Honoring authority

January 11, 2004 | 15 comments

In Sunday School today, while talking about what it means to be chosen, I used an example that I thought was straightforward. I said, “The bishop has been chosen, but not because he is more righteous or smarter than everyone else in the ward.” No one disagreed with me straight out, but I was surprised how many people wanted to qualify what I said with “Yes, but . . . .”

The “buts” covered a wide range: but he has a special purpose for being our bishop, but he is better than most of us, and so on. It was obvious that people were uncomfortable with the idea that the bishop is one of us who has been called to do something for now, but that his calling is not an indication of superior righteousness. I hadn’t thought it, but it turns out I am the odd person by thinking otherwise. I find that frightening and perhaps even dangerous, for it suggests that we not only recognize the authority of the office, but that we assume the person in the office is personally worthy of an extra measure of admiration and respect. The danger is a confusion of priesthood authority with personal righteousness, the cult of personality, and so on.


15 Responses to Honoring authority

  1. Jan on January 11, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    I don’t think you’re the odd person for thinking that most in authority are just like everyone else. They can be right and wrong just as we all are, with no superior anything. A bishop can be called for any number of reasons and it can have nothing to do with righteousness or knowledge of the gospel.

    I agree that thinking otherwise can be dangerous. Just because a man has been called to a position of authority doesn’t mean that he knows what he is talking about, as my own experience with a branch president more than ten years ago shows quite clearly. I posted about it last Friday:


    I do think that some bishops are inspired, but no more or less than other non-bishop men.

  2. brayden on January 11, 2004 at 11:36 pm

    Hasn’t President Hinckley said something like this? He often compares himself to every other member of the church, only with more responsibility. One thing that impresses me about President Hinckley’s attitude is that he continually downplays his own talents and emphasizes the importance of the calling.

  3. tyler durden on January 11, 2004 at 11:47 pm

    i remember being told by my zone-leader that my mission president (who is now elder workman of the seventy) was the most righteous person in the mission and the president hinckley was the most righteous person in the church.

    perhaps this was done with the hope that his being a zone-leader made him more righteous than myself as a lowly district-leader

  4. Jim F. on January 11, 2004 at 11:53 pm

    Brayden, I think we are often double-minded about this. I don’t think anyone would be shocked by what you report President Hinckley saying. It would seem natural, and we would agree (obviously). Nevertheless, we also tend to assume that those in authority wouldn’t have been called to their positions if they weren’t relatively more righteous than most other saints.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on January 12, 2004 at 12:13 am

    Jim, you mention our “double-mindedness” on this point, and I think you’re correct. Is there a point where that tension is particularly obvious, where the majority of Mormons find themselves automatically shifting into “yes, but…” territory? Consider your own statement: “The bishop has been chosen, but not because he is more righteous or smarter than everyone else in the ward.” Could you substitute “stake president” for “bishop” in that sentence and still utter it comfortably? How about “regional representative”? “Mission president”? “Apostle”? “Prophet, seer and revelator”? If not, then that must mean somewhere along the line our ability to respond to the authority vested in a calling without feeling obligated to similarly respond to the person who has that calling breaks down. Where is that point? (My best guess is that the answer is tied up in how we think about our lay priesthood structure; when we get to general authorities and others who are plainly no longer “lay,” but rather are full-time church workers, I think it becomes very difficult not to think that the person and the calling are morally and spriritually “suited” for one another.)

  6. Jim F. on January 12, 2004 at 12:39 am

    Jan, thanks for referring me to your blog and, especially, for the courage it took to write what you did.

  7. Matt Evans on January 12, 2004 at 12:49 am

    Hi Jim,

    You are probably right to challenge the misconceptions many members have toward their leaders, but there are reasons your class assumes their leaders were chosen because of their faithfulness. Here’s my attempt to explain their thinking:

    (1) The Lord told Samuel that he chose David over his brothers because his was the better heart. 1 Samuel 16:7.

    (2) The Lord told Abraham that he was chosen because he was among the great and noble spirits. Abraham 3:22-23.

    (3) If leaders aren’t chosen because of their righteousness, wisdom or skills, on what basis are they called?

    (4) If they’re chosen randomly, why can members so reliably predict who will be chosen next?

  8. Jim F. on January 12, 2004 at 12:50 am

    Russell, I’m not sure. I think I am comfortable going all the way up the line with the sentence–but I’m not sure I am. I guess I’m not comfortable with my comfort. It may be true that the higher up one goes, the harder it is not to assume that there is some kind of fit between personal righteousness and calling, but I don’t think the assumption is correct.

    I’m willing to say that we are most likely to find fairly righteous people at the top. The screening process is pretty good. But I don’t think that is the same as assuming that the person and the calling are morally and spiritually suited to one another.

    For me Kierkegaard’s essay, “The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle,” was seminal in thinking about these issues: It is a mistake to expect the apostle to be a genius or to assume that he is. In fact, it is a mistake that undercuts recognizing his authority as an apostle. The apostle has been called to deliver a message, to bear witness. It doesn’t follow that he is also a genius, whether a moral genius, a spiritual genius, or an intellectual one. It is wrong to expect him to be because it makes it appear that the gospel is a message of genius when it is not. It is a message of salvation from sin, a message to which the intellect is not very relevant, which is appropriate to every human being, and which can be delivered by any human being whom God chooses as a vessel.

    I owe those in authority the honor due them as authorities, but that honor is due them because of the position they hold, not because they are smarter, more righteous, better-looking, etc. than me. They may be all of those things or none of them (though I pity the one’s who aren’t better-looking than I am).

  9. Jim F. on January 12, 2004 at 12:58 am

    Matt, You ask, “If leaders aren’t chosen because of their righteousness, wisdom, or skills, on what basis are they called?” In my experience there are lots of reasons that people are called. Sometimes it might be righteousness. Sometimes it might be wisdom. Sometimes it might be skills. Sometimes it might be something else, such as a need that the person has to learn something. Other times it might be merely because no one else is available or it is impractical to call someone else. (I was once called to be the high priests group leader in a ward for exactly that reason. I didn’t think that was a slight.) I’ve also seen times when people were called to leadership positions for wrong or mistaken reasons.

    You seem to think that the alternative to being chosen for a position because a person has a particular degree of righteousness is random selection. I don’t see why those are the only options.

    And how can we predict so well who will be chosen next? I haven’t seen us do so well at those predictions, but when we do all of the reasons I gave above are available to church members as well to those chosing. Of those, the least observable is personal righteousness. So if members are good at picking who will be chosen next, then that seems evidence against the claim that leaders are chosen for personal righteousness.

  10. Jim F. on January 12, 2004 at 12:59 am

    Matt, after posting I went back and read your post. I may be attributing ideas to you that you were raising as hypotheticals. If so, I apologize for misconstruing your post.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on January 12, 2004 at 9:11 am

    Jim, you wrote:

    “It may be true that the higher up one goes, the harder it is not to assume that there is some kind of fit between personal righteousness and calling, but I don’t think the assumption is correct.”

    I’m not sure I fully understand you here. Are you saying that you think it is incorrect for us to ASSUME “some kind of fit between personal righteousness and [general authority-level] calling[s],” or that you think there really ISN’T any such fit? Or both? That is, are you talking about the ethics appropriate to interactions with authority in a (mostly) lay church, or are you talking about what you believe to be the actual nature of authority in said church?

    Let me press another point further. I’ve heard you talk about Kierkegaard’s essay before, and I agree with his argument. However, I’m not sure I’m clear on its fit to the present-day church–or indeed, to any “modern” (with all that label implies) Christian church. (Kierkegaard’s relative discontent with the Christianity he knew is relevant here.) The current Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are not, or at least not primarily, “apostles” in the sense Kierkegaard speaks of them: on the contrary they are, and must be, producers and managers and educators and corporate thinkers; “Clark men,” as D. Michael Quinn (among others) once described the mid-20th century transformation in church leadership, rather than “McKay men.” This isn’t necessarily a criticism; it’s just an observation. So long as we worship and work together in current forms and institutions (with buildings and tithing moneys and thousands of missionaries scrambling all over the globe), then at least near the top something other than a purely lay leadership–something like “genius”–will be both valuable and needful, and hence will be cultivated. In which case, isn’t it appropriate to, around say the Quorums of the Seventy level, put away the Kierkegaardian analysis, and treat our leaders with (let’s be frank hear) a certain amount of reverence? Or is your employ of Kierkegaard therefore a Nibleyesque critique of the current system?

  12. Jim F. on January 12, 2004 at 11:23 am

    Russell, you have to stop asking hard questions. As to your first point, I was making a psychological observation: the higher up the hierarchy we go–and the less personal connection we have with the leader in question–the more difficult we find it not to make the assumption.

    Your point about the need for certain kinds of genius in the hierarchy is quite well-taken, so I have to modify my claim somewhat: Given the need for leaders with particular skills at the general authority level of the Church, we ought to expect that those at that level are geniuses (i.e., highly skilled) when it comes to administration, etc. I think that it remains true, however, that we ought not to assume that superior righteousness accompanies their administrative genius.

    On the other hand, as I said, given the informal screening process that has taken place over time before a person is called to be a general authority, it is reasonable to assume that there is a high level of personal righteousness among them, but not that they were called because they are more righteous than others.

    Thus, contemporary the apostles are an interesting mixture of genius, personal righteousness, and apostolic calling.

    The reverence we owe an authority is a reverence due him because of his position, not a reverence due him because of his administrative skills, his intelligence, his wordly success, or his righteousness.

  13. Scott on January 12, 2004 at 12:34 pm


    Your acknowledgement of the necessity, in some callings, for a certain type of “genius” raises another possibility. In a recent conversation with our mutual friend Rob, he described the interesting situation of his current ward. The demographics result in an overwhelmingly poor congregation–poor, largely uneducated, and plagued with social problems. He described his bishop as a “climber”–a smug fellow who’d been essentially campaigning to be bishop, feeling it was his entitlement, given his qualifications. After Rob described the man’s obvious shortcomings, I asked, “If you had to replace him tomorrow with someone else in your ward, who would you pick?” He had trouble finding a potential replacement with (a) an acceptable (i.e., temple-worthy) level of personal conduct, (b) the significant time required by the calling, and (c) the administrative and people skills necessary to be effective as a bishop. (An unstated, but important, other factor is financial independence.) It’s very possible, in that case, that the bishop is not the “most righteous” person in the ward (however one might gauge that). But he might be the only man for the job, despite those spiritual limitations. (Bishop is traditionally a primarily “temporal” calling, anyway.)

    So the possibility I’m raising, I guess, is that “genius” is so essential to certain positions within the Church that, if people are called reasonably, the pool of viable candidates diminishes proportionately with the rareness of the genius required. Given few enough positions and a large enough pool, that might not require huge compromises (i.e., giving up some genius for righteousness or vice versa). But, at lower levels (e.g., a ward or quorum), the compromises can become more apparent–glaringly so, at times.

    A troubling spin on that possibility: What if the best training grounds for the kind of “genius” required in the modern church (e.g., law, business, academia) are morally corrosive? It might be possible that the pool of “genius” in the Church is *less* righteous than others. Perhaps, those corrosive influences in the private sector may be imported into the Church, shaping the culture in tangible ways, becoming self-perpetuating. Does the fact that we so readily recognize the need for “genius” mean that we’ve already gone down that road? Could we find ourselves, culturally, in a position where we’d reject a Joseph Smith because of his various shortcomings? (Hmm. The guy has trouble holding a job. Some run-ins with the law. Likes the ladies. Kinda full of himself. Horrible financial sense. Maybe, if we work with him, he can be a junior hometeaching companion.)


  14. clark on January 12, 2004 at 1:35 pm

    It is interesting in a way contrasting this with the perspective from the Evangelical camp. I don’t know if any of you saw the Robert Duvall film _The Apostle_. It’s an excellent portrayal of how someone can be a rather not-so-good person but still be a tool in God’s hand. Now I think I’d be very, very uncomfortable with someone who isn’t keeping the important commandments trying to be a messgenger for God. So I don’t think I can accept the Evangelical extreme. But I do think there is something to the idea. Those of us who read history a lot recognize that even the greatest leaders are flawed people. Further one of my favorite stories of Joseph Smith was when he gave someone their calling and election who had never really had a leadership position.

    Perhaps it was part of growing up in the mission field, but it often seemed like some fairly recent members were called to leadership positions to make them strong members and become pillars of the community. i.e. the leadership position made them into that and it wasn’t the opposite. This meant they failed a lot, especially in the initial years. But it was so common that I think everyone in my Stake just assumed that leadership positions were training for members as much as anything else.

    As the saying goes, the Lord’s ways are mysterious…

  15. Gordon Smith on January 13, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    I am sitting in Delhi with a bit of insomnia, waiting to be taken to the airport. Times & Seasons seems always to have something interesting happening, so I was working through this thread. On the first pass, I skipped the link to Jan’s site. I like her site, and I have read it frequently, but I was trying to see how people responded to Jim’s initial post. When I saw Jim’s brief reply thanking Jan for her courage, I decided to take a look. If you haven’t read Jan’s story, please do it.

    Jan, I cannot tell you how deeply your story touched me. I have never been in close contact with the kind of abuse you describe, but I am sorry that it has had such an effect on your life.

    By the way, for what it is worth, I have had remarkably good experiences with my church leaders, but I do not think that callings are a measure of or reward for righteousness. And I take that assumption all the way to the top. I agree with Jim that people are called for many reasons, sometimes (as Clark notes) to help the person being called as much as those he or she serves. I also agree with Jim when he writes, “given the informal screening process that has taken place over time before a person is called to be a general authority, it is reasonable to assume that there is a high level of personal righteousness among them, but not that they were called because they are more righteous than others.”


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