The concept of good faith plays an important role in the law of contracts. Courts and commentators have long recognized that (many) contracts are incomplete, that parties cannot build meaningful, long-term relationships without some gaps in the initial framework. Such gaps, when discovered, might seem to allow one party to take advantage of the other. One method of preventing such behavior is the application of the duty to act in good faith. According to Judge Richard Posner, “The office of the doctrine of good faith is to forbid the kinds of opportunistic behavior that a mutually dependent, cooperative relationship might enable in the absence of rule.” If ever there was a legal concept ripe for Gospel application, this is it.
I have just spent considerable time reading about beards and white shirts, the dissemination of comments by Church leaders, and tests of obedience. Each of these threads includes substantial discussion of how members of the Church should interpret statements by Church leaders. Much of that discussion reads like a conversation among lawyers (no surprise there!) bickering over the proper reading of a contract. While I spend much of my time reading, thinking, and writing about contracts, I found some of the comments below quite breathtaking in their cynicism. My message here is simple, but I trust not uncontroversial: we need to cut Church leaders some slack.
I believe that the duty of good faith might offer some assistance on this thorny issue. Like the duty of good faith in contract law, the version of good faith that I am about to propose will not resolve all of our questions, but it will clear some options from the table.
My proposed duty of good faith goes like this: When interpreting statements from Church leaders, members should assume that the statements were made (1) with an honorable intention, (2) with a desire to serve the interests of the members and not (only) the interests of the Church leader, and (3) based on experiences (either spiritual or temporal) not necessarily shared by the members to whom the statements are directed.
While I suspect that many of us can think of examples of statements by Church leaders that would not pass all three tests, I believe that using those tests as a starting point will increase the likelihood that we will actually receive meaningful counsel. If, on the other hand, we listen to Church leaders with a belief that they are motivated only by selfish interests, we will miss some or all of what they have to offer.
One last note: the duty of good faith can be useful in thinking about alternative interpretive possibilities in the face of ambiguity. If a Church leader provides counsel that is susceptible to more than one interpretation, we might filter each of those potential interpretations through the duty of good faith (“would a leader who is honorable, sincere, and selfless approve of this interpretation?”). We needn’t bother with interpretations that are caught by the filter, and those interpretations that survive are all viable candidates. At that point, it seems to me that we have an obligation to choose the interpretation we think most closely tracks the intention of the Church leader. In the end, we are making lots of assumptions — or perhaps better, leaps of faith — but anyone who goes through this sort of process is likely to find some assistance from the Spirit.