Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why an organized religion? (part 3) On Authority

In my last entry I talked about the purpose of gathering together as a church. In this one, I will examine what gives people the authority in my church to tell others what to do.

My church is different from a lot of other Christian sects in that instead of one person having all the authority over a congregation and no one else having any, all worthy males above a certain age can hold some priesthood authority.

This is where it becomes very important to have order and organization, because if everyone tells everyone else what to do, it can turn into chaos really quickly. Over each congregation, one man is called and ordained by a higher authority to preside over the congregation. This man called is the bishop. The bishop is given two counselors to help him and he delegates some of his authority and responsibilities to them.

One of our articles of faith is that we believe a man must be called of God by prophecy and by the laying of hands (ordination) by those who are in authority to teach the gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.

The bishop must be called to that position by a higher authority than himself. The person who extends that call is called the stake president, who presides over a small number of congregations. The stake present is called by a general authority, and as far as I know the general authority is a seventy (“Seventy” is a title of a part of the priesthood). The seventies are called by an apostle, and apostles are called by the prophet. The prophet is the man who has been an apostle the longest (seniority) and who has not died yet—the Lord has allowed them to stay on earth.

Our church’s first modern prophet was Joseph Smith, who had his authority conferred upon him by the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John, who visited him and Oliver Cowdery in 1929.

Another principle comes into play with the ordination of people to offices of authority in the church--they must be accepted and upheld by the people they serve. So, in our church the names of the people who have been called to positions are presented to the whole congregation and everybody else gets a chance to raise their hand to show that they accept the person in that position. If they don’t accept it, they are given a chance to share the reasons for their trepidation. This idea that people must be given a chance to choose whether they accept a person in a position is called “common consent”. It also informs everyone who is in what position and it has the benefit of preventing someone from falsely claiming authority for a position that they don’t have. Even the prophet and apostles are sustained by common consent.

Another principle of leadership in our church is that leaders can’t strong-arm people into following them by saying “I have priesthood authority over you, therefore you must obey me”.
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. (Doctrine & Covenants 121:41-44)
The Lord expects church leaders to use only the power of persuasion, the power of patience, and gentleness, meekness, love that isn’t faked, kindness, pure knowledge (which enlightens), and to avoid hypocrisy or sneakiness of any kind when trying to influence people.

The scripture above also mentions how a church leader should reprove:
  • “betimes” – This means early, or quickly. Being corrected immediately after making an error helps keep mistakes from becoming habitual.
  • “with sharpness” – I see this as meaning clarity and firmness; I don’t think God intends reproof to be vicious. The more clearly it is communicated what the mistake was and why it was wrong, the more of a learning experience it becomes.
  • “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost” – There are a lot of faults and foibles that can be overlooked when dealing with other people, so a leader needs that extra guidance from revelation to let them know when it is important enough to speak up about an issue.
  • “showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” – I know that for me, receiving a strong reproof is painful and I am inclined to feel alienated from the person who gave it and think they don’t like me, but when they show extra kindness immediately afterward, I stop being afraid of them. There have been a few times when I have gotten a bit of a dressing down from a church leader with authority over me and the increase of love afterward made a big difference in my ability to take to heart what they were saying. The increase of love showed me they cared about me and wanted the best for me, so I was able to look more objectively at my own behavior and I finally saw that they were indeed right.
Another principle of leadership in our church is what I call servant leadership. If any man wants to be the greatest, he must be the servant of all. Christ taught this during his ministry.
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. (Luke 22:24-27)
Christ was the greatest of all, yet He was always serving. Leadership and priesthood in our church isn’t a crown; it’s a shovel. It’s not about receiving honor from men, but about getting to work to serve.

Another principle of leadership in our church is lay leadership. It means our leadership does not receive monetary compensation for their service. For their service, they receive grace from God that helps them do their church duties.
And the priests were not to depend upon the people for their support; but for their labor they were to receive the grace of God, that they might wax strong in the Spirit, having the knowledge of God, that they might teach with power and authority from God. (Mosiah 18:26)
In our church just about every willing adult is given a calling, which is basically a position with duties to do. We believe these callings come from God and that they are especially for us at this particular time of our lives. In a congregation the bishop seeks for revelation from God to know to whom a call should be extended for a position. There are all kinds of different callings. There lots of teaching callings, there are leadership callings, there are service callings, there are secretarial/clerk callings, there are counseling callings, there are musical callings, there are scouting callings, there are missionary callings, committee callings and much more. We serve in our position until the bishop receives revelation that we should be released. Callings can last a number of years.

This organization of duties means everybody has the chance to participate and help each other, everyone gets the chance to learn how to lead, and it means that we can do so much more as a group with direction than we could separately.

Another principle of leadership in our church is that of obtaining revelation. Every person in a leadership calling (or any other calling for that matter) has the right to receive revelation as to how they should do their calling. I’ve prayed for revelation when I haven’t been sure what to do. I’ve prayed for revelation when I know what I want to do and I want to know if the Lord approves or not. Answers and help do come.

I have experienced this myself in some miraculous ways. I was called as the organist for my congregation and though I had lots of piano experience, and I had some pedal experience, the pedal experience I had was on a completely different kind of instrument (a mechanical carillon, in fact) and the technique was completely different from what I was used to. In short, I only had half of the skills. When I was called to be organist, I was given a blessing that I would learn to play things that I hadn’t been able to play before. I did a lot of practicing and as I practiced the hymns, the Spirit of the Lord would inspire me with ideas of techniques to try and I would practice that and improve my playing. I learned how to play the pedals better this way. I know that the Lord was giving me revelation so that I could fulfill my calling.

My husband and I were co-chairs of the activities committee. We had the duties of planning and implementing parties and holiday celebrations for our congregation. We had the committee to help us. The Lord blessed us with good ideas and led us to people who could help us and things worked out. I also learned that with all the people helping and supporting our efforts, I couldn’t take credit for the whole thing. At the same time that I learned how to delegate, I learned to give people credit. At the same time that I learned how to lead, I learned how to give my committee members a lot of latitude and not micromanage. I learned how to encourage and give approval. At the same time that I was learning to make good decisions, I was also learning how to counsel with the committee. After all, I wasn’t the only one with the Spirit of the Lord. They could get revelation too on the best way to do their duties.

While opportunities for leadership can enlarge the soul, they can also be intoxicating. Heavenly Father is fully aware of the tendency of men to abuse their authority, and the following scripture gives very valuable insights into what happens to priesthood authority when it is overstepped or abused.
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
34.…And why are they not chosen?
35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God. (Doctrine & Covenants 121:39-40, 34-38)
We learn here that three things that grieve the Holy Ghost and cause it to leave are:
  • Trying to hide our sins
  • Trying to gratify pride or ambition (Ex: aspiring to leadership callings, showing off, self-righteousness, seeking for men’s approval rather than God’s, etc.)
  • Trying to force people to do things
We also see from the scripture that once a person has the priesthood conferred upon them, those powers they are given from God are only controlled and maintained through their righteousness and any departure from holy leadership principles will grieve the Spirit of God and when the Holy Spirit is offended, it leaves, and then the power and authority of the person has ceased. Though they may still have the calling in the church, it will be obvious that something wrong has happened, because they will demonstrate four things:
  • They will be left to themselves and not have the Spirit to help them in their duties.
  • They will be resistant to any suggestion that they are doing something wrong.
  • They will persecute other people.
  • They will fight against God.
If we have any complaints of someone’s leadership we can take it to a higher authority. In my years in the church I have never had to do this or personally seen a case when it was needed. It happens, but only rarely.

A principle of following church leaders is what I call revelation confirmation. Every person affected by the decisions of the leaders over them has a right to a revelation that confirms the truthfulness of what they are asked to do. We have faith that the same Spirit from God that inspires a leader to do something to benefit his stewardship will confirm that revelation in those who are affected. The way people deal with this varies. Some put their trust in the guidance they have received and test it by obeying and seeing what comes of it. (“ye shall know them by their fruits”) Others pray for and receive a confirmation, and then obey.

All these principles of leadership and discipleship in our church make the organization extremely effective. With revelation, leaders can lead with confidence and love. With faith and confirming revelation, we have confidence in our leaders and obey willingly and we grow very attached and loyal to them (though not to the point that we can't let go when they are released and can't give new leaders our support). And I’m not just talking about how this is supposed to be in theory. In our church, this really happens. It is the norm for our church organization to work smoothly. Yes, little frictions do occur from time to time, but they are few and far between and they get settled.

I’m very grateful for priesthood leaders. It’s a confusing world and we need revelation on how to handle it. We need organization so that we can do more for the world. We need guidance. We can support and uphold each other. Organized religion is the vehicle for all of that and I know that it works.