After getting on Twitter this morning, I felt impressed to write about a verse in the LDS canon that I feel is one of the most abused of all scriptures. And by that, I mean one that is used to cause much unneeded pain to a subset of Latter-Day Saints. The scripture in question are found in Doctrine and Covenants, and have to do with the final state of the soul after death:
Therefore, if a man marry him a wife in the world, and he marry her not by me nor by my word, and he covenant with her so long as he is in the world and she with him, their covenant and marriage are not of force when they are head, and when they are out of the world; therefore, they are not bound by any law when they are out of the world.
Therefore, when they are out of the world, they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven, which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory.
For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever.
Taken by itself, this scripture feels like one of utter condemnation. I remember fully reading this passage in the MTC, and having to set it aside, because I did not find I couldn’t come to terms with the consequences. Does this not fit the exact bill of damnation taught in many a Sunday School?: Damnation literally means to be dammed: to be unable to progress. This essentially limits progression to a very small subset of individuals on the earth in a select set of circumstances. How does this fit in with a God who is no respecter of persons? I hoped that I would later find someone who would be able to help me fit it into the context of the gospel of love and forgiveness and second chances that I felt to be the God I knew.
Essentially, this scripture limits exaltation (as opposed to salvation) to those who have been married in the temple by proper authority. It feels like the circle of those who can enter the celestial kingdom is increasingly smaller and smaller: according to D&C 76, those who will enter the celestial kingdom are they who received the testimony of Jesus, and believed on his name and were baptized after the manner of his burial… and who are sealed by the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands of him who is ordained and sealed unto this power. So, to enter the celestial kingdom, you must be a worthy covenant-keeping Latter-Day Saint, who has attained all the ordinances– including marriage in the temple.
As a general rule and pattern, this creates a beautiful vision of what society can become, the vision of families that the Church has continued to advocate for in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. Would that all children were able to be born into supportive and loving families! Every child deserves supporting parents, who will love their children unconditionally.
But while it does establish a pattern, an ideal, I feel very much affected by who is left out and who is excluded from this vision of heaven.
What about brothers and sisters who married outside of the church?
What about divorced individuals?
What about single brothers and sisters?
What about our fellow LGBTQ children of God?
Are we really saying that no matter how righteous a life they live, no matter what they do in this life, they cannot hope to enter the Kingdom of God? That they are doomed to be ministering angels, turning that beautiful word angel into a derogatory term?
I understand that for some, the concept of family history work does some patching up here. Our Latter-Day Saint forbears understood the beauty of that doctrine, in making room in heaven for those who weren’t around to witness the Restoration of the gospel. But even then, does that leave hope for those in the here and now for those who are single, divorced, or married outside the Church? This article here at Wheat and Tares explores some of these complexities.
I know that some general authorities have specified that everyone will have the chance to receive all blessings of the gospel, whether in this life or the next, such as this talk by President Benson to single sisters:
I also recognize that not all women in the Church will have an opportunity for marriage and motherhood in mortality. But if those of you in this situation are worthy and endure faithfully, you can be assured of all the blessings from a kind and loving heavenly father– and I emphasize all blessings.
But this turns mortality from a time when men are that they might have joy to an anteroom for where we will experience true happiness. Is mortality just to be The Waiting Place for these individuals, to white-knuckle it through life in hope of a happier hereafter?
I also understand the principle of generalization, as explained by President Packer:
I once learned a valuable lesson from a mission Relief Society president. In a conference, she announced some tightening up of procedures. A sister stood up and defiantly said, “Those rules can’t apply to us! You don’t understand us! We are an exception.”
That wonderful Relief Society president replied, “Dear sister, we’d like not to take care of the exception first. We will establish the rule first, and then we’ll see to the exception.” Many times I have borrowed from her wisdom, grateful for what she taught me.
But the devil is in the details. It is acknowledged that the family-oriented approach to the gospel leaves some marginalized, relying on hope for the next life, if they can find a place justified by scripture or an apostolic promise. But returning to the idea of a ministering angel: what hope does that leave?
Data published by PEW research shows that ~44% of all adult Latter-Day Saints aren’t married. This means that close to 50% of all Latter-Day Saints don’t currently fit the criteria for the celestial kingdom.
My heart reaches out to individuals who feel that they don’t fit into God’s plan. I don’t know exactly how everyone’s individual circumstances fit. But I personally don’t believe in a Heaven that is so limited. I take heart in doctrine and principles that we do know: that there are ministers of the gospel in the next world, that we can perform ordinances for our deceased loved ones, that the gospel allows us to progress.
I by no means mean this as implying that there are flaws in God’s plan; moreover, I believe that God’s plan is greater than we actually give it credit for. I love the principle given by the Rabbi Sacks about our obligation to sanctify the name of God, and find it applicable here:
‘You shall love the Lord thy God’, which is interpreted as meaning, among other things, ‘You shall cause the Lord your God to be loved’… Our character and life are to be a living advertisement for God, and that itself is an ongoing task of the religious life. What we are and do inevitably color people’s perception of faith and God, and to be a positive role model is an essential part of Judaism.
I love that. Perhaps it sounds too pragmatic. But I think our faith is meant to be a faith of hope and love, and when it isn’t doing that, we are doing something wrong.
I don’t know how it will work, but I believe there is further light and knowledge that God is willing to give, and there are those in the Church that are in desperate need of feeling that they can fit in God’s kingdom. I like this description of Alma’s experience when he sought to know the state of souls after death:
Behold, he bringeth to pass the resurrection of the dead. But behold, my son, the resurrection is not yet. Now, I unfold unto you a mystery; nevertheless, there are many mysteries which are kept, that no one knoweth them save God himself. But I show unto you one thing which I have inquired diligently of God that I might know– that is concerning the resurrection.
God answered Alma’s petition, because it weighed so sorely on his mind. I wonder what kept Alma up at night, that worried him so much that he prayed so fervently? Can we not also cry unto the heavens to receive an answer to give hope to these our brothers and sisters who are suffering in the latter days?
Leonard Arrington, the former Church historian, once made a list of nine points of things that he thought needed patching up in the Church. The first one on the list was as follows:
The imposition of one pattern on everybody rather than suggesting two or three patterns and letting local wards and stakes and districts follow the one most convenient for them. Examples, the three hour church meeting on Sundays.
While Arrington’s direct application limited this to the ward level with more administrative tasks, I felt like this was fitting to the current discussion regarding marriage status. There currently is really only one accepted pattern: a family with a mom and a dad and as many children as they can manage. Would it not be a blessing if there was a sanctioned alternative, that wouldn’t cause members to question their hopes in the eternities? To literally think they are quite possibly doomed to being a ministering angel?
To close, I wanted to include this powerful quote from Lavina Fielding Anderson:
God doesn’t plant lawns. He plants meadows. But we belong to a church that, currently, values lawns–their sameness, their conformity, the ease with which they can all be cut to the same height, watered on schedule, and replaced by new turf if necessary. (And against which it is easy to spot dandelions.) All organizations are limited in their ability to handle diversity, but our church seems particularly limited right now in it’s ability to cherish and nurture individuals as individuals–as wild geraniums, catnip, western coneflowers, or yarrow–not as identical blades of grass in a uniformly green lawn… Patience is hard, but I plan to still be here when the Church stops experimenting with lawns and refocuses on the garden which the Lord hath planted.
Hang in there, guys.
Image Credit: Modified from image on Wikimedia Commons