The limits of Mormon obedience

LDS prophets have been on the wrong side of justice. When it is acceptable to disobey them?

Elder Allen D. Haynie addresses the General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1, 2023, in Salt Lake City. Video screen grab via Intellectual Reserve Inc.

(RNS) — This past weekend at General Conference, Elder Allen D. Haynie of the Seventy reiterated the need for exacting obedience in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

He recounted a story of sitting in the church’s cafeteria one day when President Russell M. Nelson smashed his empty water bottle to flatten it. President Dallin H. Oaks asked why, and then, satisfied with President Nelson’s explanation, smashed his own as well. President Henry B. Eyring followed suit. 

This was, Elder Haynie said, an example of the necessary “prompt response” the church is looking for in following the prophet. Too many people waffle or question or doubt.

The enemy can sneak in when church members deviate in even small ways from the path. There is no place, he said, for “quiet neglect” of the gospel or “whispered criticisms in response to prophetic counsel.” His sharpest rebuke was reserved for parents whose kids are questioning the faith.

I’m going to be one of those people who waffles, questions and doubts. This talk oversimplified something that should, for devoted church members, be serious business. And that business is how we wield our agency.

If your kids are starting to ask questions about what they’ve been taught in different areas of their lives, that’s a sign of spiritual growth and possible maturation. Shutting that down without giving it a fair hearing is not the gospel way. While I agree with Elder Haynie that small decisions and habits add up to large ones, it’s not necessarily the case that “whispered criticisms” are a sign that a person is walking “dangerously near the edge of the covenant path.”

Rather, it could be a sign that they are thinking for themselves and aren’t willing to settle for the church telling them “Don’t worry your head about this. Someone else has done the thinking for you.”

So we should ask ourselves: What is the end goal of our life in the gospel? Is it to produce obedient drones whose only question when the prophet says “jump” is “how high”? I’m sure that’s not what Elder Haynie meant, because the end goal is for church members to become like Christ. The whole purpose of having prophets on Earth is to point to Christ.

And what did Christ do? If you’re scouring the New Testament for examples of all the times that he obeyed the religious authorities of the day without so much as a whimper, good luck. Sometimes he criticized. He did the unexpected. He opened people’s eyes to radical ideas and methods they hadn’t considered.

And he was, in all of it, obedient to the will of God the Father.

We as human beings are not Christs. Not even close. But we have a job to do in this life and that is to become like him, healing where we can and loving our neighbors. I’m not the first to point out that there have been times in Latter-day Saint history when the counsel of our prophet was not loving and did not contribute to healing.

When he was serving as the prophet, Brigham Young declared that “this people that are commonly called Negroes are children of Cain” and that anyone who held “the African blood” was not worthy of the priesthood. A host of other LDS leaders through the years followed with racist rhetoric from the pulpit as they justified terrible exclusion policies as the will of God.

None of those things are current teachings of the prophets. On the contrary, President Nelson has spoken of the need to repent of racism and has joined in partnership with the NAACP, one of the very organizations that earlier LDS leader Ezra Taft Benson said was part of a communist conspiracy.

So the question for church members is not “How high should I jump when the prophet tells me to?” but “Is what the prophet is asking me to do or believe the right thing?”

That should be followed by a litany of other questions: Who would be blessed or harmed if I followed this piece of prophetic counsel? How does it line up with the Scriptures? With the teachings of past leaders? And most of all, does this teaching convey the love of Jesus Christ for all God’s children?

There have been many times in my life when I’ve followed a directive from the First Presidency and felt that my life or spiritual outlook was improved by it. This weekend, I was moved by President Nelson’s talk “Peacemakers Needed,” which included counsel to embrace more loving communication in polarized times. Especially online, I’m too often tempted to make rash assumptions about people, to respond angrily to judgment or to fail to choose the higher way of peacemaking. As he spoke, I felt the Spirit. I believe what he said about how we should handle conflict, and I needed to be reminded to redouble my efforts in living out that belief.

On the other hand, there have been times when I’ve sat in Conference and known in my bones that something a church leader was saying was wrong for me to obey. When they have denigrated God’s people who are LGBTQ, or urged me to deny them civil rights, I’ve spoken up in protest. One of the earliest columns I ever wrote was a pointed and frank criticism of Boyd K. Packer’s October 2010 General Conference talk on homosexuality. Speaking my objections so plainly was acutely painful and garnered me my first taste of how very capable orthodox Mormons are of writing incendiary hate mail, but I have never regretted speaking out.

Dissenting voices are hard to hear. However, they don’t necessarily impede an organization; research shows they can in fact make it better, as Charlan Nemeth explains in “In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business.”

This is not a church that should be teaching people to obey without thinking — or, worse, that they will be blessed for obeying a church leader when they know the leader is wrong. I have heard that particular piece of heresy spoken aloud in the church, as though we are ever absolved from the burden of our own moral agency.

As I was researching this column, I came across this relevant quote from the church publication called The Millennial Star from 1852:

We have heard men who hold the Priesthood remark, that they would do any thing they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong: but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God, who seeks for the redemption of his fellows, would despise the idea . . . . Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty (!) authority, have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their Presidents, they should do it without asking any questions.— The Millennial Star, Vol 14, # 38, page 594; italics and punctuation in the original

I was skeptical about the attribution of this 1852 quote to Joseph Smith Jr., who died in 1844. (As Abraham Lincoln famously said, it is vexingly difficult to verify the attributions of random quotations on the internet.) A helpful historian from the Joseph Smith Papers project confirmed to me that the quotation is indeed from The Millennial Star but Joseph Smith was probably not the author. It’s in an unsigned editorial.

I’m guessing that whoever made a meme of this highly meme-able quote attached Joseph Smith’s name to it so it would have more gravitas; who could be more of an authority on the subject of prophetic authority than the first prophet of the restoration? Playing the “my prophet trumps your prophet” game is common enough in the church — so much so that Elder Haynie specifically weighed in on it, contending that the words of the living prophet always win. As you can imagine, that comment has engendered no small amount of speculation and hand-wringing online.

Whoever wrote it, it’s an important counterweight to any facile ideas we might have about Mormon obedience. There are, and should be, limits to such obedience. These will be different from one person to another. Some people are simply natural skeptics, and that needs to be accepted for the holy gift it is. When those people do give their allegiance, it will have depth and staying power, because they’ve already studied it out in their minds.


Related content:

Why we need Mormon dissenters

Mormons and the problem of selective obedience


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