In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke Jesus relays a very simple, yet beautiful, parable:
4 What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
5 And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
6 And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
7 I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.
In these few verses Jesus relays what lies at the core of His ministry and teaching: all men and women are precious in the sight of God and just as a good earthly shepherd will never abandon even a single member of his flock, neither will The Good Shepherd leave one of His followers to search and struggle in isolation.
I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the many kind and selfless Bishops, Stake Presidents, Sunday School, Institute, and Seminary teachers, among many other members of the LDS Church who exemplify Jesus’ teachings in this regard. There have been times throughout my Church experience where I have been a lost sheep: alone, confused, angry and yes, even sinful and in need of repentance. Without exception, local leaders and members have reached out to me in love and kindness seeking to gently lead me back to the flock; not through coercion, but through Christ-like compassion and persuasion.
Unfortunately, I worry that the institutional Church had adopted a position wherein the “lost” or marginal are perceived as enemies from which the ninety-nine or majority need protection. This position represents a complete inversion of one of Jesus’ most basic and essential teachings. The letter from Church Public Affairs to the Ordain Women organization, delivered last week, is the most recent example of this inversion as it cites the majority view to denounce the needs of the minority as “extreme.” I am very sympathetic to the position of Ordain Women as I see a very strong scriptural and historical case to be made for ordaining women to the priesthood. At the same time I understand the Church’s position as well. The case for women’s ordination is not a slam-dunk. Yet, it is a thoughtful position and one that deserves to be considered seriously; not only because of its theological and sociological implications, but also because it is clear that there are women in the Church who feel undervalued, ignored, and isolated.
In 1993, Boyd K. Packer delivered an address to the All-Church Coordinating Council wherein he asks the rhetorical question: “How can we [General Authorities] give solace to those that are justified without giving license to those who are not?” In speaking of letters received from member intellectuals, homosexuals, and feminists, Elder Packer states:
These letters and hundreds more are from members who are hurting or leaders who are worried. I might say here that I can see in the last few weeks a change in the letters coming in. There isn’t time to talk about it now, but out in the Church there is another growing group of the discontented. That is the rank and file who are trying to do what they are supposed to do and feel neglected as we concentrate on solving the problems of the exceptions.
Elder Packer acknowledges that there are those in the Church who are “hurting” and “worried” but that to seek after these lost and hurting sheep is to ignore the needs of the “rank and file” (majority) within the Church. Elder Packer expresses his view that the needs of the marginal are best dealt with individually. Yet, if the needs of the marginal were being addressed individually, “hundreds” of letters expressing hurt and worry would not be being sent to Church headquarters.
Too often high-ranking Church leaders have tossed aside the marginal in order to “protect” the majority of Church members. Bruce R. McConkie publicly humiliated BYU professor and Stake President George Pace and did serious damage to Pace’s reputation among his BYU students. Not to mention the damage done to Pace’s family. What heresy was Pace teaching? The importance of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; a notion once taught by McConkie himself. Elder McConkie was kinder to Eugene England by privately telling him that he was under the “scepter of [McConkie’s] judgement” for writing about the earlier teachings of Brigham Young. In this same letter Elder McConkie refers to Ogden Kraut, the well-known and very well-read Mormon fundamentalist, a “cultist.” Elder McConkie’s response to what he perceived as heretical teaching from both Pace and England was not one of love and concern, but one of judgement, humiliation, and shame.
One may be tempted to brush these examples aside as being the unfortunate actions of zealous Church leaders. I believe, however, that the problem is more systemic. In a 1998 letter to the editor published in Dialogue, Boyd Kirkland relates his experience in struggling to reconcile early teachings of Brigham Young regarding Adam with modern statements (denials?) by Church leaders. Kirkland wrote letters and made several phone calls to Church headquarters but received evasive and unsatisfactory answers. Finally:
In February 1981 I again phoned Michael Watson, and urged him to grant me a personal interview, which he did. He was surprisingly candid with me, revealing that my letter to President Kimball had been forwarded to Mark E. Petersen. Brother Watson showed me a memo written by Brother Petersen to the First Presidency with his recommendations as to how to respond to me. He informed them that the issues I had raised were real, that Brigham Young had indeed taught these things, but that they could not acknowledge this lest I would “trap them” into saying this therefore meant Brigham was a false prophet (which, of course, they did not believe). He therefore recommended that I be given a very circuitous response, evading the issue, which he volunteered to write. I asked Brother Watson, as well as members of the committee I had previously met with, how this approach would help people like myself who knew better? Wasn’t there concern that some might be dismayed and disillusioned by their church leaders’ lack of candor? Their response was very similar to President Hinckley’s statement mentioned earlier about losing a few through excommunication: they said, in essence, “If a few people lose their testimonies over this, so be it; it’s better than letting the true facts be known, and dealing with the probable wider negative consequences to the mission of the church.” I said, “What about Jesus’ parable where the shepherd leaves the ninety and nine of his flock to pursue the one who has gone astray?” Again the response was that the brethren had to be more concerned for the majority of the flock.
Even those who recognize and accept the institutional Church policy of protecting the majority may justify it by claiming that these so-called “lost sheep” are nothing more than “wolves’ in sheep’s clothing” that should be cut off from the flock and intentionally marginalized as they represent a real spiritual danger. While this view may be emotionally satisfying it falls apart upon further examination. In each of the cases I cite above, never is the core doctrinal issue raised by minority voices dealt with directly and candidly. Rather, these issues are simply labeled as “extreme” or “heretical.” I am forced to wonder why, if the Church’s doctrinal position on these issues is so solid, the Church simply refuses to substantively engage. In other words, how can the Church recognize a wolf if it doesn’t take a moment to know and understand the sheep? I respect Church authority and support the idea that Church leaders are entitled to administer the affairs of the Church in any way they see fit. However, just like Boyd Kirkland, I am perplexed by the institutional Church’s actions that seem to endorse leaving the lost sheep behind in order to protect the majority of the flock. Assertions of authority — with no attempt to engage doctrinal or historical issues raised by the lost sheep — imply that the institutional Church is unwilling to even consider the views of members who struggle as a result of dogmatism unsupported by scripture, history, or theological precedence. Recall that it was the LORD who invited us to come and “reason together.” (Isaiah 1)
Ultimately, Church policy and practice may not change in any significant way. Indeed, I would be surprised to see women ordained anytime soon. However, the question of ordination is not the real issue at hand. This is a question of pastoral care and how efforts to “protect” the Church institution undermine the Church’s core mission of spreading the Gospel and example of Jesus Christ. It is my hope that the Church institution will extend the hand of fellowship to OW and give serious consideration to their perspective and concerns. Even if mutual agreement is never achieved, mutual love and kindness may yet rule the day.
[Note: Any earlier version of this post contained a misspelling of Bruce R. McConkie’s name.]