Faithful Obedience or Malicious Compliance?

Malicious compliance is the idea of using the letter of the law to intentionally violate the spirit of the law. It is perfect obedience. It is also sabotage.

Since so much trouble seems to arise from the gap between the letter and spirit of the law, we might reasonably ask: why not close the gap? Why not just write down the spirit of the law in the first place? I think the answer is at least in part that whatever is written down and then read and interpreted by a human being is necessarily going to fall short of the spirit. If by “the spirit” we mean the ultimate truth upon which some particular edict of God rests, then “the spirit” is like the actual, true laws of physics that govern the universe and the letter is like whatever the current best interpretation of those rules might be.

If this analogy holds, then right off the bat we should be deeply suspicious of the finality of any revealed law. Anyone who accepted Aristotle’s model of physics as final would have missed out on Newton, and anyone who thought Newton had the last word would have subsequently been left behind by Einstein. In other words, if laws are imperfect translations of perfect principles into our particular place and time we should not only be prepared to accept changes in God’s law as they arrive, we should expect them.

Contrast the assumption that revealed laws come with an expiration date with Rachael Slick’s account of her conversion from Christianity to atheism. Slick, who is the daughter of the founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministy Matt Slick, described her Pauline experience for Patheos:

My certainty was my strength — I knew the answers when others did not. This changed one day during a conversation with my friend Alex. I had a habit of bouncing theological questions off him, and one particular day, I asked him this: If God was absolutely moral, because morality was absolute, and if the nature of “right” and “wrong” surpassed space, time, and existence, and if it was as much a fundamental property of reality as math, then why were some things a sin in the Old Testament but not a sin in the New Testament?

She then writes: “Alex had no answer — and I realized I didn’t either,” and then ends the paragraph (and begins her journey to godless enlightenment) with the stronger conclusion that “there was no possible answer that would align with Christianity.?” (emphasis original).

Thus we see the potent danger of failing to reconsider our premises. Slick did not understand that the relationship between God’s commandments and eternal truth is more complicated than simple equivalence. In that, she may be an outlier, but there is a related assumption that is much more common, and that is that the purpose of laws is solely compliance. In other words, there’s some absolute morality of which we are ignorant. God wants us to obey it, and so he slices and dices it into bite-size chunks which we must then follow. When we obey: good. When we disobey: bad. The end.

The problem with this view is that it rules out progress. So let’s revisit the physics analogy to see how progress might play out.

In Aristotle’s time one of the fundamental axioms of physics was that an earthly body (there were separate rules for the heavens) wanted to get as close to the earth as possible and then stop there. This is an intuitive notion that works very well for predicting most every day experiences. Water runs downhill, dropped objects fall, bounce a few times, and then come to rest, and if the ox stops pulling the wagon the wagon will stop. In that sense, it’s a good revealed law. However, we know that it is ultimately false. In reality an object in motion remains in motion until a force is applied to that object to change its motion (for example, by slowing it down or altering its direction). This is the gist of Newton’s First and Second Laws.

2013-07-22 Wheels Within Wheels

Wheels within wheels: the Ptolemaic system tried to maintain Aristotle’s physics and rectify a geocentric universe with astronomical observation by adding layers of complexity to the original, simple, and erroneous model.

But the really important observation is that just stopping by and delivering Newton’s laws to Aristotle wouldn’t have been very convincing because, within Aristotle’s paradigm, Newton’s Laws don’t work. There was no frictionless surface in ancient Greece that could have been used to illustrate the idea that a body in motion tends to stay in motion, for example. With a few specific exceptions, any conventional experiment would have immediately disproved Newton’s laws to the satisfaction of anyone alive at the time.

This is why Newton’s physics revolution depended on the earlier revolutions of Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus. Only by breaking the earth/heaven dichotomy and presuming that there was one set of rules that governed motion everywhere was Newton able to gain access to a set of examples where his laws actually played out. He was subsequently able to envision how the behavior of objects on earth could be fitted in as a specific case of the general physical laws that governed the motion of the planets and moons. With no telescope, no careful astronomical observations, and no heliocentric model of the planets orbiting in ellipses (not circles) Newton’s Laws would have seemed false to Aristotle. If we wanted to teach Aristotle Newtonian physics, therefore, we would have had to start by teaching him how to grind lenses. Thus we can see that for God to help us progress, He may have to enact commandments that make very little sense based on our starting point. (If you told Aristotle that making lenses would eventually prove that objects just go on forever until something stops them he would probably have considered you to be wasting his time.)

This in turn shows the imperative nature of looking beyond compliance. We are not just to follow laws which we have been given (although that is a necessary first step), but also to seek to understand these laws. We ought to view them as rungs of a ladder to be ascended. After all, obedience is only meaningful when we have a free will to willingly subjugate to laws we don’t fully understand. If God just wanted compliance, he could have had robots instead of children.

This vision of obedience never absolves us of responsibility. Because we are expected to willfully follow God’s commandments as a self-directing participant, we never get to shut off our minds or hearts and just go on autopilot. This is where we get into trouble, because natural selection has ensured we inherit physical bodies that are predisposed to the path of least resistance. The human body as an organism is anti-existential. It wants only to know the easiest way possible to get the minimum amount necessary. When applied to the principle of obedience, it tells us that we should just check off compliance on our to-do list and go watch TV.

This tendency to flee from freedom manifests in surprising ways, and one of the most pernicious is the frequent complaint that General Authorities ought to give ever more granular, nuanced, and refined versions of the letter of the law. Or, to put it more simply, that the General Authorities ought to explicitly enumerate all the many exceptions to their general counsel. This they will not do, and must not do. Elder Oaks has said:

As a General Authority, it is my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord. (From a CES Fireside on May 1, 2005 in Oakland, CA)

Notice that if every possible exception were explicitly provided, our responsibility would be greatly diminished. Which is to say our freedom–our range of meaningful action–would be greatly curtailed.

I realize it sounds counter intuitive, but there is such a thing as too much obedience. If the absolute moral truths could be distilled down into a series of step-by-step instruction we could obediently follow every one and learn nothing. We could be as innocent not like Christ, but like a stone. This is the ultimate malicious compliance, following each and every letter of the law by sabotaging the progress that is the reason we were given those laws in the first place.

General counsel, which is to say direction which may very well have exceptions, confounds this automatic obedience. It forces us to engage with the counsel, consider it as it applies to us, and forces us to take responsibility for either following or opting out of the counsel. Those who wish to have every exception documented are in effect clamoring for more letters of the law, and the refusal of the General Authorities to build that particular golden calf is a safeguard against malicious compliance.

50 comments for “Faithful Obedience or Malicious Compliance?

  1. Mtnmarty
    July 22, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    I’m not being malicious but I’m interested why you frequently use moral or morality in your discussions of religion and theology? Do you see moral truth as coextensive with religious truth or just as the the most interesting or most important types of truth from religion?

    I’m curious about it because the scriptures don’t usually refer to commandments as moral requirements.

  2. Mtnmarty
    July 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    This little excerpt from the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy expands a bit more on the issue I’m asking about.

    “Religion differs from morality or a moral system in that it includes stories about events in the past, usually about supernatural beings, that are used to explain or justify the behavior that it prohibits or requires. Sometimes there is no distinction made between a moral code and a code of conduct put forward by a religion, and there is often a considerable overlap in the conduct prohibited or required by religion and that prohibited or required by morality. But religions may prohibit or require more than is prohibited or required by guides to behavior that are explicitly labeled as moral guides, and may allow some behavior that is prohibited by morality. Sometimes morality is regarded as the code of conduct that is put forward by religion, but even when this is not the case, morality is thought by many to need some religious explanation and justification. However, just as with law, some religious practices and precepts are criticized on moral grounds, e.g., discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Morality is only a guide to conduct, whereas religion is always more than this.

  3. Adam G.
    July 22, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    *The problem with this view is that it rules out progress.*

    And regress, and simply change.

    I would hate to wed continued revelation to progress. That sounds like an even more fragile basis for conviction.

  4. Mtnmarty
    July 22, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    ..This is where we get into trouble, because natural selection has ensured we inherit physical bodies that are predisposed to the path of least resistance…

    Tell that to someone with OCD.

    I think this goes connects to your desire to privilege effort as the best marker of moral progress.

    …The human body as an organism is anti-existential. It wants only to know the easiest way possible to get the minimum amount necessary…

    This is also confusing because natural selection would seem to have us maximize the number of offspring that are fit to likewise maximize offspring. So, yes we may be set up to conserve energy, but I don’t think there is a minimum necessary reproduction component.

  5. Howard
    July 22, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Very good!

    Obedience isn’t the point at all, it is simply a beginning lesson. Knowledge pursuant to merging with God is the point and it cannot be achieved through rote even “perfect obedience” because obedience is just dumbed down monkey see monkey do. In fact duality isn’t the point either it exists only to teach the path to non-duality. All that isn’t love is fear.

  6. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Two questions for you Nathaniel.
    1. In what way do you feel that members of the Church are doing this today?
    2. Can we really be too obedient, or is it that we can be obedient for the wrong reasons? Was Christ not completely and perfectly obedient. How could He have atoned for our sins if He was otherwise? I know that the Pharisees viewed obedience different than Christ did, but in the end was Christ still not perfectly obedient because He understood the law completely, unlike the Pharisees who only lived the letter of the law? It sounds like you are twisting the original meaning of the term obedience to justify not obeying that which we have been commanded to do by the living Prophets and then claiming that you are obeying the spirit of the law. I hope that is not what you are implying by this post.

  7. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 10:40 am

    Was Christ not completely and perfectly obedient. No he was not obedient in the sense of the word commonly thought of and taught in church whereby the natural man’s negative inclinations are restrained by shear willpower in obedience to rote rules because the mighty change of heart removes most of the negative inclinations of the natural man and because if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law. However it is clear that he retained natural survival instincts making obedience via. willpower necessary to complete his crucifiction.

  8. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Howard, I was raised in Utah in the Church and I have never been taught that obedience is only shear willpower used to comply with rote rules. I am sorry if that is how you were raised, but that definition of obedience is not commonly taught in the Church in my experience.

    Obedience can be achieved by shear willpower, but sometimes we are obedient to the laws and commandments of God simply because they are in harmony with our natural inclinations. We all struggle with being obedient to different areas of the gospel and by being obedient we can learn the reasons why we have been commanded to do so. But once those reasons are learned we are still required to be obedient. At times exceptions exist to certain laws, rules, counsel, or commandments. But if we are following the Spirit in those exceptions, then by definition we are still being obedient.

  9. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 11:50 am

    I don’t think we are far apart. My point is the natural man is transcended by the mighty change of heart NOT perfected through obedience. The practice of obedience is just a beginning lesson that helps develop discipline. Further when we become true disciples instead of just church members the Spirit custom tutors us in a way that purposely includes taboo breaking. It is done to better understand the reason for the law and for a better understanding of the principles behind the law. Those principals are much more important and closer to the gospel than the rules are. Once the principles are understood the rules can be ignored as Jesus clearly did. The rules are dumbed down general advice that if followed will generally point your trajectory toward the green but not necessary the pin.

  10. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 11:57 am

    I guess my question for you then is what rules are there that you feel can be ignored in the Church today?

  11. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Well, did Joseph follow today’s Law of Chastity or today’s Word of Wisdom? Clearly not! If these are important eternal laws of some great consequence, what does this mean for Joesph’s future?

    Clearly they are not! So let’s put those and today’s pharisaical rules into perspective.

  12. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 12:16 pm

    I am sorry if I am misunderstanding what you are trying to say, but it sounds like you are saying we can throw the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom out the door and not obey them because they won’t exist in the eternities. If so, this is a gross misinterpretation of following the Spirit and you should be concerned about what spirit you are following.

    The Nephites knew of Christ and knew that the Law of Moses would one day be done away with, but they still remained obedient to it (see 2 Nephi 25:24-25). Whether or not the Word of Wisdom will be changed or done away with in the future has no bearing on our obligation to follow it today. It is one thing to learn and understand that a particular commandment is not an eternal one, it is an entirely different thing to choose to not follow it and preach to others that we don’t need to as well. So yes, lets put it into perspective, but a different perspective doesn’t justify disobedience.

  13. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 12:29 pm

    I know what Spirit I’m following. I think you’re conflating some things here. I’m saying if you’re led by the Spirit, you are simply not under the law. This is scripture not opinion. Further the Spirit will teach you the principles the law was derived from making it possible for you to be informed to the level of living the principle without living the law. The principle is greater than the law and closer to the gospel than the law and conforms to Joseph’s statement; “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” A statement rarely heard today in our largely still Mosaic church.

  14. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Yes that statement is scripture, Galatians 5:18. And yes the principle is more important than the law, but that doesn’t justify us into being disobedient. We are still expected to live the law for the time being. We are commanded to follow a living Prophet, not a dead or a future one.

  15. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    The church isn’t big on nuance tending toward the dichotomy of good vs. evil and addressing it with black and white answers. Black and white truncates and polarizes! So two very close but different shades of gray located near the half way point between black and white become extremes one black the other white. They become polar opposites in spite of their true values being almost identically midway between!

    According to science red wine and beer are good for you but drinking too much alcohol is bad for you. Autonomous management of nuance is required to reap the benefits without detriment. Clearly not everyone can do it. So a Mosaic one-rule-fits-all church comes up with a binomial solution; alcohol is prohibited. The principle is avoid the detriment caused by drinking too much alcohol while reaping the benefits or red wine and beer. The rule is NO alcohol allowed. So the principle can be followed by limiting your alcohol consumption to one or two drinks of red wine or beer a day but your Bishop probably won’t like it because you’re not being obedient to the Word of Wisdom which was offered as a principle but over time became a law.

  16. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Justifying obedience by quoting the need to be obedient is circular. Please clearly explain why we need to obey all this stuff.

  17. Matt
    July 23, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    By that argument we should also be giving everything we own or earn to the church because the law of tithing is the rule and the law of consecration is the principle.

    You know you are twisting scripture to justify your own agenda. I don’t argue that the Word of Wisdom is a lower law. Christ turned water to wine, the Nephites and Lamanites drank wine, and D&C talks of Christ drinking of the fruit of the vine when He returns. This doesn’t matter. We are commanded to follow the Word of Wisdom as interpreted by the living Prophets, not by us. You will be held responsible for your obedience to that which God has given you through His Prophets. You can continue to twist scripture to justify your actions in your own mind, but come judgment day they won’t mean squat.

  18. Howard
    July 23, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    By following the Spirit you eventually become your own prophet, your stewardship is yourself and your family. It violates nothing. You’re having trouble with it because it diverts from what you were taught but not everything taught in church is correct, much of it is folklore and correlated gospel.

  19. Mtnmarty
    July 23, 2013 at 2:32 pm


    What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself?

    How does one know if one has been obedient to this commandment?

  20. burgendy
    July 23, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Why do we need Organized Religion if rules (laws) are made to be broken (changed)

  21. Mtnmarty
    July 23, 2013 at 7:07 pm


    On the odd chance that the question wasn’t rhetorical. Here’s a quick list of 10.

    1. For the hymns.
    2. To meet people
    3. Ward parties
    4. To hear testimonies
    5. Youth groups
    6. Sports
    7. Change of pace once a week
    8. A place to hold weddings and funerals
    9. Tax deductions
    10. A place to learn about Jesus

    Why do I get the feeling you aren’t convinced…

  22. Don Bixby
    July 26, 2013 at 10:07 am

    I don’t think mtnmarty and matt understand the point of this post. I think howard does, maybe, but it’s questionable by the end with some poor examples he provides.

    That said, the malicious compliance thing is what makes it confusing for both sides. Malicious compliance implies people are over-obeying on purpose, with evil intent. I don’t think most people who have over-obedience issues are doing so with evil intent.

    The point is that too much blind obedience without trying to come to an understanding of the greater principle is bad, even if done with good intentions. There are a lot of people who thrive on setting up Pharisaical systems of law because it makes them comfortable, not having to make decisions for themselves. That’s what the author is trying to get at.

    Nowhere does the author promote the idea of disobeying our current law but rather trying to come to an understanding of it. If we understand it well enough, we become free of it. We are not free to then disobey the law but free in that the law isn’t an issue for us. We’re not under it or subject to it. Obeying it or not isn’t an issue because we’re so far past it that the law is moot.

  23. Nlocnil
    July 26, 2013 at 10:19 am

    I agree with Howard. Once the heart is changed and the eye is single, and you’ve a love toward God and all men the law is fulfilled. I.e. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Think of the Nephi who lived at the time of Christ. God could/would not deny his requests/actions.

    Rote obedience didn’t change the rich young man. Ritual/religious purity, straining the gnat out of your water, is a symbol/practice that can help turn one toward God. But if that becomes the end, well, I hope you like camel meat.

  24. Matt
    July 26, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Don, whether or not I understand the post is still up in the air since Nathaniel hasn’t chimed in on the discussion. I am curious about his specific opinion. I do understand what it is that you are saying about malicious compliance, but I would like to know where Nathaniel sees this occurring in the Church today. I personally don’t know a single member that fits your definition of malicious compliance, so I am left to wonder if Nathaniel sees it happening in his experience or if he is trying to get a different message across without actually saying it, such as what Howard believes in that once we understand the principle behind the law compliance to the law is not necessary. Unless Nathaniel speaks up then I will have to continue to wonder about what he is trying to get across.

  25. Mtnmarty
    July 26, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    Don Bixby,

    I’d like to understand it better. You wrote: There are a lot of people who thrive on setting up Pharisaical systems of law because it makes them comfortable, not having to make decisions for themselves. That’s what the author is trying to get at.

    I thought I was trying to get at that too. I was pointing out that those that emphasize rules and literal interpretations rarely seem to pick the commandment love thy neighbor as their favorite scripture.

    My point to Nathaniel was to try to point out the ways that his writings and beliefs are contingent on a view of human life that makes morality the primary measure and meaning of life.

    His writings are tough to follow because it is never clear what counts as evidence. For example, he believes in epistemic humility and that our knowledge of God is always inadequate, which is fine as far as it goes, but then he is is not that explicit in how he picks and chooses which knowledge or belief he will rely on.

    I’m not sure whether he sees his writings as poetry or story-telling or philosophy or faith-promoting reasoning. A good example is where he falls on mind-body and spirit-body duality. He makes statements about bodies that seem to be grounded in some view of science but then he also has a model of personhood or identity that transcend scientific understanding but doesn’t seem that concerned with explaining how the two worlds connect.

    Its also hard to tell when he is trying to derive real world results from beliefs (ie. I believe in God, and God is good therefore we know that) and when is is trying to use real world data to explain God. We know that people do X, therefore God has property Y.

    It all only makes sense to me if one somehow knows in advance what is important and what is not important.

    Seriously, how does one know what it means to love thy neighbor? We all have our own idea of that and how do we know whether our idea conforms at all to what is being commanded. For some people, to love them means to hate who they hate. Well, that is obviously problematic. So does it mean to treat them in a way that leads them to be a better person – maybe but how would we ever tell?

    He just doesn’t seem perplexed enough to really believe what he says about epistemic humility and I’m just fascinated about what he doesn’t question about his own reasoning. Not that I know what he should, I’m just perplexed by his faith in his own interests.

    His posts on Plantinga highlight his belief that it is authentic to have to struggle with certain fundamental questions but why does he believe that there are fundamental questions? If he believes in bodily fallibility why does he not believe his body could be fooling him about what is fundamental?

  26. July 26, 2013 at 9:59 pm


    The point is that too much blind obedience without trying to come to an understanding of the greater principle is bad, even if done with good intentions. There are a lot of people who thrive on setting up Pharisaical systems of law because it makes them comfortable, not having to make decisions for themselves. That’s what the author is trying to get at.

    Nowhere does the author promote the idea of disobeying our current law but rather trying to come to an understanding of it.

    Yeah, you pretty much nailed it.

    I think I had a hard time making this post as focused as I would have liked. In fact, I know I hard a hard time. It took me a long time to get it to where it is now, and I will definitely have to revisit the topic in the future (here or elsewhere) and give it a more polished take.

    The one additional point I was trying to convey is that, perhaps ironically, one example of malicious intent[1] in obedience is the call for the General Authorities to offer more and/or more comprehensive revelation. This is what I referred to as a “golden calf”. I believe that the rules we receive from General Authorities are often just that–general guidance. They come with exceptions. I do not believe this in any way undermines their authority or our need to obey as a matter of general principle but it deprives us (if we’re truly paying attention) of the easy escape of automatic obedience.

    I quoted Elder Oaks (and it’s an identical quote that I’ve used before) to illustrate this: general counsel is general. There are exceptions. Who decides if your case is exceptional? You do.

    The attempt to resist that–either by calling directly for exceptional cases to be enumerated, for our particular pet special case to be enumerated, or decrying the generality of the counsel we receive–is like asking the General Authorities to build us a golden calf. We are seeking for a comprehensive set of guidelines that would relieve/deprive us of the burden of responsibility.

    [1] The term “malicious compliance” is tricky because, a you’ve noted, it suggests that there is intentionality. But if you look at the term as it’s used in various contexts, you’ll see that even without any theology it’s a controversial and complex term. I don’t mean to say that people who malicious comply are doing it on purpose, merely that it is superficially perfectly obedient and yet also deeply antagonistic to one of the core tenets of obedience, which is personal growth.

  27. July 26, 2013 at 10:08 pm


    I can’t hope to address all your questions in my post, although I do hope that:
    A – As I blog more, I’ll get better at clarity.
    B – Other folks are getting more out of at least most of my posts.

    But there is one small point I’d like to reply to:

    He just doesn’t seem perplexed enough to really believe what he says about epistemic humility and I’m just fascinated about what he doesn’t question about his own reasoning.

    If I’m totally perplexed by 99% of stuff I’m aware of, and only have anything like confidence in 1%, where do you think I’m going to choose to go to find material for posts?

    I’m fascinated that you think inferring from the topics I select to write about is a good inference for how I think about the topics I do not select to write about. :-)

  28. Matt
    July 26, 2013 at 10:26 pm


    1.Other than the call from some members for more comprehensive revelation, do you see malicious compliance happening elsewhere in the Church, and if so, where?

  29. July 27, 2013 at 9:15 am


    Oh, sure.

    I think the majority of the time malicious compliance is reflected in Mormon cultural attitudes towards meetings, rules, and goals. We tend to be a very number-focused religion. Meetings, rules and goals are unavoidable to a certain extent, but this leads to the tendency to see the meetings, rules and goals as the end rather than as a means to an end. And that’s the essence of malicious compliance (in the context of this article): seeing obedience as an end itself and nothing more. This is kind of common knowledge, right? It’s the kind of stereotype you’ll see in a Halestorm Entertainment movie like the R.M.

    So I just focused on the call for more comprehensive revelation because it’s counter-intuitive and less recognized. The call is often not stated but rather implied and comes attached to a variation of criticism on leadership. Criticizing leadership doesn’t seem–at first glance–to be a way of reinforcing over-dependence on obedience.

    That’s why I thought this was worth writing about: because I think sometimes there’s a battle between Liahona and Iron Rod Mormons and both risk missing the point as the fight over the rules, and the point is that we need a little less emphasis on rules and more emphasis on personal accountability.

  30. mtnmarty
    July 27, 2013 at 10:27 am


    Thank you so very much for replying. I get very much out of your posts and that is why I get frustrated with not knowing very precisely how to engage them. I take seriously your desire for improving your thought through criticism but it is hard to know on which dimension (religious, moral, scientific, rhetorical, philosophical, etc.) it would be most useful to engage with your thought. If I could make a very complimentary analogy it would be that I get a similar feeling trying to engage with Aquinas. He is wide ranging and makes arguments and you can often tell what his answers are going to be, but not always and its hard to know what to make of his reasoning in those cases where you don’t “get” his thought.
    For example, whether it is in the premises or in the reasoning.

    I realize that I fall into a very small camp of people who want to be scientific in their thought but have little belief in scientism. For example, if we really, truly face a choice, particularly a choice of goals, then science tells us nothing about that choice because it is only concerned with causal law. It can inform us of the relation of that choice to other consequences, but scientifically speaking, if it is possible, then it is allowed.

    So, you are one of the few people whose thought at least tangentially intersects with my understanding of life. You seem interested in knowledge, in literature, in discussing topics that others avoid. Its not your topics that I’m perplexed by its what underpins the reasoning.

    I look forward to more of your posts and more data points to interpret. Sorry, my comments haven’t been more useful to your own goals.

  31. Matt
    July 27, 2013 at 12:35 pm


    I really appreciate you responding to my question. For me I struggle to see how the church is too numbers, rule, or goal oriented. In leadership positions I imagine goals and numbers are discussed more often, but outside of those callings I don’t personally see it happening. I find that the rules of the Church tend to make each member ponder and decide the details of how to follow it. There are very few specific do or don’ts in the church that I can think of. Some of these are the ones that deal with parts of the Word of Wisdom, the Law of Chastity, and Vulgarity. But for the most part the Church teaches guidelines and then lets the members get specific. Modesty, entertainment, tithing, etc, are all examples of how a principle is taught and not a specific. So I am curious what rules are you referring to when you say that the Church is too rule oriented? If you are referring to members and not the official Church then I can agree with you that some members do so, but I just don’t see it happening at the official Church level.

    In addition, I think you would be better served by not casting obedience in a negative light as you have in your post. I don’t think your claim that one can be too obedient is accurate. Rather I think you are trying to say that there is more to the Gospel than just obedience. That if all you care about is obedience then you are missing the mark. All of that I agree with, but by claiming one can be too obedient you are unintentionally implying that obedience itself can be bad, and I don’t think that is what you are trying to say.

  32. July 28, 2013 at 5:55 pm


    No worries. I’m glad you get something out of my posts, and I’ll keep on posting ’em for the time being.

  33. Mtnmarty
    July 28, 2013 at 6:47 pm


    Here is an example of a rule driven official church culture.

    My brother was a bishop who went to scout camp and grew a beard. His wife liked the beard when he returned and he wore it for a while. A church leader above the stake level engaged him about it.

    It was an odd situation in that he did not ask him to shave it only whether he would if requested. I believe this to be an example of official church action that shows a rule obsessed culture.

    Now to the bigger question of obedience. I don’t you mean obedience can never be bad. Say as in Obey your thirst or obey your evil supervisor.

    The strongest case for obedience would be obeying the will of God I presume. But none of us know the will of God perfectly. So obedience is self-discipline with regard to what we believe to be correct. But knowing that people are fallible and often self-interested and unaware of their biases, obedience in practice always carries some suspicion of self-righteousness. In many cases the danger is small but often are very convinced they are obeying God when they are only obeying their understanding of God.

    Jihadists are being obedient. To be thoroughly convinced one is not a jihadist is to be suspect and your obedience is suspect right along with theirs.

  34. Matt
    July 28, 2013 at 8:21 pm


    Are there some rules within the church that are cultural? Of course. But your example in this last response and before do not give enough support to your claim that the Church itself is rule driven. Take the majority of what we are asked to do by the Church and it is given in a way to encourage us to think for ourselves. Principles are taught but the specifics are left up to our own interpretation as guided by the Spirit. If the Church was officially overrun by being rule oriented it would be much more obvious than the examples you have given. I understand and recognize that the culture of the members can be this way. But there needs to be a separation from that culture and what is officially taught by the Church. There will be some cultural rules given by the Church, but the majority of them are gospel based and taught as principles.

    I don’t know how you were raised, but I wonder if your view of the Church is being affected by the culture you were raised in instead of what is truly there. I was raised in Utah surrounded by Church members, but in a family that encouraged and expected us to think for ourselves. So I think that part of my difficulty in understanding what you are portraying is that I myself am affected by the culture I was raised in by my parents. I know friends I grew up with who were raised differently and because of this there perspective of the Church is greatly different from my own.

    All I do know is that as I look at what is taught officially by the Church I am proud of how the leaders have been inspired to give to us mostly principles to govern our lives by and very few specific rules. The culture of some members may be obsessed with rules, but I testify to you that the Church is not.

  35. Steve Smith
    July 29, 2013 at 2:19 am

    Matt, I generally agree with Nathaniel that the church is very much rule-based. The LDS church certainly isn’t Orthodox Judaism, but it isn’t liberal Christianity at the same time. In order to be a member in good standing, drinking coffee is strictly forbidden. To carry a temple recommend it is obligatory to constantly wear particular underwear. Furthermore particular activities on Sunday, such as shopping, are highly discouraged and considered sinful. My Christian friends, who actually belong to a conservative Baptist church, all drink coffee, wear what LDS people would consider revealing clothing, and purchase things on Sunday. Yet they’re considered members in good standing of their religious community. In their church, there is no specific list of substances that they are forbidden from eating or drinking, etc. There is a trend among them of not getting drunk or high from drugs, but no specific prohibition.

    Also, I think that you are assuming the division between church culture and the central LDS administration to be more apparent and distinct than it really is. The church administration has played a significant role in shaping and originating much of the church culture. In turn, it has been LDS church culture that has shaped the personalities and customs of the church leaders themselves. Sure, some cultural features of the LDS community have emanated from the bottom-up, and aren’t the result of an imitation of administrative custom or the following of a central directive (i.e. many of the social activity traditions, last-days theories, style of discourse in talks and testimonies). But much of the rule-driven behavior most certainly finds is origins in the culture of the high-ranking administration. Laying out lots of rules has proven to be an effective administrative tactic in maintaining uniformity in the behavior, appearance, and beliefs of the members for generations. Why would the LDS church want to relax its strict rubric too much if it has achieved visible results? Of course, the LDS recognizes the existence of ‘Liahona’ members and has developed a discourse to try to satisfy them/keep them from being too critical of the central administration. Hence you can find plenty of quotes in conference talks that emphasize commitment to principles right along side talks that emphasize strict obedience to a set of rules. The LDS church exhibits a sort of administrative dualism. But rule-driven living is not simply a bottom-up cultural phenomenon.

  36. Matt
    July 29, 2013 at 8:42 am


    As I stated above there are specific rules set within the Church, but if you take a look at all that we are asked to live the majority of it is principle based. In talking of the Word of Wisdom you are only referencing a part of it, the rest of it is left up to each members individual interpretation. There is no specific rule about how many vegetables we should eat, how many grains, or how much meat. The law of tithing is taught as 10% of our increase, but there is no more guidance than that. Some members pay on their net income, some on gross, some include cash gifts as well as calculate the worth of physical gifts while other’s don’t. Yet these members who interpret it differently are all considered to be full tithe payers. Modesty is a set of guidelines that contains a few specifics and mostly principles. What entertainment we allow in music, theater, movies, books, etc., is almost exclusively taught by principle. Sabbath worship has some particulars as you mentioned, yet keeping the Sabbath holy requires more than just avoidance of certain things and that aspect is all taught by principle. Pick up a for strength of youth pamphlet and do a side by side comparison and you will find that the majority of what we are taught to do is given by principle not by specific rules. So while the Church does set some specific guidelines or rules, my point is that the majority of it is principle based.

    Personally I do not find that these specific rules are a detriment to the members. Given that the Church is for every member and not just a specific few who all think the same, it makes sense that there would be both specific rules and guidelines. In this way the Lord increases the ability of the Gospel message to reach all of it’s members. Some will attach more to rules and some more to guidelines. I see this as wisdom.

    I do understand and recognize that you and Nathaniel feel the Church is rule driven, and I can respect that this your perspectives. I just happen to disagree with you on the matter. I am honestly not trying to debate with you. I am simply curious why and how you have come to the perspective that you have, but I think I will have to keep on wondering. There are some things that I am probably not ready or capable of understanding just yet. Thanks for the discussion, I hope I have not been too offensive. I am new to this whole online chat stuff and am learning the ropes.

  37. Steve Smith
    July 29, 2013 at 11:26 am

    “Pick up a for strength of youth pamphlet and do a side by side comparison and you will find that the majority of what we are taught to do is given by principle not by specific rules.”

    Are you joking? The FSOY pamphlet is living proof of just how ruled-based the LDS church is, particularly the youth program. Have you read the 1965 FSOY pamphlet? It advises women to not wear pants. I think it’s time to take the blinders off, Matt. Look at the LDS church and people compared to other religions and it becomes quite apparent that the LDS church administration is very rule-based. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with having lots of rules and guidelines, but it is simple, undeniable fact that the LDS church administers by setting and enforcing lots of rules and guidelines; and so much, that people often miss the forest for the trees. There is lots of evidence to tie the predominant rule-based lifestyles of LDS people to the administrative apparatus of the LDS institution.

    What makes the LDS church more rule-based than principle-based? The fact that you are more likely to be excluded for simple violations of rules than general violations of principles. For instance I am much more likely to be denied a temple recommend, or at least censured by a local authority, for admitting that I occasionally drink tea than for consuming too much meat, both of which are violations of the Word of Wisdom. Not only the church members, but the administration, appears to care more if people occasionally drink tea than if they eat healthy and live healthy lifestyles. There is lots of straining at gnats and swallowing of camels in the administration itself.

  38. Mtnmarty
    July 29, 2013 at 12:50 pm


    I think the strongest part of the argument is that the rules can be interpreted quite liberally by any particular person. If I go see the Passion of the Christ on a Sunday and I think that is keeping the Sabbath day Holy, then I don’t think the official church will keep me out of the temple for watching an R-rated movie and making a cash transaction on Sunday.

    However, the weakest part of your argument seems to be that your very own desire that obedience not be denigrated is a symptom of participating in a rule-laden church. Whether one calls them laws, principles or rules, you are very invested in the idea that conforming one’s behavior to a code of conduct or set of principles is fundamental (if not the primary purpose) of religion.

    It seems a legitimate position to think that rules are good for people, so, why your desire to minimize the tie of the church to the rules?

  39. Matt
    July 29, 2013 at 1:30 pm


    I have never read the 1965 FSOY and do not have one to look at. My view is based on what I see today in the Church not on what it was back in the sixties. I also have never said that the Church doesn’t set rules. I happen to see more principle based teaching than rule based coming from the Church. Some people do get caught up in the rules and fail to grasp more than that. I am not denying that. All I am advocating for is that the Church itself is more principle driven than rule driven.

    There is an aspect of your argument that makes me curious. The Word of Wisdom as given in D&C 89 says that “hot drinks are not for the body or belly.” This revelation was given by Christ to Joseph Smith. The living Prophets have interpreted “hot drinks” to mean coffee and tea. The specifics of absolutely no “hot drinks” was given by Christ not by a Church leader. Christ was also the one who did not set a specific line on how much meat to eat but only said that it is “to be used sparingly.” So is your disagreement really about the Church administration or is it about God?


    I have never stated or suggested that the Church doesn’t set rules, only that I see it teaching principles more than it does rules. I think that denigrating obedience to make a point that truly is separate from obedience is a poor way to make a point. The problem in the article isn’t that obedience is bad, but that denying the spirit of the law for the letter of the law is. That is separate from obedience in my perspective. Clearly it is not the same for you or Nathaniel.

  40. Steve Smith
    July 29, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Here is a copy of the 1965 For Strength of Youth Pamphlet:

    Reread my comments. I did not express a disagreement with the Word of Wisdom or the church administration in my comments on this thread (note how I wrote “there isn’t anything inherently wrong with having lots of rules and guidelines” in comment #37. Instead, I expressed a disagreement with your assertion that “leaders have been inspired to give to us mostly principles to govern our lives by and very few specific rules.” While the church leaders do talk of principles to govern our lives by, they also set out and enforce lots and lots of specific rules, in fact many more than many other predominant religious organizations; so much, that the rule-driven living of many church members that you criticize in your comments can actually be attributed to the policies of the central administration. You don’t appear to have any evidence to back up your opinion and appear to be ignoring the evidence that I have presented to back up mine. Another irony is that in spite of your criticism of rule-based living, you come off, based on your comments, as a very letter-of-the-law type of guy (and here I’m referring to your little quip about me having a disagreement with God). Are you aware that the Word of Wisdom was originally regarded to be a suggested health code and was not really binding on all LDS? There is lots of evidence that early LDS faithfuls drank alcohol and chewed tobacco. Even Joseph Smith and Brigham Young enjoyed an occasional alcoholic drink. It wasn’t until 1921 when Heber J. Grant made it a requirement that LDS people not drink tea, coffee, alcohol, or smoke tobacco to be considered worthy to enter the temple.

  41. Mtnmarty
    July 29, 2013 at 6:35 pm


    I actually think most of 1965 pamphlet supports Matt’s position in that in mainly talks about “good taste” and not being aware of one’s social situation. Oddly, it struck me as being very up to date in its theories of social connectedness and how the physical and social determine our behavior with less emphasis on individual willpower.

  42. Steve Smith
    July 29, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Theories of social connectedness???? You lost me there mtnmarty. The FSOY pamphlet is not some philosophical tract; you’re reading into it way too much. It is a list of guidelines for young people in the LDS church regarding how to behave in a number of social and personal settings.

    Don’t get too impressed with the blurbs on the first and last pages. It is trying to pass off a list of nitpicking as somehow rooted in larger principles, but not terribly persuasively. In the end what stand out is the copious lists of rule and obsession with minutiae at the expense of the idea of teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves.

    The FSOY pamphlet is responsible for bringing us the whole R-rated movie craze to the extent that I heard stories of how local authorities would deny temple recommends to people who confessed to watching R-rated movies. And somehow people like Matt keep disingenuously claiming that the administrative apparatus of the LDS is more principle-based than rule-based. The church is run like a business, by people who have spent their careers in business administration. Listing and enforcing strict sets of rules is the name of the game.

  43. Matt
    July 29, 2013 at 10:47 pm


    Thank you! I know we don’t share the same perspective and I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge what you found in the FSOY pamphlet.


    There is nothing disingenuous about my claims regarding the Church. I made my quip about having a disagreement with God to make the point that here in mortality God will give to us mortals specific rules to live by. The law of Moses was given because the people were incapable of living the higher law which is a law of principles. While we are no longer under the law of Moses, there are still specific rules given to members of the Church. Not because the rules will be eternal, but because the members collectively are not capable of living a higher law. Hopefully we as members will live so that God will be able to replace these lower laws containing set rules with the higher laws that the rules are based on. I am not a letter-of-the-law kind of guy at all. But I see the wisdom in having specific guidelines for specific things at specific times while here in mortality for the benefit of the members collectively.

    I could go on about some of the things that have been said, but I think this is the time to agree to disagree. Thanks for sharing your views.

  44. Mtnmarty
    July 30, 2013 at 12:13 am


    My experience with the official church doesn’t go much higher than the bishop level. I have had about 10 where I have had enough personal contact to remember them. I may be fortunate but of the 10 only
    1 was seriously “rule minded” and another
    2 were moderately “rule minded”,
    3 were balanced/neutral and just looking to run a good show with little trouble,(one of these asked my wife and I and 2 children to speak in church when we were knew in the ward. I told him it would be a short meeting. He said “fine people will appreciate that”. The 4 of us finished in 20 minutes, and good to his word, sacrament meeting was done 25 minutes early. Only time I remember that happening.)
    2 were conventional but very humble, friendly and not concerned with rules, and
    2 were quite unconventional and pushed back against directives from above, one giving church welfare to the non-member former communist Polish immigrants in his ward boundaries in the early 1980’s and one making a homosexual single man the Elder’s Quorum president.

    My perception is that my Bishops have been somewhat more liberal than most but I have lived in both corridor and non-corridor wards and its likely not an overly unusual mix.

    My experience is somewhat in the middle in that I think the church is largely what a person makes of it; but it does have its fair share of nit-pickers, but also at least its fair share of kindly, good ol’ souls too. I think both types are strongly influenced by LDS culture.

  45. Steve Smith
    July 30, 2013 at 7:22 am

    Matt, now you appear to have conceded that I was right; that the church leaders–either by perceived command of God or through their own volition–operate the LDS church through a tight rubric of lots of specific rules. Hence there appears to be no need to ‘agree to disagree.’ Your concession is evidenced by you writing, “While we are no longer under the law of Moses, there are still specific rules given to members of the Church. Not because the rules will be eternal, but because the members collectively are not capable of living a higher law.” So you’re saying that current church policy isn’t based on a higher law. I would agree. However, you keep misinterpreting me as trying to make a case against having rules. I have not written anything to that effect.

    Mtnmarty, thanks for sharing your story. However, the idea that the “church is largely what a person makes of it” cannot be supported by evidence. Church regulations do allow for a degree of flexibility for how bishops can act, but the boundaries of what bishops can and can’t do are fairly well defined and still quite narrow. For instance, if a bishop called a male who was openly in a romantic relationship with another male to be EQP, he would be swiftly censured by the stake, and likely dismissed if he didn’t remove the gay member from the calling. A bishop may be able to end sacrament meeting a little early, but would be censured for making Sunday School optional and holding a continual two-hour block for the ward. Also a bishop would be censured for conducting interviews on Monday night. So you see how rigid the church administration is? Now there are institutionalized religions that are so loosely structured that it could be said that they are more or less what their followers make of them (meaning that the central administration of those religions rarely disciplines people for particularly beliefs or practices), but Mormonism is most certainly not one of those religions.

  46. Matt
    July 30, 2013 at 8:48 am


    I am not sure why you feel I have conceded anything, my stance hasn’t changed. I do see the Church enforcing specific rules. I have never claimed that it didn’t. Nor have I claimed that the Church is less ruled based than other religions. I am not trying to compare the LDS Church to any other religion. Nor that only principles are taught or that rules are never taught. My only claim is that I believe there are more principles taught than there are rules. In that area I do think we disagree. And yes I do think that SOME of our current policies are not based on a higher law.

    I do understand that you are not making a case that against rules. I think we may differ on where we believe some rules come from, but I know you are not trying to say that rules are wrong.

  47. Steve Smith
    July 30, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Matt, allow me to remind of the assertions that you were making in earlier posts, which prompted me to write a rebuttal, because you seem to have forgotten them:

    Comment 31: “the church is [not]…numbers, rule, or goal oriented.”

    Comment 31: “But for the most part the Church teaches guidelines and then lets the members get specific.”

    Comment 34: “Principles are taught [by church leaders] but the specifics are left up to our own interpretation as guided by the Spirit.”

    Comment 34: “leaders have been inspired to give to us mostly principles to govern our lives by and very few specific rules.”

    So it appears that what you’re saying is that the church leadership sticks mainly to stressing principles and leaves the rule-making up to the members. I wrote that you were wrong, that the leadership is in fact very rule-based because 1) it is much more detailed about the can- and can’t-dos than other Christian churches, and 2) the local leadership is likely to strictly enforce specific rules to a T (i.e. they will likely confront and openly discourage females, if found, from wearing more than one pair of earrings, will threaten to deny you temple recommend for not wearing garments enough, will likely censure you for paying anything short of 10% of tithing even if you are paying a substantial numerical value, etc.).

    You then write in comment 46, “I do see the Church enforcing specific rules.” So you are either contradicting your earlier comments and not aware of it, or you have changed your position and conceded that I was right.

  48. Matt
    July 30, 2013 at 11:48 am


    We can go on and on over this but what’s the point. Anything I say you will interpret to your advantage and twist to try and show that you are correct as obvious from your last remarks. As stated before, this is where I think the best course is to agree to disagree. You are welcome to do as you wish, but I see no reason to spend more of my time on this discussion. Those who have followed the discussion can clearly see what I am saying and meaning. There is no need for me to explain myself more than I have. I wish you well though and appreciate you sharing your views. Bye.

  49. Mtnmarty
    July 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm


    You seem to be much more rule-conscious in your standards for argumentation that other posters. You seem a bit likely to point out inconsistencies and argue that people have conceded in an argument or are wrong and less likely to look to the spirit of their posts and find areas of agreement. In the spirit that you might be a bit more tolerant and see where I am coming from, I’ll post a bit more.

    In regard to tithing, I have never heard of a bishop not taking a person’s word for their income and whether they pay 10% of it or not. My daughter has never been openly discouraged about her two ear-rings.

    When I say the church is largely what you make of it, I mean, for example, if you choose not to go to the temple, not to pay tithing, not to be a leader in the church, you can still be a member and attend the church applying your own standards and unless you violate a very small list of rules, you won’t be disfellowshipped or excommunicated.

    In most wards, you would just be brother or sister so-and-so who is a free spirit or partially active or some other name. Now, you might not get invited to every event or you might be whispered about behind your back but for the most part, if you are friendly, you will be treated well and as part of the community, even a key part of the community.

    The church is not just BYU, the mission field or the temple. Within reason (say, not committing adultery with a ward member, scamming money or other threatening behavior) one can comfortably find the level of rules one wants in the church.

  50. Steve Smith
    July 30, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    No, Matt we can’t go on and on about this issue, because I’ve come up with a counter assertion that refutes yours and provided solid evidence for it. You haven’t provided evidence to back your assertion or exposed any fallacy in my reasoning thus far. So yeah, I would say that until you do so, our debate is over.

    Mtnmarty, local leadership undoubtedly varies in how it enforces rules. But the fact of the matter is that the central administration puts those rules in place, strongly encourages the local leadership to enforce them, and will back them if they choose to do so. So if the bishop were to counsel your daughter to remove her extra earrings and she complained to the stake president, the SP would likely back the bishop. But if the bishop counselled her to remove all earrings and jewelry, and she complained to the SP, the SP would likely back her against the bishop.

    And I still don’t see how church is what you make of it. The church is not too tolerant of variations in behavior and thought. It certainly welcomes all people to attend and only disfellowships/excommunicates in extraordinary circumstances. But you aren’t considered a member in good standing (temple recommend worthy) unless you demonstrate compliance with quite strict standards. Ostracism, devaluation, and censuring are common forms of punishment imposed by the church community, backed tacitly by the administration, on those deemed non-compliant.

    I’m sorry if I’m coming off as a bully of sorts. But I think that it is important that we be disciplined in the assertions that we make and make sure that we can back them with evidence. I generally can’t hold people to this in face-to-face situations, for it often defies social convention, but I can on blog discussions, and I will take the liberty to do that. And I don’t have any problem with you, just your arguments.

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