March 28, 2012
I’ve been meaning to write this for over a month. I read a collection of short opinion pieces at the New York Times about the church, and one of them talked about how when the church leaders speak most members follow “like sheep.” Not only is that not true, it’s not even possible.
As background, here’s something Elder Bednar said about doctrines, principles, and applications:
“It’s fine, don’t worry, Elder. A doctrine is not something bizarre or rarely spoken of. A doctrine is a simple, revealed truth from our Heavenly Father concerning our salvation. Doctrines answer the why questions of the soul.
“A principle,” he continued,”is based on a doctrine and answers the what questions. A doctrine, then, is the Atonement. It answers why we need a Savior. A principle based on the Atonement is repentance–it is what we need to do because of the Atonement.
“Understanding both the doctrine and the principle leads to application. Application is the how. An application of the principle of repentance are those 5 R’s we all learned in seminary. Now, is it possible to observe the application without following the doctrine? Yes. When I was president of BYU-I, there was a student who committed a grievous, heinous sexual sin on Friday night. On Sunday morning, he went to the bishop and said, ‘Bishop, you’re the last thing on my list. I’ve done all the other steps, and now I feel great. Thanks.’ This young man had no understanding of the doctrine of the Atonement or the principle of repentance.”
So here’s the thing: when the church leaders speak, it’s mostly on the level of doctrines and principles, and we have to work out the applications for ourselves. This requires thinking about the doctrines and principles and prayerfully considering how to apply them in our particular situation. A “sheeplike” response simply doesn’t exist.
What about the cases where a leader actually does give more explicit instructions? Even then, we are constantly admonished to not depend on the light of others, but to seek our own witness that what has been taught is true. If you’ve prayed about what was said and felt the Spirit confirm its truth, you’re not following like a sheep.
Now, it certainly happens that sometimes you pray about something and you don’t get an answer. Then you say, ”Well, I don’t know for sure about this, but I do have a testimony that the church is true and that this leader was called by God, so until I get the answer I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and obey.”
The last possibility is that the church leader is wrong. It happens: they’re human beings; they’re not infallible. But even if you’ve prayed and felt that the Spirit told you the leader was wrong, you need to approach this with humility and with respect and with the realization that you may have made a mistake in interpreting what you heard or felt.
People rant about ”blind obedience” all the time, and while it does happen it’s relatively rare: blind, unthinking disobedience is much more common, and usually has more serious consequences. Usually when we think about and study what we’re taught, we realize its truth.
This weekend is General Conference. Every time I hear the Apostles and Prophets and other General Authorities speak, it’s clear to my mind and heart that they speak through divine inspiration. With that kind of a witness, it’s hardly sheeplike to follow their teachings.