I remember many years ago in a class, maybe even a BYU religion class, we were talking about the story of Cain & Abel. We read this passage:

And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. 

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. 

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? 

And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand; When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.


The teacher asked, “Are we our brother’s keeper?” At least half the class’s hands shot up in agreement that we are our brother’s keeper, but the teacher stopped everyone and pointed out that there is nothing in the text that says so. Cain’s use of the term is sarcastic, to point out that it is obviously not his duty to “keep” his brother, so he shouldn’t be asked to account for his whereabouts. He is obviously saying this as a diversionary tactic since he has murdered his brother. In reply to Cain’s question, God doesn’t even justify the phrase “brother’s keeper” with a response. The Hebrew word for “keeper” in the text is shamar, and its meaning is similar to how we refer to someone as a zookeeper. Keeping is hedging in someone, imprisoning them, guarding and protecting them, but in our control.

Yet, most Church members in my experience would disagree with this teacher and would claim that we should be our “brother’s keeper.” The term is even claimed in the hymn “Lord, I Would Follow Thee.”

I would be my brother’s keeper; I would learn the healer’s art.

To the wounded and the weary I would show a gentle heart.

I would be my brother’s keeper—Lord, I would follow thee.


This particular use of the term “keeper” is limited to healing and caring, not to controlling someone who is inferior or penning them in, the sense that Cain used in his churlish reply. The other verses of the hymn also specifically disclaim judging others and focus on love and service.

Still, I think this is one of the core distinctions in how religious people choose to interpret their discipleship.

In a recent online discussion, a woman in Texas who was in her ward’s YW Presidency lamented that many of the women in the ward only wore their garments on Sundays or at the temple, instead wearing athlesuirewear most of the time, and that the Young Women wore short shorts in contradiction to the guidelines in the For the Strength of the Youth pamphlet. She said that when she raised concerns and offered to do a lesson on “modesty,” others told her to mind her own business and said they weren’t interested because these lessons never go well. She also shared the concern that these types of lessons go awry, and she was clear that she doesn’t feel it’s right to blame women for men’s impure thoughts, but she still wants to encourage others to follow the standards. She took her complaint to the internet, as one does, to bolster support. Is she right?

Completely unrelated, a friend of mine posted on social media something she was told many years ago in her career, that “advice is criticism.” It’s true enough. Nobody gives you advice because they think you should not change anything about what you are doing. They also don’t give you advice because they think you know more about it than they do. They may be well-meaning, they may be trying to help, but it is criticism. While that’s not to say that criticism is always bad, unsolicited advice generally doesn’t do much good to relationships. When a doctor tells an overweight patient, “You’re overweight,” this is not a news flash to them. When a stranger tells you “Smile!” there’s a lot of information being conveyed in that one word, usually none of it welcome.

I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.

Joseph Smith, overheard by John Taylor replying to a query about his ability to lead such a large group of people.

In response to the Texas woman’s complaint, there were many conflicting opinions. The most common disagreement with her was to point out that she was being judgmental. But there was an equal pushback to this “you do you” mindset that apparently prevails in this discussion board, at least according to participants. She asked if you would do nothing if everyone in the ward was “getting drunk,” which is an interesting comparison. Are both these activities equally harmful? Are they harmful to others or just to the self?

Some pointed out that people know the standards, and lessons reiterating the same exact things don’t change minds. They might not agree with the standards. They might agree but have exceptions for health related issues. They might literally be on the way to the gym every time you happen to see them. Someone else pointed out that the statement on garments read in the temple recommend interview was relaxed in 2019, and that she was trying to enforce an outdated standard, that the current standard was personal choice.[1]

While it’s easy to think that this woman is a judgmental Gladys Kravitz, which she may be, she didn’t come across completely that way to me. It’s true that it’s irritating when ward members form a sort of neighborhood watch committee to police the behaviors of their fellow Mormons, but having shared standards, at least in a high demand religion like ours has always been, is part of building a community. Without those shared standards, it can feel like chaos to some, freedom to others.

The other perspective is that when we preach anything other than becoming like Christ, following His example, (even “coming to Christ” in which we probably mean “the Church” instead of “Christ”), we are probably looking beyond the mark. When we are using the words of church leaders to bolster our own “rightness” rather than having an open-hearted discussion about what Jesus would do in our situation, we are using a substitution for Christ, one that may contradict His actual teachings.

The woman pointed out that garments were of value to her to remind her of Jesus and her covenants, which is great…for her. The women she sees who are not doing what she’s doing may not need clothing as a reminder of Christ. Or they may feel differently about it as a reminder. Within other churches, wearing a cross is a symbolic reminder of Christ, but failing to wear one doesn’t necessarily mean you need correction by others within the community.

We should strive to be open-minded to input from others, but that doesn’t mean that they are always right, and we can learn from everyone either. Plus, life is just too short to have to listen to every person out there who thinks we aren’t living the way they think we should. On a continuum, other people can inspire us, they can persuade us, they can advise us, they can remind us, they can nag us, they can warn us, they can scold us, they can use force to control us. But wherever they are on this continuum, they see themselves in a superior position to us: they are right, and we need to be right in the same way they are right. They are our keeper.

And yet, this is likely a byproduct of being in a lay clergy church. We don’t consider women to have priesthood [2], but women and men are “in charge” of others through our callings. We have (limited) stewardship to teach others, to advise them, and to correct them. And we also have a church that elevates the opinions of church leaders, increasingly the higher up they are, over those of church members. Given that people are flawed, the more we push this idea, the worse the outcomes will be. We preach out of both sides of our mouth, that everyone is entitled to personal revelation, that we follow the dictates of our conscience, that we have agency, but that we are always wrong if we disagree with or don’t obey leaders, that we can use the words of leaders as a cudgel against our fellow members and to prove that we are more right than they are, and that the outward appearance is a totally valid way to determine someone’s righteousness.

We are looking beyond the mark when we elevate any one principle, no matter how worthwhile it may be, to a prominence that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or when we take a position that is contrary to the teachings of the Brethren.

E. Cook, nailing it, then failing disastrously on the dismount, literally contradicting his original excellent point

So what’s your take on this “brother’s keeper” business?

  • Are we supposed to be our “brother’s keeper”? Why or why not?
  • Does it matter if church members conform to standards? Which ones?
  • Is it right to police others’ behavior in the church community? Does it work?
  • Have you received unsolicited advice that you were glad you got?


[1] I think the point of clarification was not so much a change to the standard as making the statement a more accurate representation of the instruction given in the temple, but that’s just my interpretation.

[2] Except whatever that borrowed priesthood thing was that Oaks is trying to make happen.