I have realized from time to time over the past three years that my views on ecclesiastical authority differ greatly from the views that many of you hold. This is a cause for some concern, because I have a lot of respect for many of you who participate here. This blog post is an attempt to sort out my thoughts and to allow those of you who think I’m off my rocker to say so.
In tenth grade Civics class, we studied the U.S. constitution. We learned about the doctrine of separation of powers, and that the document which forms the basis of our law is meant to define the limits of what civil authorities can or ought to do. It is essentially a device for blocking a government that is seeking to overreach(“Congress shall make no law…”), and it both limits and enumerates the powers that the people can grant to those who govern them. By setting powerful interests at cross-purposes with one another, and by placing boundaries on the extent to which government may intrude into the lives of citizens, the people who wrote the constitution expressed a fundamentally negative view of civil authority. They didn’t trust it, and they thought it bore constant and careful monitoring.
I suppose I could blame it all on my tenth grade Civics teacher - much of what Mr. Peterson taught me about civil authority has colored my attitude towards authority in general, including church authority. Is that attitude justified? A quick glance at the evidence would say that it is not. I belong to and believe in a religion that claims God cares about what I eat, drink, wear, and think, not to mention how I spend my Monday evenings. And if we consider the idea of consecration, there does not appear to be much room for the setting of limits on the church’s authority over my life.
And yet, the limits are real, and they are in place. If the bishop asked our family to read the scriptures for thirty minutes a day, we would very probably do it. If he asked us to read Leviticus 4:18 over and over for thirty minutes a day, I would laugh in his face. And if he told me that he was inspired to make that request, I would laugh even harder. Here is a short list of the things I have seen bishops require of their wards over the years:
1. Only white bread, with crusts removed, may be used for the sacrament.
2. Only homemade wheat bread made with honey (no refined sugar!) may be used for the sacrament.
3. The American flag must be placed directly behind the speaker, not off to the side.
4. The chapel doors are closed when the meeting begins, and those who arrive late are not admitted. They may sit out in the foyer or hall, but the deacons are not allowed to pass the sacrament to them.
Each of those practices lasted only a few weeks. Why? Because ward members realized that the bishop was overstepping his bounds and told him so. Each of those bishops was an outstanding person, worthy, called of God, and doing his very best. I continue to admire each of them and consider them to be my friends. But I do not consider every decision they made to be inspired.
When we take into account the warnings in D&C 121, I feel safe in concluding that my suspicion of ecclesiastical overreaching has some justification, but if you disagree, please say so in the comments.
Bonus question: What is a mantle? When a leader acts in a manner we don’t immediately understand, we often attribute his actions to this mysterious object. I’ve been unable to locate a definition, but I gather from the way I’ve seen the word employed that a mantle is meant to describe the rights to inspiration associated with a calling. We appear to reserve it for high callings, like bishop and above. Has anybody ever heard anyone talk about the mantle of the visiting teaching supervisor, or the mantle of a scoutmaster? If anybody needs inspiration, it is a man who goes off into the woods with twelve year old boys for a week at a time.