Bryan’s Sunday musings 08-24-08

One of the disadvantages of living in this politically correct age is a corresponding oversensitivity to the potential emotional fallout from correcting another person’s mistakes.  I’m not trying to minimize the very real problem of clinical depression, nor ignore the coarsening effect of the Internet on our interpersonal communications.  We still need to be sensitive to the best efforts and intentions of others.  However, when we fail to correct inappropriate behavior (or more particularly, incorrect doctrine or interpretations of doctrine), we do a disservice to the one in error as well as any who may be influenced by that person’s actions.

The scriptures are unequivocal on the matter of giving reproof.  The Lord Himself said:

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

In the Doctrine and Covenants this principle is reiterated and expanded:

And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone; and if he or she confess thou shalt be reconciled. [. . .]

And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.

If any shall offend in secret, he or she shall be rebuked in secret, that he or she may have opportunity to confess in secret to him or her whom he or she has offended, and to God, that the church may not speak reproachfully of him or her.

There are far too many instances in the scriptures of prophets correcting incorrect or inappropriate teaching for me to give an exhaustive bibliography here.  Most of these involve countering the attacks of apostates, like Sherem or Korihor in the Book of Mormon, or opposers of the faith, such as many of the nameless and faceless Pharisees and Sadducees during the mortal ministry of Christ.  Occasionally, however, even well-meaning individuals make errors.

But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:

To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.

And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.

But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.

Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.

Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John:

Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost:

(For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)

Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.

And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money,

Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.

But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.

Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. (Acts 8:9–21)

Sometimes these matters are best corrected in private:

Now, we do not suppose that this first resurrection, which is spoken of in this manner, can be the resurrection of the souls and their consignation to happiness or misery. Ye cannot suppose that this is what it meaneth.

Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but it meaneth the reuniting of the soul with the body, of those from the days of Adam down to the resurrection of Christ. (Alma 40:17–18)

[. . .]

And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature?

O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. (Alma 41:12–13)

The timing of a rebuke is equally as important as the content.  The latter-day scripture famously associated with giving reproof states thus:

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost;

Betimes means “at an early time, . . . in good time, in due time; while there is yet time, before it is too late, . . . in a short time, soon, speedily” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “betimes”).  Sharpness more accurately means “clearly, precisely,” rather than with excessive emotional or physical force.

Despite the wealth of scriptural evidence enjoining the Lord’s servants to reprove quickly and with love, I have never witnessed a member of a bishopric or stake presidency correct another member’s teachings in either a sacrament meeting or class environment.  I myself have a low tolerance for incorrect doctrine or far-off interpretations of scripture, and where it has been in my scope of authority I have been quick to raise my hand in a quorum discussion to clarify a matter or dispel certain dogmatic views.  Most of the time, though, I clench my teeth and look down at the ground, or at the scriptures, or promptly open my journal to correct the person within those private pages.  I have so far stifled the urge to disrupt a sacrament meeting or make an ostentatious display of my disgust, though I have on occasion left the room for a few minutes to blow off some steam.

Failure to reprove another person “betimes with sharpness” can lead to inaccurate understanding of gospel principles, or worse, a loss of faith.  Sometimes we excuse Brother So-and-So’s soapbox ramblings because he has a fiery temperament and doesn’t take correction well, or we figure that “everyone knows he’s just doing what he always does, and no one actually believes him.”  We cannot afford to entertain these notions.  We are to be a missionary-minded people.  This means we cannot be satisfied with sloppy teaching, speculations, controversies, or faith-promoting rumors passed off as truth.  If we fail to actively make our three-hour meeting block “the best three hours of the week,” we can actually counteract the valiant efforts of our missionaries in bringing investigators to church and retaining newly baptized converts.  For all the time and resources dedicated to “raising the bar” for the missionaries, there must be a corresponding effort in improving gospel teaching and leadership among our other members.  To employ an Olympics analogy, it’s tantamount to fumbling the baton pass during the last leg of the relay.

Training is a fundamental part of the improvement process, and ever will be.  If there’s one thing we know how to do really well in the Church, it’s have a training meeting.  However, nearly all of these meetings address issues after the fact.  Here we lose the teaching power inherent in “betimes,” as those we hope to correct have likely already forgotten about the matter or distorted it in memory to decrease their accountability for it.  We need “on the job training,” and we need members courageous enough and tactful enough to do it.

President Boyd K. Packer provides us with a key:

The one who presides is responsible for the conduct of the meeting and has the right and the responsibility to receive inspiration and may be prompted to adjust or correct something that goes on in the meeting. That is true whether it be an auxiliary meeting presided over by the sisters or any of our meetings. [. . .]

Ordinarily, but not always, if the presiding officer speaks, it will be at the end of the meeting. Then clarification or correction can be given. I have had that experience many times at the close of meetings, “Well, brother or sister somebody said such and such, and I’m sure they meant such and such.”  (“The Unwritten Order of Things,” CES Fireside address given 15 Oct 1996; full text available here.)

As leaders, we can reinforce the good intentions of the wayward member, and occasionally get away without directly acknowledging the error itself.  For example, if a speaker in sacrament meeting tells us repeatedly that we’re not good members if we fail to attend the temple at least weekly, the presiding authority can stand up at the end of the meeting, thank the speakers for their remarks, and reiterate that we do need to attend the temple more often — “as often as time and circumstances allow” — and leave it at that.  The congregation will get the message, and the leader helps the member save face.

Sometimes more direct intervention is needed.  Such was the case in a real-life example of a bishop who corrected a counselor in an elders quorum presidency who told the Relief Society that those brethren (i.e., their husbands) who fail to do their home teaching violate the oath and covenant of the priesthood, and that therefore their priesthood becomes null and void.  Bravo!

Brigham Young gave terrific advice in this regard.  Said he, “If you are ever called upon to chasten a person, never chasten beyond the balm you have within you to bind up” (JD 9:124–25).

What should we do when we find ourselves on the receiving end of a rebuke?  I think we can take a great lesson from Pahoran, the third chief judge over the Nephites and the leader who presided over them during their long war with the Lamanites (see Alma 43-63).  Moroni sent not one, but two epistles to Pahoran (that we have record of) imploring him to send troops and supplies to his aid.  The second of these epistles, presented in its entirety in Alma 60, contains some trademark Moroni language:

“. . . I have somewhat to say unto [you] by the way of condemnation . . .”

“. . . we desire to know the cause of your thoughtless state . . .”

“Can you think to sit upon your thrones in a state of thoughtless stupor . . . ?”

“. . . we know not but what ye yourselves are seeking for authority. We know not but what ye are also traitors to your country.”

“. . . except ye do repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing . . .”

“. . . it is because of your iniquity that we have suffered so much loss . . .”

Let’s give Moroni the benefit of the doubt.  He was a general wearied by nearly fourteen years of constant warfare with the Lamanites and intrigues among his own people.  His people were fighting and dying on the battlefield, desperately hoping to secure the land from further invasions by their enemies, and had done so without the arrival of reinforcements or adequate food, armor, weapons, and medical supplies.  From his perspective, his previous epistle had been ignored and his dear comrade was either dead or converted by the king-men.  So it’s perfectly understandable that he would be so sharp.  (However, Moroni was a sharp man in general; note his epistle to Ammoron in Alma 54, in which his passion quickly leads him to numerous ad hominem attacks on Ammoron, and it all turns into a futile exchange.)

Pahoran had every right to be upset with Moroni’s words.  He was a man who had not the slightest shade of traitor in him.  He could have responded exactly as Ammoron did, attacking him point for point and dismissing his calls for aid until he showed the proper respect for his civilian commander.  But he did not.

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul. [. . .]

And now, in your epistle you have censured me, but it mattereth not; I am not angry, but do rejoice in the greatness of your heart. I, Pahoran, do not seek for power, save only to retain my judgment-seat that I may preserve the rights and the liberty of my people. My soul standeth fast in that liberty in the which God hath made us free. [. . .]

Pahoran took the censuring in stride (perhaps he was well acquainted with the temperamental side of Moroni’s character) and saw past the words to the intents of Moroni’s heart, which were good.  His measured and soul-stirring response caused Moroni to “take courage, and [his heart] was filled with exceedingly great joy because of the faithfulness of Pahoran” (Alma 62:1).  These two men then proceeded to finish off the war with the Lamanites in short order.

I still have much more to say on this subject, but I’m well past the 2200-word mark at the moment.  I hope to continue this thread next week or sometime soon afterward.

One Response to “Bryan’s Sunday musings 08-24-08”

  1. This also applies to the fulfillment of callings. I have found that absent correction or feedback, a member will continue doing(or not doing) what they have been, thinking that “it must be right, nobody has told me any different”. Unfortunately this leads to ineffective service, and in time a culture of laziness that nobody wants to fix; all of which throws more and more onto those who will serve diligently, creating burnout and stress and desires to do great bodily harm……….as well as the “oh well, they are volunteers after all” reply that propels me into a Captain Moroni-like state, desiring to know what is the cause of their neglect…… (he said, reaching for his sword)

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