An Ecclesiology for the Fallen

This post is a brief attempt to approach a question: How can perpetually sinful individuals trust that they have received revelation on behalf of another?

James Alison (a Catholic theologian) presents a broken-hearted ecclesiology which, according to Rosalynde Welch, means to ‘love the institution for what it gives to us and what it allows us to give’, but that we must ‘do so with a broken-hearted awareness of its imperfections’.  Mormons can certainly find value in this approach and yet institutional differences require a supplement to this broken-hearted ecclesiology.  An LDS ecclesiology must include how we, as lay members of the Church, are a constitutive part of that imperfect institution whilst simultaneously claiming that God can speak through us [1].

This claim is problematic because we are fallen and therefore susceptible to self-deception and distortion.  This fall is not rectified merely through receiving certain ordinances and consequently, fallen people must struggle to respond to God’s voice as we make decisions about how to live.  That struggle becomes even more complex when someone is called to receive revelation on behalf of another. Therefore, leaders must always be vigilant and careful in serving others or claiming revelation on their behalf.

According to the Stephen L. Richards, part of the genius of Mormonism is governance through councils. And yet, how does a council of fallen individuals function so that God can speak through that collective? Is it possible that God can move through us despite the sinful actions and impure motives that we bring to that council [2]?

Returning to Alison, he argues that (derived from Girard) ‘The desire of another directs our seeing’ [3].  For example, ‘the other through whose eyes we are learning to see is the rivalistic other’ then what we can see is shaped by that relationship.   If revelation is to see anew, through God’s eyes, then the interaction between ourselves and the desire of the Other must become a central feature of the revelatory process. Fallen individuals are embroiled in various assemblages of desire but Christ offers us a mechanism by which we can accept Him as the Other who directs our desire/seeing. Alison writes: ‘Our learning to see through Jesus’ eyes will eventually result in us desiring with Jesus’ heart’. What relevance does this insight offer in terms of thinking about revelation as leaders?

Foundational to the success of this ecclesiology is a collective commitment to bring about the coming of the Kingdom in the lives of members. It also requires a group who are seeking to have Christ reveal his will in them. This commitment, as noted above, is often seductively tainted with desire for success, acknowledgement and prestige.  In short, our relationship with the other members in that council are often tainted with feelings of inadequacy, pride or, even, rivalry.  This tainted commitment provides a willingness to settle for the impression of unanimity; an unanimity that is easily fractured because the group’s cohesion is built upon the failure or lack of recognition of Christ in those other people; rather the focus is upon our desire for prestige(?) as seen through them.

In practical terms, this process of accepting Christ as our primary Other requires time. Our ability to see anew is determined by our relations with those others in that council. ‘The desire of another [council member] will direct our seeing’ because we have not wholly taken Christ as our Other.  Taking Christ as our Other in this context, I believe, requires being able to see Christ in those other members of the council [4]. When our commitment to the Kingdom becomes more significant than any other desire we possess we may be prepared to receive God’s word through us.

The semi-permanent nature of most council meetings provides a context in which we are repeatedly forced to confront the limitations of our vision through the desire of another.  This confrontation comes in part because we cannot avoid what otherwise might be fleeting glimpses of our corrupted desires. Although our lives involve varied relationships, all of which impact upon us, by bringing us again and again into that collective we are compelled to see our fallen selves through our inability to receive a lasting and committed unanimity. Councils, then, become the places where our hearts break and by which we are able, once again, to seek out Christ as the primary Other of our desire. It is in the process of seeking Christ out as this Other, and seeking him in the other people in the council, that we are able to see anew and receive revelation.

In this sense, the deadlock between two opposing viewpoints requires that both individuals move from that council with a renewed desire to repent and reconsider the other position in a willingness to seek God’s will. The disagreement becomes a call to repent rather than an opportunity to justify our position. As such when our hearts break in realisation of our own mixed motives we are better prepared to hear God’s word in seeking a divine unanimity.

Thus Alison’s view of a broken-hearted ecclesiology can be extended to a Mormon context and used to elaborate another way that we must inhabit the Church. Recognising the imperfections of the institution is also to recognise the imperfections in ourselves; which have become a constitutive part of that Church. A broken-hearted ecclesiology must be mixed, in Mormonism at least, with an ecclesiology for the fallen, which provides a way for us to receive revelation on behalf of another.  It is also a call to respond with commitment and charity to those councils who struggle to hear the voice of God.


1. In using this phrase I work from the assumption, articulated by Philip Barlow, that ‘the Church is [not] essentially divine, marred only by the weakness of human administrators, but rather that the Church on earth consists entirely of human beings (with all of their limitations) who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have been touched’ (A Thoughtful Faith, p. 239)

2. This post is in part motivated by reading various accounts of First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve meetings. However, I feel that it also has relevance for how other councils (esp. disciplinary councils and perhaps some Presidencies) can function.  I freely admit that there are also some councils that these ideas have less relevance for.

3. James Alison, On Being Liked, DLT: London.

4. Thanks to Ronan (and Brad) for this insight.


  1. Aaron, this is really good — I have a lot to ponder here.

  2. Great thoughts.

  3. Thanks.

    To be honest, this formulation still feels a little crude but I have been thinking about this for sometime. Posting it was a way of getting it out there.

  4. Excellent.

  5. Mark Brown says:

    Aaron, have you ever thought of this in connection with the work of Steven R. Covey? He has shown how collaborative decision making tends to produce better results than an autocrat does, working alone. Of course, Covey’s approach assumes sufficient humility on the part of those in the council that they are able to hear valuable input from any single member.

  6. This is very thought provoking. I keeping running into Barlow’s distinction, and while I will admit I have not read the primary text itself, I am not sure I fully appreciate the difference. Why can the church not be essentially divine and consist entirely of human beings. Is it that in the first, the church is found by God (thus divine), and in the second the church is founded by Man in reaction to God? Would not the “story” of the Church indicate we fall into the first? For that matter, would not the story of every Church do the same?

  7. Thanks, J.

    Mark, I am not overly familiar with Covey’s work. I remember being subjected to the tapes when I was a teenager via my grandfather and seem to have been uninterested ever since. However, is there a good place to read the ideas that you mention?

    Matt W., for my own part, I think the assumption behind Barlow’s view is that the connection between God and Man is often fleeting and unclear. Moreover, our response to those communications are uneven and sometimes ambivalent. This perspective took on added depth when reading, for instance, Prince’s bio of McKay. Amidst the intrigue of those meetings I was surprised at my surprise when leaders acted in ways I deemed unbecoming an Apostle. Reflecting upon Barlow’s thoughts allowed me to realise that I had not fully expected to see fully fallen individuals amongst my leaders because of the assumption of divinity (or saintliness) which I still carried with me. However, others may have a different sense of what Barlow is getting at.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    LOL re: the tapes!

    Here is a pretty good summary of what I mean:

  9. Aaron,

    Barlow’s essay, along with a number of others in that volume, have been a touchstone of my faith for years now.

    You’ve done a good job of setting the problem of councils up as a conflict between imitative desire (or as you say it, rivalistic desire, ie we want what others want, in a competitive exclusionary way) and true charity, being able to see Christ in the others.

    I find this problem occasionally creeping into our ward council discussions as we struggle to mold ourselves into the kind of council envisioned in the recent training from the handbooks, and I get angry at myself for letting it happen to me. However, struggle can bring progress, and by overcoming, we get better.

    I think it is interesting that you note disciplinary councils as especially an area of potential problems. I’ve had the experience of sitting in a number of these at both the ward and stake level, and have found the opposite to be true. In that setting, it is often easiest to see Christ in the Other, or more correctly, to see our selves reflected in the plight of the sinner, and to realize how much in need we all are for grace and the Atonement. Even with some particularly difficult circumstances, the imitative desire most often is expressed in wanting to see mercy extended to the Other and to our selves, and to sincerely want what Christ and His Father want.

    As to Covey, I find his Spiritual Roots of Human Relations to be more helpful than his Seven Habits, but I seem to have misplaced or loaned my copy out to someone.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    “The disagreement becomes a call to repent rather than an opportunity to justify our position.”

    Extend to blogging, or, anywhere we deal with others and there is a question of truth, or even just doing what is best.

    “see Christ in the Other, or more correctly, to see our selves reflected in the plight of the sinner”

    Or, even more correctly, to truly see the sinner in his plight, in spite of ourselves.

  11. very interesting…I’m afraid I thought of covey too… specifically the thought “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.

    I wonder how much our counsels would be improved if we took time to understand each other.

    We do feel our volunteer leaders can receive revelation for us but we also feel that revelation can be confirmed to us. No need for us to assume they are right.

  12. Thanks Mark. I will give it a quick read.

    kevinf, your right about that volume. Lusterware has been very important for me and Bushman’s article helped me walk back from creeping atheism.

    Ward Councils are full of these types of problems but I also feel that they are too fragmented and not focussed on receiving revelation to have any relevance to this discussion. Even the model set-up in the recent training broadcast emphasised people-focussed assignments rather than any competitive dialogue regarding broad issues.

    I mention DC’s because, although I think they can be wonderful experiences I have heard of situations where they have not been, or where at least some parties were convinced by the decision. It is wonderful to hear of your positive experiences.

    Thomas, your reformulation of kevinf’s statement was insightful. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Aaron: any idea where I could get hold of a copy of Lusterware or Bushman’s essay?

  14. Your observation that “we are fallen and therefore susceptible to self-deception and distortion” puts me in mind of all the current neuroscience that, by putting a material floor under our fallenness, offers new opportunities for understanding our limitations, even as it calls into question a lot of traditional assumptions about perception, agency, and rationality.

    As for the question of how, despite our flaws, we can get at the truth, I think I’d look not to someone like Covey, at least not at first, but rather to the philosophical concept of intersubjectivity (as a check on subjectivity and solipsism) and maybe also to the philosophy of science (as a communal method for converging on the truth).

  15. This post is breath-taking to me, it has really helped me reflect.
    Can the distorted, deceived individual give advise or do we have to wait for them to be “worthy”?

    I find those with the most notable flaws, those who are not seeking to conceal there faults, to be extremely valuable when seeking advice.

    Hypocrisy (Self-deception) inhibits the spirit, and makes the advise sound “tinny” like a broken bell.

    I think involving some more of the “fallen” in WC would be a breath of fresh air.