Henceforth I have called you friends

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When I think about my lifelong relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has long felt like obedience to a stern father figure.

That’s how the Church is structured. Our Bishop is where we’re supposed to turn if familial support falls short. The Bishop, in turn, holds keys of the Priesthood which report up in strict hierarchical order to Stakes, Area Seventies, Apostles, and the Prophet.

General Conference is an exercise in listening to somber grandpas dispense life wisdom — with the expectation that all of their Church family will endeavor to follow it. Sermon after sermon preaches obedience. Verbs like “submit” and “hearken” may be going out of vogue with respect to our earthly sociality, but “sustain” and “speak no evil of the Lord’s anointed” are still trending.

The Church as a father controls our access to the family. It has the power to judge us worthy of a temple recommend, or to shun us with excommunication. The Church has the power to proclaim we’re no longer “Mormon.”

But is this “Church as a stern father” model valid? With all our renewed emphasis on the Name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shouldn’t our relationship model for the Church also reflect our relationship with Christ?

As Jesus taught: “Whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.” (3 Nephi 27:7-9)

Christ is our brother. God is our Father. (Romans 8). Christians band together in the Name of Christ to worship God. With that model, it doesn’t make any sense for the Church to also be a “Father”; that elevates obedience to flawed human leaders above Christ himself.

We are all brothers and sisters in the body of Christ (Ephesians 3:6) and as members we are all valued equally (1 Corinthians 12).

So what is our relationship model to the Church? Christ offered one answer: “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” (John 15:15)

The Church is our friend. Maybe even our best friend. We know what best friends look like. They look nothing like stern fathers.

Friends are the family you choose. The people you choose to love despite their flaws. Who you can laugh and mourn with. Who you can tease with endearment. Who you can ask frank advice from. Who you can stage an intervention for. Who you can flake out on occasionally and they’ll instantly forgive you. Friends are your equals.

What if instead of a patriarchal authority figure, we saw the Church as our best friend? A friend who inspires us to serve others and be our best selves — but also who we can ditch sometimes. A friend we can sit with around a campfire discussing the mysteries of life — where we can also call them out for ill-considered or flawed thinking. A friend who is at times brilliant and at times hilariously naive. A friend who appreciates our interventions and sees them as an opportunity to learn empathy. A friend who understands if our path leads us away to the other side of the world, but who is always happy to reconnect when we pass through the same city.

That’s the model Christ set up. A Church of friends, adopted families, and invitations towards greater love.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)

Comments

  1. Maybe it is coincidence that this is posted on the day the church eliminated the terms excommunicated and disfellowship from the handbook, but this is great.

  2. Love this!

  3. The older I get, the more I view the church the way you describe. I know others who seem to double down on the patriarchal authority angle and how they can interpret innocuous statements as commandments – over-obedience or scrupulosity or whatever you want to call it. But I think I’ve softened in my relationship with expectations and forgiveness of others, both individuals and the institution.

  4. Fact Police says:

    I believe Christ set the church up more like a marriage (see Ephesians) than a friendship.

    Marriage has a substantially different connotation than friendship…covenanting to stick with that person through the good and the bad, for example. Plus, I’m sure the ancient view of marriage could tell us a lot more about the nuances of Paul’s marriage analogy.

  5. Brilliant!

  6. Friendship has done more to help me become better and to “connect” with divinity (to whatever extent that I have) than any stern patriarchal behavior of the Church or its leaders or of family ever did or could.
    Thank you for your thoughts.

  7. Not a Cougar says:

    To the extent leaders are a physical manifestation of “the Church,” I’ve found that using the first names of everyone in the ward and stake (including bishops) has helped me to decrease the power distance and help see local leaders more as colleagues or teammates, if not always friends. Certainly, it takes some getting used to for both parties, but overall, I’ve found it to positively impact the relationship.

  8. Not a Cougar,
    I agree. The “old fatherly Bishop-figure” was disappearing from my part of the Church and being replaced with rule-driven autocrats. I started calling leaders by their first names. Some friction at first, but there has been a change.

    Also, I used to cringe at the word “commandment.” But I listened to Blake Ostler give a definition of the word I had never heard before over on the LDS Perspectives website:

    “People think there’s this long laundry list of commandments they need to keep. I’m going to simplify this. First of all, the word commandment comes from the [Latin] word “co-manere”— it comes from the word “mano” that anyone who speaks a Latin language will recognize as meaning “hand.” Thus, co-mano means to give a hand, to lend a hand.

    T”he commandments are not burdens. It’s not like a military command, “I command you to do this!” It’s like, ‘Let me give you a hand to assist you to do this.’ What is it that God is giving us a hand with? All of the commandments are given for a simple purpose: to teach us how to learn to love one another.”

  9. I like very much the idea of the Church being more friendly, and surely there are things the lay members and leadership (an ever-changing, revolving designation) can do to foster a friendly atmosphere. Doctrinally, however, I think this piece provides a nice starting point but misses the mark along the way. While God is indeed the Father of our spirits (Romans 8), we are spiritually begotten of Christ when we come unto him in faith, repent of our sins, and covenant to be a better, more devoted follower of his Gospel: 


    “And now, because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.” (Mosiah 5:7)

    Once we’re part of Christ’s family – his people – what, then, does he ask of us? Early verses in 3 Nephi 27 were quoted in the OP; the rest of the chapter makes it clear that Christ’s church must be built on Christ’s gospel, which of necessity requires repentance (vs 19), covenants (vs 20) and good works (vs 21) that, coupled with Christ’s grace, sanctify us as new creatures in Christ. The restored Church is indispensable in facilitating this process (too many recent General Conference talks on this topic to name, but Elder Christofferson and Elder Hallstrom come to mind).

    We talk about being more like Christ and following Him. How do you sincerely follow someone without doing what they do? Isn’t this obedience? I’m sorry the OP bristles so much and so often at the idea of obedience – it’s the bedrock principle of the Gospel. Viewing the Church’s proper role as a buddy can be a nice sentiment at times, but would ultimately be a disservice to us. Elder Hafen gave a profound BYU devotional in 2008 (A Disciple’s Journey) that addresses this very theme. Highly recommend.

  10. Geoff - Aus says:

    I think the appeal of Uchtdorf is that he comes over as more loving, usually talks about Christ, and is uplifting.

    Benson you express one understanding of why we are here on earth (the traditional one).

    My understand is that we are here to have joy by learning to love our fellow man (neighbours) as God does. “Be ye therefore perfect even as your father in heaven” is referring to loving not obedience.

    You will no longer have a disposition to do evil, but that is not obedience.

  11. If the LDS church is representative of my friends, I need new friends. Why? Because when I go to an LDS church Sunday school, I do not feel free enough to ask real questions. There are no real discussions of real world issues allowed. There is talk of “Milk Before Meat.” But after one reaches the point at which milk is not enough, there is no meat. People are crying out for meat. They feel anemic for lack of meat — and they get more milk. Sometimes, it feels like one is being fed Texurized Vegetable Protein and told that it is just like meat and we should appreciate it. It is not meat and it is a lousy substitute.

    Questions about the temple ceremony. “Go do a temple session.” Still have questions? Go talk to a temple worker. They have no insight. Need more answers? Ask the Temple President. He has no answers, he just tells people to keep coming back.

    Friends take care of each other. Friends have your back. A friend was told that his fully devout tithe-paying widow mother could not receive welfare benefits because she owns a small dog. The bishop told him that anyone who could afford to feed a pet does not need welfare benefits. She paid a full tithe her entire life. She is now paying 10% of her social security check to the church. Without paying tithing, she would be financially independent. Paying that 10% of her social security is enough to leave her needing assistance. But that little pet dog is not allowed. Real friends do not judge their friends so harshly. Real friends are more generous and kind.

    The LDS church will remain a harsh authoritarian figure until they can learn uniform and dependable kindness. Friendship is about trust. That has to be earned and the LDS church has too much Leadership Roulette to be fully trusted.

  12. Since when does it make sense to use the present perfect when speaking of the future?

  13. Jesus only knows how to speak in perfect tense!

  14. I enjoyed reading this post and believe this is what the church should be, metaphorically and literally, our friend. My relationship with the local church feels familial. My ward family, my bishop, teachers and the leaders of my children all feel close. They care. I know them and so I can trust them. I can disclose to them. We can disagree, discuss, reconcile and draw even closer through this process. They help me, suffer me and I think some even love me as I strive to love them too.

    But the analog breaks down when we look at the other church: The church at the general level. (I categorize the church–as others have–into three buckets. The local church. The general church, and then the church bureaucracy which includes all rank and file employees and the tasks to which they are assigned.) I do not have access to the general church, despite it determining much of the qualify of my religious life, and some of the most important elements of how I exercise my faith (e.g., temple access policies). If I call SLC HQ, I will not be put through to any general authority. If I write or email, it will be returned to my stake president. Only under certain circumstance (mostly unpleasant) can members petition the first presidency…but they certainly don’t get an audience with them to plead their case. I have no channel through which to communicate questions about church policies, or criticisms of church policies or programs. Sure, I can give this to my local leaders (and at the same time likely commit church calling suicide), but I have zero recourse or power to speak to the general church directly. This does not feel like family/friends to me. I watch general conference and listen intensely to the talks, some boring, some instructive, some deeply inspiring. I can think I know members of the Q15, but I really don’t, and never will. They are not my family or my friends–and I’m not saying this being resentful or with any kind of acerbic intent. It’s just a fact. I can admire them like I do a virtuous civic, political or educational leader, or sports star of good personal character. *And I understand I sustain them and believe them to be prophets, seers and revelators–and follow them in ways I don’t when I reference others I admire.* But still…I can’t think of them as family or friends because the mechanics of those relationships are simply not present, and cannot be present by design of the general church. In some ways this hurts me as I work to follow and develop with my faith through the church in which I believe, and this is a problem.

    The better analog when it comes to the general church is that of having a relationship with a staid, formal, white shoe corporation, not a family. I cannot see any way of getting around this reality. As the church grew and starting in the 1960’s came the great corporatization of the church. And it feels like it has been growing more distant ever since. Policies feel like they are more guided by the social research the church does, and cost-benefit analysis. I’m not saying this is necessarily all bad (even through I believe it is deeply flawed), just that it’s corporate, not a family, not how friends build relationships with each other. I apologize for not bringing a solution to the table. At this point the problem feels intractable. And it makes me sad when I think deeply about this reality and what it means as I search for the future.

  15. BigSky: I agree that the corporate analogy is the reality. But super-strict corporate policy and super-strict parent policy really aren’t that different, in my emotional opinion. Part of the intent of this post is to ask the question of what would it look like if we rejected that model and tried to build a new one. Can you think of anything that could be done structurally or practically to make the corporate church feel more like an honest friendship?

  16. Carolyn: Thanks for the challenging redirect. Some quick thoughts….

    The tension, in my opinion, with the construction of a competing model comes down to the way our church history, traditions and frankly doctrinal claims centralize authority. The tension really lies, in my opinion, with the balance of power local v general, and this challenges the way the church has increasingly centered power and authority (the two are different) in SLC.

    *Give local churches (not just local leaders, but congregations) more voice in church policies. If multi-billion dollar corporations can build amazing customer service platforms and economically respond to customer concerns, why can’t the church provide a channel in which members can participate. Corporations are not democratic institutions, but innovation, growth and satisfaction can be driven by customers/followers/club members and in ways that align with the organizations core mission. Really do think the incredible changes we have witness with the BYU honor code in the last day comes from kind of bottom up effort.

    *Give local churches more power. Give congregations budgets that not only cover youth programs but that can be applied to solve local, community problems, even to the benefit of non-members. The church is a hoarder of money–that is simply the truth supported by incontrovertible facts. This is power (different from authority). If the church were to decentralize some of its power, i.e. its financial resources, to local congregations, I think we would see much more engagement and members rallying around causes each locale deems worthy and good.

    *It’s nearly impossible for 16 million members to have access to the Q15. But maybe we start to walk away from general conference as the biggest party in town and have quarterly regional conferences where we hear from a group of GA’s and their secretaries, and how about a few accountants from the auditing department and heads of church correlation. Let’s talk, listen, and not just feature GA’s at the pulpit but a primary president. Just throwing mud at the wall here.

    *Decentralize correlation. The problems and issues relevant to members along the Wasatch front are so different compared to what our Filipino brothers and sisters need, for example. They don’t need gospel principles manuals in priesthood/RS, they need workshops on budgeting, cooking, communication, family structure, education, etc. While I recognize the church’s fear that the church may look differently in different parts of the world, where we are in development needs to be guided by people on the ground in their towns and regions, not by SLC HQ lesson writers from Bountiful.

    Just a few thoughts. And thanks Carolyn for the nudge.

  17. Carolyn, this is very interesting, looking at Jesus’ words to the twelve, in John 15:
    14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.
    15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.“ He says “henceforth”. So what was it that has changed in their relationship to that point? Is it that they now have fully his commandments, and following them earns his true trust as a friend? If “commandments” is taken in the Blake Ostler sense of the Latin-based word, as in doing things he asks, in a sense of doing them with the Lord, then I think it still fits your friend model of relationship with the Church, more than a master-servant model. As you observe, love is definitely stressed there more than obedience.

  18. I love this. No single metaphor can capture every aspect of the relationship between the church and its members, but this is a good metaphor that offers an important insight.

  19. Fact Police the marriage referenced in Ephesians and also in Matthew is that between the Bridegroom – Jesus – and the Church. It is not a marriage between us as followers of Christ but a marriage between us and the Savior. Our marriage to him or our covenant creates a bond that calls upon us to care about our brothers and sisters as we take His name upon us and follow His commandments. But that makes us all fellow adherents who work together in fear and trembling in gaining salvation.

  20. The stern overlord parent is exactly how I’ve felt about the church for many years. I have a father who is firmly 1950s Father-knows-best and the-family-is-about-the-needs-of-the-father. As my siblings and I have aged, we’ve learned to work around him, and he’s been put into a place of irrelevancy (that he is deeply aware of and upset by). I’ve pretty much done the exactly same thing with the church. My spiritual life is separate and outside of church, which I attend because I must, much as I interact with my father because I must.

    How to change that relationship (either one of them) to something more akin to friendship is beyond me. Because friendship is mutual and equitable. Neither my father nor the church is looking for mutual or equitable.

  21. ReTx, Coming from what I think is similar family experience, I might have worded it slightly differently as “he has put himself into a place of irrelevancy.” I wonder whether that may be exactly what Church leaders have done with respect to so many Millennials and other young members they fret about leaving — to say nothing about some of us older folks.

  22. felixfabulous says:

    Great post. One of the most liberating things about adulthood for me has been figuring out that I can choose to interact with the Church on the friend level and not submit to a stern father. I spent a lot of years getting worked up about rules and policies not making sense and being overly burdensome or arbitrary. Now I just ignore the ones I don’t like and make it work for me.

    I think the message of Jesus in the New Testament is highly critical of institutions and the idolatry that naturally accompanies them, the cult of leaders, obedience, etc. We cherry pick the verses and parts we want to view the whole thing through a lens of obedience, but I think a lot of it could be applied to a just critique of many of our institutional problems.

    Large institutions naturally become focused on their perpetuation and preservation and averse to risk, the Church is no exception. There is much good that can come by being part of a tight community, which the Church does better than almost anyone. The downside is that there are needed norms and boundary markers to make the community tight, which has the side effects of making the Church controlling and the members police each other and be judgmental.

  23. @felixfabulous, your last paragraph reminds me of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy which states (using the wikipedia reference for convenience),

    “In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”

    and also

    “…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

    I wish I were more optimistic but see the church at the general level becoming increasingly bound by Pournelle’s law.