Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Authority (Part 3: Exercising Authority in the Church)

To see how the Lord seems to view authority, its purpose, and its bounds, let’s look at two passages of scripture, one from the New Testament and one from the Doctrine and Covenants.

Not as “the Princes of the Gentiles”
After the mother of James and John had approached the Savior and inappropriately requested that her sons sit on Jesus’s right and left hand in his eternal kingdom, the other Apostles were understandably indignant. But Jesus set them straight. He explained that even though the “princes of the Gentiles” exercised dominion and authority over their subjects, it was not to be so among his disciples. His kingdom was different.
“Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
“And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:
“Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26–28).
Even on the surface, this is a startling statement. It runs counter to the attitudes regarding authority we generally see in the world, and even sometimes in the Church, where hierarchy, formal titles, reverence for position, and the act of presiding have become crucial concepts. Some LDS practices, when we consider them, seem to run counter to what the Savior was trying to teach his Apostles. For instance, high councils that are assigned seats according to seniority or whose members must exit the room in that same order are enshrining the very sort of pecking order Jesus prohibited among his original Apostles. In our sacrament meetings, we are also very careful about serving the bread and water to the “presiding authority” first. Not only can this get confusing for the deacons when visiting authority figures are in attendance, but for some reason it is difficult to imagine Jesus insisting that he be the first served. If the account in Matthew 20 is accurate, he would probably insist on being served last, and not because last is the place of honor.
Although the Savior was very clear about his own authority and the fact that he was always in charge—preaching, inviting, commanding, reprimanding, forgiving, sending, and so forth—his instructions to his Apostles seem specifically to forbid among them any sort of ranking system (except perhaps an inverted ranking, where those with the most authority were to serve rather than rule). If we can draw a lesson from this, it is perhaps that we are not to use authority in the Church as the world uses it. This is expressly forbidden. President David O. McKay translated this same idea into a modern context: “We cannot run the Church like a business.”1 This may seem obvious, but business philosophies, practices, and structures are so pervasive in our modern organizational world that they tend to be difficult to circumvent in the Church, at both the individual and the institutional level.

“No Power or Influence”
Expanding on the central principle pronounced in the Savior’s brief reprimand of his Apostles, Joseph Smith was very explicit in the revelation/commentary published in D&C 121 about the use of priesthood authority and how it differs from worldly authority:
Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. . . .
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, [that] they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. . . .
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile. (D&C 121:34–37, 39, 41–42)
Hidden in plain view in this inspired commentary is an insight about priesthood that is not well understood. If we truncate verse 41 before it runs off into the list of qualities a leader should employ in exercising priesthood authority, a very important lesson comes suddenly into focus: “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood”—period. A man cannot maintain power or influence over somebody simply by virtue of the fact that he holds the priesthood or occupies a priesthood office; nor should he try, because if he does, he loses the power of the priesthood. As the Prophet made abundantly clear in verses 36 and 37, the priesthood of God is powerless if held over someone else’s head. Priesthood power and influence (meaning here undoubtedly authority exercised in an institutional setting) come only as a consequence of long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, and pure knowledge (in other words, the spirit of serving and ministering the Savior was trying to teach his Apostles during his earthly ministry). People will not follow if they are pushed, coerced, controlled, threatened, or manipulated. Those being ordered about may comply, but they will not follow. Stated another way, individuals become leaders not merely because they occupy a position of presumed authority, even if that office is granted by divine directive. They become leaders only because others willingly follow them. Leadership is entirely dependent on the willingness of the followers. Mormons are known, by and large, for their obedience to authority. Indeed, sometimes we are rightly accused of being blindly obedient. But sometimes that obedience is more a passive compliance with edicts from authoritarian figures than an active following that leaders have earned by their behavior. In this light, true priesthood leadership always considers the rights, desires, development, well-being, free will, and autonomy of the followers first. Terryl Givens refers to this paradoxical idea of priesthood as “power with no compulsion.”2

Authority by Consent
This idea adds a new wrinkle to the standard LDS definition of priesthood. Priesthood is more than just an abstract agency granted by the Lord to speak or act in his name. It is also authority sanctioned or consented to by peers. Unless a person in a position of authority has the consent or approval of those over whom he or she exercises authority, then that authority lacks power—in essence, it is meaningless or empty. And this idea becomes even more significant when we understand that the modern Church, as it was initially established, was both a theocracy and a democracy. For instance, we read in one of the earliest revelations to the Church: “All things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith” (D&C 26:2, emphasis added). In other words, authority in the Church is not just an institutional authority granted to leaders through approved priesthood channels; it is also a consensual matter, contingent upon the approval of the rank-and-file members. We also read, “No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church” (D&C 20:65, emphasis added). These verses suggest that, at least in theory, the Church is not just a top-down, authoritarian hierarchy. Indeed, the very name of the Church suggests as much. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, but it is also the Church of the Latter-day Saints. The name is a dual possessive. Sometimes we just assume it is the Lord’s church and that’s all there is to it. But it appears that he expects something more of us.
This notion of consensual authority is central, I believe, to the whole framework of eternity of which we are a part. This idea will come up in more detail in part 14 of this series, so file it away somewhere for future reference. In the meantime, I’ll begin next week to address the modern LDS understanding of priesthood and how it differs from ancient priesthood.
1. Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 150. This remark came in the context of the Correlation movement and the organizational changes the Correlation Committee was proposing for the Church, which included, according to Ed Kimball, son and biographer of President Spencer W. Kimball, “applying management practices that were standard in the American business world.” Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 249.
2. Terryl L. Givens, “Paradox and Discipleship,” Irreantum 11, nos. 1–2 (2009): 39.


  1. I don't find that some implications follow from the premise at all; and many seem to be used to make the opposite point that what follows.

    It seems to me that Jesus was speaking against exercising dominion and seeking office which does not relate to any so-called pecking order.

    This so-called pecking order is an "Inverted ranking system"; the junior members get to speak first when giving views or opinions.

    And it's not like the sacrament is passed in order around the leaders in a sacrament meeting, after it is passed to the presiding authority, there is no ranking system order there.

    And we know from record that the presiding authority only gets the sacrament first to ensure that the deacons learn to tell who the presiding authority is, which the author seems to acknowledge: "Not only can this get confusing for the deacons when visiting authority figures are in attendance"

    And "but for some reason it is difficult to imagine Jesus insisting that he be the first served" - there probably would be no doubt that he was presiding, but I don't guess to know what he would direct in the sacrament which represents his body, not the bishops body- i.e. there can be no comparison or basis for guessing!

    Having the sacrament first is not some aggrandizing honour; the presiding authority is also responsible for making sure the ordinance is performed correctly, it is also convenient for him to be first as it gives an opportunity to make any correction before a wider distribution.

    The author seems happy with Jesus authority and what he can be imagined to do, but doesn't seem to recognize that priesthood keys are the delegated right to direct the priesthood work. The presiding authority acts by right, just as Jesus does.

    I have to disagree with D&C 121 being hidden in plain view, it is the most taught doctrine in priesthood meetings in my experience.

    1. Thanks for these points, Sam. One, though, that seems a stretch is the idea that the presiding authority is served first so that he has an opportunity to make any correction before a wider distribution. In 59 years, I've never seen a presiding authority correct a deacon on passing the sacrament before it goes out to the congregation. In fact, I can't imagine what he might find to correct in how one deacon passes the sacrament to him that would cause him to stop the ordinance and correct all the deacons before they pass it to the congregation.

      Also, I didn't imply that section 121 was hidden in plain view, only that one particular insight in that section, which I elaborate on, is apparently not that obvious.

      I'll discuss priesthood keys in an upcoming post.

  2. I wasn't referring to correcting the deacon, but on correcting the priest who spoke the words of the ordinance.

    I hadn't supposed that you had thought the whole of section of 121 was hidden in plain view, it was a clumsy comment of mine, I was referring to that point that you were making from it.