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On Religious Authority and Small Beginnings of Apostasy

Scriptural Authority

Scriptures offer us accounts of various men's encounters with and understanding of God.  I believe they contain much that is inspired and good, much that we can learn and benefit from.  Scriptures can offer us comfort, insight, guidance, and wisdom.

Each of the men (and it’s problematic that it’s only men) who contributed to our current cannon of scripture lived in their own time, immersed in their own culture.  These circumstances had an effect on their understanding and experience of God.  This effect can be seen in some things in the scriptures with which many today, including myself, would flat out disagree.  For example, Old Testament prophets attributed much of the violence in their world to God's purposes and designs.  In the New Testament, Paul teaches that women should be silent in church, and that slaves should respect their master's authority over them, because a master's authority comes from God.  Joseph Smith's original edition of the Book of Commandments contained reference to folk magic.  I find many such things in the scriptures with which I disagree, based on my own experiences of God, and the time and culture which I live in.  I also find many other things in them which teach and inspire and help me.

There are also differences in understanding and experience among the men whose writings make up our scriptures.  They do not always agree in their interpretation and understanding of God, even among themselves.  This is why the scriptures can be used to support so many different theological arguments, many of them contradictory.  Perhaps this is because even as prophets, no one of these men comprehended all truth.  Only God comprehends all truth.  Each of these prophets had their own experience of God which they tried to live by and share.  Perhaps each was like one of the six blindfolded men who touched a different part of an elephant, and could describe the elephant only in terms of the part he had touched.

On common theme that strikes me as I read scripture is the nature of prophetic callings.  What made the men who wrote these scriptures prophets was a direct encounter with and calling from God.  It was on God's authority alone that these men became prophets.  Perhaps one of the larger messages that scripture holds for us is our own need to follow the example of these prophets and  encounter God directly for ourselves, and then endeavor to live by that experience to the best of our understanding, as they did.

Prophetic Authority

I accept the divine call of living prophets, but I do not accept their infallibility.  When someone receives a calling, whether it be as prophet, apostle, nursery leader, or visiting teacher, I do not believe that perfection in fulfilling that calling is simultaneously bestowed upon them.  An complete reading of Church history shows us unmistakably that modern day prophets from Joseph Smith to the present day have never been infallible, and have at times erred, even in their official capacity.  My own experience in receiving and trying to fulfill my callings bears this out.  I have never fulfilled my callings perfectly either.  This doesn't mean prophets aren't called of God, it just means that imperfect tools are all God has to work through in this life.  

I believe we should listen to what modern day prophets teach, consider it carefully, pray about it, and then do whatever we feel God guides us to do.  We must always remember that our primary connection with God is through the Holy Spirit, and no one but Christ plays the role of mediator in our relationship with God.

In determining the place of prophets in one's spiritual life, I believe it is crucial to remember the principle of free agency and its place in the plan of salvation.  We come to mortality as part of an eternal journey designed to give us the opportunity to become like God.  If we are to reach that end, then certainly we must develop spiritual autonomy and grow into spiritual adults.  Surely God is a spiritually autonomous adult, and our ultimate goal is to become like God.  To this end, we are given free agency and the opportunity to choose and learn truth for ourselves.  If we are to become spiritually mature, then we must exercise our own agency and our own ability to connect with God and learn truth.  We must do as our founding prophet did -- seek God for ourselves, and then act on what we receive to the best of our understanding and ability.  It is essential to our healthy spiritual growth and development that we learn to act for ourselves, and not remain spiritually dependent children, acting only upon the instructions and consciences of others, even prophets. 

We are taught to come to the Church through our own free exercise of conscience, after receiving our own revelation directly from God that Joseph was a prophet.  Once in the Church, we must continue to act on our own conscience, based on our own experience of God.  It would not be wise to hand the responsibility and accountability for our spiritual life over someone else after having exercised it to come into the Church.

Church Authority

I'm grateful to have grown up in a Church whose founding prophet showed us all that we can approach God directly.  The Church has blessed my life in many ways, and I loved growing up in it.  I loved the many hours spent in Primary and Sunday School, and the lessons I learned there about Heavenly Father and Jesus.  I learned that God loved me, and that after death I would live again someday, like Jesus.  I learned that God created the beautiful world we live in.  And I was taught to pray to and trust my Heavenly Father.  I loved the sense of my history and heritage I felt when singing songs about my pioneer ancestors.  

I'm grateful for the seminary lessons and scripture study in which I was taught to repent of my sins and look to Christ for redemption and sanctification.  I'm grateful for what the Book of Mormon teaches me about Christ and my relationship to him.  I'm grateful for the kind benovelence of Church leaders, both local and general, who have taught and motivated me to come to Christ.  I love general conference talks, such a recent one by Brother Monson, in which our leaders teach of Christ's mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.  I feel God's spirit in such teachings, and a desire to be merciful and kind to others.

I'm grateful that I grew up as a member of a strong and caring ward community.  I knew the love of caring teachers and friends who blessed my life for good in many ways, and gave me positive examples and a sense of belonging.  I see God's wisdom and inspiration in the way callings are shared in the Church.  I'm grateful to have had callings and opportunities to serve and teach others, and have benefited from other's calls to serve and teach me.  Sharing callings in the Church can be a wonderful opportunity for our spiritual growth.

I'm also grateful for the good habits the Church helped me to develop -- to study and pray, to work and serve others, and to avoid addictive habits.  These good habits helped me to negotiate the difficulties of adolescence more safely than had I not had them.

I'm grateful for the opportunity I had to serve a full-time mission.  I'm grateful for the people I grew to love there, and for the many ways the experience furthered my own understanding and experience of Christ's gospel.

My life is better for all of these things.  For these and many other reasons, I love Mormonism, and have chosen to continue to be a part of it.  The Church does much good in individual lives, and in the world, and I can see the hand of God in it.

Some things that I see in the Church concern me.  In any institution, including churches, there exists the opportunity for abuses of authority.  I have seen some in positions of authority take actions which I felt were abuses of power.  Sometimes this has been done in the name of preserving doctrinal purity or preventing "small beginnings of apostasy."  But I don't believe we have ever had "doctrinal purity" in the Church.  A complete reading of Church history and the discourses of all of our prophets and apostles from Joseph to the present day reveals that our doctrine has evolved over time, and that past prophets and apostles have taught as doctrinally correct some ideas which the Church today rejects.  And I'm sure there are truths God understands which we as humans (including prophets) only understand in part right now, or not at all.  The most important thing for our salvation and exaltation is not that we are in pure agreement on every point of doctrine.  Our redemption lies in our ongoing relationship with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Some time ago I had a conversation about Mormon feminism with a conservative friend. He said he understood why church leaders take such a hard line against those who advocate praying to Mother in Heaven. As a businessman, he appreciates the task the Brethren face in leading an enormous organization. They have a particular direction they are trying to move a large mass of people in. They can't do that if individuals in the organization criticize the direction they're taking, or try to move people in any other direction. If he were the president of a company and had employees who criticized the direction he was taking, as some in the church are criticizing church leaders, he'd fire them.

I've thought a lot about what my friend said, and about the Church's position that some of its recent actions have been necessary in order to protect us from "small beginnings of apostasy." I wonder if there aren't ideas and practices which seem to have already been adopted by the Church which are far more dangerous than some of the things which have been pronounced small beginnings of apostasy.  One of the most troubling thing I see in the Church today  is what appears to be the almost wholesale adoption of  a "corporate business" mentality, including the adoption of corporate values, ethics, and methods, which are not the same as Christian values, ethics, and methods.

I see this happening in many ways. I was deeply troubled by a statement made by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1993 that even though five people were excommunicated in one month, that same month we baptized five thousand, so the loss of only five wasn't significant. I'm sure that by corporate business standards, a retention rate of 99+% is highly successful. But such an argument seems foreign to the actions of the Good Shepherd, who left the ninety and nine to search for the one. (To say nothing of fact that it wasn’t the Good Shepard who kicked out the one...)

I see a corporate mentality in the Church's emphasis on proper priesthood protocol, or the deference we should show to men in positions of authority above us. Such practices seem far from Jesus' example of washing the feet of the apostles, or his statement that the greatest among us he that is the servant of others. The Son of God himself did not ask to be shown this kind of deference.

I also see a corporate mentality in the way we define righteousness and worthiness in terms of outward criteria we can count and measure and keep statistics on -- things the institutional Church can be in charge of:  attendance at meetings, percentages of home teaching done, amounts of money collected, numbers of temples built or endowments completed, numbers of temple marriages that do and don't end in divorce, chapters of scripture read or covered in lessons, adherence to the Word of Wisdom, numbers of missionaries and convert baptisms, and on and on and on.  These types of measures are valid indicators of the corporation's success, but one could do all of them for a variety of reasons and still have no sincere relationship at all with God.  I'm not saying that any of these things being counted or measured aren't good things to do.  But how does one measure and keep statistics on the condition of a person's heart, or how much we are able to love and forgive as Christ did?  These things are the true measure of our salvation, and only God can fully see the condition of our hearts and souls.

Lastly, I see this corporate mentality in the mission of the Church when it is defined as: 1) to preach the gospel, 2) to perfect the Saints, and 3) to redeem the dead.  These three worthwhile goals make a good organizational vision statement.  They give us an organizational focus and direction.  Everything we do or are asked to do in the Church can be ascribed to one of the the elements in this mission statement.  It makes our own sometimes mundane service in the Church more meaninful when we can see its place in the accomplishment of one of these three lofty goals.

The concern I have with these three goals is that the Church is really only capable of achieving the first one, to preach the gospel.  The Church cannot "perfect the Saints."  The Church doesn't have the power to perfect anyone.  The Church can give us a measurable list of things to do, and then measure whether or not we do them.  The Church can teach us to come unto Christ and be perfected in him.  But only God has the power and ability to perfect us, through the workings of the Spirit in our hearts.  Undergoing a "mighty change of heart" and receiving the "pure love of Christ" in our hearts is brought about by the power of God acting directly in us.  It isn't something the Church does or can control.  Likewise, the Church cannot "redeem the dead."  Only Christ can redeem people.  The Church can perform ordinances for the dead, but whether or not a dead person for whom ordinances have been performed is redeemed is between Christ and that person.  Christ does the redeeming.  To say that the Church is capable of perfecting the Saints or redeeming the dead is to place the Church, rather than Christ himself, in the position of Savior or mediator of our redemption and exaltation.

Perhaps a wiser three-fold mission for the Church might be simply to preach the gospel, to administer the ordinances, and to provide a nurturing community where we can grow together in love.  And if we must search for small beginnings of apostasy, we ought to focus our search on those teachings and practices which are contrary to the life and mission of Christ, and our redemption through him.

September, 1995

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