Brenton Erickson: LDS ‘commandments’ about marriage and sex have changed before and they should change again

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students and friends march down the sidewalk to Kiwanis Park, during BYU Pride Night in Provo, on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.

Elder Jeffrey Holland’s recent address at Brigham Young University, and its aftermath, made me realize that many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aren’t aware of several significant changes in the church’s teachings on sex and marriage over the years.

I lay out two of those changes here. To be clear, these changes have been overwhelmingly positive. I am happy that straight church members have more options and privacy than they used to.

But I am tired of conservative members and leaders using the overly-simplistic claim that “commandments don’t change” as an unyielding bludgeon against my community.

In Matthew 5:32, Jesus clearly prohibited most divorces and entirely prohibited remarriage after divorce. Yet divorce and remarriage are permitted by the church. Previously divorced members can even be sealed to their new spouses in the temple.

This change was not inevitable. The Catholic Church still prohibits most divorces and remarriages in reliance on Matthew 5. And allowing divorce and remarriage is not a minor change in “policy,” as some might claim. It is a clear shift away from New Testament doctrine. Jesus’ teaching about divorce and remarriage was not an offhand comment about a side issue. Matthew included it in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ foundational declaration of beliefs. And questions about divorce and remarriage get at the core of what a marriage is -- its meaning, importance and permanence.

The LDS Church used to completely prohibit birth control. (See 1958 Edition of “Mormon Doctrine” or BYU Honor Code 1968). Yet LDS couples can now privately decide how many children they’re willing to have and can decide when to try to conceive.

This change was also not inevitable. The Catholic Church still prohibits the use of birth control. (See Genesis 38:10). And questions about birth control get at the core of the morality of sex. For example, is sex to be used for procreation only? Even if there are other legitimate purposes for sexual relations, is it ever appropriate for human beings to purposefully prevent conception?

The LDS Church used to prohibit birth control precisely because of these kinds of concerns. But now birth control is permitted, and intimacy and connection are considered legitimate purposes for sexual relations.

Other significant changes regarding marriage and sex include the church’s history with polygamy, its policing of specific sex acts and its evolving beliefs about the role of women in marriage and society.

Conservative members often minimize the significance of doctrinal changes by emphasizing the church’s belief in continuing revelation, or by questioning the legitimacy of scriptural verses that conflict with current LDS teachings. But if revelation has changed the core meaning of marriage and sex in the past, it is dishonest to say that God’s commandments about marriage and sex “never change.”

And if it’s fair to question the legitimacy of Matthew 5:32, it’s just as fair to question the legitimacy of scriptural verses that are used to criminalize, exclude, and generally harm LGBT people.

When conservative members and leaders such as Holland reflexively dodge accountability and discussion by asserting that “commandments don’t change,” they’re really saying that allowing LGBT people to live authentically within the church is a bridge too far for them.

They might double down and insist that it’s actually a bridge too far for God. But God is perfectly aware of each supposedly “impassable” bridge that the LDS Church has safely crossed throughout its history.

I’m confident that God has always been waiting on the other side of this particular bridge -- waiting and wondering what’s taking LDS leaders so long to get over it.

Brenton Erickson

Brenton Erickson, Provo, is gay and was raised LDS. He is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School.