I’ve been having some interesting conversations about the high cost of membership in the Church. We believe, in general, that the cost of being a Mormon is high and that this is a good thing. Sacrifice leads to faith. We pour a lot of time and a lot of energy into the Church, and this helps us value our membership more than if the Church asked less of us.
But it can be taken to extremes.
There are reasons to say “no” to something our leaders ask of us, and foremost among those is the sake of our families. The Church exists to serve the family. Families do not exist for the purpose of serving or repopulating the Church. My bishop—a man I admire greatly—made this point explicitly at the start of priesthood opening exercises last week. He enumerated the very large number of activities planned for the ward between now and the end of the year, and then he reminded everyone that family comes first. It’s OK not to go to an activity if that is the best thing for your family.
Of course, not everyone is lucky to have a bishop who is willing to state that. So the tricky question is: how do you react to requests from Church leaders that seem excessive?
The default position seems to be that you obey, obey, obey, and then obey some more. In practice: this makes sense. The emphasis should be on obedience first. We should sacrifice. We should stretch. We should accommodate. We should try to do more than we think we can do. But not without limit. Not faster than we have strength, for example. (Mosiah 4:27, D&C 10:4) And not mindlessly, either.
We don’t believe in prophetic infallibility. It follows that we don’t think bishops are infallible either. It follows that bishops are sometimes wrong about callings or counsel. So, should we ever disobey or demur?
Yes, we should. In fact, it’s vitally important that we keep that option open. To follow leaders without question is to defeat the purpose of our mortal probation. It is to foist off on others the responsibility to decide for ourselves. It is to try and hard pass on the existential questions posed by life.
Well, when should we elect not to follow the counsel of our leaders? It should not be merely whenever we think our leaders are wrong. If our standard for following our leaders is our own opinion, then leaders are pointless. If we’re not willing to obey leaders when they ask us to do things we disagree with then they are not leaders. They are just unpaid and easily ignored consultants.
So, even though our leaders are going to tell us to do the wrong thing from time to time, we should default to doing it anyway. This is what it means to sustain our leaders. It is their fallibility and weakness that makes them need sustaining in the first place.
You’ll notice, after all, that we don’t sustain God the Father or Jesus Christ. They are perfect. They don’t need to be sustained. That shows how fundamentally different our relationship with our mortal leaders is from our relationship with God.
But in rare and exceptional cases where we believe that obeying a leader would cause serious harm to ourselves, or our families, or otherwise require that we do something gravely immoral then we should say no. If this sounds extreme or liberal, then consider the alternatives. We have basically three:
- 1. Obey everything every leader ever says.
- Treat all counsel from leaders as though it were simply a proposition to be decided on the merits making no distinction between what a leader tells you to do and what anyone else might tell you to do.
- Some ambiguous middle ground between 1 and 2.
The first is monstrous. The second renders leadership pointless. We are stuck, by process of elimination, in the ambiguous middle ground.
You’ll notice that I haven’t provided an exhaustive criteria for you to apply in your own life. That’s the point. It’s up to us. We can’t divest our obligation to live our own lives to anyone. And yes, that’s scary. But I have faith in a God who values the process much more than the outcome, and who will judge us based on our sincere efforts to do the right thing more than on whether or not we got the right answer. Especially since, in life, there may not always be just one right thing to do.
The Anti-Nephi-Lehis covenanted never to fight. Pacifism is acceptable. Their children went out and fought. Defensive warfare is acceptable. Nine of the Nephite apostles wanted to live out their lives and return to God. Three wanted to stay and continue to minister. Both were acceptable.
We need to abandon the idea that we can trade our free-will for blind obedience. We need to abandon the idea that there is one right answer. We need to abandon the idea that there is a formula or a recipe or an algorithm that—if every box is checked—will shield us from the wrenching uncertainties and ambiguities of moral life. We need to abandon what Jim Faulconer called “a kind of idolatry of our leaders.”
But in the end this turns out not to be an argument about the quantity of our obedience, but about the quality of our obedience. In a world where home and visiting teaching rates are substantially less than 100%, it’s a little silly to talk about a problem of over-obedience in aggregate. For every example of a person who I really wish would ask to be released from a calling that is wreaking havoc on their family, there are dozens of people who should keep doing what they’re doing or maybe even work a little harder. I, myself, am almost always in that last category. There have been many times I wish I had acted more independently, showed more initiative, and been more willing to go off-script, but very few that I felt called for outright disobedience.
The point is therefore not to obey less. It is to obey differently. Leaving open the door to say no—even if it ends up being a relatively rare occurrence—is part of the difference between mindless, automatic obedience and mindful, deliberate obedience. The Lord wants the latter. He is interested in growth and in relationships. And so we must be open to disobeying not only for the sake of our families or to obey some truly unrighteous request, but also because that willingness to disobey changes the quality of our obedience. It helps ensure obedience as a conscious act of will and never a blind reflex. Which, rather than mere brute compliance, is what any good parent desires from their children.