Great Sermons: Criticism

“I am persuaded that many do not understand the Church’s teachings about personal criticism, especially the criticism of Church leaders by Church members.”

Thus begins Elder Oaks’ 1987 article on criticism, its uses and abuses. Our Relief Society President used it as the basis for a Sacrament Meeting talk last month and I thought it deserved a renewed audience. As is typical of Elder Oaks, this is a well thought out piece. Enjoy!

41 comments for “Great Sermons: Criticism

  1. Thanks for posting this–I’m teaching the RS lesson this week on obedience and there are some ideas and quotes here that will be helpful.

  2. Great talk. I had a thought as I read it, which somewhat but not completely pertains to outright criticism of the church. Elder Oaks made it clear that even a church guided by revelation can make mistakes from time to time, because it is led by leaders who are human and prone to error. As an example, we may never know (in this lifetime) whether the decision to withhold the priesthood from blacks came from God or whether it was a simple mistake. Those who criticize the church for such decisions put themselves in a precarious position, because when every church decision is second guessed, the second guesser eventually forgets to focus on the fundamentals, the most important of which is whether the church itself is true, despite policies that aren’t necessarily agreed with. The church can be wrong on a particular policy without being fundamentally false. For that reason, to me while we all have to come to terms with those past and present church policies that may rub us the wrong way, whether the church is right or wrong as to any particular policy, far more important, really, is whether the church is true. If it is true, we can simply accept that God knows about the errors and tolerates them in his human leaders. The less wise way of dealing with differences is to try and figure out which policies were actually inspired by God, and which were mistakes of men. This is where people get off the train and apostasize, because unless such an inquiry is made using the spirit as ones guide rather than solely by fallible human reason based on incomplete information, you can rationalize your way out of a church that is based as much (or more) on revelation as it is on human reason. To summarize my jumbled thoughts, whether a particular church policy was inspired or errant is simply not the issue. The issue is whether the church is true. Determining whether the church is true cannot be determined by trying to figure out whether or not each and every church policy was the product of revelation, because as Elder Oaks said, mistakes are made.
    Speaking of the merit of many objections to church policy, I am surprised at how “fairness” is often thought to be central to the problem. For instance, some think it is unfair that homosexuals are not allowed to marry in the church. Others see it as unfair that blacks did not have the priesthood before 1978. Yet, what about the great majority of the earth’s population that never had the opportunity for the priesthood in this life? What about heterosexual members of the church who never receive the opportunity to marry? I, for one, would rather be a black member of the church in 1977 than just about anyone in Rome when it was being overrun by barbarians, or anyone who was in the path of Attila the Hun. I personally have a difficult time determining for myself how I am supposed to know who has the “rawest deal” in the church when you look at the earth’s brutal history. Bad things have happened to good people from the beginning of time, so God apparently sees value in such difficulties.

  3. A very interesting talk; thanks for posting this.

    I have a different point of view than comment #2. I think Elder Oaks’ talk can be fairly read to support the following position:

    (1) Church leaders are human, and their policies may be erroneous.
    (2) Part of our duty to God and the Church is to charitably identify the human errors within the Church.
    (3) If we see an erroneous policy in the Church, we can deal with it using the 5 options that Elder Oaks presented.
    (4) In all cases, our identification of what we believe to be erroneous policies should be done privately, and not publicly.

    As I read it, Elder Oaks would find it appropriate for me to send him a private letter that disagrees with Church policy x,y, or z, but would find it inappropriate for me to post that letter publicly on a blog, for example.

  4. When Elder Oaks states that we shouldn’t voice our disagreements with church policies publicly, I wonder what definition of “public” he has in mind. If a small group of LDS friends are discussing their disagreement with Church policy x, y, or z, at someone’s dinner table or in an email discussion, would he consider that a “public” disagreement with Church policy?

    If so, is this talk the death-knell for LDS blogs–at least those that tolerate public disagreement with Church policy?

  5. Threadjack: Elder Oaks’ like speeches , right or wrong, are what scares some people about Romney as our leader. Does he feel he should be open to outright criticism?

  6. There is some ambiguity it seems in whether the ban against public criticism applies only to church leaders or also to church policies. It is also somewhat ambigious whether or not “criticism” refers only to the kind of destructive criticism discussed in the beginning of the sermon or to all critical discussion.

  7. If our desire is to have the spirit of the Lord with us to the greatest extend possible, then the ideas in Elder Oaks talk will be helpful.

  8. The obvious human element involved in policy decisions made by our leaders makes me cringe at warnings against some form of civilized public discourse. Furthermore, is it an accurate portrayal to say that disagreement (even public disagreement) with a particular policy, teaching, opinion or perspective equates to criticism?

  9. Adcama,

    According to Oaks, the damage of criticism falls largely on the critic. That is an “obvious human element” worth paying attention to as well.


    I’d have to go back and read it, which suggests there is at least some ambiguity about which kind of criticism fall into the “Just say no” category. I suppose on further reading one might be able to discern.exactly how Oaks draws the line. Or, if not, the effort might lead to a greater awareness on the issue even if it failed to yield cut and dried rules.

  10. Frank, I’d agree. Certainly we’ve all seen (perhaps in ourselves) what happens when the vortex of negative criticism consumes and blackens the soul. My point is that charity and honest discourse…are not (or at least – should not be) mutually exclusive. As you probably already know, I’m sometimes saddened that there is not more of a forum for discussion, feedback/give and take between the broader church hierarchy and the lay folk who genuinely care (and have good ideas). I do not think a more collaborative model to be out of line with the way revelation is received….and I think it would go a long way in its effect.

  11. “I do not think a more collaborative model to be out of line with the way revelation is received….and I think it would go a long way in its effect.”

    Is this belief based on some set of empirical evidence?

  12. Re: #6

    Maybe those “scared” by speeches like Elder Oaks’s, should read past the title to the second paragraph:

    I do not refer to the kind of criticism the dictionary defines as “the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.” (Random House Dictionary, unabridged ed., s.v. “criticism.”) That kind of criticism is inherent in the exercise of agency and freedom. In the political world, critical evaluation inevitably accompanies any knowledgeable exercise of the cherished freedoms of speech and of the press.

  13. Mark,

    Councils are private meetings, not public criticism. They are just the sort of collaboration that Oaks encourages, as opposed to, possibly, writing an editorial in a local paper.

  14. About whether a more collaborative model is not inconsistent with revelation, or whether such would have a positive effect?

  15. Whether more public collaboration would have a positive net effect over what we have now or over just increasing private communication.

  16. #5 “If so, is this talk the death-knell for LDS blogs–at least those that tolerate public disagreement with Church policy?”

    Well, since he gave the talk 20 years ago, that might be a hard case to make.

    On a personal note, I know a person that it seems can hardly open her mouth without a criticism of someone or something coming out. It is not a good way to be. There is a lot of anxiety involved. I prefer to live life in a positive way. (Although I tend to do it in a minor key.) Let’s celebrate the good. If there is an organization that is doing large amounts of good, blessing many people’s lives, not promoting evil or criminal acts, and reading an auditor’s report each year in its public conference, I say: let’s support it! At a certain level, who cares if you have had a thought or experience that would lead you to disagree with something the organization does or says. There are millions of people having thoughts and experiences. Why are you special?

    By the way, I’m seriously considering protesting a church policy. . . it’s the one about giving my kids large amounts of candy each time they show up at church.

  17. Frank – my argument in this regard is based on my understanding of the importance of upward communication within organizations. It’s well understood that in organizations (such as the church) there is already a reluctance of participants in the communication process (counsels, etc) to transmit critical information because they recognize that the hostile reaction of recipients may endanger the communicator’s standing in the leaders’ eyes – and in this case, possibly endanger the member’s church standing. This reluctance is enhanced with talks like the one here.

    Because of this type of fear, there is a tendency to exaggerate how much we agree with the opinions of those who enjoy higher status than us. This causes leaders to form inaccurate impressions of the climate in which they are operating and this can have dangerous consequences.

    I guess I’d be a proponent of more of an institutionaized forum for critical upward feedback and my view isn’t changed with an argument that “praying about it” or “forgetting about it” are ways to address the problem, as I see it. Privately addressing our concerns has its place, but as was discussed in Julie’s blog a couple of weeks back…I don’t think it’s appropriate/reasonable for every member in the world to demand to meet with the First Presidency – and private criticism of general church counsel to a bishop or SP doesn’t seem to address the issue. Are letters encouraged or discouraged? And even if letters are okay to write, they are not very dependable….as only a certain segment of the population has the guts to write a letter – and not everyone knows that option is available (if it is).

    Does this make sense?

  18. Adcama, the world is full of things that “make sense” and are also dead wrong. You can tell by seeing how many reasonable people hold exactly opposite opinions on a given question.

    “I guess I’d be a proponent of more of an institutionalized forum for critical upward feedback”

    I would love to hear what you had in mind, because I am not sure. Do you mean you think GA’s should read more letters? How many do they read now? Do you think they should spend less time on other matters in order to do face to face interviews with dissenters or unhappy members? How much do they do now and how high is the return to that? Is it a better use of their time than what they were doing otherwise? Maybe you think we should have town hall style meetings. My last stake conference actually we did have Q&A with the visiting GA. And I remember two similar sessions with Elder Holland occurring when I was in California (which must be well outside the norm for one person, but does make clear that such opportunities do occur).

    I think you are basing your claim on theories of organizational behavior that are not specific to the Church but tuned on other organizations. Oaks makes it pretty clear that he thinks what works in those organizations will not always be optimal in the Church, and I would have to agree. Thus I am not immediately convinced that ideas that might be a good idea at IBM must, necessarily, be a good idea in the Church. Maybe they are, but it would be nice to not just take it on faith.

    In addition, I am not sure that external criticism is all that effective even in other organizations. Do you have an operational example of this ideal that you think shows public criticism to be more effective than private discussion? Do you think public criticism is a more effective means of changing Church leader’s minds than prayer?

    It seems unlikely to me that there are very many ideas that get complained about in newspapers that the Brethren find to be new or they have not already heard and thought about. I’d be happy to hear examples. Judging from the bloggernacle, I would guess that even the more involved discourse we have here rarely changes minds or hearts. Thus I am somewhat pessimistic about such public criticism being an effective method of “collaboration”.

    And remember, not every person with an idea needs to be heard. The set of interesting ideas is far smaller than the set of people. One can really hear most of the good ideas in a population by sampling just a fraction of them.

  19. “By the way, I’m seriously considering protesting a church policy. . . it’s the one about giving my kids large amounts of candy each time they show up at church. ”

    Now there’s a reason for dissension.

  20. Frank, your first statement is why I am arguing for more openness and upward communication – things that make sense to some people turn out to be dead wrong. This is theoretically just as true for church leaders as it is for you and I – especially when we make decisions based on assumptions that are not necessarily accurate.

    If my model for upward communication (based on current human understanding of organizations) is not a fair basis for comparison – I’m afraid I’m at a loss. You’re basically suggesting that an organization of people should not play by the same rules organizations of people play by….since I’m aware of no other baseline, you make the rules and I’ll give you some suggestions.

    Finally, your categorization of what I’m saying is not accurate – I’m not sure why that is. I did not condone direct attacks on the church in newspapers or billboards – church haters (not contributers) through “external” means. That’s not the type of criticism I’m talking about here. When I say upward communication, I mean communication sessions where internal voices on all sides of the issue are heard. I’m talking about members of the church. Yeah, hopefully the FP reads what the critics are saying from time to time – but that’s not as critical as what I’m referring to here.

    I’ve actually participated in the Q&A sessions you describe and find them an excellent step…..maybe more encouragement of leaders of this type of communication is spot on….but again, that depends on what the rules are :).

  21. “This is theoretically just as true for church leaders as it is for you and I -”

    Actually I think it is somewhat less true for them. But I see your point and agree with it. It’s the forum and mechanism for group learning that I am trying to understand.

    And that is why I asked you to clarify what kind of collaboration you had in mind, because I really didn’t know until now. Sorry if I attributed to you ideas you didn’t have.

    So if you are not talking about public dissension but semi-private discussion, why do you think there isn’t enough now? If these Q&A sessions are the type of thing you want, apparently there already is the communication you are looking for. Is there some reason why you think more of it would be optimal? Apparently they are not uncommon. How many private interviews or Q&A’s do occur? Surely at some point pretty much all the ideas are heard and diminishing returns drive further value to 0.

    In point of fact, I just got done with a Q&A session with Elder Samuelson. He does them with all the colleges at BYU. I think he also regularly has them for students. So perhaps the collaboration you crave is, in its own bumbling, mortal way, already present. I suppose we’ll figure out ways to improve the mechanisms over time, since we tend to improve lots of things over time as we get experience and knowledge. But the basics seem to be there.

  22. Frank, I’d guess that tactical solutions are a dime a dozen (have more Q&A sessions, do membership surveys, suggestion boxes), some, given the need to recognize revelation, woefully more absurd in a mormon setting than at IBM. But I think I’m back where I started….that the thing that makes me cringe is perpetual warnings against some/any form of civilized public discourse. In my opinion, none of the tactics (Q&A sessions, etc) matter if there isn’t some sort of shift in cultural perceptions regarding healthy dissent and upward movement of critical information.

    What I mean is this….if there is a mandate (hypothetically and just for arguments sake) from on high that every Stake Conference has a Q&A session (small groups or some other format with the visiting GA if there is one), or there is some other new forum for dialogue, but our attitudes don’t change, the practice won’t change. People will still have the fears I mentioned above.

    Bottom line is this – I’m not arguing for ground breaking changes in programme – just a little less paranoia that any member with candid feedback regarding a policy or practice is half fallen off the wagon…and is on their way to apostasy. Improved institutional upward communication, as I see it, could equate to a simple change of attitude reflecting tolerance of thought, subtle cues that feedback is welcome, and a forum that solicits, receives and reciprocates.

    BTW, I think it’s great that BYU does what you’re describing, if they’re being done with the intent to get honest upward feedback. But I’ve seen one…ahem…not so favorable cut of President Samuelson on Youtube slapping down a BYU student who asked a question regarding BYU’s “free speech zones.” I won’t put the link here, but I’m sure you could google it. That type of Q&A session isn’t going to help much.

  23. #15; In my thinking ” criticism” or “‘no criticism”, are non starters. How about “feedback”? The little member should feel he/she needed to take on the Church single handed. How about an “ombudsman”? A back door channel to the top. “When I say upward communication, I mean communication sessions where internal voices on all sides of the issue are heard.(#24, adcam).

  24. Oaks specifically mentions letter writing as a good way to deal with disagreements with church leaders (see text below). It might be a good idea to let people know that the church leaders (or at least those who agree with Oaks) are eager to receive feedback (even negative feedback) by letter.

    Many people who leave the church seem to have the impression that the church leaders do not desire such letters. Partly, this is because of rumors that such letters are routinely forwarded back to bishops and stake presidents (which one worries could lead to an embarrassing and awkward meeting that would be equally uncomfortable for the sender and the poor bishop who is asked to “deal with this”). But I don’t know if such rumors are true.

    If they are not, then it may be that simply publicizing the church leadership’s heartfelt desire, as expressed by Oaks, to receive feedback by “between thee and him alone” letters would go along way toward making people like adcama feel that voices are being heard. (Note that Oaks spends more time in the talk itself talking about the virtue of direct communication then in the excerpt below.)

    I’ll go ahead and do my part in this publicizing this now:

    The church wants your feedback!!!

    Now tell a friend. :)


    There are at least five different procedures a Church member can follow in addressing differences with Church leaders—general or local, male or female.

    The first—and most benign—of the procedures is to overlook the difference…

    A second option is to reserve judgment and postpone any action on the difference….

    The third procedure, which should be familiar to every student of the Bible, is to take up our differences privately with the leader involved. The Savior taught: “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.” (Matt. 18:15.) This course of action may be pursued in a private meeting, if possible, or it may be done through a letter or other indirect communication…

    A fourth option is to communicate with the Church officer who has the power to correct or release the person thought to be in error or transgression….

    There is a fifth remedy. We can pray for the resolution of the problem.

  25. timer– good point. I thought about posting those 5 points in the post but got lazy after looking at all the parts I wanted to quote.


    If what you are saying is that we should listen to each other more, I find it hard to disagree. I’m sure the leaders of the Church wish members would listen to them more. I think there are some pretty good scriptures suggesting that God wishes we would listen to Him more.

    If you are saying “the Church is not listening enough and the evidence for that is because I don’t like what they are doing”, then I understand your view but I think your methodology is poor.

    If what you are saying is that Oaks should not have given the talk then I heartily disagree. Penchants for negative criticism and murmuring and backbiting are real problems that endanger people’s salvation. They enter into covenants. They are noted repeatedly in the scriptures. They deserve to be talked about. The difference between public and private settings is real and important and deserves to be talked about.

    Lastly, I have to admit that I am skeptical that there are large gains to be had from having the Apostles spend more time listening to my opinions. My opinions are just not that awesome. Forgive me if my limited experience leads me to think the same of most other peoples’ opinions.

    (Actually, I sat next to Elder Hales once at a new faculty luncheon. I asked him why BYU didn’t charge higher tuition to those who could pay. I did not change his mind nor did I think I would; I just wanted to know the governing rationale. I don’t think anything I said was news to him. He was not in the least upset or troubled by my inquiry).

  26. I’m glad you liked it :)

    Maybe I should market a line of crocheted versions. I’d need a small graphic to go with it– maybe a guy getting his head run through with a spear…

  27. Frank, surely you don’t hold your opinions re all things Mormon in such low esteem – as your hundreds of well written posts and comments on this blog and others indicate? And the while we all need to focus inward – your attempt to redirect things by stressing the attention we should all pay to the downward instruction we receive (through already well established forums) does nothing to address the need, as I see it, for honest upward discussion…..but I’m beating a dead horse.

    As for certain leaders being open to feedback, that is true….but that seems to be more a function of individual leadership style, vs. institutional protocol.

    As for Elder Oaks wanting letters, his recent talk regarding “hanging out” where he specifically tells those who feel they are exceptions NOT to send him a letter is an indication to the contrary. While nuanced, his statement is surely not going to make the idea of sending personal letters less taboo or more widely accepted.

  28. I wrote out a longer response, but maybe it would be better to make things more concrete. Suppose I sat you down with an Apostle for 15 minutes, what would you say that he or one of his brethren in the quorum hadn’t already heard and thought about? I am honestly curious. Do you really think that the Apostles have so little interaction with members that they need 15 minutes of feedback from you? What leads you to this belief?

    Apostles and Seventies both spend, it seems to me, a phenomenal amount of time talking to people. Surely they already get a fair bit of honest feedback from a decent fraction of them. We can both agree that at some point the marginal value of such feedback from members is less than the opportunity cost. On what do you base the belief that we haven’t reached that point?

    Personally, I have no idea if we have or haven’t. I leave it to them to figure out.

  29. Frank, I think they hear most from a pretty small and relatively homogeneous subset of church members, one which, for instance, does not include very many women. Also relatively few recent converts, few members not raised in Utah,e tc. I don’t think you can argue that they get much of a representative sampling. I feel fairly confident that I could say things they haven’t heard or considered before.

  30. “Also relatively few recent converts, few members not raised in Utah,e tc.”

    I’m doubtful. It seems to me that they travel a fair bit. Elder Oaks lived in the Phillipines for 2-3 years, as Elder Holland lived in Chile. Were all the people they talked to there lifetime Utah members?

    “I feel fairly confident that I could say things they haven’t heard or considered before.”

    Lay it on me Kristine! What would you say that none of them have heard?

  31. When I was a teenager, someone from the stake presidency brought Marlin K. Jensen, the visiting authority at stake conference, to our house. They came because my parents were divorced and Jensen asked to speak with some single parents from the stake. If I remember correctly, they mentioned they were also going to visit recently-returned missionaries.

    One year my mom spoke in the Saturday evening session of stake conference. Marion D. Hanks was the visiting authority. Afterwards he asked her to bring her family to visit him in his office at church headquarters, which we did. He asked all of us lots of questions. I was probably 15. Before we left he called President Hinckley (then a counselor in the First Presidency) to see if he could meet us. He greeted us in his office on our way out.

    On my mission, the area authorities (from the 1st and 2nd quorums of 70) would ask us to arrange appointments with new converts during their mission visits.

    In each case I assume they had two purposes: (1) to better understand the challenges of the church’s diverse membership, and (2) to make people feel special and know they care.

  32. Nah, Frank. I know they read T&S all the time, hoping that you’ll have posted something. I’d hate to spoil the surprise when they do call me.

  33. “Nah, Frank. I know they read T&S all the time,”

    who doesn’t?

    “I’d hate to spoil the surprise when they do call me.”

    Well Kristine, you have a right to your day in the sun.

  34. I wouldn’t need 15 minutes….just 30 seconds. If such was granted, I’d ask President Hinckley this one question; If he could whack someone, anyone, (right in the kisser) with that cane of his (I’m not talking about the love taps we see in conference)….who would it be, and why?

    Nah, Frank….I’ll have to decline your offer to provide my pet criticisms here…I respect T&S and have found much value in the discussion to this point. I’m simply suggesting more upward openness and communication….that should suffice. Besides, such a scenario (each member getting an appointment with the prophet) is not what I’m advocating – like I said, such isn’t appropriate or possible.

    Again, thanks for the discussion, which in my view, is itself “evidence” that open and honest discourse is a good thing (at least it has been for me).

  35. And you being done with the discussion is evidence that eventually the return to more of it doesn’t cover the opportunity cost. :)

  36. Every time I’ve been in a room with a seventy or above in the last, oh, 7 years they’ve solicited doctrinal questions and concerns. The people in the room seem surprised at that and often noone gets up the nerve to ask something. Sometimes it gets structured ahead of time, like a youth conference where people get forewarned and they can anonymously write the questions down. Sometimes it doesn’t get enough advance warning so little comes of it.

    Anyways, on letters, there was a relatively recent letter sent to the bishops asking them to tell the members to start directing doctrinal questions at the bishops and stake presidents. Makes sense – if we assume equal division, each apostle load equals a million people – so if just one percent are the letter-writing type, once a year, you get ten-thousand letters a year. That’s quite a burden.

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