Guest Post- Matt Stearmer
One of the most difficult tasks any believing individual will face is how to navigate the murky waters of faith and change at the exact same time. In the LDS church, how do we advocate for change while remaining faithful?
I have turned to the scriptures, what my leaders have said, and personal prayer in order to find answers to this question for me. Some of what I found was familiar and expected, but then I discovered a gaping hole in our collective repertoire of faith and change. I believe this missing paradigm may explain why some current events are so troubling to our faith community.
What It Means To Sustain
I began thinking about this idea while preparing a lesson for the Teachers Quorum. The 2014 manual provides several examples of how to sustain our leaders. The summary of what it means reads as follows: “Sustaining leaders involves more than just a raised hand—it means that we stand behind them, pray for them, accept assignments and callings from them, hearken to their counsel, and refrain from criticizing them.”
Here are some of the examples provided in the lesson on how to sustain our leaders:
1 – Aaron and Hurr literally holding up the hands of Moses in battle (Exodus 17)
2 – The Widow of Zarephath sacrificing her last meal for the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 17)
3 – Naaman following instructions from a prophet that do not make sense (2 Kings 5)
4 – We are asked to pray for our leaders (D&C 107 and Eyring June 2012)
5 – “Stick with the brethern” – Which James E. Faust felt meant that he should follow his leaders council and be in harmony with them (Oct 2005).
The lesson material also points to blessings one can receive for sustaining one’s leaders:
1 – Literal physical protection
2 – Peace, joy and gladness
3 – Safety and protection (spiritually, economically) against the craftiness of men
One of rationals for sustaining our leaders comes in a promise from James E. Faust that we can sustain the leaders of the church because they will not lead us astray. Like many others I’ve wondered what it means that leaders will not lead us astray. It cannot mean that they will not make mistakes. The history of the church is rife with poor decision making. Just one example comes from the Lord himself. The church was deeply in debt and Joseph had heard that there was a treasure in Salem Massachusetts that could solve their financial problems. Joseph asked several individuals to come with him to Salem – but in the end found nothing. The Lord had this to say to them: “I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies.” (D&C 111:1). If leaders are imperfect – even foolish at times, and yet we are promised they will not lead us astray – what are we to make of that?
I think that it is first important to realize that astray is not the same thing as wrong. When one looks at the Old Testament the term astray is frequently used in the context of sin. Read this way we are promised then that our leaders will not lead us into sin. This does not mean that following their advice will lead to riches, or that there will not be mistakes, or moral contradictions, but only that God will not count it as sin.
Regarding following prophets for blessings in this life: It has been my observation that God could not care one hill of beans if we get wealthy in this life. Christ’s example here on earth is replete with examples of his concern for the poor and nearly universal disdain for the accumulation of wealth. However, I have observed that Christ is exceptionally concerned with the idea of unity – going so far as to say that “If ye are not one ye are not mine”, and non-coercion (that whole free-agency thing). From a earthy perspective this will mean that mistakes will be made, debts may be accumulated, programs may not work the way they were intended, and changes will inevitably be required – and God (Mother and Father) will allow us to make these mistakes (not counting them as sin) perhaps because they want us to learn how to work things out together.
If we are to be perfectly united, what does that mean about questioning the decisions that are sometimes made? Clearly there are going to be mistakes made. If we incorrectly place the leaders on a pedestal and preach that they are infallible then we are setting up our members for a crisis of faith. With all the access to information today it is almost impossible to think that members will not find examples in our history where this was a problem. Given that we are imperfect people nearly all of us will at some time even experience these errors firsthand. At some point in time most of us will likely face some council which seems to contradict scripture, the Spirit, and even moral obligations. It is at this point that we need to better understand the “doctrine of dissent” if we are to move forward in this imperfect world.
What are we counseled to do in circumstances where we disagree with our leaders? There is of course the ever present pray for our leaders. Elder Eyring tells the story of a young man who had a personal concern who then prayed that Elder Eyring (who was then his bishop) would know what council to give him. Before the prayer was finished Elder Eyring had three thoughts come to his mind that he shared with the young man before he even knew what the problem actually was. Collectively we can have faith that as we pray that God will hear our cry and that an answer will come. I honestly believe that there is power in prayer, but we should also recognize that this is not the only way change happens in the church.
For those who are invited to council meetings there are other opportunities to express concern and even dissent. Numerous stories have been shared about the wide ranging opinions and dissent that are expressed in these meetings at all levels of the church. My favorite personal example comes from a meeting that happened in the Riverton WY Stake in the early 90’s. The Stake had been doing a great deal of work with the Martin and Willie Handcart Company genealogy (called the Second Rescue) and the general church leadership began to get involved in the planning of the memorial. This mean that President Hinckley and other senior leaders made semi-frequent appearances in these stake meetings. Plans had been going one direction for a while, but President Hinckley had a different idea and expressed that idea in the meeting. At this sudden change of direction one of the High Councilors leaned back in his chair, folded his arms, and stated out loud, “Well, that just chaffs my drawers!”.
I love that story.
While it is wonderful that members of each council are free to express their deeply held positions and are expected to take the time to understand and become united on a decision, we must recognize that there can be some fallout from this process that is born by the individual members. Dissent in these meetings is rarely heard outside the meeting. I think that I can understand some of the rational behind that. If dissenting opinions were public then it would create a level of coercion where positions could not be freely spoken. However, this does not change the fact that for those who are struggling with their own feelings of doubt on a particular topic will not be privy to any of these discussions or even the range of opinions and concerns being discussed. This makes dealing with the faith crisis even more challenging than it might otherwise be because the individual cannot know that there position was heard – or understand the rationale for why it was rejected. As some changes require a great deal of time to reach a consensus it may be years – even decades – before changes are made. Waiting in isolation during this time period without any knowledge that their concerns are even being address is an exceptionally high burden for a single individual member to bear. The isolating feelings of doubt are as bad, if not worse, than whatever the doubt itself might be.
Based on the stories that we hear in the manual and from the pulpit one would get the impression that this is a burden that God (Father and Mother) expects of us. I think we are missing a key paradigm from the scriptures that could help us navigate through these difficult issues.
I turned to the scriptures to find any example of how a faithful member might do more than pray for change, or suffer in silence and isolation as they sought changes from the Lord. It was at this point that I felt directed to reread the story of Zelophehad’s Daughters (Numbers 27).The daughters (who are actually named! Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah) had a problem. The inheritance laws which had been previously established did not account for several possibilities. When Zelophehad died, there were no brothers and no close kin to inherit the land and take care of the daughters. They were left completely stranded with no means of support. I’m sure they prayed – but that was not all that they did to find relief:
1 Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.
2 And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying,
3 Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons.
4 Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son? Give unto us therefore a possession among the brethren of our father.
5 And Moses brought their cause before the Lord.
6 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying,
7 The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.
This is such an amazing story!
Here the inspiration of the change that needed to happen had come to those who were suffering. Those who suffered knew what needed to be done – and asked for it. Other options were available to them. They could have left and formed their own faction and just tried to take the land the belonged to them, or they could have left for other local tribes, they could have suffered in silence, but they had faith in God and their leaders and went directly to them. Some may argue that this was a different time and smaller church organization making direct petitions easier, but I do not think we can just write this off. There is some dispute about the actual size of the church in this day, but if the “official” numbers presented in the scriptures are to be believed then there were approximately 2.5 million Israelites (credible historical and rabbinical sources peg that number MUCH lower). Regardless, the number is much less important than the process.
A small group of individuals came to their leaders to present the problems that faced them. They presented the problem, a possible solution, and asked that the leaders confirm this through revelation.
This is such a radical example I wanted to see how our modern leaders have used this example to show members another faithful way to approach change in the church. I went to scriptures.byu.edu – which has the entire Journal of Discourses correlated with every scripture and gospel topic to look it up. Guess what? There is nothing.
Seriously, I was shocked! Not even an attempt to co-opt the story into something else. How could it be that in nearly 200 years of our leaders talking about the scriptures that this chapter has not even been mentioned once in any talk? I thought, well, perhaps it is in the Old Testament lesson manuals. Nada. What about the old Old Testament institute manual? Here it is even more interesting. Numbers 27 is in there, but the writers skip the first half of the chapter and only focus on the part where Moses establishes the male leadership of the church. The daughters are mentioned once in Chapter 36 in relation to the new inheritance laws – but the entire context of how that change came about is skipped over.
Then it dawned on me. This is why we have such a struggle with the process that is happening right now and why so many see the events unfolding as apostasy – there is an entire line of Godly sanctioned dissent that has been excluded from our scriptural and cultural repertoire. The Daughters of Zelophehad teach us that when members, who are otherwise faithful, gather together to petition publicly for their leaders to ask God for an answer – that act alone is not apostasy. It is one of the ways God (Mother and Father) uses to change the procedures of the church to meet the needs of their children.
This does not mean that every public action is justified, or that we cannot do wrong after a decision is given, all it means is that there is a process of sustaining – that actually leads through dissent – and can help bring us all to a higher plane. If we will all go humbly before God in prayer leaders can be inspired. As we counsel openly in our meetings better decisions will be made. And even when small groups of individuals ask their leaders for changes – each of these scenarios invites us to find ways to be united.
If we all had that collective paradigm I think that we could reach out in love, and unity and non-coercively to both those who are struggling and for our leaders. Through humble prayer and non-coercive discussion we can do our best to unite our hearts together. In the grand scheme of things change may still be slow, and in some instances perhaps may never come, but we as a people will be far better off for it.
~Matt Stearmer is a Ph.D. Candidate of Sociology at The Ohio State University. His academic interests include social movements, gender, networks and public health. His work has appeared in the Journal of Peace Research, and in a book titled Sex and World Peace.