it was on the grounds that Emmett “believes that LGBT people are equal in the sight of God and should be treated the same as straight members of the LDS Church” that he was excluded from missionary service.

Ha.

Did you know that the LDS Church actually teaches the same thing? Latter-day Saints absolutely and unequivocally believe that all are equal before God (see 2 Nephi 26:33 for example). Additionally, we believe (and teach) that LGBT people deserve the same love and respect due to everyone as a child of our Heavenly Father (see Mormons and Gays).

So where’s the disconnect?

The disconnect, cunningly left out by Brooks and hidden by some fancy use of equivocation, is that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extends the same love and respect towards LGBT people, it does not endorse so-called same-sex marriage. The Church stands firmly by the doctrine discussed in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, including that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and central to his Plan of Salvation.

This is a position with which Emmett and Brooks disagree, despite the fact that they are both active Latter-day Saints. That is likely actually very material to why Emmett is having troubles becoming a missionary. I suggest (as well as I can tell from the incomplete view that Emmett and Brooks provide) that the disconnect lies somewhere with Emmett separating himself from the True Vine, and suggesting that he would not say and do what the Savior would say and do, but rather what he himself deems to be appropriate. As lay members of the Church, there is greater latitude for this; as a missionary, a minister, there is not.

The Q&A – Some Examples

It may be profitable to point out additional elements of the interview that illustrate how Emmett and Brooks may be drifting from the True Vine. Remember, the point is not to judge Emmett, or even Brooks. I’m not at all interested in that. Yet they have made the assertion that the Church is “disciplining” Emmett for stepping out of line, so to speak, when all he’s really interested in is love, peace, and puppy dogs. In my view, that assertion is ripe for some discussion.

For example, Emmett speaks of how he initially “came out” an interview with his bishop. He was concerned about finding himself in a teaching situation, and being unable to endorse the Church’s position. He asked,

“What if it came up in a missionary lesson and if I couldn’t speak out for what I consider a human rights issue?”

He continued,

“I spoke to the Stake President a week later. I shared my concerns and told him about my family background—how it had changed my views, my perspective on gay marriage. At this point, he wanted me to be more specific about my beliefs. It became clear that mine was more than a political belief in marriage equality—we are allowed to have our own political views in the Church. It was actually doctrinal, because I believe that gays should be allowed to get married in the Mormon temple.

In both of these selections, Emmett emphasizes how he was concerned that he’d give priority to a personal position that conflicted with the teachings of the Church he’d be representing as a missionary. This was not even a new concern for him; it’s just that he’d never been asked such direct questions before.

It’s one of the last questions and answers that I think is most telling, though. Brooks asks,

“So even though in all other respects, you are pretty much in agreement with Church doctrine, at the conclusion of your interview, the Stake President informed you that you would not be able to serve a mission.”

Emmett answered,

“Yes, his conclusion was that I would not be able to serve. I would have to fast and pray until I realized that I was wrong and had to change my beliefs in order to support the Church leadership in their decisions. He also said that he wouldn’t allow me to have a temple recommend if I kept these beliefs, which struck me even harder than being denied a mission. That meant my priesthood—which I honor—my hope of marrying in the temple. This really brought home the reality of my situation as someone who believes that gays are equal but can’t be open about it.”

There’s a lot in those two quotations.

First, regarding Brooks’ assertion that he was “pretty much in agreement… in all other respects,” I have to say that the respect he’s not in agreement with is a pretty big issue.

It takes the cake.

It’s the issue.

I’ve heard it said that some will say to us, “I could accept your Church if not for Joseph Smith.” They like the family centered teachings, they like the service, they like the values – it’s just all that nonsense about angles and gold plates and visions that screws all that up. In effect, that’s exactly what Emmett is saying – “I like the missions, the hymns, the scriptures – but the whole deal with the prophets teaching about how same-sex marriage is sinful? I can’t accept that.”

Yet by not accepting that, you might as well throw it all out, as Latter-day Saints sustain the president of the Church, his counselors, and the apostles, as individuals who lead this Church by divine revelation.

Second, Emmett talks about his stake president’s counsel as if it were abhorrent. Fast and pray to modify my beliefs? How dare that be asked of me!

I’ll admit, on the surface, this request does seem strange. God allows agency, does he not? And yet our agency is limited in that we can’t alter reality – 2+2 will never equal 5, no matter how much I want it to. I’m free to choose, because of my agency, whether or not to alight myself to that mathematical reality, but I’m not free to alter it.

The principles effecting the Church’s position are on homosexuality are eternal principles. They will not be changing.

So what good does fasting and praying do anyway? Brigham Young had this to say:

“I am… afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”

Third, regarding being denied a temple recommend, Emmett’s comment is misleading (he may misunderstand himself, and the mistake could be innocent). Temple recommends normally accompany temple marriage or missionary service. Since Emmett wasn’t doing either, there was no longer a need for a temple recommend. Whether this is a temporary or permanent condition depends on whether or not Emmett’s leaders find him worthy of a temple recommend when the time comes.

The last comments we’ll look at are from the second to last question Brooks asks and Emmett’s response. Brooks says,

“You’re facing what gay Mormons face every day.”

Emmett answers,

“That’s what my gay brother said. I don’t see myself as being able to comfort him at all. What gays have had to go through in the Church—it’s far greater than what I’ve faced. But my brother says I am looking into a window onto what he has experienced.”

I don’t quite know what to say to that, except that Emmett, Brooks, and others like them are facing what every Latter-day Saint faces every day. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but “the natural man is an enemy to God” (see Mosiah 3:19). Because of that, there are qualities in all of us at odds with what the gospel teaches. We are all facing admonition change and repent.

Some of us are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Some of us are addicted to pornography. Some of us have interpersonal issues that hold us down. We are all facing the choice of whether we will leave behind our sins, as King Lamoni’s father did (see Alma 22:18), or if we will cling to personal positions and behaviors that conflict with the gospel. That is not unique to homosexuals or those who support same-sex marriage.

Why So Serious?

Even if all of this is the case, why is it enough to bar Emmett from missionary service? It’s  not that big a deal, right?

A mission is not a right, not some entitlement earned by checking the box of Church activity through one’s teenage years. Though Emmett speaks of a mission as “the next step on the ladder,” it’s not a youthful rite of passage for every young man that comes of age.

What’s more, preaching the gospel – the gospel as preached by the prophets and apostles – is important. Of those who preached a different gospel than the one preached by he and his peers, Paul said to “let him be accursed” (see Galatians 1:8).

Why accursed? That seems a little intense.

One reason might be that this gospel is the only thing that can solve the ills of society. Ezra Taft Benson taught,

“We are commanded by God to take this gospel to all the world. That is the cause that must unite us today. Only the gospel will save the world from the calamity of its own self-destruction. Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.”

Preach My Gospel, the Church’s missionary guide, continues,

“You are called to represent Jesus Christ in helping people become clean from their sins. You do this by inviting them to come unto Jesus Christ and become converted to His restored gospel. To come to the Savior they must have faith in Him unto repentance— making the necessary changes to bring their life into agreement with His teachings. You can help people develop such faith by teaching them the restored gospel by the Spirit and inviting them to commit to live according to its teachings. Keeping this commitment prepares them for the covenants of baptism and confirmation and the precious gift of the Holy Ghost. They are to put off the “natural man” and become a Saint “through the atonement of Christ the Lord.”

How can we represent Jesus Christ if we do not teach his gospel as revealed by his servants? What’s more, how can we testify of the healing power of repentance if we ourselves are unwilling to come unto the Savior and change ourselves?

I hope that Emmett is able to find peace in the gospel. I hope that he can serve as a missionary. There is not a day that goes by where I am not positively impacted by my own missionary service. 

Yet regardless of the tone of Brooks’ article, it’s likely that whether or not he serves as a missionary is entirely up to Emmett.

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