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.