How I taught the Proclamation on the Family

As the Sunday School president at the time (December 2021), I told the teachers in advance that I wanted them to do two things. First, I wanted them to teach the doctrine. Second, I wanted them to teach it so that whoever their students were and whatever their situation, they would feel welcome and accepted. Then as the teacher of a youth Sunday School class, this is what I said.

The Proclamation on the Family teaches some wonderful things and some hard things. One reason it can be hard is that it’s not primarily a list of “thou shalt nots,” beyond which you’re free to do whatever you want. Instead, the Proclamation on the Family spells out some concrete things we should do, and how to do them.

But let’s compare this with other things people are told to do. You’ve heard that every young man should serve a mission. Four of my children have reached mission age. My oldest daughter’s mission was an amazing and challenging and overall happy experience. My oldest son’s mission was the best two months of his life. After that, severe anxiety and depression surfaced and he was honorably released. When my second son approached high school graduation, he felt a calling to join the Army. I explained the same thing to both my sons: At every session of conference, a General Authority will emphasize the importance of missionary service; some people can’t or won’t be able to serve for various reasons; the point of the talks isn’t to condemn them, but to encourage everyone to serve as they can, because the church really does need missionaries. Despite not serving or completing a mission, they can continue to serve in the Church and enjoy all the blessings that come from church service; and they still have the same obligation to share the gospel.

Or think about vaccination. There are a few people who can’t get vaccinated, often because their immune systems are compromised by treatment for severe diseases. They can’t get vaccinated themselves, so to stay healthy they depend on everyone else getting vaccinated. When a public service announcement encourages everyone to get vaccinated, the proper response isn’t an outraged, “Don’t they realize I’m immune compromised?” Instead, it’s “I’m grateful for encouragement to get vaccinated; I can’t because of my individual situation, so I’m depending on everyone else.”

The Proclamation ends with some solemn warnings: “The disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.” Think of the warnings climate scientists have given about climate change. Something as seemingly minor as a rise of a few degrees over a century could have dire effects. We can’t say, “I don’t see a problem. Everyone still drives cars and everything’s still fine and it snowed last week anyway.” The issue isn’t the one person who still needs an internal combustion engine, but the long-term overall effect of the whole system. We can all contribute to climate protection individually and as part of society, even if the specific measures we take may differ.

As I read the Proclamation on the Family, it seems even timelier today than when it was first published. Within my own family and circle of close friends, I see people doing amazing things as single parents, adoptive parents, and foster parents. But the stubborn reality is that pregnancy is long and often difficult; childbirth, even today, can be painful and sometimes dangerous; raising children is extremely labor-intensive; outcomes for children are on average much better with two parents in a stable family situation; and most people will only go through with it for their own children. Men and women marrying and raising families is still the only scalable way to accomplish this, and a necessary foundation for a society in which a variety of family types can thrive.

We have to distinguish between three different things. One is society’s needs versus individual choice – and as long as enough people bear children and raise them reasonably well, society can accommodate an astonishing range of personal lifestyles. A second, separate issue is sin and personal repentance – no matter what you do, Jesus has made it possible to return to him. The third thing, different from the other two, is choices and their consequences. That may be the hardest of all, because there are sometimes no second chances.

Right now, you can be anything you want. You can go off to college, change your major after three days or three years, and start over. But in a few years, starting over gets harder, and your choices may have long-term or even permanent consequences. You can violate the Word of Wisdom, repent, and then enjoy every blessing of living according to church teachings, but there may be serious consequences for your body that can’t be undone in this life. We teach the Word of Wisdom not to condemn people who don’t follow it, but for the long-term happiness of those who do.

As the Proclamation says, part of God’s plan is for his children to “obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize their divine destiny as heirs of eternal life.” The hard reality is that we get one body, at one place on Earth and one time in history, and we have to do what we can with the one opportunity given to us. The body we have, and our place on Earth and in history, isn’t fair. Not everyone gets the same test. It’s individualized, a test written just for us.

One individual thing related to your body is gender. According to the Proclamation, “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.” So you will have to work out how gender fits into your eternal identify. But be careful: No matter who you are, you have friends telling you misguided or incorrect things like “Every real man does X” or “No woman should do Y.” I’ve seen your memes, and when it comes to sex, the message is entirely one-sided. On TV, no one bothers to wait for marriage before engaging in sex. You can’t rely on the media for guidance. What you see on screen will deceive you.

The Proclamation underscores how important the Law of Chastity is: “We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife”; “We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.” People who tell you that marriage or the Law of Chastity or fidelity are unimportant or harmful are not promoting your happiness. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never seen evidence of a double standard. There’s no “locker room” version of the Law of Chastity that excuses young men. There’s no “grown up” version that gives a pass to adults.

But on the Law of Chastity, the Proclamation isn’t a list of “thou shalt nots.” Instead it makes several normative statements: “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and…the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children”; “The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.” What it’s saying is that God really does want people to get married and have children and be good parents. But just getting to the first step is difficult and sometimes impossible. Just like people who can’t serve missions can still support missionary work, or the immune compromised can support vaccination, or people in every situation can support climate action in their own way, everyone can find important guidance in the Proclamation on the Family and work towards its ideals from wherever they are right now.

Beyond the imperative to marry and have children, there are directives about how to go about it. Parents are to “provide for physical and spiritual needs, teach [their children]” through “faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work”; “preside in love”; “provide the necessities”; and “nurture.” And this is absolutely serious stuff: “Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” But don’t miss the language about individual adaptations, which is also important. The Proclamation speaks of “principles,” what is “most likely” to be the case, and how “circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”

Which is a good thing, because parenthood feels like a process of perpetual failure. Every child and every stage of life is different. There is never a point where you have everything figured out. All of us are going to experience failure at some point and to some degree. People may be pregnant and unmarried; or go many years without getting married; or experience tension in marriage or divorce; or children may make questionable choices. At some point, your life will not go according to plan.

The point of the Proclamation on the Family isn’t to be a “thou shalt not” or a standard to condemn you when you fail. Instead, it’s a positive target to move toward from wherever you are. If you sin, you can repent. You may make bad choices that have devastating consequences, but you can also move forward toward the kind of life you should be leading. When in doubt, coming to church on Sunday will help you move in the right direction. Whoever you are, at whatever stage of life, no matter what you’ve done or are doing, ward members want to see you here. They’re happy to see you, and they want you to be happy.

9 comments for “How I taught the Proclamation on the Family

  1. Well said Jonothan. I was expecting a whole lot of comments to read through here, but it would be hard to argue with anything that you have said here.

  2. Yes, good stuff Jonathan.

    It takes real, practical faith in the atonement of Christ to listen to a talk and say “I’m not doing that, and it’s okay.” Even if it’s the Spirit prompting you not to worry about it, that won’t quell toxic perfectionism, wanting to meet other peoples’ expectations (or what you assume are their expectations), etc. But we can’t do everything, and when it comes to the Proclamation there may be things we can’t do no matter how badly we want to. (This actually came up in a talk I gave yesterday.)

    I was interested to note that you didn’t address gender roles within the family (fathers presiding and providing and mothers nurturing). That was probably a good call, just because it’s hard to know what to say.

    When we talk about fathers presiding, it’s almost always to say what it does not mean. And that’s really important given that the evangelical model of complementary marriage explicitly calls for men to always get their way because they preside. So it’s worth saying over and over again that that’s not what we mean by presiding. But what little we actually *do* in the name of presiding mostly gets handed down from previous generations, and even that is unraveling. I’ve noticed recently that when my Dad is slow to ask someone to bless the food at a family gathering my Mom will do it now, and I smile a little inside every time–we lived in Boston for a bit in the early days of Exponent II, and people like Claudia Bushman and Judy Dushku (my Mom’s counselor in a RS presidency) had more influence on my Mom than they probably realized.

    And then there’s the vexing question of mothers working outside the home. I have nothing new to say about that one, other than it’s a really difficult topic. Maybe it’s just as well that it’s said in the Proclamation, we never talk about it, and those who are called to be stay-at-home Moms despite all the challenges in today’s economy find out from the Holy Ghost.

  3. RLD, looking at my notes, I was planning to mention “preside in love,” “provide the necessities,” and “nurture.” I don’t remember if we ended up discussing roles in marriage specifically, but we likely did and I probably said something along the lines of: These are important things for you and your spouse to work out; my wife and I talk things over, but have informally arrived at areas of decision-making authority, which have also shifted over time; a good example is pediatric health, where my wife’s authority can and has trumped my reluctance to take a toddler with diarrhea to the doctor, for example; and all you have to do is figure out what works for your marriage, not resolve the issue of gender relations throughout society for all of history. I had the question queued up: “How have you seen families successfully adapt the principles of the Proclamation to their circumstances?” but I don’t remember if I asked it (I probably did) or what responses I got.

  4. I don’t like to preside. My wife likes it when I do though–so that creates an interesting tension.

  5. Jack, I’m curious what that means for you and your wife. Asking people to say prayers? Taking the initiative to say “Let’s read scriptures now”? (BTW, that tension sounds entirely appropriate to me.)

    While looking for something else last night (so, a “coincidence”) I found there’s a positive definition of presiding in the Handbook (2.1.3):

    “Presiding in the family is the responsibility to help lead family members back to dwell in God’s presence. This is done by serving and teaching with gentleness, meekness, and pure love, following the example of Jesus Christ (see Matthew 20:26–28). Presiding in the family includes leading family members in regular prayer, gospel study, and other aspects of worship. Parents work in unity to fulfill these responsibilities.”

  6. I love this analysis, Jonathan! Thank you.
    This gives some new perspective on a dichotomy I’ve been thinking about for a while now: how can the Church both support the Proclamation and its policy of allowing hormone treatment in transgender individuals? The vaccine metaphor really helps here; some people *can’t* do what’s recommended, and that’s okay. Thanks again for this great post.

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