The Brethren and the Lord: A Letter to My Children
by Duane Boyce
Editors’ Note: This is Part I of a three-part article that will appear this week in Meridian Magazine.
The First Presidency
The abrasive sound literally jolted me:
“I don’t care about old Elder [name deleted] Whatsisname,” the voice sneered. “I can be a good member of the Church regardless of what he says.”
It was 1974 and the speaker was being interviewed on radio in Utah about a recent statement by a member of the Twelve. I was jarred. I had heard murmurs about the Brethren from time to time before, but this brazen lack of respect was new to me–and shocking.
It wasn’t the last time. Over the years the refrain has been echoed in one form or another nearly continuously by isolated individuals or small groups. The remarks, whether in print or in conversation, range from skeptical questioning, “You don’t really believe they’re inspired, do you?” to insult and challenge, “They discriminate against women” or “They’re denying my academic freedom!” And worse.
Faced with such discordant–and false–attitudes, my wife and I have wondered about our children. What do we want our children to know that these critical people obviously don’t? And how can we teach them? Do we have any fresh ideas on this subject that will help them?
It is no small issue. We want our children to become one with the Lord, and this entails feeling deeply loyal and loving toward the Brethren–just as He does. Thus, when the spirit is right, and it is possible to speak of sacred things, this is what we try to teach them. This is a letter to my children.
A Letter to My Children
Your mother and I have great love and respect for the Brethren who have been called to lead the Church–apostles and prophets and other general authorities. You have been aware of this since you were little.
As you get older, however, you will meet others, both in person and in print, who do not share these feelings. You will encounter attitudes that seem foreign to you. Where you have been accustomed to reverence, you may now find, on occasion, criticism and even belittlement. For awhile you may be confused and wonder about the principle of loyalty to the Brethren.
For this reason I want to give you a deeper understanding of our feelings; I want you to see the basis for them. We are eager, desperately eager, for the Spirit to settle in your souls on this issue.
There are three reasons for the depth of our feelings about sustaining the leaders of the Church. I want to share each of them with you.
First Reason: “Quench Not the Spirit”
Joseph Smith, who knew criticism only too well, spoke repeatedly of the unrighteousness of criticizing the leaders of the Church. Those who accuse the Brethren, he said, are following the example of Satan, and he placed being a “traitor to the brethren” high on the list of sins. And the Lord Himself declared: “Cursed are all those that shall lift up the heel against mine anointed.” He said that those who find fault with His anointed–who “cry transgression” regarding them–do so “because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves” (D&C 121: 16-17; italics added).
Such unrighteousness, such evil-speaking, always leads to a loss of the Spirit. The scriptures tell us that whenever we exercise unrighteousness, the Spirit is “grieved” and “the heavens withdraw themselves” (D&C 121:37). We cannot criticize the Brethren–exercise that type of unrighteousness–without disrupting the flow of the Spirit.
The Divine Order
This disruption occurs because there is an order that governs the Lord’s work, an order based on delegated ministers–those called to work in His name.
This divine order begins with the Father and the Son: The Savior performs His work in the name of the Father, as the Father’s minister; “I am come in my Father’s name,” He said (John 5:43). And the Savior has ministers who work in His name–from apostles and prophets to Sunday School teachers, home teachers, and all the rest.
There is an orderly arrangement of this miristry–a pattern of divine delegation–that allows the Spirit of the Lord to flow throughout the organization and to sanctify its workings.
When we faithfully follow the pattern of delegation established by the Lord, the Spirit flows freely and is able to accomplish its divine work. But when we fail in one way or another to follow that pattern of ministry, the flow of that Spirit is interrupted. It is obstructed–at times in its entirety.
For example, if I criticize the leaders of the Church, and, to some degree, rebel against them in my heart, I grieve the Spirit of the Lord and lose a measure of its influence in my life. This is serious enough, but it is not all. For this dilution of the Spirit in my life affects not only me; it affects everyone else for whom I am expected to be a minister, everyone else for whom I am called to be a channel for that Spirit. If I do not carry that Spirit I can–not be a source of it for others: Our family, my home teaching families, and, if I am a teacher, my class are all affected by my reduced power in the Spirit. The work of the Lord is weakened because I am weakened.
When this happens, that which is holy, that which makes the actual difference in people’s lives, is lost. What could have been a flood of the Spirit has become a mere trickle.
The Local Level
So, depending on our attitude toward the Brethren, we can either contribute to the flow of the Spirit or we can hinder it. This is true at every level of the Church; perhaps you can see it most easily at the local level.
For example, while serving as stake executive secretary years ago, I became aware of the stake presidency’s difficulty with a particular ward leader. He was somewhat uncooperative and unwilling to receive direction. This grieved the Spirit; its free flow was interrupted. I saw the results, the spiritual weariness, of that disharmony. The stake president did not complain or officiously demand obedience, but I saw him suffer from the interruption of that Spirit, and I saw how it impeded the work. I determined that I would never be the cause of such disharmony and spiritual disruption in my service in the Church.
The sacred work that people in the Church must perform requires a cooperation forged by the Spirit. By the Lord’s design, much of this spiritual cooperation consists in supporting those who have been appointed to give us direction.
Our relationship with our leaders, then, obviously requires a deep level of faith and devotion.
But this should not surprise us, for the same is true in our dealings with the Lord Himself.
For example if we insist on always walking in the light in our relationship with Him, on always knowing exactly what will happen and how we will manage and how we can control every possible outcome that might eventually affect us, then we are leaving nothing to Him. We can do that–He will let us–but it will then be our own light that we walk in, not His.
The only way to walk in His light is, with faith, to be willing to enter the dark. We must give up our insistence on careful control and advance information; we must be willing to rely on Him, and to be obedient. Then, but only then, can we discover the joy of walking in a divine Light–one that is brilliant and penetrating–rather than in the lesser light of our own making.
This attitude toward the Lord sets the general pattern for our attitude toward any leader in the Church. With mortal leaders, too, we must act with faith and devotion, not insistent on our own way, but cooperative and humble and willing to trust in the Lord. By thus relinquishing reliance solely upon our own light, we again discover His, and in doing so we become the very instruments of its dispersion. If we do anything else, we obstruct the light rather than reflect it; we become instruments of a different kind.
But, you ask, what about genuine human errors? Do they occur?
Of course they do! And I guarantee you will see a multitude of them–because most of them will be your own. You will see up close and firsthand the types of errors that occur in the everyday running of the Church because, along with everyone else, you will be making them yourselves, all the time.
For example, there will inevitably be times when you will be underprepared for an assignment, and thus let people down. Other times you will simply lack energy and fail to meet your normal standards of service. Sometimes you will just be in a bad mood and fail to be as friendly as you would otherwise be. Sometimes you will forget what you promised. Sometimes you will remember, but grudgingly. Sometimes you will be frustrated with your spouse or your children, and it will affect your energy to help others. Sometimes you will suffer from pride and perform your calling to impress rather than to bless. At times you may feel hurt by the leader of your organization and thus do less than you otherwise would, Sometimes you may have a calling you just don’t like–and thus try riding it out instead of working it out. Sometimes, despite your best thinking and earnest prayers, you will still make the wrong decision. And so on. The list is endless.
But none of this matters too much. The Lord is not finished with you yet, and as long as you are genuinely trying to do better, time is on your side. The Lord will make of you what you could never make of yourself, if you just continue to give Him the chance. Furthermore, with this attitude of always trying to do better, you can be sure that the things you do right will always outnumber, by far, the things you do wrong. Your impact on others will still be considerably more positive than negative, despite your mistakes.
But why do I emphasize all this? I emphasize it because this attitude toward your own errors is the very key to having the right attitude toward others’ errors, including those made by your leaders. The Lord is not finished with them yet, either. And to the extent that you are honest about your own sins and errors, you will rarely be very concerned about theirs. When we judge ourselves honestly (which is not the same as harshly), we just don’t have much of a disposition to judge others at all. We are free to see their virtues.
Let me share an illustration. Years ago, as a young couple, your mother and I had a bishop who just wasn’t a “people person.” It seemed as if he simply didn’t like the ward; he seemed instead to be putting up with us, to be tolerating our deficiencies. Just about everyone sensed his judgmental attitude and resented it. I was deeply unhappy for a long time.
Suppose I now told you that this man, in a sequence of events that didn’t begin too long after he was released, first lost his job, then lost his energy and ultimately his activity in the Church, and finally lost his wife and family in divorce.
I believe this man was deeply unhappy and troubled the whole time I knew him. I think his disagreeable manner stemmed largely from this. But did I notice? Did I care? Not a bit. All I could think of was his slight of me. I was too busy being concerned with myself to be at all concerned with him. And that was my sin. Had I been honest, I would have seen my utter lack of regard for him as a person. I would have seen that I had made of him a mere abstraction–“the bishop”–whose primary role was to stroke my ego. Had I been honest about this sin of mine, I would not have been so concerned with any sins of his; my whole attitude toward him would have been different. I would have been free to see all the things he did right. And after all, is it so inconceivable that perhaps I should have been an instrument of the Spirit for him–through friendship and support and some brotherly kindness–rather than sitting back demanding that he become one for me?
As I look back now, he is not the one I wish had been different in our relationship. It is often this way.
None of this suggests that others don’t make mistakes, of course. So what do we do if we notice some errors in others despite our efforts to be humble? We begin by realizing that most such errors are really inconsequential and that any efforts to “steady the ark” are very often overreactions. In the vast majority of cases, the call upon our souls is still to be absolutely humble and submissive and obedient. This is true for a very important reason: Over the course of time, the flow of the Spirit, uninterrupted, will resolve any difficulties caused by human error–and in the meantime, because the Spirit flows undisturbed, it is free to continue performing its miraculous work in people’s lives.
If we do anything different–if we inappropriately intrude into the divine pattern the Lord has ordained–then we interrupt the flow of that Spirit and disrupt its sanctifying influence–and we do so in directions that we can’t foresee and in ways that we can’t remotely calculate.
We cannot disrupt the flow of the Spirit without creating a bigger problem by far than the one we think we are solving.
Does this mean that we can never speak up when we think we see an error? No, but how we speak up is crucial. What we say must always flow from a faithful and humble heart, and out of devotion to the order of ministry the Lord has established.
An inspiring example of this comes from the life of Elder Dallin H. Oaks. Years ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled against prayer in the public schools, President David 0. McKay publicly criticized the ruling; he considered it to be leading the country
“down the road to atheism.” Dallin Oaks, on the other hand, who was a law professor at the time, saw good reason for the Court’s decision in the case before it and worried that criticism might be based on incomplete information about the full rationale and intent of the ruling. Brother Oaks began organizing his thoughts on paper–reviewing the Court’s reasoning and showing its application to secular influences in the public schools as well as to religious ones. Soon after completing his document, he happened to meet President Henry D. Moyle of the First Presidency at a Church function in Chicago. When President Moyle asked him about his legal work,Brother Oaks gave him a copy of this writing. President Moyle took an interest and, upon returning to Salt Lake City, shared it with President McKay. After reading Brother Oaks’s thoughtful treatment, President McKay directed that it be published in the Era.3
So Brother Oaks didn’t give up his “right to think.” He felt the dissonance between his own judgment and the public expressions of the prophet. He wondered about the issue and brought to bear his own best thinking. But notice what he didn’t do: He didn’t write a critical letter to the editor, or publish a negative article, or give a speech either decrying the prophet or publicizing his disagreement. Nor did he organize a society as a forum for others to be critical and air their disagreements. Instead, he did everything humbly and in the attitude of devotion to the Lord and to the ministers whom He had called. He expressed his work respectfully and privately (it was President McKay who directed that it be published), with no motivation other than to help in the spirit of true discipleship. Brother Oaks did not interrupt the flow of the Spirit. This is the example for us to follow in our work with leaders in the Church on every level.
Incidentally, the outcome of this story is also instructive. Some thirty years later, and now one of the Twelve himself, Elder Oaks wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal on the subject of school prayer. He said: “When the Supreme Court decided the original school prayer case in 1962…I thought the case was correctly decided. What I did not foresee, but what was sensed by people whose vision was far greater than mine, was that this decision would set in motion a chain of legal and public and educational actions that would bring us to the current circumstances in which we must reaffirm and even contend for religious liberty.”4 While the Court’s decision was probably the correct one on the matter before it at the time, the way the majority opinion was written introduced a hostility toward religion on the part of the state that had never appeared previously in the history of the Court. This, more than anything, created the climate that has allowed other public institutions to erode the influence of religion in public life, and to set in motion the chain of events that Elder Oaks mentions–and that President McKay had originally feared: President McKay’s warning was prophetic. This outcome is worth remembering, as is Elder Oaks’s example throughout this experience.
I know that the Spirit flows undisturbed when we honor the Lord’s order of ministry. Sometimes it overflows, as something of a compensation.
For example, on one occasion my stake president was urged to make a procedural change from the way we were then operating in our stake. Willingly he said he would. Later, in speaking to me (I was bishop of one of the wards at the time), he raised the issue in a general way. Given the way the issue was raised, I felt free to analyze fully, and so I explained why I didn’t think the change was right for our ward.
In response, he told me that this seemed to be desired and that he wished to cooperate. Now the situation was different. I didn’t want to discuss the matter any further; I wanted to be compliant and cooperative, just as he did. I told him we would certainly make the change.
As time went on, despite our genuine efforts, it became clear that the change wasn’t working for us. I explained our situation to the stake president and asked him to please raise the issue again and see if we couldn’t enjoy willing support in changing back to our previous method. He felt the same way and was happy to do so.
Shortly thereafter, he raised the issue, obtained willing permission from the Brethren, and we changed back. In all, we had been under the revised plan for six months.
I want to draw your attention to two things about this situation.
First, although it was our feeling that this change probably wasn’t right for our particular circumstances, nothing was done to grieve the Spirit. There was no disobedience, or resistance, or complaining. Nothing was done to interrupt the free flow of the Spirit throughout our ministry. That was paramount.
Second, the change lasted only six months, and many members asked today about the change wouldn’t even remember it. Although it was something of a misapplication in our case, applying it still made no lasting difference. It turned out to be smaller than anyone thought.
But I want to tell you something else–about divine compensation. There was a blessing that came to our ward as a direct result of that change that couldn’t have occurred in any other way under any other plan, and it affected the entire ward. Although the change itself was not right for us in the long term, our obedience was rewarded in the short term with a great spiritual experience.
So there is a sanctification that comes, an increased measure of the Spirit that comes, when we act with faith–when we willingly obey and cooperate. The Lord rewards our faith in ways that we could never manage ourselves, or even anticipate.
So rely on the Lord. Have faith in Him and His leaders. Never trade His light for your own. If you do, you make the Church less His than yours. (And do you really want to belong to your Church?) Given the right time and the undisturbed flow of the Spirit, everything will always be resolved just as it should be–and additional sacred things will be gained along the way.
Thus, one reason, one very sacred reason, for following the Brethren is to nourish the flow of that Spirit upon which everything else depends. Paul pleaded with the Thessalonians saints that they “quench not the spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19); that is my plea to you as well.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.