The recent visit of President Nelson with Pope Francis reminds me of what some have referred to as the main difference between Catholics and Mormons. Catholics believe the Pope isn’t infallible even though that is official Catholic doctrine. Mormons believe their prophet is infallible even though that isn’t official Mormon doctrine. If we’re being honest, most Mormons equate obeisance to church leaders and authority with “faithfulness.” But is loyalty to leadership really a qualification for true faithfulness?
I’ve been pondering Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants for more than two decades now. It is a brilliant masterpiece. I accept it as scripture. However, as with all truth, it also raises many difficult and ponderous questions, especially for the modern Church and those who profess to love it. Here are a few of mine.
Are we promoting compliance and obeisance to priesthood authoritarianism (and calling that faith) instead of promoting faith in Jesus Christ?
If “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” (D&C 121:41) then why do we place so much emphasis on priesthood authority claims? If no power can be maintained by virtue of the priesthood and if no power ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood then why do we place so much emphasis on sustaining priesthood authority, and is it ethical and right to do so? If no power can be maintained by virtue of the priesthood and if no power ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood then why is there so much emphasis placed upon priesthood authority, priesthood keys, restoration of the priesthood and such? If neither power nor influence among people can be attained or maintained that way then why do we even try to do it that way to begin with? Is this, perhaps, one of the reasons why people are leaving the Church? Will the Church lose power and influence by placing so much emphasis on the importance of priesthood authority? If we accept the truth of D&C 121:41 there seems to be an obvious answer to this question.
If “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men” to exercise unrighteous dominion “as soon as they get a little authority” (D&C 121:39) then wouldn’t it also be the nature and disposition of almost all churches and church leaders to do likewise as soon they get a lot of authority? If it is the nature and disposition of almost all men to exercise unrighteous dominion as soon as they get a little authority then wouldn’t it be wise to listen with compassion and patience to those who claim they have been injured by the misuse or abuse of authority? And wouldn’t it be a good and healthy thing to downplay rather than overplay the importance of priesthood authority?
Shouldn’t we be talking more about the keys to loving and less about loving the keys?
Are the truths in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants truths that we really don’t believe? Have we supplanted these truths with a well-entrenched and de facto doctrine of infallibility? By emphasizing priesthood and priesthood authority are we rendering the Church impotent and powerless for future generations since “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained” that way? Are we promoting compliance and obeisance to priesthood authoritarianism (and calling that faith) instead of promoting faith in Jesus Christ?
If “power or influence can or ought to be maintained … only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41) wouldn’t we be better served as a Church to de-emphasize the love of authority and emphasize the authority of love? If “power or influence can or ought to be maintained … only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” shouldn’t we be talking more about the keys to loving and less about loving the keys?
In fact, if no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, then why are keys even that relevant? Is it possible to accept the fact that the keys of authority are necessary (which I do) but not sufficient, as Section 121 seems to suggest? And, if this is true, then why all the fuss about why they are necessary to begin with? If real power and real influence is attained another way then shouldn’t we be pursuing and emphasizing this other way?
When will our “confidence wax strong in the presence of God?” (D&C 121:45.) When will “[t]he Holy Ghost … be [our] constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth?” (D&C 121:46.) When our bowels are “full of charity towards all men.” (D&C 121:45.) Therein lies real power and influence.
The more I read about the mass exodus from organized religion, I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem is what the prophetic Soren Kierkegaard termed (almost two centuries ago) the “deification of the established order.” In his critique of the Danish state church, Kierkegaard pointed out that in continually making itself commensurate with God the church was actually destroying true spirituality and replacing it with an unsustainable and hollow religiosity.
In Kierkegaard’s view, requiring believers to continually accept the divine authority of the church and its inherently flawed leadership led to a distorted view of and relationship with God that, ironically, drove people away from the church and into secularization for the very reason that they (and the church) equated the church with God. Equating the church with God ultimately leads to alienation from God because, being inherently flawed, the church (and thus God) will eventually be exposed as something other than what it purports to be, thereby leading to disenchantment and disconnection.
People are incapable of separating the church from God when the church is continually claiming that it IS, for all intents and purposes, God. Hence, when the church lets them down, God lets them down. Also, people accept progress and advancement in status within the church organization and social structure as genuine spiritual progress when, in reality, it is nothing more than ego-feeding social security and social advancement.
All are alike unto God. By virtue of our baptismal covenants we are all “special” witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ. All of us are the Lord’s anointed.
“Deification of the established order is the secularization of everything!” Kierkegaard warned more than a century ago. And look what has happened to churches in Western Europe since and what we now see happening in North America as we speak! If you haven’t read Kierkegaard’s thesis, you should. I think there is much the modern church can learn from this.
One thing I would like to see is for the culture of the church–the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)–to move away from continually deifying the established order. We can do this not by leader-bashing but by treating everyone the way we would treat an apostle or prophet and ridding ourselves of any semblance of caste, rank or stratified importance, which is not pleasing to the Lord. (Luke 11:43.) All are alike unto God. (2 Nephi 26:33.) By virtue of our baptismal covenants we are all “special” witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ. (Mosiah 18:9.) All of us are the Lord’s anointed and we share the same name. (Mosiah 5:7; see also Alma 5:14; Alma 36:23–26; Alma 46:15; D&C 20:77.)
We can change by learning and humbly accepting that religiosity and spirituality are not synonymous. We can do this by stripping ourselves of the arrogant viewpoint that righteousness consists of Phariseetical-like compliance with orthodoxy and outward piousness. We can do this by changing our conversations in church meetings and social media from being grounded in authority and the love of authority to ones that are grounded in the power and authority of love. We can do this by quietly living lives of love, compassion and service, secretly revealing God to others the way that Jesus taught. (Matthew 6:4.) That is speaking with the authority of love, which is the greatest power on earth and an authority that we can all wield.