Common Consent and the Body of Christ

David Heap’s guest stint continues with a post that is very a propos for BCC.

I understand that there were two common governance structures of Christian churches at the time of the restoration: (1) hierarchical/episcopal—Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Orthodox, some Lutherans—in which power and authority were “top down” from the presiding leader(s) to the congregation/parish and its members, and (2) congregational—Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Unitarians, some Lutherans—in which power and authority flowed up from the congregation and its members to elected leaders, i.e.,“bottom up.” In case law resolving intra-denominational property disputes, courts frequently draw that structural distinction so that in most cases involving congregational denominations, a congregation withdrawing from the denomination takes the meetinghouse with it; in episcopal/hierarchical denominations, the withdrawing congregation leaves the meetinghouse with the denomination. See a recent case along those lines.

The restored Church combines elements of both the hierarchical structure and the congregational polity. It goes without saying that the Church is structured hierarchically in a legal and practical way, in most cases, power and authority flow from top to bottom. Yet, reflecting a small element of the bottom up polity from congregational churches, in the restored Church, the principle of common consent provides that the authority and power of the hierarchical leadership rests on the common consent of the members. That is, in theory, those “governing” in the Church do so with the “consent” of the “governed”.

In the early restoration, LDS common consent was reflected in meetings that some times resembled New England town halls, assemblies in which varieties of viewpoints were expressed with vigor. Over time, common consent through “voting” in congregations or conferences has evolved to become largely a ceremonial function. I do not think this ceremony is an effective way for members to express approval or disagreement with particular decisions, or for leaders to receive meaningful feedback.

So, has the principle of meaningful common consent largely disappeared from the structure and processes of the restored Church (other than as a largely ceremonial ritual or as the name of this blog)?

I do not think so. I believe it continues, and is effected in many different ways. Here I focus on methods of communicating the consent/approval/agreement (or lack thereof) of the rank and file to the governing leaders.

1. At the congregational level, ward leadership interacts with ward members on a daily and weekly basis; informal feedback and assessment at the local level happens almost naturally. The structure of counselors in presidencies also helps quorums and other organizations to have a “finger on the pulse” of the members.

2. Ward councils and stake councils are mechanisms of interchange and expression, at least indirectly, of confidence or lack thereof of members in decisions and organizational direction.

3. The hierarchical lines of priesthood authority operate as a sort of neurological cord through which directives and messages are communicated from “top down”, and feedback is also transmitted from the “bottom up.” This is true even though some times leaders emphasize that “middle management” ecclesiastical leaders should face one way, representing the higher leadership to the members, and should not represent the rank and file to the higher leaders. See this article.

4. While the First Presidency and 12 are not structured representationally, there can be an element of practical representation, as each brings views based on his own personal experiences to decision making. Thus, the broader the cross-section of the Church from which the Brethren are drawn, the more likely views, perspectives, and experiences from a wide variety of members will be heard, considered, and reflected. The greatest implicit representation in the First Presidency and 12, of course, is that of older, long-term members of the Church. In my opinion, this is, in part, why the decisions of the highest Church leaders tend to be very conservative (and less likely to disturb long-time, older members of the Church).

5. One evident missing link in this priesthood hierarchical communication system is women. Matters that may be of concern particularly to women are communicated all the way “up the line” (and “down the line”) only as filtered through males. Female leaders at the general Church level do, of course, communicate with the presiding First Presidency and 12, just as female leaders at the stake and ward levels directly communicate with their stake or ward priesthood leaders. But there is not a direct top to bottom reporting system in the Relief Society, Young Women, or Primary.

6. The Church has an excellent and respectable Research Division with very capable social scientists (including anthropologists, sociologists, social psychologists, organizational behavior experts) who conduct frequent surveys of members and attitudes. Few of these studies are published or made public, but they provide valuable information to Church leaders about the views, circumstances and attitudes of members at large.

7. “Alternate voices” or the unsponsored sector of publications provide insight and information of attitudes of some segments of the membership.

8. Because of the quasi-anonymity, the blogosphere/bloggernacle provides uncensored, uninhibited feedback and information, positive and negative, regarding reaction of members to programs, teachings, and direction.

9. Members retain a largely unrestrained right to “vote with their feet.” By this, I do not mean necessarily passive aggression, but in the sense of prioritization or enthusiasm. For example, the lack of enthusiasm for scouting support and training (and tenure) of adult leaders, particularly for varsity scouts or venturers, is an indirect indication that local leaders are not persuaded of the utility and importance of those programs. (Another unfiltered evidence would be some of the debates in the Bloggernacle about whether scouting should be part of the Church program.)

What other ways can you think of in today’s Church structure and culture that allow implicit or explicit communication of “common consent” (or lack thereof) or of confidence in (or lack thereof) in programs or decisions?

Bookmark Common Consent and the Body of Christ


  1. This is all very interesting and very nicely put. But unless someone can show a change in Church direction or personnel based on any of the alternatives to the original LDS common consent you list above, I would say that these are not effective means of effecting change in the Church. There are certainly examples of changes in leadership and other practices based on common consent in the early church. Today’s emphasis on hierarchy squelches most if not all “bottom-up” efforts to expand the perspectives, practices and positions of the church. But your list of primarily unofficial and unsanctioned methods and modes of expressing alternative opinions to those of the hierarchy is very useful and interesting. Thanks!

  2. I wonder if the Brethren have specific researchers watching or keeping up on the un-official bottom to top methods David describes in methods 7 and 8. I doubt they are familiar if even aware of the bloggernacle’s on goings. Conspiracy theorists could envision scores of cubicles setup in the Church Office Building basement solely to quash or defend un-popular or controversial blogs and face-book discussions. Maybe I’m one of those cubicle employees doing the evil undermining now…:)
    One method of change not mentioned is willingness for the Brethren to progress due to some societal and evidence based advancements of understanding. An example would be in the case of those committing suicide who are endowed, generally being allowed to be buried in Temple Clothes now while in the past it wasn’t so. I believe this is due to the fact that it isn’t now seen so much as a sin issue as a mental health one and it is a sign that the Brethren are moving to a more merciful place when possible without destroying the Church’s moral foundations. Not that this should give hope to homosexual activists who believe that popular societal norms are more important than the Brethren’s responsibility to protect moral and doctrinal issues. I doubt they will ever permit such a lifestyle, but there is an interesting correlation to be discussed there… Suicide is a mental health issue, which doesn’t proactively try to change The Church fundamentally, while homosexuality does. I think the prop 8 thing is an interesting example of how the request for help to not pass it came from the top down, and the people voted with their “feet” as volunteers; it was an example of a well organized mostly unified effort from the top down and the bottom up if you ask me.
    The main point for me is that the Brethren have the responsibility to guide, govern and teach without thought for popularity from anyone but God, which in so many other areas of man’s history has all the makings of massive power dictatorships and abuses. I hope The Brethren feel and value the importance of ‘agency’ concerning it’s members over obedience enough to give me as much information as possible for their decisions so I can do my responsibility; to educate myself, study it out and go to God and see if he is good with what the Church is doing, and for the most part I feel He is. President Kimball stated that, “God recognizes and ratifies” what the Brethren do, as opposed to them being empty mindless voice repeaters of a God that dictates all things to it’s Leaders. He does let them lead, and He asks us to follow. He has on occasion asked that I do what I can personally to nudge the ship a little to shift it’s course, usually through counsels or other means once in a while when information seems to be lacking in their decision making ability (all local issues- I haven’t felt prompted to call Church HQ yet). It’s dangerous to want to be heard so strongly when we feel unrepresented that we forget it’s the Lord’s church and think we have a democratic vote. Wise leaders always stay in touch with their congregation and their needs and I feel blessed that for the most part mine have.

  3. Cynthia L. says:

    It seems like a stretch to describe anything on your list as approximating the raw original common consent (unless I am misunderstanding how common consent worked originally). However, I wonder if that’s really an option anymore for a global church. Seems like that would lead to a thousand splinter groups in as many days.

    Another question—does our lay ministry make the top/bottom distinction less meaningful than in other churches?

  4. Steve Evans says:

    JGryg, the doubts in your second sentence are unfounded.

  5. Just to echo Cynthia’s question, the global church might be singular, but the local church is plural in many, many ways – to the extent that many people here are able to describe experiences that often sound like they attend totally different churches than other commenters.

    Common consent plays out most fully at the local level, where real “following” and “rejecting” happens regularly among the saints – which really is the only practical way it can, imo.

  6. Coffinberry says:

    Hm, # 1 is only true for those few whose pulses are checked by local leaders.

    And as for # 9, that’s a great example of bread and circuses… sure, let’s vote Scouting off the island, they say. And, what, dear voters, do you expect to put in its place? Not much.

  7. As an inactive member I found this post particularly interesting. It made me reflect on my own feelings regarding the direction and leadership of the church and my ability to influence that direction (bottom/up).

    I am not certain I would be comfortable returning to a more open town meeting type of approach. I feel that Cynthia (#3) has a valid point- it seems that this would be more likely to result in splinter groups. As a large organization with leaders that receive divine revelation and are led by faith, there must be a more top/down method to ensure a consistent direction and message.

    I am not entirely comfortable with the top to bottom hierarchy either. Despite that fact that I still believe that the leaders have access to divine revelation, they are human and fallible. Watching the church handle Prop 8 made me very uncomfortable. There is a reason for the separation of church and state. I do not want the state getting involved in my religion and I do not want my religion getting involved in matters of the state. I appreciated the comments from JGryg (#2) – the handling of matters related to suicide by the church has become more compassionate. This seems appropriate as we know that only God can know our hearts and know that we have committed a sin.

    I hope that the church will some day take a more compassionate stand with regard to same sex marriage, however I do not anticipate nor do I want to see the leadership compromise the values of the church. Religions are exempt from anti-descrimination laws and are not required to allow same-sex marriage in their religious ceremonies. I hope that time, wisdom and revelation will show church leaders that active opposition, to the extend that the church oversteps the boundaries of church/state separation is inappropriate, destructive and a behavior that propogates hate and predjudice. The church can maintain a strong stand on marriage without infringing on the freedoms of others. Civil marriage is intended to extend to couples the protection of the laws of the land. It is a contract between two consenting adults. Allowing for that contract to be between individual of the same sexual orientation is a civil matter, not a religious matter.

    I vote with my feet by not attending. I prefer to provide my service hours through organizations that are more successful at reaching out to all individuals. I prefer the message of acceptance and love that I have seen at other churchs. My personal beliefs still come to close to mormon principles for me to consider conversion to another religion, but I do not feel the same acceptance at the mormon church that I have found in other churches. Perhaps had I been older and wiser I could have stayed active and found other like minded individuals to start service programs that would teach compassion and acceptance. That is how I believe members can still have common consent. It may not be organization wide, but like minded members can come together to lead by action in showing love and compassion.

  8. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 4 Indeed. Rumor has it, Steve Evans is an undercover Seventy.

  9. Steve Evans says:


  10. He’s an undercover something, alright.

  11. I think I figured it out:

  12. Cynthia L. says:
  13. MikeInWeHo says:

    Well, he’s sure no Undercover Angel:

  14. I believe that you over analyze things and look for theories that probably aren’t there.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    I don’t think this is over-analysis. I think it is important to consider the ways we participate in the church. DavidH, this is a good and thoughtful post.

    In a church of millions of members, how much influence do we think each individual ought to have? Every single Mormon on earth can make an appointment to speak with the bishop or stake president and voice concerns.

    Although we usually think of the church as a top-down organization, I can think of two, maybe three ways the church changed with initiatives that did not originate at church headquarters. Our teachings on contraception changed when the leadership realized that the members in general were ignoring them on the topic. The welfare system grew out of an initiative in a single stake. And in the post that John C. wrote this morning, he makes a persuasive argument that the priesthood ban and the revelation that removed it were at least partially the results of the desires of the general membership.

  16. Natalie B. says:

    Great post! I wonder to what extent bishops and local leaders really take the pulse of their membership. Since the bishop is also seen as a disciplinary figure and someone who a faithful member should obey, I am not sure that all members would actually be comfortable voicing public disagreement with his policies. Those who do make appointments with the bishop I doubt can be seen as representative of an entire ward.

  17. Natalie B. says:

    Didn’t organizations like Primary also initially emerge from the grassroots?

  18. 5. One evident missing link in this priesthood hierarchical communication system is women.