[NOTE: I originally wrote this essay back in 1994 for Vigor, an LDS samizdat put out for several years in the 90s by Orson Scott Card. Given some of the discussions making the rounds in LDS blogs, I felt it’s still as timely now as it was back then. It is reproduced here — with just a few additions, all in brackets and italics — by permission.]
I’ve followed with interest and not a little dismay the increasingly strident discussions in various forums of how to deal with the imperfections of Church leaders. On one side are those who claim for Church leaders an infallibility and wisdom which they do not claim for themselves. On another side are those who feel that a “community response” — full-page newspaper ads, press conferences, public seminars and printed articles (often with scathing criticism) — is right and necessary. [I might add “LDS blogs” in here as well.]
When you have two (or more) sides of an argument going around and around without resolution, it’s usually due to conflicting unstated premises. The key issue, largely unvoiced, is this discussion: to whom is a person with a given stewardship accountable? Is it the people over whom he or she (“he” hereafter, just to save typing and since we’re mostly focusing on priesthood leaders) has a stewardship? Is it the person or group of people for whom he is a steward? Is it both, and if so, how does he resolve conflicts between the two demands?
My personal belief is that someone with a stewardship is accountable solely to the person or people for whom he is a steward. In some contexts, that may well be the people over whom he has a stewardship, for example, an elected official is accountable to those who elected him. In the context of the Gospel and the Church, that is rarely the case; none spring to mind, but I won’t flatly exclude the possibility. The bishop of my ward is responsible for the welfare of its members, but is not accountable to them (myself included). He is accountable to the one who gave him his stewardship, namely the Savior, and to any of Christ’s representatives who have stewardship over him, such as the stake president. That stewardship moves up the priesthood line authority to the general authorities, who are all directly or indirectly accountable to the First Presidency; the First President’ counselors are accountable to him, and the First President is accountable only to Christ.
Given my stated premise about stewardship, we can now look at the key issue: if I think someone with stewardship over me (or even not over me) is in error, how do I handle it?
If the bishop acts in a manner which I feel significantly conflicts with his stewardship, my first responsibility is to approach him directly and privately discuss it. If that doesn’t resolve things, I have the opportunity — and, in some cases, the responsibility — to inform the stake president. Likewise, if I judge my stake president to be in error, I can deal with him directly, and if that doesn’t resolve things, inform the general authorities of the Church; the exact channel may depend upon the issue. If I judge a general authority to be in error, I can address my concerns directly to him; lacking satisfaction, I can then go to the First Presidency. And if I think they’re messing up, I can take things right to God. (Actually, I can do that in any situation, but since He’s appointed earthly stewards at all other levels, I figure He expects me to use them when appropriate.)
In this context, it’s interesting to note that we have the Lord’s promise that He will never let the President of the Church lead us astray; we have no such promise for any other church leadership position, so obviously the Lord expects us to use these checks as needed
What is critical in this process is that it should be done with the same confidentiality, sensitivity, understanding, patience and forgiveness — in short, the same Christ-like behavior — with which we would desire our own imperfections and errors to be handled. The Savior taught that “if they brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee, thou has gained thy brother.” (Matt 18:15) The Savior goes on to say that if that brings no results, we should inform the Church — which I would interpret as meaning the appropriate divinely-appointed stewards, not our circle of friends, the members of our ward, or the readership of Sunstone and Dialogue [not to mention the entire Internet]. We would probably be outraged, and rightly so, if we found that a church member — much less a church leader — was publicly criticizing our performance in our church duties; we’d even be upset over private criticism, if it was shared with those not involved in the situation. Yet all too often, we feel little compunction — and, worse yet, a great deal of self-righteous satisfaction — about doing the same, whether privately, over the net, in print, or even over the pulpit or lectern.
Given the above, the idea of a “community response” to the statements, decisions and actions of church leaders is as appalling and inappropriate as would be a “community response” — complete with private discussion and correspondence, newspaper ads, public lectures and published articles — as to how well any one of us is carrying out his or her stewardships within the Church and within his or her family. It ignores the dignity of the individual, and commandments toward charity, tolerance and forgiveness, and the channels which the Lord set up to deal with these issues. I suspect the Lord will not justify us in such a course, and that — whatever the errors of those we criticize — upon us will remain the greater condemnation.