The Issue of Change in “The Church”
In the past few years, the online Mormon community has been abuzz with calls for more inclusiveness in the church. “Big tent Mormonism,” as it is being called, is becoming a talking point in some circles, while others stand wary of the extent to which the phrase and concept can be abused. There are so many ways in which we as a people are striving to become more culturally inviting and less insular.
However, taken to a quite plausible (not-so) extreme, calls for doctrinal change in addition to cultural shifts may not be far off. We as a body of saints do have good reason to be wary of politicized catch phrases. Quite common in this conversation and well within the realms of the Bloggernacle is a call for “The Church” (I put this in quotes for a reason) to stop mistreating members of such-and-such a group. When Church leaders say things like “There is room for you here,” there is often a cough coming from the back of the internet room saying, “Unless you’re ____.” Within this blank space, critics affix several classifications such as gay, female, black, unconventional, etc.
The Issue of “The Church”
“The Church” is made up of what I see as three distinct components: 1) Doctrines and ordinances of salvation administered by Christ’s Priesthood authority; 2) Prophetic leadership and revelation with Christ ultimately at the helm, including authority passed through Priesthood keys to local leaders; 3) Individual members and their families working out their own salvation through Christ. When anyone issues a call for “The Church” to do X, in order for me to feel that I can truly agree with the sentiment, I need to know what they mean by “The Church.”
We as members have cause to change. We need to be more forgiving and more understanding. We need to learn to reason with each other. We need to create a place in our wards and branches for any honest seeker of eternal goodness to come and be edified. We need to learn how to call each other to repentance humbly and to receive correction with the same measure of humility. We need to be more tenderhearted while simultaneously learning to take things less personally. This type of change in the Church is necessary. This is what Elder Uchtdorf meant when he said that we should ask, “Lord, is it I?”
But that is not the type of change that is called for. To some, “The Church” being more inviting means a doctrinal change, a major ordinance shift, a moral renegotiation, a change in practice, and abandoning what advocates of some issues call outdated or even harmful. “The Church” means church hierarchal structure, not people. It means holy writ, not individual understanding and application. It means old white men in Salt Lake City, not the 16 year-old young woman in Sierra Leone. Feeling welcome on Sundays means installing “smooth gods” who accept you as you are and demand nothing more in place of knowing that you have the support of your fellow Saints in changing who you are into what God wants you to become as they go through the same difficult and sometimes painful process of an eternal education. It means substituting a pulpit of platitudes in place of an altar of sacrifice.
The Woman with the Issue of Blood
The story in Mark 5 of the woman with the issue of blood gives us a lot of insight into how to navigate this space.
24 “…Jesus went with him; and much people followed him, and thronged him.
25 And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years,
26 And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse,
27 When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment.
28 For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole.
29 And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague.
30 And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes?
31 And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me?
32 And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing.
33 But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth.
34 And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.”
The Issue of the Issue of Blood
New Testament commentators note that the “issue of blood” mentioned here was likely frequent hemorrhaging related to menstruation. For this particular woman, that meant two types of separation:
According to the Law of Moses given in Leviticus, having such an “issue” created a condition of ritual uncleanliness, meaning that those affected could not participate in temple rites or attend Sabbath services in the synagogue. This would continue until seven days after the end of “the issue” (Leviticus 15:19-33). Having a consistent problem of bleeding meant that for twelve years, the woman in the story did not have access to Priesthood blessings, worship services, or the spiritual benefits of consistently learning from other worshipers.
Not only was she precluded from worship services, but the Law also described ritual uncleanliness for those who came in contact with her, making her a social pariah. Friends, family members, husbands, and children would be wary of physical proximity. Meaningful relationships and supportive bonds would be hard to come by.
This kind of context lends more weight to Mark’s comment that she “had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had.” Her distress was obviously profound. She had spent and sacrificed all so that she could regain the companionship of the Lord and the companionship of friends. She had nothing left to give by way of worldly possessions. It was this desire that led her to seek out Jesus, in whom she placed all her hopes.
It would be easy at this point to paint Jesus as disregarding the Law in his contact with her. But according to the Savior, he had not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. It would also be easy at this point to blame her grief on what we in a modern context may view as sexism or the harshness of the Old Testament. Such short-sighted presentism ignores the fact that it was Jehovah, the same person who healed the woman, who gave the Law from Sinai as a guide of church practice. He did not decry the Law in that moment because he knew all the reasons for which he had given it as he declared himself “I AM.”
In part 2, I discuss how this story applies to us now.