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The Paradoxes of Authority in Mormonism

Posted by nebula0 on September 25, 2008

Mormonism has at its heart a tension between the concept of free agency and that of authority.  This tension plays itself out in Mormon life on all levels, between a democratic impulse and an authoritarian one, between personal revelation and the strict levels of the priesthood with their respective domains.  What makes any tension like this interesting is the fact that the practitioners are not consciously aware of it playing out, they hold fast to the notion of freedom and authority simultaneously, privileging one element or the other as the situation demands.  How did such a tension of opposites come about in a single religious system?  What is the theology which supports these ideas in a single system? What are the implications?

Mormonism was born in a colorful time of American history, and more specifically, a turbulent time of American Christianity.  As any beginning student of Mormonism is aware, it was a product of the Second Great Awakening in American religious life, a time of large revivals, a time of itinerant preachers, a time of anxiety of one’s salvation.  Joseph Smith’s account of his seeking religious guidance in his First Vision accounts all point to the confusion that this could have on Americans involved (check out the canonized version of his story here: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/js_h/contents).  The area Joseph grew up in in upper New York was known as the Burnt Out District because of the all of the revivals that had come through.  Joseph, having been exposed to the views of many preachers, became concerned about the state of his own salvation and that concern led directly to his First Vision.  These revivals were directly influenced by American values such as freedom and individual rights which preachers on the vanguard of the movement had internalized and used to rebel against Puritan Calvinism which was once so influential.  This in turn influenced the church Joseph was to form, evidenced in terms such as “President of the church” and the practice of the body of members to sustain leadership.  Joseph’s environment leaves a deep mark in Mormonism’s basic theological notion of free agency and the American value of free enterprise and ability for anyone to rise in the system finds its most exuberant expression in Mormonism’s eternal progression which allows for any person to become a god or goddess.

Joseph soon found that this impulse to freedom and rising in the ranks would have a negative effect on the cohesion of the church he founded.  Soon, not only Joseph was getting revelation, but many others in the early Mormon community were as well, and their revelations undermined the authority of Joseph.  It was at this moment that the notion of priesthood authority was refined and its proper domains categorized.  So it was that only the Prophet, Seer and Revelator of the church, Joseph Smith, could have revelation pertaining to the entire church (as well as the globe, incidentally).  Other church authorities could have more circumscribed authority, patriarchs could have revelation pertaining to their family, and women revelation pertaining to their own limited spheres.  Not only was this priesthood authority conceptualized to order life on mortal earth, but also to extent to the eternities and order the life of the gods. So it is that our heavenly father will always have authority over us, even if we attain godhood ourselves and women are said to become priestesses and queens to their husbands, while the men become priests and kings to God.  The domains of the priesthood find their most unit in the family structure, which is envisioned to be the fundamental order of intelligent beings throughout all eternity.

The implications of these two elements in tension, personal revelation for all on one hand, rigid church authority on the other; free agency on one hand, the necessity to enter into binding covenants to progress on the other plays itself out in interesting ways in ordinary Mormon life.  Take for instance the practice of sustaining leaders.  Mormons are asked at various meetings to show their support for their leadership and also show support for sundry callings that every active Mormon will accept. The opportunity is also available for any member to express opposition to any leader or calling during these occasions.  The interesting thing is, it is culturally taboo to express dissent to what is understood to be an inspired decision.  So it is that in all my years as a Mormon I have never seen anyone dissent, and if you ask around, many other Mormons active all their lives have never seen anyone dissent and of those who have, it is usually just once or twice that they have seen it.  The notion of personal revelation is satisfied through going through the motions of sustaining and at least hypothetically allowing for dissent, while the reality of rigid church structure through which inspired bishops and stake presidents make their personnel choices is played out in the reality that opposition by other members is very rarely expressed.

Perhaps you, readers, have other examples.  Anyone care to share?


10 Responses to “The Paradoxes of Authority in Mormonism”

  1. As far as I am aware, the only time dissent is even a consideration is when worthiness is an issue for the person to whom the calling is extended. If there is no issue, there is no dissent.

  2. nebula0 said

    Great, thanks for sharing randall.

  3. Seth R. said

    You are right of course nebula.

    The Mormon notion of a simultaneous co-existence of free-will and obedience permeates even the highest levels of our theology (yes, we do have one). The relationship between the Father and the Son for instance, and, by extension, our personal relationship with the Father.

    Joseph’s teachings were that only truly “libertarian free-will” (as it would be termed today) can result in true freedom. He felt that coerced or necessary unity was actually not unity at all (I agree). There is nothing admirable in unity that is necessary or “wired” into the being of those concerned.

    Thus, Joseph’s view of the Father and Son held that it was indeed possible for one or both of them to reject each other. They did not have to be unified. It was a truly free choice. Yet the Son voluntarily subsumed his own free will into the will of the Father.

    This is how, according to the revelations of Joseph, the Father and the Son could be truly independent in theory, yet “One God” in fact.

    With his notions of human theosis, Joseph extended this model of the Holy Trinity – independent beings voluntarily one through indwelling of love – to all of us. His concept of Zion was comprised of those who were “of one heart, and one mind.” Indeed, the ultimate aim of human experience is to voluntarily subsume our own wills into the Father, as Christ did (understanding that such a feat is impossible without Christ’s Atonement).

    The effect of Joseph’s teachings about divine relationships was to take the Doctrine of the Trinity and “bring it down to earth.” Previous notions of Trinity, while both mystical and philosophically interesting, were of almost zero practical value to human experience and of questionable relevance. The Trinity was alien, incomprehensible and not to be imitated by mere mortals. Joesph changed all that and made the relationship between the Trinity a model for human relationships. Perichoresis was no longer something only God does, but something He invites us all to do. Heaven became family and unity became the Mormon family model.

    Joseph also re-visioned common notions of authority. To that point (and still today) Christians could never think of Godly authority without automatically assuming the authority to be coercive. Power equaled coercion in the traditional Christian mindset. Joseph rejected this and countered with a revelation recorded in D&C 121:41-44:

    41 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;
    42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—
    43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
    44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

    To understand this passage, you have to realize that Priesthood authority IS God’s authority. Thus even God’s authority over us is not primarily coercive in nature.

    Thus, this unique union of oneness and true and absolute individuality is the hallmark both of Mormon culture and of Mormon theology. It is also point where Mormonism is most theologically robust and ethically compelling. It is also at the heart of a “revealed God.” The Trinity has been pulled down out of the ether, and brought home to roost in human hearts and minds – comprehensible and imitable.

    God will have a completely free people and a unified people, that is the central genius of Mormonism.

  4. nebula0 said

    Sure, Seth, but I think you miss the point of my post which is that these two ideas are not commenserable and never will be. Free agency and personal revelation will always, fundamentally, be at odds with obedience and rigid priesthood structure. The thing that is interesting about Mormonism is NOT that it has found a way to meld these two ideas into a harmonious whole, because it’s not a harmonious union, but that it carries these two ideas fully as eternal struggle. This reminds me of Armand Mauss’ work The Angel and the Beehive, which I wouldn’t be surprised if you read it, but the title perfectly captures what I want to communicate in this post. They are two separate impulses in the Mormon religion, surviving side by side.

    That’s why I asked for examples of this paradox playing out and brought out the example of sustaining. Everyone knows that dissent isn’t actually being welcomed, but yet the form remains– I argue that is because free agency must be acknowledged even when, in that case, priesthood wins the day.

  5. Seth R. said

    Well, you sparked something I’ve been reading about, and I let my enthusiasm get the best of me. My main point was that there is an overall theological framework in Mormonism for reconciling the two. It’s when you get down the imperfect level of human beings and human organizations (the Church) that you see the cracks.

  6. Seth R. said

    I actually have plenty of examples of what you are talking about. Even when worthiness is an issue, the dissenter is unlikely to make a public scene, but will rather go privately to the Bishop after the meeting and express grievances.

    I’d also point out that Mormons are masters of passive-aggressive resistance. Much of the authority of Priesthood leaders in local LDS congregations is only illusory. The fact is, if the members don’t want to do it, and think it’s a dumb idea, no amount of “Priesthood stewardship” is going to change that.

    Phone calls will mysteriously not get made. Key people will unexplainably never be contacted. Family conflicts will arise. Signup sheets won’t be passed around. The initiative will die a quiet and obscure death.

    Mormons aren’t really big fans of straight-up confrontation. But if they think your idea is stupid, you’ll find out – if you’re paying attention that is, and know what to look for.

    And no one know better than a Mormon, the old maxim: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.”

  7. Seth R. said

    It’s also noticeable in young LDS mothers who deliberately make their infant fussy, so they can leave a boring, or objectionable Relief Society lesson. Or in the dads hanging out in either the foyer or the nursery.

    I know these examples are exactly on point, but your topic got me thinking about them.

  8. nebula0 said


    You’re a amazing, you predicted my next post (talking about the passive aggressiveness issue). I’ve observed those same things in my tenure as a Mormon.

    Honestly, if I were still an active Mormon, I’d make full use of my baby to get out of meetings. I never did feel comfortable expressing my true opinions on matters because it only led to, not rebuke, but worse, silence, eyes looking down and subsequent avoidance by certain people.

    Don’t get me wrong, if I believed Mormonism were true, I’d put up with it and find the few members who agreed with me because I know they are out there, but acknowleding the human experience part of Mormon life is an important part of understanding the religion. Is free agency and priesthood authority REALLY reconciled? CAn they ever be truly reconciled? I don’t think so, but paradox is a potentially fruitful ground for theological reflection so that doesn’t have to be a problem, but can be an opportunity.

  9. Seth R. said

    I don’t think they are reconciled in mortal reality. Nor will they be as long as the “natural man” contends with the spiritual (or “fallen nature” if you like).

    It does seem like a neat area for a scholarly paper.

    And actually I haven’t read Angel and the Beehive (need to). But I will be driving up to University of Wyoming tomorrow to hear Mauss speak in person, so maybe that counts for something.

  10. nebula0 said

    Of course, good for you Seth. Sounds like fun.

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