One common way of explaining the need for priesthood authority in the LDS Church is the idea of authorized agents. Priesthood holders, especially those in leadership positions, are described as agents of the Lord with authority to act on his behalf in important matters. For a person to take such authority upon him- or herself – making promises for God without His authorization – would be presumptuous and potentially blasphemous. By tracing a line of authority from Jesus through John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John and on to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the Church makes a direct claim to the legitimacy of its priesthood holders as authorized agents of God.
When I was a missionary, this all seemed very proper and clear. What I didn’t understand then were the challenges highlighted by an agency model of priesthood. Understanding these challenges more fully has changed the way I think about sustaining my leaders, expanded my reliance on faith within the institutional church, and deepened by appreciation for the Atonement.
The main challenge of God being represented by man is identified in social science literature as the principal-agent problem. In simple terms, it is the recognition that the interests of the agent are usually at least slightly different than those of the principal whom the agent represents. So, for instance, negotiators may consider their own income from a deal as well as their client’s goals. Or, like the unjust steward, agents may be tempted to curry favor with those who can grant greater power, wealth, or authority later.
One useful incentive that agents have is keeping their current job. This can be positive because it encourages them to act more faithfully as a representative of the principal. It helps align their incentives. Or it can be a negative, causing them to spend more time hiding bad behavior.
In fact, the Lord has addressed the principal-agent problem of the priesthood in words we mention often:
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.” (D&C 121:34-37).
In other words, a priesthood agent may only continue to serve when (a) the agent’s behavior accords with the principal’s incentives (righteousness) and (b) the agent puts aside personal incentives (material goods, honors, pride, ambition, and unrighteous dominion). Otherwise, the Lord will withdraw the agent’s authorization to act in His behalf.
Even when incentives align, agents sometimes make mistakes. When an agent does make a mistake, the ultimate responsibility for the outcome remains with the principal. For example, if an employee of a large financial firm makes poor deals resulting in billions of dollars of losses, the company can’t simply disavow its responsibility to pay. Regardless of whether the trader is separately punished for reckless behavior, the financial obligations the company incurred due to the agent’s actions remain in place.
Recognizing the fallibility of our leaders – that agents aren’t perfect reflections of the principals whom they represent – increases the space for faith. It’s not that my leaders might make mistakes; I know that they will make mistakes. That’s what it means to be human, even if called by God. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland acknowledge in a recent General Conference address, “Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”
I am personally confident that Pres. Monson and my stake president and my bishop have each been appropriately called and ordained as agents of God, even as I am confident that they will sometimes err in their leadership. But if God in His perfection has chosen to appoint imperfect people as His representatives, I must do my best to follow them in ways that will lead me closer to Him.
Knowing they will make mistakes shapes what it means to me to sustain my leaders. More than reflexive obedience, what they really need is my help. In sustaining them, I have pledged to share (consecrate) everything I am or have that may be of use to them in magnifying their callings. Sometimes that means sharing an alternative perspective on a program or policy. When I believe that a mistake is being made, sometimes sustaining my leaders includes disagreeing (privately, when possible) without being disagreeable. At other times it may mean working to make the best of a decision which seems less-than-inspired, recognizing that I too am imperfect.
Finally, the agency model highlights the centrality of the Atonement. Knowing that my priesthood leaders will sometimes make mistakes in their role as the Lord’s agents reaffirms the need for an atonement broad enough to cover all human error. In fact, justice requires that Christ pay the penalty for the mistakes made by His agents on the earth – including any harm that may come to me as a result of those mistakes – separate from their personal level of repentance. Rather than faith in mortal men (always a mistake), my relationship with the Church is thus primarily about faith in Christ.
Recognizing the limits of God’s agents needn’t invite doubt or distance. Instead, it can inspire us to exercise greater faith, to increased involvement in strengthening the Church, and to more reliance on the Savior.