A lot of what I read on the bloggernacle seems focused on finding areas for improvement in church culture and leadership. I myself often get caught up in this critical approach. At times, my testimony has been shaken as I’ve seen how far the church seems from my own arbitrary standards of what I think “the true church” should be.
However, in the last few years, I’ve stopped playing this game of trying to decide whether the church is good enough, or true enough for me. Instead, I found a key which strengthened my testimony and my ability to coexist within a culture I sometimes find at odds with my own liberal perspectives. The key is submission to the divine authority of a purposefully imperfect church.
Today’s guest post is by Nate.
The Church Stands In For God in the World
Most of us would agree that submission to God is fundamental. But submission to a church? I grant it may sound a bit cultish, like putting our trust in man not God. D&C 1:16 says “every man walketh in his own way, after the image of his own God.” I believe this verse describes the democratic idea of religious freedom in today’s world. Most people can probably find a church or belief system that reflects whatever they happen to think is right. They can find “a god” to submit to. But in the end, that god is no more than the god of their own imagination, god as they happen to think he exists. The God of Mormonism is different. He reveals Himself to us in His peculiarities, through a prophet, and we are asked to take it or leave it. There are some things about the Mormon God that I find puzzling and even a bit embarrassing. But that is not for me to judge. That is how He revealed Himself to me through His prophets, so I’m stuck. The trial for me is to drink the divine cool-aid I’ve been given.
Submission to a Divine but Imperfect Church
If God had made His Church as self-evidently perfect as He truly is, there would be no need for faith. That kind of church would be wondrous, reflecting the glory of His diverse creation and everyone would clamor to get in, just as they clamor to vacation in beautiful mountain ranges and on exotic beaches. But God purposely makes His church peculiar and difficult to believe in: “a rock of offense, a stumbling block, a stone the builders reject, a strait and narrow way.” God calls “the weak and the simple” to be His rulers. Paul tells us “the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of men.” God admits that Joseph Smith has weaknesses, and commands the church to “bear with him.” God allows the churches He establishes to become defined by the narrow peculiarities of those He calls to establish them. Thus the modern LDS church and its doctrine is very much defined by the strange experiences of Joseph Smith and his personality and cultural influences, just as the Old Testament church was very much defined by the personality and culture of it’s prophets.
The point of being a member of the Church is not just to help improve or “fix it.” The point is to bear with it, for the church exists both as a help, and as a trial in and of itself for it’s members. I call it the “Divine Stockholm Syndrome.” Stockholm Syndrome usually refers to the acceptance of an abusive relationship. God is not abusive, but He gives us trials that sometimes seem difficult to comprehend. Job learned this lesson and said, “thou he slay me, yet will I trust in Him.” God calls the weak and simple, and sets them over us, which can sometimes be a sore trial. Those who follow and submit to their priesthood leaders in their weaknesses often claim to have learned great spiritual lessons from it, as Brigham Young did at Zion’s Camp, as Wilford Woodruff did after the Kirtland Safety Society collapse, and as Levi Savage did as part of the Willie Handcart Company.
What about Unrighteous Dominion?
Submission does not mean that we always agree, or must obey everything a priesthood leader tells us. We may disagree, the leader may be uninspired in a particular case, or may be exercising unrighteous dominion. If someone has exercised “unrighteous dominion” do we still have to submit to them? D&C 121:39 is often used to justify criticism against church leaders. I think this scripture should instead be used scripture to examine our own hearts rather than as a “test” to question the virtue of others. The true spirit of submission means that we sustain and bear our leaders up in their weaknesses. We struggle with them, even argue with them privately if necessary, not to undermine them, but to try to come to an understanding. I don’t believe that unrighteous dominion qualifies us to revoke our own sustaining of a particular leader. If that were the case, almost everyone would loose their authority, as “almost all men” have a problem with unrighteous dominion, according to Joseph Smith.
Submission is Not Blind Faith
Some might argue that submission can easily become blind faith. This is true. Brigham Young had this to say about it:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation.”
Submission should follow personal revelation. If we have felt the Lord tell us “come follow me” (or “come follow my servants”) then that is the only reason why we should follow. That path may take us to some strange places. When Jesus preached cannibalism in the Bread of Life sermon, “you must eat my flesh and drink my blood” most of His disciples left Him. Listening to some of the things our modern prophets have said, it’s easy to see why many people would leave today as well. But like the apostles of old who didn’t leave Jesus, even when He seemed a bit crazy, I try to remember the initial voice I heard, the “come follow me,” and it helps me get past things I disagree with or don’t understand.
Time to Rebel Against Authority
There are times to rebel against ecclesiastical authority. We revere the Protestant reformers for fighting against apostate Catholic authority. Jesus rebelled against the apostate authority of His day. Indeed, the recent excommunication of Denver Snuffer brings up the idea that perhaps our own church is in a state of apostasy and thus in need of reformation. But that is a very bold claim to make, and I doubt if it is justified simply because we feel our prophet was uninspired to exclaim “Let’s go shopping!” or something of that sort. My experience is that priesthood power is alive in the current church. I’ve heard my leaders speak and I’ve felt the Holy Ghost confirm their words. Regardless of the times when I might disagree or see imperfections, I still honor and submit to their authority.
Humility is Not Possible Without Submission
A final point I would like to make is that submission to authority is the very definition of humility. We can submit to our own beliefs and values, whatever they happen to be. But that would simply be pride in our own views, as justified as we might feel in those views. However, submission to someone who claims to have authority over us is true humility. It demands that we bend to them, that we change, accommodate, and obey something that does not come naturally from our belief set, but from an outside source. That is humility.
This fact offers the liberal even more hope than the conservative. A conservative naturally aligns himself with orthodoxy. Thus for the conservative, there is a danger that his allegiance is simply a reflection of his own natural veiwpoint, “the natural man.” But when a liberal aligns himself with orthodoxy, this indicates a state of submission towards something that is unnatural to him: true humility.
- Do you agree that submission to authority is an important aspect of the LDS church?
- Does “unrighteous dominion” give us the right to revoke our sustaining vote?
- Is humility before God possible without submission to His earthly authorities?
- Can we disagree with or criticize our leaders while still sustaining or submitting to them?