Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Sustain: To Strengthen or Support

From its earliest days The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had a principle known as common consent. In the Guide to the Scriptures defines common consent as:
"The principle whereby Church members sustain those called to serve in the Church, as well as other Church decisions requiring their support, usually shown by raising the right hand.
"Jesus Christ stands at the head of his Church. Through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he directs Church leaders in important actions and decisions. However, all Church members have the right and privilege of sustaining or not sustaining the actions and decisions of their leaders."
Most LDS Church members likely equate common consent with the sustaining of church leaders, although, this is only a subset of the principle of common consent.

Active church members will be quite familiar with the process of being asked to sustain people called to serve in church callings. This occurs in various church assemblies, ranging from young women classes to the Church's semi-annual worldwide general conference. Most members have rarely seen situations where someone has voted against sustaining. But this happened last Saturday at the Church's general conference (see Fox 13 news story).

I am old enough to recall the last time something like this happened, when dissent was expressed over the Church's official position opposing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution (see 1980 statement by Church leaders). In a June 2012 post I discussed the time some members voted against sustaining our local bishopric.

The understanding of voting to sustain church leaders has evolved over time. In the early days of the Church it was more common for people to vote according to their reason and whims. Over the years the understanding has changed to where it is now only acceptable to vote against someone proposed for a church calling if you happen to have knowledge of that person's unworthiness to serve in the calling. Unlike years ago, disagreements over administration are now insufficient reasons to vote against sustaining an individual in a calling.

Some see this shift as a deepening of the understanding of the Church as a theocracy, where God is at the helm. Another likely factor is the organizational realities of moving from a small early 19th Century group to a diverse multimillion member worldwide institution. But to critics of the LDS Church, the shift seems like an awfully convenient way to shield church leaders from criticism.

In fact, that seems to be the main point one of the five dissenters among the 22,000 attendees at last Saturday's general conference session seemed eager to make. He and other dissenters are likely frustrated by Pres. Uchtdorf's direction for them to consult with their local stake presidents. They do not believe that stake leaders have sufficient authority to address their concerns, nor do they believe these leaders have adequate avenues for raising those concerns to those that could address them.

From what I can gather from the Fox 13 story, the concerns raised by the main dissenter interviewed are so fundamental that I doubt they could be resolved by any meeting with any church official. After considering various sources, some dissenters seem to call for more open discourse, feeling that the Church's top leaders are too insulated to be able to consider diverse viewpoints. While I do not know how genuine they are about this, it is difficult to imagine how the Church could ever flex so far as to appease them without losing its appeal to the vast majority of its active members.

One of the central features of the LDS Church is its claim that it is the authorized kingdom of God on earth, whose mission is to prepare the earth for the second coming of Christ and to prepare souls for maximum joy in the eternities. It's not a perfect organization because it's staffed with imperfect people, so there's room for improvement. But the more the organization can be reworked according to human ideas, the more it loses this defining feature, and thus, its appeal to the faithful. Too many of the viewpoints offered by dissenters seem to drive in this direction.

The first words uttered by some faithful church members following the dissenting vote on Saturday amounted to wondering why these people didn't just leave the Church if they couldn't sustain its top leaders. It seems likely that some are already headed down that road. But this uncharitable view seems antithetical to the teachings of Christ as well as the teachings of modern church leaders about gathering the lost sheep. The Lord deeply loves each of these individuals. Church members are under covenant to follow this pattern.

Of course, love does not mean tolerance for damaging behaviors. C.S. Lewis said that proper Christian love includes wishing for people to willingly accept the earthly consequences of their actions, even as they accept Christ's Atonement in assuaging the negative eternal impact of those acts. When done right (which admittedly isn't always the case), excommunication can be one of the most loving acts a church leader can perform.

Having gone through a period of spiritual crisis myself, I empathize with church members (and even former church members) that are struggling with their faith. Even those that are absolutely certain that they are right in their stance against the Church deserve mercy and kindness.

The vocal dissent by five people last Saturday seems to have caused some faithful church members to wake up and really think about what it means to sustain their leaders. Many have openly expressed their approval of top church leaders. This isn't a bad thing.

I was sitting at home during the sustaining of church leaders. It was a sacred privilege for me to raise my hand in support of each. This was no mere reaction. It was a thoughtful exercise. While I can empathize with the turmoil some dissenters must be feeling, I can also say that I know through experiences too sacred to detail here, that I am under divine mandate to fully sustain those serving today in the Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve — despite their aging and faults. I feel much like what Joseph Smith expressed in Joseph Smith History 1:25. I know it. I know that God knows that I know it. And I dare not deny it.

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