When Adam was told to sacrifice the first born of his flock, when Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son and when Joseph Smith was told to sacrifice his monogamous relationship with his wife, they were not given any kind of reason or justification. Rather, their response was along the lines of “I know not [why], save that the Lord hath commanded.” They were expected to comply even though they did not know and thus could give no reason to anybody who might ask, “Why?” – and we have every reason to believe that other people definitely did so ask.
Imagine, now, that as Eve, Issac and Emma eventually come around to complying with these instructions as well, others ask them, “Why?” Again, their corresponding prophet figures never did – or never could give them a reason that would satisfy such questions. Furthermore, these people (some more than others) did not waver in the face of such relentless criticism – for that is exactly what unanswered questions which are incessantly asked amount to.
Like Eve, Isaac and Emma, we too have been told in so many ways that we are to receive the will of the Lord through our priesthood leaders. “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1) “No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith… And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron… And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church.” (D&C 28) “He that is ordained of me shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before, to teach those revelations which you have received and shall receive through him whom I have appointed.” (D&C 43) In our meetings we are asked to raise a sustaining hand. In our worthiness interviews we are asked if we sustain them as prophet, seers and revelators.
All of these passages and policies serve put us in the same relationship to the church leaders as Eve, Isaac and Emma were to Adam, Abraham and Joseph. Just like them, we will be given instructions which we do not like or understand. Similar to their cases, our church leaders often will not and sometimes cannot give us the reasons or explanations when we ask, “Why?” Furthermore, just like these people, we will also be unable to provide reasons when those around us ask, “Why?” This is what being a faithful member of the church entails.
It is also the reason why the church and its faithful members will always be persecuted by the world around them – especially within a democratic society. A democratic society is grounded in people’s ability to request, give and respond to reasons and explanations so as to check and balance all authority figures. The world thus teaches that authority figures ought only to be accepted as such to the degree that they are able to provide good answers to the question: “Why?” Unsurprisingly, the good people within our society regularly ask us members of the church to give reasons for our policies and doctrines. As I have argued, however, part of being a faithful member of the church entails that we will often not be able to give such reasons and as such will refuse to subject our authority figures to the checks and balances of democratic society. This, then, leaves the democratic world around us with nothing but irrational and sometimes violent means by which to check and balance the authority figures and the influence they have in our shared world. In other words, our unwillingness/inability to provide reasons for our doctrines and policies flies directly in the face of the democratic world around us – a fact which naturally entails their inevitable persecution of us.
We are thus each and every one of us in the church presented with two decisions which we must prayerfully make for ourselves. Will we be in the church? Will we be of the church? I would like to briefly unpack these questions, questions which will then allow us to organize our relationship to the church and its leaders along two relatively independent axes that correspond to these two questions.
In order to understand the independent axes along which we can describe our relationship to the church, it will be necessary to disentangle two separate actions which are often conflated within the church (especially within the bloggernacle): disassociation and disconfirmation. The former involves simply disengaging from the church and going one’s own way. The latter involves actively checking, correcting or undermining the church and its leaders. I cannot stress the importance of this distinction enough.
Voluntary disassociation from the church and its leaders is the primary mechanism within the church for checking and balancing church leaders and their authority. We are constantly encouraged to confirm our testimonies, not just of gospel doctrines taught within the church, but of the men who represent and direct it. This is no formality, for it is the relative ease within which we are able to distance ourselves from the church that sets it in stark contrast to worldly political tyrannies. To repeat, the church not only tolerates but actively encourages us to pray about our relationship to the church and its leaders. The church also encourages us voluntarily disassociate ourselves from it and its leaders if the spirit so moves us. The church will never force us to accept and sustain its leaders as prophets, seers and revelators.
Vocal disconfirmation of the church and its leaders, by contrast, is the primary mechanism within a democracy for checking and balancing all authority figures. It is to incessantly ask “why?” questions which have not been answered. It is to actively call for a change in policy or doctrine. As noted, such attempts at checking and balancing the authority of the church and its leaders will always come from outside the church. We would expect nothing less from a well-functioning democracy. Such attempts at checking and balancing the authority of the church and its leaders does not, however, have any legitimate place within the church. Being “of” the church means to understand and acknowledge that occasionally our leaders will be unwilling or unable to respond to questions of “why?” and to accept and follow their instructions all the same.
We can thus divide the relationships which people might have to the church and its leaders into four basic categories: those who are neither in the church nor of the church, those who are not in the church but are of the church, those who are in the church but not of the church and those who are both in the church and of the church.
I have already discussed those who are neither in the church nor of the church. These are the good citizens of the liberal democracies in which we live, or as we call them, “the world”. They are not members of the church in any way and view its authority and that of its leaders like they do any other authority figure – with suspicion and doubt. They will never cease asking the church why it believes and behaves as it does. When the church is unable to give adequate reasons for these things – and it will never be able to give fully adequate reasons – the world will persecute the church in an effort to change, if not destroy it. It will protest. It will continue to ask embarrassing questions. If needs be, the world will occasionally get violent with the church if that is what it takes to disconfirm it.
The second group includes those who have a strong testimony of the church and its leaders, but feel compelled to disassociate with them for some reason or another. These are members with varying degrees of (in)activity. Such people do support the church leaders’ exclusive right to receive instructions for the church and to pass them on to the general membership. Many of these people have, however, been prompted by personal revelation to not follow some of the church leaders’ instructions. These people, I strongly suspect, are far more numerous than we might expect for the simple reason that these people do not publicly speak about or advocate their disassociation from the church. They disassociate from, but do not disconfirm the church and its leaders. While the church wishes such people would fully integrate themselves within the faithful fold, it wants even more for them to follow the Lord in their personal lives.
The third group consists of those who are in the church but are not of the church. These are people who have not disassociated from the church despite their rejection of the leaders’ prerogative to represent and direct the church without a sufficient explanation or reason. These are people who identify more with the democratic way of checking church authority than with the church’s way of doing so. Consequently, they will resist disassociating with the church precisely in order to disconfirm some doctrine or teaching within it, for this is the way that authority must be checked and balanced within the democratic world. Whether these people are sincere or not in their repeated questioning, “why?” does not matter. What matters is that these people, through their vocal questioning, petitioning and protesting chaff at and undermine the authority of the church leaders. These are the self-proclaimed “loyal opposition” whose behavior, the church leaders have insisted, has no legitimate place within the church.
Finally, we have the fourth group which consists of those who are both in the church and of the church. These are the people who keep their covenants to sustain the church leaders as prophets, seers and revelators who are under no obligation to give or respond to reasons for their instructions. These people know and accept the fact that the democratic world around them will never agree with them precisely because of their irresponsiveness of reason. The explanation for this is that they have received a personal revelation which – unlike the inactive member – has confirmed their support for the church and its leaders, even if they do not understand why.
To be sure, these four categories represent over-simplifications that will rarely, if ever, perfectly match up with any individual. It is better, I think, to construe these categories more as a bidirectional spectrum like unto the political compass. Horizontally, we can ask to what degree we have voluntarily aligned our own beliefs and behaviors in our own lives with the instructions of the church leaders? Vertically, we can ask how supportive or condemnatory we publicly are of the church leaders’ authority to instruct the general membership without answering to the checks and balances of the democratic world? While I acknowledge that we are in no position whatsoever to judge a person’s horizontal position on this scale, I submit that church members are well within their rights in criticizing and calling people to repentance based on their vertical position.