Top 3 Scriptural Justifications for Cultural Lag!

J. Stapley’s recent post talks about how we as a people tend to sanctify any and all procedural decisions made by the institutional Church. As a result, he says “we can become burdened by the worst of our past culture.” Call it the “Sacred Status Quo” rule, described by someone on the Bloggernacle as follows:

“If there’s one thing Mormons excel at, it’s enshrining the status quo and assuming that if we do anything, there must be a good reason for it, and if there’s a good reason, it must have been revealed as the only way to do it, and if so, then it must have always been that way in all dispensations.”

We’re supposed to “be one,” and “love one another,” and avoid “contention,” and “build up Zion.” We’re supposed to defer to our inspired leaders who’ve been given stewardship over their flocks, and who sacrifice an immense amount of time to serving us. Obedience keeps things running smoothly, and it’s the least we can do. At the same time, expectations for obedience aren’t always realistic. We Mormons are great at backing such things up using scriptures. This post provides the top three scriptural justifications for culturelag, i.e., the continued presence of unnecessary or outdated policies and procedures. I describe the stories, list some of the rhetorical purposes they’re used for, and describe a few problems resulting from such usage. Especially in cases where Church norms have no reasonable justification, it usually boils down the simple concept of obedience.

1. The Adam “after many days” Justification (Moses 5):

The Story: The Lord commands Adam to offer the firstlings of his flocks in sacrifice apparently without telling him why. “And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me” (Moses 5:6). The angel tells Adam the offerings are in similitude of a future Messiah, Adam and Eve are blessed.

Rhetorical Purposes: Teach that some commandments which seem unjustified, unnecessary, even random, actually result in hidden blessings. To point out that some commandments aren’t ends in themselves, but are actually object lessons for a wider purpose. To imply that is perhaps more virtuous to obey without knowing the reason for a particular commandment than if a reason were given. 

Problems: The verses never explain why many days passed before Adam gets clued in. A legitimate reason is eventually given for the sacrifices, in that they represent the most important gospel principle ever. With many church policies, the mystery comes at the end, not the beginning, contrary to what we see in the Moses account. For instance, we know why a beard ban was originally in place, but the changing culture has not resulted in a changing policy. The reason is now mysterious.

2. The Naaman “some great thing” Justification (2 Kings 5):

The Story: Naaman, captain of the Syrian hosts, is struck with leprosy. The prophet Elisha instructs him to bathe seven times in the river. Naaman “went away in a rage” until a servant asks: “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:13).

Rhetorical Purposes: Some commandments aren’t a big deal at all. Complaining about them is childish. Small and simple things can result in wonderful blessings. Obedience shows humility.

Problems: Assumes that any and all commandments are equal to Elisha’s command. Trivializes the personal feelings of the person being asked to comply. Can be used to justify any number of demands which don’t seem like a big deal to the demander, but which may be a very big deal to the demandee.

3. The “Abrahamic Test” Justification (Genesis 22):

The Story: The Lord asks Abraham to do the unthinkable: to kill his only son. As we typically read the story, Abraham is deeply sorrowful but deeply eager to obey God. At the last moment an angel appears to stop him. A ram is provided and all go home safe and sound. (Although you’d think Isaac would be a little freaked out after this.) The “Akedah,” or binding of Isaac has been interpreted in many ways by many cultures. Mormons use it in various ways, one of which being to teach the principle of obedience in the face of what seems like a crazy command.

Rhetorical Purposes: Prove loyalty. Trivialize the present command (it’s not like I’m asking you to kill your son here). Justify what appears to be irrational commands. Give the sense that the more you want to resist a particular command the more crucial it is that you obey it.

Problems: Can be used to justify practically anything. Abraham doesn’t actually have to kill his son. Don’t we have enough hardships to deal with in our lives without having to manufacture additional little loyalty tests for each other?

***

BONUS: Uzzah Steadies the Ark (2 Samuel 6):

The Story: David and his crew load up the Ark on a new cart. While in transit the oxen manage to give it a good shake. Uzzah reaches out and steadies it to prevent it from falling onto the threshing floor, violating 1 Chr 15:2 where only the Levites are allowed to touch the Ark. Uzzah is struck dead.

Rhetorical Purposes: Teach that God is very serious about some commandments. Even your good intentions don’t justify a violation of these commands.

Problems: This example is trotted out at times when a suggestion is made that the Church could do something differently. The implication is that anything the Church does originates with God, and if we want to change it, even with good intentions, God won’t look kindly on it. But many of our practices have cultural or unclear origins and might not be the will of God.  For those who want to preserve the status-quo, this story allows them to sidestep the good intentions and logic of anyone asking for a change without even considering if the practice in question is in fact of God. It is a great discussion ender.

(Note the first three stories involve positive commands whereas the bonus example, supplied by John in the comments below, represents a negative command.)

Sure, there are some great runner-up scriptures like Isaiah 55:8 or D&C 1:38. But the power in these three examples is that the rhetorical points are couched in stories rather than being simple declarations. I’m not contending that homiletic usage of these passages is always invalid, or that it always results in these particular problems. I think each of these stories can be useful to stress the importance of obedience and faithfulness, to remind us that the willingness to suspend judgment can in fact be virtuous, as blessings are not always immediately evident. On the other hand–and here’s the real problem–they can also be used to coerce people into doing things they don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to do. They can be used, in other words, to practice unrighteous dominion, a possibility about which we’ve received explicit warning (D&C 121:39).

Now I ask you, BCC readers: What scriptural stories might be employed to offset these particular usages? 

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent stuff, BHodges.

  2. Thx. I added one thing to the end. A request for scriptural stories to offset these ones.

  3. Yes. I agree that those are the top three. Can we reclaim those stories by drawing out different lessons from them? It’s an uphill battle.

  4. I’m familiar with all three stories — they can help us appreciate important principles. Thanks! But I cannot imagine any coercion in any of them. Adam had a choice whether to offer sacrifice as instructed, or not. Naaman had a choice whether to dip in the river as counseled, or not. Abraham had a choice whether to offer the sacrifice as commanded, or not. All three chose to obey.

    Whenever one receives counsel from a friend and neighbor who is temporarily serving in a church calling, he or she needs to accept that counsel as a gift or invitation — and he or she can accept it, or not, as he or she decides. Then, his or her decision and the consequences of that decision, if any, are fully his or hers to bear.

    We might use Martin Harris as en example. We can imagine that the Prophet Joseph Smith asked him to help pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon — and Bro. Harris mortgaged a part of his farm for this purpose. But the Church didn’t sell many books and Martin didn’t get re-paid, and the mortgage came due. The Lord Himself told Bro. Harris to pay the debt that he (Bro. Harris) had contracted. He could not put the blame for the mortgage on the Church, on the Prophet, or on the Lord, even though all three combined to encourage him in the first place. There is a correct principle here.

    I have felt cultural lag in the Church. I have never felt coercion “into doing things [I] don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to do” — but part of that might be because I made conscious choices to follow counsel, or not, and then I took responsibility for my choices. Every Latter-day Saint has the privilege and the duty to make those conscious choices when someone else offers them the gift of counsel. This is my feeling; others may feel differently.

  5. ji: I have never felt coercion “into doing things [I] don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to do”

    I’m claiming that these scriptures can be used to coerce, not that they necessarily will be. Perhaps more often they foster an uncritical attitude, in that a person might outsource their God-given agency to their leaders without employing their mind or heart to whatever they are requested to think or do. It seems to me your reply is a good example of the way these scriptures can be used to coerce in a passive-aggressive manner, as you describe: “Oh, the choice is all yours, of course.” In this way, these verses can be used by leaders to alleviate any cognitive dissonance they might feel when they are asking other people to do particular things they themselves don’t have a good reason for. (Again, the beard restriction is a good example of this.) Your solution seems to be that if you feel you’re being coerced you are almost certainly wrong, and you should simply act as though you aren’t being coerced. I’m not persuaded by that.

  6. Can you start us off with an example of a counter-story? I was going to suggest the brother of Jared suggesting the glowing stones, because there is a broad divine goal, but a mortal is credited for crafting a personal solution to meet the divine goal. Someone else’s approach might have been different, and Mormonism praises inspired initiative. But I’m not sure this is what you’re looking for. Help!

  7. It’s not a story at all, but simply “A man should not run faster than he has strength” can tend to assuage at least a small amount of Mormon guiltand ccoercion.

  8. I think these are great, but ark steadying should be story number one.

    A man is struck dead for trying to do what his instincts tell him is right in a split second decision. This story can be used to justify any practice the justifier wants.

  9. Peter LLC says:

    “What scriptural stories might be employed to offset these particular usages?”

    In some cases, pointing out important details of the stories themselves ought to suffice. For example, I would note that the Lord delivered the bad news to Abraham directly and only used an intermediary to deliver the good. It just won’t do to have bishops, ward clerks, EQ councilors, etc. try and usurp the Lord’s role, even if they think they are acting appropriately.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Oooh, the ark steadying one is a good addition to the list.

  11. Counter-story: Maybe when Jesus praises the Gentile woman for pressing him about the dogs eating the fallen crumbs…?

  12. Peter LLC: that’s when they would pull the D&C 1:38 clause on you. “Whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants…”

    The ark-steadying is a really good one. I think it didn’t cross my mind because I was thinking of examples that are used to justify requirements that either seem to lack good reason, or even seem contrary to reason. I suppose the ark story is an example of that, although it involves a “thou shalt not” command rather than a “thou shalt” command, it is about getting people to *not* do something, rather than to do something. And then of course it ups the ante by actually maiming the person who acted contrary to the rules. John, type up your example in the format I used, paste it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. But it does break up my holy trinity.

  13. Swisster, keep ‘em coming, yo.

  14. The Other Clark says:

    Offset Stories:
    Eve in the Garden: (Gen:3) The command was not to partake of the fruit, but Eve disobeyed, thoughtfully convinced Adam to disobey, and great blessings resulted from this choice. LESSON: Sometimes it’s necessary to disobey to fulfill a higher purpose.

    Nephi and the Plates: Despite the directives “thou shall not kill” and “thou shalt not bear false witness,” the Spirit directs Nephi to whack off Laban’s head, and lie to Zoram to get the plates. LESSON: There’s an exception to every rule.
    (See also “Hosea and the Prostitute” and perhaps Judah’s daughter in law.)

  15. Great post! Obedience is an important virtue to the functioning of any organization or society. But it’s a virtue that is mostly a means to an end, and it that can result in either good or bad (as the post implies). So, in my mind, scriptural stories that are perfect “foils” to the obedience stories provided in this post are going to be hard to find. Here’s one that offers a unique perspective on commanding people to obey:

    Samuel the Lamanite preaching on the city wall (Helaman 14): When Samuel dramatically tells the people to repent and obey, he also tells them of many, many signs that will confirm what he was teaching was true (a new star, two days of light, three days of darkness, etc.). In other words, he implicitly does not ask the people to blindly obey. He offers hopeful proof to back up his command to obey. (Bonus: Samuel also emphasizes that the people are “free” and “permitted to act” for themselves. He tells them that “God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.” Gospel knowledge frees the individual to act for themselves; it’s not always about obedience tests or loyalty tests.)

    Church History example: As John Turner points out, Brigham Young describes his conversion to the Book of Mormon as having occurred through the patient exercise of reason and deliberation. He took his time. Brigham also seems to have dismissed the early claim of one convert who tried to whip up emotional support for accepting the Book of Mormon. Brigham’s personalized approach to conversion seems to have been effective.

  16. Eve — of course! How about the Good Samaritan. The priest and Levite were observing the law with Naaman-Abraham-Adam-like precision, but the hero is the person who uses charitable judgment.

  17. Nephi’s broken bow as an offset story? Nephi eventually asked his spiritual superior (Lehi) for guidance, but only after he creatively addressed the problem by making a wooden bow. Like the brother of Jared, he moved toward fulfilling the broad divine goal in his own way.

  18. One major scriptural example to offset these ideas was cited by Julie: Zelophehad’s daughters, going to Moses and explaining that a particular policy was unfair and damaging (related to property inheritance). Moses takes it to God and God says it’s a just cause and to grant their request. Other people had issues with granting them property inheritance, so the daughters compromised and married within the tribe. They also had to remind the next leader (Joshua) about their deal. So: God condones people (including women) raising concerns, requesting a resolution, listening to other points of view (and compromising) to correcting a situation. Caveat: this was a legal question, not exactly an ecclesiastical one, but back then, they were pretty intertwined…so…still valid?…

    That’s really the only example I can think of. There are general themes of God condoning seekers, questioners…one of my favorite examples is Moses: “I will not cease to call upon God, I have other things to inquire of him”

  19. The Other Clark says:

    I really liked Julies explanation of how Zelophad’s daughters can be used as a model to affect change and rebut ideas of blind obedience:

    Here are three more examples:
    1. David fleeing Saul. LESSON: David respected the authority, even though he knew Saul was way off base.
    2. Nephi’s vision (1 Ne. 11:1) Nephi receives a confirmation of his fathers vision. LESSON: If our spiritual leaders give us instruction, we can obtain our own confirmation that this instruction came from the Lord. Otherwise we’re under no obligation to follow it.
    3. Mountain Meadows: LESSON: Some decisions, even those made by leaders, are so misguided that they should be forcefully shut down.

    Church history is actually full of great examples, but the OP asks for scriptural examples, so I’ll stop

  20. I don’t have a ton of time to type us a summary at the moment. I should note that if you google Ark Steadying BCC is the top hit, with a thoughtful take by SteveP. Note that he gets the reference wrong. He lists it as Samuel, but is it 2 Samuel:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2008/06/21/steadying-the-ark/

    Here’s my quick take:

    Uzzah Steadies the Ark (2 Samuel 6)

    The Story: David and his crew load up the Ark on a new cart and while in transit the oxen manage to give it a good shake. Uzzah reaches out and steadies it to prevent it from falling onto the threshing floor. This is a violation of 1 Chr 15:2 where only the Levites are allowed to touch the Ark. So Uzzah is struck dead.

    Rhetorical Purposes: Teach that God is very serious about some commandments. Even your good intentions don’t justify a violation of these commands.

    Problems: This example is trotted out anytime a suggestion is made that the Church could do something differently. The implication is that anything the Church does originates with God, and if want to change it, even with good intentions, God won’t look kindly on it. This is problematic because many of of practices have cultural or unclear origins and might not be the will of God. But for those that want to preserve the status-quo this story allows them to sidestep the good intentions and logic of anyone asking for a change without considering if the practice in question is in fact of God. It is a great discussion ender.

  21. I’ve typed it up, but it is in the mod queue.

  22. observer fka eric s says:

    Some other couplets: “Line up line” (used to justify slow progress of knowledge/understanding/receipt of blessings/change of policy/adaption of circumstances, etc.); “His ways are not our ways” (used to massage over hard times people experience by attributing the hard times to God’s will; also used to dismiss circumstance where person is asked a tough question for which there is no satisfactory answer).

  23. >What scriptural stories might be employed to offset these particular usages?

    Virtually anything said by Jesus of Nazareth when he railed against the wickedness of the Pharisees.

  24. observer fka eric s says:

    Zion’s Camp = Classic, modern example of an Abrahamic Test of loyalty and committment in the face of abject failure.

  25. Abraham had a choice whether to offer the sacrifice as commanded, or not. True but Abraham had an even bigger realization opportunity than that. All religious ritual is symbolic so Abraham might have inquired of God what the symbolism meant and the reason for being commanded to sacrifice his son. This would be his graduation from blind obedience and on to bigger gospel lessons.

  26. My offset stories are almost all found in the New Testament, usually when Christ was in conflict with the Pharisees for not staying within their carefully groomed hedges. The disciples eating corn from a field on the sabbath, for instance, resulted in “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” There are more, which I’ll leave for other commenters to glean.

    I also think that one of the reasons Christ taught in parables was so that his messages would be preserved in scripture with more of their purity intact from the future working-over they would get from pharisaical types in various church leadership. Partly because of this, I make a distinction between obedience to the Lord and obedience to a church cultural norm. The scriptures have been filtered by their fallible authors and translators for their entire existence, but the Lord said and did things in a way that his actions carried his message, as much or more than his words. I wish we would steep ourselves in them more than we do; it would be good for our culture.

  27. John Harrison says:

    Mike,

    Whenever the Abraham and Isaac story is discussed I’ve made a point of saying that if you ever have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else that these thoughts are not of God, the Abraham story notwithstanding, and you need to get help immediately.

    People look at me like I’m crazy, but I think the story is pretty crazy and really deserves the disclaimer.

  28. “I have felt cultural lag in the Church. I have never felt coercion “into doing things [I] don’t want (and shouldn’t have) to do” — but part of that might be because I made conscious choices to follow counsel, or not, and then I took responsibility for my choices.”
    Saying this in response to a post that discusses, among other things, the Abrahamic sacrifice strikes me as bizarre. Really bizarre. I’m guessing that Abraham felt coerced to do something he didn’t want to do. Admittedly, there weren’t angels manipulating his limbs, forcing him to drive a knife toward his bound son, but that strikes me as the act of someone who feels he has no other choice. So I’d say, at least, psychological coercion. So while I’m glad, truly, that you’ve never felt compelled by anyone to sacrifice your child, going from that to “I’ve just decided to always follow counsel” is a weird leap to make. I suppose Paul would be pleased with your decision, but it is the sort of thing that makes me hope you never baby-sit our kids.

  29. This is a specific example, but what about Sabbath being made for man, not man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27). There is a bigger principle at work here. In the application of commandments, we tend to extend our own historical interpretation of these commandments on other people, hence making an enormous feast or waking up to attend a meeting at 7:00 am is “rest,” but going for a jog is against the “spirit of the law.”

  30. Ronan beat me to it. Jesus himself is an antidote to these stories.

  31. What about the Sabbath being made for man, not man for the Sabbath? (Mark 2:27). There is a bigger principle at work here. I know in my family at least, getting up to attend meetings at 7:00 am or making a feast for 12 is considered “rest,” while jogging or playing at a friend’s house is work. You can use this story to say that what’s important in a commandment is the principle, not how your family or even your neighborhood has traditionally interpreted the “how-to”

  32. I gotta be anon here says:

    19 — is that Meldrum? That story sounds like it has Meldrum’s fingerprints all over it.

  33. J. Stapley says:

    #31, it actually is, and consequently is going to be modded.

  34. Great stuff BHodges.

  35. as long as there is moderation going on, anyone care to fish my comment out of the filter?

  36. J. Stapley says:

    Done.

  37. Abraham bargaining with The Lord in Genesis 18. Upon finding that Sodom will soon be destroyed because of the wickedness of its inhabitants, Abraham talks The Lord (the angels of The Lord? Not quite clear) into sparing the citiy if even 10 righteous people are found. Of course there aren’t 10 righteous, and the city gets destroyed anyway, but The Lord quite readily agrees to Abraham’s terms, even several times in succession as Abraham changes them.

    That this occurred before Isaac was even born, makes the whole “sacrifice your son” story problematic for me. He knows from past experience that he can successfully bargain with The Lord, yet when asked to kill his own son(!) he just gathers up his obedience and heads out to complete the deed. Has he forgotten the benevolence of God? Is there any indication that he even discussed this with Sarah? I find the whole story appalling, almost certainly false, and I *never* use it to justify obedience when that obedience runs counter to conscience.

  38. I apologize for the tangent, but OldJen, with two stories that you find contradictory, how do you decide which of the two is “almost certainly false”? Why not say the bargaining story is false and the sacrifice story is true?

  39. You’re looking for stories form the scripture when someone disobeyed his or her culture in favor of obeying God? Joseph displeased his father when he told him about his dreams. Ahimelech the priest gave bread to David and his friends at Nob. Jacob took Esau’s birthright. Abraham sent Hagar into the wilderness.

    John C (no 27) — I don’t want to babysit your kids. It is unkind and uncharitable of you to try to brand me as some sort of threat to them.

    BHodges (no 5) — My key point is that it takes two parties for a coercion to occur — one to do the coercing and the second to be coerced. If the second party doesn’t allow it, then no coercion can occur. As sons and daughters of God, and as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we should not be coercing and we should not be allowing others to coerce us. In this discussion, I’m thinking of competent parties (I think a legal definition would cover those who are not in their minority, not insane, not under the influence, and not under duress).

    I have received counsel that I chose to follow. And I have received counsel that I chose not to follow. I would hope that every Latter-day Saint can be in a position to recognize that there is always a choice. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, every member always has that choice. If any coercion does occur, and the second party doesn’t feel empowered to stop it, well, that’s far more likely a matter of culture manifesting itself in a church setting. Does it happen? Yes. Should it happen? No.

    Something we need to teach in the church, perhaps, to avoid these difficulties is to clearly teach our members that any counsel from a church leader is always given as a gift, and that the members always have the choice of accepting the gift, or not. Sometimes we get gifts that we need and immediately put to use. Sometimes we get gifts that we put in the closet. Sometimes we get gifts that we ignore. Choosing what to do with the gifts we get is an important part of our Christian (and Mormon) discipleship. We cannot allow these well-inetntioned gifts to turn into commands, because then we give up our own agency to others. That’s I wrote, “Every Latter-day Saint has the privilege and the duty to make those conscious choices when someone else offers them the gift of counsel.” Indeed, I tend to think that a Latter-day Saint errs when he or she abandons his or her duty to make that choice.

    Anyone who obeys counsel in a church setting should do so because he or she has affirmatively decided that the counsel is good or that they trust the giver of the counsel. If neither of these are true, then the person probably should not follow the counsel. To some, this approach will run counter to their culture (maybe even their church culture), but I believe it to be a true statement of a correct gospel principle. Remember, I am thinking here of competent parties only, and I’m only addressing our church setting and not our cultural encroachments (well, really, maybe in reality it is church encroaching on our culture). If those adults don’t feel they’re allowed to say no to counsel, then they don’t understand gospel principles — they’re being victims instead of actors. Shame on the first party for using coercion; shame on the second party for allowing it to happen.

  40. Ji, you said “if those adults don’t feel they’re allowed to say no to counsel, then they don’t understand gospel principles.” The way I interpret this post is that although people know that they can say no to counsel without any formal consequences, there can be a social/cultural pressure to say yes in order to be “obedient” even in situations where the person thinks the counsel is wrong or doesn’t apply to them because they are a legitimate exception. There is social/cultural coercion, not formal church coercion.

  41. whizzbang says:

    What about the milk strippings story about leaving over petty differences? Isn’t he truth is Thomas B. Marsh left over a different set of problems that had nothing to do with milk strippings? I think..DC 112 he felt that Joseph Smith had gone ahead and sent members of the Twelve into England without his knowledge and this lead to other things, that’s all I know about it

  42. #38: BHodges (no 5) — My key point is that it takes two parties for a coercion to occur — one to do the coercing and the second to be coerced. If the second party doesn’t allow it, then no coercion can occur.

    I entirely disagree, actually. I think the claim that coercion is some sort of disconnected object which is only activated when two people willingly consciously assent to activate it is false. Coercion can occur whether or not the coerced assents to it, whether or not the person being coerced actually fulfills the coerced act itself. Coercion in my view is a breach of charitable relationships, and is not always undertaken with that end in mind–which makes it all the more problematic. The breach of reciprocal charity is the essential outcome of coercion, and it is why I think the scriptures condemn it. I think your appeal to free agency is interesting, in that you seem to recognize the possibility for coercion but deny that it can ever occur without the person who is being coerced giving their consent. That essentially blames the victim, a victim who in such a case exists in an unbalanced relationship of power.

    Something we need to teach in the church, perhaps, to avoid these difficulties is to clearly teach our members that any counsel from a church leader is always given as a gift, and that the members always have the choice of accepting the gift, or not.

    Sometimes the gift is actually an outdated, unnecessary, unrighteous, cultural relic. In other words, sometimes the gift is a stone. What man is there of you, whom if his son asks for bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? Sometimes the gifts are stones and serpents. The problem is that you want the recipient to simply take a rock to the head or suffer a snake bite, and you apparently care less about reducing the instances when stones and serpents are delivered than you care about telling people that rocks to the head and snakebites aren’t so bad after all. As Mike M. noted, social/cultural coercion is at stake here, there are consequences for “disobedience” to things we should never expect anyone to be “obedient” to in the first place. And we use scriptures to justify it.

    Hence the post.

    Hence all the great responses from Swisster, wg, Peter LLC, the other clark, Hunter, Rachael, observer , RJH, MDearest, GONJ, Tracy, GO, OldJen, Mike M., and those who gave specific examples. A few of ji’s even might work (maybe not the Abraham-sending Hagar-away one, good grief!).

    Deep down it seems you agree with this, you’re just trying to say “hey, don’t take offense.” We talk about that plenty. Let’s spend at least a little time talking about not giving offense.

  43. As an offset story, I thought of Jethro. Moses obviously had his own ideas about how he ought to be running things, i.e. all by himself without any help. Jethro, who isn’t the prophet or leader of the camp of Israel, comes up to him and says, “Hey, you’re doing it all wrong!” and Moses changes how things are run due to Jethro’s suggestions, i.e. delegation.

  44. Fwiw, my favorite interpretation of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac is that the Lord was testing Abraham to see if he had rejected the incorrect traditions of his fathers – and because Abraham failed the test, the Lord had to step in and stop him from killing Isaac.

    I think there are all kinds of implications in that interpretation that are relevant to other things we accept as commandments.

  45. Mike, as I said, only with a tad more firmness, obedience is not justified when that obedience runs counter to conscience. Using an ancient, rather creepy, bible story to justify any number of unconscionable acts is just a little too handy, don’t you think?

    I believe in a benevolent, omniscient God, not a God who tells His children to do terrible, pointless things to test their loyalty. “How evil are you willing to be for me?” just doesn’t cut it. We’re talking about Jehovah, not Thor.

    When asked to choose between conflicting scriptures, I’ll always pick the one that comes closer to matching the character of a God I can worship in good conscience.

  46. An excellent point, Ray. I’ve always preferred that interpretation. Sadly though, it doesn’t seem to be considered often.

  47. whizzbang says:

    @43-interesting interpretation, never heard it before. I was wondering how you would interpret DC 101:4?
    “Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.”

  48. #46 – By believing that all of us are chastened for and tried by our inability to live according to the dictates of our own conscience – for being too willing to accept Lucifer’s plan that said, in essence, “They will do whatever I tell them to do simply because I will be their God.” Any time a mortal leader puts himself or herself in the place of God and demands obedience just because they are a leader, they are implementing Lucifer’s plan within their realm – and I believe the same would be true of God, which means I don’t believe God does it. .

    By believing that part of godhood is the ability to do what is right no matter the consequences – or, at least, what we believe to be right.

    Also, I think Adam is a great example of a counter action – since he had two clear choices: stay with God in paradise or “fall” to a lower glory with Eve. He chose Eve – and, by extension, their children. I think that is not insignificant, especially since I believe the Garden narrative is figurative.

  49. Genevieve says:

    Regarding D&C 1:38:

    “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same,” is sometimes read out of context and used to prove that hearing a prophet or priesthood leader speak equals hearing God speak. That’s not how I read it at all.

    That phrase comes at the end of the verse, and it refers, perhaps parenthetically, to instances where God has spoken. That is, we are to understand that whatever God says will come to pass, and that when God has spoken it doesn’t matter whether he has used his own voice or that of his servants. I read it as sort of an if-then proposition. If God speaks through His servants, then the words have the same bearing as if He had spoken with His own voice. But it does not follow that everything that His servants say is from God.

    If I gave someone power of attorney over my finances, they could sign my checks for me and act in my name, and I might say, “whether by my own signature or by the signature of my agent, it is the same.” But surely that agent acting on my behalf would sign their own personal checks too. Not every signature would be on my behalf. Not everything that my agent did would be the same as if I myself were doing it.

  50. When we consider Abraham’s test, we need to remember that he had faith that God would keep His promise and raise Isaac from the dead (if necessary) so that Abraham would have the infinite posterity that God has promised Him through Isaac. Hebrews 11: 17-19 reads, “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called: Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.”

    Off set stories:

    1. After Moses spoke with the Lord, explaining that the people wanted meat rather that manna, the Lord tells him the Israelites will have quail for eat for an entire month. After this interchange, Joshua complained to Moses that two ordinary men, Eldad and Medad, are prophesying in the camp and asked him to stop the men from doing so. “And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)

    2. “And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:49).

    3. The Parable of the Prodigal Son portrays our Father as loving His wayward children and receiving them as sons, not servants. This parable is a powerful example of God’s unconditional and infinite love for His children, a pure love that transcends obedience as represented by the older brother but includes all of His children, even those who struggle, make mistakes, and disobey Him as the younger brother did.

  51. #49 – katie88: “We need to remember” =/= “we need to agree”. I can be fully aware of Paul’s view and still think there is a better view – for me.

    “As far as it is translated correctly” allows me to choose whatever interpretation makes the most sense to me – and that is true of all scriptures. Paul wasn’t infallible, either, so what he believed about an ancient story that might or might not have happened (and important point, imo) doesn’t force me to believe the story in the same way.

    I’m not saying the interpretation I mentioned is correct or the one true interpretation, and there are some good lessons that can be taken from the story even with the traditional interpretation, but the failed test view is the lesson I like the best.

  52. Genevieve says:

    How about Peter and his vision of the unclean animals and the subsequent controversy over whether converts needed to be circumcised? That’s a great story of a commandment/cultural practice that was abandoned, but not without a lot of contention and confusion.

  53. Offset example: How about the story of Rebekah and Jacob? Rather than obeying the patriarchal authority (Isaac) Rebekah follows the inspiration she received before her sons were born and helps Jacob to the birthright.

  54. Central Standard says:

    Another phrase: “In God’s time…” and “No trial greater than you can withstand..” when spoken to someone in the depths of great personal trial and distress. Non-scriptural antidote: I’m sorry, I care for you and am with you – or something like that.

  55. BHodges (no. 41) — You wrote, regarding my comment, “The problem is that you want the recipient to simply take a rock to the head or suffer a snake bite…” — but that isn’t an honest characterization. I wrote, “Sometimes we get gifts that we need and immediately put to use. Sometimes we get gifts that we put in the closet. Sometimes we get gifts that we ignore.” I never suggested everyone MUST accept the gifts.

    I want members of the Church who normally feel like victims to stand up and act rather than be acted upon. If someone, even a church officer, offers them a rock or a snake, I hope they will be strong enough to ignore the gift. You seem to think that ALL the responsibility for correcting this cultural problem lies with the authorities — I think the members have some part to play, too.

  56. You seem to think that ALL the responsibility for correcting this cultural problem lies with the authorities — I think the members have some part to play, too.

    I may seem to think that, but I don’t actually think that.

    But it seems like you’re trying to concede, ever so carefully, my point that leaders really do exercise unrighteous dominion sometimes. That’s important, because we spend very little time actually acknowledging that fact compared to the amount of time we spend telling people to not “take” offense, etc., as you’ve tried to do here.

  57. ji,
    As I said, it is a strange conclusion to draw from the story of the Abrahamic sacrifice. Not an unheard one (as noted, Paul came to a similar conclusion), but nonetheless a strange one.

    I get the feeling that your primary point here is to say that maybe we (or some other group if not we) should stop blaming the church leadership for every little thing and accept that we are often the causes (or, at least, the contributing factors) of our own problems. I agree.

    The problem being that, while I think that your point is ultimately right and useful in the abstract, I am generally loathe to apply it to any specific. Not because I think “blaming the victim” is inherently immoral; quite differently, I think blaming the victim is impossible. We only blame those whom we think are guilty. What blaming the victim really means is “I think you are trying to weasel out of some punishment or shame that I think you should endure.” But all of that is obvious.

    The reason that I am loathe to apply the conclusion that people are often partially at fault for their own problems is that I have covenanted to mourn with those that mourn. As I am not a judge (in Israel or out of it), I have no covenantal obligation to spend loads of time telling individuals what they are doing wrong. I do have a covenantal obligation to try and be there for people I know are suffering; there is no out clause (that I’m aware of) that let’s me off the hook if I think the suffering is ultimately their own dumb fault or, even, if I think they are milking it. Christ certainly suffers with us when we are being self-pitying and self-defeating; if He is serious about that “Be ye perfect” thing, then maybe we rank-and-file should do our best to emulate it.

    Now, let’s talk about the specifics of your point. If reduced to the absurd, then it is impossible for anyone to be guilty of a crime done to another. If he had really not wanted to die, he would have fought longer and harder. If she really hadn’t wanted to be raped, she would have killed herself before I got around to it. If he had really not wanted to betray his country, he would have let me kill his wife and children and gone to the police instead. You are correct that we all ultimately make our own choices. But to deny that the perceived effects of those choices have no coercive power is to deny psychological reality or to proclaim yourself a sociopath. Sure, you’ve never personally been told to something awful or good in a coercive manner, but so what? It isn’t outside the realm of imagination. Heck, it is the reason why the scriptures contain the phrase “unrighteous dominion”.

    Luckily, however, we don’t have to talk absurdly. We can pretend, for a moment, that church hierarchy conveys no social power and that church courts are essentially meaningless (so, you don’t work for BYU or the church, your family isn’t affiliated with the church, and you don’t live in the Mormon Corridor). How does God get you to keep his commandments? I’m not talking about the obvious ones (don’t kill, don’t smoke, etc.) that reasonable people might come up with on their own. I’m talking about the essentially arbitrary ones (wear your temple garments, don’t drink coffee but coke and chocolate are okay). Certainly, God won’t make you wear your garments (an argument against coercion), but He will threaten your access to the temple and, it is strong implied, your access to Him after this life. Is that coercive? Only, I suppose, if you really want to return to Him after this life. It’s a bit like keeping on walking when your five year old is refusing to come with you. You know you’re not going to leave the child behind, but she doesn’t yet. Can the fear of abandonment be coercive? Oh heck yeah.

    So, if God can be coercive, then I certainly don’t see why anybody else can’t be. And, if God can be coercive, then I don’t think it is an inherently sinful thing. It is a way people interact with each other: sometimes it is good (your personal trainer yelling at you to do another couple sit-ups); sometimes it is bad (choose one of those examples from the absurdity section). The question is why we are doing it? There is no single answer to that question that magically makes all coercive acts bad or good. It is always situational and morally contingent on the relationships involved.

    I do think that leadership bears a greater burden of responsibility for these sorts of interactions than the rank-and-file because leadership has greater influence, greater ecclesiastical power, and, mostly importantly, it is going to be a bigger problem if what they say is misinterpreted or misapplied. And, while I acknowledge that sometimes other people’s mistakes are necessary for us to grow, woe unto those that make the mistakes.

    So, while I acknowledge that what you say is true (we have to let ourselves be coerced), I doubt that it is useful. Both because it is obvious and because, whether intended or not, it acts as an apology for those who engage in unrighteous dominion.

  58. JennyP1969 says:

    I just want to say that women put up with “obey, or you’re not faithful enough, righteous enough, or are weak in the spirit, or weak in testimony” all the time. If you speak up about anything, whoeee!–the mudslinging begins. So we keep quiet and smile through tears because ours is not to question, but to hearkin. Oh, that’s the other biggie, you’re not keeping your covenants. But hey, I’ll keep trying to look on church policies and counsel as “gifts.” I’ll keep trying to believe I have any real choice sometimes when I have to choose between two negatives. And I think you men have some similar quandaries, yourselves. Poor Uzzah. Poor Sarah. Poor Emma. Poor issac. I do not like a God who contradicts himself, or gives choices that only hurt. I don’t believe God actually does that. I smell something a rat in any such situations, and it surely isn’t God.

  59. Well hell, John C., your comment itself justified the existence of this post. It’s a shame that it’s buried in the comments section. I vote you turn it into its own post.

    JennyP: There are many people in the Church, myself included, who appreciate your perspective and feel it deeply.

  60. John C., thank you for that detailed dissection. For a concrete example of painful coercion, I offer up my Prop 8 experience. Background: my best and oldest friend in the world is gay. He really is like a brother to me. The pressure in my ward to campaign was intense. We had phone bank parties, and after being asked every week (in person at church, at meetings, in helpful reminder calls) I finally gave in and came to one. I broke down in tears, then fled to the bathroom and vomited. Helpful people placed Yes signs in my yard without asking my permission, and I was constantly reminded “I drove by your house the other day and your sign is gone. We’ll get you a new one.” We also had weekly sign-waving parties; people would mob a busy street corner and demonstrate. I was never so grateful for having small kids and a husband who worked late. The one time I expressed my desire to not campaign, I was told that when the prophet speaks the thinking is done and the righteous will follow. Over the pulpit, in Sunday School, in RS, I heard it every Sunday. Coercion.

    I have a husband and kids. I don’t want to make trouble for them. I don’t want people at church to treat my kids differently because they think their mother is an apostate. I don’t want my husband to be socially rejected because he can’t control his wife. Sure, we could just all square our jaws and endure it, and say “the gospel isn’t about making everybody like you,” but I’m pretty sure that men are that they might have joy. Not giving in to coercion has concrete consequences. I haven’t fetishized choice enough to look at two terrible options and feel great about them, because hey, at least I get to choose WHICH awful thing I’ll have to endure!

  61. Mark Brown says:

    If I had the power to do it, I would use unrighteous dominion and coerce every latter-day saint into reading John C.’s comment # 56. People, accept the gift.

  62. Seconded. Thank you JohnC.

  63. Sharee Hughes says:

    I don’t have my scriptures handy, so I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that when Abraham and Isaac were trudging up the mountain to make the sacrifice, Isaac asked,” Hey dad, where’s the lamb to be sacrificed?” and Abraham replied that God would provide the lamb. So Abraham was counting on the Lord to intervene. He knew, deep down, that God did not want Abraham to kill his son.

  64. Melissa, I hope you made it through the Prop 8 stuff intact. You provide a perfect example of the sort of coercion problems I’m trying to draw attention to.

    Sharee, I think that is definitely one possible reading (among a very many possible readings!) How pliable, but how rigid, our scriptures can be, eh?

  65. I will always read the comment section just to find a gem like #56.
    Thank you John C.

  66. Except for the months of popping antacids and wishing I could just go inactive, I survived. My testimony of Christ survived, but nothing anybody in the church could ever do to me will hurt my love for my Saviour.

  67. I’m glad you’re still here.

  68. Great post.

    Melissa, thank you for sharing your Prop 8 experience. I’m glad you got through it.

  69. Lamplighter says:

    I’m so glad you made it, Melissa, one of my kids didn’t. We went through prop. 22 in 2000, (it was thrown out by the courts so they came up with prop. 8.) I halfway believe that we were led to leave the state in 2006 so we wouldn’t have to endure prop. 8. We now live in Washington State that just passed Ref. 74 to legalize gay marriage. I was dreading that campaign, but I want you to know that not a word was said about it at church. No petitions, no signs, no prayers for its defeat, none of the things you faced. I think the church learned its lesson after 8. I was prepared to fight if it was like the other campaign, and there was no battle. That form of coercion was not present.

  70. I have enjoyed reading all these comments. This was a great blog post, but it is the discussion by so many in the comments that really demonstrates the need for the blog post and continued awareness and discussion of the issues.

  71. I appreciate Melissa’s story — she was counseled or invited to participate in certain activities, but chose not to because of some feelings of conviction. And she is bearing the results of her choice, with love for the Savior intact. That’s the way of the cross. Yes, we have choices — thank God for that! When a church officer or member gives us counsel, we can accept it, or not, depending on our understandings and the whisperings of the Holy Ghost to us, without bitterness towards the giver of the counsel. Some here have mocked at the notion of choice to obey, or not — but that is the basis for almost EVERYTHING in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are sons and daughters of God — we choose, and allow others to choose.

    Some of my choices will be different than hers, because my circumstances are different. But in every choice, I hope to remember faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and charity in the Lord Jesus Christ.

  72. Coercion is the byproduct of force, with or without consent. Free agency is granted to all, we would not be able to progress without it. When force is applied, repercussions result, usually in much harder lessons down the road. If we can let it go, we will be better off in the long run. 3 Nephi 27:27 be even as He.

  73. ji, you’re still acting like it’s always an equal playing field, but the fact of the matter is that it’s not always an equal playing field.

  74. ji,
    I’m sincerely baffled. Why is it important to you to make this point? Are you worried that this webspace is full of people who believe in predetermination? Election in a Calvinist sense? You are underscoring points that no-one is debating with you.

  75. Lemme get this straight, ji–your takeaway from Melissa’s story is that her story proves there is no problem that needs addressing here? All’s well that ends well? A shining example of the success of our operation?

    ji, you’re one sick dude. Or at least you play one on the internet. I suspect the latter. Why don’t you show the real you from time to time? The one who doesn’t have a heart three sizes smaller than the Grinch’s?

  76. Cynthia, haven’t you given ji enough gifts already in this thread?

  77. That’s the beauty of it, BHodges—if he’s offended, it is 100% his fault for letting himself feel that way. It can’t have anything to do with anything *I’ve* done. If he feels less inclined to visit BCC after this treatment, that is 100% his fault for letting himself feel that way. Can’t be the fault of myself or anyone else at BCC. Ah, total freedom from guilt and consequence for my actions feels amazing! This is totally what the gospel is all about—hurting others and not being in any way responsible for their pain!

  78. It’s like Christmas morning in here!

  79. I know this thread is true.

  80. Mark Brown says:

    I also a very happy Melissa made it through with her testimony more or less intact, and I’m glad she participates in church and on this blog.

    Maybe it would be worthwhile to think a bit about what happened to all the thousands of other Melissas, the ones whose faith wasn’t quite strong enough or whose burdens were even harder to bear. We don’t see them around church any more, so I guess it’s just tough cookies for them, right? If somebody leaves one of our meetings in tears, that means they just couldn’t hack it, and good riddance to them.

    It is my strong opinion that the approach ji continues to advocate amounts to missionary-work-in-reverse. When president Hinckley spoke about member retention, he didn’t speak to those who were on the margins. He spoke to the people who were planted solidly in the church, and asked us to take responsibility to be a friend, and to quit being such insufferable jerks.

    We Mormons are a curious bunch of people. If the conversation is about helping the poor, we immediately and loudly advance the position that the best solution for poor people is for them to get off their butts and take some responsibility for their lives, dammit. But if the conversation is about being accountable for the way we treat one another, we are unable to accept our own advice, and start dodging responsibility like all those imaginary welfare moms driving Cadillacs they bought with food stamps.

  81. Doug Hudson says:

    The problem with applying the Abraham and Isaac story to ourselves is that few other people have had the same relationship with God that Abraham is reputed to have had. Abraham walked with God, spoke with Him regularly, bargained with Him, saw Him directly perform miracles; Isaac himself was a miracle.

    Abraham didn’t need faith, he had direct, personal knowledge of God and His power. Whatever his “test” was, if it even was a test, it took place in a context that is totally alien to pretty much everyone else, which makes relating it to everyday life problematic at best.

  82. I love this post, BHodges! Great deconstruction of the reasoning behind using these scriptures to promote unthinking obedience.

    Another example that might match your request is in Helaman 11 where the Lord was in the process of having wicked people kill each other in a war, but Nephi asks for–and gets–a famine in its place.

  83. BHodges,

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I skimmed through the comments, and have a couple of thoughts based on my own experience. For a number of years, I was very bitter against the Church as an institution. I felt that my individual challenges as a young man with same-sex attractions were mostly the result of the attitudes of Church Leaders. My judgments of them ranged from incompetent in my kinder moments to downright evil.

    My personal journey makes for a long story, but I’ve come to appreciate the “problems” in the Church. Ultimately, I’ve learned to trust that God is “able to do [his] own work.” (2 Nephi 27:20-21) I wouldn’t trade my experiences with imperfect Church leaders for anything. I love that God allows incompetent men and women to participate in His work. He can only do so because the Atonement compensates for their sins and weaknesses as well. Whether my pain comes from another individual or the Church as an organization, Christ is ready, willing, and able to make it all better if I will let Him.

    Does that mean I don’t ever try to influence other members or leaders? Nope. But I’m free to do so with an understanding of the reality of my sphere of influence. I can work as much as I’m inspired to bring about the changes I want to see through the principles outlined in D&C 121. However, I’m free of the pressure of correcting the problems I perceive, because God’s ability to do His work isn’t dependent on me or any other mortal. Thank goodness!

  84. Loved the post.

    The one form of scriptural/cultural coercion I see missing in the comments is the use of coercion for people to serve (or not to serve) missions. I don’t think there are very many men in the church that didn’t feel a distinct pressure to serve and had every verse in the D&C used as proof that they should serve whether or not they wanted to, could, or were prepared to (because I think one can easily argue that even if official church guidelines say only those that are “willing and able” is oft times ignored). I think it is also easy to see that many women have been encouraged not to serve based on society and out-dated conference talks that they should make themselves available for marriage and babies right away thank you very much.

    Finally, sticking with the mission theme, I remember being forced to watch in the MTC and on my mission, a talk by Elder Holland that he gave a few years back at the MTC. The jest of the talk was NOT TO GO HOME from your mission under ANY circumstances. He very clearly stated (and I’m quoting here) that if you left your mission, “it will ruin your life.” That’s a pretty hefty threat to young men and women. Your life will be ruined if you leave your mission? Like, RUINED? Forever? I remember thinking that was some serious coercion. I’m pretty sure every single one of us knows some Elder or Sister who was sent home for something unsavory (making out with someone, etc.) and they repented, used the Atonement, and live happy lives. It goes against the very nature of God — and the point of having a Savior — to say that your life will be ruined because of a mistake.

  85. Oh I remember that talk, and I remember at the time that I loved it.

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