Antinomianism and the Church

Antinomianism is generally an epithet signaling heresy in the broader Christian community. It has various meanings but the root idea is the proposition that if one is saved by (typically irresistible) grace, then one’s actions cannot be held to any other standard or laws. The caricature is an idea that there aren’t really any rules you need to live by once you are saved to retain that salvation. The simplified orthodox protestant response is that while that may be technically true, if you have been truly saved then you will live according to moral/divine/scriptural/secular law, because that is what saved people do. Or something.

The idea of antinomianism is so terrifying that Mormon church leaders in Utah grew increasingly discomfited by the promises of perseverance effectuated in the Temple, until Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie threw down the gauntlet and formally disclaimed it (or dramatically curtailed it). The pendulum has swung back in recent years.

I bring this topic up in order to approach an idea that I think is mistaken, but which seems popular anecdotally. It is the idea that whatever the Church is doing is the only way it should be done. And I think it has parallels to antinomianism. I think that the argument goes like this: Despite any fallibility of particular individuals within the authoritative bureaucracy, the Lord gives his imprimatur to the actions of church leaders as mediated through the organizations of the priesthood. Therefore all current policies and teachings of the church have the imprimatur of the Lord. The current policies and teachings therefor are not subject to outside critiques based on moral/divine/scriptural/secular law.

Now, I think that there are multiple reasons why such a position doesn’t make sense. First, it doesn’t seem to jibe with our history. We have examples where influences outside the priesthood bureaucracy changed the church for the better, and others where following internal directives resulted in catastrophe (thankfully these are very rare phenomena). The church is living (by one important account the only true and living church) and consequently always changing. This is a feature, not a bug. Many of the important changes in the church have been initiated outside of the authoritative bureaucracy (think primary, Relief Society, Sunday school, Scouts, the entire Progressive movement). Julie’s comments here resonated on this point. Moreover, in our past, there are some very rare occasions when unquestioned obedience to the directives of church leaders has led to calamities unimaginable to the average member (See Ron Walker’s BYU Studies article, e.g.).

Also historically demonstrated is that the church does adapt to civil law. The earliest revelations on the law of consecration were edited to comply with statutory reality. In a way I don’t completely understand, Elder Oaks has also commented to the effect (I think in response to Sarah Gordon’s work) that the Feds got it right with regards to the Mormon Question.

I’d like to consider another important, but also difficult, area to engage. Now, I’m not a fan of the recent efforts in mobilizing protests. Mostly, because I don’t know or trust the people that are instigating the efforts, and I don’t think such efforts are an effective way to instigate change (that said, I have a tremendous amount of love, respect, and support for my friends who participated in the events and am absolutely appalled by many detractors). Despite my skepticism, I think both pants and prayer are very interesting cases and worthy of attention. In both cases tradition as reified in practice has been exalted in the minds of some as falling under the imprimatur of the Lord. This is of course silly. The problem is that when we don’t make clear distinctions between tradition and the voice of the Lord, often times, as a conservative organization (i.e., often slow to change) we can become burdened by the worst of our past culture. The temple and priesthood ban is an excellent example of this.

Now, I’m fully aware that certain actions and materials can have real and important meaning. For example we ascribe particular meaning to white baptismal clothing. This meaning didn’t exist when Jesus or Joseph Smith were baptized, but it is something we have accepted and celebrated for generations. Often times the meanings we ascribe to certain actions and materials like this are quite valuable. But sometimes there are also other more valuable things.

I don’t know the most expedient methods to counter the ideas implicit in an antinomian approach to church practice and consequently help the church live. My current thoughts revolve around the dissemination of information and the having of conversations. I think that when you learn that we haven’t always done things a certain way, it opens the possibilities for doing it differently in the future. I also believe in the reasonableness of people generally, at least the ones with whom I’m interested in talking. Even if a thing has never changed, perhaps there is still room. Also I may very well be wrong, and I am certainly naïve. So you are justified to go and do as you wish.


  1. The problem is that when we don’t make clear distinctions between tradition and the voice of the Lord, often times, as a conservative organization (i.e., often slow to change) we become burdened by the worst of our past culture. The temple and priesthood ban is an excellent example of this.

    Totally agree. As a senior missionary I am dismayed every time I open the little white book and see only sisters being advised on their modesty. I am in full support unburdening ourselves of the worst of past culture.

  2. Exceptionally well said. When you couple a tradition from decades or even a century ago with a culture that believes whatever the organization does is the divine will of God, the result is inevitable tensions vis á vis the roles of women, minorities, etc.

  3. Yes, we do have culture intermingled with our faith. And yes, it is sometimes problematic.

    I think you’re right to think that conversations can be helpful in helping one to separate culture from faith — but I have two concerns — your approach seems to be on changing other people, and you are already discounting the reasonableness of those other people and categorizing people into factions. To me, this doesn’t seem like an effective way to encourage credible and meaningful conversation.

  4. “we become burdened by the worst of our past culture.”

    There are weird effects from this. Take the beard ban, for example. It’s treated as though it was written in tablets of stone, yet we can actually see how culturally-contingent it originally was. Now after so many years it seems like an outdated relic to many people, even many church members, to the point that changing it through any sort of formal process would seem downright weird. It is easier for the church to say “you must be clean shaven” than it is for us to say “OK, you have permission to wear a beard now.” For some reason the latter would seem much stranger, even though it expresses the same underlying control over the facial grooming of others. (It focuses on controlling other people, to use ji’s reasoning against him.)

    I don’t think there will ever be enough cultural pressure to change the beard ban, as there was with polygamy or the PH/T ban. And when you complain about it you seem petty, weird, whiny, obsessed with something that “doesn’t matter,” etc. Same goes for wearing pants. But if such things really didn’t matter, why are we insisting that such rules remain? It’s as though people are saying:

    “No, it’s not a big deal, quit whining! But yes, it is a big enough deal that I will freak out if you even think about suggesting we change it! Also, just worry about yourself!”

  5. Christopher says:

    As all good Wesleyan Mormons are, I’m a sucker for frank criticisms of creeping antinomianism.

    Good stuff, J. Thanks.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    ji, I appologize for not communicating more clearly. While I do certainly suffer a lack of patience for fundamentalism in its various incarnations, I meant to say that I believe that people in the church are generally reasonable and that it is worth conversing with them.

    BHodges, that is a great example.

    And Christopher, cheers.

  7. Great post, J. I think one of our biggest problems as a people is assuming that because something is currently done a particular way, that’s the way it must always be. If we can’t remember it being done any other way or aren’t aware of it having been different in the past, it’s sort of natural to assume it must be an eternal principle and/or it can only change by divine fiat. I’m not really the protesting type, but the more I’ve learned about how much has changed in the church and the circumstances leading up to particular changes, the more comfortable I’ve become with the idea of change (and the less uncomfortable I am with other people’s protests).

  8. Great fun. Our our quasi-antinomianism is now mostly hidden.

  9. Rebecca J, maybe I got this from you. Seems appropriate.

    “If there’s one thing Mormons excel at, it’s enshrining the status quo and assuming that if we do anything, there must be a good reason for it, and if there’s a good reason, it must have been revealed as the only way to do it, and if so, then it must have always been that way in all dispensations.  And a lot of people’s faith can be shaken when it turns out not to always have been that way, which unravels that chain of reasoning back from that point until you doubt the premise, i.e., that any of it was revealed at all.”

  10. Thanks for this post. Some of my Church friends are very uncomfortable when it is brought up how various teachings, practices, doctrines, policies have changed. Even something as simple as comparing late 19th century Church leaders’ views on vaccination compared with the most recent 1976 First Presidency Statement on the subject leads to considerable consternation in some people. Never mind comparing Joseph F. Smith vs Jeffrey Holland on birth control.

  11. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    I agree with much of the artlcle but there is a caveat worth pointing to, and that is that our leaders even when they are wrong are our leaders and we must be careful in how we respond to them. That is, they don’t suddently become illigitimate if they think that women should wear pants or men should wear white shirts. My attitude has always tried to be, “yes, I think he/she is wrong, but I still believe that overall they do good work”. Why, because the church needs order. Have I told people–including leaders–when I think they are wrong. Yes, when I thought the wrong was more imporant than not criticizing. At the same time I believe in reaffirming the hierarchy because organizations don’t function without it. I remember that when I ran a military dispensary I got into it with the lower ranking staff. The guy above all of us heard the commotion and came in and reprimanded them for insubordination. then, he took me into his office and let me have it for handling the situation badly, He needed the system to work and that meant the men had to respect me, but then I had to learn to do it the right way in order for it to do its work right. It worked out well because the men retained respect for the system, and I changed the way I led them and they learned to respect me. It may not always work, but illigitimizing the system never works unless you simply want to bring it down. Of course, for that to work requires men and women who learn from their mistake and know how to differentiate the gospel from their personal practices. A long winded thought.

  12. As far as vaccines go, the message from the church in the late 19th and early 20th century seems mixed. Charles Penrose and Abraham Woodruff were against it, but Joseph F. Smith in 1910 recounted receiving the smallpox vaccine as a child and praising and recommending that others get it. I don’t know of any official message from the church regarding vaccines in the late 19th century. Also, and I don’t have a source for this, but the church may have actually recommended the vaccine in the year 1900. It should be noted that Abraham Woodruff became an apostle at age 23. He died eight years later from smallpox. Had he not opposed the vaccine, he could’ve easily become the prophet. Proof that God has a (sometimes morbid) sense of humor. Just a few years after his death we know the prophet himself was recommending the vaccination.

  13. J, this has implications for our history as well. For example, if something happened in a particular way, that must be the way the Lord planned it, and it could not have happened any other way. That seems to be contrary to our understanding of agency, and who is to say that while the Lord had a plan in place if someone lost parts of the manuscript of the Book of Mormon translation, we also have to assume that Joseph Smith and Martin Harris certainly had a choice in how they acted. There are probably lots of other examples, but we tend to see only what did happen, and assume that it is all part of the perfect plan. I think the contrasting example is of the Brother of Jared seeing the finger of the Lord. The Lord seems genuinely surprised when he asks, in all seriousness, “Sawest thou more than this?” (Eth 3:9)

  14. thanks for this great post J., but sometimes i get scared, and i mean real scared on where it’ll all end, if the church bends to every protest… imagine me *an african*, advocating a “wear traditional attire to pass sacrament”?
    maybe it’ll help if the line btwn tradition/revelation is CLEARLY drawn

  15. J. Stapley says:

    kevinf, I totally agree. Providential history is often our theodicy.

    cesc101, I’m not sure that it is even possible to have a bright line between tradition and revelation (though I do think that we have a lot to learn from the Catholics), or that it would be the best thing. I think that the intra-church dialogue should be robust and honest, and I don’t think that does any violence to Church leader’s prerogative to govern the Church.

  16. Senile Old Fart says:

    I think we may be seeing the effect of bureaucratic & executive inertia. In the absence of revelation, things must remain as they have been. And there is a great difficulty in distinguishing inspiration from what I feel is right. Plus, in the present form of executive decision-making by the top 15 in the Church, a single person can veto any proposal. Sometimes (as in the Priesthood/Temple ban), someone needs to die in order for things to change.

  17. As usual, great post J. Yes, learning more about the history and the “behind the scenes” inner workings of the Church has healthily killed the notion I used to have that the way things are done are exactly the way the way they are “supposed” to happen. Greg Prince has spoken about how “trickle-up” revelation was a primary force which shaped the day to day Church in which we live. Then correlation (while it started benignly at first) began to choke off trickle-up revelation by, well, correlating everything and making it seem as though all Mormons are monolithic. It’s liberating to learn of the rich diversity that has traditionally existed outside of “correlation”.

  18. A very excellent post, thanks.

  19. I learned a new word today: Antinomianism. It’s a great post, J, with a ton to think on, and makes me all the more comfortable with flux and flow within the tradition. It also draws a bright line, as BHodges pointed out, where the absurdity of things like the beard policy become antiquated but stuck… just because.

  20. Rachel E O says:

    Excellent, delightful post. First of all, can anyone share a link to the comment that Elder Oaks made on the Feds and the Mormon Question, or the work by Sarah Gordon to which he was maybe commenting in response?

    Also, re: this from the OP [see? I’m catching onto this blogging lingo] on the antinomian parallels common in LDS thinking:

    I think that the argument goes like this: Despite any fallibility of particular individuals within the authoritative bureaucracy, the Lord gives his imprimatur to the actions of church leaders as mediated through the organizations of the priesthood. Therefore all current policies and teachings of the church have the imprimatur of the Lord. The current policies and teachings therefor are not subject to outside critiques based on moral/divine/scriptural/secular law.

    Most of my immediate family members — despite recognizing the fallibility of prophets and the problematic or complicated nature of various things in our collective history [I’m a direct descendant of Isaac Chauncey Haight, stake president who ordered the MMM, and my father made sure that I was aware of the lessons of that tragedy] — also exhibit these broader antinomian-like tendencies. However, confirming the intuition in the concluding paragraph of the OP, a recent experience with my family indicated that perhaps many (maybe just some?) antinomian-like LDS are nonetheless generally reasonable and open to conversation on this front.

    Last year, when the subject of women in the Church (including but not only women-and-the-priesthood) sort of unintentionally came up at a family gathering, initially my mom and siblings were quite horrified at what my husband and I were saying. But we pressed through in what I hope was a civil, reasoned way, and after a much-appreciated and matter-of-fact intervention from a brother-in-law with a conventionally conservative persona, the conversation that we had never really planned on having out of certainty that it would go very badly actually went quite well. We didn’t persuade anyone wholly to our perspective, I don’t think. But I do think that we at least persuaded them not to be afraid of our perspective, and to see that it is not necessarily out-of-step with a faithful LDS covenant-keeping approach to the gospel.

    Or maybe not. Maybe they just avoided giving us the impression that they think we’re apostate in the interests of keeping the peace. Ha! :)

  21. J. Stapley says:

    Rachel, I was lazy and so didn’t go back to cite what I remembered in my post. I was remembering a talk in 2009-2010, perhaps this one (for fun compare to this one). For Gordon’s work, check out The Mormon Question: Polygamy and Constitutional Conflict in Nineteenth-Century America, which was based on her dissy.

  22. J. Stapley says:

    …and perhaps more explicitly in his PBS interview:

    HW: The question of religious freedom that we were addressing: I guess my question is, everybody has a different take on this. When the supreme courts finally weighed in and defined religious freedom and boundaries of it in relation to the Mormons, do you feel then that the Supreme Court ruling was overreaching, flawed or inappropriate, given the situation? There’s a range of opinions, as you well know as a Mormon and as a scholar of religious freedom and as a legal mind.

    DHO: I am of two minds on whether the Reynolds case overreached the proper bounds of religious freedom. On one hand it was a terribly prejudiced ruling and as a result of it, some of my relatives went to prison, and I can’t ignore hostility to the ruling for that reason.

    On the other hand, it was a development in formulating how religious organizations would relate to government, putting limits on how far religious practice could be permitted to go. And there have to be some limits to religious practice, even though it’s based on belief that is protected by the Constitution. There have to be limits on practice, and the Reynolds case was a first cut at putting limits on religious freedom, and those limits had to be placed. While you can argue with where the limits are placed — and they’ve been adjusted for more than a century since that ruling — it was a legitimate thing for the government to try to define them. [and subsequent comments]

  23. Rachel E O says:

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks much for sharing the links/excerpts.

  24. The problem with nomianism is that it brings people outside the law and allows them all sorts of flexibility. Paul said this explicitly. Paul saw grace as a gift from God and felt that he was saved by grace. Paul also went on to redefine Christianity without the permission of the twelve. He changed the doctrine and presented the leadership with a fait accompli. Our leadership does not want that, nor do most, or nearly all, of the members. Thus the distrust of nomianism.

    The problem with evangelical nomianism is that it has turned formulaic: confess Jesus as Savior >> go to heaven. I think what Paul meant was that true Grace must have elements of his vision on the Road to Damascus. It is no formula and it is not necessarily easy. This is not LDS understanding of grace, or calling and election made sure, which seem to be the same in the Church. The problem with LDS understanding is that the Church has turned saving grace into an ordinance, which once given cannot be un-given even if the recipient was not necessarily spiritually prepared. In which case, the ordinance was not valid, but who is to say?

    If you are so selected by Grace, as on the Road to Damascus, you can do as you please because God has given you a gift and will not take it back. Let us assume, on the issue of pants and prayer, that there are people in favor of both who have that strong form of Grace, or elements of it. Then they are acting within their spiritual rights and the Church is not. Then the Church may be acting in bad faith, as if the Church were a monolith. More to the point, the bishop is acting in bad faith who condemns pants and prayers as proposed by people full of Grace. Grace can only be comprehended by Grace.

    Who was right, Joan or the Inquisition? Joan was still burned at the stake.

  25. I have sympathy for the point Ignacio is trying to make, about the benefit of having a functioning structure in place (I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say we need hierarchy), but here is where I feel the crucial missing link is: In the church hierarchy today, where is the higher officer stepping in to not only call out the “lowly” for their insubordination but to then take aside the authority figure and telling him in no uncertain terms that how he was “leading” was neither effective nor ok. Yes, for the system to work we need to be willing to learn and improve and not demand perfection, but we also need accountability.
    I think something like women wearing pants to church or asking the general authorities to invite women to pray in general conference are subtle ways that leaders can come to a realization that there are things occurring that need to be addressed. I think it is absolutely every member’s responsibility to have and use their voice in providing feedback to church leadership. While it may appear so out of cultural tradition, the practice of asking for a sustaining vote is not meant to be perfunctory. The title of this blog is from that scriptural direction: by common consent.

    You have raised an interesting point. What is the limit of the institutional church, what is expressly the domain of the individual’s relationship with the Divine? If we rely on the church institution to tell us what it is ok for us to handle on our own, isn’t that a little illogical? I love what you have written and the issues it raises!

  26. #4. B.Hodges– Thanks for the SparkNotes version with your comment of this first rate post. (I’m willing to take the time to attenuate my reading comprehension and risk my inchoate thoughts here. It’s for a good cause.) I like to read/share this stuff and it has to bridge a few gaps in many age groups and in my own brain. If we look for a particular comment that is SparkNotes quality… it really helps.

  27. What do you mean by sparknotes quality?

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