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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Institutional Unrighteous Dominion

by ldsbishop (bio)

Madonna Litta by Leonardo da Vinci
I assume Mary is in the Mother's lounge here
as there isn't an awkward high priest nearby
Picture the scene: I've been a member of the church for less than a year, and my wife and I had just moved to the UK to settle down as a young married couple. After a few weeks of attending our new ward, I'm ushered into an office to meet with a member of the Stake High Council who had been assigned to extend my first proper calling. After dispensing with the niceties, he said that before extending the calling he needed to assess my worthiness for it. I'd already sat through a few of these interviews before baptism and receiving priesthood offices, but this one turned out differently. This is how a portion of the interview went to the best of my recollection (parts of the conversation are redacted to get around Internet filters):

"Do you keep the law of chastity?" he asked.


"Well, since you are new to the church and recently married, I think we better review that a bit more."

Uh oh.

"A lot of young people think its OK to [redacted] with [redacted]. Sometimes you might want to wear [redacted] while whipping your wife's [redacted]. My wife has never liked performing [redacted] on my [redacted] and I agree that it isn't pleasant. You might be tempted to stick your [redacted] into [redacted] but it isn't how God intended it to happen. Sometimes [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] [redacted] with a goat. So, do you still keep the law of chastity?"

If it wasn't a Fast Sunday, I'd have brought up my breakfast all over his loafers.

I quickly replied in the affirmative (even though my wife and I have [redacted] on a number of occasions) and the rest of the interview passed without incident. I left called as the new assistant ward clerk.

Afterwards I recounted the interview to my wife. She'd grown up in the church and alas had heard far too many stories of (mostly) priesthood leaders asking inappropriate questions regarding member's chastity and offering their opinions in that as well as other private matters.

As I moved throughout priesthood leadership within the stake I found out that this particular high councillor had a reputation for asking inappropriate questions. Of the many examples I'd heard, one included the time he asked an inactive 18 year-old daughter of one of our members how often she masturbated. He offered the excuse that he wanted to know if masturbation was leading to this individual's lack of activity. Yeah, right!

After a while the high councillor was reprimanded by the stake president and moved to a calling where he had little opportunity to conduct his "interviews" with the general membership.

As well as my experience and many other similar stories that I've heard over the years, the recent breast feeding furore has made me question how much the culture of the church allows those with authority to exercise unrighteous dominion. I won't use this post to debate breast feeding etiquette (my personal view is that anyone who feels uncomfortable with breast feeding, covered or not, has the problem, not the woman involved) but just cite it as an example as someone imposing rules/opinion that have no doctrinal or scriptural foundation.

We're all well aware of the verses in D&C 121 that deal with the subject of unrighteous dominion, yet examples big and small creep into our culture. In my experience, the victims of this are those that are perceived as being more vulnerable, the youth, women and new or investigating members.

We've all heard stories of people being told what constitutes appropriate Sunday dress. When I was first called as a bishop I had a running battle with a priesthood leader who insisted the Aaronic priesthood that administer the sacrament needed to wear suit jackets. When I said it was unnecessary and wasn't in the handbook, he insisted that while that was the case, we would be a better ward if we better enforced dress codes. I explained that our responsibility as ward leaders was to bring souls unto Christ. I'm pretty sure the Saviour didn't go about saying "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden. But before you do, this is what I want you to wear."

Last year, FMH started an action to try and work out what the church policy was regarding menstruating women performing baptisms in the temple. Some temples forbade it, others said it was fine. It turned out there wasn't a policy and women were free to participate in baptisms whenever they wanted. However, at worst, this was an example of culture imposing a rule on someone unnecessarily when it needn't have been.

I could go on with many more examples.

Do people who are looking for the truths of the restored gospel find those truths reflected in the lives of the members of the church? Or do they see a number of Scribes and Pharisees, more intent in keeping the church their own club with their own petty rules, rather than welcoming those who have different cultural expectations and opinions?

Below are my suggestions of some ways the church might alleviate some of the opportunities for some to exercise unrighteous dominion:
  1. In interview situations stop asking the question "Do you keep the law of chastity?" If not for everyone, at least for people under the age of 18. Surely the temple recommend question "Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and priesthood meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?" is sufficient? (I suppose this would require a policy change from the church to remove the chastity question as part of the temple recommend interview.)
  2. Have better training on the handbook of instructions for local leaders. If the rule doesn't exist in the handbook, don't make one up. The church is supposed to be flexible for a reason. The lack of knowledge of the handbook is one major reason for the imposition of oppressive rules on a local level. The church tried to alleviate this with the latest edition in 2010 by making it available online, but problems still exist because people haven't taken time to read it regularly (examples include only having men give the opening prayer and my suit jacket experience above).
  3. Encourage more use of spouses as home teaching partners. This isn't an option for everyone and is difficult for parents with young children, but if possible more husbands and wives could be called as home teachers. It could be a lot less intimidating for single members or those in part-member families to have a friendly couple sit in their home rather than two suited men.
  4. Decrease discussion of dress and grooming standards. Let people decide for themselves what Sunday best is. This varies depending on culture and where you live, but the church should stop expecting 1950's American grooming standards from a 21st century worldwide church.
I'm sure there are many other things that could happen to lessen the chance of people feeling the effects of unrighteous dominion. Maybe we just need to be made more aware of the relevant verses in section 121.

In my current responsibility as a bishop I'm always asking myself the following: are my actions allowing the ward members to exercise their agency more freely, or am I restricting them with my own expectations of what they should be doing? The gospel is for the entire human family, am I allowing more of them to participate in the joys found therein or am I crafting a club which restricts some people from feeling comfortable in it?

In the pre-mortal existence we shouted for joy at the opportunity to be given free agency. Let's not look for excuses to erode that agency from the very people that need to be exercising it more.

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