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Do we encourage unrighteous dominion?

October 26, 2007

By Steve M

Doctrine and Covenants, Section 121 may be one of the most often quoted, yet most seldom heeded, scriptures in Mormondom. I believe that, were we to pay more attention to the implications of this section, we would probably take a different approach to priesthood leadership.

Verse 39 warns that it is the natural tendency of “almost all men” to exercise unrighteous dominion the instant they get “a little authority.” Notice that Joseph Smith doesn’t say almost all non-members, inactives, luke-warms, or liberal Mormons, but “almost all men.” Although this passage specifically addresses the priesthood, and so Joseph may have been speaking primarily of and to the brethren, I would suspect that his assertion regarding people’s natural tendency to abuse authority applies to both men and women. According to this scripture, even active, faithful Latter-day Saints are prone to exercise unrighteous dominion.

This unfortunate reality should have a bearing on Church polity and policy. Our power structure, policies, and so on, should be designed to deter those with authority from abusing it, and provide incentives to act in accordance with the principles prescribed in Section 121. There should be stops and checks in place that steer people away from unrighteous dominion, and encourage them to act “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; [b]y kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (vv. 41-42). In other words, it’s not enough to tell people not to abuse their authority, especially given their apparent tendency to do just that. We must ensure that we are not facilitating or incenting that behavior, but are discouraging it.

Yet this is where I see us frequently failing. All too often, it appears to me that our leadership practices and expectations make unrighteous dominion especially likely to occur.

For instance, there is often little transparency when it comes to how leadership decisions are made. Members take it for granted that their leaders are praying and fasting over their decisions, that they are thinking things over and discussing them with their counselors, and are thus meriting the inspiration of heaven to which their positions entitle them. For instance, I often hear members describe as revelation counsel and decisions that the leaders themselves have not described as such. Members frequently only have a vague idea of how things operate or whether their leaders are making decisions in a satisfactory manner.

The fact that many Church policies aren’t revealed to the general membership, but are confined to handbooks that are only given to those in authority, also contributes to this lack of transparency. This unilateral knowledge makes for an unequal relationship between member and leader, and puts the members in a position of necessary dependency. For instance, in order to know the current policy regarding, say, vasectomies, the lay member must consult his bishop or other priesthood leader. Rather than having independent access to the policy, which would facilitate an autonomous decision, the lay member must necessarily involve his priesthood leaders in order to ensure that he is acting in accordance with Church policy.

Additionally, this imbalance denies members a standard by which to determine whether their leaders are acting in accordance with policy. This provides a disincentive for top-down accountability. A bishop is accountable to his superiors for following the Handbook, but not directly to the members of his ward, simply because so few of them are in a position to properly assess his performance. Other factors contribute to this lack of downward accountability. Aside from periodic sustaining votes at ward, stake, or general conferences (which are arguably more of a formality than an actual invitation for feedback), lay members don’t have many established channels for voicing concerns or grievances. In fact, they are actively discouraged from questioning their leaders, and a heavy emphasis is placed on faithful obedience to those in authority. While a lay member is technically justified in voicing concerns regarding his bishop’s conduct to his stake president, in the absence of evidence that the bishop is unworthy or is acting in direct violation of an established rule (which, as discussed, the member may not be aware of), this is likely to be of little avail. Authorities are usually given a high degree of deference.

The Church’s saving grace in this area is its insistence that leaders rely on prayer, fasting, meditation, and spiritual promptings in conducting their ecclesiastical affairs and executing their duties. I do believe that if leaders really employ these methods and make an effort to abide by the counsel given in D&C 121, many abuses will be avoided. It is probably for these reasons that serious abuses aren’t rampant and the Church bureaucracy functions rather smoothly, for the most part. However, as authority is not an absolute guarantee against error, limitations, ignorance, short-sightedness, or downright abuse, but (according to D&C 121) tends to have a corrupting influence on its possessors, I think there are compelling reasons to reevaluate our organizational and cultural approaches to priesthood leadership.

Edited to add: Of course, my views are based on my own limited experience as a lay member, not as a leader. If anyone is aware of leadership practices or policies that go to the ideals I have described in this post, then please share. I would also like to add that I view most of the problems we face in this area as pertaining to LDS culture, practice, and policy, rather than doctrine. I believe that the doctrines of the Church and the Priesthood hierarchy, as outlined in scripture, are compatible with a more democratic approach to leadership.

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18 comments

  1. I pretty much agree with you on that matter! Well said!

    I remember a short time ago when i was a Scout leader in my ward and I always had problems with how much money I was spending. The bishopric would come down harshly on how much we were spending but would never give us a real budget to work with anyway so I was always left in the dark as to how much money I had or didn’t have. This drove me completely insane. It finally came to a head where I told them it was not fair that they knew the magic number and I didn’t especially when they had no real clue on what it really takes to effectively run a descent scout program.

    Finally, I was so upset about it that my heart left the program and the boys suffered. All the while, we as members are supposed to put all that we have into our callings including the sacrafice of time and money. The problem is however that the Bishop and others in control of the money are not willing to make the same sacrafices we make to make the programs in the church work!

    Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t man that sets up the “church handbook of instructions” rather than God himself as it seems that all of this information is kept from us anyway like how much scout troops actually get and the like. To me it seems like we have set ourselves up for failure because we no longer let the spirit dictate in all manners but instead have to refer to a guidebook to “tell us” what we are or not doing!


  2. Hm. Rob. I’m gonna be a bit blunt here and suggest that it’s not just the bishop’s fault that your boys suffered. This is the kind of thing I was trying to get at in my post. For the system to work, yes, leaders need to be good leaders, but followers need to be good followers.

    Steve, I think from a logical perspective, your thoughts make sense. But don’t you find it interesting that the Lord didn’t present a logical solution to the problem? He provided a spiritual solution. A better system of checks and balances wont make more people chosen. I don’t think that the Lord cares as much about an efficient and effective system per se. He only wants that as it happens because of righteousness, not controlled dominion and behavior. imo.


  3. I don’t think that the Lord cares as much about an efficient and effective system per se.

    Am I making an argument based on efficiency? No. I’m making an argument that our policies and procedures should encourage righteous leadership and deter abuses of power. And I think that the Lord would care about a system that is “effective” in nurturing the leadership pattern set out in D&C 121.

    But don’t you find it interesting that the Lord didn’t present a logical solution to the problem? He provided a spiritual solution.

    Are logic and spirituality diametrically opposed?

    Here’s the leadership pattern set out in D&C 121, in part:

    No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

    By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

    As a remedy for unrighteous dominion, leadership that is based on kindness, pure knowledge, long-suffering, gentleness, persuasion, etc., seems pretty logical to me. It also seems pretty spiritual.

    To me, the problem is not in the gospel, or the Priesthood, or even the general hierarchy of the Church. It’s in the culture and some of our policies relating to leadership. While many policies may be inspired, I wouldn’t consider them all to be perfect or canonical. I think they’re subject to reevaluation and change.

    Policies, procedures, and culture have an enormous effect on the behavior of an organization’s members. The discipline of Organizational Behavior (in which Elder Bednar has a PhD, incidentally) is built on this premise.

    We want to encourage people to adopt the ideal model set out in D&C 121. I’m merely suggesting that a reworking of our policies and adjustments in our leadership culture may contribute to that end.


  4. The discipline of Organizational Behavior (in which Elder Bednar has a PhD, incidentally) is built on this premise.

    This is my field, actually (was my focus in grad school and my premommy career), so hee hee, you don’t really have to try to convince me about how OB works. I’m passionate about the stuff. But I don’t think it’s really the key to change in the Church.

    I do feel that, once again, I feel we might be talking past each other a bit. I fall somewhere in the middle of what you are saying. I am never fully comfortable with the notion that “we need to change things in order for people to be more righteous” which to me sounds an awful lot like, “the way the prophets have organized things is insufficient, so let’s change it in this way.” I’m not naive enough to think that all policies and procedures are perfect. Nevermind the culture. But change in this organization comes from changed hearts mostly, not changed environments. And that comes from the Spirit. If we really GOT the doctrine of D&C 121, we wouldn’t need fancy policy changes or checks and balances.

    Besides, since it’s the “disposition of almost all men [people]” to go to unrighteous dominion if they get authority, that’s gonna happen with followers as much as leaders. Give too much checking authority to the members (too many think they have too much of that already, imo), they are gonna get big headed, too. This is what I was trying to get at. We ALL need to GET these principles, these doctrines, because our natures will guide us by pride if we don’t let the Spirit guide instead. ALL of us are subject to these weaknesses. NO system will work if our hearts aren’t right. It’s really that simple. Even organizational behavior folks are teaching that kind of stuff (anatomy of peace, seven habits, etc.) They are less worried about policy and structure and more worried about individual heart and motives and love and concern.

    I personally think this is all set up as a test. And so I don’t look to policies and procedures as a primary way to make improvements in this particular organization. It’s different from any other, even as it is still run by imperfect people.


  5. But change in this organization comes from changed hearts mostly, not changed environments.

    I should clarify that I’m talking about the Church starting as it is. Of course, if things were really horribly messy in an environment, and really corrupt. then environmental change would help. I’m just not convinced that any change at this point would really make a profound difference in the degree to which unrighteous dominion happens or doesn’t. At some point, I think we need to accept the fact that if it ain’t happening, it’s not the Church’s problem to fix.


  6. I am never fully comfortable with the notion that “we need to change things in order for people to be more righteous” which to me sounds an awful lot like, “the way the prophets have organized things is insufficient, so let’s change it in this way.”

    It’s more like, “There’s always room for improvement.”

    But change in this organization comes from changed hearts mostly, not changed environments. And that comes from the Spirit. If we really GOT the doctrine of D&C 121, we wouldn’t need fancy policy changes or checks and balances.

    Of course a change in heart is key, but if changes in policy, etc., could help us reach our potential, I don’t see any reason to drag our heels. If policy weren’t important to the Church, there would be no such thing as the carefully guarded Church Handbook of Instructions.

    Just a couple years ago, we totally overhauled the missionary program. Of course, the goal was to nurture more spiritual missionaries–a spiritual goal, not too far from the “change of heart” you spoke of. But our primary means of achieving that goal were policy-based. We raised the bar, changed our approach to teaching, revamped missionary training, rewrote the discussions, etc. These changes in policy were aimed at achieving a spiritual goal.

    Give too much checking authority to the members (too many think they have too much of that already, imo), they are gonna get big headed, too.

    Forgive my frankness, but I really don’t think we need to worry about the members having too much “checking authority” any time soon.

    And so I don’t look to policies and procedures as a primary way to make improvements in this particular organization.

    As we apparently disagree on this fundamental point, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere in this dialogue. We may just have to agree to disagree on this one, M&M (gosh, that happens a lot with us).


  7. Steve, good point about the missionary program. I have been thinking I’ve been too strident in my comments and I’m sorry for that. I need to listen more before jumping in. Maybe then we might find that we don’t diverge so much? 🙂


  8. m&m, someone in sacrament meeting today quoted Dallin H. Oaks, and I thought of you. It was a good thing 🙂


  9. Ann, you had me scared for a minute. Dare I asked what he said? Or was it just the fact that someone was using a quote? haha Thanks,t hough. I needed that tonite…been worried about how I come across and don’t want to disrupt the nice interactions that happen here.

    Steve, I don’t want to take Lisa’s post in a direction that she didn’t want it to be taken, and so I am bringing things back here.

    I had a thought about the missionary program vs. the two suggestions you made (re: CHI and grievance processes). Why is the new missionary program so successful? I don’t think it is because of MORE control or checks and balances. If anything, it’s toward LESS control. (I envy to my core the missionaries today; I would have LOVED to be able to actually teach by the Spirit instead of following the discussions verbatim…I did it to be obedient, but I wanted to be able to TALK to people and cater the message to them).

    Anyway, even the OB consultant in me wants to say that the ideal way to get people to act the way you want them to act is to treat them as though they already are acting that way (within reason, of course). You want people to be creative? Let them create, even if they aren’t there yet. You want leaders to listen to their people? Teach them what that means and then interact with them as though they are doing just that. Appeal to the good in them and assume the best. Is it possible that putting more controls in to prevent unrighteous dominion might actually make things worse? Want someone to lead in righteousness? Treat them as though they are, and maybe they will! Could that be part of why the following and sustaining is so important? Not because leaders are ever-better and flawless, but because we try to treat each other as though we are the best we could be?

    (Elder Nelson talked about this kind of behavior in a marriage…”As grateful partners look for the good in each other and sincerely pay compliments to one another, wives and husbands will strive to become the persons described in those compliments.” Could this apply to our relationships as leaders and followers and fellow saints? If we were to give more power for more criticism and checking up on others, might that just backfire? I think it could, and that had never really occurred to me before.)

    I just think of the teach principles, let them govern themselves thing. Would more control be more like teach principles and then make sure they are lived kind of approach?

    I could be off here, but just had that click with me so wondered what your thoughts might be…..


  10. M&M,

    Why is the new missionary program so successful? I don’t think it is because of MORE control or checks and balances. If anything, it’s toward LESS control.

    My point in bringing up the changes in the missionary program had nothing to do with control. It was merely to show that changes in policy and procedure may serve to further spiritual goals.

    Other than that minor objection, I think your suggestions are valid, and they would certainly serve the goal of discouraging unrighteous dominion. However, they don’t negate my arguments. We can approach the problem from multiple angles. One might be the ideas you suggest (and if we could really get people to act in the way you suggest, I will concede that your suggestions are more ideal than mine). However, while pursuing those paths, we might also want to consider some adjustments in policy as well, even if they are only minor. I think there are multiple ways to encourage righteous leadership, and for the most part, they aren’t mutually exclusive.

    In my view, the ideal approach wouldn’t be entirely policy based or entirely exclusive of policy. It would probably be along the lines of your suggestions, but with policy-based buttressing. Policy changes aren’t an end in themselves, but should both serve and reflect the institution’s higher goals and purposes. If they needlessly encourage and facilitate certain types of undesirable behavior, then I see no reason why they should not be adjusted.

    I’m a HUGE fan of the “teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves” idea. I’m DEFINITELY not arguing for more control (I think we have more than enough of that already). But even Joseph Smith was a bureaucrat. His organizational innovations were part of his genius. I don’t think we need more rules or procedures or control. But I recognize the purpose and necessity of policy, and I think we should mold our policies to best serve and reflect Church goals.


  11. I guess my point is that checks and balances seem to me to be about increasing control and, as you say, “if we could really get people to act” as they ‘should.’ That sounds like control to me…just more control to the followers, which still could be subject to unrighteous dominion, perhaps even more than leaders because there really isn’t a stewardship or mantle built into following. Part of the genius of the structure in my view (and part of what my post was trying to get at) is the demand for humility for both leaders and followers for it all to work. It demands us all to look to the Spirit for help, not to rely on policies to do that work for us.

    Again, I don’t think all our policies are perfect, but obviously am still not sure that changing policies in the way you suggest are going to help people seek the Spirit more (which is what the policy changes in the missionary program did…that’s the difference I see…find policies that increase autonomy and look to the good that can be done, great. Find policies that are based on fear, and I think they might backfire.)

    I guess the fundamental difference is that you see problems in the structure as is, and I don’t see the same problems. I’d rather have things stay as they are than have the changes you have recommended, to be honest (nothing personal, ya know?) I think policies already pretty well serve and reflect church goals.


  12. I guess my point is that checks and balances seem to me to be about increasing control and, as you say, “if we could really get people to act” as they ’should.’ That sounds like control to me

    I’m sorry, I have to disagree here. “Checks and balances” are not about controlling people–either leaders or lay members. Authoritarian, unbalanced policies without checks are about controlling people. If you insist that “checks and balances” are about control, the please demonstrate how that is true.

    When I said “if we could really get people to act as they should,” I was speaking in the context of your non-policy-based suggestions. I was therefore not talking about “controlling” policies, but rather encouraging the type of behavior you described. I’m sorry for not being more clear.

    …just more control to the followers, which still could be subject to unrighteous dominion, perhaps even more than leaders because there really isn’t a stewardship or mantle built into following.

    I’m talking about shifting “control” to the followers, which is about balancing the power equation, which is currently heavily weighted on the leaders’ end. This is a redistribution, not an increase in the amount of “control” that the Church exercises over its members.

    And I really believe that you are overestimating how much “unrighteous dominion” members will exercise if given more of a say in the Church. It implies that they cannot be trusted with discretion; that authority in the Church is concentrated in the leadership because the members can’t handle it; that if the balance is tilted in their direction, the members are “gonna get big headed” (comment #4), and chaos will ensue. Better to save them from themselves.

    But this premise implies the need for more control over the membership. Additionally, you cannot square these claims with the “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” philosophy.

    find policies that increase autonomy

    I’m all for these.

    Find policies that are based on fear, and I think they might backfire.

    When did I argue for fear-based policies? Please don’t mischaracterize my arguments. I’m arguing for the EXACT OPPOSITE, actually. More democratic policies are likely to DECREASE fear among members. Under the current regime, I would not feel comfortable voicing to a stake president a concern over a bishop’s conduct or counsel, because he is totally free to construe my disagreement as disloyalty or unfaithfulness.

    In fact, I found myself in this exact situation a few years ago (when I was a much more orthodox Mormon). I was very uncomfortable with counsel given by my bishop. I felt that the counsel bordered on abuse. I thought about speaking with the stake president, but I did not–for the precise reason that I feared retribution.

    That’s fear.

    I guess the fundamental difference is that you see problems in the structure as is, and I don’t see the same problems.

    Another probability is that what I perceive as problematic seems fine to you (and vice-versa). Given the differences in our fundamental starting points, need we continue this discussion? I’m ready to call a truce.


  13. Steve, I still think that in some ways we are misunderstanding each other (your comment above suggests that) but I’m willing to call it a truce. 🙂


  14. m&m (may I call you m? 🙂 ) I don’t really remember what the context was. I just remember listening to the talk and hearing the quote and thinking, “Didn’t m&m cite that recently?” And I smiled when I thought of it.


  15. Ann, you can call me Michelle. 🙂

    Thanks for the smile and for sharing that with me.


  16. I thought I’d give an example of teaching principles of righteousness and letting them govern themselves. I was Scoutmaster for 12 years in Massachusetts. I began being SM when we were a small branch and ended when we were a small ward. My Bishop let me have all Aaronic PH boys in the troop, so I had to handle the mixing of ages as well as the normal problems that SM have.

    That statement from Joseph Smith was the guiding “policy” for the troop. In my 12 years, I had no discipline problems with the scouts. I never had boys playing “tricks” on each other. I never had boys getting into trouble of any kind during our activities. We camped 12 months per year, in weather ranging from sub-zero (F) temperatures to 18 hours of rain in the summer. I taught the boys how to survive outdoors and enjoy it, and I let “mother nature” give the discipline.

    Our week-long summer camp, in which we were the only LDS troop, was the highlight and joy of my scouting year. Each day during camp the boys would take off to merit badge classes, and I never checked on them that they were actually in class. I trusted them. They trusted me and voluntarily reported to me each night about their activities during the day.

    I never notified the parents of our monthly activities. That was the responsibility of the boys. I used to chuckle to myself each week at Mutual when I saw the YW president running around getting rides home for her girls (our ward covered a large area of about a dozen towns). I never got rides for my boys because that was their responsibility. Those that lived out my way knew they could get a ride with me if they needed it, but they had to come to me and ask for it.

    Most of my scouts became Eagles, and the rank was their Eagle not their mom’s Eagle. None of the moms of my scouts had to push their sons into Eagle. The boys had to push their their parents into helping.

    I had one scout whose father was a Master Sergeant in the Army, and he ran his home the way he ran his Army group. The mother always got her son ready for our monthly campouts. I talked to the mother privately and explained she needed to let her son be responsible for his campouts. So, she did that. In the days leading up to the next campout, she made herself available if her son needed help, but she made no effort to get his stuff ready. He came to the next campout with a frying pan, and a small receiving blanket. No food, no sleeping bag. I silently prayed for guidance and felt the boy should stay, and I sent him down to the campfire to join the campfire program. I then thanked the parents for bringing him, and as they left I expect they thought I was crazy since the temperature was expected to be in the high 20s (F) that night.

    When I went to the campfire program, I located my Sr. Patrol Leader and said, “You boys have a problem.”, and I explained the situation to them. With no suggestions from me, they found the boy’s Patrol Leader and said, “You have a problem.” The PL and his assistant discussed the problem and figured out a plan to get the boy through the campout. I waited until the afternoon of the next day, while the boys were playing games, to talk to the boy. I asked him just one question, “What could you do next time to make your campout more enjoyable?” He went through campout-preparation from A to Z. He knew what to do because he had been well trained. His problem was that he had never been given responsibility for his actions. He came well prepared for the next campout, and his mother told me privately that it was all his doing.

    Rather than trying to force people to do the right thing, teach them and then let them be responsible for themselves. There parents aren’t responsible. Their Bishop isn’t responsible. They are!


  17. Rather than trying to force people to do the right thing, teach them and then let them be responsible for themselves.

    I totally agree…

    I think I should mention that my “day job” (law student) is influencing my thought. Not that I think we need a rule to solve every problem (that’s not at all what I’m saying). I am of the opinion that preserving leaders’ and members’ autonomy and giving them broad discretion is very desirable. And nobody wants a thick, complicated rulebook. But in adopting, interpreting, and applying law, it’s imperative that we ask what message we are sending–what kind of behavior we are encouraging or discouraging, and whether that is in line with our societal (or in this case, organizational) goals. The laws and policies we espouse say something about our values, and have the potential to influence how people behave. For instance, “Good Samaritan” laws legally protect those who voluntarily help people in distress from lawsuits over unintentional injury or wrongful death, thus encouraging and facilitating benevolent actions. Ideally, the guidelines we adopt in the Church should encourage and facilitate behavior that is in line with our goals (e.g., encouraging righteous leadership).

    I hope this makes it clear that I’m not at all talking about force or manipulation.


  18. “And nobody wants a thick, complicated rulebook”

    During our stay in Massachusetts, my wife and I had the missionaries over for dinner from time to time, especially on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve. I remember one time when the missionaries came, they were really uptight about something. I asked them why they were frustrated, and the Elder replied that they had just been given a revised copy of the mission rules — 10 pages of single spaced text. On my mission in 1956-1958, we had no printed “mission rules”. We were told to be up by 6 and in bed when possible by 10. Stay with our companion when ever we were outside our apartment. Stay in our assigned areas, Dress and act appropriately. That was it.



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