Dispersed authority: thoughts on the truth-making process in church culture

Recently someone very dear to me let me know that although he has a strong testimony of God, he has been questioning his ability to participate in the Mormon church, because many of his beliefs in God and experiences have lead him to perspectives that contradict some of the cultural ideas in the church as well as what authorities have said. My purpose in the next few blog posts is not to blame him, but rather to hypothesize that many Mormons can deeply sympathize with his positions. I want to respond to him in these posts by looking at the various concerns that he raises and asking what we as church members can do both to make our church more open to questions and when we face our own doubts. Today, I want to begin to think about the process through which church truths emerge.

One of my friend’s concerns is that he has difficulty sustaining church leaders, because these leaders often represent ideas that he finds problematic – particularly ideas about the role of women and minority cultures. However, what I want to ask is to what extent are these leaders actually responsible for promoting these ideas as truths and to what extent do we make leaders responsible for the very complex processes, often beyond their direct control, through which our church as a system raises some doctrines to the idea of truth.

Although leaders say many things, only parts of what they say actually become elevated within our church to principles that the majority of members take as doctrine. Whereas on rare occasions leaders might claim that what they say is revealed doctrine, the majority of the time it appears to be a much more arbitrary process by which their stories gather that type of weight. I want to hypothesize that much of the time, members themselves participate in deciding what messages become authoritative through practices as diverse as continuing to cite certain sayings in sacrament talks or cementing these sayings within the needle point crafts that adorn many Mormon homes.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it leads me to conclude that the process that makes doctrine carry weight is often not isolated to the relationship between an apostle and God, but rather the authority to elevate claims to truth is often dispersed amongst all church members. In that case, I believe that church members must turn not only a historical eye towards some of the “truths” conveyed in church, but also find themselves in a position of immense responsibility as they become agents in disseminating what counts as truth.  For me, it is an exciting possibility, and one that makes me think more generously of church leaders, realizing that the claims they make take shape in the complex relationships they have with members of the church.

 Incidentally, I stopped my blog, Mormon Rhetoric, for a time while writing on BCC.  Although I am continuing to post on BCC, I invite readers to return to my original blog for a more diverse range of posts.


  1. Good idea for a blog. I have often wondered how a church member distingishes between doctrine, policy, procedure, good advice. And of course from myth/habitual practice. As a new member, I recall wanting to toe the line 100% until I found out some things are not real doctrine of the church.
    Examples like:

    WoW – No coffee and black tea – Doctrine
    – Coke and caffinated sodas – good advice

    Sacrament – Focus on the Savior, renew convenants at baptism, repent – Doctrine
    – Must be taken with right hand – Myth

    The real doctrine of the church is actually quite small, the advice is endless on how to best apply the doctrine, and the myths and habitual practice, like “praying for moisture” or “blessing hands that prepare” ….. that won’t die.

    Leaders, especially local come and go, sometimes they are truly inspirational, somethings truly stupid and insensitive. That is why it is important to be well-grounded in the true doctrine of the church so that you can make those distinctions clearly.

    I suspect if the Lord struck each person down everytime they uttered something wrong, we’d all be goners.

  2. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I have similar feelings. Our doctrine comes from the standard works, but the way that we interpret those works is very much a social process.

    To express it allegorically, it’s like bowling: Joseph Smith threw the ball down the lane of the Church. The members keep it going and push it down the lane right and left. The General Authorities are the “bumpers” that keep the Doctrine Ball from going into the theological gutter. Someday the ball will crash into the Pins of the Lord’s Second Coming and we’ll have no need for bowling anymore because the Lord will teach us all things.

    It’s just an allegory, though, don’t stretch it too far. :-)

  3. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    I’m actually serious, though. Your post gives much for thought.

  4. Thank you for articulating this so well, Natalie. We belong to a church which places a lot of responsibility for revelation on the receiver (see D&C 9) so we ought to be very comfortable with the process of truth making.

    We are under obligation to honor the prophet and not treat church leaders lightly. Ignoring what they say is certainly one way to do that, but I think that we are in far greater danger of dishonoring them when we trivialize them and try to make them responsible for the minute and detailed aspects of our religious life. In discussions among Mormons, the ultimate trump card is to say something like “Well, I was in a meeting once with Elder X and he said Y.” The meeting might have been twenty years ago, and nobody in the room knows the context in which the statement was originally made, and the statement may not have been remembered accurately. But we still don’t know how to counter that trump card without inviting accusations of 1)ark-steadying, or 2)looking beyond the mark. We have reached the point now where the leading brethren cannot even make an offhand remark in private conversation without someone thinking he has witnessed a prophetic event.

    I’m certain that church leaders are happy with the committment and devotion of the faithful members. But I also wonder sometimes if they don’t feel like they are presiding over an organization of children.

  5. One of the problems we face (the flip side of the wonder of the organizational restoration, imo) is the difficulty of balancing the ideal almost all of us want (prophets and a Prophet to tell us exactly what the Lord wants us to do so it won’t be so hard for us figure it out and do it) with the reality of what has been revealed (leaders who really are inspired in *so many* ways and really do converse with God and the Spirit, but who also are susceptible to opinion and “see through a glass darkly” themselves more than we want them to have to do). I believe strongly that the Church simply must teach the ideal, as understood my the leadership at the time, but I also realize that the issue is complicated by individual leaders who imbue their personal opinions with absolute divine approbation. (BY and BRM come to mind, even though I love much of the insight they provided on many topics). Unfortunately, many in any group usually want black and white directions to follow – rather than principles that require individual adaptation and nuanced consideration.

    Not to be simplistic and ingratiating, but “by common consent” is usually how things become institutionalized in the Church – particularly things that are social/communal rather than core to the Gospel and immutable. I think that’s what you are saying, and it is both the beauty and peril of the Restoration and agency.

  6. I wonder of part of the tendency of modern members to take “off-hand remarks” as “a prophetic event” as Mark IV call it, is because of the distance now between the leadership and the vast majority of the ordinary members.

    It used to be a lot easier to have, let alone imagine, a relationship with the President of the Church or one of the other general authorities. Now it is a Major Event to those of us outside the Mormon Corridor to have someone higher in the organization chart than an Area Seventy come to my stake or region. I remember having one of the Twelve come to stake conference on a regular basis when I lived in the Salt Lake valley. Now, just a long day’s drive away, and it has been years since I’ve seen anyone other than an Area Seventy. Of course I am going to take more note of something a Real General Authority says–it is now a noteworthy event in my life since it is so rare.

  7. I think the social dynamic of informal canonization is in part a response to the historical fact that, for more than 150 years, very little has been formally canonized. We’re a church built around the idea of continuous revelation. When revelation stops being regularly presented for canonization by common consent, we construct a substitute.

  8. I think that I lot of what is taught in church can be classified as “good advice” related to the doctrine of the church. Kind of like the WoW/Coke debate. There is also a lot of myth associated with the church as well, like only taking the sacrament with your right hand.

    The problem with leaders is the same as regular members, we are all on the journey and at different places. We all hope it is revelation, but sometimes, it is not. So sometimes the “advice and doctrine” we get is truly inspirational and sometimes just dumb and misinformed. If we are well-informed members, we can differentiate between them. If not, we can’t and sometimes it leads to confusion and doubt.

  9. Yes, this emphasizes another meaning of “by common consent.” If only we could get more members of the Church on board with ideas like this as quickly and efficiently as they remember old Mormon myths and pseudo-doctrine!

  10. the authority to elevate claims to truth is often dispersed amongst all church members.

    While this may reflect the actual state of affairs, (after all, guiding the flock down the narrow path of orthodoxy is only slightly easier than orchestrating the movements of, say, more than two cats), the Church can’t really afford de jure recognition of the practice. And Kenneth Arrow has a reason why:

    Social decisions are sometimes made by single individuals or small groups and sometimes by a widely encompassing set of traditional rules for making the social choice in any given situation, e.g., a religious code…. The last two methods of making social choices are in a sense extreme opposites, developments of conflicting tendencies in a democracy. The rule of a single individual is the extreme of administrative discretion, the rule of a sacred code the extreme of rule by law. But in dynamic situations the rule of a sacred code leads by insensible steps to dictatorship. The code needs interpretation, for conditions change, and, no matter how explicit the code may have been in the first place in determining how society shall act in different circumstances, its meaning becomes ambigous with the passage of time. It might conceivably happen that the job of interpretation passes to society as a whole, acting through some democratic process–“vox populi, vox dei.” Or it can happen that interpretation passes to the hands of the people individually and not collectively; in this case, as soon as differences of opinions arise, the religious code loses all its force as a guide to social action.
    Social Choice and Individual Values, p.1

  11. Natalie,

    This is a topic that has really got me thinking. I see both good and bad in what you describe. First, let me talk about the bad side of this, which is the propagation of folk doctrine supporting an incorrect practice or policy. The priesthood ban, when we actually got down to it, was really something that appeared to come out of the ether, with no real exposition of the doctrines behind it. Over time, GA’s, local leaders, scholars, and lay members started floating all sorts of justifications for the practice, assuming there was a doctrinal under pinning somewhere, if it could just be found.

    In the end, the reverse process started, and scholars, lay members, and others began to ask questions, research history, and eventually challenge the explanations for the practice, and showed that the earlier statements were without any substantial validity. Ultimately, that lead to asking questions of the Lord by the prophet, and finally revelation and change.

    I think a similar circumstance is beginning to happen, in a very limited way, with the concept that same sex attraction is a learned behavior that can always be changed through repentance and counseling. While the church has not changed the underlying doctrine of what constitutes sexual sin, there is a growing awareness that some folks are “born that way”, and as a result, statements, publications, and church attitudes have shown a change. That appears to have been a grass roots up development.

    As Richard Bushman pointed out at the Pew Forum on Religion earlier this year, we as members, and as a church, resist being overly defined or having to adhere to a long list of creeds. We do all share some core doctrines, but the emphasis on our ability to receive personal revelation, a recognition that clergy are not the go-betweens for us and the Lord, leave us remarkably open to inquire, question, and search for answers.

    The paradox, though, is that as a culture, even though we resist being told too much what to believe, really do respect and appeal to hierarchical authority as a support for our individual beliefs. In the long run, I think this is healthy, providing some essential tension that encourages personal study, prayer, and inquiry. For some, the appeal to authority is the first choice, and for others, there is always the question “why”, and all of the subsequent dialog, discussion, and the formation of new doctrinal positions.

    By the very nature of the individuals, it sometimes seems that the higher you are in the church authority structure, the more likely you are to appeal to the next higher authority for help in forming those personal beliefs. Some people are better scholars, some are better teachers, some are better administrators, and some are better at turning over rocks and looking to see what’s underneath. I would claim, from my perspective, we are more open to differing ideas within the structure of the church than many other denominations, even though we fiercely defend those core doctrines.

    Didn’t mean to ramble on so long, but I am really intrigued by this concept.

  12. Mark Butler says:

    One quibble on terminology. Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a “truth-making” process. There can be a “doctrine establishing” process or a “truth discovering” process, but no “truth making” process.

    The essential property of truth is that it is objective – i.e. independent of what anyone thinks about it. The suggestion that anyone can (directly) make it up is positively Orwellian.

  13. I didn’t take the time to read all of the post in this conversation SORRY… But this is something that I struggle with yet I have found peace in that I seek out the answers from the prophets and apostles. I joke with my friends at church that I must go home and debrief after attending church. Not that the teachings are wrong in the implied intent, but that there are always fine subtle inaccuracies. So often on a Sunday afternoon or however long it is required I study the doctrines espoused that I took issue with. I use the churches websites I use gospel link dot com and I use the scriptures. Often I find that perhaps I was correct in my assumption that what was being taught wasn’t completely accurate, I too find that I am incorrect in my assumption yet in my studies I am able to find a peace with said issue with further study. One other thing required of me is to forgive the messenger; we are all human!

    Though this link below has cleared up much for me as it pertains to the official stand of the church…


  14. We have the four “standard works” of scripture. We have the divine inspiration of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    I like Mark IV’s point, that we should honor our GAs by not ignoring what they say and also by not holding them responsible for minute aspects.

    JS taught: “We teach-our people correct principles, and they govern themselves.” So, when we are expected to fill in the blanks, the best way to do that is with the guidance and inspiration of the Spirit.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    This touches on talks Elder Eyring has given concerning repetition and multiple witnesses. If President Hinckley repeats something he said last year that carries far more weight than if I or my quorum president repeat something he said last year. If several apostles cite a teaching of a current or past church president, that will carry more weight than if thousands of Sunday School teachers cite those same teachings. I don’t see much of a grassroots process at work.

  16. John Mansfield, as a matter of fact rather than principle, your assertions seem arguable to me. How closely do people listen to conference talks? Might the more intimate space of a Sunday School classroom have a unique kind of influence that makes up for the lack of credentials a class member or teacher has? It seems to me that there’s a lot yet to learn about how the process of constructing our shared reality plays out.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Some of you may enjoy Todd Compton’s essay on non-hierarchical revelation.

  18. Mark Butler wrote:

    One quibble on terminology. Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a “truth-making” process. There can be a “doctrine establishing” process or a “truth discovering” process, but no “truth making” process.

    The essential property of truth is that it is objective – i.e. independent of what anyone thinks about it.

    Actually, the essential property of what we call truth is that a substantial fraction of those whose opinions matter to us call something truth. Depending on the accuracy of their perceptions and interpretations, what a substantial fraction of such persons consider truth may well have a high degree of correllation to what can be tested through various means, but as there is no way to perceive “objective” reality without a subjective filter, all we know of truth is what a community of subjective beings whom we esteem decides it to be.

    To my way of thinking, the most interesting question is whether the community one chooses to determine truth is pursuing more objective or less objective means to determining those truths.

  19. I agree greenfrog. Of course, it is difficult to determine the degree to which an epistemological model is more or less objective, because the standards for establishing objectivity are themselves based on a constructed consensus model of truth.

  20. As usual, I find myself saying, “Ditto to what kevinf said.” (#11)

  21. Ray,

    You make me sound much smarter than I really am. I don’t want to steal your thunder, so you go first next time, and I’ll say ditto. Any topic. Really.

  22. Aah, I love you, too, man. *sniff, sniff, blubber, blubber*

  23. Greenfrog wrote:

    Actually, the essential property of what we call truth is that a substantial fraction of those whose opinions matter to us call something truth.

    I must say that is positively ridiculous. First of all, that statement contradicts itself. If the latter part holds, there is no such thing as “actually”.

    Secondly, you have no basis to dispute anything, because in your world, there is no distinction between truth and opinion. Put your finger in the wind, nothing more.

    Third, if a substantial fraction of those whose opinions matter to you determine that the sun is not going to come up in the morning, do you have any reason to doubt their position? If so, why? Might it not be that you suspect that reality and speculation might occasionally disagree?

  24. Natalie,

    I think your blog is a very astute observation. Especially when you think about the “doctrines” that have been put about by Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, and others, that were not clearly put forth as opinion, as they should have. Having served in a bishopric, I have an appreciation for the burden placed on authority figures. For me, when I sustain a leader I am showing that I will support his/her struggle in doing their best in the calling, recognizing that they will make mistakes, and possibly posit “shaky” doctrine. I don’t know how many times I heard the faith promoting rumor about the roadside Good Samaritan who looked like Del Parsons’ Savior from our stake presidency. So the onus is on the members to read the scriptures and pray so the Spirit can relay the truth.

  25. I don’t know how many times I heard the faith promoting rumor about the roadside Good Samaritan who looked like Del Parsons’ Savior from our stake presidency.

    Del Parsons’ Savior is in your stake presidency???

  26. I thought the same thing, Norbert, but I didn’t have your chutzpah – for just that once. *grin*

  27. I am really intruiged by this idea as well. in my experience, the value of an authoritative statement is a function of both the level of the authority and the proximity of that authority. For some, ‘The temple matron said’ or ‘According to my mission president’ might carry the same weight as something the prophet said in the last conference, because I’ve actually met the first two and had conversations with them. Not that the either will conflict with the teachings of the prophet directly: just that what an individual latches onto as essentially true might involve some choices.

    The interaction between individuals and authority regarding truth would be interesting to look at in terms of culture and the international church. As an example: the Proclamation on the Family gets very little play in my ward, compared to what I think happens in other places. It is refered to from time to time, but I certainly don’t know anyone who has it framed in their home, and I’ve not heard it used to advance or defend political or social positions. At the same time, nobody would ever get up and denounce it out of respect for the authority with which it was issued.

  28. Mark D., greenfrog, costanza: you might benefit from using Peirce’s formulation/terminology here:

    For Peirce not truth, but reality was that which was as it was independent of what anybody thought about it. Truth, instead, was more of a quality of a proposition: that is, truth is something that a statement about reality has or doesn’t have, to varying degrees, depending on how the statement accurately defines reality.

    I think what Mark D. is talking about is “reality” and what greenfrog and costanza are talking about is “truth”, from a Peircean perspective, but I’m a peicean neophyte, so somebody else would probably be able to set you straight better.

  29. There is definitely a great community-oriented aspect to doctrine-making in the Church these days. The fact is that the GAs rarely, if ever, pronounce any kind of new doctrine. At times, it seems that the great era of Mormon doctrinal pronouncements is over, though there is always room for it to return or repeat itself. So much of what GAs tell us now is merely behavioral conditioning- pray more, read your scriptures, have family home evening, etc. Whatever is left is a rehashing of doctrine that was already pronounced long ago. You find tweaks here and there but the big, life-altering revelations are not a reality of our present. What the members live out in their daily lives and what they talk about in sacrament meetings and Sunday School classes will constitute most of the doctrine that members learn throughout their lives.

    Another ignored aspect is that professors at BYU create a great deal of doctrine. Members of the Church like to pride themselves on the fact that the Church does not have “professional theologians” who make the doctrine, like they do in the Catholic Church. My response to that is, somebody ought to tell the BYU Religion department. I’m posting on this later at my blog. For now, think about how many young Church members receive their core doctrinal and scriptural instruction at the hands of a BYU professor (when they might actually be paying attention, so Seminary doesn’t count) and then check out the authors of many of the bestsellers in doctrinal works in Deseret Book, they are generally BYU professors or CES personnel. I have seen time and time again, members’ views on doctrine are not shaped so much by what Elder so-and-so said last conference; but this book by Prof. so-and-so or when I had him back at the Y.

  30. A. Nonny Mouse,

    I agree that is a better approach with regard to the term ‘truth’. The colloquial sense of the term seems to correspond to “the collection (or a member of the collection) of all true propositions”.

    As one cannot make a proposition about the real world true or false merely by asserting it, any claim to make a new truth in the same manner appears to deny the reality of the external world (however imperfect our knowledge may be of it).

    Of course there is a doctrine formation process (where doctrine is considered to be a officially established belief), but hopefully no one feels an obligation to believe a doctrine without regard to whether it is true or false.

    Speaking in terms of “truth making” seems to imply the sort of radically unthinking intellectual assent that either lazily denies the possibility of doctrinal incoherence or doesn’t care about reality (or truth in the D&C 93 sense of the term) at all.

  31. “elevate claims to truth is often dispersed amongst all church members.”

    Yikes! This sounds like democracy, a horrid system wherein 50% 1 of the people determine the rules (truth in this case) which may (often) harm the minority.

    Considering the awful political mess in Utah (with mostly Mormon government officials) I don’t want “truth” determined by Mormons (or anti-Mormons, or this group or that group or anyone considering the general political mess everywhere).

    The purpose of this life is to know God (God is Truth), I better get cracking on figuring out the truth.

  32. I’ll second John Mansfield’s comment (15); that has become the standard I use to figure out what I need to pay most attention to in terms of counsel and doctrine. I feel it has made a huge difference in my life and in my efforts to sift through culture, opinion, and philosophies. Elder Eyring says repetition by more than one prophet — when the law of authorized witnesses has been invoked — should ‘rivet our attention.’

    So, in my experience and opinion, the thing we can do to protect ourselves from being sucked into a simply cultural approach to things is to be familiar — very familiar — with what the prophets teach. And, of course, to have the Spirit, but I think the two go hand in hand. I think this is part of why we are encouraged to not stray from scriptures and prophetic teachings in our classes — it will be lots easier to keep our teachings and doctrine pure and a lot less likely that we will end up teaching each other folk doctrines and pet teachings.

  33. LDS Anarchist says:

    I’d say your hypothesis, Natalie, is spot on. Although actual truth is independent in the sphere the Lord has placed it, according to the scriptures, that which is recognized and accepted as truth is determined by the members of the church. Even our canonized scriptures are determined by the members. If most of the members wanted to add the Book of Harold the Americanite to our canon and a vote was taken in the affirmative, despite the protests of the leadership, guess what would happen? We’d have another canonized book to quote from. The law of common consent works on every level in this church:


    “And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7)

    Mosiah said, “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law-to do your business by the voice of the people.” (Mosiah 29: 26)

    The Lord said, “And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen.” (D&C 26: 2)

    The Lord said, “For all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.” (D&C 28: 13)

    The Lord said, “And a commandment I give unto you, that you should fill all these offices and approve of those names which I have mentioned, or else disapprove of them at my general conference;” (D&C 124:144)

    Nevertheless, the current practice of the law of common consent is essentially a rubberstamp, so the leaders effectively are in complete control and the robotic members follow them where they are led.

    One other thing, concerning your friend who has trouble sustaining (which I’m taking to mean raising a hand in a sustaining vote), what is wrong with that?