Monday, September 1, 2014

Priesthood Authority and the Concept of Stewardship

I met a man once who said that before he did anything he would say "Si Dios quiere" [God willing]. He explained that if he said that and God did not want him to do it then he would instantly be struck down, because God didn't want him to do that. This included every mundane thing he would do such as leaving his house to walk down the street. In every aspect of his life he claimed that he would say "Si Dios quiere" in order to receive validation for all of his actions no matter how mundane they be. You can see the obvious problem with this because it essentially justifies everything he does, no matter how immoral it may be, because if God doesn't strike him down then "God wills it." It essentially turns God into a rubber stamp to validate whatever that man does, be it immoral or just normal mundane life decisions like what to have for breakfast.

The problem with that way of thinking is that it removes the possibility of free will. While there are some Christians who may argue that we do not have moral agency, or the ability to choose right from wrong, this is not true for Latter-day Saints. From an LDS perspective the ability for us to choose is fundamental to our identity. As the Lord told Enoch:
"Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;" (Moses 7:32)

The idea that we are free to choose what we are to do is also reinforced in the Book of Mormon when Samuel the Lamanite stated,
"For behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free." (Helaman 14:30)
This statement is by no means the only one in the Book of Mormon that makes it clear that we can act for ourselves. In more modern revelation we are told,
"All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light." (D&C 93:30-31)
 In talking about the Constitution of the United States a revelation tells us that it was established,
"That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment." (D&C 101:78)
Whenever members of the Church teach about the Plan of Salvation we mention that before the world was created, we, as spirit children of God, were given the choice to follow God and Jesus Christ or to follow Satan. The crux of Satan's plan, and the reason why we ultimately rejected it, was that it would take away our agency, or ability to choose. As explained in the Book of Moses,
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down; And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice. (Moses 4:3-4)
Given the strong language surrounding our ability to act (i.e. "otherwise there is no existence") from an LDS perspective we cannot get around that fact that we have our agency and it cannot be taken away. Many if not all members of the Church would acknowledge our ability to choose and act for ourselves and we would never think about applying the unreasonable standard of Divine oversight into all of our decisions as presented by the man I mentioned at the beginning. We may say it is silly for that man to always say, "Si Dios quiere", before he does anything and then expect God to either validate his decision through inaction or express His Divine disagreement by killing him. But what we may not realize is that while we would be repulsed by the thought of applying this standard pf Divine oversight to ourselves, we regularly apply it to the prophet and apostles and sometimes to all the leaders of the Church. Basically we have a modified version of "Si Dios quiere" that only applies to prophets and apostles. We think that if the prophet were to take one step out of line then, "Zap!" he's dead.

This is commonly the image that is brought up whenever anyone quotes Wilford Woodruff when he said,
"I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty." (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham [1946], 212–13.
It seems that whenever this quote is brought up people, both inside and outside the Church, use it as proof that God personally reviews and approves everything every prophet says and if they will say something that is a product of the prophet's culture and limited personal understanding (or something that is "false" as the critics would say), then "Zap!" the prophet dies. This is the idea that if Brigham Young, or Joseph Smith, or any other prophet says something then whatever they said must be taken as absolutely true. No exceptions. Because God reviews each and every single decision, statement and action of the prophets (and apostles), and if anything is found to be out of line then, "Zap!", we have a new prophet.

The problem with this is that it removes all possibility of free will on the part of the prophet or apostle. Unfortunately it is not just critics of the Church who hold this position but also faithful members of the Church who hold this position. We strenuously defend our personal agency but when it comes to Church leaders we sometimes fail to see that they have the same measure of agency and freedom that we do.

So how do we reconcile the fact that Church leaders have their free will and God does not use the "Zap!" method of Divine oversight with the fact that the same Church leaders can speak authoritatively for God and can determine the practices, policies, and administration of the Church? In order to understand how these things can be reconciled we need to understand how priesthood authority is related to the concept of stewardship.

As the Lord explains in one revelation,
"It is wisdom in me; therefore, a commandment I give unto you, that ye shall organize yourselves and appoint every man his stewardship; That every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him. For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures." (D&C 104:11-14)
In the wisdom of the Lord He does not micromanage all the affairs of His kingdom. He gives stewardships to His servants and they are given the charge and authority necessary to fulfill the task assigned to them. The Lord sets the bounds of His stewardships ("All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it") and expects His servants to make wise decisions regarding the things placed in their charge.

In the Book of Matthew we find the parable of the talents, which is applicable to our current discussion.
"For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey.... After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.... For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." (Matthew 25:14-30)
The lord of the servants did not personally oversee and approve each decision of his servants. As a matter of fact he left them alone and only afterwards did he demand an accounting of them. The Lord uses the same method to govern His Church today. Each Church leader is given his keys, authority and commission in an orderly and clearly defined way and is expected to act in such a way that the kingdom of God is made to increase and be firmly established. As the Lord explains in another modern revelation,
"I, the Lord, have appointed them, and ordained them to be stewards over the revelations and commandments which I have given unto them, and which I shall hereafter give unto them; And an account of this stewardship will I require of them in the day of judgment. Wherefore, I have appointed unto them, and this is their business in the church of God, to manage them and the concerns thereof, yea, the benefits thereof." (D&C 70:3-5)
The pattern that the Lord uses, and has used in all ages of man on the earth, is to give His word (or in same cases His Word) to man, and the revelations and commandments constitute a basic document which set the bounds of the stewardships given to His servants. I should emphasize that all decisions must be kept within the bounds that the Lord has set. We, including the Church leaders, do not choose the content of the revelations nor the conditions of the covenants we are under.

This gives both us and the Church leaders an incredible amount of freedom, and a corresponding amount of responsibility, in what we can do with the kingdom of God. The key to remember here is that the decisions regarding administration of the kingdom should be made by those who hold or are delegated the necessary keys, or power of the priesthood. If there are no specific instructions or prohibitions in the revelations then those who hold and exercise the priesthood keys are free to make decisions according to their wisdom and understanding.

These decisions may range from setting the minimum age at which young men can receive the priesthood, to giving advice about proper and modest attire, to determining how tithing money is to be used. In all these things those who are given these stewardships will be held accountable for their actions ("an account of this stewardship will I require of them in the day of judgment"), but their ability to make decisions, and even mistakes, will not be taken away from them.

Just as God was willing to send us to earth to learn by our own experience to know the good from the evil, and that freedom is not abridged for us, those who are call to be leaders in the Church are not somehow a class apart to which the laws of agency do not apply. They are also free in the sphere or stewardship in which they are placed.

Quite frequently the imagery of the Church as a bride and our Savior as the Bridegroom is used to explain the relation between Christ and His Church. In this sense we, as members of the Church, covenant to hearken to Christ and keep His commandments as He hearkens to the Father. This relationship is reflected in the structure of the priesthood. None of us access the things of God by ourselves, not even the commandments, covenants, ordinances or revelations, but are dependent on another, be it priesthood leader or angel we are all dependent on an intermediary. This method is not an accident because as Alma taught,
"These ordinances were given after this manner, that thereby the people might look forward on the Son of God, it being a type of his order, or it being his order, and this that they might look forward to him for a remission of their sins, that they might enter into the rest of the Lord." (Alma 13:16)
It is done in this way to show unto us our weaknesses that we may learn that we are dependent on Christ for our salvation.

Now there may be some who would feel uncomfortable knowing that their Church leaders do not actually operate under the "Zap!" system of Divine oversight, or that their Church leaders may say something that is not 100% historically correct, or is informed by the biases and prejudices of their day. But God does not choose perfect people to be His prophets, but He does choose those who will do what is asked of them. If we are concerned that the prophets and apostles may tell us to do things to our detriment, then we should realize that this is precisely why we need to have faith in God. There are ways to judge whether or not a prophet is a true prophet or not, and we should seek our own confirmation (God is not interested in having blind followers), but ultimately we must choose to follow God and His stewards.

Now God does not leave his servants entirely to themselves. He does offer counsel (His name is "Man of Counsel" after all, not "Man of 'I make mindless, free-will-deprived, automatons out of my prophets'") and provide direction but everything else is left up to the stewards to decide. This means that sometimes God will correct his servants, but He will decide when, how and what needs to be corrected.

So what is there for us to do? How are we to live our lives? What will all this look like with each member of the Church having dominion over their own stewardship? Well, it will look, function and work exactly like it does not, but without the perception that Church leaders somehow lose their free will when they become Church leaders. God does not operate under the "Zap!" system, but He does counsel His servants in all they do. And for everyone, whether or not we are a Church leader or "just a member" we are all given the same charge,
"Behold, this is your work, to keep my commandments, yea, with all your might, mind and strength." (D&C 11:20)
[End note: I am well enough aware that this will not answer every question someone may have in regards to priesthood authority, and I am sure that some will judge it to be woefully inadequet, but it will answer some questions. There are other things to consider, such as priesthood keys and how they work, charity, both for other Church members and for Church leaders, especially for Church leaders. I find that most of the problems that critics of the Church, both within and without, have with Church leaders stems from uncharitable feelings towards Church leaders or a failure to humbly consider that we are all in this together and that they too are called to make mistakes so that they can learn by their own experience. This does not mean that whatever they do is good and above reproach, but if there is to be reproof, it needs to be done charitably and with tenderness.]

1 comment:

Amy T said...

Thanks for your thoughts. Very interesting.

The Woodruff quote is a classic case of taking a comment out of context. It's worth reading the entire conference address, and the one given before it by George Q. Cannon, since Woodruff spent his talk reinforcing and expanding on Cannon's address.