Criticism of Leaders and Inerrancy

Using Elder Oaks’ guide to would-be critics of church leaders, I’d like to explore some of the implications of this important text. In this talk, he recommends five options for those who wish to criticize the church. First, one can overlook the difference. This doesn’t mean that one must accept the leader’s view, but simply not act on it. Second, like the first, is to reserve judgement and not act on it for a time. This requires that one reflect substantially before acting because upon further consideration one may change their mind or the situation may be resolved. Third, one may meet and discuss the criticism privately with the leader. Fourth, one may meet privately with a higher leader to discuss the problem or send a letter. And fifth, one may pray for a resolution. Options 1, 2, and 5 require complete silence, while options three and four offer the relative silence of a “private” meeting or letter. None requires that one simply accept the leader’s views. The strength of Elder Oaks’ teaching is that silence is offered as a spiritual practice as a virtue. I’d like to compare this practice to the practice of biblical interpretation based on inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy as an intellectual position aims to preserving the reliability of God as a source of truth such that the text provides a guide to living that one can trust. This does not mean that there aren’t contradictions, tensions, and challenging things in the text, but rather that such points serve a higher purpose of disclosing greater wisdom, forcing one to more closely read the text. However, rather than seeing inerrancy as primarily an intellectual position, I’d like to explore it as a spiritual practice, a discipline of interpretation. One finds a problem in one’s reading of the Bible and engages in a practice of interpreting the text through a set of pre-defined interpretive moves. The practice itself is seen as a spiritual exercise.

Similarly, LDS cultural taboos on criticism of church leadership as an intellectual position is meant to guarantee a kind of reliable guide to living. While such a stance does not depend on the inerrancy of the church leader, it does depend on the inerrancy of the church leader’s advice as providing a reliable guide to living. Criticism is inappropriate because, in its most dogmatic form, one cannot make a mistake by following leadership’s teachings because they are the appointed leaders, right or wrong. As Elder Oaks says, this brings together two practices, silence and obedience, as providing a path to spirituality.

There is a shared circularity in both of these views. For biblical inerrancy, one is supposed to believe that the Bible is inerrant because they Bible says that it is inerrant (never mind that it doesn’t actually say that). Similarly, for church leadership, one is supposed to uncritically accept their teachings, because, well, they have taught that we should uncritically accept their teachings. In both cases, one can claim to break from the circularity of the argument by appealing to an outside anchor, which may be called a witness or a testimony, that provides external certification of the claim such that it no longer appears to be circular.

Despite the similarities of the claims about inerrancy and non-criticism, the important distinction between them rests on the different ways that one approaches the authoritative voice. For inerrancy, one must presume that the text is inerrant, and must struggle to make sense of it. For the taboo on criticism, one is perfectly free to consider that the leader has erred. In the latter case, however, this belief must not be made “public.” Only “private” criticism is possible, whether in the form of simply remaining silent, or addressing the issue in a private meeting or private letter.

The value of “silence” or “private” criticism lies in the effects it has on the would-be critic to ponder and contemplate the nature, worth, and content of the criticism as a sort of spiritual exercise. Further, this silence is held up for the preservation of “unity,” a greater good than truth. Like the position of inerrancy, one is forced to reconcile oneself with the object of criticism in the service of a higher value. This teaching is offered as a spiritual practice which I think holds great value.

The one potential problem with the taboo on silence is shared by the problem of inerrancy. What if one questions the very foundations of the taboo? What if one questions inerrancy itself as the basis for interpreting the text? What if one wants to criticize the stance of silence itself? There appears an unresolvable tension. This has the potential to explode the circularity of both positions. While one cannot vocalize publicly, but only privately, other types of criticism, if one seeks to criticize silence itself as a practice, the injunction to silence cannot be used as a justification to refrain. That is, if the criticism itself is that the Bible doesn’t teach inerrancy, the logic of the system falls apart. Similarly, if one’s criticism is that silence is a problematic practice with respect to certain kinds of criticism, the logic of silence fails to hold. Must we, then, simply assert that silence is the proper way to deal with criticism in the same way that the question of inerrancy must be simply asserted as the proper way to read the Bible?

19 Replies to “Criticism of Leaders and Inerrancy”

  1. TT: “Similarly, LDS cultural taboos on criticism of church leadership as an intellectual position is meant to guarantee a kind of reliable guide to living.”

    I disagree. I believe that cautions about criticism are based on the value of maintaining unity and relationships as off-setting the value of open forum airing of concerns. It isn’t that criticism isn’t allowed — it is. It seems to me that the primary concern is to not create a public rift that makes achieving the unity that is the hallmark of Zion — or of learning to love one another — a paramount value. “I’d rather lose an argument than a friend” is an expression of that value.

    Now there may be times when the value of friendships, love and unity are outweighed by the the gravity and value of public discourse about the issue at hand — blacks and the priesthood comes to mind as a possible exception. Even when positions differ on such issues, the value of respectful dialog and seeking honestly to see both (or all) sides is important to maintain friendships. Prop. 8 is another issue that may merit public dissent — but respectful and honoring the values of unity and friendship in the process. However, there is no question in my mind that these rifts in agreement and airing of our differing views publicly have exacted a heavy toll on our efforts to achieve unity and harmony among us as a people. The more acerbic and disrespectful attacks by some members have been the most damaging in my view.

    So I don’t believe that inerrancy — implied or otherwise — has a lot to do with it in Mormonism. We all acknowledge that even revealed statements are subject to error and those that lay no such claim to revelation are entitled to less deference. I don’t think that our view of inerrancy (or lack of such a view) can explain what underlies Elder Oaks’ concern about public dissent among the saints (or so-called saints).

  2. Blake,
    Actually, I think that we agree here. I certainly acknowledge that there are good reasons not to engage in criticism which don’t have anything to do intellectual reasons, but social ones of practice. For this reason, I try to distinguish non-criticism as an intellectual position and a spiritual practice. In my understanding of non-criticism as a spiritual practice, it includes all of the reasons that you lay out.
    On inerrancy, I also tried to clarify that the LDS position is not dependent on a notion of inerrancy (except among those who consider that even if a teaching from a leader errs, one does not err in following it), but rather that inerrancy serves as an analogous spiritual practice. Thus, what connects these two ideas is not that they are somehow the same with respect to the status of an authoritative statement, but with respect to the constraints that one places on oneself as a spiritual practice in interpreting/critiquing that authoritative statement. I have tried to show the limitation of both positions as possibly requiring that one not question the foundational assumption that these practices are necessarily the best.

  3. Thanks Jacob and Kent! In rereading this, I think that there are a lot of areas where I wasn’t clear, especially since I waited too long to make the points that Blake made. Sometimes when I read my sentences again I find that I’ve left out key words that would complete the thought. In any case, I’m glad that you all got it despite the lack of clarity.

  4. So, Elder Oaks’s take is that public silence — well, not so much just silence, but privacy in critical communications in the hierarchical structure, right? — is a virtue in spiritual practice. And that’s all for the sake of love and unity within the fold. Have I got that all right? Yet TT and Blake seem to be saying that it goes more to tone and respect. Certainly, they both have taken very public, not private, positions on many occasions and on subjects, not all of which one could say were completely orthodox. Maybe they’ll challenge that claim. Anyway, Blake says, “. . . there may be times when the value of friendships, love and unity are outweighed by the the [sic] gravity and value of public discourse about the issue at hand . . .” and gives some examples: blacks and the priesthood and Prop 8.

    May I, in private, — just kidding — but with utmost respect to all, say that it seems to me that hamstringing free and open speech within the Church on public issues (like the ones Blake mentions, for example) is a vice. I might feel differently if I saw or felt that the private-communications venue had been or was now more viable than our sad history has shown. When outrageous acts have been perpetrated and unacknowledged under the cloak of privacy in past practice within the Church (e.g., MMM) and took so long to gain public acknowledgement and some degree of resolution, I have little hope that privacy works that well. And it seems inimical to me of a loving Heavenly Father. I have nothing against the notion of “let’s discuss that in private” when we’re dealing with personal issues. It’s another matter for me when we’re talking about public issues and policy that reaches beyond the walls of the temple or chapel.

    In the late ’70s and early ’80s, I quietly struggled with my faith perhaps more than had been normal up until then, even though the big mess with civil rights and blacks and the priesthood had cleared up pretty nicely. I hadn’t agreed with the Church’s positions on those issues, but had kept pretty much mum.

    The LDS God that most people preached and believed in was, it seemed to me back then and it had for some time, too much like the Catholic or Protestant God: you know, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc., etc. One big bugaboo for me in those younger days was foreknowledge and its implications relative to agency. I am not trained in philosophy or theology, but the two notions just seemed incompatible.

    I prayed, read, and studied the scriptures and the talks of the GAs, and even began broadening my resources beyond the LDS authorities, even going beyond the Church. At times, I made comments in Sunday School or at Priesthood Meeting, usually on the notion of foreknowledge and agency. It seemed to elicit askance looks and/or scowls. In fact, it still does.

    I knew about SUNSTONE and DIALOGUE and even subscribed — to SUNSTONE, for a while and DIALOGUE, to this day. One day at the UofU library, I looked into a back issue of DIALOGUE: issue, Summer 1984, where I found the article, “The Mormon Concept of God.”

    Reading that rather provocatively and confidently titled article wasn’t quite as satisfying as the June 8, 1978 revelation some years before for me, but it meant a lot to me and my faith. It felt like an answer to my searching and prayers. It had a profound effect by making me realize that others (well, at least one other) felt — but on a much more profound level — somewhat like I did on the subject. Not that such thinking was necessarily right, but that we had similar feelings about God. It made it easier for me to cope with my differences in belief and thought from so many of the members in my ward and stake and even in the interpretations I was reading and hearing from Church authorities above the local level.

    Since that time, of course I’ve tried to pay attention to Blake’s writings. A lot of them go right over my head, but I still I consider them as best as I can, sometimes agreeing , sometimes not, and sometimes confused. I also like to lurk here in the Bloggernacle when I have time.

    All of this is simply to say that I have great respect for the faith and thought of others like TT and Blake — even his, to me snide, “so-called saints” judgments that stabs to he heart — and others in the bloggernacle who put themselves out there in a public place and their ability to enlighten me mostly in positive ways.

    Forgive the length of this. You can tell I have too much time on my hands today.

  5. wreddy,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment and allow me to join you in thanking Blake for his work over the years which has had a profound impact on me as well.

    As for the success of the private communication option, unfortunately the nature of this kind of approach prevents us from knowing how successful it actually is. There are anecdotes, for instance, of when certain individuals have brought an issue, doctrine, or practice to the attention of a leader who then intervenes or changes their mind, but these anecdotes are most likely never revealed. There are also anecdotes about private communications that have become public and subsequently poisoned the discussion and it feel apart. One problem with this approach, at least when it comes to issues that go to the top of the church is that only certain voices that actually have access to leadership are privileged. This, I agree, is a limitation.

    I do agree with Oaks that silence and/or private communication has a virtuous quality to it, one which can make a person better. That does not mean that I think that this approach must be pursued in all circumstances. The locus classicus is Lester Bush’s article on blacks and the priesthood which is generally thought to have had a great influence leading up to the revelation.

    For me, given that I do think that some kinds of criticism and public discussion is not only helpful for making the church a better place, but also necessary, the question is how to know the difference about when silence is better and when public criticism is necessary. I am not sure if I have adequately solved this issue, but I have pointed to some ways in my previous posts, collected here, with some others by fellow FPR bloggers.

    Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading/lurking!

    That is incredibly kind. Thank you!

  6. Yeah, TT, I hear you. It is hard to decide, other than when you don’t have the energy or time to do anything anyway.

    This latest brouhaha over SSM and Prop 8 seems a lot like blacks and the priesthood except that societal SSM per se, as in California before Prop 8 passed, didn’t impact the church’s inhouse practice regarding marriage. Are you or is anyone else relative to the blacks and the priesthood evolution aware of any persuasive argruments that say why my self-imposed silence was better not only for me, but why the delay in making the change was beneficial to the Church and its members? It seems obvious to me why it wasn’t beneficial to blacks.

    I started through those prior postings relative to this subject when you first put the links up. Thanks, and I’ll try to get back to you on it over there.

  7. Thanks for the kind words wreddyornot and TT. As you have noted, I have at times taken positions in print that call into question a received orthodoxy — though I don’t view my efforts as heterodox because I make every attempt to explain why I see such views as within an allowable range of options open to LDS.

    I guess I have some sense for the virtue of private dialog that TT so eloquently discusses because I have had the opportunity (and from perspective the privilege) of discussing a number of issues that I raised directly with members of the 12. I had the opportunity to discuss issues of timelessness, foreknowledge and free with Neal Maxwell on several occasions. I also had the opportunity to discuss the issues related to my expansion theory of the Book of Mormon directly with 3 of the 12 very openly and critically. I appreciated the sensitive and loving way in which they approached the issues with concern about their implications and what such issues mean for faith.

    However, not everyone lives in SLC and not everyone has access to the 12. To be quite frank, discussing the issues with my local leaders would never have worked for a number of reasons. Political dissent is much more sensitive I think. Theological issues are often quite innocuous despite disagreement. My sense is that dissent on political issues is much more of a threat to unity. Further, determining and weighing the values of unity and the gravity of issues like Prop. 8 is not an easy task. I happen to support Prop. 8 — but for reasons that are not supportive of state-sponsored marriage. TT and I have had long (and time consuming) discussions in which we disagree. However, I think that we have maintained a friendship and respect for each other.

  8. In a typical contemporary government there is a legislative or deliberative aspect and a executive or functional aspect.

    Such organizations remain stable despite wild debate only due to the consensus that everyone is compelled to support certain types of duly legitimated determinations, and that some determinations are so important that coercion is a legitimate resort. That is ultimately what a secular government is for, to maintain a monopoly on coercion.

    In a religious hierarchy things are different because (1) the stability of the institution is much more closely tied to faith and confidence – there is no coercion, no mandatory taxation, the whole thing is much more susceptible to failure due to a crisis of confidence or division and discord.

    (2) The legislative or deliberative function in many religious organizations is sufficiently hierarchical to the degree that people in the lower echelons don’t even hear of the issue until the higher group considers it to be in the executive stage. By that point they don’t want to hear any more deliberation – the success of the organization is dependent on direction – any direction – actually being carried out and not just deliberated to death at all levels of the organization.

    The stability of a religious organization with such a centralized deliberative function is completely dependent on the honor, respect, confidence placed in the higher levels of leadership. There is no clean way to have anything but relatively muted and respectively deliberation and commentary once a higher level council has made a determination, because it compromises the organizations very existence.

    Short of some radical ecclesiastical change that expands the legitimated deliberative process to wider circles in some sort of quasi-representative, democratic, or meritocratic manner that is the way it must be. Such an expansion supports the two phase approach of consensus then execution. If consensus only really matters in higher level forums, at the lower level there is only really an executive phase. Public criticism once an issue is in the executive phase tends to be debilitating in a voluntary organization.

  9. Mark D,
    I appreciate that excellent analysis. I’d like to suggest that part of the “faith and confidence” in the political realm comes not from the state’s monopoly on conversion, but the ability to openly criticize and react.
    Perhaps one reason that some lose confidence in church leadership is precisely because they feel there is no legitimate mechanism of criticism. That is to say, it is possible that the lack of the ability to criticize might also become a source of a lack of confidence.
    Ultimatley, I think that the faith and confidence in church leaders is not dependent on whether or not they are susceptible to public criticism, but whether or not their actions and teachings inspire the faith and confidence necessary for their continued support.

    I cherish our discussions on Prop 8, and frankly think that they serve as a model for productive dialogue on difficult issues. They did take up a lot of time that I don’t think either of us had to spare, but I am really glad that we did it. Thanks again for those conversations, and for future ones that I hope to have with you.

  10. TT, Certainly the state requires faith and confidence of its citizens as well if it is to long survive. States and regimes seem to weather such crises better than most religious organizations for a number of reasons, however.

    One I didn’t mention is that safety, security, and (economic) well being of a populace is more closely tied to the correct operation of a well functioning state than the welfare of the same is tied to functioning religious organizations, at least in the short term.

  11. This whole discussion centers around a single individual and his or her “keep it private” versus “voice it in public” decision. What about the larger view of how Mormons as a people are perceived? What if no Mormon ever criticized anything?

    In other words, if everyone followed Elder Oaks’ advice and kept potential criticisms to themselves even in the face of policies or decisions that ought to be criticized … what would people think? They would think that Mormons are the equivalent of robots that take orders from the COB and their local leaders. They would ignore the standard disclaimers (that leaders do not dictate political positions to members; that leaders teach correct principles but the rank and file of the Church govern themselves) and instead conclude that we practice groupthink.

    So I think some public criticism is healthy to avoid this scenario. It reminds people and ourselves that there is diversity in the Church and that one can disagree with some things without becoming a dissenter and perhaps even without being disagreeable.

  12. I think that we need to just follow the prophets and screw our own political, social, etc ideas if we wish to avoid the fate of the nephites.

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