This past week has seen a bit of a firestorm due to the comments of Elders Oaks and Ballard regarding transparency in their recent face-to-face event. Here is the relevant bit:
Ballard: It’s this idea that the church is hiding something, which we would have to say as two Apostles who have covered the world and know the history of the church and know the integrity of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the beginning of time, there has been no attempt on the part in anyway, of the church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody.
Now we’ve had the Joseph Smith Papers. We didn’t have those where they are in our hands now. And so we’re learning more about the Prophet Joseph. It’s wonderful we are. There’s volumes of it. There’s so much in those books now on my book shelf. Maybe you’ve read them all [gestures toward Oaks], but I haven’t got there. I’m a slow reader.
So, just trust us wherever you are in the world, and you share this message with anyone else who raises the question about the Church not being transparent. We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth. We have to do that. That’s the Lord’s way.
Many people on Reddit, several blogs, and some podcasts have pointed to several instances of Church leaders doing the very thing Ballard claims didn’t occur: hiding things or being deceptive. I don’t want to dwell on those examples (there are good examples here, here, here, here, here, and, of course, Mary Ann’s excellent post today) other than to state that I agree with the sentiment that Church leaders have not been transparent about history, finance, and other facts relevant to many members of the Church. Often we dwell on a specific quote by a specific person or on some instance of evasion (as Ballard did with the First Vision accounts), but in this case it is important to step back and see a consistent trend of evasion, deception, prevarication, burying of damaging information, and “carefully worded denials” (e.g., Joseph on polygamy, post-Manifesto polygamy, Hoffman forgery of Joseph’s treasure digging, Poelman talk, sneaky use of ellipses in manuals, etc.). Taken in total, leaders have shown a willingness to hide damaging information until their hand is forced (by the Internet, for example), which erodes membership trust, so when Ballard says “just trust us,” it rings a bit hollow.
Some attribute the lack of transparency to maliciousness, but I beg to differ; I think leaders have had good, but misguided, intentions. An example of this is the statement by Elder Oaks to Linda Newell (one of the authors of Mormon Enigma) as recounted in her talk at the 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium called “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith”. She stated that, in a meeting with Elder Oaks regarding the book, he said to her:
My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything else may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors.
To me, that sounds like a ringing endorsement for hiding things, especially considering the efforts by Church leaders to limit the influence of the book’s two authors; however, it also reveals the reasoning behind such efforts: the good of the Kingdom. I don’t detect in that statement a power grab or maliciousness on the part of Elder Oaks, but rather an “ends justify the means” type of attitude. As a leader of the Church and one principally tasked with extending its influence, I can see why he might use such tactics. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand.
Despite my disagreement with Elder Ballard regarding past efforts at transparency, I think he is correct in two ways:
- The Church is making efforts to be more transparent, as witnessed by the Joseph Smith Papers, Gospel Topics Essays, and what I consider a pretty open environment to historical inquiry.
- Transparency, as far as one is able, is “the Lord’s way.”
It is the second item that I would like to highlight and discuss further, including some challenges the Church faces in doing this to a greater degree, for I believe it strikes at the heart of the erosion of trust in Church leadership’s authority.
Joseph Smith, in his famous King Follett Discourse, said the following:
The mind of man is as immortal as God himself…Is it logic to say that a spirit is immortal and yet has a beginning? Because if a spirit has a beginning, it will have an end. That is good logic…
The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God found himself in the midst of spirits and glory, and because he was greater, he saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have the privilege of advancing like himself–that they might have one glory upon another and all the knowledge, power, and glory necessary to save the world of spirits. I know that when I tell you these words of eternal life that are given to me, you taste them, and I know you believe them. You say honey is sweet, and so do I. I can also taste the spirit of eternal life; I know it is good. And when I tell you of these things that were given me by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, you are bound to receive them as sweet, and I rejoice more and more.
If we accept these teachings from Joseph Smith, particularly that we are immortal spirits, it means God did not create us, right? We already existed and God, wanting to provide for us the same privilege of advancing that he experienced, instituted a plan for us to do so. Indeed, I agree with Joseph that the teaching “tastes good”; however, it begs the question: If we were immortal, free agents, how did God obtain his authority over us?
As far as I am aware, there are principally two methods to obtain authority over a sovereign agent:
- Subdue the agent, taking authority by force and usurping their sovereignty.
- Have authority granted to you by the consent of the agent, through the voluntary exercising of their agency.
I’m going to state that I don’t believe God obtained his authority through force or usurpation, so option #1 is off the table. Instead, I believe God obtained his authority through our consent; we consented to grant him authority over us as part of the process of obtaining the privilege of advancing like him. Having advanced to some point greater than us, he had the experience necessary to help us become like him, so we granted him the authority necessary to accomplish this task. We, as sovereign, immortal agents, exercised our agency and consented to his authority. I believe this is the Lord’s way.
Common consent, and its corollary, individual sovereignty/agency, is not only a governing principle of heaven (and the source of God’s authority over us), it is also enshrined as the governing principle of the Church. Doctrine and Covenants 26:2 states:
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.
There is an excellent presentation on this topic that was given at the Sperry Symposium and is available at BYU’s website. According to the presentation:
The law of common consent in the modern dispensation was first revealed to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in Peter Whitmer’s home in June 1829. At that time, Joseph and Oliver were instructed to ordain each other to the office of elder and then to ordain others as it was made known unto them. Their ordination was deferred, however, until “such times as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our thus proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as spiritual teachers or not.”
The presentation also quotes Orson F. Whitney’s comments about the occasion:
What!—exclaims one. After these men had communed with heavenly beings and received from them commandments for their guidance; after receiving divine authority to preach the Gospel, administer its ordinances, and establish once more on earth the long absent Church of Christ! After all this must they go before the people and ask their consent to organize them and preside over them as a religious body? Yes, that was precisely the situation. Notwithstanding all those glorious manifestations, they were not yet fully qualified to hold the high positions unto which they had been divinely called. One element was lacking—the consent of the people. Until that consent was given, there could be no church with these people as its members and those men as its presiding authorities. The Great Ruler of all never did and never will foist upon any of his people, in branch, ward, stake or Church capacity, a presiding officer whom they are not willing to accept and hold.
The presentation then states:
Further instruction concerning ordinations and the “vote” of brethren was later revealed to Joseph Smith in early April 1830. Joseph was instructed to organize the Church and kingdom of God. Included in those specific instructions was the “law of common consent, “which reemphasized that “no person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church”(D&C 20:65–66).
Another interesting example of God respecting agency and consent is found in D&C 124 where, after specifying several people to fill various callings within the Church, the Lord says, in verse 144:
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;
Church leaders have taught that the United States Constitution is an inspired document, primarily because it enshrined into law individual freedom, agency, and sovereignty, in contrast to the previous situation where Americans were subject to the British monarch. Church governance followed a similar vein, enshrining individual agency as key to the governance of the Church. There would be no Divine Right of Kings in the Church; instead, Jesus would be our king and we would consent to those who would be in authority within the religious community.
In order for consent to function properly, those providing their consent must have available to them all relevant information to aid them in making their decision. This is a key reason transparency is so integral to both the exercise of consent and the governance of the Church. How can one give one’s consent if material facts have been withheld from them – facts that may affect whether consent is given? For someone in authority to not be transparent is to abridge the agency of those over whom they wield authority, and to do so is most certainly not the Lord’s way.
Doctrine and Covenants Section 121 makes this abundantly clear. This section is a portion of a letter written by Joseph Smith as he languished in Liberty Jail. Joseph and those with him were incarcerated due to the unjust exercise of authority by civil authorities, so the righteous exercise of authority must have been a topic pressing on his mind. Verse 37 states:
That they [rights of the priesthood] may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
To violate the trust of those who consented to one’s authority, by covering one’s sins, is to forfeit that authority. To exercise control or compulsion over someone else is to forfeit one’s authority. Lest anyone think there is a righteous way to exercise control over the souls of the children of men, Joseph goes on in verses 41-42 to explain how one may wield authority righteously.
- Not by virtue of the priesthood: In other words, one cannot simply make an appeal to authority to influence others.
- Persuasion: We should seek to persuade others to our view. We cannot compel them or appeal to our authority.
- Long-Suffering: We should exercise patience and empathy.
- Gentleness: We should not be gruff, frightening, or intimidating.
- Meekness: We should be humble, admitting that we do not know everything and remain open to the ideas of others.
- Love Unfeigned: Our love should not be fake or contingent on others agreeing with us. We should also communicate our love in words and deeds.
- Kindness: We should be respectful and considerate of others, emphasizing their importance.
- Pure Knowledge: We should be transparent with our facts, giving the whole story needed for others to adequately judge the validity of our authority. We should seek to understand and learn what is required to be effective leaders.
- Without Hypocrisy: We should not be hypocritical and should practice what we preach. Any standard we expect of others should be expected of us, for we are all equal before God.
- Without Guile: We should not be deceptive, shifty, duplicitous, or evasive. We should be fully transparent.
This standard is not an easy one to aspire to. It does not come naturally; however, it is critical in order to operate with the sanction of God. The standard, along with the principle of common consent, helps to avoid the rule of tyrannical leaders and respects the agency of those over who one has authority. To act in ways that violate their trust by hiding one’s misdeeds or mistakes, being deceptive, prevaricating, using weasel language, or burying information important to consent, regardless of the intent, is to usurp the agency of those over whom one has authority, placing yourself as their sovereign and is most definitely not the Lord’s way.
To be honest, I believe this is the source of a lot of the angst over transparency within the Church. People want to be respected and dealt with honestly. They want to be treated as equals before God. Frankly, they deserve it. Can you imagine if God had withheld information important to our decision to accept his plan? Do you think he was deceptive or do you think he was transparent, laying out all the facts so we could make an educated decision? You see, to hold authority over someone through deception is to subvert their agency. Indeed, it is to subvert the plan of God, which is why transparency, with no deception or evasion, is the Lord’s way.
What To Do?
How are we to move forward given that many believe Church leaders have not been transparent in the past? First off, I think Church leaders should provide a full, honest, apology devoid of “lawyer speak.” No excuses, and comments such as Elder Ballard’s, where he said, “…there has been no attempt on the part in anyway, of the church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody,” need to stop. It’s just not true and is itself deceptive. Stop blaming the membership in any way and just come clean.
We must also continue current efforts at transparency. We are moving in a much better direction on this front and the integration of much of the historical problems into the curriculum and CES program is an important improvement. We can do better (I think the essays are evasive in places and omit some important facts, for example) but I think the general environment is much-improved over the past. We should keep improving in this regard.
Financial transparency is a must. Members cannot adequately assess whether they approve of how Church leaders utilize the resources of the Church unless there is greater financial transparency. We need not discuss all aspects of the financial records in detail at General Conference, but in this modern age, providing audited financial records is simply table stakes. It protects leaders and respects Church members.
I think we need to re-emphasize and reinvigorate common consent within the Church. We need to stop with the pressure that one might lose one’s temple recommend if one chooses not to sustain the current leadership. The specter of losing one’s temple recommend is no small thing and a vote not to sustain leadership holds out the possibility of losing a recommend. There are perhaps better ways we may word that question that gets to the heart of why it is asked, such as, “How do you support the mission of the Church?” Either way, the pressure exerted by fear of losing one’s temple recommend does not allow the free exercise of one’s agency through consent. This needs to stop.
We also need to change the culture regarding dissent. It shouldn’t be a stigma to vote opposed to something or someone. I’m not sure how to do this other than to have leaders explicitly state this in General Conference several times and take measures to ensure dissenting voices are adequately heard. Of course, as mentioned earlier, removing the possibility of a lost temple recommend will help in this regard.
The consent of free agents is the source of authority in God’s kingdom. Transparency by those in authority is critical to informing that consent, so any attempt at deception or evasion is an attempt to usurp the agency of those over whom one has authority, thus usurping the plan of God. This is why transparency is truly the Lord’s way.
What are your thoughts?