Judgment: a dilemma for individualistic Mormons?

For many years, I have been perplexed by the question of what I am required to do and believe as a latter-day saint.  Confronted by a long and often contradictory history of commandments and culture attitudes within the church, the process of sorting out commandments from suggestions was nearly impossible.  Finally, I settled on the belief that I am primarily accountable for acting upon only those precepts I have learned by my own experience to be important.  While I respect those ideas that I do not now agree with, I have faith that God will hold me accountable only for acting with the best of my ability upon those concepts I personally know to be correct.

I find this position the only consist one I can take with respect to believing church doctrine.  Moreover, I like placing myself as the central authority over my own life and beliefs, because I find that this heightens the significance of the commitments I make.  And, yet, people can and do point out that a position that allows one to place on hold some church teachings undermines one’s membership in the church.  Do I think there are any commandments that are binding on church members?  What does it mean to be a member of the church once one says one’s own authority has more importance in determining one’s life than, say, the prophet’s?

(These are difficult questions, and I’m not ready to give answers.  There are some basic commandments like the Word of Wisdom that I believe church members are accountable to try their best to keep (granted, for some, this might not be possible), because these commandments identify us to the world at large and it reflects poorly on the entire community when some members break them.  If we choose to be a member of a community, then we should try to respect its standards.  But, in general, I think that the purpose of commandments is to help bring out our best selves and that activities that prevent us from developing are those that we need to amend or repent of.)

I raise this observation, because I feel that many of the posts and comments on By Common Consent, particularly the excellent “You Make the Call” series, keep raising again and again the tension between feeling that we are the chief authorities in our own relationships to God and the obedience we owe to church authorities.  Because I think most of us on this blog share the belief that our relationship to God takes precedence over another authority’s views about our life, I occasionally sense in some comments and posts the feeling that when we are in positions of authority that we should not judge or interfere with the decisions our acquaintances make.  Is it possible for people who believe that the individual is at the center of their spiritual choices to also serve as judges?  What might such judgment look like?

I want to suggest that our reluctance to interfere with others stems not only from a belief in our individual freedom but also from the way in which perceive judgment.  When we speak of judging others, our language typically seems to imply legalistic standards, condemnation, and punishment.  But, what if judgment meant not condemning others, but discerning what people stand in need of in order to become their best selves?  Such a view of judgment is not punitive, nor does it co-opt individual authority and freedom to determine one’s idea of the good.  Instead, it aims to give people the resources they need.  We need to practice being discerning judges, resisting the impulse to impose our own ideas on others and developing the capacity to truly look at another.

When people are breaking commandments they respect, it may well be wrong to condemn them or layer them with guilt.  But their behavior does seem to suggest that they are struggling with questions in their own lives, trying to decide what rules they ought to follow and how to lead their lives.  Discerning their needs and providing them with resources might well be what they need.  In my opinion, to not intervene positively and to offer desired support in people’s lives because of our own fears of condemning others is a service to no one.  Allowing people to harm themselves, struggle with questions alone, or break commandments that reflect poorly on the entire community are not answers.  Neither is condemnation.  But, making a good faith effort to bring out the person our neighbor aspires to be might help.

Comments

  1. Antonio Parr says:

    Belief seems to be a secondary quality in modern Mormonism, which is marked by a theology of conduct as opposed to a theology of ideas. Rank and file Mormons appear to believe that life is meant to be lived a certain way, and judge orthodoxy by adherence to these lifestyle choices. “Ideers” appear to be of secondary consequence if you are othewise about the Lord’s business.

  2. Excellent questions, Natalie.

    Fwiw, my father always rephrased the common dilemma in this way “Never judge the person; you don’t know why they do what they do. Judge only what they do **as to whether or not you should do it**.” That makes judgment an inwardly reflective process, not an outwardly condemning practice.

    Also, I have tried to distinguish between these two actions as the difference between “judging” and “discerning” – since one implies my own suppositions and the other implies spiritual insight from beyond myself. I know that’s a fine line, but I try hard to walk it.

  3. Interesting post. There are obviously two doctrinal schools of thought: For to this end also did I write, that I might know the proof of you, whether ye be obedient in all things.… and… For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

    That being said, I still don’t find it to be too difficult a dilemma. There are the obvious commandments you just do: Tithing, WoW, chastity. And the ones you work out for yourself: wife working, accept a calling, go on a mission, listen to the Clinger sisters…

    I tread lightly, however, when entertaining the idea that I might know better than my leaders. With their callings came an access to a particular spiritual insight, and whether I choose to believe they’re really using it or not, I usually find it beneficial in the end when I follow it. I don’t believe picking and choosing what we like and what we don’t like is quite what the Lord had in mind when he said it’s not meet that we are commanded in all things.

    Recently, John Durham Peters, a communication theorist and a Mormon said:

    Some Mormon intellectuals have recreated a simple language— free speech and reason versus authority and the Church— when in fact I’d rather see that what the Church has is something wonderful. I mean, the Church gives an alternative to modernity and to modern liberalism and its empire, which is oozing everywhere, so why call for more of it?… It’s easy for an intellectual to call for more inquiry. But reason, like child care, reverence, music, service, or gardening is only one of many human goods. I sustain a prophet as someone who can say something that is difficult and upsetting and shakes you up a little. I mean, what’s the point of having a religion that doesn’t require really hard stuff?

    Now I agree the Church has taken 180-degree turns on some principles, softened on others, but overall we haven’t been taken down any paths that messed with our salvation. And even today, if I question counsel given to me, I still follow it and end up feeling it was the right step after all. On the same token, I also feel I’m given an expansive mobility to govern myself within those obedient confines.

    Anyway, a long way of saying I have no problem with the dichotomy. Sorry.

  4. I am wondering what you mean by your last paragraph. I think the issues raised, for example, in the “You Make The Call” series are interesting because they don’t really deal with cut and dried issues of “break[ing] commandments that reflect poorly on the entire community,” but with questions on the edge. To use a Word of Wisdom example, seeing a fellow Saint drink beer or whiskey is different from seeing that same person drink Coke. But a Coke drinker is just as likely to be chastised for violating the WoW as is a whiskey drinker.

    Take the last You Make the Call scenario. The issue of what a bishop should advise the couple only comes up because they asked him. From most of the comments, especially by those who have served as bishop, it seems clear that the answer is that the commenters are more reluctant to tell the couple seeking advice what to do than the scenario’s home teachers or relief society president were. And of all the people in the scenario, only one person is called as a “common judge in Israel.”

    I will talk to the bishop if there is a serious concern that I think he isn’t aware of, but otherwise I am extremely reluctant to confess somebody else’s sins. One time I did go to the bishop was when my wife and I became aware that a family in the ward was struggling financially more than they were willing to admit to anyone. The father told us that they weren’t going to be able to get much for their kids for Christmas. We bought each of the kids a small toy, and asked the bishop to give them anonymously to the family. When he did, the parents broke down and finally told the bishop how badly off things really were. Now the bishop knew, he immediately gave the family both a food order and a furniture order from the storehouse.

  5. Okay, I just reread Natalie’s post and realize I missed the entire point. Please disregard everything I said while I go slither back into my work.

  6. Josh Smith says:

    I recently read the first part of Terryl Givens’s book People of Paradox. He presents several aspects of Mormon theology as conflicting doctrines, including the conflict Natalie frames as the conflict between obedience to authority and individuality. If I remember right, Givens illustrates this conflict with “The Iron Rod” and the “Liahona.”

    After setting up several “paradoxes,” Givens attempts to show how LDS artists attempt to capture/interpret/resolve the conflicts in different art forms. I didn’t read the rest of the book.

    Has anyone here found an aspect of LDS art that helps them resolve the tug-and-pull between obedience and individuality?

  7. Josh Smith says:

    Really, this issue isn’t unique to Mormonism. Has anyone found any art, LDS or otherwise, that captures the conflict between obedience and individuality?

  8. Contrast Natalie’s conclusion with Bruce R. McConkie’s teachings. Elder McConkie often suggested that we needed to know and believe correct doctrine in order to be saved. This was an underlying assumption for many of his sermons. Consider, for example, his well-known speech where he listed “seven deadly heresies.” Supposedly, if a person believes the things on his list, it would jeopardize his/her salvation. He taught that we must know and believe the correct doctrine of the creation in order to be saved, suggesting that someone who accepted the theory of organic evolution could not attain the Celestial Kingdom, even if the person otherwise behaved in accordance with the general standards of the church.

    The standard suggested by Elder McConkie assumes that Church doctrine is clearly defined and readily accessible to anyone who wants to find it. I personally find Church doctrine to be much less rigid and less clearly defined. I very much agree with a different idea expressed by Blake Ostler here. Ostler suggests that it isn’t vitally important to get doctrine right–for instance, to be able to formulate the relations of the divine persons in the Godhead correctly. He writes, “If that were the standard, then only very articulate and very bright people could hope to be saved and exalted. I get the idea from the scriptures that it is more about a soft and loving heart than a correct idea in the head.”

  9. cj douglass says:

    Thanks for the post Natalie. These are ongoing questions for me and many I know. CE reminds me of an additional paradox when discussing these issues. The balance between obeying Apostles and Prophets while recognizing their infallibility. McConkie even said:

    Forget everything I have said, or what…Brigham Young…or whomsoever has said…that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.

    So what of those who knew the doctrine was wrong before ’78? Are they accountable for dis obedience to a false, but prophetically endorsed doctrine? And what if we conclude that other present doctrines are under the same catagory as the priesthood ban? (ie. women and the priesthoon, homosexuality)

    In general, I try to pay close attention to what is currently required of me in the scriptures and from the words of LIVING prophets. Even that and most other issues are for me to be guided by my own conscience and inspired guidance.

  10. “Allowing people to harm themselves, struggle with questions alone, or break commandments that reflect poorly on the entire community are not answers.”

    To what extent do the individual’s desires to be left alone matter?

  11. cj douglass (#9):

    One rule of thumb I have adopted is that if the GAs don’t even agree among themselves on an issue, then the Lord probably has not revealed his will very clearly on the matter.

    Hindsight reveals that not all GAs agreed on the basis for the priesthood ban. Leonard Arrington (former church historian) reported that in the 1950s, President McKay assigned a committee of apostles to study whether there was a scriptural basis for the priesthood ban. Their conclusion was that there was no scriptural basis, but that the church was probably not ready for a change. Hugh B. Brown seemed to believe that the ban was merely a policy that could be reversed by administrative decision. But other apostles continued to believe and teach that the ban was mandated by the scriptures, for about 20 years after that time.

    I think it is safe to conclude that there was no uniform opinion among the bretheren about why the ban was in place or whether it was even divinely appointed.

    Another case in point is evolution–varying public statements lead me to believe that there is no uniform opinion among the bretheren on the age of the earth or the manner of creation. You can throw GA anti-evolution statements at me all day, but I don’t accept them as authoritative because they don’t represent a consensus opinion.

    Unfortunately, details on the differences of opinions among the bretheren are scarce, and sometimes only come out years later. In more recent generations, the bretheren have shown a more united front. It is very difficult to know whether there are GAs with varying opinions on the difficult issues of our day, because they are even less likely to go public with their differences (nothing like the days when Brigham Young and Orson Pratt battled it out in church publications).

    (For details on what little Arrington knew about the apostolic committee that studies the priesthood ban, see his book “Adventures of a Church Historian.”)

  12. A commentor on a different blog once stated his opinion that varying viewpoints among GAs is a strength, not a weakness. Members are different: some need to hear messages of the Lord’s love and forgiveness, some need intellectual gospel exposition, and some need a firm kick in the pants.

    But the church doesn’t segregate audiences, so the same words fall on all ears. Like Natalie suggests in her post, we have to sort through it all and decide what we need to work on next. It requires a lot of honest self-assessment, personal accountability, and personal inspiration.

  13. Perhaps I’m misreading this, but for me, there is a distinct difference regarding our judgement of others when a stewardship is involved and when there isn’t.

    But, what if judgment meant not condemning others, but discerning what people stand in need of in order to become their best selves?

    Stewardships may require us to make such judgements. Where there is no stewardship, it seems a little presumptious to assume that I know better than someone else what they need.

  14. cj douglass says:

    Well said CE. Hearing of disagreement among the 12 actually increases my faith that a living church of God exists. Like you, I wish this reality was more available to us.

  15. my2cents,

    Here’s my take on the part of the post you quoted:

    But, what if judgment meant not condemning others, but discerning what people stand in need of in order to become their best selves? Such a view of judgment is not punitive, nor does it co-opt individual authority and freedom to determine one’s idea of the good. Instead, it aims to give people the resources they need.

    I really think this is the crux of the gospel, learning to see others as our Father in Heaven wants us to see them, and church calling or not, each one of us is a steward for our brothers and sisters in the gospel. Praying to be sensitive to the needs of others is not just the prerogative of the bishop or the RS president, but a charge to all of us in hoping to become like Christ.

  16. kevinf:

    I agree wholeheartedly. But, I also think there is a very fine line there. As Steve alluded to in #10, it is possible that our well intentioned comments or attempts to help others are not welcomed and may actually do more harm than good.

    In addition, I believe that motives are critical to all of this- are our desires purely out of love to help another, or are our acts of service more to build ourselves up?

    And I think other recent posts here are related to this theme. Do we speak up in church meetings or other settings, or do we “bite our tongue,” even though our comment might have been welcomed and could have helped others in the class? Whether we are the bishop, the home teacher, the visiting teacher, or otherwise, do we try to impose our beliefs on the newly converted couple, or do we allow them the freedom to work out their own salvation?

    Also, I believe we are given stewardships. When I say “stewardships” I don’t mean just church callings; in fact, in my mind, our family is our most important stewardship. In my opinion, in a “perfect world,” our needs would be meet through stewardships. Since we don’t live in a perfect world, we are accountable not just for our stewardships but also for others that we are able to help.

  17. 2cents,

    I would agree about the fine line. If there is someone that needs my help, I should be ready to do whatever I can. I should be very reluctant, though, to offer advice, rather than offer service.

  18. I have faith that God will hold me accountable only for acting with the best of my ability upon those concepts I personally know to be correct.

    I agree but would add that I believe that God also expects us to study and pray for personal understanding and confirmation of concepts that are taught by the living prophet to be correct.

    There are some basic commandments like the Word of Wisdom that I believe church members are accountable to try their best to keep (granted, for some, this might not be possible), because these commandments identify us to the world at large and it reflects poorly on the entire community when some members break them.

    I believe that God gives us commandments because He loves us and wants to bless us, but He cannot unless we observe the law upon which that blessing is based. I don’t think that the ultimate purpose of the Word of Wisdom is to turn us into some kind of living LDS billboards; it is designed to keep the living temples of our spirits in their best possible condition and to keep us free from unnecessary disease and addictions that hamper our ability to respond to the Spirit. We are promised that adherence to the WOW brings the blessings of health, strength, the ability to develop wisdom and find great treasures of knowledge-even hidden ones-to have energy and vitality…and to be divinely protected from the destroying angel.

    Is it possible for people who believe that the individual is at the center of their spiritual choices to also serve as judges?

    Sure it is. But there is a difference between people who set themselves up to be judges and those that are actually given that particular stewardship.

    But, what if judgment meant not condemning others, but discerning what people stand in need of in order to become their best selves?

    Again, if we have not been given a position of stewardship over specific others, we have no right to “discern” what those others are in need of. We have no authority to intervene in the lives of our “neighbors” without being called to do so by God, or asked to do so by the individuals themselves.

    Allowing people to harm themselves, struggle with questions alone, or break commandments that reflect poorly on the entire community are not answers.

    While I would agree that all of the above are painful to watch someone you care about go through, even God honors the law of agency and allows His children to do what they choose to do. I find comfort in knowing that God knows them better than I do, and has mercifully promised not to allow any trial to come to them that they cannot overcome.

    I also remind myself that many times in my life I have needed to be alone and broken before I turned to God willingly. And in those moments where only He and I are present-I have learned truths and grown spiritually in ways I know I would not have if anyone else had been involved.

  19. To CE-regarding post #11

    Hugh B. Brown seemed to believe that the ban was merely a policy that could be reversed by administrative decision.

    Indeed, he attempted to do just that without the authorization of the prophet(President McKay was absent due to health)while Harold B. Lee was away on Church business. When Lee returned, he called for a re-vote and the policy was re-established. When Joseph F. Smith became the prophet after McKay’s death, Brown was not called to serve as one of his counselors-the first time since the turn of the century that a surviving counselor was not called to the new presidency by the new prophet. It has only happened one other time since, when Marion G. Romney was too ill to be set apart as a counselor under Ezra Taft Benson.

  20. Good for Lee to keep that ban in place!

  21. kevinf (#17),

    I think your perspective is the better one–it is better to offer service than advice. Is a mother with a newborn having trouble making it to church with the challenges the newborn presents? Offer to pick her up, or to help with the other children. Don’t chew her out for choosing to stay home instead (as happened recently in our ward).

  22. Re:4

    “…To use a Word of Wisdom example, seeing a fellow Saint drink beer or whiskey is different from seeing that same person drink Coke. But a Coke drinker is just as likely to be chastised for violating the WoW as is a whiskey drinker.”

    You’re joking, right? That a member would be chastised for drinking a Coke? Please tell me what ward you are in so I make sure to never move there..

  23. Tony,

    You got me. There has never been any controversy whether drinking caffeinated soft drinks is prohibited by the Word of Wisdom.

  24. Very funny, CS Eric. I’m aware of the controversy even as a newbie member but I didn’t think there were ever instances where someone was actually “chastised” for drinking a Coke.

  25. “Allowing people to harm themselves, struggle with questions alone, or break commandments that reflect poorly on the entire community are not answers.”

    To what extent do the individual’s desires to be left alone matter?

    Stewardship comes into play. For the most part, generally, we should be more concerned about our standing before God above spending time evaluating our neighbor’s standing.

    The Church helps us with the paradox of being our brother’s keeper and not judging others in part through the concepts of stewardship and personal accountability.

  26. xoxoxoxo: I enjoyed your comments and hope that you will continue to post here….

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