The November 5 Policy as an Abrahamic Test

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Caravaggio

On November 5, 2015, it was leaked that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was enacting a new policy towards members of the Church in a same-sex relationship and their children. The “November 5 Policy” or the “Exclusion Policy,” as it is sometimes variously called, states the following concerning the blessing of “children of a parent living in a same-gender relationship” (as it reads in the current Handbook of Instructions):

16.13 Children of a Parent Living in a Same-Gender Relationship

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may not receive a name and a blessing.

A natural or adopted child of a parent living in a same-gender relationship, whether the couple is married or cohabiting, may be baptized and confirmed, ordained, or recommended for missionary service only as follows:

A mission president or a stake president may request approval from the Office of the First Presidency to baptize and confirm, ordain, or recommend missionary service for a child of a parent who has lived or is living in a same-gender relationship when he is satisfied by personal interviews that both of the following requirements are met:

1. The child accepts and is committed to live the teachings and doctrine of the Church, and specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage.
2. The child is of legal age and does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.

Concerning those in a same-sex relationship, the Handbook clarifies under 6.7.3 (“When a Disciplinary Council Is Mandatory”) that being in “in a same-gender marriage” constitutes apostasy that carries mandatory disciplinary action.

A week after these policy changes were leaked the First Presidency issued a letter clarifying the Church’s position. Additionally, Church Public Affairs released a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson explaining the Church’s rationale for these changes.

Understandably, the public reaction to the November 5 Policy was heated, with people rushing to either condemn or defend the Church’s new policy. Many Church members (including myself) struggled to even understand, much less accept, the rationale for the new policy changes.

To make matters worse in the minds of many politically progressive Latter-day Saints, shortly after the policy (and its subsequent fallout) President Russel M. Nelson related in a Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults how the policy was divinely revealed.

This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church’s handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process, and so is your privilege of receiving personal revelation.

This announcement once again sparked discussion over the matter which continues to this day. With President Nelson expected to be President Monson’s successor as president of the Church, some anticipate that it may be a challenge to retain increasingly pro-LGBT millennials in the Church.

All of this recently got me wondering if it might be possible to consider something as difficult and trying as the November 5 Policy as a sort of Abrahamic test. In other words, could it be that the policy really was inspired by revelation as a means of testing the faith of Church members? The brusque denial of such a possibility on the part of one blogger notwithstanding, I think this may be something to consider.

To answer this question, it’s first needful to quickly review where the idea of an “Abrahamic test” comes from. Genesis 22 in the Old Testament narrates how God, with no apparent explanation, commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham (reluctantly?) goes through with the command, but just as he was about to put the boy to the sword an angel appeared and stayed the patriarch’s hand. A substitute in the form of a nearby ram “caught in a thicket by his horns” (v. 13) was offered up as the sacrifice.

To be sure, this is a difficult chapter to exegete, and seemingly countless explanations have been offered by both Jewish and Christian readers of the text. Was it a test of obedience and faithfulness? Was it an anti-child sacrifice polemic? Was it a pro-child sacrifice polemic? Was it allegorical foreshadowing for the sacrifice of Jesus? Whatever it may have been, the story has been utilized to illustrate what is today commonly called an “Abrahamic test,” or a test or trial that requires seemingly impossible amounts of faith and obedience to endure precisely because the stakes are so high and the potential emotional consequences so devastating. In Abraham’s case the trial is clearly depicted as having come from God (“God did tempt [“test, try”; Hebrew nissah] Abraham,” v. 1) and being predicated on astronomically huge emotional stakes (“Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, . . . and offer him there for a burnt offering” v. 2).

So the basic components of an Abrahamic test, it would seem, include a trial that is (1) sent from God and (2) asking for an excruciating sacrifice. It’s not your run-of-the-mill, day-to-day, “we-live-in-a-fallen-world-by-gosh-and-by-golly” kind of trial. It represents a trial where God asks the believer to seemingly sacrifice everything he or she holds near and dear.

As just one example, in the case of the early Saints, plural marriage became a veritable Abrahamic test given what the practice asked of its practitioners. In fact, the revelation on plural marriage received by Joseph Smith even uses Abraham’s test on Mount Moriah as a positive example of one who was obedient to a difficult commandment, even to the point of seemingly contradicting another commandment (v. 36). To Joseph the Lord declared, “Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.” To the Prophet’s wife, Emma, the Lord said, “I did it, saith the Lord, to prove you all, as I did Abraham, and that I might require an offering at your hand, by covenant and sacrifice” (vv. 50–51). That practicing and upholding plural marriage as a divine commandment would be an agonizing trial was not lost on early Mormon polygamists.

I must similarly wonder if the November 5 policy has been revealed as an Abrahamic test for both straight but especially gay Church members. If we grant for the sake of this theological thought-exercise that President Nelson is telling the truth that this policy change came by revelation, then it would appear to meet both criteria for being an Abrahamic test. First, it came from God, and second, it requires an enormous sacrifice that can only be performed with an equally enormous amount of faith. As with Abraham sacrificing his (and his heretofore barren wife’s) son and the early Saints sacrificing the emotional and social comforts of Victorian monogamy, it seems significant to me that the November 5 policy asks gay Latter-day Saints to sacrifice an important familial component to their existence: a same-sex relationship/marriage with children.

I greatly doubt that I need to explain how hard it would be to willingly submit to a sacrifice such as this. But in case you don’t believe me, or in case you think it’s no big deal to ask of gay Latter-day Saints what the Church is asking of them, I would encourage my readers to hear for themselves what gay Mormons wishing to keep their covenants and retain their Church membership have said about the immense burden of living a life of celibate bachelor(ette)hood in a Church and culture such as ours.

To be fair, the story of Abraham ends with Abraham ultimately not sacrificing Isaac. And plural marriage is no longer practiced in the Church. This alone, some may insist, makes any comparison to the November 5 policy illegitimate. After all, there appears to be no sign that the Church will rescind this policy and admit same-sex marriages in the Church. Presumably the November 5 policy is here to stay, barring any drastic reversal down the road. This is a reasonable and fair objection, which is why I write this post only to explore certain possibilities, not to offer any definitive answers. Perhaps in the future the policy is reversed and same-sex marriages are permitted in the Church. Although I personally find this highly unlikely, I grant that it’s hypothetically possible. Maybe then, were this to happen, we could look back and talk more confidently about the November 5 policy as an Abrahamic test. But even if not, even if the November 5 policy remains in effect until the highlands are made low, and the valleys raised, and the crooked paths made straight, I would still maintain that there are enough parallels that we should keep this in mind as one way to perhaps make sense of this entire ordeal.

Like Nephi, I do not know the meaning of all things. While I have largely come to peace with it, I still wrestle with the November 5 policy, having placed it on my proverbial shelf for now. What I have outlined above makes a great deal of sense to me, but I would never presume to claim it is the definitive answer. One thing I do know, however, is that God loves his children, and that includes his gay, bisexual, queer, and asexual children. That love, I am absolutely confident, extends to his LGBTQ+ children whether they are in the Church or out of it.

12 thoughts on “The November 5 Policy as an Abrahamic Test

  1. I don’t see it as an Abrahamic test, but if that works for some, okay. A Latter-day Saint wanting to honorably live covenants will not be in a homosexual relationship in the first place.

    I see the action as reasonable and necessary. As I see it, the Church is unwilling to treat with homosexual couples as parents, and that makes sense. But all is well — the child can apply for baptism upon becoming an adult on his or her own volition, rather than being presented by parents — nothing is lost.

  2. Among many other problems I have with this, I can’t figure out what the Abraham Test is even supposed to be here. Is God’s rejection of same-sex marriage the test? Or is the Nov 5 policy the test? The author seems to go back and forth on the question, but the two aren’t the same thing.

    • That’s fair. I could’ve been more clear there. I guess for this post I’m mainly talking about the possibility of the November 5 policy specifically being the Abrahamic test.

  3. I could see the rejection of same-sex marriage as being the greater test for LGBT members, as far as I currently understand it (which I admit to be very limited).

    I appreciate how you have approached this and the affirmation of His love for ALL of His children.

    I would like to assume the best of our leaders and believe that what Elder Nelson said concerning the policy is genuine, in any case.

  4. Heb 12:
    5 And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
    6 For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.

    Thanks for all you do, Brother Smoot.

  5. Brother Smoot,
    I know so many good people who do not enjoy companionship in this life. I think of one dear woman close to me who was abandoned by her husband at a young age who raised three children on her own and lived singly and alone for almost 50 years now. Another dear friend who was incredibly shy could not talk to women and suffered in painful loneliness until his life ended early as a bachelor in his 30s. Two other close relatives now in their 40s who suffer loneliness and anxiety and have not found wives. Women, who have lived into old age while never finding a husband, though they desperately would have a family and children. Widows who must endure decades of loneliness. The situations our LGBT brothers and sisters find themselves in is not trivial but it is not unique. Loneliness is a common part of the human condition. Indeed even among those with companions there can be a lack of love and affection and even a serious lack of intimacy. Some LGBT members have found happiness in heterosexual relationships, which while not recommended for all and certainly only to be entered with full honesty, can provide significant happiness for some. We should not trivialize the challenges faced by our LGBT members but we should not allow them to made out as greater than those challenges faced by many other members of our faith. All suffer in this life. All will be tested with great challenges, as great as we can bear. We must help one another bear our burdens not excuse each other from the need to bear them.

    • The main difference, of course, being that the Church encourages single heterosexual members to rectify their bachelorhood through dating and courtship, and assures them that if they don’t get married here and now, there’s always hope for them in the world to come.

      Such is not the case for Church members with same-sex attraction. They are encouraged to stick it out until, presumably, their homosexual feelings are rectified in the world to come and they become straight. So no dating, no romance, no courtship, no exercising faith that you can still find a partner in this life, etc.

      Imagine being a 21 year old gay RM at BYU who is constantly bombarded with messages of “you need to date, you need to get married, you need to raise a family, here and now.” Imagine being told by Stake Presidents and bishops and EQ presidents that something is wrong if you’re still single, or even that “you’re failing your priesthood duty by not being married.”

      What is this gay RM to do? Their only recourse is to suffer in silence or risk further awkwardness by coming out.

      So with all due respect, no, they are not the same. The Church very obviously has different standards and expectations for single heterosexual and single homosexual members.

      • There is one standard of behavior – the law of chastity. Why should there be a special carve-out for any particular individual or group determined not to abide by it? There is no question that God loves His children, but do they love Him?
        John 14:21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me

        From reading your post, it seems to me that the origin of the struggle is your testimony of the law of chastity is not strong. You say “the Church encourages … told by Stake Presidents and bishops and EQ presidents,” but do you not entertain the possibility that the law of chastity is a law given by the God of Heaven who loves His children and those who promote this ideal (albeit in a way that is annoying to this hypothetical BYU student) are attempting to carry out this commandment?

        Everyone has good and bad inclinations. Things I have been tempted with, stemming from my bad inclinations have been with me for decades. I know what Hamlet means:

        but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
        were better my mother had not borne me: I am very
        proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at
        my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,
        imagination to give them shape, or time to act them
        in. What should such fellows as I do crawling
        between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
        all; (Act 3, scene 1)

        I have some empathy, a lot of sympathy, and tremendous pity for that hypothetical RM. It is similar to my brother’s situation. After his bachelor’s degree (not BYU), he stayed in college for another degree, became incredibly cynical, and resentful. He got into gay porn, apostatized, etc. So you see, suffering in silence and coming out are not the only options. On the other hand, there is another path. This gay RM (who probably should not follow the worldly tradition of making his sexual inclination his primary identity) can go on the difficult, but not resentful or cynical path of keeping the law of chastity, like everyone else. Our mortal coils do have some neural plasticity and our behaviors can change our minds. Perhaps over time that particular inclination can be diminished or redirected.

        • I will thank you not to question my testimony in any particular, including as it concerns the Law of Chasity.

          Frankly, you don’t know anything about my experience and determination to keep my covenant to live the Law of Chastity, so it’s wholly presumptuous to assume I struggle with the November 5 Policy because of weak faith.

  6. I think it’s kind of a narrow comparison you’re making by saying “hey are two times God said something that he later rescinded, maybe he’ll doing it again with our LGBT friends?”
    What about all the other times he has given commandments that we are still bound to today? After all, he never rescinded the ten commandments, he made them even harder to obey……

    • If you read my post carefully, and what I’ve written elsewhere on this topic, you’ll notice that I’m not really arguing for this. I have merely raised it as one possibility that others have likewise noted, although I personally think it’s very unlikely (as I’ve made clear in other posts on my blog).

  7. Stephen, I love all your content and what you have to say and this is no exception, but I do disagree.

    I’ll concede that your explanation here could be the case, but I’m unconvinced. I see it as a much more practical reason, homelife. If I’m the child of gay parents and I go to church learning about families chasity and such, and my parents believe it, then they break up and the homelife is ruined, the family is split and they child is in a broken home. This is the same policy as for polygamist families and it makes sense. If my parents are atheists, alcoholics or swingers and they latch on to what I bring home then them accepting it doesn’t harm ones homelife, and can even be a benefit.

    I feel like that’s where the brethren’s hearts were with this policy, I think going down these other explanations may just hurt us in the long run. Still though I love your content please keep up the great work.

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