On Boldness, Disobedience, and the Church

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(via)
Two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by, cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David. And the multitude rebuked them, because they should hold their peace: but they cried the more, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou Son of David. And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened.

So Jesus had compassion on them, and touched their eyes: and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed him.
As a member of OW, I love this story in Matthew 20 for obvious reasons. But Kristi! you might say. It's not a multitude that's rebuking Ordain Women and Kate Kelly, it's Church leadership. And how prideful of you to claim that your eyes have been opened. The parallels aren't perfect. But the takeaway message I get from this story--and so many others in the scriptures--is that the Lord loves boldness.

We get mixed messages about this in the Church. Doctrine tells us to defend our faith, but if that faith leads to something unorthodox, there are repercussions. Doctrine tells us not to be lukewarm in the Gospel, but if our passion stirs up trouble, there are repercussions. These repercussions result from the emphasis the Church places on obedience. We start getting these messages when we are very young.
Adam was a prophet, first one that we know.
In a place called Eden, he helped things to grow.
Adam served the Lord by following his ways.
We are his descendants in the latter days.
What this Primary song glosses over is that the only reason "we are his descendants" is because Eve served the Lord by not following His ways. Was that not bold?

LDS lore is rife with stories of people in boldly obeyed (Abinadi, girls who wear sleeves to prom, etc). We hear less about righteous people who boldly disobeyed, because, well, sometimes that makes the Church look bad. One of my favorites is the story of Helmuth Hübener, the German teenager executed for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets during WWII. But there's an important part of his story that you won't find in Church publications.

For context, it's important to note that President Heber J. Grant visited Germany in 1937 and urged members to obey the law of the land.  Not because he was a Nazi sympathizer, but because there was friction between the LDS Church and the Gestapo, who viewed Mormonism as a foreign religion not to be trusted. In defense, Heber J. Grant pointed to the Twelfth Article of Faith: "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law."
[Helmuth's] suspicion of Nazis was catalyzed by, among other things, his LDS branch’s banning of Jews from attending worship services. His branch president, a well respected community member and Nazi supporter who played Hitler’s radio broadcasts during sacrament meetings when possible, excommunicated Helmuth when his “crimes” were revealed by his arrest. For Helmuth, doing what was manifestly right, obeying his conscience, meant not only risking arrest and execution but also defying priesthood authority. Helmuth’s excommunication took place when local German Church leaders were out of contact with LDS authorities in the United States; nevertheless, his moral and mortal courage placed him at odds with and in defiance of his branch president (not to mention the majority of his fellow congregants).

Those LDS familiar with Hübener’s story are often quick to extol his courage in defying Hitler, but slow to remember his courage in disobeying his priesthood leaders. On the day of his execution he penned a letter to a fellow branch member: “My Father in Heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong…. I know that God lives and He will be the Just Judge in this matter. I look forward to seeing you in a better world!” (via)
Some say that having contrary opinions is okay, but you need to be mindful of how you go about having them. In other words: "Be quiet and don't make a scene." Don't be bold.

But aren't we also told that faith without works is dead? If faith can only exist in a vacuum, left unexamined and undiscussed, then what good is it? I get that public advocacy makes people uneasy, but my empathy only goes so far. If the Church doesn't want to look sexist, it should be less sexist. If it doesn't want to look like it's whitewashing history, it shouldn't do it. The onus isn't on detractors to shut up, it's on the Church to step up.

I also understand the importance of working on a local level, but there is something to be said for the power of a cohesive, centralized body. I get the feeling that no matter how Kate Kelly goes about her business, it will never be good enough. As a dear friend of my recently said: "OW just can't seem to win. First they're criticized for doing things like the world does instead of taking the church route. Then they're criticized for doing things like the Church does. It seems to all come down to 'Your unconventional methods make me uncomfortable.'"

What's happening to Ms. Kelly is simply wrong. She may be bold, and she may be disobedient--but the Church could use more people like her.

10 COMMENTS:

  1. Hey Kristi,

    Probably you'll guess who I am, but I'm not very bold so I'll stay anonymous from other readers.

    1. Maybe the Nazi example is a bit over the top.

    2. It's interesting that you lump Kelly with Dehlin. That's a wide range of reasons for discipline. In my view, calling Dehlin's discipline "wrong" might be taking a stand on Church discipline generally. That's a pretty thorny issue that I haven't seen anyone wrestle with. Dehlin's actions might be considered textbook apostacy--covering temple ceremony stuff for a public audience (more or less), as a specific, and running the gamut of history and doctrine issues more generally.

    3. I think any religion with doctrines about authority faces a difficult tradeoff between being inclusive and defining the boundaries of orthodoxy (I'm borrowing from Mauss a bit here). I think it's a little more difficult than the (apparently) common view that inclusiveness is the only relevant objective. Should a Church ever define membership to exclude some people? After all, excommunication doesn't actually keep people from attending. It denies them access to certain forms of religious participation, most notably ordinances. Should the Church be able to decide who gets access to ordinances? If the answer is Yes, then disagreements over the nature of Church discipline are a matter of degree. Obviously discipline carries a lot of social costs, but IF it's necessary for repentance then those are minor. If it's not, the costs are large.

    4. That's a long way of saying that I'd like to see Dehlin supporters make an argument for what kind of discipline they think is appropriate, if any, for anyone, ever (by "Dehlin supporters", I mean people who confidently believe Church leadership is doing the wrong thing here). If Dehlin doesn't need discipline as part of repentance, does anybody? If the answer is that some people actually do need discipline, then we have a lot more nuance than Dehlin supporters are letting on. If the answer is that nobody should receive discipline, then we're taking a pretty strong stand on (a) the way the Church has done things for many years, and (b) repentance doctrine. In either case we're way over my head, but I wonder if we're over some other people's heads too.

    5. I see the Kelly case as being much fuzzier than the Dehlin case, since she has a very narrow focus. That said, I think there is still a big tradeoff. The tricky thing about the Church is that it makes truth claims and authority claims. When we ask for change we implicitly question that authority. I know the talking points are that Kelly has not criticized the Brethren, etc. But I think it's not unreasonable to say that talking about the Church the way we'd talk about any other worldly patriarchy institution and suggesting that God wants them to run the church in a different way is pushing on their authority a bit, and the harder we push on that authority, the more we raise the question of what exactly we want the Church to be (I'm probably violating multiple OW talking points here, but I think my point is reasonable). One can only push so hard on the Church's authority claims before those claims are undermined. Should a religion ever tell us things we don't want to hear? Should religion bind our actions in any way? There are religions out there that answer "No" to both. At what point does our activism start looking like a demand that the Church become one of those non-restrictive religions, negating the justification for its authority and truth claims in the first place? I'm not claiming that Kelly/OW crossed that line; I actually think that's a very, very difficult line to identify, and I wonder if the loudest voices on each side are giving it enough thought. If we put positive probability on the possibility that the Brethren actually are acting for God with regard to a specific policy, activism becomes a serious dilemma.

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    1. I'm putting my name by what I say, have the courage to do the same.

      1. Excommunicating Hubener was a bit over the top.

      2. Of course I lump Kate Kelly with John Dehlin. They're both in similar situations. Re: the temple, as long as John Dehlin doesn't reveal certain things about it, he's okay. People are so paranoid of any public temple talk and I believe that's misguided. Frankly, we'll never be able to improve the temple (as has been done time and time again...) without those discussions, so I welcome them.

      3. "Excommunication doesn't actually keep people from attending. It denies them access to certain forms of religious participation, most notably ordinances." Referring to ordinances as "certain forms of religious participation" is the biggest understatement I've heard in a while. Let's not make light of excommunication. The Church obviously decides who has access to those ordinances--if not them, then who else could?--but regarding inclusiveness and boundaries, I think the Church has an obligation to be as "big tent" as possible. Their actions against Kelly, Dehlin, and Waterman are not indicative of this mindset.

      4. Frankly, I don't think Dehlin needs discipline as part of repentance. What sin has he committed so unthinkable as to warrant one? Publicly airing the Church's dirty laundry? Of course there are people who DO need discipline. But I think the Atonement is a much more powerful thing than we give it credit for. Kate Kelly and John Dehlin do not hate the Church. They are not trying to hurt the Church. They have not sinned egregiously. If these two people truly need to repent of something, I am skeptical of how vital sanctioned Church discipline is to that process.

      5. You had like 20 questions in this paragraph so I don't even know where to begin. Suffice it to say that I don't think it's wrong to challenge truth or authority claims. If I am donating my time, talents, and money to the Church, I believe it's within reasonable bounds to prod for answers to doctrinal or historical questions. Kate Kelly is seeking further light and knowledge on one piece of doctrine. I'd hardly call that the "point where our activism starts looking like a demand that the Church become one of those non-restrictive religions". I don't know what the point is, but I can tell you that one determines it through the Spirit. If the Brethren are truly acting for God with regard to a specific policy, then there should be no hesitation to clarify what the policy is and why it is so. Once I hear them do that with regards to female ordination, I'll question my activism and the dilemma thereof. But based off everything I've read and heard and prayed about, I have little to convince me that that is the case.

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    2. Thanks for responding.

      1. What I meant was that comparing what you are doing to standing up to the Nazis is a stretch. It's like a modified Godwin's Law. I know it takes courage to state views on blogs/Facebook, but I don't think it takes anti-Nazi courage. I'm pushing this point too hard, though--conceptually, your post is very good.

      2. Dehlin's body of work is much wider ranging and goes into more depth. That's all I was saying.

      3. "The Church has an obligation to be as 'big tent' as possible." That doesn't mean anything. We'd have a bigger tent if we ditched the Word of Wisdom and cut tithing to 5%. But I understand if you don't feel that grappling with that question is relevant.

      4. I am less confident in my knowledge of repentance doctrine than you are in yours. That is a pretty general theme here--I'm amazed at how confident you and others are in your reading of doctrine and history. It's apparently really easy to draw lines, both on the doctrines themselves and on the way the Church handles the questions. I find it all so complicated and uncertain, which is why I'm undecided on all of this.

      5. Ok. I suspect that the OW standard for what constitutes a doctrinal clarification is sufficiently high that this day is a long way off.

      An autobiographical item: I think a lot of people who are going through faith crises or becoming activists sometimes assume that the rest of us aren't aware of tricky historical or doctrinal issues. This is probably because the most vocal people are those who fall on the far ends of the spectrum. Suffice it to say that there are many people in the church who are fully aware of the incongruities but have made peace with them in various ways. I don't envy the people who hit their crisis in the age of blogs and facebook, as (in my view) the level of debate that goes on there is not very satisfying (present venue excepted, of course). There are no guarantees, but spending a year or so with the tomes in the back of a library allowed me a lot of time for introspection before I had the opportunity to make my voice heard (or hear the other voices). My doubts had a lot of time to cook before I could either (a) get into shallow facebook fights or (b) join an echo chamber. Those doubts never went away, but I'm grateful that I only had a chance to share them with a few close friends while I was still digesting. That's just me--maybe the public faith crisis is a better model for others. I digress: My point is that lots of people have been able to make peace with this stuff in the past. Hopefully that can still be done.

      One of the biggest factors in my resolution was the Hoffman incident. A lot of people see this as a faith-destroying event, and I can understand that. But it had been on my mind for a few years when I came across Hinckley's 1969 "The Loneliness of Leadership" talk. I realized that Church leaders are just people. They probably don't talk to God in person. They have a lot of tough decisions. Among the toughest are decisions about what constitutes doctrine--or, similarly, which Church policies require revelation to overturn. A lot of activists talk about the Church in a very adversarial way. I now think of it less like an authority vs follower relationship than I do like a marriage. We're trying to make it work. The leaders face a lot of constraints that we don't face. The current bosses didn't start polyandry or the priesthood ban. They have to do the best they can with our history and our doctrine, because neither can be easily shaken off. My priorities in life are such that I can find other obsessions and leave the Church stuff alone, more or less. It was a deliberate choice, but I've been happier since I made it. The constant indignation and nit picking was exhausting. The cognitive dissonance isn't ideal, but I can live with it.

      This might violate the "live authentically" thing. But that's just a catch phrase! This is my life, my family.

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    3. 1. I didn't mean to compare what Kate Kelly/I'm doing to standing up to Nazis. It was just an example, but I can see how it could be interpreted as a comparison.

      2. You're right. Dehlin's body of work IS huge. I'm not sure if that would make it easier or harder to "peg" him for something in a disciplinary court? He's not scheduled for one right now, but it'll interesting to see how it all shakes out. It sounds like he has some really empathetic leaders. (I'm less impressed with Kate's.)

      3. I DO think it's important to grapple with that big tent question. Pardon me for going all Dehlin on you, but I'd really like to see a return to the pre-correlation days. Not that I even know what those would look like, since even my parents were little when correlation happened, but I'd really like for the LDS Church to become a place that's a little less rigid. A little more revelatory, if that makes sense? I feel like we get converts all excited with stories from the early days of the Restoration, and then they come to Church and it's just blah. Maybe that's why we have a hard time with retention. If there was more of a "big tent" mentality where people weren't afraid to deviate from the lesson manual, to sound off on contrary opinions, etc, I think it would help.

      4. I'm most definitely not confident in my knowledge of doctrine and history. What I AM confident in, however, is the visceral reaction I get when something is wrong or unjust. Everything I say about repentance/history/etc is my attempt to articulate why I think that feeling comes to me.

      5. As I see it, the OW standard for what constitutes a doctrinal clarification is not high at all. That's the ridiculous part of all this! In no uncertain terms--no passive aggressive language from the Church PR department, no vague and confusing "women DO have the priesthood!" addresses from Elder Oaks--tell us why priesthood authority is parceled out based on gender. For the past two conferences, men have stood at the pulpit and said "The Lord has directed that only men should administer priesthood authority." Where? I don't see that in the scriptures or anywhere else. Are the apostles receiving this as revelation? If so, let us know! How nice it would be to hear from someone "We took it to the Lord as a Quorum, and the Lord said no." Having that clarification would be SO appreciated (even though, obviously, that answer would disappoint). Church leaders could never give a cohesive, clear answer as to why blacks couldn't have the priesthood, and I see the same thing happening now with women. Without clear answers, we will always, always think this is simply cultural backwardsness 2.0. Given the precedent, I don't think that's an unfair assumption.

      I love what you say about the Church being a marriage. I absolutely think that's true. I heard a great quote from a friend today that said "Morality is not about being a good person, but rather a good group member." I'm very willing to give Church leaders the benefit of the doubt. Part of that simply aligns with my worldview that most people are virtuous. But I also believe in calling a spade a spade. It's a balancing act. Most of the time I can refrain from indignation and nit-picking (at least to the extent that I seem some people engage in it), but I also try to be careful to not to invalidate my own feelings. My obsessions (and consequent inability to leave the Church alone) boil over when the Church starts putting up its walls. I am knocking at the door! I am desperate to stay. I don't want to be shut out.

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    4. People get mad at the whole "living authentically" thing, or how progressives always default to "it's about agency", or whatever. I can see how those could be interpreted as selfish things. Some people use them as reasons to leave. Along the lines of how Kate Kelly feels, the Church is a part of me, and for me I don't think "living authentically" could ever exclude the Church. That's why I'm put on edge whenever I perceive a threat to that.

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  2. "Live so that you are constantly justified before the Heavens–that if your brethren condemn you, you are justified before the courts on high, and the sin is then upon them and not upon you. If I should require of this people, or of any portion of them, that which is unjust, and the people perform it with an eye single to the glory of God and the building up of his kingdom on the earth, the sin is on me and not on them, and no power can make it otherwise." - Brigham Young

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    1. Ha, interesting to see this quote from Brigham Young (but also good news? since I guess that means all who followed his blacks-and-the-priesthood views are vindicated?) Personally, I'm not comfortable with this mindset. My friend Craig said it best:

      "I hear a lot of people express the belief that as long as you are doing whatever the church leaders teach you'll be fine, even if they turn out to be wrong about something. I have no doubt that in the end they'll be fine in God's eyes — he's not a jerk, after all, and I think he's probably a lot less uptight than most people think — but "fine" implies that there's no moral culpability to following church leaders even when they are wrong, and on that point I disagree."

      So, in a sense, Brigham's right. You won't be held accountable. But I still don't think that makes it moral.

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  3. Got it. Craig said it best. Better than a prophet of God.

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    1. Just because a prophet of God says something doesn't mean it's doctrine. If that was the case, given Brigham Young's teachings, blacks wouldn't have the priesthood and we'd still have the "doctrines" of the Adam-God theory and blood Atonement. In the framework of the Plan of Salvation, I can hardly see the Lord condemning me--nor anyone else--of sin simply because we question mortal authority. Our ability to do that is the very reason the Plan exists at all.

      Also, in case you prefer the words of a prophet (and Brigham Young's in particular)....

      "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. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not."

      Discourses of Brigham Young, page 135

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