What the Church Is Not For

March 11, 2013 | 39 comments
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The hardest time of my mission, and one of the hardest time of my life, was serving as an office elder. The job was incredibly stressful. I had days that started at 4 AM and did not end until after 10 PM. The worst part of the job, however, was that there was no teaching. Neither the office elders nor the AP’s had had a teaching pool in the memory of anyone in the mission. In the 6 months that I served in the office, I had time to go tracting exactly once.

I vividly remember getting on my knees one Saturday evening, and telling God that if he did not find someone for me to teach, that I would not make it. I went to sleep confident that there would be an investigator for me to start teaching at church the next day. There was.

Teaching that family became the most important part of my life. I did not have a regular companion and so sometimes I took an AP and other times I took an office elder. Even though it was only one discussion per week, it kept me sane. It was the most sacred experience of my mission.

During this time a general authority came to visit the mission. He held a leadership meeting in the mission home. I think my mission president felt sorry for me (he had promised to make me a trainer, and it never happened) so he invited me to attend even though I had never been so much as a district leader. I felt acutely unwelcome in that meeting, but I tried to participate anyway.

When the general authority asked the missionaries who had been the greatest missionary in the Book of Mormon and had told his sons to “be sober” my first thought was that he was mixing up Alma the Younger and Ammon, but my second thought was that he was trying to make a point about the importance of “missionary work” to the members. So when no one else answered, I raised my hand and said it was Alma the Younger. No, it wasn’t, he told me. No big deal.

There was a mission conference the next day. I arrived late, and the conference had already started. When I found a seat, one of the APs was unveiling a new mission-wide initiative. Every night, the District Leaders would call all the companionships to get an update on the baptismal prospects at a certain time. 15 minutes later, the Zone Leaders would call all the District Leaders. 15 minutes after that the Assistants to the President would call the Zone Leaders. Looking back today–with several years experience as a business analyst–I can see the obvious attempt to apply principles of supply chain management to the missionary work, but that didn’t occur to me at the time.

As part of this new initiative, the AP told us that he would give a sample update by talking about the AP baptismal pool. This struck me as odd, since I knew the APs were not teaching anybody. In fact the AP who was speaking had never even come with me to teach the family that I was teaching. He had not taught anyone at all since becoming an AP because, in our mission, APs didn’t teach. They were too busy running all over the country following the Mission President. Everyone knew that.

So, although I should have seen it coming, I was completely shocked when he launched into a description of my investigators as if they had been his own. Suddenly the investigators I had prayed and struggled to find, were his investigators; the relationship I had cultivated over weeks was his. In the end, I was allowed to continue teaching the investigators until I was transferred, but the stabbing sense of betrayal as this stranger to the family told the entire mission about how close he felt his investigators were to baptism never faded.

After the conference the other AP, who had come and taught with me once and who had also been my friend since the MTC, came to find me with tears in his eyes. I was also crying as he apologized for what had happened. Having the sacred and personal relationship between a missionary and an investigator usurped for what was essentially a marketing campaign felt like an intense violation of a sacred trust. My friend had tried to come and warn me before the conference so that at least I would have some warning, but I hadn’t been there so he hadn’t found me.  The General Authority had simply decided that it was unacceptable for the APs not to be leading by example. If they did not have an investigator in their pool, they would simply invent a relationship to someone else’s. In this way images would be maintained.

Something else happened in my mission to put this all in perspective. We were also visited by two apostles and I have a distinct recollection of one of the apostles teaching us about D&C 29:30 – 32.

30 But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men; and as the words have gone forth out of my mouth even so shall they be fulfilled, that the first shall be last, and that the last shall be first in all things whatsoever I have created by the word of my power, which is the power of my Spirit.

31 For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal—

32 First spiritual, secondly temporal, which is the beginning of my work; and again, first temporal, and secondly spiritual, which is the last of my work—

According to my memory, the apostle stated that verse 32 was first about the creation of the world (“the beginning of my work”) and then about the Restoration (“the last of my work”). According to this interpretation, the Restoration through Joseph Smith was principally a temporal affair. The institution of the Church with its priesthood keys and authority was created first, but the spiritual creation–the maturation of the members of the Church–was only now unfolding.

To me, these two stories are very closely related. It has to do with this simple question: what is the church for? Or, perhaps more narrowly, what are our leaders for?

We frequently talk about our leaders being imperfect. When I taught Sunday School lesson 9 yesterday, we spent time on D&C 20:5, where some of Joseph Smith’s foibles are canonized along with his status as first elder. Despite the rhetoric, however, I think that the Latter Day Saints sometimes deny the reality and depend too heavily on our leaders.

Dependence and obedience may look similar, but I think there are some important differences. When we obey, we do so willfully and as free agents. We listen to the counsel of our leaders, we choose to follow, and we claim responsibility for our decision to do so. In addition, we are actively engaged in our own self-directed efforts both individually and within our communities to build up Zion independently of the specific teachings of our leaders. When we are dependent on our leaders, in contrast, we evaluate all potential endeavors against past pronouncements and, should we fail to find explicit precedent, we abandon the effort for safer ventures. In addition, we turn obedience into something automatic, and almost slavish. We excuse our own wills from the equation entirely. It is as if we are always preparing the, “I was only following orders” defense.

I wonder if this is not a part of the cause that the torrent of revelation under Joseph Smith has not continued with other prophets. The early Saints had no problem thinking independently, to the point of sometimes opposing Joseph Smith, such that  apostasy and division were commonplace. Directing the early Saints was herding cats, but today perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction and become lemmings.

President Boyd K. PackerI wasn’t yet a deacon when Elder Packer gave his controversial talk on the evil triumvirate of homosexuality, feminism, and intellectualism. I did not live through the September Six affair. I learned about it on Wikipedia. So I apologize for any resultant lack of sensitivity in discussing this talk, but when I first read it (from a link provided by a disaffected Mormon), it had the opposite effect on me that my correspondent had intended. Rather than making me see Elder Packer as the embodiment of rigid, authoritarian callousness, it impressed me with the impossible position that the worshipfulness of the Saints puts our leaders in.

It should be pointed out here, that even those who criticize the General Authorities most vociferously are contributing to the cult of leadership. When I argue that perhaps we as Mormons ought to do this or that and I see a respondent counter that “The Leaders will have none of it, for they crave popularity” (or power, or the status quo, etc.) I am struck by the irony. Even if the intent is to criticize, the fact that some Mormons reflexively think “But what will our Apostles say?” thrusts those leaders onto a perilous pedestal. That elevation is our doing (critics included), not theirs.

In any case, here are some things that I noted from Elder Packer’s talk. The first is that he explicitly acknowledges and validates the pain and hurt members feel. After excerpting from three letters, he states: “The question is not whether they need help and comfort. That goes without saying. The question is “How?”” (Emphasis added.)

That second thing I note is that Elder Packer explicitly acknowledges the importance of exceptions. Rather than insist that public council given by the Apostles is uniformly and universally applicable, he states explicitly that there are exceptions. For example, regarding working mothers, he writes: “Some mothers must work out of the home. There is no other way. And in this they are justified and for this they should not be criticized.” (Emphasis added.)

In the same spirit, Elder Dallin Oaks once said to a young person:

As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. (From a CES Fireside on May 1, 2005 in Oakland, CA)

Elder Packer, just like Elder Oaks, is pretty clear that the General Authorities are not going to deviate from general advice. As he puts it:

We cannot, however, because of their discomfort over their plight, abandon a position that has been taught by the prophets from the beginning of this dispensation. The question then is, “How can we give solace to those who are justified without giving license to those who are not?”

For me the importance of this question is not to maintain that Elder Packer has perfectly answered it, but merely to recognize that it is a valid and indeed inescapable question. To generalize, the problem is this: how do we react to individuals with compassion while maintaining a system / institution that tends towards good results for everyone? I don’t believe that there is necessarily a perfect answer to this, but the compromise which Elder Packer speaks of (that the Elders maintain a private and invisible ministry to individuals) seems at least to deserve our consideration as a good-faith effort to solve the puzzle. I am not confident that I could do better.

I realize that one of the phrases from this speech which probably irritated people (there are plenty of candidates) is this one: “In each case, the members who are hurting have the conviction that the Church somehow is doing something wrong to members or that the Church is not doing enough for them.” Superficially that sounds like victim-blaming, but I believe that Elder Packer made a legitimate point. To whatever extent the insistence of the General Authorities on dispensing general advice causes harm to those who face exceptions in their lives, that harm is compounded by the expectation that it ought to be otherwise. And, to some extent, that is simply an impossible expectation. As long as there is any balance between the need to provide general guidelines and the need to reach out to individuals, some individuals will be left somewhat in the cold.

I also think it’s worth pointing out, although Elder Packer does not, that sometimes calls for more compassion arise not only out of empathy for those who suffer, but out of a desire for own sympathetic suffering to abate. Watching the suffering of others arouses not only a desire to have their pain alleviated, but also our own pain as witnesses. The former is noble, but the latter is not.

2013 03 11 The Prodigal sonThe rock-and-a-hard-place scenario is highlighted by Elder Packer’s observation that “out in the Church there is another growing group of the discontented. That is the rank and file who are trying to do what they are supposed to do and feel neglected as we concentrate on solving the problems of the exceptions.” This is the fate of the ninety-and-nine who got left alone while the shepherd went after the one who was lost. This is the fate of the prodigal son’s older brother, who stayed at home and worked without ever getting a feast in his honor. This is the fate of the laborers who came to the vineyard early, worked the whole day through, and received for their reward the same penny as those who arrived at the 11th hour.

This sense of isolation is not only inevitable but probably also essential. It is true, after all, that fear of sin and love of righteousness can lead to such similar behavior that we may not know ourselves from which motivation our actions arise. As the sorrowing father of the prodigal son told his apparently obedient son, “you are always with me”. If that was not sufficient reward itself, the fault lay with the son for not valuing his relationship with his father more than a feast,  not with the father who killed the fatted calf to celebrate his reunion with the lost son. After all, a feast cannot make up for years of estrangement.

So where does that leave us? I think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders. This doesn’t mean being less obedient. The answer is an understanding that revelation from church leaders can never take the place of personal conviction. When God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he did not relieve him of moral culpability for his decision. When the spirit told Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, Nephi was similarly left responsible for his own decision. The fact that the Spirit engaged Nephi in rational debate about the ethics of his decision shows that he was involved not as a mere instrument in the God’s hands, but as a self-directing participant. God’s bargaining with Lot also shows that we do not experience dilution of responsibility just because we are following revelation. Whether the instructions come from God, Christ, the Spirit, or his prophets, it is the same. We may hope in faith that what God commands is right and just because God is right and just and would not ask otherwise of us, but God’s commands are never right and just merely because they are God’s commands. Although we are servants, the Plan of Salvation calls for us to be active participants and not merely conduits for divine will. We are called to be instruments in the hands of God, yes, but never only instruments. We bear ultimate responsibility for our actions. That is a responsibility we can divest to no one.

It almost seems unfair to have all this revelation from leaders and scripture if the revelation does not benefit us by absolving us of some responsibility to find the same revelation ourselves. It is reasonable to think that once God has revealed anything it is more efficient for everyone to get with the program rather than insist that the revelatory experience be repeated on a case-by-case basis. It is reasonable, that is, until one realizes that the purpose of revelation is not merely the dissemination of information, but ultimately the growth and transformation of human character.

Whatever the Church is for, whatever our leaders are for, absolution of responsibility is not it. This will surely not ease the broken hearts of those who are condemned to walk–for a time at least–on lonely paths that fall outside the official sanction of Church teaching. But easing pain, though an important mission for the Church, is also not its ultimate goal. Exile, too, is a trial that some lives are designed to experience.

My hope is simply this: that the next time someone suggest that Mormonism ought to change in this way or that way that the ensuing conversation not get hung up on “But what will the Leaders think?” Should Leaders choose to weigh in, what they think will matter at that point. Let’s not presume, however, that it must necessarily be relevant in all cases whatsoever what the leaders think. Making that assumption may not be, I maintain, an expression of humility or obedience but rather an attempt to evade responsibility at the expense of others.

39 Responses to What the Church Is Not For

  1. Jacob F on March 11, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Very well said. Thank you.

  2. Last Lemming on March 11, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Directing the early Saints was herding cats, but today perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction and become lemmings.

    Gary Larsen fans know that my handle is ironic. But if you manage to make it prophetic, that’s fine too.

  3. ji on March 11, 2013 at 10:12 am

    think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders. This doesn’t mean being less obedient. The answer is an understanding that revelation from church leaders can never take the place of personal conviction.

    We bear ultimate responsibility for our actions.

    Thanks for a well-written and very timely article! When I obey, I choose to do so, and I am responsible for my actions. When Martin Harris had to sell part of his farm to pay the mortgage for the Book of Mormon printing, the Lord told him to pay the debt that he had contracted.

    …the impossible position that the worshipfulness of the Saints puts our leaders in.

    I appreciate your point here. May God bless the Saints and our leaders.

  4. log on March 11, 2013 at 10:36 am

    The Church is merely the vehicle for disseminating the Gospel of Christ and the performance of the outward ordinances, speaking institutionally.

    We hope the leaders know more than we do. We hope they are led by the Spirit in all things. The only way to know for sure is to obtain the First Comforter for ourselves, which, if we do, we need not that any man should teach us (1 John 2:20,27; Moses 6:61)… ironic, isn’t it?

  5. Cameron N on March 11, 2013 at 10:45 am

    I would say dualistic rather than ironic. So much dualism in the Gospel.

  6. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

    The church moved from teaching correct principles for self governing under Joseph to church enforced rules even down to minutia today. We moved from a revelation lead church under Joseph to the current inspired church.

    …but today perhaps we’ve gone too far in the other direction and become lemmings.. Well said and so true in so many cases.

    The problem with dispensing only general advise is that it leads to implied peer pressure stigmas. …how do we react to individuals with compassion while maintaining a system / institution that tends towards good results for everyone?. By moving away from one size fits all black & white rules back to self governed principles and by teaching and explaining nuance. Explaining the principles behind exceptions should not be seen as some impossible burden, for instance the Spirit’s prompting should be considered a frequent exception.

    I think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders.. Well said, I strongly agree, but our leaders may not because the logical extension of this takes one well beyond the current temporal church and makes sell all you have, give to the poor and follow me desciples out of obedient tithe paying brethren adoring members!

  7. Nathaniel Givens on March 11, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    Howard-

    I think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders..

    Well said, I strongly agree, but our leaders may not…

    I appreciate your kind words, but you seem to have missed the point of the post. (“My hope is simply this: that the next time someone suggest that Mormonism ought to change in this way or that way that the ensuing conversation not get hung up on “But what will the Leaders think?”“)

    I think that the model where General Authorities dispense general guidelines and members individually decide how to apply that to their own lives is perfectly compatible with self-governance. Waiting for Salt Lake to issue a manual on self-governance, however, is like waiting for water to be dry. It’s not a deficiency with leadership. It’s an oxymoronic expectation.

  8. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 12:50 pm

    Nathaniel,
    It’s a good post but you’re addressing a congregation largely made up of followers, obedience and following is encouraged being proactive except within narrow limits is discouraged. While I support your get spiritual message one doesn’t have to go very far with that before they have transcended the need for the temporal church and those who are proactive enough to get started are probably already working on it. So what about the vast numbers of less aggressive members who are currently marching in place waiting for direction from above?

    Correct me if I’m wrong but to me this advice advice doesn’t change much for the proactive or for followers but I can see that it could be used to argue, don’t criticize, simply go your own spiritual way quietly. Many are upset about the progressive movement within the church but I wonder if they realize that the modern church has been regressive and change would be required just to return it to the level of the restoration. So please enlighten me as to your main goal.

  9. log on March 11, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Hey Howard,

    If it is true that a man must be born of water and of the Spirit, then why do you turn people away from the Church? Where else shall the water be found?

  10. Nathaniel Givens on March 11, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Howard-

    My main goal, in this post but also more broadly, is to participate in the spiritual creation of the Church spoken of in D&C 29:32. In this post, I’m trying to address what I see as twin misperceptions about the Church that are obstructing this growth.

    The first is that anything the Church cannot do need not be done. The second is that, because there is much the Church cannot do, the Church is superfluous. Both beliefs spring from an expectation that the Church be all things to all people, and that expectation itself is the problem.

    The Church is not a Swiss army pocket knife. It’s a highly specialized tool. The rigid and authoritarian hierachy is not a bug, but a feature. It is the skeleton around which a healthy body can be constructed. It is stiff matrix upon which fragile tendrils of individual testimonies can grow. It is the iron shackle that binds us to fellow members in awkward relationships of leader, follower, and observer, forcing us to learn through painful practice how to fulfill all roles.

    We already have our top-down hierarchy, but it’s time for us to grow the bottom-up spontaneous order. Not to replace the hierarchy, but to augment and complement it. I do not believe that the Church can be transcended this side of a fully realized Zion society (at which point I would argue it is fulfilled, rather than transendedd). Rather, I believe that we need to come to understand why it is designed the maddeningly frustrating way in which it is designed.

    And, along the way, I would hope to alleviate in some small measure the pain that comes from expectations that are impossible to fulfill.

  11. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    Log,
    It us not my goal to turn people away from the church I desire a reopening of the heavens instead of the opening of a new mulit $Billion mall.

  12. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Nathaniel,
    Thank you for your clear response, as you can probably tell we disagree but I respect your position and will bow out if your post unless specifically addressed.

  13. log on March 11, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Hey Howard,

    If you undermine the leaders, then why should an outside observer, hearing and believing you, repent as the leaders say they should, and be baptized as the leaders say they should?

  14. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    There is a greater good to be addressed than the low probability potential problem you present

  15. log on March 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Hey Howard,

    Why were the devils in the New Testament so all-fired up and raring to reveal the truth of Christ’s identity? They testified of him every chance they got. Why did Christ shut them up? Didn’t he want people to know he was the Christ? Or does the source by which a truth is revealed have the potential to discredit it in the eyes of observers?

    “Be one: and if ye are not one ye are not mine.”

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 11, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    When was the last time that a General Authority made a specific decision about your ward or stake, other than defining new boundaries to accommodate growth in your area? The Brethren (and the Sisters in the RS, YW and Primary GPs) are regularly teaching correct principles, through General Conference, and the Church managazines, and leadership training and occasional stake conferences, but the actual governance with respect to individual persons or units is pretty much nil.

    Back in the 19th Century, in Utah at least, ward bishops and stake high councils were involved in resolving serious legal disputes between members under their jurisdiction. Occasionally one of them would get elevated to the apostles and First Presidency on appeal. These were not ecclesiastical matters, but involved business disputes, land ownership, and the like. By contrast, the Church leaders at the local and general levels do not get involved in those non-religious aspects of our lives. They have their hands full taking care of people who WANT their counsel, and can’t be burdened with advising people who don’t want their advice. In all my 63 years of membership, I have never had a GA bother me with personal direction (even when one lived in my ward). That is in contrast to some of the self-appointed busybodies in some of the wards I have lived in. The Brethren are more concerned with giving general guidance that intelligent and charitable people can apply to their own lives.

  17. Howard on March 11, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Log,
    I blog with the Spirit, flogging me with scripture has no affect.

  18. OAK on March 11, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    My first disappointment with the church was with my AP’s to the President of the mission. I wasn’t the only missionary to learn this lesson.Once I realized they were only young men,like myself,it was easier to forgive and move forward.

    Your post speaks to discussions in our family about the leadership doing their best and then it is most important to prayerfully learn the will of the Lord and make our decisions as to matters of the Gospel. We appreciate the service of others in the church but have learned to be careful about what is done by priesthood leadership in the name of the Lord. Above all else it is important to discern through prayerful supplication what the Lord would have you do.

  19. log on March 11, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Hey Howard,

    If you do not hear the scripture in reproof, then the spirit you are blogging with is not the one from which the scriptures were gotten.

  20. Steve Smith on March 11, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    “So where does that leave us? I think the answer is to seek a greater measure of spiritual independence from our leaders. This doesn’t mean being less obedient.”

    Two questions and a comment: Obedient to what? Directives from church leaders or your own sense of what you think God is telling you to do (i.e. personal revelation)?

    I get the sense that you want members to come to “spiritual knowledge” (fn1) through personal reasoning, intuition, and personal observation, and not so much through immediate and unquestioning acceptance of authority. I certainly sympathize with your plea but must point out a problem. You seem to be asking people to be more philosophical within the confines of a religious tradition. This is inherently contradictory, for at some point for someone to claim themselves to be religious, they must accept on faith the authority of a particular tradition as a source of this “spiritual knowledge”. Sure, they can be philosophical (meaning coming to “spiritual knowledge” through empiricism, reasoning, and intuition) to an extent, but to do so completely would invalidate the religious tradition. Indeed, to an extent the LDS church doctrine and predominant belief trends among church members already coincide with what you’re suggesting; don’t accept things merely by virtue of authority, but only after receiving a confirmation from the spirit, be it through prayer or some other worshipful method. However, suppose I were to claim that I had received a spiritual confirmation that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that the Book of Mormon was a 19th century text. The leaders would say I was wrong. On what basis? On the basis that many other church leaders and members, past and present, had claimed to receive a confirmation of the opposite. Hence an appeal to authority would be made to try to trump my appeal to personal intuition (aka revelation).

    fn1 – I write spiritual knowledge in quotes because I think that in reality only a belief or a faith of matters spiritual exists, not a full and complete knowledge.

  21. JRob on March 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Nathaniel,

    I think you’ve really done the world a service with this post. I find that it dovetails nicely with a comment I heard in a seminar from Eugene England years ago about how the Church is only as true as the Gospel. Took me much longer than it should have to work that truth out in my own mind. He spoke at length about how the Church is divinely organized and is a perfect structure, and how it is staffed, managed, and directed by imperfect mortals who are attempting to reach perfection through Christ.

    That seminar was a pivotal point for my spiritual progress in the Church. It helped me to overcome many of the offenses that I had felt over the years, and continues to help me hold to my testimony of the truth rather than my perception of what the Church is or ought to be.

    I feel like there is a lot that you’ve said here that will require more thought for me to really absorb, but I can already tell that there is a kernel there that resembles the seed that Bro. England helped to plant all those years ago.

    Thanks for that.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on March 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Steve-

    Obedient to what? Directives from church leaders or your own sense of what you think God is telling you to do (i.e. personal revelation)?

    To both. And there’s an inherent and inescapable tension there. We will never know when directives from our leaders that we find onerous are reflections of their flaws, our flaws, or both. I think there will be times when we obey with things we think are wrong (or at least suboptimal) because the benefit of supporting our leaders outweighs the harm of their bad decision. And of course there might be times when we refuse to go along with what a leader asks because the calculation runs the other way.

    The point is that we’re acting as independent agents in either case, always responsible for our own actions even in the context of attempting to obey. Because we’re independent agents, we will never be able to pick a simple rule and then follow it. You don’t ever get to set your ethical decision-making to autopilot in this life. The tension is inherent in the design.

    …for at some point for someone to claim themselves to be religious, they must accept on faith the authority of a particular tradition as a source of this “spiritual knowledge”.

    I disagree with that assessment quite strongly. I believe there should absolutely never be this kind of spiritual buck-passing. Neither the Scriptures, nor Prophets, nor God Himself can take from our shoulders the obligation to decide as we fit in matters both spiritual and epistemological. To ultimately root religion in authority or anything other than personal conviction is to obliterate the authenticity of religion.

  23. charlene on March 11, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you, Nathaniel. Articulating this nuance is difficult.

    I lived this principle 25 years ago when Pres. Benson became head of the Church. As an employed mother, I had the struggle when a coworker asked me, ‘If you claim to be a Mormon who follows a prophet, what will you do now that your prophet says that mothers should not work outside their homes?’ I struggled, pondered, and prayed until I received my guidance. My conclusion: the prophet’s guidance is truly the best for most circumstances. However, in my circumstances I had to make a different choice for the best interests of my family. I am willing to face the consequences before God for my different choice.

    It wasn’t easy but I’m really glad that I had practice at gaining my own testimony of the prophet’s words.

  24. Steve Smith on March 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    Nathaniel, I really would like for the authentic religion that you talk of to be part and parcel of the LDS experience, and I believe that it can, but only with limitations. Because religion (according to my definition, which I think differs from yours) is inextricably linked to tradition, which is protected by institutions. And residing within these institutions is a hierarchy of authority which defines the criteria for who belongs and who doesn’t. Sometimes in religions authorities are more rigid in how they define and enforce these criteria, and sometimes they are more relaxed. I get the sense that you want the LDS church to be more relaxed, and so do I. But at some point, for us to claim ourselves to be Mormon (at least in a sense that the LDS institution would also be able to confirm us as valid Mormons), we must inherently accept some things (even if it is just one or two significant things) by the authority of tradition.

  25. Jax on March 11, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Nathaniel,

    I agree that the thought, “what will the leaders think” is wrong, but only because they are appealing to the wrong authority. What we ought to always be considering is, “What will God think?”

    Will God be pleased that I cut off Laban’s head?… search my soul/feelings/etc, say a prayer and ask, look for spiritual messages in scripture/prophetic counsel… and if I feel that YES God wants me to do this, then do it.

    Will God be pleased if I give Martin these translated pages? Go through the process and choose wisely. If you don’t choose wisely then you’ll get section 10

  26. Nathaniel Givens on March 11, 2013 at 6:54 pm

    Steve-

    we must inherently accept some things (even if it is just one or two significant things) by the authority of tradition.

    If we’re viewing religion as a social construction: sure. Do you use a fake or a real Christmas tree? There is no “right” answer other than what your family’s traditions happen to be. Culture, like language, is largely arbitrary and therefore based on things like authority or popularity.

    But religion as a pursuit of truth is not.

    Jax-

    What we ought to always be considering is, “What will God think?”

    I don’t think this is foundational either. Doing what is right is more important than doing what God wants you to do. Of course I happen to believe that the two are identical, but it’s important to differentiate between following the dictates of an omnipotent despot and following the commands of a perfectly righteous being.

  27. Jax on March 11, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    I disagree Nathaniel, I think doing what God wants you to do is the ENTIRE point of being here. We always recite that “this life is a test” – but we often forget what God said the test is:

    Abraham 3:25 And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them;

    The test is precisely DO WHATEVER GOD TELLS YOU! For most of us that might well always be following the 10 Commandments, fulfilling our calings, and keeping a temple recommend. Sometimes though it will be to cut off someones head, fraudulently pretend to be that person, steal something valuable that the person has, and then when you are discovered to physically restrain the person until they agree to join you.

  28. Brendon b on March 11, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    You explain it so well, thanks :D

  29. Kolby on March 12, 2013 at 12:04 am

    My mission was a real trial for me learning a lot of the lessons you’ve talked about. Thank you.

  30. Kim on March 12, 2013 at 1:09 am

    Log is pompously and obnoxiously trolling on multiple sites lately and should probably be ignored.

    Great post, by the way. Much appreciated.

  31. Sean on March 12, 2013 at 10:42 am

    I am continuously amazed at the willingness of the membership to excuse the sins of the Brethren, when the Brethren will not excuse ours. Joseph said you do not condemn me and I will not condemn you, you throw a mantle over my sins and I will throw one over yours, and arm in arm we will go into the kingdom of God.

    The Lord said to the Twelve, “What manner of men ought ye to be…” and later, “The works ye have seen me do these ye shall do and greater still because I go unto the Father.”

    A question: When did Christ ever pass by someone in need and say, Sorry, that you need comfort goes without saying, but since I cannot give it without risking the ire of some self righteous member who demands their own robe, ring and calf?

    No, rather the words of reproof were always to the faithful son, the labor who worked through the heat of the day and the Pharisee who insisted upon being recognized for his devotion to the law.

    I understand the need to be patient with very weak and human leaders, but they cannot simultaneously demand exact obedience from the members while expecting us to be lenient with their inability to succor those in pain and need outside the reach of the Handbook of Instructions.

    Finally, I take issue with your sorry attempt to blame the members for creating this unsustainable expectation of performance from the brethren. The Brethren have created this part and parcel themselves. Starting with Wilford Woodruff they found it much easier and less burdensome to threaten the membership with rebellion against God if any were to question the decisions of men who hold an office. In the short term it is always easier to demand obedience rather than to persuade, to love, to exercise meekness and love and patience.

    Post script: The fact that I have distiguished between members and Brethren shows how distant our arc of worship has become from “The body of Christ where all things (revelation as well as temporal things)are had in common. So distant is that view that my heart breaks and my eyes fill with tears and the darkness is scarce kept at bay.

  32. Nathaniel Givens on March 12, 2013 at 11:00 am

    Sean-

    This is a difficult post to respond to because I believe many of your fundamental assumptions are wrong. It’s an important post to respond to, however, because it enacts the problem I was seeking to illustrate: the unrealistic expectations create a sense of hurt and betrayal where none need exist.

    The first assumption I believe to be wrong is the assumption that the Brethren are in the business of condemning. When someone says “You must do X to be righteous”, then all those who do not do X have cause to feel condemned. But when someone says “You must do X in general to be righteous, but there are exceptions, and those who are in exceptional circumstances should not be condemend” then (if you find yourself in that position) there is no logical basis for feeling condemned. There is simply no condemnation from the Brethren. From overzealous members? Perhaps. From ourselves, even if we judge ourselves unfairly? Too frequently. But from the Brethren? No. They have not accused anyone because their general rules are properly characterized as such.

    The second assumption with which I take issue is the idea that unless the Brethren publicly serve they must not be serving. If a person in an exceptional case comes to Elder Monson and asks for help, which is a better response: to give a talk over the pulpit at General Conference, or to counsel and nurture the member one-on-one? It is tragic that you would believe that any succor the General Authorities give of which you are not aware is somehow invalid or non-existent.

    The last assumption is not an assumption, but a claim you make quite explicitly: that the Brethren foster these beliefs themselves. I cannot believe that, however, becaue the words I’ve quoted in this post contradict the beliefs you believe they have promulgated.

    I believe you have misunderstood, and I’m sorry that your misunderstanding seems to cause such pain.

  33. Sean on March 12, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Nathaniel

    If you knew my vantage point and my experience and my relationships you would be less inclined to assume I misunderstand.

    Zion has indeed fled and we wait to commence the pursuit anew, hoping to not faint by the way while the church tarries.

  34. Doug Hudson on March 12, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    Given Sean’s rather telling reference to Woodruff, I’m guessing he doesn’t recognize the authority of any of the Salt Lake “Brethren” after the Manifesto…

  35. Waylon Covil on March 12, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Sean,
    Nathaniel and Doug seemed sympathetic in their posts.
    We probably need more details. You have something going on.
    Perhaps some healing can take place. At the very least, some understanding on both sides.
    What’s going on?

  36. Sean on March 13, 2013 at 12:06 am

    Wayton

    You will never know how much a kind voice means. The answer to your question cannot be brought to light. There is too much riding for too many to venture down that path.

    As I retire tonight,it is with a sympathetic and kind voice sounding in my ear that although cannot bring peace, at least was kind enough to ask the question.

    God bless you.

  37. Sarah Familia on March 13, 2013 at 9:10 am

    I enjoyed this post, Nathaniel. I had very similar experiences on my mission. Looking back, I realize that much of the anguish and inadequacy I felt as a missionary was due to the conflict between my innate sense of what I should be doing as an emissary of Christ and the high pressure sales techniques my mission president and the AP’s and Zone Leaders were promulgating.

    I loved the conclusion of your comment #22: “I believe there should absolutely never be this kind of spiritual buck-passing. Neither the Scriptures, nor Prophets, nor God Himself can take from our shoulders the obligation to decide as we [see] fit in matters both spiritual and epistemological. To ultimately root religion in authority or anything other than personal conviction is to obliterate the authenticity of religion.”

    After a lifetime of feeling that I must accept and obey anything my leaders tell me, I have finally learned to take responsibility for my own beliefs and my own spirituality. I am amazed at how much richer and more coherent my spiritual life has become, even though, as you say, I have also experienced much more tension and found many more areas of gray than I had previously seen. All in all, I’d say it beats the unexamined life :)

  38. Angie Patterson on March 14, 2013 at 12:55 am

    Well written. And well explained.

    After reading some of the comments, I looked more closely at the author. We lived in your dad’s ward in Richmond while he was Bishop 8 years ago. Your parents are such great, wise people. Their influence was great, indeed.

  39. Nathaniel Givens on March 14, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks, Angie! I think my parents are pretty great and wise, too. :-)

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