“By Common Consent”

January 16, 2016    By: Jeff G @ 1:32 pm   Category: Apologetics,Mormon Culture/Practices,orthodox,Personal Revelation

Consent can mean an awful lot of things.  Many people today are inclined to think that doing all things by common consent means a unanimous vote within an idealized process of democratic legislation.  When people object to the claim that “the church is not a democracy” with their own appeals to “common consent” they definitely have such a reading in mind.

The idea of consent, however, was originally much more rooted in a republican than it was in a democratic tradition.  The strongest modern exponents of government by consent can be traced to the British social contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  These men were not, however, strong advocates of government by the people – an idea that is much more associated with the Frenchman Jean Jacques Rousseau and his notion of the “general will.”  

What these British thinkers were primarily concerned with was a theoretical justification for the very possibility a legitimate rebellion against a king.  The medieval doctrine of rule by the divine right of kings provided no justification whatsoever for the common person’s rebellion against their king, let alone his execution by them.  (A similar absence of justified rebellion was to be found, unsurprisingly, within the medieval Catholic church.)  Having thus established the possibility of justified rebellion, consent thus meant to Hobbes and Locke nothing more than the mere absence of such a rebellion, not a rejection of monarchy altogether. While these two men  differed greatly on what constituted “justified” rebellion, they essentially agreed on what “consent” meant and it had precious little to do with democratic legislation.

This, I suggest, is what “common consent” still means within the church today (with its praise for prophets, priests and kings).  When we “manifest” our consent by raising our hand, we are in no way voting on who should have what position, what church policy/doctrine should be or directing the church in any sense.  Rather, we are demonstrating an absence of justified rebellion (in this case a rebellion inspired by personal revelation) and thus consensual submission to the righteous dominion of church authorities.  (Pace the democratic tradition, “righteous dominion” is not a contradiction in terms.)

Most of this is probably obvious to many, but apparently not all within the bloggernacle.


  1. I basically agree with you about what common consent means in the church today, although an argument could be made that it has changed from absence of justified rebellion to ‘opportunity to publicly reaffirm acceptance and support of God’s chosen leaders,’ because there can be no justified rebellion.

    A century ago, in a document that ironically was accepted and adopted by common consent, the First Presidency under Joseph F. Smith wrote,

    “The [Church’s] ecclesiastical government itself exists by the will of the people; elections are frequent, and the members are at liberty to vote as they choose. True, the elective principle here operates by popular acceptance, rather than through popular selection, but it is none the less real. Where the foregoing facts exist as to any system, it is not and cannot be arbitrary.”

    Joseph F. Smith also repeatedly urged people to vote their conscience in General Conference sustainings.

    Maybe it was all rhetoric designed to keep the U.S. government off the Church’s back. But times have changed, and so, it would seem, have the views of Church leaders and members on what common consent means.

    Comment by Jared* — January 16, 2016 @ 3:47 pm

  2. While divine right was really important in the medieval and early modern period, there actually was a kind of de facto allowance for revolt: excommunication. In the 13th century the popes would excommunicate kings right and left which would dissolve the feudal oaths of that kings vassals, ie allow them to basically ignore him or even revolt. The popes used this so much and to such great effect (the Holy Roman Emperor famously hiked through the snow to receive absolution) that many began to feel that the popes were massively abusing their power.

    This lead Marsilius of Padua to argue in the 14th century that the pope should have no power over kings because kinds ruled by the consent of the governed and the pope did not (yes this was a medieval argument). Kings got consent through the various national legislatures (parliament, estates generale etc) who were elected by the people while the pope worked with no elected bodies.

    The seventeenth century was the age of absolutism when kings (especially Louis xiv) sought to shut down the legislatures and rule without them.

    So to invoke consent in the monarchical model begs the question of what elected body does it work with.

    Secondly, the early church was run by conferences and councils that had much wider participation by the members, who could actually give consent to various proposals and even make their own.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 4:54 pm

  3. Very useful pushback, Steve. Would you agree with my reading of Hobbes and Locke? It is my understanding that they had no intention whatsoever of extending the vote to anything resembling “the people” and that, to them, consent was a very “tacit” in that it was indicated more by the absence of rejection than by active acceptance.

    My point being that I think my argument hangs more on the difference between republicanism and democracy than it does on the nature of monarchy. In fact, I’m tempted to go a bit further, in that it is not at all clear to me that the church is supposed to be a republic either…. but that probably isn’t quite as relevant to the issue of “consent”.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

  4. I also think I should address Steve’s use of church history – although I am not accusing him of any wrong doing here…

    I am a huge fan of the negative uses of church history, but I am extremely suspicious of the affirmative uses of it. The affirmative use would be more or less what OW assume when they show that since the church used to be more lenient with female blessings we ought, therefore, to actively push for bringing back such practices. The negative use, by contrast, would show that since the church used to allow female blessings we can never be too sure that God will continue to enforce the current status quo.

    The affirmative view pushes for more legislation by mortals according their own limited reasoning in that academics are used to exert pressure upon and thus constrain church leadership. The negative view, by contrast, pushes for a strong allegiance to the living prophet instead of clinging to the spoken, unspoken and (especially) written words of prophets past. One trusts more in human reasoning than in the status quo. The other trusts more in living prophets than in the status quo.

    Applied to Steve’s specific example (and again, I don’t think he has expressed a strong agenda in any direction) the living prophets (apparently) used to allow for more participation in councils, etc. But the limits of this involvement were themselves determined by the prophets, they always having the last word on the subject. Right now there seems to be less participatory legislation within the church. This does not mean that we need to “agitate” for a recovery, but rather wait (hope?) for those above to re-open that space.

    Comment by Jeff G — January 16, 2016 @ 6:24 pm

  5. I don’t know the particulars of Hobbes’s and Locke’s usage; I can only speak in generalities. No doubt they were reacting against the English civil war but at the same time, Locke was a big supporter of the Glorious Revolution, which was basically a parliament supported coup. That is, if a king got out of line (or was a Catholic in James II’s case) he could be replaced by the powers that be. This seems rather different than how the church operates, so I’m not seeing the parallels here.

    My church history example was just to give a little context for when the revelation was given. There was greater opportunity to give consent at that time. It just seems like a different model than the one you outlined.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 16, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

  6. This brings to mind Tiebout, as well as the more general concept of voting with one’s feet.

    Comment by Owen — January 17, 2016 @ 10:10 am

  7. Suppose, for purposes of argument, that God rules by common consent, and what is right constrains His will rather than the other way around. Under what conditions would disagreement be legitimate, even in principle?

    D&C 134 gives one answer to that question, setting the very conditions under which God would arguably (if that is possible) cease to be God.

    But what if the issue in question isn’t some conceivable injustice but rather something reasonably discretionary? Then under what conditions would the absence or presence of common consent make an unequivocal difference?

    It is clearly not the views of a supermajority of a handful of church members or others in a relatively tiny area, but something much more like a divine consensus across the entire universe, right?

    If God runs His kingdom in certain discretionary respects like an outright democracy, as the principle of common consent suggests, we basically have a tiny fraction of the vote, and if anything are likely wildly outvoted by souls long since departed.

    The principle of common consent seems much more likely to be effective in those areas of local and individual autonomy, or federalism and agency respectively, where a Church, or a stake, or a ward, or an individual can reasonably exercise common consent over those things that are legitimately within the realm of subsidiary or individual discretion, and do so with divine approval in many cases as well, i.e. common consent not just as the exercise of stubborn foot dragging veto power, but as a fundamental delegation of agency to both groups and individuals.

    Catholics call this subsidiarity. It is a fundamental principle of civil society and I see no reason why it does not obtain in heavenly government as well.

    Comment by Mark D. — January 24, 2016 @ 11:38 pm