Sustain Doesn’t Mean Agree With

Often in the church, a certain segment of members will accuse others of not sustaining church leaders because of a political, policy, or interpretive disagreement. I’ve heard stories of people having their temple recommends revoked because of a stated intention to vote or lobby for various civil laws. This overreach often comes about because of a prevailing belief in the church that sustaining one’s leaders means agreeing with one’s leaders. However, that isn’t what sustain means.

We can disagree with someone, even vigorously so, while still sustaining them. We need look no further than the example of Russell M. Nelson to demonstrate this. During the time that Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson were president of the church, the church ran the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign and sponsored the movie “Meet the Mormons”. And now that Nelson is president of the church, he took to the pulpit and denounced the use of the term “Mormon” to refer to members of the church and called the term a victory for Satan. Clearly, he did not agree with his predecessors. Not only did he disagree, but he disagreed very strongly, to the point that he thought they were playing into Satan’s hand. Yet, presumably as an apostle, he held a temple recommend and had to affirm that he sustained  Hinckley and Monson.

So, if sustain doesn’t mean agree with, what does it mean? When searching the scriptures, most of the references to sustaining deal not with humans’ attitude toward their leaders, but rather with God’s attitude toward us. [1] God doesn’t always agree with us. When we hurt others, God wants us to stop and to change. But God stays by our side and helps us on the road to continual improvement.

  • “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee.” [2]
  • “Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not.” [3]
  • “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me.” [4]

Even in the context where the sustaining is being done by a person, not by God, the act of sustaining is not an act of intellectual or theological assent. It’s an act of nourishing and feeding. Isaac sustained his son Jacob with wine and corn. [5] In the only scriptural example of someone sustaining the prophet, the unnamed widow of Zarephath sustained Elijah by giving him a cake and some oil. [6]

So, the way we sustain the leaders of the church is the way God sustains us. We lighten their burdens, nourish them, and assist them in meeting their righteous goals while fervently hoping and pleading for them to change the things that cause harm. Just as God can do that for us while disagreeing with some things that we do, so we can do that for church leaders even while disagreeing with some things they do.

And maybe one day the winds will change and the things we disagree with will change, too.


[1] The word “sustain” is used 13 times in the standard works. Eight of those are in the Old Testament, three in the Doctrine and Covenants, and two in the Pearl of Great Price. Of those references, two are about our obligations toward civil law, one is a procedural matter regarding canonization of Official Declaration 2, one refers to church members “sustaining damages” from their persecutors, and the rest refer to a person being given aid.

[2] Psalm 55:22

[3] Nehemiah 9:21

[4] Psalm 3:5

[5] see Genesis 27:37

[6] see 1 Kings 17:9-16


Trudy is a lawyer living in the southwestern US. She has two cats who allow her to live in their apartment in exchange for a steady supply of food and treats.

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22 Responses

  1. AlbertaTim says:

    Good description and very well stated. You draw a very clear line between sustain and approve/condone that is very important for members to understand.

    When I was in one unit with a very abusive and predatory Bishop and his enabling stake president not stepping in to keep the abusing bishop in check.

    On one occasion during this 5+-year reign of terror, I was asked if I was sustaining my local leaders; this I knew was a play to manufacture an excuse on their part to lift my temple recommend.

    Thinking ahead, I whipped out a laminated card I had made with my 25-words or less answer on it, which read, “To the extent they fulfill the threefold mission of the Church, they have (and will maintain) my conditional sustaining vote.”

    I was never hassled at a recommend interview again by those people the rest of the time I was there after that.

    I would also counsel others having similar problems with their leadership to have a similar card, but update it to fourfold mission of the Church, as Times are slightly better, and the Church’s mission more expansive than before.

  2. m says:

    I’m so glad you wrote this–I’ve been struggling with that exact thing because it really does seem like Pres Nelson was calling Pres Monson and Hinckley tools of the devil. And I’m supposed to teach that talk as a lesson this coming Sunday. And while I really don’t care whether someone calls me a Mormon or not, I DO care whether we’re showing ourselves worth of the name of Christ.

  3. Maggie Maxfield says:

    Trudy, this piece offers so much light and understanding. I would love to hear your insights regarding the temple recommend question that asks if we “sympathize” with groups whose teachings are contrary to the church’s.

    • Trudy says:

      From what I understand of the historical record, the original intent of that question was to root out secret polygamists.

      As far as the use of the word “sympathize”, I don’t think it’s meant in the emotional “I have compassion for these people” sense of the word, because Jesus spent His ministry hanging out with sinners and we are to become like Him. And Jesus has compassion for everyone. I think the alternate definition of “sympathize” is the one that’s meant – to assent to the teachings of a group without formally being a member of that group. So, someone could “sympathize with” group ABC without being a dues-paying, meeting-attending member of that group.

      As far as what it means for a group’s teachings to be contrary to the church’s, I think that has to be defined fairly narrowly. Every group has some views contrary to the teachings of the church. If that was defined literally, then nobody who belonged to any political party would be able to have a recommend. And anyone with non-member family members would likewise be in jeopardy. So the way I interpret the question is more along the lines of “are you actively trying to tear down the church?” If not, then everything is cool.

    • LaDonna says:

      Maggie, I’ve experienced a spectrum of interpretations of the TR questions, depending upon where along the spectrum I had landed when playing “bishop roulette.” Some bishops require, for example, extremes in the church attendance question (one BYU bishop felt that missing church to attend too many mission farewells or baby blessings necessitated revoking students’ recommends/ecclesiastical endorsements), and yet other bishops I’ve had have applied the law of chastity either to extremes (nuzzling necks is “necking” and evil!) or more simply, as written. *I* interpret the “sympathize…teachings contrary to the church” to mean things like Satanism or Atheism, which are the opposite of/contrary to the God-worship we teach. If I were losing at the game of bishop roulette, my leader might consider me posting on this site a violation of the “sympathize” question because I’ve had leaders in the past who expect me to demonstrate the same fidelity to general authorities that I show for God in order to enter the temple. Me posting here and finding so much support and healing on Exponent about how leaders treat women could cost me a recommend, depending on how I play Bishop Roulette. It all depends on how my leaders practice their faith, what their personal beliefs are, etc. Kiss those dice, shut your eyes tight, and say a prayer before you roll!

      • Andrew R. says:

        “*I* interpret the “sympathize…teachings contrary to the church” to mean things like Satanism or Atheism, which are the opposite of/contrary to the God-worship we teach”

        I think that has traditionally been aimed at anyone sympathising with Mormon Polygamists. Having said that, I have known a few who read it as Free Masons. I have not personally had a bishop who would revoke, or deny, a recommend for reading and posting here.

      • jettie says:

        Andrew, then you’ve never been to the most rural, backwoods branches of the church, where feminism is akin to satanism in the minds of fundamentalist conservative church leaders there.

      • AlbertaTim says:

        This is my definition of fundamentalist, and I hope you’ll like it, embrace it, and maybe even adopt it as your own:

        fundamentalist (n): a person who faces the future by looking backwards

        Hope this helps with placing matters in proper perspective!

      • Andrew R. says:

        Thankfully I haven’t. I would say that the most vocal feminist in my stake is the Stake YW President. So you can see how our stake president rolls.

  4. jettie says:

    Thank you for this post, Trudy. In recent years (and especially after this most recent conference!), I have really struggled with the fact that I must sustain male leaders (humans) in order to enter the house of GOD. It doesn’t feel right to me, now that I am older, wiser, and more aware of all the things those human beings have actually done and how much of their words and actions we have to correct/disavow with the passing of time. What makes more sense to me is to sustain my Lord and my God and leave it at that. I don’t see how pledging devotion to male leaders makes me a better Christian.

  5. Anon says:

    My fundamental problem with the church is there is no method to *disagree* with church leaders or policy. I can’t not sustain them without going rogue. There is no space for normal discourse. Any disagreement is viewed by church members suspiciously as a reflection of your lack of spirituality and faith. And we are taught to think that way by leadership. Doubt your doubts!

  6. Ari says:

    You could just think of “sustaining” your leaders as the mere act of raising your right arm when they are announced. In that case, you can always “sustain” them (arm to the square) when asked. Done.

    That said, I personally am done wrestling with that question as I have no plans to continue participating in my own ritualized oppression. There is no other reason I need a temple recommend…

  7. Darren says:

    My last TR interview with the SP went as follows:

    “Do you sustain the quorum of the 12 apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?”

    “Well, most of them most of the time.”

    He laughs. “Final answer?”

    “I’d like to phone a friend.”

    He laughs again. “Good enough.”

    Once more, I am a bishop and he knows the struggles I have with dogma.

    • jettie says:

      Darren, I dream of working with church leaders as chill as this one day. Those of us losing at leader roulette love living vicariously through people like you.

  8. Sally says:

    For a long time, long before I started to wrestle with particulars, I have thought of sustaining to mean, “I’ll do my best to be supportive of you in your responsibilities, but not bend over backwards. (boundaries) I’m grateful for the time and effort you give, and I’ll express that gratitude at some point. I’ll be kind and respectful always. I’ll not speak against a leader publicly, but rather take any issues to the person privately.” It feels a little more challenging these days. These days it means “I recognize you’re doing your best, and I can honor that, because I appreciate my best effort respected as well.”

    Of course I have never stated these personal definitions in an interview.. They reside, with confidence, in my heart. My personal definition of sustain aligns with the dictionary’s. So when the question is asked me, “do you sustain…?” I can easily and quickly say “yes.” End of story. Nobody’s business but mine and who I decide to tell.

  9. spunky says:

    Lovely post, thank you.

    I’d like to think that Nelson (and Monson and Hinckley) had revelation as prophets- and that changes, such as the name change, are reflective of something other than personal pet peeves. We know that Monson was a fan of the Boy Scouts, so I could be totally wrong.

    But the church name change to me seems to be more about PR than the actual name– a way of the church distancing itself from say, the Book of Mormon musical, and as means of emphasizing Christ, rather than Mormon. I’ve attended non-denominational Christian bible study groups for a few years– never with a fellow (Mormon) church member (Mormons can be so focused on missionary work that they take away the spirit) , and I see this as an opportunity to possibly align with other Christian organizations. That’s probably more what I;d like to see, but still– one can hope.

  10. Mary says:

    I’ve looked at it this way. That for thirty or so years, Nelson has felt oppressed and has disagreed with the sitting prophet. I imagine there have been times he’s voiced his dissent. I’ve also read quotes by him that indicate he may not have a literal testimony of the Book of Mormon.

    I’d like to think he has understanding for my ultimately going inactive plight, but he’s in a position of power and I never will be. Having the man who delivered that horrible speech as one of the First Presidency and making the name of the church more important than the deeds of the church has me skeptical, as does his calling the November 5th debacle revelation. However, I’m willing to wait for a few more changes to come out before I decide what kind of president I consider him to be. It’ll be interesting to see what his view of Christ is.

    • Andrew R. says:

      “making the name of the church more important than the deeds of the church has me skeptical”

      I would like to think that by emphasising the name of the church, and in so doing bringing the name of Christ out, means that the deeds of the Church will be seen as those done by followers of Christ – and not Mormon, Nelson, or any other person.

      • jettie says:

        Andrew, this would be ideal, definitely. However, we members aren’t required to follow Christ, covenant with Christ, and sustain Christ in order to remain in good standing with the church or enjoy its highest blessings. We have to sustain Nelson, covenant to give all we have to the corporation of the church, and sustain the men who lead it in order to enjoy its highest blessings. So deeds of Nelson are still a big deal. When somebody stops requiring us to pledge allegiance to Nelson and covenanting to give our all to his corporation in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we can relax our concerns about his deeds and re-focus our energies on the Savior.

  11. Maureen says:

    Can’t We All Just Get Along? And disagree.

    Trudy’s post Nov 5, 2018, titled, Sustain Doesn’t Mean Agree With got me thinking and remembering disagreements worth reviewing.

    Orson Pratt publicly disagreed with Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young when they were Presidents of the Church. He was actually excommunicated in 1842 because of one of these conflicts.

    In a slightly different scenario Bruce R. McConkie delivered an BYU devotional, The Seven Deadly Heresies in direct response to a BYU professor Eugene England’s ideas.

    Hugh B Brown and Harold B Lee disagreed over rescinding the ban on priesthood to men of African descent in the 1969. Lee, was in the First Presidency and not retained in that position when Joseph Fielding Smith became President in 1970.

    Will we, years from now, consider the Oaks and Uchtdorf relationship oppositional? President, (now Elder) Uchtdorf has made the following comments in General Conference, “
    Oct 2018, Believe, Love, Do
    “…It is this endless compassion that allows us to more clearly see others for who they are. Through the lens of pure love, we see immortal beings of infinite potential and worth and beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God…”
    Once we see through that lens, we cannot discount, disregard, or discriminate against anyone.

    In his talk, Three Sisters, Oct 2017
    “…In the year I was born, the world was immersed in a terrible war that brought agonizing grief and consuming sorrow to the world. This war was caused by my own nation—by a group of people who identified certain other groups as evil and encouraged hatred toward them.
    They silenced those they did not like. They shamed and demonized them. They considered them inferior—even less than human. Once you degrade a group of people, you are more likely to justify words and acts of violence against them.
    I shudder when I think about what happened in 20th-century Germany.
    When someone opposes or disagrees with us, it’s tempting to assume that there must be something wrong with them. And from there it’s a small step to attach the worst of motives to their words and actions.
    Of course, we must always stand for what is right, and there are times when we must raise our voices for that cause. However, when we do so with anger or hate in our hearts—when we lash out at others to hurt, shame, or silence them—chances are we are not doing so in righteousness…”

    Are these comments in response to Elder (now President) Oaks? Is this Elder Uchtdorf’s way of sustaining but disagreeing. Am I reading too much into it?

    • Cori says:

      Wow…I never thought of the 12 having disagreements. But I think you are right. They way Oaks speaks vs. Uchtdorf, they must see things differently or at least speak to their own strengths. Thanks for those thoughts.

  12. Pammy says:

    Thank you for this post. I like this. It makes sense to me. This way of thinking gives so much more autonomy to individuals. It’s OK to have your own opinion and trust yourself on certain issues but still sustain those that have been called in service. Wow! The power of a word.

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