Within every religion lives a tension between authority and personal spirituality. If you veer too much towards the authoritarian side, you have a cult. But if you err too much on just personal spirituality and opinion, you have scrambled, decentralized New Age mumbo-jumbo, not a vibrant religious community. Now, some people like cults (as Creed says in The Office, being a leader is more profitable, but being a member is more fun), and some people really like decentralized New Age stuff, but for most of the people I know, people want a sense of belonging and community, but don’t like it when religious leaders try to tell them what to do with every single aspect of their lives.
Mormonism is no exception when it comes to this tension, which leads to many people trying to define where to draw the line. The recent General Conference tackled this issue in a variety of ways, but of all the talks, I believe Elder Oaks’ talk on “Priesthood lines of communication” and “personal lines of communication” will stand the test of time. Elder Oaks built a model of communication with God that involved two basic lines of communication – Priesthood and personal. Priesthood lines involve how God dictates church-wide changes and instruction. For example, only annointed, faithful leaders have a direct channel to the Priesthood line for changes to their stewardship to prevent any kind of miscommunication or power struggles within the flock. However, for personal situations, circumstances, and instructions, the personal line of communication with God is always open. People can contact God and through the Holy Ghost, they can receive instructions for their own specific lives.
Elder Oaks, of course, presents some caveats. For one, the personal line shouldn’t ever contradict or fight with the Priesthood line. So if God tells the prophet to tell members to say x, you really shouldn’t be getting y. But Elder Oaks also provides some specific instructions to the members not to demand instructions from leaders on every little thing, and also to not abdicate moral decision making to the Brethren. This accomplishes a lot of things – mainly, it forces members to make decisions on their own, but it also (hopefully!) prevents leaders from passing down erroneous, man-made advice as doctrine at the request of members.
This brought up an interesting question to me. What about our “standards”? Are they derived from Priesthood lines or personal lines of communication? My wife says, immediately, “It’s a personal thing.” But what about the For Strength of Youth pamphlet, which encourages members to follow certain standards? Some of the advice is pretty specific, like the (in)famous one pair of earrings only rule. And these standards are most definitely handed down from Priesthood authorities (and most members expect themselves and others to keep those rules).
Others I ask say immediately, “It’s a Priesthood thing.” After all, that’s the whole reason why we have a prophet, right? But then how do we parse Elder Oaks’ talk? What exactly do we have jurisdiction to say that our personal line is more relevant than the Priesthood line (if at all)? The Brethren encourage us to make our own decisions. Are these just empty words, lip service to the concept of agency?
This tension is nothing new; in fact, this last General Conference reeked of it. Despite Elder Oaks telling the members to explicitly not look to the Brethren for specific, individual advice, especially on how to run their families we had:
David M. McConkie of the Sunday School Presidency, who told us that we shouldn’t ask questions that have already been answered in the manuals or scriptures;
Elder Claudio R. M. Costa, who based his talk on a previous talk by Elder Benson, which took a fairly conservative, Priesthood-line-oriented stance on following the prophet (basically, you better if you want to be faithful in any sense of the word);
President Boyd K. Packer, who now infamously warned members to not vote to “legalize immorality”;
and Several other speakers of the Church who warned against, among other things, the “addictive” power of video games (one suggested hiding controllers from the children) and sleepovers, both fairly specific advice.
So where do “standards” come from? We have some pretty official rulings in the Church when it comes to things that require obedience. Faith in God and the Atonement is one thing. Baptism is pretty important. Temple marriage is a huge deal. Church attendance is heavily encouraged. But then we have all of these, for lack of better terminology, “minor” rules, most often refering to dress, how we conduct ourselves, and what various activities are appropriate or not for children. For example, grab a random subset of Mormons and ask them what activities are or are not appropriate for the Sabbath day. You will get a myriad of answers.
Sometimes, we like it that way. After all, personal flexibility is always a good thing when it comes to individual weaknesses and strengths. My wife doesn’t care about earrings or swearing, but she really likes playing video games with her dear husband (as nerdy as it sounds, she feels like our marriage grows closer when I keep her out of danger by healing her in raids), and she hates gore in media (and wishes everyone would stay away from it). That’s just how her spiritual personality operates. And that’s where the trouble comes in. We say the Church should not have to legislate in every little thing. So how come they do, and how come the cultural majority expects us to follow them without question or regard to circumstance? Couldn’t we do away with the rules and stick with our “personal line” interpretation, or shouldn’t we expect our religious community to follow the rules and have specific expectations?
Sometimes, navigating or reconciling the divide seems impossible. But still, we try.