Commentary: Latter-day Saint leaders’ policy reversal raises the question: What is revelation?

In a stunning reversal, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has announced that it is walking back a controversial 2015 policy that affected members in same-sex marriages and their children.

The policy had prohibited children of same-sex couples from being baptized (which members can do starting at age 8) and also from being “blessed” as infants. Priesthood ordination for teen boys and missionary service for young adults were likewise off the table for children born to same-sex couples unless they were willing to publicly disavow their parents’ relationship after turning 18.

The 2015 policy also targeted the parents, stating that any adult members who were in a same-sex marriage or long-term homosexual relationship were in “apostasy” and subject to a church disciplinary council.

On Thursday, the church abandoned both halves of the policy. Children of same-sex couples are now eligible for all ordinances and opportunities in the church, and their parents will no longer be regarded as in apostasy, though same-sex marriage is still considered a “serious transgression.”

This change comes as the latest in a string of announcements that church leaders are heralding as revelation, from major female-friendly updates to the church’s temple ceremonies to amendments to the missionary program.

But it’s a particularly surprising one, given that current church President Russell M. Nelson was the leader who most ardently defended the 2015 policy as a revelation of God.

Speaking in January 2016, when he was still an apostle and had not yet replaced the late Thomas S. Monson as president, Nelson said the policy was the result of top church leaders’ meeting “repeatedly in the temple” to seek God’s guidance. God, Nelson said, had “inspired his prophet … to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord” with the LGBTQ policy.

The policy was, in other words, a clear revelation.

More than three years later, Nelson says it’s now the Lord’s will to reverse that policy — and that this is also a revelation.

Most intriguingly, he noted that the church’s top leaders had continued to wrestle with the LGBTQ policy from 2015 to now: “These policy changes come after an extended period of counseling with our brethren in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after fervent, united prayer to understand the will of the Lord,” he indicated.

In other words, church leaders continued discussing and praying about the LGBTQ policy even after it had been presented to members as a revelation and a fait accompli.

What does this mean for Latter-day Saints? In a church that has been criticized for sometimes suggesting that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done,” the policy reversal demonstrates that robust discussions continue at the highest levels, and that Nelson is not afraid to alter the church’s course — even if doing so seems to destabilize his own previous statements.

It also suggests that any policy is subject to modification, and perhaps abandonment, even if it has previously been heralded as a revelation from God.

The church has been careful to note that reversing this particular LGBTQ policy does not alter its underlying doctrine about chastity or its commitment to “traditional” marriage between one man and one woman. Yet because the church itself presented the LGBTQ policy as holy revelation back in 2015-16, it’s tricky to disentangle “policy” from “revelation.”

Which may be exactly the point. The genius of the Latter-day Saint notion of continuing revelation means that, in theory at least, God is speaking constantly to address the needs of a changing world. Everyone should be on their toes — or, as Nelson put it last year during a tour of South America, be ready for more changes to come.

“Wait till next year, and then the next year,” he said. “Eat your vitamin pills. Get some rest. It’s going to be exciting.”

“Exciting” is not a word that many of us who follow Mormonism would typically associate with a gerontocracy that, until Nelson’s tenure, followed a glacially incremental approach to change.

Now, however, with the church publicly reversing its own previously stated revelations, “exciting” may be the watchword going forward. If that means we get to jettison unjust policies, I am all ears.

Editor’s note • The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.