Coercion within a Church that Values Agency

Posted by on July 26, 2014 in Policy | 29 comments

Hester-marchingMormons believe that agency (free will) is fundamental to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our scriptures teach that agency is God’s gift and plan for us:

Moses 4:3

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him…I caused that he should be cast down.

Yet, several institutional policies and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, Mormon) authorize or require local leaders to coerce members of their congregations. To coerce is “to make someone do something by using force or threats.” Reference A

Temple Recommends as Leverage

Article of Faith 11

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

A local, lay priesthood leader may threaten to confiscate temple recommends from their parishioners, which prevents them from attending any ordinance, including weddings, in any Mormon temple anywhere in the world. Essentially, local lay clergy have the authority to tell a member of their congregation, “Do what I say or I will not allow you to attend your son’s/daughter’s/sibling’s/best friend’s wedding.”

Local priesthood leaders may confiscate temple recommends from members at a disciplinary council or as “informal discipline.” Short of excommunication, punishments just as harsh as those administered through formal discipline may be administered informally, but informal discipline is performed unilaterally by a local lay leader; not even the leader’s own counselors need be informed and no records are taken. Informal discipline is conviction without a trial. It saves the accused from a potentially traumatizing disciplinary council but offers no form of appeal and none of the few protections granted to formally disciplined members.

Stripping me of my temple recommend because of my perceptions and opinions has been the worst form of rejection I have ever experienced. …When my temple recommend is used as leverage to coerce me into changing my views and opinions, it is no longer a safe environment for discussion. -Anonymous

I recently lost my temple recommend for my actions surrounding my support for marriage equality, with the threat of further discipline if I continue or talk about it publicly (which I am doing here, I realize). It’s been devastating to me personally. I don’t even know how to talk about it because if I push back, I am seen as disobedient and if I submit to something I don’t believe to be true, I lose my authenticity, which makes me dishonest. –Jerilyn Reference B

I lost my recommend today for my public support of Ordain Women. The only way to get it back is to pray until I receive what my Stake President believes is the right answer. And that answer is that I should publicly denounce Ordain Women. …I definitely feel like he has taken my recommend (which represents my spirituality and my worthiness) hostage. It feels abusive. -Leah Reference C

A priesthood leader may feel justified in coercing members of his congregation by threatening their temple recommends because “sustain[ing] local authorities of the church” is included among the temple recommend criteria—some Mormons equate “sustaining” with “agreeing” or even “obeying.” However, a priesthood leader does not need to justify his decision to revoke a temple recommend; he may do so at any time at his own discretion, regardless of how a member answers temple interview questions.

Punishing Loved Ones of the Accused

Doctrine and Covenants 121:41-46

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; by kindness, and pure knowledge…and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

A particularly disturbing way to coerce accused transgressors is to confiscate temple recommends of their family and friends:

I had passed the first half of the temple recommend interview, so my husband and I thought it was the second half of interviews. He asked both of us to come in, said that Ordain Women was apostate and that we are in personal apostasy and we’re not going to be issued recommends. No interview. We were just told we were apostates. My husband isn’t even involved, but because he personally, privately agrees, the counselor said no renewal. I objected and the counselor said he felt we would want to be together. Apparently being married to an apostate makes you one by default. -Anonymous

The bishop took away our temple privileges. He said we could still love our daughter and pray for her, but we must be careful about associating with her and not associate with Ordain Women in any way. -Anonymous

Someone just basically got denied a temple recommend for associating with me. My bishop called this student’s bishop telling her home bishop that she was on the road to apostasy for associating with me…so she cannot go through the temple until her bishop works it out. -Anonymous

It is hard to speculate the motives for punishing family and friends of the accused person: Does the local leader want them to shun their loved one as a bad influence? Does he want them to pressure the accused to be more compliant? Does he hope that the accused will comply to save his/her loved ones from punishment?

On the other hand, the policy justification for such action is not difficult to ascertain at all. One of the temple recommend questions is as follows:

Do you support, affiliate with or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

I am an active, faithful Mormon woman whose temple recommend was taken away for having the wrong opinion about women’s issues. My husband has not publicly voiced his opinion, but his was also taken away for associating with me. …He went with me to my meeting with the bishop and apparently showed too much solidarity. The bishop felt that he “agreed with a group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”   -Anonymous Reference D

Counsel as Commandment

Hymn 240

Know this, that every soul is free to choose his life and what he’ll be; for this eternal truth is giv’n: that God will force no man to heav’n.

In a recent radio interview, an LDS Church Public Affairs representative attempted to frame church discipline as a process in which the accused has choices:

The individual chooses how this process progresses. There is in no way that a letter [of discipline] is a complete surprise to an individual. They have been in months-long conversations with their local leader. They know that this process takes time. It is never hurried. It is never rushed. It is intentional and it is done in a loving way. It is never an ambush. It’s not vindictive and to assert otherwise is misleading. These people in any of these processes – disciplinary process – they have choices. It is their choice to remain in the congregation. It is their choice to remain in the body of Christ. It is there choice whether or not the listen to the promptings of the spirit and align their behavior with the Savior’s will. –Ally Isom Reference E

In normal circumstances, a conversation is not coercive. In fact, a common outcome of conversations is agreeing to disagree, with both parties continuing to act according to their own agency. But the “intentional” nature of conversations related to church discipline is different. In Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 1 (CHI), “private counsel” is listed as a low level of discipline. By its dictionary definition, counsel cannot be obeyed because it is not a command. Counsel can be listened to, considered, even followed, but obedience does not factor into counsel because by definition, counsel is advice, not commandment. Reference F  However, the kind of counsel listed in the CHI is enforceable, giving local leaders the God-like power of making up their own commandments.

Since all female members of the LDS Church are banned from staffing Church disciplinary processes and nearly all are banned from reading CHI Volume 1, which explains the concept of counsel as discipline, a woman might reasonably conclude that she is free to disagree with her leaders after hearing their counsel, as Kate Kelly, who was recently excommunicated for apostasy, assumed after meeting with her stake president in December 2013. Reference G

In her written defense for Kelly, Nadine R. Hansen asked:

Is it “apostasy” to speak words local leaders have forbidden? Is it even within the right of a local leader to forbid a member from saying something out loud? –Nadine R. Hansen Reference H

Hansen responded to her own question, concluding that members may choose whether to “obey counsel” of local leaders:

In order for a disobedient act to constitute “apostasy,” the act must surely be more than insubordination. If, for instance, a local leader threatened a Disciplinary Council for failure to attend Sacrament Meeting, or failure to do home teaching, or for being a Democrat instead of a Republican, and the member defied that order, that would not be “apostasy.” Instead, it would easily be recognized as unrighteous dominion on the part of the local leader. –Nadine R. Hansen Reference H 

After the Church representative explained the so-called choices that an accused transgressor enjoys during the disciplinary process, a radio host followed up with a question similar to Hansen’s question:

But the choice is then to keep your mouth shut about this particular thing or stop being so public about this particular thing? That is something they have to do? They have to make the choice? –Doug Fabrizio Reference E 

The church representative’s answer was very different from Hansen’s response:

I can’t say that that’s the criteria. That’s between them and their bishop and God. …You know, I’m not going to speculate where the line was. You seem to ask me repeated questions about, where is this line? … It is not for me to say. It is between Kate and her bishop and Heavenly Father to determine where that line is. Because I don’t know her heart and her bishop knows better than anyone else. And that is his stewardship. Isn’t that the beauty of all of this? …That it can’t be some general, broad brush, here – that it is individually applied. –Ally Isom Reference E

No Sister Isom, allowing local lay leaders to punish parishioners based on undefined criteria is not beautiful; it facilitates coercion. When punishments accompany established, written rules, it may be possible for people to choose whether to transgress and accept the consequence. But when punishments are applied to cases where not even an institutional representative can say “that’s the criteria” or “speculate where the line” is, what is to stop a local lay leader from using punishment to coerce compliance with unreasonable demands?

In spite of reassurances from Church Public Affairs, the accused does not get a vote in the matter. The will of God is interpreted by the local leader. If the accused interprets God’s will differently, her leader’s interpretation trumps. Likewise, punishments executed by a local lay leader apply not only within his own, local congregation but follow the accused to every LDS congregation within the entire world and to Heaven itself, according to Mormon doctrine, giving the local leader power to enforce his demands well beyond his stewardship.

Shunning Through Church Discipline

Revelation 3:20

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Many of the so-called “privileges of membership” that are restricted from disciplined members are not actually limited to church members at all. LDS church meetings are highly interactive and anyone who attends one, regardless of their religious affiliation, is encouraged to answer discussion questions, read scripture and other texts aloud, and pray on behalf of the group. Like wearing a scarlet letter, a disciplined or excommunicated person’s mandated abstinence from these activities alerts church-goers that this person is a sinner, a bad influence, and a potential threat with whom they should exercise caution if not avoid altogether. The confidentiality of the disciplinary proceedings, when followed by this conspicuous public punishment, opens the disciplined person to speculation about which grievous sins he or she may have committed. Still, the Church Public Affairs insists that church discipline, even excommunication, is not shunning:

First of all, discipline processes are not necessarily expulsion, it’s not exclusion.  It’s, rather, an inclusion – it’s meant to be a loving invitation to return to the savior. …There are restrictions around participation but participation remains essential and we fully expect and hope that person to be in the pew next Sunday. …It is the desire of every church leader and member – our most heartfelt desire is for anyone who’s working through personal challenges with their faith or questions through a disciplinary process – that they turn to our savior for answers and fully participate with us. We fully expect them to be part of the congregation and to remain in the body of Christ. That is our ultimate desire.” –Ally Isom Reference E

The use of hyperbolic claims like, “It is the desire of every church leader and member” that disciplined members “fully participate with us” shows a willful determination on the part of the Church to close its eyes to the actual consequences of its policies. It is almost too easy to rebut such statements with examples of church members who do not share sentiments of inclusion:

Here’s the thing. I have no problem loving people. I have lots of friends of different backgrounds, heritage, culture, etc. I have many friends of different faiths. I have friends who are strong in the Church and some who are not. This does not bother me one bit. I could have any one of them over to my house to “sup.” No problem. I am not threatened by differences. But I draw the line at apostasy. –Ana Reference I

The Church leadership is not frightened of anyone. They have a divine responsibility to protect the flock from ravening wolves. If they have to shoot a few wolves to save the flock, especially those like the Ordain Women’ers dressed in sheep’s clothing, it is their duty. –Akennas Reference J

When Policies and Values Conflict

Doctrine and Covenants 121:37

When we undertake…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.

What part of his priesthood or authority ends if a priesthood leader unrighteously controls or compels? His priesthood offices and callings most likely remain in place; church policy permits coercion. The consequences for the people he punishes also remain, at least, during this life, but some people have expressed hope that a perfect Judge will invalidate the heavenly consequences. Certainly, God wouldn’t bar a person from heaven because they chose to follow their conscience rather than “obey counsel” of a coercive leader?

I think excommunicating her was the wrong decision. Nevertheless, while her former Bishop may have the authority to place temporal administrative sanctions on her, those temporal administrative sanctions cannot separate her heart from the Lord. -Anonymous Reference K

While this thought is comforting, it illustrates how the Church risks its gospel mission when it governs by coercion: as people come to the conclusion that a good and just God will not honor coercive tactics in the eternities, they might reasonably wonder why they should honor such tactics in the present. If the Church’s priesthood power is used to pretend to damn people, one might wonder if it only pretends to save people as well. Some of the Church’s strongest members—those who have embraced the values it teaches—might not be able to tolerate participating in a church that teaches agency and practices coercion.

A woman who describes herself as “very active” in the church wrote:

After seeing the corruption in the church, I feel like I can’t be a member anymore. It goes against my core values. -Anonymous

While the LDS gospel canon emphasizes the principle of agency, it also allows priesthood leaders to use coercion to control church members. The most detailed support for coercive methods such as church discipline and excommunication are found in Doctrine and Covenants sections 102 and 134. These sections are not written in the format of revelation. They do not bear the stamp, “Thus saith the Lord.” These sections detail administrative decisions made by popular vote in 1834 and 1835. The fallible humans who collaborated on these documents may have made the best decisions they could, given the options available to them at that time. A lot has changed since 1835. The Church has had nearly two centuries to expand its palette of tools and strategies for facilitating repentance and clarifying doctrine. Technologies that did not exist in 1835 are now at the Church’s disposal. We are not captive to the policy decisions made by our predecessors. We can let go of tactics that clash with our core values. We have agency.

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29 Comments

  1. This is great April! The rationalization I keep hearing is that it’s just a local problem. It’s only random local leaders who are doing this, so it’s not a problem with the church. But if the church facilitates this coercion by local leaders, then it is a church problem. I love your reaction to Ally Isom’s remark about the beauty of not drawing lines and having a clear set of rules. You’re right, it is not a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t allow our church to be a house of order.
    This is my favorite line of yours;
    “If the Church’s priesthood power is used to pretend to damn people, one might wonder if it only pretends to save people as well. Some of the Church’s strongest members—those who have embraced the values it teaches—might not be able to tolerate participating in a church that teaches agency and practices coercion.” That is a problem I have struggled with myself.

    • Yes. I see this as a large-scale policy issue. It should be addressed at the general level.

  2. Thank you for this, April. This is so important. Local leaders really do have so much power that goes systematically unchecked.

    I know much of this post is in light of feminist issues, but it applies in other areas of the church as well.

    Years ago, a cousin of mine was called into her Bishop’s office. The bishop would not allow her a temple recommend to do baptism, saying he felt that she was unworthy. She protested, to no avail. She finally graduated highs school and attended a different ward where she went on to serve an honorable mission. Now a mother, she was visiting her parents when the daughter of her former bishop came to see her. This woman apologized to my cousin for spreading lies about her on high school…lies that accused my cousin of living a very unchaste life. These lies had been the reason my cousin had been denied a temple recommend and had been told she was unworthy to take the sacrament as an innocent teen. The liar was the daughter of the bishop, and he had accepted his daughter’s informal, gossopy lies over my cousin’s formal bishops meeting testimony.

    This woman asked for my cousin’s forgiveness for making high school life hell for her. My cousin forgave her. But the bishop? He made no restitution for showing favoritism (nepotism) for parties that had no true knowledge, and frankly for failing to seek real inspiration in regard to my cousin’s situation.

    In other words, this system fails all church members, and the unrighteous judges are rarely held accountable for their party in wicked accusations.

  3. Agency is the power to choose and ACT. When we choose an action and are allowed to see the consequences of those actions, we have agency. When others are allowed to act and those actions have consequences they are also exercising agency.
    The unfairness of having others make mistakes with their agency, mistakes that hurt us, is part of the plan. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to help people realize when they are making a mistake or abusing power.
    The problems and mistakes people are making that you are describing have nothing to do with taking away other people’s agency.

    • It sounds like you are agreeing with the Church representative that when people are coerced, they still have agency because they can choose to comply with the demand in order to escape the threatened punishment, is that right? And also adding that local leaders have agency to make poor leadership decisions? I think I explained in the OP why I disagree with the first assertion. With regards to the second, I agree that leaders have agency, but I see the institutional policies that give local leaders authority to make their own rules and enforce them as the root of the problem, not the individual choices of various local leaders.

      • 1. Mostly I object to the use of the word agency to mean only freedom of choice. Agency is the power to act, not just the power to choose.
        2. Our choices are influences by many things…our nature, our nurture, our previous choices, etc. No decision we make or action we take is free from influence from others around us.
        3. Even if you are in an abusive, controlling environment, you still have agency.
        Call it something else, if you want to, but don’t call it taking away free agency.
        4. It can be problematic to have leaders taking away recommends when they shouldn’t. However, in general I believe that local leader freedom to make decisions is a good thing. It is, however, a big problem to figure out how to you empower local leaders to make decisions but have a churchwide system to prevent leaders from crossing lines? I think the church tries to have a balance and I’m not sure going more one way or the other would reduce mistakes. Better training and clarification is probably the best way.

    • JKS,

      You point out the deep issue here. No one is saying that agency means the ability to act without consequences. What they are pointing out is that when others get to use their own agency to bring the entire weight of the institutional church to shape and determine the consequences of someonelse’s agency this can constitute coercion. Acting as if the consequences chosen by bishops acting with their own agency are somehow just “natural” consequences or maybe “legitimate” consequences is wrong. If I understand your comment right you aren’t neccesarily saying that and leaving open the possibility that a bishop may use their agency to “abuse power”. I think the OPs point is that we have in our theology a strong aversion to the use of priesthood to curtail the agency of others. D&C 121 if taken very seriously basically says “if someone uses their priesthood position as a way to coerce members behavior it is an illegitimate action and the heavens withdraw and amen to the priesthood of that man”. Rather they are to persuade only using “patience and longsuffering”. Now this is in tension with the need of some type of boundary setting process for our community. Certainly there are occasions – rape – comes to mind where discipline that takes away priviledges is required. I think the point here is that that our doctrine takes a very dim view of letting this creep into what a person believes and what they say. Barring willful, repeated, demonstrated dishonesty calculated to manipulate and hurt others it is hard to square anything in Mormon theology with coercive action over beliefs or what someone says. The current policies of the church allow and maybe even enourage such behavior. It looks like the current cultural movement around the use of “apostacy” falls squarely into the category of “when men recieve a little authority as they suppose”. Werapping up such coercion in the language of “councils of love” is particularly galling.

      Can I have some sympathy for lay bishops who have to make these complex choices? Absolutely. But it is encombant on all of us who are members of Zion to stand up and call unrighteous dominion when we see it. To quietly look the other way is to become a tacit accomplice in coercion, coercion 121 says strips us of any priesthood power or authority (which Elder Oaks seems to say that women have too). So I think it is really good that examples of this coercion can be publically vetted these days more broadly than ever. It can help provide a check on unrighteous dominion – the use of ones ageny to coerce another using one’s priesthood office or other power.

      Will God make it all right in the end? I hope so. But this does not justify our tacit or active support of it. We will be held accountable for that as well, I believe.

  4. Calling something “coercion” when there is no threat of physical force is a bit of a stretch. This critical difference between discipline administered by a voluntary organization and discipline administered by a compulsory state really undermines any intrinsic link between coercion and agency.

    • While the term coercion often refers to physical violence, it does not only refer to that. Here is another article about coercion without physical force through institutional authority: http://smallbusiness.chron.com/workplace-coercion-45211.html

      • I agree that economic sanction (which is what coercion in the work place amounts to) is a somewhat diluted form of physical violence which is monopolized by the state. But even then, churchy coercion is a form which is diluted even compared to economic sanction making it a difference which is not merely one of degree. Again the strong link between coercion and agency just isn’t there.

  5. I suppose that it should come as no surprise that someone who is as obsessed with authority as Jeff G. would be such a prescriptivist.

    That said, “coercion” is perfectly appropriate to use when threats are involved — be they physical, economic, or spiritual. There are dictionaries that will back that up; but, more importantly, it’s in the vernacular. It isn’t remotely a stretch.

    • What spiritual threats? Only The Lord gets to judge people’s spiritual well being. Thus, church leaders do not exercise physical, economic or spiritual coercion.

      Yes, they do wield a certain amount of social capital that can be leveraged against members, but this form of coercion is nothing in comparison to those other forms. It certainly is not enough to inspire any kind of principled moral indignation.

      • Holding a temple recommend hostage until the member looks “repentant” enough or agrees with the leader isn’t spiritual coercion/threats? The ability to see your child be married is just social capital that the bishop holds? No. Unless you don’t value temple marriage, I guess…

      • As somebody who’s actually been the “victim” of a bishop doing this very thing, I stand by what I said. I didn’t see it at the time, but the only thing he was trying to do was “coerce” me into using my agency to repent.

        He had nothing to gain from doing what he did and at no point was my “agency” compromised in any way. At no point was I in any physical, economic or spiritual danger. At no point was I worried for my physical or spiritual well-being. In other words, there was no comparison between what he did and real coercion.

      • Everyone always takes the wrong approach with Jeff G. If we want him to agree with anything, we need to first contact his bishop, convince him of our position, and then have him direct Jeff G. to post his agreement here.

      • Jeff G-
        I’m really happy for you that your spirituality was not threatened when your Bishop held your temple recommend hostage to his whims. Really, I am (I realize this can sound sarcastic; it’s not). However, it is entirely possible and even plausible that others have had vastly different experiences. I have, in fact, felt threatened both emotionally and spirituality by leaders. It is not that your feelings are right and mine are wrong-they are just different. I am willing to allow that your experience is as legitimate as mine; can you offer the same courtesy?

      • I think this is a completely appropriate use of “coercion.” Waving it away as “a certain amount of social capital” is ridiculous.

  6. Great post, April.
    There are lots of great local leaders, but the way the church is set up for coercion is troubling.

    As far as a possible solutions, I’d love to see a hotline or ombudsman-type office that members can call to report issues of coercion and spiritual abuse.

    Does anyone remember the Amen Squad? It came up in a similar blog post a few years back, where we imagined a group of enforcers that would take out the knees of local priesthood leaders who had used coercion instead of love unfeigned. I imagined it like a scene from Minority Report where the cops would arrest the perpatrators right as they were committing an offense. It’s convenient to say “Amen to the priesthood of that man” but it’s all but impossible to enforce as a member of a congregation.

    • I’m not sure if this is the same thing you’re thinking of, Jess, but I do remember a comment Starfoxy made in a discussion at fMh a few years ago about the “amen squad.” If I remember right, she said something like that the idea that “amen” is said to the priesthood of men who exercise unrighteous dominion is pretty meaningless since no “amen squad” exists to go around and ensure that anything actually happens.

  7. This was a very thoughtful post April. Thank you so much for sharing it. I fully agree with you that withholding someone’s temple recommend is a great example of coercion by the LDS church.

    The act of risking participating in a child’s wedding ceremony because you have thought the wrong thoughts as defined by a lay bishop does cause emotional and relational damage, despite what some would like to argue.

    But I also agree that the church only has as much power over us as we give them. I am still an active mormon who holds a calling (HPGL), I pay my tithing, attend all of my meetings, obey the outward laws of the church. But I no longer give away my power to the church. They don’t control my thoughts. They can’t inflict pain upon me because I “know” with great assurity they do not stand between me and God. The leaders are just men. The church is just an organization.

    But for people who believe these leaders stand between them and God and for people who believe the church is divine, then the church can definitely coerce and inflict emotional damage upon those people.

  8. The major issue I have with this article is that it attempts to present coercion as a direct opposition to agency. That’s entirely false. What’s wrong with coercion? Sure the word has a bad connotation, but really the true denotation is synonymous with words like constrain, which is used often in scriptures. A few examples of scriptural coercion:
    - Nephi was “constrained” to kill Laban. He didn’t want to. He had his agency and could have chosen not to, but the Spirit sure coerced him and he did it.
    - God says, “Everyone repent or I will kill you all in a flood.” It doesn’t get much more coercive than that. And then when they didn’t repent God actually followed through and killed them all.
    - God says, “Everyone repent again or I’ll destroy your entire city.” Nineveh repented and was spared (after severely being coerced into repentance); Sodom and Gomorrah did not repent and they were completely annihilated. And there are dozens of additional examples through the scriptures of this exact same story with some people repenting and some ignoring and being destroyed.

    Coercion can be good. God himself uses it all of the time. Obey my commandments and you will be blessed (get to go to the temple, have a happy family, etc., etc.). Break my commandments and you will be punished (temple recommend revoked, family falls apart, etc., etc.). Do you think God wants to punish people? Absolutely not. But he’s also not going to sit by and allow people to sin, go against his prophets, distort his words, and then petition their way back into blessings.

    And as far as the whole agency thing goes, it’s not about getting to do whatever you want. It’s about being able to make choices. All choices have consequences, and sometimes the consequence of a choice is restricted agency (less ability to make your own additional choices). Again, there’s nothing bad about that. God himself does this all of the time. It’s how he coerces (read: helps move) people in the right direction.

    But you know who is really good at using coercion in a corrupt manner? Who makes coercion seem like an evil word? Who presents agency as the ability to do whatever you want without consequence? Who puts it into people’s hearts that they know more about God’s plans than do his prophets? Who tells people to fight back against their inspired local leaders and drag others out of the church with them? Yeah, that’s all Satan. He is the devil, the father of all lies. He likes to take things (like the ideas of coercion and the definition of agency) and twist them all around to confuse people and draw them away from God. And posts like this, seeing all of these articles that pop up, he’s doing one heck of a job…

    • Did you read the whole article? I did not express concern about God exercising coercion, but about “giving local leaders the God-like power of making up their own commandments.” Humans lack the omniscience and infinite goodness of God, so I don’t think it is wise to give them God-like power over other humans. Nor was I talking about natural consequences of sin, but rather, the carrying out of threats to compel behavior, especially when based on “undefined criteria.” If a lay leader does not allow you to attend your daughter’s wedding because you defied an order he made up (even if you meet the written criteria) or forbids your daughter from marrying in the temple because she associated with her parents who defied such an order, is breaking up the family a natural consequence of sin in this case? Or is it something inflicted on the family through coercive means?

      • Yes, I read the entire article. In your comment you are saying that you believe that God can exercise coercion, but you think it’s wrong for him to give that power to men. Correct? Well, he has done just that. So are you trying to say that God is wrong? Or maybe he’s the one that knows what he’s doing and you’re the one that’s wrong… You see God has given man the priesthood. The priesthood is the power and authority to act in the name of God. Do some men use that power unrighteously? Yes. And the same is true of any non-Godly power as well (as we read in D&C 121). But I believe that God knows what he’s doing. And in his infinite wisdom he has given us his power.

        Now, what about bishops who you feel are using it for whatever criteria that may or may not be defined? When a man is set apart as a Bishop he is given the power of discernment, which is the power or ability to judge well. Using that power of discernment, Bishops are able to know far more about what’s going on with a particular situation than you seem to think. And if that means restricting someone’s temple recommend in order to help them back on to the right path through repentance, then that is one of the many difficult decisions a Bishop must make. And as long as he is making it through his God-given discernment and as instructed by God himself, then it’s the right decision and it is coercion appropriately used by a servant of God exactly as God himself would have used it.

  9. Outstanding post, April. Thanks for pulling all these examples together to highlight such a disturbing pattern. I particularly like this pointed question you asked:

    “What part of his priesthood or authority ends if a priesthood leader unrighteously controls or compels?”

    As you point out, the scriptural threat of “amen” being said to a man’s priesthood or authority is pretty much toothless, at least in this life. Men who exercise unrighteous dominion are pretty much just left in their positions to keep doing what they’re doing. It’s really disheartening.

  10. This is an amazing article – my heart leaps with joy to see these things being discussed. I’m not a member of the LDS Church, I’m a Mennonite (Christian denomination with an expressly non-violent theology based on Jesus) and I’m fascinated to see LDS scriptures addressing coercion and agency.

    Several other verses come to my mind that I’d like to share for consideration.

    Matthew 23:13-14
    “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
    — If this is not about coercion and trying to control peoples’ conscience and walk (or personal relationship) with God, I don’t know what is. (Verses 15-38 are amazing as well… church leadership of all kinds has the potential to become Pharisaical, not just the religious leaders in Jesus’ time who were called the Pharisees. We often pretend this is not the case.)

    Mt 20: 25-28
    Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
    — Do our church leaders really hold to this (in my denomination, LDS, or any? Sometimes!) It explicitly tells the Apostles not to exercise authority over their flock. Of course this can’t mean all types of authority, but is certainly about coercive authority.

    1 Peter 5:1-3
    “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
    — Elders should be eager to serve and not lord it over those entrusted to them. They should be examples to the flock. Does being an example merely consist of being a person with all the right answers? Or is it to show an open, searching, understanding heart looking to serve and find the will of the Heavenly Father in today’s complicated culture and times … and to encourage the flock to do so as well? Priests, elders, etc. are supposed to help and guide us in our relationship with God, not replace God or dictate God’s will to us! There’s a difference between having a conversation about a controversial topic and imposing your will on others about that topic with penalties.

    Thank you so much, April, for your courage and conviction. Thank you also for teaching me something new about the LDS faith!

    -Ethan

    • Elders should be eager to serve and not lord it over those entrusted to them. They should be examples to the flock. Does being an example merely consist of being a person with all the right answers? Or is it to show an open, searching, understanding heart looking to serve and find the will of the Heavenly Father in today’s complicated culture and times … and to encourage the flock to do so as well? Priests, elders, etc. are supposed to help and guide us in our relationship with God, not replace God or dictate God’s will to us! There’s a difference between having a conversation about a controversial topic and imposing your will on others about that topic with penalties.

      Amen.

    • Thank you for sharing these beautiful scriptures, Ethan!

  11. I meant to post this link in the main comment thread. I don’t know that I agree with all of the article, but the greater questions are what I thought applied. It’s not just about coercion and Priesthood leadership. It’s about all of us. How do we learn to love others and allow them to use their agency? How do we learn to love them in spite of their unwise use of that agency? When do we suspend judgement? When do we forgive? When do we push for change. And when and how to we influence others while respecting their agency. Being a leader is not always about the title or the position that we hold. So many noble spirits have proven this point with their life. Many parents face this struggle with their own children as they set boundaries.

    One other thought. I don’t agree that Satan’s plan necessarily involved force. His tactics involve coercion. Everything from the beginning with Lucifer was a lie to get glory and gain. A means to his end. He could promise anything that would destroy agency, and there is more than one way to “destroy the agency of man.” I have several theories about how this could be accomplished that don’t involve “force.” Removing ALL choice, using the Tree of Life (not to be confused with the Tree of Knowledge)… but I digress. Please check out the link below!

    If we hope to lead souls to Christ, we must work toward pure means of influence—means that honor the agency of others. Indeed, Joseph taught, “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”[38]

    How we lead must forever be influenced by why we lead. In the letter from Liberty Jail, from which portions are now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 121, the Prophet counseled:

    A fanciful and flowery and heated imagination beware of; because the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! None but fools will trifle with the souls of men.[39]http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-and-hyrum-leading-one/persuasion-and-love-unfeigned-exercise-agency-influence-and

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Coercion within a Church that Values Agency | Well-Behaved Mormon Woman - […] Local priesthood leaders may confiscate …read more […]
  2. Mormon Feminist Blog Questions LDS Coercion » Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control - […] has written an excellent piece exploring elements of coercion employed by Church leadership, called Coercion Within A Church That …

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