This weekend, Mormons around the world will receive hours and hours of counsel from their church leaders in general conference, which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints convenes twice a year in Salt Lake City and broadcasts around the world.
I look forward to general conference. I study the instruction given there and use portions of it in my own teaching. I think it’s fair to ask myself, how much of it will I obey?
Some people think obedience is a simple thing, very black and white. I used to think that. But what if it’s not?
How much of what I hear in conference — or in other church meetings, or read in the official writings of Church leaders — am I required to obey, as a committed Latter-day Saint? Am I permitted to employ my own reason and inspiration to choose the counsel which applies to me, adapt it to my circumstances, and ignore the rest, or is that too much like selective obedience, which is a lot like disobedience? How nearly does counsel given by church leaders approach the status of scripture? Is counsel the same as commandment?
We speak here in the context of my faith, where we treat scripture as scripture and openly acknowledge not only the possibility but the actuality of divine communication with mortals, and the calling of otherwise ordinary men and women to act and speak as messengers for God.
If we understand God to be a perfect, divine Father, whose love, power, knowledge, wisdom, and mercy are infinite, and whose chief occupation is the salvation of his children — that is, us — then these passages of scripture are not too fearsome:
Man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. (Deuteronomy 8:3)
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Matthew 4:4)
You shall live by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God. (Doctrine and Covenants 84:44)
I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God. (Doctrine and Covenants 98:11)
I offer four instances of essentially the same commandment, from three different books of scripture and spanning more than 3000 years, to make a point. This is a recurring theme. God expects us to pay attention when he speaks.
Moreover, proper disciples would want to be exactly and completely obedient, I think, assuming they trust God — of all beings — not to lead them astray.
It does sound simple, doesn’t it? We often speak as if it were simple, and sometimes it is. Usually it is not.
It might always be simple — if God were in the habit of delivering very specific, completely personalized, absolutely clear instructions to each individual with some frequency, and if our understanding were just as clear. But God generally does not act in this manner with mortals. (Not being omniscient, I cannot say how many exceptions there may have been, but scripture attests to some.) So four related questions are reasonable, when we think God might be attempting to communicate with his people — with us — individually or collectively, through our feelings, our thoughts, or the words of others.
- Is this, in fact, a message from God?
- What does it mean? (What is God’s message?)
- Is it for me?
- How does God wish me to apply it to my circumstances?
Errors in answering any of these questions can lead us astray. Regrettably, straying doesn’t always diminish our confidence that we know and are doing the will of God. And if my own experience is any basis for judgment, even when we are quite certain what God wants us to do, and we act in good faith to do it, we’re likely to foul it up somehow, especially at first.
Please note also that getting all these answers right for ourselves does not necessarily mean we understand how God wishes others to live their lives.
God often speaks to us through messengers or servants — who could be, in a given instance, our Church leaders, our teachers, someone else who preaches in a church meeting, a spouse, our parents, a caring neighbor, a now-deceased writer of scripture, or some other person. Complications ensue, because we and all of these are (or were) imperfect mortals, bound by the limits of imperfect mortal languages and incomplete understanding — even when both the teacher and the learner are inspired by the Spirit of God.
In the Doctrine and Covenants — a book of canonized Mormon scripture consisting primarily of revelations to the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. — we find some further thoughts, which help to illustrate the complications of trying to be obedient in the real world, where we and prophets and other servants of the Lord are imperfect mortals.
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, . . . whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (Doctrine and Covenants 1:38)
If my people will hearken unto my voice, and unto the voice of my servants whom I have appointed to lead my people, behold, verily I say unto you, they shall not be moved out of their place. (Doctrine and Covenants 124:45)
We Mormons accept — we like to say “sustain” — certain mortals as divinely authorized leaders over us, particularly in prophetic and apostolic offices. We might conclude that anything such a leader says — at least in public or (more narrowly) in an official role — is to be received as if it came directly from the mouth and mind of God. Therefore, it is to be obeyed without question. (Some may think my use of the word “might” here, rather than something more certain, suggests my own tendency toward disobedience and rationalization.)
More specifically, we might conclude that anything any of our Church leaders tells us to do, when speaking in general conference or another official setting, is a commandment from God, to be obeyed without question, or defied or ignored at the peril of our eternal souls.
I don’t believe that. I don’t think that’s what these scriptures mean.
When the Lord says, “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,” he is saying that, when he has something to say to us, it is equally binding whether he says it to us in person or through a messenger. That is not the same as saying that anything his messenger says should be take as the Lord’s own message.
Let’s look carefully at another passage. Here Jesus Christ speaks to the Church in the first person about Joseph Smith — but also, by extension, his successors.
4 Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
6 For by doing these things the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory. (Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-6)
The Lord is saying, essentially, “When I give Joseph commandments and doctrine to pass on to you, you are to treat them as if they came to you directly from me. Great blessings will attend your obedience.”
I see no assertion here that every word the prophet speaks is to be taken as coming from the Lord. In fact, it is not clear from this passage that every word the Lord gives the prophet to speak is to be taken as commandment or doctrine. However, when the Lord gives commandments or doctrine, even through a messenger, we are to receive them as such.
If not everything the prophet — or apostle or bishop or Sunday School teacher — says is a commandment from God, what else might it be? It is not necessary for me to suppose that a given leader or teacher is deceived or is malevolently preaching error. Here are some other possibilities:
- personal opinion, which may or may not be completely true or generally applicable;
- counsel, which may or may not be wise — and if it is wise, it may or may not be broadly applicable, or specifically applicable to me;
- other thought or insight or principles, which may or may not be valuable, but ought not be confused with pure gospel truth, let alone with divine commandments or, for that matter, false doctrine.
Even when we understand a gospel principle fully — if that ever happens — we may lack the ability (generally or at specific moments) to articulate it accurately and effectively. Or we may have an incomplete understanding of a true principle and end up teaching a mix of truth and error. Or what we teach may be true, technically, but we may teach it in a way which either is unduly prone to misunderstanding or leads others to false conclusions.
Even on our good days, we are prone to misunderstand and misspeak, and to let our zeal for the truth we know coax us to speak beyond the limits of what we know. And even when we listen carefully, we are prone to mishear, misapply, misjudge, and, again, misunderstand.
As a rule, it seems, God himself is less a ventriloquist or a puppetmaster than a teacher in his own right, instructing us, then letting us work out and work through what we’ve learned, then sending us more instructions and needed correction.
The Opposite of Lazy
At first glance, this view of things would seem to be very easy and comfortable for me. It appears to allow me simply to accept what I like and reject what I don’t.
My actual role here is much more demanding.
I am required to seek counsel — that is, to be present in meetings where it is to be expected, and to seek it in other places where it is often found, such as in scripture and in prayer. I must be physically and mentally present. I must be spiritually available — neither proud nor unrepentant, and not so encrusted with sin that God’s whispered word cannot penetrate to my mind and heart. (Perhaps this is why we preach after we have partaken of the bread and water?)
I am required to consider what I hear and read, looking in it for instruction from the Lord. I am required to discern whether anything in what is said is a commandment which applies to me. Even in the absence of outright commandments, I am bound to determine which counsel applies to me and my circumstances, and how.
When I discover or believe that something I have been taught is in fact God’s will for me, I am bound to obey it.
Even when I hear counsel which does not apply to me, I am wise to consider the principles behind it and their implications for and applications to my life.
And as a leader, teacher, and parent, I am also obligated to consider what I hear in sacred settings in terms of how it can inform and improve my teaching of true principles, and how I can teach it effectively to others.
This is the opposite of seeking loopholes to excuse my disobedience. And my obligation to obey does not depend in any degree on whether I like the counsel or wish to obey it or not.
“Lord, Is It I?”
Some of the most celebrated — deservedly celebrated — gospel teachers I know, both in and out of my particular church, have used a scene from Jesus’ Last Supper to teach meekness and obedience. I am — justly — less celebrated as a teacher, but I have used it too, quite sincerely, and will almost certainly do so again.
20 Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve.
21 And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
22 And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I? (Matthew 26:20-22)
Note that the apostles did not whisper that it must be Judas, who apparently had been cranky lately. Each man looked inside, contemplated his own weakness, and wondered if the Master spoke of him.
It is a valid and valuable lesson. But there is another side to this story. Twelve wondered if Jesus had them in mind, but his words applied only to one. Accordingly, there is a second lesson here: Not everything I hear at church applies to me.
Much of what I will hear at general conference this weekend probably will apply to me. I will be disappointed if it doesn’t. But some of it won’t. It is my duty and prerogative to discern and decide what applies to me and how. I bear the responsibility for any failures or errors in that process.
Scripture and Not Scripture
We often say that whatever is spoken by the power of the Holy Ghost — that is, by inspiration from heaven — is scripture. In the strictest definition of scripture, this cannot be. Scripture that is binding on the Church is canonized scripture, and we do not canonize the Conference Report. Nor did we canonize the sermons I preached when I was someone’s bishop.
But I still understand why we say this. Here is a much-quoted passage from our Doctrine and Covenants:
2. . . . All those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth—
3 . . . shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
5 Behold, this is the promise of the Lord unto you, O ye my servants. (Doctrine and Covenants 68:2-5)
This suggests a looser definition of scripture: words which lead God’s people toward salvation. Not all such words — relatively few of them, actually — are canonized as part of our scriptures or “standard works.” Yet we often casually speak as if inspired teaching and canonized scripture are of equal import. They are not. Certainly not all that we’re taught in general conference is of equal weight with the Gospels or the Book of Mormon, for example.
Let us consider two indicators of this: common sense and the context of this passage.
First, common sense.
If a senior leader of the Church says in general conference, in a talk about marriage and parenting, that it is the husband and father’s duty to plan the family vacations, I immediately dismiss that as his opinion, not a command from God. However, this does not prevent me from acknowledging the true principles he teaches, when he speaks of the importance of mother and father leading the family as equal partners.
If a president of the Church — our prophet — speaking in a very public setting, lists music lessons as one of those luxuries which are insufficient justification for a mother working outside the home to earn a second income for the family, I dismiss that as his opinion. However, I am perfectly willing to accept the principle which underlies his teaching: that raising and caring for children should be a higher priority for both mother and father than earning extra income to buy luxuries. If I am spiritually and intellectually mature, I will understand that my wife and I have to serve that principle in the manner which best advances the welfare of our own children in our actual circumstances — and which may well include her extra work to fund music lessons.
If the prophet counsels young adults not to delay marriage in their selfish desire to avoid responsibility or to pursue leisure and luxury, I need the common sense not to teach that delaying marriage for any reason is wrong. I ought not teach the teenage girls (we call them young women) in my ward (congregation) that the prophet said (because he didn’t) that their educations don’t matter much, since their duty is to marry as soon as humanly possible after high school graduation (which it isn’t, and he didn’t say that either). I need the critical thinking skills to weigh the prophet’s statement against all else that bears on the subject, and the good sense to realize that he neither said nor intended to say that the education of young women is unimportant. Nor did he say that it’s their divine duty to marry before age 19 (or 20 or 25 or even 30). Nor should I counsel my daughter to marry the first suitor who proposes to her, if youth or other circumstances or wisdom or her inclinations suggest otherwise. These decisions are too personal and too important to be entrusted to any third party’s sweeping generalizations, even if those generalizations issue from behind a pulpit.
All of this is in the spirit of Joseph Smith’s explanation: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, 15 November 1851, p. 339).
Second, consider the context of the “shall be scripture” passage. The Lord wasn’t speaking just about the leaders of his Church on that day in 1831. He was speaking of ordinary missionaries. Therefore, it seems likely that this passage means something other than what we think it means, when we speak as if it were about just the general leaders of the Church — which in turn makes it even more obvious that “scripture” here is not quite the same as scripture.
I Am Not Alone
In thinking such thoughts, I am in superb company. The late President Hugh B. Brown, formerly of the First Presidency of the Church, taught:
We . . . have only to defend those doctrines of the church contained in the four standard works — the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. Anything beyond that by anyone is his or her own opinion and not scripture. Although there are certain statements that whatever the brethren say becomes the word of God, that is a dangerous practice to apply to all leaders and all cases. . . .
I do not doubt that the brethren have often spoken under inspiration and given new emphasis — perhaps even a new explanation or interpretation — of church doctrine, but that does not become binding upon the church unless and until it is submitted to the scrutiny of the rest of the brethren and later to the vote of the people. . . .
While all members should respect, support, and heed the teachings of the authorities of the church, no one should accept a statement and base his or her testimony upon it, no matter who makes it, until he or she has, under mature examination, found it to be true and worthwhile; then one’s logical deductions may be confirmed by the spirit of revelation to his or her spirit, because real conversion must come from within. (An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, pp. 123-24, 140)
Note that in this formulation, institutional authority does not move logic and “mature examination” from their privileged place.
Dallin H. Oaks, currently of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, has written:
As a General Authority, i have the responsibility to teach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. . . . 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. (Ensign, June 2006, p. 16)
I freely concede that our eagerness to consider ourselves exceptions to any rule we dislike is often misguided. Yet there are legitimate exceptions.
My personal responsibility here is inescapable. If I hear inspired teaching, I must consider whether and how it applies to me. If Church leaders give general counsel or even publish a general rule, and I believe in good faith that it does not — or might not — apply to me, that I am an exception, I must work that out in counsel with the Lord.
Inspired but Fallible
It is inconceivable to me that mortal men and women — even Church leaders — could be infallible in all their understandings and expressions. To understand that they are fallible does not diminish them; it makes them more believable in their divinely commissioned roles.
President Brigham Young said:
We are all liable to err; we are subject, more or less, to the errors incident to the human family. We would be pleased to get along without these errors, and many may think that a man in my standing ought to be perfect; but no such thing. (Journal of Discourses 10:212)
Where, then, is safety for members of the Church? And what are we to make of the frequent teaching that the Lord will never let the leaders of his Church lead the Church astray?
The latter statement is not the same as saying that Church leaders are infallible. I read it as promising that, if there is error, one or both of two things will happen reliably: It will be corrected — soon enough (in the Lord’s view), if not immediately. Or the spiritually mature members of the Church will recognize it as error and refuse both to be led astray themselves and to use the error to mislead others. Or both.
Wheat and Chaff
A general conference session generally has a more favorable wheat-to-chaff ratio than most Church meetings. But there will always be both wheat and chaff. My duty and my covenants do not allow me to use the chaff as an excuse to avoid the wheat or pretend it isn’t there. But surely wisdom equally obliges me not only to blow away the chaff (charitably) and to welcome the wheat (gratefully) that is sent for me, but also not to worry overmuch about the wheat that is intended for others.
I am not only permitted but expected to consider the counsel I am given, embrace the part which applies to me, adapt it as necessary to suit my circumstances — based on true principles and whatever individualized guidance God may offer me — and ignore and refuse to be troubled by the rest.
I am also obligated to reserve judgment as much as possible, when I observe how others receive and apply counsel to their different circumstances.
I’m not saying all this is easy. It is not. But in the long run it’s easier than harming myself and others by trying to obey counsel that is not for me, or continually despairing when I cannot heed every contradictory word of counsel I receive, or rejecting the wheat because it comes mixed with chaff, or assuming that everyone else’s choices and judgments should be the same as my own.
My thinking is a work in progress. What are your thoughts?