The facebook “airways” were buzzing within hours on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 with the news that Kate Kelly, the founder of “Ordain Women” and John Dehlin, broadcaster of “Mormon Stories”, had received letters of church discipline. Soon after, word surfaced that Alan Rock Waterman had likewise received formal written notice of pending church discipline. Alan’s facebook page contains a list of excommunicated and disciplined people dating back to before the declaration on the priesthood. I could easily add to the list others who I know have been excommunicated for reasons that seem controversial to many.
I have heard the use of the word “purge” in conjunction with the recently publicized disciplinary actions. It has been suggested by some that this is the beginning of the “cleansing” mention is section 112: 24-25. Many are jumping on the bandwagon, criticizing the church’s attempts to control the throughts of the members. One blog compares the church to 1984’s big brother. My guess is that this is alarmist at best, and at worst the term “purge” is being used by those who seek to sensationalize. I may well be wrong about that. I certainly have no inside information to say one way or the other. It will be interesting to see how things play out.
My purpose in writing this post is not to stir the pot or to perpetuate the controversy over these church disciplines – it is quite the opposite, in fact. We should remind ourselves that church disciplinary actions are private, and the only way they are made public is if the individual themselves make it public. Not too long ago, in another life (ok – another phase of this life), I read the letters associated with Denver Snuffer’s excommunication. He posted them on his blog. Apparently, John Dehlin’s letter has been posted for public consumption. My brief search didn’t show that Katy Kelly’s letter has been posted. Looking back on it, I feel like I was being voyeuristic. I felt like I was peeking into someone’s bedroom or underwear drawer. I regret having read those papers, except that I think it forced me to come to grips with the whole issue. I would like to share the result of that process.
A Stewardship From God
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has a stewardship from the Lord. I think the keys of the priesthood represent that stewardship – in other words, “stewardship” is a great way to look at the keys of the priesthood. They have stewardship over the ordinances to ensure that they are consistently administered by those who have authority from God to do so. They have stewardship over the finances of the church. They have stewardship over the welfare of the membership. Their attempts to honor this stewardship manifest themselves in many, many ways. I think these manifestations are actually what we have come to call “The Church”. Church policies, temples, curriculum, buildings, commercial investments, missionary work, the welfare system, humanitarian aid…these are all manifestations of that stewardship. It is a daunting task for any man, men, or organization of men (men in the “humankind” sense of the term).
In exercising this stewardship, the leaders of the church must often recognize when a member is pulling in a different direction. Their stewardship extends to both the divergent individual as well as the members that they might influence. It is their responsibility to judge whether or not a person is threatening their salvation or the salvation of others. In doing so, they are not judging whether or not the person is good or bad; or whether they are saved or condemned. That is not their place. Such is a judgment reserved only for the Lord Himself. However, they do have a responsibility to judge whether or not that person is aiding in the fulfillment of the stewardship. If they are breaking temple covenants, the decision is easy – the discipline offers them a chance to repent, or, in the case of excommunications, theoretically releases them from their covenant obligations. In these other cases, I think their concern is more for the other members who are being influenced by this person. There are often powerful personalities who can easily sway the thoughts of less powerful personalities. Not everyone is fully grounded in the gospel. If the church were to allow members to openly teach principles that are not doctrinal, or that are counter to the church maintaining its stewardship, that could easily be tantamount to consent. They could be perceived as condoning such teaching. Consider a father whose 17 year –old-daughter is dating a 25-year-old ex-felon. It’s a classic dilemma. If the father just passes it off, that can be perceived as approval. On the other hand, the daughter may well know she is doing the wrong thing, and is testing her father’s love to see if he will put a stop to it. Of course, she will kick and scream, but the father, if he is honoring his stewardship over the family, most likely needs to do everything he can to stop the relationship. Will he drive the daughter away, which many raise as a common complaint against the church? Perhaps he will – that would be her choice – but to do nothing might well be far worse, as it could show that HE has no standards, or that HE doesn’t love his daughter enough to stand his ground and do what is best for her in the long run.
The Parable of the Rowers
…recently came to me. Let us consider the church as an ancient Egyptian Trireme – a boat with sails, but mainly powered by rowers. The ship’s mission is to get its passengers safely to their destination. Everyone on the boat is counted on to help fulfill the mission. The ship’s officers are committed to the mission, but they cannot row the boat themselves – it takes the contribution of all the rowers. This progress toward the destination will be much steadier and much faster if everyone is rowing as hard as they can, and especially if they are all rowing in the same direction. Of course, with millions of rowers, there will be variation in effort, and sometimes even in direction. Some might not row hard all the time. Some may stop rowing. Some might occasionally turn around on their bench and start rowing in the opposite direction. The havoc that results from that can easily be imagined. The ships officers might first assume that the individual is simply confused. The work is hard and long. There are many dangers to be navigated. It is understandable that this might happen – that the occasional member might find themselves out of step with the mission of the boat. However, if they attempt to correct the individual, and the individual insists on rowing the wrong direction, their oars tying up 3 or 4 rows on either side of them, the officers, for the benefit not only of the mission itself but of the individuals whose efforts are disrupted by the “rogue rower”, must do something. Ultimately, they may be forced to set the rower adrift in their own boat to fend for themselves. Such a move is not desirable, as now the boat has one less rower, and the individual is in grave danger of being lost at sea, but it is preferable to allowing the rower to continue to impede the progress of both the boat and the individuals on it.
Let us also consider the integrity of the individual. When I joined the church, I made a commitment to the Lord that I would support Him through the church. My covenant was with the Lord, but it included the church. In the temple, I made further covenants that involved the church. I received saving ordinances at the hands of individuals who held the keys (the stewardship) to administer those ordinances. I believed that those ordinances, though they must be validated by the Lord through my faithfulness, were necessary for me to obtain my exaltation. I still believe that today. If I were to decide that those ordinances are not necessary for my salvation or exaltation, or that the church does not have the authority to administer them, or if I were to decide that I could no longer keep my covenants, should I not remove myself from the church?
There are qualifying conditions of course. An 8-year-old cannot really understand about these covenants, and must grow into the learning and comprehension that I describe above. If, during that process, they find themselves growing in a different direction, I do not believe they will be held to the same level of accountability as I would be, having joined the church at age 45 – endowed at age 46 – with eyes wide open. Nevertheless, if they decide they can no longer support the declared mission of the church, would they not have the responsibility to simply remove themselves?
Likewise, if an individual, regardless of the conditions under which they entered the church fellowship, simply cannot reconcile the direction of the church with their individual conscience, why would they not simply leave? Many do. They go “inactive”, remaining under the radar, avoiding church discipline unless they begin campaigning and drawing other members away with them. Perhaps the dissenter is motivated by love for the church and its members. If that love is sincere, and they are sincerely trying to change the church from the inside, but find themselves at odds with the direction of church leaders, then such a condition is truly tragic, and I would not want to be on either side of that situation. The Lord Himself will sort that out in the eternities. Why would inspired leaders not see the real heart of the dissenter? I don’t know. All the criteria affecting such a situation are rarely known outside of those directly involved. We usually only hear one side of the story. Perhaps the leaders are right in their decision, even though it is not readily apparent to us. Perhaps, even, they made an imperfect decision. I’m sure that has happened more than once, but I am not in a position to judge. Few of us are.
Oh, the Sin of Pride
It is easy to imagine that dissent is motivated by pride. D&C 121:37-39 says:
That they (speaking of the rights of the priesthood) 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.
Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
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, they will immediately begin to exerciseunrighteous dominion.
The concepts in this scripture can be applied on both sides of this situation. Almost all of us have experienced situations where we have mishandled authority or influence. None of us (except possibly my sweet wife) is immune. Yet, as I said, none of us can fully judge the motivations of another person. I doubt that those who are set up as judges on such things relish the responsibility, but, again, they are given, and they have accepted, this stewardship, and they will be held accountable for how they exercise it – be it for good or for bad. It is easy for us to sit on the sideline and judge the actions of another, whether it be the leader or the dissenter, but we must ask ourselves, “What would we do in the same situation? What would I do if I were president of the church?”
I have come to the conclusion that if I believe the leaders, even though they are fallible men, are called of God and entrusted to run this church, and if I choose to remain a member of this church, I have an obligation before God to sustain them. Sustaining, to me, means that I do everything I can to support them. I do not stop thinking. I may or may not agree with everything, and I may or may not speak up, but I will not turn around in my seat and start rowing in the other direction. When I start voicing my disagreement in public forums, or over the airwaves, I am no longer sustaining, and I am abusing my influence. I would expect to hear from the people who carry the stewardship for the organization against which I am fighting. Similarly, if I believe the church holds the keys to the ordinances of salvation, and if I have benefitted from those ordinances, how ethical is it for me to turn my back on it when times get tough? On the other hand, if I conclude that these men are not called of God, or if this stewardship is not from the Lord, then the whole concept of the church comes crashing down for me, and I believe I have an obligation to leave the church of my own accord.
Lockstep or Nothing?
A friend, whom I trust for his honesty and sincerity but sometimes disagree with, said recently that the sad thing about the church is that we must either be “in lock step” or not – there is no middle ground. I understand his perception, and I thank him for his honesty in expressing what must be to him a very sad state of affairs. I disagree that this is the case, though. We are all responsible for working out our own salvation, it is clear. We all learn at our own pace. We may see things around us that are unsettling. We may see leaders at all levels who exercise unrighteous dominion. We may be uncomfortable with the way the church administers its financial affairs. There are lots of questions that we might individually ask. We should seek answers – we have the right and responsibility to do so. But when we start go beyond questioning and start declaring that the church is wrong, and when we start broadcasting those declarations publically, trying to persuade others rather than allowing them to learn of such things as a result of their own search for greater light and knowledge, then we have begun rowing in the opposite direction.
Ultimately, my testimony is this…I love this church. I believe that it has the keys – the stewardship – to administer the spreading of the gospel for the purpose of the salvation of billions of souls in these latter days. I am not blind to the fact that it is a telestial organization, run by men, and that the care and keeping of this stewardship may not always be carried out in keeping with the Lord’s ideal, or even our own ideal. I have a keen awareness of my own weakness and lack of knowledge and understanding, therefore my ability to judge, not having all the facts, is limited. In lieu of full knowledge and understanding, a certain amount of faith is required. The Lord is in charge. I believe He sets boundaries that the church cannot cross or it will have gone “astray”, but within those boundaries there is a lot of room for things to be questioned, and for things to be less than perfect. I will continue to sustain the church in fulfilling its mission. For some, perhaps the best way for them to sustain the church, and themselves, is to leave it. I suspect that is far too simplistic, but sometimes we need to rise above the trees before we can see the forest. Fortunately for me, I do not have to make such decisions concerning others – for they are left to the individuals, the church leaders, and the Lord.
I offer these thoughts and insights to promote thought. I offer them as a counterpoint to all those who claim the church is silencing dissenting voices or bullying people to keep them “in line”. I hope these ideas will bring peace. For many, perhaps most, that will not be the case. I am not judging and cannot judge the sincerity or motives of any individuals on either side in these scenarios. I do speculate, however, based on my 60+ years of observation of human nature, behavior, and of my own frailties (assuming that most people are very similar to me). I observe and I make deductions as to how the actions of others pertain to me. As with everything, these observations and deductions are filtered through the lens of our own experiences and desires. I may be wrong in what I have shared, and I have no doubt that many will disagree with me, but I think these thoughts are worth considering as you make your own observations and deductions. I pray that we will refrain, though, from unrighteous judgment on either side of this debate.