Guest Post: May I Disagree?

by April

(April is a health educator and mother of three young children.)

As a Mormon in good standing, who also happens to be an independent thinker with more left-wing opinions than right, I have been grappling with an issue lately.  (By lately, I mean almost my whole life.)  What should you do when you disagree with church leadership?  Is there a place in this church, or in heaven, for independent thinkers who don’t share official church opinions?

Recently, another Mormon proudly told me that she waits to hear what church leadership says about an issue before she formulates her own opinions. I don’t understand how that works. How do you prevent your brain from thinking until after someone else tells you what to think?

Among those whose thoughts are not such a blank slate, it appears to me that the most common coping tactic of faithful Mormons for disagreeing with church leadership is denial. A particularly aggravating version of this denial, frequently practiced by Utah politicians seeking Mormon votes, is simply stating your own personal opinion and asserting that the church feels the same way without fact-checking. A more subtle approach, exercised by a more thoughtful cohort of dissenting Mormons, is to find some loophole, exception or spirit of the law variation to the official stance where you can safely squeeze your divergent opinion in and still pretend that it essentially fits.  If nothing else, you can always go with, “The church doesn’t endorse any particular political party and encourages us to use our agency.”

Other Mormons describe a difficult but rewarding inner battle they experience when they try to change their personal opinions to better match the opinions church leaders say they should have.  A few years ago, a kind and empathetic priesthood leader recommended this option to me, volunteering a personal account of his own struggle with the church’s stance on the Equal Rights Amendment back in the seventies.  His sincerity was moving (and I’ll admit it, his past support for ERA was endearing) and I was relieved that at least this particular leader didn’t consider my secret opinions to make me un-temple-worthy.

But this approach yields another question.  What if you can’t change your mind?  The most frequent admonition I have heard on this dilemma is to keep quiet.  Don’t go around making other people question their testimonies.  Don’t apostatize by fighting against the church. That makes sense…assuming church leaders are right and you are wrong.  Sowing seeds of doubt about the truth is bad.  Fighting against Zion is bad.

But are church leaders always right?  We Mormons don’t believe in papal infallibility (or prophetic infallibility, to put this non-Mormon dogma into Mormon terms).  Between primary, seminary and missionary service,  we are trained to actively go about doing good and standing up for our beliefs.   Wouldn’t this training apply when church leaders are advocating a cause you believe is wrong?  Shouldn’t you stand for the right even then?  Someday, when that offensive policy Wilford Woodruffchanges, as many offensive, former church policies have, won’t you be glad you were one of the pioneers who helped the church progress forward?

But wait.  If we don’t believe in infallibility, why are we always quoting President Woodruff, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program.” Does that mean that everything a prophet says is always right?  When church positions and policy change, it is never because the old stance was wrong, but only because something different is unequivocally right today than what was perfectly and absolutely right yesterday?

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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20 Responses

  1. C. says:

    I heard a great quote once that sums up the cultural church’s problems with leadership: “The Catholics say the pope is infallible, and none of them believe it. The Mormons say the prophet is NOT infallible, and none of them believe it.”

    There was a similar post on this at Wheat and Tares, and my response is the same. I believe that Truth is eternal but that prophets are people too and Truth still has to come through a human filter. Humans (and therefore prophets) are subject to prejudices as anyone and often are a product of their times.

    The best example I can think of is one that’s been beaten to death: those of African descent and the priesthood. Brigham Young “knew” that those of African descent were “inferior human beings” – but so did most of his contemporaries. Even ardent abolitionists believed this. This was an opinion, backed up by ferociously shoddy “science,” but it was one shared by the majority of the Western caucasian population.

    We know better now. This idea was based entirely in prejudice and it took a long time to root out, even from leaders of the Church who had been raised to believe it true. The natural man isn’t just sinful, he’s also prejudiced, bigoted, and anxious for a hierarchy (which he tops, of course). Therefore, sin isn’t the only barrier to revelation – our inherent human nature can get in the way, which is why it’s one of those things that needs to be perfected. And even prophets are subject to human nature.

    The real trouble comes when we try to determine what is wrong and what is Wrong (meaning, what we disagree with for our own reasons, and what is fundamentally opposed to Truth). I stay up nights trying to figure out which side my own dissenting opinions fall on…

  2. CG says:

    blergh. How many nights I have stayed awake pondering the “Truth” versus my own understanding; the spoutings from the pulpit vs what I know to be true in my own life. The GA are only men. They are imperfect men. Imperfect, OLD men. My husband and I are Sunday School teachers, and we have brought up a couple points throughout our lessons that are controversial, to say the least. (We have even challenged the words of GA who happen to be sitting in our class.) Granted, this is a SS setting, not a out-of-church forum, so we present those points as things to consider instead of tried and true doctrine… The problem is, however, even when presenting these logical, fact-based ideas to members is that most are True Believers and will not be swayed. They shut it out if it doesn’t fit perfectly into their already-made-up-minds on the subject. It makes me so sad. My husband and I almost got released because a couple of the class members could not believe we would ever propose such ideas and therefore complained to the Bishopric.
    What I found interesting, however, is that somehow we haven’t been released. The members that complained, and the members that are put out, from my experience, tend to be older, set in their ways, or very, very sheltered members. The best comments and compliments we receive after our lessons come from younger members (mid-twenties/-thirties) who feel like we do– they say things like, “Thank you for saying that. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.” I think there are more divergent opinions among the younger generations of the Church then we realize. Perhaps the best way we can possibly get others to feel comfortable opening their mouths is by doing it ourselves.
    These older members who are set in their ways grew up in a different time. Take my mother for example. She was raised in the 50s and 60s by a very proper set of parents. I’m surprised she is as free-thinking as she is! She doesn’t agree with the GA all the time, she doesn’t believe they understand her plights in life, generally, and though she gets very perturbed by their words and the limited language they use to condescend to the women of the Church, she doesn’t make a lot of waves. Don’t get me wrong, she is an educated, articulate woman who doesn’t let anyone walk over her in a conversation, but yet… she is from a different time. When the liberal movement of the late sixties came around she was literally moved to a sheltered Mormon environment. I think it’s like that with most of the other older generations. They may want to be divergent, they may want to- or have twinges to- see things differently, but don’t know how, and are afraid of the unknown. I thank the Lord so so so so often that I live in a time where I CAN truly think for myself and my opinion doesn’t have to be shaped by my leaders.
    I’m rambling. My point is, don’t stop speaking up (I think I’m speaking more to myself than to anyone else…). Others need to know they can do so, too. That may be the only way anything changes.
    I have many-a-blog posts on this topic on this topic and of specific things that need to change…

  3. CG says:

    There are paragraph breaks in there, I just didn’t give them an extra space– sorry about the large bulk of words…

  4. SilverRain says:

    That’s when you pray for greater understanding to be poured out from heaven . . . either into your own mind, or into theirs. And meanwhile, you focus on “doing good” and the things you can do to be an ever-better disciple of the Lord.

  5. SilverRain says:

    Oh, and practice being humble and charitable to the Church leadership even if you think they are wrong.

  6. Jessawhy says:

    Great post!
    I wonder about the tension between 1. Standing for what we believe in, and 2. Obedience.

    It seems like obedience wins every time and I find it very unfortunate.

    If God wanted a bunch of people to just follow what they were told and not think for themselves then we would have followed Lucifer’s plan.

    On the other hand, sometimes I know people (ahem, me) who challenge the status quo just for the sake of pushing a boundary. That’s probably not the most helpful way to break down the cycle of obedience.

  7. Stella says:

    I think this is another issue that seems clear cut at first. The church leaders are fallible. We should think for ourselves. We are capable of making decisions for our own lives. There doesn’t have to be as much conformity as there is.

    Those simple statements seem almost impossible with fitting into the current dynamic of the religious institution that is the LDS church. Organized religion thrives off of obedience. As Ziff said over at Z’s Daughters today–managing a large group of people is much easier when those people don’t question and only obey.

    This is not ok. You can think for yourself and make your own decisions, but that might mean losing your temple recommend like I did (I actually just turned it in as I didn’t want the priesthood authorities to have the power to take it away.)

    I will tell you that I still believe in many things about the LDS church. I find a lot of joy there and in my associations there. I also find that I am MUCH MUCH happier being able to listen to myself, my soul, my spirit, my revelation from God (when it differs from church people) and just go on about my life without it being harrowing to my soul like it was three years ago. And it is *definitely* worth turning in that temple recommend (but I didn’t like the temple anyway).

  8. Macha says:

    When I was more religious, I definitely took the loophole/denial route. I just sort of assumed that the Catholic church really taught the same way I believed, even if some imperfect humans tried to make it appear otherwise. That just stopped working for me after a while, and I couldn’t blind myself anymore. I am so glad I stopped lying to myself and just accepted that I disagree with the institutional church. Whether or not that was a problem in my life was a different issue, but admitting the truth was incredibly liberating.

  9. Hydrangea says:

    When it comes to social issues, I’m not holding my breath, by I hope that the church will ‘come around and soften (or silence)its stance as it has done in the past. (Issues such as birth control use, women in the workplace, inter-racial marriages, ‘letting’ women finish their education before they start a family. . .)

  10. alex w. says:

    This is definitely a subject that I struggle with. For now, I only express my unorthodox opinions where I feel comfortable–for the most part, that’s with my (non-religious and liberal) mother and fiance. They not only see things similarly to me, but they have proven to be open, kind and loving, which is a big relief when you’re going through the growing pains of figuring out what you believe about various subjects and accepting that it’s different from what a lot of other people think.

  11. Amber says:

    I really struggle with this as well. Lynette, as Zelophehad’s daughters, posted a wonderfully insightful, and well written, piece about this topic that I’d highly recommend–http://zelophehadsdaughters.com/2011/05/07/are-we-here-on-earth-to-learn-to-play-simon-says/

    I had an argument with my parents at the ripe age of 16 over whether or not it’s good to pray about what the Prophet has said to receive verification. They felt I was going down Satan’s path; I felt I was going down reason’s path. Why would God give us a brain then tell us not to use it? There are so many things that have changed because of reason, are we inferring that they are not inspired?

    On a different note, we are told that we are not “blind sheep.” But, when I hear references to unquestioning obedience, I wonder how that isn’t encouraging us, as members, to be “blind sheep.” So what is it?

    I don’t have an answer, but I do understand.

  12. Do what is right; let the consequence follow.

    Battle for freedom, with spirit and might.

  13. ssj says:

    Here’s my dilemma about the topic is that we are taught that prophets do not make mistakes and that God will not allow them to misspeak. Now I get it. They are human, they make mistakes, times change, etc., etc. But doesn’t that contradict what we were taught about the leaders of the church? How do we know when they are acting as “human” or as an “apostle”?

  14. Whitney says:

    Between this post and the ZD post and all the comments, I think we’ve asked the most difficult question about being Mormon today. How can we discern between GA’s opinions and eternal truth? If we don’t like something a GA says, and it goes against our own deeply held beliefs, how can we be humble enough to gain the understanding that it IS inspired (if indeed it is), without accepting everything in Conference as doctrine?

    I have no answers for this, other than: Pray, read your scriptures, go to church…. There, I have solved the problem. You can all rest now.

  15. Moriah Jovan says:

    I look at it this way: When my philosophical problems with the church involve Christianity itself, I’m not going to quibble about anything built on top of it.

    That said, the pushing of The Miracle of Forgiveness as actual doctrine cured me of any latent inability to disagree.

    And I could make a case for how the push against the ERA in the 70s actuslly worsened the plight of LDS women and made the injunction to stay home with their families nearly impossible to obey it.

    Lastly (these make more sense in my head, I promise), my relationship with the Creators (plural) supersedes anything the church–humans with a finite view of our place in the universe–can come up with, so I’m not particularly offended by anything.

    Our place in the eternal scheme of things is bigger than the church. Man makes God in his image, and it’s impossible to fathom much of anything beyond our own social conditioning.

  16. Amy says:

    I believe that it is true that the prophet will not lead us astray. I have not heard that promise for any other church leader. And yes, they are all human. I remember as a young person, thinking that bishops and many leaders were just about perfect, and now as I am getting older, I see how far from perfect they were- or that any of us really are. So, how do we respect them as church leaders when we don’t always respect them as a person? And how do we tell the difference between what they are saying as a church leader and what they are saying as a person with an opinion?
    For me, what has helped me understand my own feelings and how they relate as being a member of the church when I feel that I don’t always agree with leaders and know they are not perfect, was when I read a biography of Brigham Young. It has been years, so forgive me if I don’t state this completely accurately. In essence, it was talking about the time in church history where Joseph Smith created a bank and currency which failed and many members lost a great deal of money. The biography talked about how basically Brigham Young didn’t agree with Joseph Smith’s decisions concerning the matter, but that they were Joseph’s to make and Joseph would be held accountable to Heavenly Father for his decisions under his stewardship. And Brigham felt that he should support him even though he didn’t agree because Brigham knew that part of his stewardship was to support the prophet and he would be held accountable for that.
    So, I have seen bishops make decisions that I felt were not right. I have said as much to the bishop, but once he has made the decision, I either support him on it, or don’t say anything to the contrary (at least publicly) because I know I will be held accountable for staying true to my decision to sustain my leaders, and the leaders will be held accountable for their decisions under their stewardships.
    As for the discomforts their decisions cause in our lives at times, I guess I have to leave that up to Heavenly Father to help resolve. And that takes faith.
    I guess I am relieved that I am not evil for thinking that sometimes our leaders make wrong decisions. But, I am responsible for my response to that.

  17. Anthony says:

    One of the key problems is we have more and more means by which to express the dissonance between our thoughts and church policy but no place for it to go when at church. Even just a few years ago I thought only a handful of friends held some of the conflicted and conflicting views I do about the church. That number feels multiplied over and over in forums like these. And it’s helpful to learn how so many different ways people deal with it.

    The church, however, should be doing more to acknowledge it. And not just as a problem. While managing a large group of people is much easier when those people don’t question and only obey, is there really any situation in which people don’t question, even if they only do it quietly? The opinions of the membership—official and unofficial membership—are so much more varied than we get to experience. Not only should that be more acknowledged from the top down by the leadership, there should also be more room for it to be discussed bottom up in church meetings and without fear of reprisal. It may be easier to manage a group of people that readily agree, but the larger a group the less that will happen. It really just depends whether the church (and I don’t even know whether that means the leadership or the membership) wants a smaller, more concentrated, homogeneous group or a larger and disparate one.

  18. Jared says:

    What I think Pres. Woodruff was trying to say is that the Lord will not allow the prophet nor the 12 to say anything that will lead the church into another apostasy. I could be wrong though I am only human.

    Joseph has been quoted as saying I am only a man. The GAs of the church today are human as well; They do make mistakes and are not perfect and none of them present or in the past have ever stated otherwise.

    Personally I find myself struggling from time to time not with doctrines of the gospel but often with what is perceived as how the members allow the doctrines to influence the culture of the church. I live in Utah and am Democrat and cannot stand the Morman/Republican theology that exists in Utah politics. But that is not really the church is it.

    As far as the GAs are concerned I try to remember that they are prophets just like those in the scriptures and that they are given revelation regarding the future. We don’t know necessarily what the future holds and they may being saying things that we find difficult today that may be prophetic for future concerns and circumstances. That being said, it is difficult to always tell if “OK is this prophetic or is this his opinion about the doctrine or principle”. Best thing to do is to pray about it, and follow the principles and doctrines of the church.

    And ultimately the doctrines of the church have never really changed; the only thing that has really changed is how each generation allows the doctrines and principles to influence their culture and society.

    God Bless and good luck.

  19. EmilyCC says:

    April, thank so much for this post…you clearly demonstrate the problem that often plagues me. And, I appreciate that you don’t give a trite answer. Though, how often do I wish that a trite answer would suffice here?!

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