Unrighteous dominion is a topic frequently invoked when Priesthood leaders are accused of doing things that we might not like . However, because of the severity of that judgment (i.e. ‘Amen to the Priesthood of that man’) I wonder whether it is used too liberally; yet the text itself calls for that broad interpretation. In a recent conversation someone pointed out that this potential loss of Priesthood authority, which could result from accepting a position of authority/responsibility, is surely something which should concern those so called; for ‘almost all men’ will begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. The attempt here is to provide some fresh thoughts on an already (potentially) saturated issue as it relates to the lived experience of these principles.
D&C 121 warns against attempting to exercise control, dominion or compulsion upon the souls of men, in any degree of unrighteousness (see v. 37). Rather JS letter calls leaders to use persuasion and long-suffering in order to have an everlasting dominion which avoids compulsion (see v. 41-44, 46) . Of particular interest here is the dynamics of dominion. The distinction between unrighteous and righteous dominion which these verses establish is one of method. That there must be a leader is assumed in Joseph’s ecclesiology and from within this framework the relationship between leader and led constitutes the forms of dominion that empower the priesthood that a person holds .
One potential form of unrighteous dominion is associated with the channels of revelation and the cultural expectations concerning the limits of Priesthood authority. Unrighteous dominion can persist, in part, because of inaccurate and/or unhealthy expectations that are placed upon certain groups of leaders to which they (the leaders) might feel obligated to respond (or live up to). It can be difficult trying to serve someone who has a very different revelatory paradigm from you. In addition, in our current ecclesiastical structure there is potential for leaders to inappropriately extend the province of their appointed revelatory sphere. Evidently the lack of clear boundaries for that sphere is problematic. For example, a member of the Stake Presidency who tells a suspicious spouse that God has revealed to them their partner is faithful is exercising unrighteous dominion. Few leaders(?) go to such extremes and yet if it is the nature and disposition of almost all people to exercise unrighteous dominion then there must be other ways in which this is manifest.
I suspect that this problem of receiving revelation on behalf of others is a major area in which unrighteous dominion occurs but it is actualised in a variety of other (perhaps more subtle) practices. Is it possible that fallaciously representing an expressed viewpoint or decision as the will of God is a form of unrighteous dominion? What if this mis-representation was unintended? Extending callings is a difficult business in light of these questions. In addition, if a Relief Society president has revelation that a particular person should be called I think that the Bishop should be very careful in contradicting her; especially because he can, in effect, veto any suggestion. Moreover if he does believe that the calling should not go ahead and he asserts his revelation over hers is this a form of unrighteous dominion. In addition, what if the Bishop makes a decision regarding a calling that he ‘feels good’ about but cannot claim that it is a ‘revelation’ nor can he claim that it is ‘the right thing for that person at this time’. Is it unrighteous dominion to suggest that it is more than a ‘good feeling’ based on his best understanding? What if the person is less-likely to accept the position if it is not framed within the usual ‘God wants you to serve as…’ discursive repertoire, would it be unrighteous dominion to use that discourse inaccurately?
These questions are intended to sensitise us to the revelatory process in order that we might approach these issues with greater care. I am not sure I have good answers one way or the other, though my biases are probably evident. Thus it seems that being a leader who exercises righteous dominion takes a degree of courage (cf. Douglas Davies); a courage that can accept revelation which contradicts his own sense of what is right, a courage that can tolerate the rejection of her own best advice, a courage to consistently refuse to offer judgement to those who should be more carefully judging themselves and a courage to refuse to promise blessings to those who should be turning to the Lord .
To return to D&C 121, in my mind, one of the key words in this passage is ‘begin’. ‘Almost all men… will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion’ and yet there is no specification upon how many will continue to do so. Therefore becoming a leader of any kind is like leaving the Garden, an inevitable fall into sin, from which we must repent and turn again to righteous forms of dominion which multiply, replenish and cause to be fruitful . I believe we are therefore called to accept the challenge to courageously exercise righteous dominion.
- Lavinia Fielding Andersen, The Ambiguous Gift of Obedience in The Wilderness of Faith.
- I follow Kathleen Flake’s reading of this text, which applies it to men and women. Although, of necessity, it applies more readily to men because they are more often in positions which would have the result being discussed.
- Of course it is possible to challenge Joseph’s ecclesiology but this is not the question I want to raise here. In addition it is noteworthy that this text works in line with Latour’s critique of power.
- In raising this question of courage I wonder whether those who accept such responsibilities are fully cognisant of this challenge to be courageous; my experience suggests that I have been all too ignorant prior to my service and have subsequently made mistakes which have needed my rectification.
- I have wondered whether the KJV’s vision of Adam’s dominion was in Joseph’s mind as he considered and articulated these ideas.