When I talk to Mormon friends, occasionally someone will mention a mutual friend or acquaintance who claims to have left the LDS Church because of theological differences or personal revelation. In those conversations, someone will usually say something like this: “He’s either cheating on his wife, addicted to porn, or gay.” There seems to be a strong presumption in Mormon culture that anyone who cites theological differences or personal revelation as their reason for leaving the Church is being insincere and dishonest, and that the real reason such a person leaves the Church is that he is guilty of some serious sin.
Where Does this Presumption of Serious Sin Come From?
When Richard Dutcher, the once-beloved and once-Mormon film maker, announced that he was leaving the Church, he made the following observation:
I have often joked (darkly, and among friends only) that when wandering sheep stray from the fold, Mormons don’t go looking for them. What happens is: somebody climbs up on a really tall tower, takes out a high-powered rifle, gets the poor straying soul in the cross-hairs, and then blows his wandering brain out.
The presumption that a person’s decision to leave the Church must be motivated by serious transgression has deep roots in Mormon culture. As I’ve studied early Mormon history, I’ve been struck that those who had once been among the most faithful laborers in the Church were quickly denounced as “adulterers” as soon as they left it. Oftentimes, these same persons would later re-join the Church just a short time later, and would immediately be restored to the same high office they formerly held. Alleged adulterer one day, returned prodigal Apostle in full fellowship the next.
It seems this presumption of sin arises when someone leaves the Church because we believe a person is entitled to the guidance of the Holy Spirit when he or she is living righteously. So when someone does something that we believe is contrary to what the Holy Spirit would tell someone to do, e.g., leave the Church, we assume it must be because that person has “lost the Spirit” due to some some serious transgression.
However, that assumption seems to overlook the LDS belief that a person can be good, and yet be mistaken in his reasoning or in his perceptions and interpretations of what he believes the Holy Spirit is telling him. After all, the Doctrine & Covenants describes one category of inhabitants of the Terrestrial Kingdom as the “honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men.” (D&C 76:75.) It seems LDS scripture acknowledges that a person can be honorable and yet be mistaken or deceived, and that one need not be guilty of serious transgression in order to reach incorrect conclusions about important theological questions.
Why Does This Matter?
There are several reasons why I think Mormons should be concerned about the assumption that those who cite theological differences or personal revelation as their reason for leaving the Church must be guilty of some serious transgression:
- Such an assumption seems to be a classic example of an “unrighteous judgment” because it is based on speculation rather than known facts;
- Making such unrighteous judgments about people who leave the Church is likely to further discourage, rather than encourage, such persons to return to the Church;
- It is fundamentally un-Christian to assume the worst about people, and anyone who has ever been unjustly accused of committing an offense knows how hurtful that can be;
- When we believe someone is guilty of serious sin, it can inhibit our ability to treat that person with the kindness and love that we, as Christians, are obligated to show them;
- When we assume serious transgression is the “real” reason behind someone’s departure from the Church, we are essentially writing it off as being all “their problem,” which can mislead us into thinking there is nothing we can do for them;
- When we assume someone is guilty of serious transgression, we will be more likely to take a “holier-than-thou” approach if and when we do decide to reach out to such a person, which will only confirm their conclusion that the Church is not a place they want to be.
In closing, it seems that if we active Mormons are serious about wanting to recover our “lost sheep,” we could benefit by taking to heart something that Thomas Merton said in the context of loving our enemies:
Do not be too quick to assume that your enemy is an enemy of God just because he is your enemy. . . . Perhaps he fears you because he can find nothing in you of God’s love and God’s kindness and God’s patience and mercy and understanding of the weaknesses of men.
Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God, for it is perhaps your own coldness and avarice, your mediocrity and materialism, your sensuality and selfishness that have killed his faith.
I am particularly interested in hearing the views of active, believing Mormons on this issue. Might someone be sincere and honest in stating that he has left the Church because of theological differences or personal revelation, or is there always some secret vice or other hidden concern (e.g., wanting to drink alcohol, being offended by someone at church), that really explains why they leave?
One final note: because I am an active, believing Mormon who is writing this post for an audience that I presume will mostly be active, believing Mormons, I am writing this post from that point of view. These questions will have obvious answers for those who are not active, believing Mormons, but based on my anecdotal evidence, these questions may not have such obvious, uniform answers for those who are.
Final, final note: please see my clarifying comment #90 below.