Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Authority (Part 15: Obedience, the Flip Side of the Authority Coin)
The first fourteen posts in this series have discussed various aspects of authority. But standing opposite the sometimes perplexing issues surrounding authority are the parallel and equally challenging questions relating to obedience. Obedience, we sometimes hear in the Church, is the first law of heaven. But this has never made much sense to me. Obedience isn’t a law at all. We can be obedient to laws, but we can’t be obedient to obedience. That is circular thinking. Obedience is crucial to our eventual exaltation, but we must recognize a difference between obedience to God—to his laws and commandments, to the conscience he has given us, or to his authorized servants when they are speaking for him—and obedience to man (even when called by God but not necessarily speaking for him) or, especially, to arbitrary institutional authority.
The notion of obedience to institutional authority has grown increasingly rigid over the years as the Church has become ever more centralized and regimented in its policies and programs and as personal, charismatic authority has retreated into the background. Indeed, the institutional Church (or local pieces of it) sometimes demands a blind, mindless conformance to capricious organizational requirements rather than an informed obedience to God or to his servants who are acting as his agents. The difficulty, of course, lies in discerning when our leaders are acting as God’s agents from when they are acting as agents of institutional precedent or, most troubling, when they are merely speaking for themselves, since in most instances they don’t explicitly tell us when they are speaking for God and sometimes they even encourage us to believe they are always acting under inspiration, even at the local level. But this creates difficulties. Mortals, even the most righteous and inspired among us, are not perfect and at times make mistakes and misinterpret the whisperings of the Spirit. Not surprisingly, then, Latter-day Saints have struggled with the complex issue of obeying mortal leaders from the earliest days of the Restored Church. The sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit requirement of strict, perpetual obedience to priesthood authority has been with us from the beginning of the Restoration and has caused a good deal of grief and embarrassment from time to time.
De Facto Infallibility
“Follow the Brethren” is a maxim Latter-day Saints are often counseled to accept as a blanket rule, but life is never quite so simplistic, particularly in an organization as complex as the Church. In the seven years I spent working as an editor at Church magazines, I became acutely aware of the difficulties this rule creates in the corporate side of the institution. Basically, what you have at Church headquarters are departments of employees supervised by hired managers who are in turn answerable to General Authorities who serve as executive directors and advisers to the departments. On the surface, this structure is probably not dissimilar to that of many capitalist and government organizations. The primary differences—and many of the difficulties—arise from the fact that in the Church bureaucracy, virtually all decisions, recommendations, and even opinions of upper management (General Authorities) are treated by professional middle managers as divinely inspired (and therefore incontestable), even when these middle managers believe otherwise.
Although nothing in LDS scripture or doctrine insists that Church leaders are infallible, when we transform the counsel to follow the Brethren into an incontestable rule, we have, in effect, granted our leaders de facto infallibility. In doing so, we also totally eliminate the democratic or participatory element in Church governance that I have discussed in previous posts. As may be expected, the notion of de facto infallibility does not exist just in the Church employment structure; ordinary Latter-day Saints are expected to endorse it in their individual lives. Sometimes this philosophy is expressed rather brazenly, as in the following statement that appeared in the 1945 Improvement Era: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”1
When a Unitarian minister, J. Raymond Cope, questioned this statement, he received assurance from President George Albert Smith that “the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church.”2 It should be noted, however, that this was President Smith’s private correspondence with Cope and that the general Church membership never received an official notification that this statement was in error. Indeed, similar statements have since appeared from time to time, such as President N. Eldon Tanner’s declaration in a 1979 First Presidency Message, “When the prophet speaks the debate is over.”3
Where this idea of infallibility first sprouted in the Church is unclear. I suppose its roots lie in our distant past, long before the Church became a corporate entity. In some ways, Joseph Smith was more than a century ahead of his time, but even he struggled with the competing demands of leading by both revelation and common consent. Over the course of his fourteen years as Church president, he accumulated increasing levels of power and influence, both within the Church and in the surrounding community, to the point that the Saints’ neighbors grew uneasy with this concentration of power in one person. In Nauvoo, for instance, Joseph was not just president of the Church; he was also mayor, chief magistrate of the Nauvoo municipal court, head of the largest militia in the state, and even postmaster. As he accumulated power, the democratic element in the Church diminished. After his death, this pattern continued and perhaps even intensified during Brigham Young’s thirty years as prophet, possibly necessitated by the struggle to survive in the arid West. Over the next century, the Church evolved from a desert theodictatorship into what we might describe as a modern corporate hierarchy. The constant over this long period, however, was the retreat of the idea of democracy in the Church, to the point that we now hear members glibly reminding each other that “the Church isn’t a democracy,” totally oblivious to the democratic impulse the Lord built into the organization (including in its very name) and reminders such as James E. Talmage’s statement that the Church is a “theodemocracy.”4 The exact origin of autocratic tendencies doesn’t really matter, though. What matters is that an atmosphere of blind obedience and mindless conformity has developed over time (the inevitable fruit of de facto infallibility), and this creates serious challenges in the modern Church for members and leaders alike.
Let me illustrate what I mean by de facto infallibility with an example from the not-too-distant past. A year or two after I left Church magazines, one of my colleagues told me about a directive the magazine staffs were laboring under. Apparently, one of the General Authorities assigned to supervise the Curriculum Department issued an edict that the magazines were no longer to show photographs of anyone wearing denim. Now, unless there has been an unannounced revelation that denim is evil, we can only assume that this was simply an individual inflicting a personal bias on a corner of the kingdom.
As you can imagine, this created difficulties for the magazines, particularly the New Era. Magazine editors were routinely sent out to various parts of the world to interview members and write stories about the “local” Church. They generally took photographs of the people to include with their stories, and sometimes it was impossible to control how these members were dressed. In fact, in some areas, denim may have been their “best dress.” New Era staffers often wrote stories about youth participating in service projects or other outdoor activities. Invariably, many of the kids wore denim. So how did the magazine employees comply with this practically impossible requirement? Well, the designers simply used digital wizardry (Photoshop) to magically transform jeans into slacks. I’m sure some of them felt this was dishonest, but what other alternative did they have? Questioning the General Authority’s directive was simply not an option. De facto infallibility.
Beyond Blind Obedience
Perhaps it would be profitable to consider the reasoning of Elder B. H. Roberts, who candidly discussed the limited nature of God’s direct involvement in day-to-day Church governance in an Improvement Era article at the time of the Reed Smoot Senate hearings—when questions arose about the autonomy of Church leaders. Wrote Roberts:
There is nothing in the doctrines of the Church which makes it necessary to believe that [men are constantly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit], even . . . men who are high officials of the Church. When we consider the imperfections of men, their passions and prejudices, that mar the Spirit of God in them, happy is the man who can occasionally ascend to the spiritual heights of inspiration and commune with God! . . .
We should recognize the fact that we do many things by our own uninspired intelligence for the issues of which we are ourselves responsible. . . . He will help men at need, but I think it improper to assign every word and every act of a man to an inspiration from the Lord. Were that the case, we would have to acknowledge ourselves as being wholly taken possession of by the Lord, being neither permitted to go to the right nor the left only as he guided us. There could then be no error made, nor blunder in judgment; free agency would be taken away, and the development of human intelligence prevented. Hence, I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.5
Elder Roberts’s observation not only makes good sense, but it must be true, otherwise the Lord’s chosen servants would be nothing more than automatons and would be bereft of moral agency, severely impeded in their own growth and development. Now, I’m not suggesting that every decision the Brethren make is flawed or should be questioned. To the contrary, most decisions are wise and good and should be supported, even if just for the sake of harmony and cooperation. But “most” is not “all,” and this is the difference between messy reality and the illusion of infallibility. There are exceptions to virtually every rule. And Church leaders, like the rest of us, are not infallible.
Much of the time, as B. H. Roberts suggested, Church leaders are not operating under direct guidance of the Holy Ghost. Joseph Smith himself said that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.”6 So, if we receive from priesthood authority a directive that troubles us, what are we to do? Do we just follow, trusting that the leader is inspired, and lay the blame at his feet if disaster follows? This is exactly what happened at Mountain Meadows in September 1857, which illustrates why blind obedience to institutional authority is one of the most dangerous of all organizational values. No, first and always our responsibility is to God, and that responsibility involves the exercise of our conscience, our agency, and the principle of personal accountability.
Brigham Young criticized those who mindlessly accept Church leaders’ statements:
These persons do not depend upon themselves for salvation, but upon another of their poor, weak, fellow mortals. . . . Say they, . . . I depend upon you, brother Joseph, or upon you, brother Brigham, upon you, brother Heber, or upon you, brother James; I believe your judgment is superior to mine, and consequently I let you judge for me. . . . Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate.7
Indicating that even inspired leaders are fallible, President Young also declared: “How often has it been taught that if you depend entirely upon the voice, judgment, and sagacity of those appointed to lead you, and neglect to enjoy the Spirit for yourselves, how easily you may be led into error.”8
Finally, he stated: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence.”9
Elder Harold B. Lee echoed Brigham Young’s sentiments: “It is not alone sufficient for us as Latter-day Saints to follow our leaders and to accept their counsel, but we have the greater obligation to gain for ourselves the unshakable testimony of the divine appointment of these men and the witness that what they have told us is the will of our Heavenly Father.”10
President Joseph F. Smith concurred: “I do not believe in obeying man, only when my judgment or the inspiration of the Almighty tells me that obedience to that man will be wise and good. In other words, I am not a believer in blind obedience. I think those who know me can bear record to my testimony that I never yet obeyed any man, nor have I to my knowledge obeyed God, blindly. What I have done I have done with my eyes open. I have done it willingly, because I have believed or have known it to be good.”11
But what about President Wilford Woodruff’s assurance that the Lord would never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray?12 Some have given this statement an inappropriately strict interpretation, but what did President Woodruff actually mean? Obviously, he was not claiming that the prophet will never make a misstatement of fact or never utter anything but the mind and will of God. In other words, he was not claiming that the prophet is infallible. If we look at the context in which this statement was given, President Woodruff was defending the Manifesto that ended polygamy and was trying to assure the members, many of whom were reluctant to give up the practice of plural marriage, that this was the will of the Lord. Certainly, as the CES Institute manual for the Doctrine and Covenants suggests, he was claiming only that the prophet would never lead the people into apostasy, not that the prophet is infallible in all things.13
Referring to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s statement that “a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such,”14 Elder John A. Widtsoe commented:
That statement makes a clear distinction between official and unofficial actions and utterances of officers of the Church. In this recorded statement the Prophet Joseph Smith recognizes his special right and duty, as the President and Prophet of the Church, under the inspiration of the Lord, to speak authoritatively and officially for the enlightenment and guidance of the Church. But he claims also the right, as other men, to labor and rest, to work and play, to visit and discuss, to present his opinions and hear the opinions of others, to counsel and bless as a member of the Church.”15
In short, even when the prophet speaks, we have a responsibility to determine whether what he has told us is the word of God. President J. Reuben Clark explained: “He is God’s sole mouthpiece on earth for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true Church. He alone may declare the mind and will of God to his people. No officer of any other Church in the world has this high right and lofty prerogative.”16 But President Clark elaborated, “We can tell when the speakers are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’ only when we, ourselves, are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’ In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.”17
Restoring a Degree of Democracy
Although, as mentioned above, the democratic impulse in the Church has been suppressed for a long time, it is possible that this aspect of Mormonism is reviving somewhat in our day because of the Internet. The recent online tempest over the Church’s announced policies regarding children of same-sex marriages produced an interesting reaction. After the initial announcement, the bloggernacle and various forms of social media exploded with critiques of the new policies that revealed certain problem areas and exposed potentially tragic scenarios. Basically, the Internet gave ordinary members a channel through which they could communicate with top Church leaders, something that the size of the Church and the opacity of the hierarchical structure have prevented in recent decades. As a consequence, within a few days, the Church announced a “clarification” of the policy. Since the Church can’t admit that its leaders ever make mistakes, this is the euphemism that was chosen to backtrack from some of the harsher language in the initial announcement. I will refrain from making any judgment on either the original policy or the “clarification,” but the fact that the Church responded to the outcry of its members with a revision of a policy suggests that the Internet has restored a degree of democracy that has been absent in the Church for decades. I do see this as a wholly positive development, quite consistent with the principles upon which the Church was founded.
1. “Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945: ‘Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church,’” Improvement Era, June 1945, 354.
2. “A 1945 Perspective,” Dialogue 19 (Spring 1986): 38.
3. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate Is Over,” Ensign, August 1979, 2.
4. James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism (1919; Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1948), 38–40.
5. B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 362, emphasis added.
6. Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 5:265 (hereafter cited as History of the Church).
7. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, 1855–56), 1:312, February 20, 1853. As I indicated in a previous post, the printed text in the Journal of Discourses likely differs significantly from what the speakers actually said. But we should also be aware that Brigham Young probably approved the printed versions of at least his own speeches, even if they had been edited substantially.
8. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 8:59, May 20, 1860.
9. Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 9:150, January 12, 1862.
10. Harold B. Lee, Conference Report, Oct. 1950, 130, emphasis added.
11. Joseph F. Smith, Conference Report, April 1899, emphasis added.
12. See “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the Manifesto,” Doctrine and Covenants.
13. Enrichment F, “‘As If from Mine Own Mouth’: The Role of Prophets in the Church,” Doctrine and Covenants Institute Student Manual, accessed at http://institute.lds.org/manuals/doctrine-and-covenants-institute-student-manual/dc-in-200-d-f-f.asp.
14. History of the Church, 5:265
15. John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1951), 1:182.
16. Church News, July 31, 1954, 10.
17. Church News, July 31, 1954, 9.