June 10, 2014

Essay 2 Revised Exploring Church Policy on Cohabitation Email Response to Susan Oxley

by Pastor David Donoghue

Email from David Donoghue Pastor of Scarborough Congregation June 10th 2014 to Apostle Susan Oxley after the meetings regarding Shaun Withrow's priesthood status.

Hi Susan,

I've been continually mulling over the issues regarding cohabitation, and wanted to share some further thoughts, which I've tried to organize by category.

Reiteration of Conflict with Church Positions

As I mentioned in “Exploring Church Policy on Cohabitation” it is my viewpoint that limiting or removing Shaun's authority to function in his priesthood office is in conflict with established church principles and church law, for the following reasons:

The church's Statement of Sexual Ethics makes no mention of cohabitation being immoral.  We are told in this document, on page 3, section “H”, that:

“Sexual ethics should be the same for all people without discrimination”

The church now sanctions the ordination of individuals in committed, long term same-sex relationships, even in areas of the world where secular marriage is not available to them.  Shaun and Danica are also in a committed long term relationship, as evident by the fact that they are engaged, and have purchased a house.  The requirement is not marriage, but “committed, long term relationship” – which they are in.

Section “A”, on page 4, states: “(In addition, we) Evaluate the morality of sexual activity by the degree of mature love, justice, covenant, and faithfulness present in a relationship.”

Again, marriage is not a basis, according to the Statement of Sexual Ethics, for determining if a relationship is moral.  In fact, the statement goes on to describe, in section “C”, just what is immoral sexual activity: this is defined as:

“selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous, degrading, or abusive”.

To suggest that any of these things apply to Shaun would be absurd.  Therefore, based on the standards of the church, Shaun does not warrant any disciplinary action.

The Theological Foundations essay on Sin and Salvation states:

“Doctrine and Covenants 164:6 … stresses that moral behavior and relationships should clearly, consistently, and totally respect the principles of “Christ-like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness” (Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a).

Section 164:6 describes sinful behaviors as attitudes, actions, and relationships that are “selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous, degrading, or abusive” (164:6b). This is equally true for all types of relationships. From the perspective of Section 164:6, there should not be different standards in sexual ethics.”

Section 164:6a  ( http://www.cofchrist.org/d&c164/ ) also states:

“As revealed in Christ, God, the Creator of all, ultimately is concerned about behaviors and relationships that uphold the worth and giftedness of all people and that protect the most vulnerable. Such relationships are to be rooted in the principles of Christ-like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness, against which there is no law.”

The Second Book of Nephi, chapter 6, verse 51 states:

“where there is no law given there is no punishment”

These words are part of our canon which is upheld as:

“the standard of authority on all matters of church government and doctrine, and final standard of reference on appeal in all controversies arising, or which may arise in this Church of Christ” –World Conference Resolution 215

Ramifications of removing Shaun's priesthood authority

To begin with, my congregation will be down 1 priest, in the person of Shaun himself.

In addition, both his parents will resign from the priesthood.  His mother Chris holds the office of teacher, and is our primary outreach minister.  The last seven baptisms we have had are because of her.  Our only children are community kids who are now connected to the church, because of her.  

Shaun's father Darryl is an elder, and has revitalized our congregation's worship experience by installing an awesome audio and video system that enables us to have much more dynamic worship services, and his ministerial passion right now is to continue to find new ways to make worship more powerful and dynamic.

Additionally, Peter Williams, as the father of Danica and future father-in-law of Shaun, has also indicated that he will resign from the priesthood.  He is an elder, and serves with me as co-pastor of Scarborough Congregation.  While I tend to focus on administrative stuff, Peter is more spiritual and is much better suited to what I'll call compassionate ministries.

The loss of these four priesthood members will have a crippling effect upon my congregation.   If Peter steps down, that will automatically advance me to sole pastor, which I’m not sure I’m prepared for.  I feel that I already give more time to the church than I should, so I don’t mind saying that the prospect of losing Peter really concerns me, as does the prospect of losing Shaun, Chris and Darryl.

I want to be clear, so that no one judges Shaun inappropriately, that Shaun did not ask or intend for anyone else to reassign on his behalf.  He (and myself) have simply been told that “this will happen” should Shaun's priesthood authority be taken.

Shaun & Danica are pillars in the young adult community in Ontario, and are known outside of Ontario.  They are also founding members of Community Place, which I understand is deemed to be such a worthy program that it is being replicated in Australia.  They have also been instrumental in revitalizing our senior high camping program.

Removing Shaun's priesthood authority will, I strongly believe, result in a major backlash in our local young adult community, and possibly cause Community Place to collapse.  Unfortunately, I feel that some people would like to see that happen, but I don't feel that you are one of them, and I know you appreciate what our young adults are doing and what they have accomplished.  

It is not just a cliché to say that young adults are the future of the church.  That is quite simply the reality.  They are becoming leaders in the church and will continue to do so – if we don't drive them out.

I asked Alfredo Zelaya how many young adults support either or both senior high camp and Community Place.  He said they have about 300 supporters and 200+ would fall into the young adult range.  They are a close group, and will not tolerate acts of injustice which they will perceive this as.  Also, some of them are non-members, and they will question how committed they wish to be in the wake of such disagreeable action.

When I envision the backlash and potential collapse of our young adults I am reminded of the following words from President Veazey's “A Defining Moment” address:

“In response, let me say the church needs the insights and gifts of all ages to be healthy. Congregations that ignore this principle do so at their own peril.”

These words in turn remind me of Section 163:

“Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.” –verse 4a

Let us paraphrase that as follows:

“Open your ears to hear the voices of young men and women in all nations who passionately desire to serve the church, even as they build a future for themselves.  Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.”

Unwritten Rules

I have to admit, I find the notion of having an unwritten rule, especially regarding such an important topic, to be very disturbing.  How many other unwritten policies does the church have?  How can we know if an unwritten policy is being adhered to?

For example, regarding the unwritten policy of cohabitation, since it is not written, who can say what it's limits or expectations are?

Consider this: Suppose Shaun & Danica were living in separate residences.  But they go on vacation together.   Does sharing the same hotel room, presumably the same bed, result in the unwritten policy being violated?

I can see people responding to that with either:

“Well, no, in that circumstance, given that its just a very temporary arrangement, we would not feel it necessary to take action”


“Yes, in fact, that would be cause for release, suspension, or silence.”

In either case, even in the first example of *not* wanting to remove priesthood authority, can the church prove what the proper course of action is?   Can the church prove the policy is being adhered to or violated?  The answer is of course “no”, since the policy is not written out.

In our church history, we have amassed a *vast* number of World Conference resolutions.  We have passed legislation on an incredibly diverse number of topics.  Yet, somehow, cohabitation was not one of them.  

We have a Church Administrator's Handbook, and a Priesthood manual, both of which make no mention of cohabitation.  The former gives examples of what would warrant various priesthood statues other than active, and cohabitation is not mentioned.  We have the Statement of Sexual Ethics and the theological statement on Sin & Salvation.  Nothing is mentioned in either of these regarding cohabitation.  

How can we not have a written policy on this touchy issue if we feel that we must enforce an unwritten policy?  

When we last met it was mentioned that we don't have a written policy to cover every possible situation.  It was mentioned that we don't have a written policy regarding priesthood getting into fist fights every night, and we also don't have a written policy about priesthood members torturing animals.  

But we don't need to have such policies, because that would fall under the umbrella expectation that priesthood live moral lives.  

This is the issue.  Why can't a man and woman, who are in love with each other, and in a relationship with each other, live under the same roof, before being married to each other?  There is only one answer.  Doing so is considered immoral.

But why?  Why is that immoral?  Again, there can only be one answer.  It is deemed immoral for unmarried people to have sex.

However, that is a viewpoint that is largely outdated, a viewpoint that society seems to no longer endorse.  And, even though some parts of the world, or some individuals, might deem sex between unmarried people as immoral, we need to remember what is stated in the church's positions, for example:

“Sexuality is part of the goodness and sacredness of human creation and is not inherently sinful.” –Statement of Sexual Ethics (We Also Affirm, point “A”).

The reality is, people today will simply not accept an unwritten policy as valid.  Especially when we have a written policy for so many other things.

Here is an example.

WCR 222 was passed in 1879 for the purpose of making it official that the Doctrine & Covenants was to be regarded, with the Bible and the Book of Mormon, as part of our

“standard of reference in case of controversy and difference of opinion upon questions of doctrine and practice in the church”

Think about that.  This church was founded on the concept of continuing revelation, and the D&C was published, as a collection of God's revelations, in the lifetime of Joseph Smith Jr.  How could there be any question of it's status?  Yet, the church felt the need to pass legislation on it, to make it policy that it is to be upheld as authoritative.

This would be like the church saying “let's pass a motion that says the Bible is scriptural”.

But, no official written policy on cohabitation exists.  If we are going to go to such trouble with the D&C to cover such an obvious point, why have we not done so with cohabitation?

We should do so.  Or, better yet, simply make it a non-issue, as society has, and stop enforcing an unwritten policy.

Church Accountability

My wife, who is aware of this situation (in her official capacity as an advisor to the pastorate) made an interesting point the other day.  The church itself is at fault because the church sanctions the ordination of young adults who are not married.  If we are going to insist that priesthood members not live with their significant others until marriage, than we probably should not ordain anyone until they are married, because the reality is, we will forever be mired in this situation.

Young adults are, and should be, called to the priesthood.  We need them to be. We need committed, passionate young adults serving in our priesthood.  Who better to minister to, “reach” and connect with young adults than young adults?  For every two dozen or so young adults who participate in church functions, there is probably only 1 willing to actually step into positions of ministry and leadership.  There are not a lot of Alfredo Zelayas or Matthew Swains.  But we are blessed to have Shaun and Danica moving into the forefront of leadership and ministry.  But, they are still in the minority, in terms of who is willing to passionately proclaim Jesus Christ and serve as committed ambassadors of Community of Christ.

So, we need to keep ordaining those young adults who are willing to so minister, celebrating the fact that we do have some young adults who are deeply committed to the church.  But do we then expect that they should not have a love life?  Or that they should not build a personal future based on sound financial decisions, with the person that they love?  Expecting our young adults who are called and ordained to the priesthood to then give up priesthood or refrain from cohabiting with their partners is just not realistic and will become less so with each passing year.

Universal Application

There is also the question of applying such rigid unwritten polices universally.  Currently, they are not. But, if we want to prevent priesthood from cohabitating, then we need to also give consideration to all priesthood members who are married to divorcees.

In the Gospels, Jesus Christ states that there is only one valid reason for a married couple to get a divorce: someone cheated.  But what if that did not happen?  Many married couples get divorced even though cheating never took place.  According to scripture, this means that the couple are in fact, despite having been divorced, still married to each other, and anyone that they marry afterwards commits adultery with them as a result.

Unreasonable Expectations

If I understand the background correctly, the First Presidency considers cohabitation to be an issue because they expect priesthood members who are not single to live in a relationship reflecting the highest possible covenant available to them.

This seems like a flawed justification for enforcing the unwritten policy.  To begin with, where is this expectation written down? I've never heard of this perceived expectation before our last meeting.

Furthermore, there is a lack of balance in this situation.  In our prior meeting you pointed out that in Australia, same-sex couples, including a priesthood member, can live together in a de-facto marriage, since for them, that is the highest covenant relationship possible for them, since actual marriage is not legal for same-sex couples in that nation.  Yet, straight couples, according to the unwritten rule, need to get married, since that is the highest covenant relationship available to them.

But why?  What is the reason behind the reason?  Why is there an expectation that priesthood must be in the highest covenant relationship available to them? To prove commitment? To prove that someone is moral?

If these things can only be presumed to be true in true marriage, than no exceptions should be made.  For example, if a de-facto marriage can be viewed as being committed enough, and moral enough, for a same-sex couple, than it should be so viewed for a straight couple.  And, if the church does not wish to move in that direction, than it should not exempt same-sex couples.   Yes, that might be the highest covenant relationship available to them, but it cannot be regarded as a true indication of commitment and/or morality, of a sufficient degree to sanction ordination or ongoing priesthood authority, since only true marriage apparently can do so.

Or, the church needs to acknowledge that other types of relationships (such as engagement) are also moral, and committed, and therefore sufficient for ongoing priesthood authority and/or ordination.

To fail to do so makes the church hypocritical.

Incidentally, what will happen if Australia makes same-sex marriage legal?  Some same-sex couples might decide not to get married, or they may wait for a few years until whatever special arrangements they want for their special day can be pulled off.  But, a higher covenant relationship is now available to them.  Will a priesthood member in such a relationship, who, for whatever reason, does not get married, be silenced?

Another flaw with this covenant relationship concept is who decides what is truly sufficient?  Marriage is a legal institution in Canada, available to Shaun & Danica, so from the church's perspective, that is the highest covenant relationship available to them.  However, at this point in their lives, that is not correct.  They are financially sound in terms of having a home for themselves but they are not yet in a position where they can afford the expenses of a wedding and honeymoon, so, the current arrangement that they are in, engaged to be married, is the highest covenant status that they can actually pursue at this time.

While it is true that they could just go to city hall to get married, should the church force upon them a lesser marriage, and destroy a young couple's dreams of how they envision the most special day of their lives unfolding?

Learning from the past

In recent years, the church has made very obvious efforts to protect marriages from suffering from one member of the marriage giving too much time to the church.  I'm sure we are all quite familiar with many examples, from earlier days, of marriages of church members becoming very strained, or even falling apart, because one spouse resented the other spouse's church involvement.

The church clearly does not wish to see a person's commitment to the church becoming a factor in a marriage breaking down.  

The church needs to learn the lessons of the past more deeply, and ensure that it does not drive young couples out of the church before they even get married.  The church should not be the cause of a marriage falling apart, and it should not be the cause of young adults getting married before they are ready, and it should not have such unrealistic expectations regarding marriage that a couple will feel no choice but to withdraw from active church participation.

Why is cohabitating even an issue?

As noted above, it seems that the church has the expectation that priesthood members be held to a higher standard than other people.  With regard to cohabitation, such a view of course becomes a statement, which is that it is immoral for unmarried cohabitation to take place.

However, what is the basis for this viewpoint?  While the church may have members living in places where such views exist (that cohabitation is immoral), we need to be honest with ourselves and acknowledge the fact that society in general, in western first world nations, no longer has such a view, and has not for a very long time.

This is evident by the fact that, well, to begin with, almost everyone these days cohabitates.  Ask yourself something.  When someone you know, perhaps a younger person in your family, or a relative of a close friend of yours, moves in with his or her significant other, do you actually think “that person is immoral?”

We must hear such news many times a year: “Hey, did you hear that John & Sally have bought a place?” – the reaction is probably “congratulations” or “hey that's great!” Hopefully we do not say: “we should hold a prayer service to atone for their sins”.

The law protects the rights of people in common law relationships.  The law does not sanction something regarded as immoral.  Therefore, even the “opinion” of law sides with Shaun & Danica.

Hypocrisy and Justice

The stance that unmarried priesthood members cannot cohabitate with their significant others will be viewed as hypocritical and unjust, and with valid cause.

The basis for enforcing the unwritten policy, as I understand it, is that the First Presidency believes that priesthood must be held to a higher expectation of covenant relationship than anyone else.

This viewpoint, held by the First Presidency, appears, in my opinion, to also be in conflict with the above church resources, which, as noted before, state:

“Sexual ethics should be the same for all people without discrimination”


“From the perspective of Section 164:6, there should not be different standards in sexual ethics.”

It could of course be suggested that being held to a particular standard of covenant relationship is an entirely different topic from sexual ethics.  However, I feel that there is a very real, and direct relationship.  

Again, we have the same-sex issue.  Regardless of other factors, one simple truth is clear: a de-facto relationship is deemed to be sufficient for priesthood ministry.  It clearly is considered ethical enough, or the exception rule would not exist, regardless of the justification for having it.  

Therefore, to then say that for some people, the same arrangement is *not* sufficient results in a different ethical standard being applied to them, which is clearly in violation of a *written* policy.

Also, what about non-priesthood members?  Should a straight couple, living under one roof, be denied communion?  If the answer is “no”, than clearly the church does not regard their arrangement as unethical.  Therefore, it should not so view such an arrangement for priesthood members, because, again a different ethical standard would therefore be in effect, which would be in violation of written policy.

For that matter, should Shaun & Danica, or any couple in the same situation, be denied communion right now?  If the answer is “no”, we would have no reason to remove Shaun's priesthood authority.

If the answer is “yes”, be prepared for young adults to just simply dismiss the church.  

The church leadership needs to give very sober and realistic thought to these issues, anchored in being aware of the pulse of society.  Quite simply, taking away someone's priesthood authority will be viewed by young adults as an indication that the church is hypocritical and unjust, and that will simply not be tolerated by them.  Nothing turns young people away from the church faster than those things, which suggests that they are perhaps far more in tune with the things that really irked Jesus Christ, than we are.

Here is another factor to consider regarding hypocrisy.  The Faithful disagreement document states, in principle 8:

“A person cannot ignore policies because he or she disagrees with a particular policy. Ethically, administrators must consistently apply the official policies and procedures of the church.”

If there was a written policy regarding cohabitation, this would be a roadblock for Shaun & Danica.  But the policy is not written, and therefore, it does not exist, and no amount of claiming that it does exist, despite being unwritten, will satisfy this situation.

But, there are other policies, as I've outlined above.  They cannot be ignored, as the Faithful Disagreement document states.  Not by anyone.  Including, as it notes, church administrators.  Failure to be guided by this will result in a serious breakdown of trust and respect and will be a clear sign of hypocrisy existing.

Furthermore, even if we accept that an unwritten rule does exist, we would have to question if it is valid, and it can only be valid if it is not in conflict with other polices.  I'd suggest that members and church administrators cannot ignore when polices are in conflict with each other.

And here is what I believe is a key question.  When an unwritten policy is in conflict with a written policy, which policy is regarded as being more authoritative?  I would have a hard time accepting any organization as credible if it answered “the unwritten policy”.

My thoughts also keep coming back to this:

“where there is no law given there is no punishment” – 2 Nephi, chapter 6, verse 51


“From the perspective of Section 164:6, there should not be different standards in sexual ethics.”

In conjunction with this:

“the standard of authority on all matters of church government and doctrine, and final standard of reference on appeal in all controversies arising, or which may arise in this Church of Christ” –World Conference Resolution 215

I simply can't accept an unwritten policy, which is in clear conflict with written policies, as valid.  Therefore, there is no law, and therefore there can be no punishment, and if we ignore that verse of scripture, as well as the proclamation in 164:6, we are ignoring the standard of authority, which is to be the final word on resolving controversies.

If the church does not abide by the standard of authority, my personal faith will be shaken, as I'm sure that of many others.

God bless,

David Donoghue