From recent news, I believe there is reason for hope that John Dehlin’s pending disciplinary council will not bear the fruits that we had at first feared. The case must still be made for Kate Kelly, who (unless things change) will be tried in absentia this Sunday, June 22, 2014 at the Oakton Stake Center in Northern Virginia on charges of apostasy.

The question of whether Kate Kelly has committed apostasy is clear cut. The notion of apostasy is not a slippery one. Merriam-Webster defines apostasy as “the renunciation of a religious faith” and “an abandonment of what one has voluntarily professed : a total desertion or departure (as from one’s principles or party)” (“Apostasy.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.) The LDS church’s website, lds.org, defines apostasy as “When individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel…”

Kate Kelly’s position on priesthood ordination, as I understand it from a conversation with her and from what I’ve gathered online, runs like this: the church should ordain women to the priesthood, female ordination is not fundamentally inconsistent with church doctrine, and female ordination will help to retain church members at a time when the church is losing unprecedented numbers and in a world where women see an increasing incongruity between the equality they enjoy outside of the church and the inequality they experience inside the church. Furthermore, she believes that God has always encouraged the saints in His church, from the Old Testament until the modern day, to ask for those things that they believe are needed: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Thus, the goal of her organization, Ordain Women, is to ask the LDS church leadership to pray for revelation from the Lord concerning the issue of female ordination, just as Emma asked Joseph to inquire of the Lord as to His will concerning the use of tobacco.

The LDS church has many key purposes. The primary ones are summed up by the LDS church’s threefold mission to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, and redeem the dead. We can also say there are several things that the LDS church is “about,” religious ideas that form the backbone of our belief system. These include the plan of salvation, the atonement of Christ, the restoration of Christ’s church upon the earth, continuing revelation, and Christ-like service. The restoration of Christ’s church includes the restoration of the power of God on earth. This, in turn, includes the restoration of the priesthood and the notion that some people must be ordained to the priesthood. But the church is not about ordaining men to the priesthood; though ordination is a key function, ordaining men to the priesthood does not, as such, form the backbone of our belief, as illustrated by the evolving practices concerning ordination from the founding of the church onward. Therefore, it cannot be said that Ordain Women’s request is fundamentally at odds with the church’s threefold mission or any of its foundational principles. We must conclude, then, that Ordain Women’s mission does not constitute apostasy.

Some Mormons claim that the wording of the 5ᵗʰ Article of Faith constitutes an impediment to female ordination: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” However, a statement that begins “a man [i.e., male] must be called of God” cannot reasonably be taken to logically exclude women. Of course, it is not even obvious that this usage of the word “man” refers only to men; before the late 20ᵗʰ century, the term “man” was the primary term used to describe humankind (e.g., “we believe that all men are created equal”).

One might question whether Kate Kelly has violated LDS temple covenants, specifically the covenant not to speak evil of the Lord’s anointed. It’s important to note that this does not constitute apostasy. Even so, Kate Kelly does not appear to have violated this covenant. Everyone who receives their endowment is the Lord’s anointed, and general authorities are not anointed when they are ordained and set apart. This temple covenant offers no special protection to church leaders; it applies to all endowed members. LDS spokesperson Michael Otterson is more guilty of speaking evil of Kate Kelly than vice versa.

To date, LDS church leaders have refused to meet with Ordain Women. In response, Ordain Women organized events to draw attention to its cause, which some Mormons have characterized as a deliberate attempt to embarrass or shame LDS church leaders. Instead of meeting with members of Ordain Women, church leaders have opted to communicate with Ordain Women obliquely via press releases from its public affairs department. Apparently, a key reason for Kate Kelly’s pending disciplinary council is that she did not obey what was communicated to Ordain Women by the public affairs department. (For the purposes of this discussion, I will leave aside the question of whether obedience to the public affairs department — the employees of which are not sustained by the membership — is a prerequisite for maintaining church membership.)

For some, doing something deliberately to embarrass church leaders is ipso facto doing something that fundamentally opposes the church. I do not believe that they acted to deliberately embarrass church leaders. Nevertheless, it cannot be reasonably maintained that doing so renounces religious faith or turns away from the principles of the gospel. Therefore, It is not apostasy. At most, it violates the principle embodied one or two of the temple recommend questions; viz., the ones pertaining to affiliation and sustaining. However, these are questions that decide whether one can enter an LDS temple, not questions that determine the boundaries of membership or belief.

More to the point, it is easily shown that Kate Kelly’s involvement in attempts to draw attention to Ordain Women do not even violate the temple recommend questions. Indeed, sincere requests that leaders seek revelation concerning a matter implicitly affirm and sustain these leaders’ ability to seek and receive revelation and to pronounce that revelation with authority. This is not apostasy. It is, at worst, nonconformity — specifically, it does not conform to the LDS expectation for deference to ecclesiastical authority. And this is where it gets dangerous. Early 19ᵗʰ century empiricists characterized deference to authority as “mental slavery and the repression of individual thought.” John Stuart Mill softened this formulation, saying that the individual who defers to authority abdicates his own judgment in deference to the judgment of someone else. It’s difficult to understand how either formulation is consistent with the principles of the restored gospel, a tradition that urges us to seek inspiration and act according to the dictates of our own conscience. Brigham Young was very clear on this: “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.”

Kate Kelly’s alleged determination to embarrass or shame church leaders is not an exercise in recreational antagonism. Rather, her events brought attention to her authority-affirming request in a manner consistent with the most dignified customs of 21st century Western discourse. The leaders of our church are free moral agents, and when it comes to modes of expression that fall within reasonable bounds, the responsibility to avoid embarrassment or shame falls squarely upon their shoulders. So, too, does the obligation to behave graciously when they find themselves embarrassed or shamed. After all, where much is given, much is required.

One thing that the church is clearly “about” is teaching its members to seek inspiration and practice the gospel according to the dictates of their own conscience — not out of deference to authority. Continuing revelation is a lagging moral indicator. Whether it’s Heber J. Grant’s admonition to German Mormons to be loyal to Germany’s Nazis regime or Harold B. Lee’s attempts to keep blacks out of BYU or Ezra Taft Benson’s belief that the civil rights movement was a communist conspiracy or the LDS church’s official stance discouraging interracial marriage, the church leadership has repeatedly relied on courageous members of good conscience to help it come to terms with the need to change church policy, church doctrine, and church activities.

Even today, too many members believe the oft-discredited principle, articulated by the Presiding Bishopric in the June 1945 Improvement Era:

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

In response to an inquiry concerning the preceding statement and the article that it appeared in, President George Albert Smith repudiated it and proclaimed that it was at odds with the doctrine of the LDS church, citing Joseph Smith’s statement, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” (Full text of both the article and President Smith’s response is here.) A common rejoinder invokes Ezra Taft Benson’s talk, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” which he gave to an audience at BYU when he was an apostle. I find it curious why devout Mormons are so eager to cite this talk, while so few people refer to his 1966 pamphlet titled, “Civil Rights, Tool of Communist Deception.” As counsel, many Mormons find much that is valuable in apostle Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals” talk, but it is a mistake to consider it a statement of policy or doctrine on behalf of the church.

KUTV, the Salt Lake City CBS network affiliate, recently reported that Apostle Russell M. Ballard and President of the Quorums of the Seventy L. Whitney Clayton visited Kate Kelly’s stake on May 17, 2014 to train local leaders. KUTV reported that local leaders asked Elder L. Whitney Clayton about Ordain Women, and Elder L. Whitney Clayton reportedly responded that public advocacy of ordination is an act of apostasy. As demonstrated by above, this statement defies both reason and doctrine. What’s more, it makes apostates out of thousands of active, faithful Bloggernacle participants and Facebook users. If Elder L. Whitney Clayton has the courage to match his convictions, then he should be training local leaders everywhere to crack down on bloggers and commenters across the entire Mormon blogosphere and the Mormon presence on Facebook.

We cannot resolve question of whether she is an apostate by pretending that we know what the Lord will or will not eventually do; in fact, such a pretense is far more troubling and heretical than proposing that apostles prayerfully inquire about it. Whether you agree or disagree with Kate Kelly, she is not an apostate who must be cut off. If you do believe that she is an apostate, you would also need to classify as apostate those who, prior to 1978, publicly suggested that LDS church leaders should inquire of the Lord whether blacks should be ordained. The reason the accusations against Kate Kelly make the church look bad is because they are bad. From The New York Times to Good Morning America and countless other media outlets, the subtext of the coverage is “all those strange things you always suspected about Mormons have turned out to be true.”

In conclusion, Kate Kelly’s public persona invites us to judge her public actions that derive from the mission of the organization that she founded and from her activities to draw attention to her cause. Some insist on clinging to the proposition that she has committed apostasy. But when a proposition is so easily shown to be false, I will not admit that it enters the boundaries of reasonable disagreement. Indeed, this is why non-Mormons generally find the accusation of apostasy against Kate Kelly to be troubling, strange, and cult-like.