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Kirby: Why it's better to cooperate than to obey

Published November 29, 2013 4:15 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

I belong to an authoritarian church. As churches go, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tends to be more hierarchical than most. Someone has to be in charge — or preside — over whatever we're doing.

It sounds scarier than it really is.  The truth is that most churches have an ecclesiastical structure intended to maintain order. Every group of humans needs someone to keep track of stuff, even if it's only whether the light bill got paid last month.

It can get out of hand, though. The amount of control or authority exerted by these religious hierarchies can range from a little, as demonstrated, say, oh, by a board of easily confused deacons or elders.

Example: "I think it's Ralph's turn to pick up the hymnals."

Or it can be a lot, as in a single lunatic haranguing an increasingly nervous congregation locked inside an armed compound:

"Verily, all the young maidens shall be delivered unto me."

The term for overstepping one's ecclesiastical authority in Mormonism is "unrighteous dominion," meaning that someone is bossing someone else around.

Even though I belong to a relatively authoritarian church, I've never felt like it has tried to control me.

I take that back. There was one time, back when I was a missionary. Word got around that Elder Kirby had a dog. I did, too. A cool one.

One day, a couple of supervising elders came to the hovel where my companion and I lived.  They solemnly pointed to the part in the missionary handbook that said we weren't allowed to have pets. I was told to get rid of my dog. 

I'm pretty sure they were expecting "OK." Instead they got "Or what?"

As it turned out they didn't have an "or what?" that was good enough. They left mad, the dog stayed and everyone who mattered (to me) was happy.

That was a long time ago, back when I was slightly less cooperative than I am now. Today I'm a little more willing to submit to a certain amount of ecclesiastical authority.

For example, if my bishop or stake president summons me to a meeting, I'll put on a clean shirt and go see what he wants even if it isn't all that convenient. It's a form of obligation that I don't mind. I also don't mind telling either of them no.

You could argue that I'm not very obedient and I would agree. Obedience is what dogs do. Not the dog I had on my mission, mind you. Most dogs. Dogs in general.

There's a negative connotation to the word "obedient" when it comes to ecclesiastical authority. It's way too Old Testament for me: Obey or I'll kill you. That's not willing cooperation. That's hostage taking.

Any church really only has the dominion over you that you're willing to give it. If you're automatically willing to obey just for the sake of being obedient, then you're wasting a perfectly good brain because a cerebral cortex would have sufficed.

But that's just me. The only time I go along with something I don't like or don't agree with is when there's a definitive "or what?" that actually scares me, such as getting divorced, missing a deadline or being shot.

If God gave me free will, then I prefer the word "cooperate," as in "I cooperate with the law of tithing" or "I cooperate with the bishop." Cooperating makes it my idea rather than authority's.

Robert Kirby can be reached at rkirby@sltrib.com or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.




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