Ezra Taft Benson Was a Prophet of God: LDS, Women’s Issues, and Gay Marriage
By Ken K. Gourdin
I had the following thoughts about following the Living Prophets, gay marriage, and women’s issues in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Could a prophet ask me to do something I found uncomfortable, unsettling, or difficult (short of murder or suicide bombing)? Sure. My approach to verifying that that’s what God wants me to do, however, would not change: I’d still fast; I’d still pray; I’d still ponder; and once I received confirmation, I would go forward. Would plural marriage be difficult? Sure, but, as I always say, “Ya hafta monog before ya kin polyg!” :-D The crucibles of our time in the Church of Jesus Christ, however (as can plainly be seen by the currency of these issues in the media and the Church’s response to them), are same-sex marriage and women’s issues/women and the Priesthood. I don’t really have “a dog in either of those fights,” so it’s relatively easy for me to say, “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve. But as for me and my house, we will follow the Living Prophets, and we will serve the Living God” (see Joshua 24:15).
I think there is danger in second-guessing the path the Living Prophets have laid out. It’s one thing to say, “I believe the Restored Gospel is true and that we are led by Living Prophets today. However …” And it’s another thing entirely to say, “I believe the Restored Gospel is true and that we are led by Living Prophets today. Therefore …” As long as government is in the marriage business (whether it should be or not), is there a legally defensible rationale for limiting marriage to only opposite-sex couples? Maybe not. (I see some merit in that argument, however I may feel about it personally.) But I don’t think the Living Prophets can afford to say, “Well, is it legal? Great! As long as it’s legal, anything goes.” Elder Dallin H. Oaks has made clear that Church leaders simply cannot stick their moistened fingers up to find out which way the legal winds are blowing and act accordingly. I believe that, with the Proclamation on the Family, “The Fifteen” at the time felt the same.
The Brethren have consistently taught that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that sex outside of marriage is wrong. While I can see how someone who favors gay marriage (and who hopes that one day, the Church of Jesus Christ will sanction and solemnize gay marriages (or even gay sealings)) would appeal to the Priesthood ban and its lifting as support for that stance, there is one problem with it: there was always a contingent of the Brethren who stated that the ban would be lifted one day; not so with the Church’s “ban” on gay marriages/sealings. Ditto for women and the Priesthood: there has never been a contingent of the Brethren who have taught that the “ban” of women from the Priesthood one day will be lifted.
Some people say, “Gosh, it’s really a black mark on the history of a Church that claims to be led by continuing revelation that it was so far behind the curve with respect to Civil Rights.” I don’t agree with that assessment: maybe it’s right; maybe it’s wrong. But this much is certain: the Church’s history with regard to blacks and the Priesthood does provide a template for resisting change that the Lord wants nothing to do with (unless and until He says otherwise). Why was the ban lifted? Because God said it should be. Why wasn’t it lifted before then? Because, as I understand it, God told President McKay (who was perfectly willing to lift the ban), “Not yet, and don’t ask again.”
So let’s consider three issues: (1) Blacks and the Priesthood; (2) Women’s ordination; and (3) Gay marriage:
- Have people agitated for the Church to change its stance on all of these issues? Check!
- Has such agitation focused less on a “top-down” impetus for such change and more on a “bottom-up” impetus for it? Check!
- Disregarding the fact that none of the Brethren have ever said that a change allowing for women’s ordination or for Church-sanctioned gay marriages/sealings could be expected at some future time (as some Brethren did with respect to ordaining blacks), have people used the latter case as evidence that the former two proposed changes possibly could occur? Check!
As I’ve also said before, God doesn’t care whether we think He’s racist, sexist, homophobic, politically incorrect, or otherwise bigoted. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. . . . As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). While I’m not indicting anyone in particular here, Lehi’s vision of the rod, the path, the tree of life, and the great and spacious building also has currency (see 1 Nephi 8). The more time passes, the fuller that building will get, and the louder the mocking will get. And even some (perhaps many) members of the Church of Jesus Christ will forsake the rod, the path, and the fruit to gain acceptance among its inhabitants. It’s not easy to be mocked by people with whom you would have fellowship as your brothers and sisters in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Did we wonder to what he was referring when President Benson wrote his seminal address, Beware of Pride? After all, back then, there was less divergence between the Church and the world, and much less disagreement (almost none, in fact) among the Saints regarding such issues as women’s ordination and gay marriage. Well, now it’s much easier to see what he was writing about, isn’t it? Some excerpts:
Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.” As Paul said, they “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s (Phil. 2:21) . . .
The proud stand more in fear of men’s judgment than of God’s judgment. (See D&C 3:6–7; D&C 30:1–2; D&C 60:2.) “What will men think of me?” weighs heavier than “What will God think of me?” . . .
Fear of men’s judgment manifests itself in competition for men’s approval. The proud love “the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:42–43.) . . . When pride has a hold on our hearts, we lose our independence of the world and deliver our freedoms to the bondage of men’s judgment. The world shouts louder than the whisperings of the Holy Ghost. The reasoning of men overrides the revelations of God, and the proud let go of the iron rod. (See 1 Ne. 8:19–28; 1 Ne. 11:25; 1 Ne. 15:23–24.)1
While he was not the Prophet at the time he delivered this address, the same can be said of several of President Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet. Particularly apropos of this discussion are his fundamentals seven, eight, and nine:
. . . Seventh: The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
“Thou has declared unto us hard things, more than we are able to bear,” complained Nephi’s brethren. But Nephi answered by saying, “The guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.” (1 Ne. 16:1–2.)
Said President Harold B. Lee:
“You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life … Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow … Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church.” (Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152–153.)
But it is the living prophet who really upsets the world. “Even in the Church,” said President Kimball, “many are prone to garnish the sepulchres of yesterday’s prophets and mentally stone the living ones.” (Instructor, 95:527.)
Why? Because the living prophet gets at what we need to know now, and the world prefers that prophets either be dead or worry about their own affairs. Some so-called experts of political science want the prophet to keep still on politics. Some would-be authorities on evolution want the prophet to keep still on evolution. And so the list goes on and on.
How we respond to the words of a living prophet when he tells us what we need to know, but would rather not hear, is a test of our faithfulness.
Said President Marion G. Romney, “It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets, but it is a greater thing to believe in the living prophets.” And then he gives this illustration:
“One day when President Grant was living, I sat in my office across the street following a general conference. A man came over to see me, an elderly man. He was very upset about what had been said in this conference by some of the Brethren, including myself. I could tell from his speech that he came from a foreign land. After I had quieted him enough so he would listen, I said, ‘Why did you come to America?’ ‘I am here because a prophet of God told me to come.’ ‘Who was the prophet?’ I continued. ‘Wilford Woodruff.’ ‘Do you believe Wilford Woodruff was a prophet of God?’ ‘Yes, sir.’
“Then came the sixty-four dollar question, ‘Do you believe that Heber J. Grant is a prophet of God?’ His answer, ‘I think he ought to keep his mouth shut about old-age assistance.’
“Now I tell you that a man in his position is on the way to apostasy. He is forfeiting his chances for eternal life. So is everyone who cannot follow the living prophet of God.” (Conference Report, April 1953, p. 125.)
Eighth: The Prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.
There will be times when you will have to choose between the revelation of God and reasoning of men—between the prophet and the professor. Said the Prophet Joseph Smith, “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof until long after the events transpire.” (Scrapbook of Mormon Literature, vol. 2, p. 173).
Would it seem reasonable to an eye doctor to be told to heal a blind man by spitting in the dirt, making clay and applying it to the man’s eyes and then telling him to wash in a contaminated pool? Yet this is precisely the course that Jesus took with one man, and he was healed. (See John 9:6–7.) Does it seem reasonable to cure leprosy by telling a man to wash seven times in a particular river, yet this is precisely what the prophet Elisha told a leper to do, and he was healed. (See 2 Kgs. 5.)
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8–9.)
Ninth: The prophet can receive revelation on any matter—temporal or spiritual.
Said Brigham Young:
“Some of the leading men in Kirtland were much opposed to Joseph the Prophet, meddling with temporal affairs …
“In a public meeting of the Saints, I said, ‘Ye Elders of Israel, … will some of you draw the line of demarcation, between the spiritual and temporal in the kingdom of God, so that I may understand it?’ Not one of them could do it …
“I defy any man on earth to point out the path a Prophet of God should walk in, or point out his duty, and just how far he must go, in dictating temporal or spiritual things. Temporal and spiritual things are inseparably connected, and ever will be.” (Journal of Discourses, 10:363–64.)2