The Great Divide
Why critical evaluation of church leader statements can make you more compassionate and closer to God
Hello, my name is Carson and I criticize church leaders…
In my experience there is no other subject that will divide modern members of the LDS faith more than this one. The church as an organization and as a culture has a history of strongly condemning those that criticize. It appears that draconian enforcement of this stance has once again raised its head with the recent news of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin both being called in for church discipline. Criticize is too strong of a word for what people like me, John and Kate do. A better phrase would be “To use critical evaluation.” To critically evaluate something means to determine the value of, or to determine the significance, worth or quality of something. It also means giving verdict as to what extent a statement or findings hold within a piece of research. One must probe the theory for weaknesses by trying to find all the ways in which it might be false. There are many benefits that come from being critically evaluative of church leader statements. I’d like for this essay to be something a critical member could give to someone on the other side to explain why people like us feel comfortable, faithful and actually more Christ-like by being on this side of the divide. Like a Rosetta Stone for the different world views on each side of this great divide.
First off, let me give you a few definitions that many on your side might not be familiar with, but are often used on mine.
TBM – There are many permutations of this acronym such as True Believing Mormon or True Blue Mormon, but I strongly feel the most appropriate and accurate definition would be Traditionally Believing Mormon. This helps keep the term from being a derogatory one and focuses on the fact that the person believes in a traditional sense like the majority of members and not in a more nuanced way like the current, but quickly growing minority.
NOM – This is the other side of the divide from TBM and means New Order Mormon. That basically means someone who doesn’t believe like a TBM anymore. There is a large spectrum when it comes to how different their beliefs are from a TBM.
Church culture – Church culture includes assumptions, ideas or beliefs of church leaders or members that aren’t directly stated in scripture or generally available revelations.
Church Doctrine – Beliefs that are based in direct statements found in canonized scripture or publicly available revelations. Again, the exact definition is very complicated but for this essay I’ll use this simplified version.
From here I would like to break this essay into three parts: 1-what is criticism and why is it acceptable to take that stance, 2-why is it actually healthier to take a critical stance and 3-if you still don’t agree with me, how can you respectfully engage with the other side of the divide so that a mutual feeling of love can permeate your interactions with each other?
What Is Criticism And Why It Is Acceptable To Take This Stance?
In the church we tend to only define criticism in one way, a negative way. It would be nice to parse out the various ways one can critically evaluate advice from church leaders. There, when I say criticism I’m not talking about bitter criticism where someone is trying to tear down another because of insecurity. Instead it is a thoughtful evaluation of whether or not what our church leaders say really is the best thing for us to do. It is having enough self-hood and a sufficient personal relationship with God to decide between yourself and Him what is appropriate for you. This doesn’t mean ignoring the prophets either, but using them as watchmen on the watchtower advising you of dangers to avoid and positive trails to take. Therefore, prophets are not a mediator between yourself and God.
In theory, every church member does this, but TBM’s usually only check what is said by church leaders against what the church already expects of us and against an extreme form of religion. An example of how a TBM would be critical is if a Stake President asked all members to kill their first born child. They would obviously feel the church leader wasn’t inspired and therefore must have lost his sanity. They would be critical of their leader, disagree with what he asked and continue on in opposition to his request. On the other hand, an example where a TBM would not be critical is if their Stake President announced that his entire stake should refrain from drinking caffeinated beverages in order to get a temple recommend. Most would likely go along begrudgingly because it doesn’t go against anything you can already find in the culture of the church. A NOM would feel like it is inappropriate for a stake leader to add to or take away from the temple recommend interview questions.
I understand your hesitation and fear to critically evaluate the counsel of our leaders. I used to look at people like me in exactly the same way. To explain why it is okay to be thoughtfully critical, I’ll use some quotes from the brethren. These quotes all emphasize the fact that… Prophets are fallible and because of this they expect us to think for ourselves to figure out what God wants us to do.
Prophets are fallible:
- “Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone;” – President George Q. Canon1
- “The first presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility,” and “infallibility is not given to men.” – President George Q. Canon2
- “I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities.” – Joseph Smith3
- “When God makes the prophet He does not unmake the man.” – David O. McKay4
- “With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.” – Bruce R McConkie5
- “Thus the opinions and views, even of a prophet, may contain error, unless those opinions and views were inspired by the Spirit.” – Bruce R McConkie6
- President Harold B. Lee, said, “It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they write.” – Harold B Lee7
They expect us to think for ourselves:
- “President Wilford Woodruff is a man of wisdom and experience, and we respect him, but we do not believe his personal views or utterances are revelations from God; and when ‘Thus saith the Lord’, comes from him, the saints investigate it: they do not shut their eyes and take it down like a pill.” – Charles W. Penrose (apostle)8
- “One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required, and we call upon you students to exercise your God-given right to think through every proposition that is submitted to you and to be unafraid to express your opinions…Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts…Progress in maturity may be measured by our acceptance of increased self-responsibility and an increased sagacity in decision making. This transition is not a time of calm enjoyment, but of growth and adaptation…We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know. It should never lead to an emotional arrogance based upon a false assumption that we somehow have all the answers–that we in fact have a corner on truth, for we do not…” – Hugh B. Brown9
- “I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied…. Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the Kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, ‘If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are,’ this is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord.” – Brigham Young10
- “What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? 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…” – Brigham Young11
- “And none are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the priesthood. We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God… would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.” – Samuel Richards (apostle)12
Right now, you are probably thinking of the quote that says the prophet can’t lead the church astray, and because of that you are safe to not evaluate things said by the general authorities. You might agree that the prophet isn’t perfect but an example of him making a mistake would be him saying that Ford trucks are best. He is obviously just giving his fallible human opinion, but if he were to say in conference that the Lord wants us to do X or Y, then that is where he “can’t lead the church astray.”
I’ll give you some examples that show how the prophets have said things that were definitely wrong, when speaking as the prophet. One of the examples actually comes from President Woodruff, who coined the phrase that the prophet can’t lead church astray. If that phrase was said as God’s will instead of just a man’s hope of what the Lord will do then I think it logically must only mean that he won’t let the prophet lead the church into outright apostasy. It doesn’t mean that he won’t say things that will allow the church to be less than what he wants it to be. Here are some examples of prophets definitely saying things that lead the church slightly off course:
- “And if any man mingle his seed with the seed of Cain [black race] the only way he could get rid of it or have Salvation would be to come forward and have his head cut off and spill his blood upon the ground…it would also take the life of his children.” – Wilford Woodruff13
- “… the one-wife system not only degenerates the human family, both physically and intellectually, but it is entirely incompatible with philosophical notions of immortality; it is a lure to temptation, and has always proved a curse to a people.” – John Taylor14
- “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call Scripture” – Brigham Young15
- “Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; under such circumstances. I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands.” – Brigham Young16
- “And after the flood we are told that the curse that had been pronounced upon Cain was continued through Ham’s wife, as he had married a wife of that seed. And why did it pass through the flood? because it was necessary that the devil should have a representation upon the earth as well as God;…” – Brigham Young17
We need to take this logic one step further: if prophets are not evaluated or allowed the possibility of being wrong then everything they say is the word of God. Furthermore, everything they don’t say is the word of God. In other words if God wanted something changed he would inspire them to say something and since they haven’t He must be happy with every subject they aren’t currently trying to change. Both of these are wrong because they give too much credence and perfection to the prophets being perfect mouthpieces of God.
I feel that this position is a more mature view of the gospel. One builds upon the other, the complex built upon the simple base. For example, I think I’ve gone from seeing the gospel like a child views their parents (perfect and idolized) to one where, as an adult, you become your own individual who is able to see your parents’ flaws, but still love them and get advice from them and their experience (see tinyurl.com/FowlerStages). You switch from depending on church leaders for your salvation to taking responsibility for your own salvation. This creates a more direct and powerful link between yourself and God. Otherwise, it’s almost as if you want to use the prophets as your scapegoat if you do something you later find out was wrong (ahem, racism [tinyurl.com/LdsRacismEx] and gender inequality issues of the past) and as we saw from the quotes and example above, they will occasionally get things wrong.
Because I now have taken responsibility for my salvation I don’t do things begrudgingly out of obligation. I choose to only do the things I think are appropriate and therefore I want to do everything I do. I still have to push myself and do things I don’t want to do in the moment, but the freedom to serve out of the goodness of my heart makes my service more uplifting to me and more sincere to those that receive it.
Without question, the number one benefit people report when they cross over the great divide is that they love other people more. Basically, most people feel less judgmental. Ironically, they obey the second of the two great commandments more (tinyurl.com/JesusTrumpCard). Like I used to, you might feel that you love others, but you feel that love through a judgmental filter that others are not doing what God wants. When you accept that people are trying their best and doing what they feel God wants then to do instead of what you think God wants them to do, the love grows. Additionally, you can see all God-fearing people (Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Protestant, etc.) as “God’s people” and you no longer have an “us vs. them” mentality. You feel one in purpose with others and it creates an awesome feeling of community we often refer to as Zion, only this community is much larger!
Here are some quotes from people on FB that I posed the following question to, “How has not being TBM anymore benefited your life?”
- I am not nearly as self conscious. I don’t stress over the way I look anymore.
- It puts the management of my physical, emotional, and spiritual effort back in my own hands, rather than trying to measure up to an endless list of “shoulds.” … This has a lot of benefits, from being able to grow more as a person in making those decisions, as well as aligning my actions more and more to principle, and less and less to appearance.
- It’s easier to discuss the church with non members- I find greater opportunities for sharing faith in god when I don’t have to defend dogma.
- I’ve learned to love people just where they are, and to stop feeling “heartbroken” when they don’t live up to some standard. Just love. And people recognize that, and feel they can open up to me about their struggles when they need a safe place to voice them.
- I now embrace our different beliefs and help my children to recognize that everyone is different. That has helped me be more Christlike in all my relationships!
- I feel like I have a better relationship with God now that I’m focused more on Him than on impressing the members of my ward. I’m also more relaxed because I don’t stress as much about the opinions of others. I feel like I’m a better mother because I’m trying to teach my kids more principles, like focusing on loving and serving others, than huge lists of practices.
- I now feel free to not defend practices like polygamy, the priesthood/temple ban, opposition to SSM, etc and it had been very freeing for me to realize I can embrace the parts of the gospel that I love and not have to apologize for the parts I disagree with.
- I don’t let guilt and shame destroy me and my relationships with others. I feel like I have learned how to really love others for who they are, and I have finally learned that I am good enough, and how to love myself.
- Keeping the commandments/standards starts to become a choice rather than simply obeying (grudgingly or not). You can start to really live your religion instead of just doing it.
- Being able to choose what I think is culture and what is truth has brought me great hope and a lot more faith in God.
- The main focus of my life is to give and receive love…period. so many things I used to worry about have become almost irrelevant.
- By losing or lessening our loyalty to the Church institution I think we tend to reflect on the “essence” of Mormonism, rather than on its corporate functioning. I too found myself being more charitable etc… and in fact, it was for this reason I decided to become active again after 18 months – 2 years. I *wanted* to serve. I didn’t *have* to serve to fulfill some legalistic obligation.
- Rather than believing that everything is getting worse and more wicked, I can appreciate the real progress the world has made when it comes to women’s rights, democratic government, disease prevention, etc.
- I feel like I have an increased capacity to mourn with those that mourn, because I’m not caught up so much in who is right and I’m not stuck with this idea of thinking that if someone sees things differently from me, that person must not be sincere or going about things the right way.
- It is easier to embrace what truths I find in other faith traditions and their examples have, I believe, made me a better Mormon by deepening my faith.
How To Respectfully Engage With The Other Side
Most importantly, if you haven’t decided yet that coming over to the other side of the divide is a good idea but you love everyone as a child of God and want current members to stay in the church then don’t push them out. Here are some suggestions to do that…
Don’t take offense when they voice their views that are different from the general membership. When you think like my side does, it is hard to listen to the fundamentalist rhetoric often heard in church. In my experience, most people on my side who leave the church do so because they can’t handle that frustration. Even if they don’t think the church is 100% true, they often love Mormonism and want to stay. They either receive negativity from others from voicing a different opinion or they build up a large amount of tension from constantly biting their tongue. You can help them stay by keeping the eleventh article of faith by giving them the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience.
In my experience, the road to my side of the divide is a one way street so avoid trying to pull them back to your side, it will just create frustration between you two. I’ve never known anyone that begins to feel the need to more critically evaluate the leaders to return to their previous worldview. No one! Both sides of the divide contain great people doing great work. If you think my side is bad, at least look for the good that we do and let’s work together to make this world a better place.
Thinking that there are errors in the church and suggesting ways they could be better is often referred to as “steadying the ark.” To think that no one but the general authorities can help to correct problems is either ignoring or being naive to the facts of church history. Many members have made suggestions that helped the brethren come to understand the need for change. The most famous one is Lester Bush’s research showing that the Priesthood ban wasn’t enacted by Joseph Smith, but by Brigham Young because Joseph had actually given the priesthood to a few black men (Further Reading tinyurl.com/lesterbush). John and Kate are great examples of this. For example, Kate as the founder of Ordain Women has stated that its primary goal is to get the prophet, whom she faithfully sustains, to ask God if it would be possible to share the priesthood with women. This movement, despite no formal statement from the church, made it so that a woman was able to give the prayer in General Conference for the first time ever, in 2014 nonetheless!
Realize that the church isn’t perfect, and neither is our understanding of the doctrine. It is surprising to most members that doctrine has actually changed significantly over time. This is too complicated a subject to explain in a few sentences. If you don’t believe me and would like to see how a faithful Latter-day Saint and current BYU professor Charles Harrell explains the many changes then read his book This is my Doctrine.
I know many on the other side of the divide think the logical conclusion to evaluating and at times choosing a different option than the majority will lead some to go down the slippery slope to indulgent sin. Therefore we should avoid allowing or encouraging others to evaluate church leaders critically, and keep people in the more child-like state because it is safer. You may think it gets more people into heaven, but isn’t taking away people’s agency awfully similar to the plan we fought against in heaven? If we instead allow others to make decisions for themselves it allows people to grow as Christ wanted.
Even if you don’t agree, being loving is the best way to react, because loving your neighbor is the greatest commandment. I don’t want to tell everyone they have to be critical for their Mormon experience to be a good one, but I do want others to see that it has some significant benefits. I feel that those benefits have made my Mormon experience a stronger one and I’m more loving and accepting of all God’s children because of it.
- Millennial Star 53:658-59, quoted in Gospel Truth, 1:319
- Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of PRES GQC
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 268
- Conference Report, April 1907, 11–12; see also October 1912, 121; April 1962, 7
- Mormon Doctrine, 608
- “Are the General Authorities Human?” address delivered at the Institute of Religion Forum at the University of Utah, October 28, 1966
- Stand Ye in Holy Places, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974, 162
- Millennial Star 54:191
- “An Eternal Quest–Freedom of the Mind”, a speech delivered to the BYU student body on May 13, 1969, when Hugh B. Brown was First Counselor in the First Presidency
- “Final Testimony,” An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999)
- Journal of Discourses, v. 3, p. 45
- Journal of Discourses 9: 149-150
- Millennial Star 14: 593-595
- Wilford Woodruff personal diary, 4:97
- Millennial Star, Vol. 15, p. 227
- Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 95
- Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, p. 247
- Journal of Discourses, Vol. 22, page 304