Who Leads the Church?

13 Jun

Orwell at Momon Mentality shared his much debated views on whether it is the members that ultimately lead the Church –

… When it comes to “eternal truths,” who has the final author-ity? Who is the definitive last word on what we accept as God’s will? The obvious answer is, of course, the prophet(s).They speak, we believe and follow. It’s as simple as that, right?  Not so fast.

I do not believe that it works that way, not even for people that believe it does (unbeknownst to them). In the bigger picture, the “readers” of doctrine — the church membership at large — affect it every bit as much. Call me a heretic if you want, but at least suspend your indignation until you’ve heard me out. Let’s take a closer look at how we receive prophetic author-ity, beginning with the dead ones.

The Scriptures

… The scriptures are full of contradictions and are hard to understand (if you think otherwise then you probably haven’t read them enough). Not only that, but much of what we practice in the gospel today we can’t find there, and much of what we find we no longer practice. Consequently, we engage in active reading to reconcile these issues in our minds. Things that we don’t like or won’t accept we rationalize and read less often; passages or ideas that we like we mark and read with more frequency. Consciously or not, we start to piece together, revise, and interpret what loosely congeals as our own concept of “what the scriptures teach.”

However, sometimes prominent passages strike us as so clearly in opposition to each other that, even armed with the most creative interpretive mind, we can no longer reasonably reconcile or dismiss them. Naturally, we turn to the modern prophets.

The Modern Prophets

“Well, modern revelation will clear things up,” you say. “No more of this subjective silliness. Just pull out the old ‘general authority trump card’ — end of discussion.” Not so fast. Remember, most of the modern prophets are dead too. It’s all too easy for us to play the same game with their words.

Quotes and teachings we like show up more often. We perpetuate them. They catch on and start to be repeated more. They begin to crop up in General Conference talks and correlated materials — at which point they gain momentum like books on a bestseller list. Just as we have a collective, living idea of “what the scriptures teach,” the same phenomenon occurs with “what the modern prophets teach.”

What we don’t like or understand gets left behind (sorry, Brother Brigham). When we don’t continue to give life to an idea or quote through repetition, it falls out of use, memory, and, dare I say, orthodoxy. While a few pesky ideas are problematic or shocking enough to gain a little notoriety and still drop in occasionally for a good session of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth, these things are easily passed off as “opinion” or “speculation.”

What then is the deciding factor between speculation and doctrine? Is it the source? No, both can come from a sitting prophet. Is it the venue? No, General Conference addresses are a fertile field for both — while some “true” teachings don’t even necessarily come from a prophet or General Conference. We make the distinction. What we accept as true we perpetuate and canonize, what we reject we don’t. The body of the church members has the final say. In time, this consensus of orthodoxy eventually trickles up, as newer, younger leaders are called.

The Living Prophets

“Whatever,” you say, “that’s why we have living prophets: a living prophet trumps a dead one, after all!”

Kind of. It is true that living prophets can present entirely new teachings if they wish. They can also sponsor an idea or quote from the past, giving it a higher profile and a moment in the spotlight (think of it as the doctrinal equivalent of being on Oprah). In this, I have to concede that they can manipulate the consensus to a certain, often large, degree. In the long run, however, the same process takes its toll. If there is no consensus of acceptance among the members, once the initial zeal and thrill of following the prophet wears off, it doesn’t last. Oprah can make a bestseller, but she can’t make a classic (yes, I know they aren’t mutually exclusive).

Take Elder Bednar’s “tender mercies,” for example. It’s all the rage right now. It seems to have gained wide acceptance. Will it last? Is it “true” or is it merely his “opinion”? Only time will tell.

The Mormon Culture War

Clearly, we don’t, and never will, agree on everything. But what we do agree on (statistically speaking) is consolidated in what one might visualize as an enormous, constantly shifting Venn diagram that correlates with how we “read” our culture and beliefs. We frequently criticize Mormon culture for perpetuating practices or ideas that are “not part of the Gospel.” However, I am not convinced that there is a significant difference between Mormon doctrine and culture — that is, Mormon doctrine is only a subset of Mormon culture, a living hegemony of accepted orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In many cases the distinction between the two may only be a question of degree of adoption.

Let’s look at a few examples:

  • Beards / White Shirts — Not a doctrinal issue you say? I say, what’s the difference? If the consensus surrounding it ever becomes strong enough, it could easily become doctrinal.
  • Polygamy — Accepting the manifesto in practice lagged way behind the party line. The practice had remarkable staying power and it took decades for its end to trickle up to the top. If it hadn’t, we might still be practicing it today, remembering the manifesto as one more footnote in the church’s efforts to placate the government. The point is, the body of the church had to accept the change, the prophet’s proclamation was only as good as the members’ willingness to follow.
  • Prohibition — “Vote for it,” the prophet said. We didn’t.
  • The Temple — Both the ceremony and garments have changed over the years. As our comfort level with elements of these things collectively ebbs and flows, so does practice (eventually, anyway).
  • Caffeine — This one’s still in limbo and, quite frankly, this is one issue where I’ll just come right out and say that I don’t think God really cares that much. There’s plenty of evidence in general authority quotes and apocryphal stories for and against it; so, as usual, people read into it what they want to. It remains a grey area because there is not yet a large enough reader consensus one way or another.
  • The Priesthood Ban — This one is something of an outlier, whose origins may not even be culturally Mormon, necessarily, but American. It seems Joseph Smith was on the other side of the issue, but the church as a whole must not have been as progressive. If it had been, I don’t think Brigham Young’s pronouncements to the contrary would have mattered at all. In later years, however, we can see the influence of the hierarchy in manipulating the consensus (intentionally or not). Tragically, it took a long time for this change to trickle all the way up.
  • Bruce R. McConkie / Joseph Fielding Smith Theology — Is it in or out? While certainly influential due, if for no other reason, to the sheer volume of it in print, the tide of the consensus is slowly shifting the other way.
  • Brigham Young — Go read Journal of Discourses. You’ll see what I mean.

In the end, the author-reader / prophet-church dynamic is more of a dialogue, though one where the second component has the last word. Leaders can force some issues in the short term because we have a strong culture / consensus of obedience; however, over time, if the membership at large remains uncomfortable with the change, it eventually gets dropped. A prophet’s counsel or directives — scriptural, dead, or living — are only valid to the degree that the body of the saints is willing to accept them. From this perspective, the sustaining of church leaders takes on new significance.

Why I Am Not a Heretic

So, is this a heretical viewpoint? Many probably would say so (the consensus would be against me, I fear), but I disagree. The key is that we only get to decide what we accept as God’s will, we don’t have a say in what his will actually is. Much of what we reject as prophetic speculation might actually be the word of God. Some of what we accept probably isn’t. So, if anything, it’s a comforting affirmation of the Lord’s respect for our agency that he allows for this dialogue with our leaders and does not — à la Satan — compel us to accept his will.

This is not without scriptural precedent. (See how I did that?) Consider the children of Israel. Moses comes down from Sinai with a law. They can’t / won’t accept it, so he is forced to go back and renegotiate with God. What results from the whole episode is the Law of Moses (sparing God the embarrassment of many of its more unsavory aspects). Moses folded to the people a little fast, perhaps, but he’s not the only example. Joseph Smith’s life is replete with similar situations. Who is to say how many times the Lord has let a matter drop because we couldn’t handle it?

Besides, this way of looking at things allows us to fault our own mortal fallibility for the bad and give God the credit for the good. Not only that, but who’s to say that it isn’t the Spirit of the Lord guiding our hearts to a communion of “common consent” after all?

Most importantly, if, as it says in Hebrews, Jesus is the “author” of our salvation, the word acknowledges the role we have to play. It’s a terminology (says my own reading) that serves to emphasize the importance of our active part as “readers” of our salvation in the continuing process of perfecting ourselves and the saints.

These views are those of the author, and do not represent this blog.


Posted by on June 13, 2010 in History


4 responses to “Who Leads the Church?

  1. anthonyelarson

    June 17, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Well said, and spot on.

    If Latter-day Saints could step outside the box even momentarily to get a better perspective of this dynamic, they would be amazed at what they see. We’re not a body of believers following prophetic counsel; we’re a headstrong and intransigent congregation that goes its own way in spite of its prophets. In that respect, we are identical to Saints in every other dispensation, even though we mistakenly convince ourselves that we’re succeeding where they failed. Joseph Smith repeatedly bemoaned the intolerant, closed mindedness of the Saints, and we’ve only built on their foundation in the decades since then.

    I liken our prophets to the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike: The prophets are so busy trying to overcome our waywardness and hardheartedness of church members that they have time for little else. We merrily go our own way, following our own counsel and cultural traditions.

    Thanks for shining the light on this touchy issue.

  2. Emily A.

    September 5, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you.

  3. mormonmen

    October 6, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Good points. I believe this is the exact reason we are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The Lord wants us to be spiritually, mentally and emotionally mature enough to accept the truth about who He really is and what His Gospel really means. Too many of us, myself included, aren’t capable of doing so. We have our pet sins we justify, we have our pet causes we try to claim the Church supports, and we have our verses in scripture we choose to ignore. It never ceases to amaze me that my wife and I grew up in the exact same city, state and Church yet we have wildly different views of the Gospel.

    This is even present in the way our own leaders speak to us. Monson is a softy. He’s a great man but he is creating a more feminine church. If Packer were the prophet, things would be a lot more hardline and masculine. I think the discrepancy is so minimal that God doesn’t really care either way though. As long as we’re not screwing up the major doctrines, the Church can continue to grow as prophesied. We just don’t get to dig into the meat of the Church until we actually can handle what we’ve already been given. Whether that happens to me because of my own spiritual maturity and ability to communicate with the Holy Ghost or with the entire Church receiving a “thus sayeth the Lord” type revelation from the prophet is really up to us as individuals. It’s our own personal responsibility to separate the doctrinal wheat from the cultural chaff and really be what the Lord wants us to be.

  4. Emily A.

    October 20, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I really enjoy reading your posts. I notice that you haven’t posted anything new lately, and I just want to encourage you to do so because I think you have a very unique and valuable perspective on several topics. Thank you for sharing and putting into words things that I feel but do not know how to express in words.


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