Judging and Being Judged By Church Leaders

Dalle-3 image. I tried to make a highly watercolor-ish version of Christ washing the Apostle’s feet, but in the end couldn’t get rid of the halos. 

There is a certain class of very online member and ex-member that seems to have a particular relish for finding the faults of leaders. Of course, relishing in the personal failings of others is by definition anti-Christian. We are required to grant grace to people unconditionally. 

But even if it’s wrong and can lead to soul-cankering spite, I still kind of get it. 

When a particularly elitist or judgmental leader gets his comeuppance and his failings are laid bare there can be some understandable schadenfreude, or even a schadenfreude-by-proxy when it happens to one of his colleagues. A derivation of JST Matthew 7 is that if you judge others unrighteously (and sometimes righteously), then you too will be judged, sometimes by those you presume to judge. You can’t hold leaders up to some ethereal plane of existence but then ask for understanding of their humanity when the awkward subject of serious leadership failings comes up; you can’t have your cake and eat it too. 

When I was a missionary my then-mission president (who I do not think reads T&S, plus with visa waiting I had three mission presidents, plus besides some silly little things was a spiritually powerful man I was privileged to serve under) would ask me the question “why are you on a mission?” during each of our interviews. I gave him a heartfelt, and I felt spiritually substantive answer, but each time he kind of gave me a gentle but straightforward “*urrr, wrong answer*” type response. 

He made it clear that, as I matured spiritually, that the right answer would come to me. He continued to ask me the question, and I guess I continued to get it wrong, and I’m still not sure exactly answer he was fishing for that was the password for being in the “with it” category. Thankfully, at that point I was anchored and had matured enough to not put a lot of weight on the significance of his little sphinx-riddle, but it’s an example of something I’ve seen occasionally in the Church: unnecessary spiritual hierarchies reinforced with overly simplistic heuristics. There is a clear dichotomy between the people who get it and the people who didn’t, and Church leaders have special insight into who falls into which category. If leaders are seen as having particular insight, and according to their insight you are in the spiritual underclass, then yes, it’s natural (even if still wrong) to take a little relish when their discernment about people is shown to be demonstrably lacking. 

When we implicitly but clearly spiritually rank order people, either based on their callings or some other mechanism, and whether intended or not, that creates a sort of spiritual hierarchy that otherizes the spiritual underclass. To some extent this is a risk inherent to having any organization, and I’m not calling for some revolution in Church governance. It all depends on how necessary hierarchy is handled, and I think most Church leaders handle it quite well. 

Still, little socio-cultural-institutional otherizations can add up (e.g. the YM/YW emphasis on “future leaders of the Church,” believing blood theology, prosperity gospel explanations for the connection between callings and wealth, and anything explicit in an interview that compares one’s spirituality or worthiness relative to others). In circumstances when the spiritual underclass has been implicitly fed a subtle but steady diet of messaging that they are spiritually lower, it does become quite juicy when some major failing of a Church leader past or present, especially those that seemed a little more on the elite or taciturn, judgmental side, becomes public. 

Reinforcing spiritual elitism, and placing leaders on pedestals that are higher than they organizationally need to be (and as a logical corollary, placing the rank-and-file, spiritual lumpenproletariat lower than they need to be), makes it all the worse for the Church when the former’s failings (some quite serious) are made bare. (When the failing is grave, I do appreciate how the Church makes the institutional consequences of sin much more serious the higher up the leader is–there are a lot of other religious institutions that will remain nameless that could learn something here.) In contrast, moving away from the idea that high leadership is a fundamentally different spiritual species commensurately makes it much less dramatic and impactful when their weaknesses are shouted from the Twitter housetops. 

It can be profound and moving when religion openly leans away from the tokens of elitism and hierarchies–for example, in the feet washing ordinance found in various faiths, including ours, or in the Pope’s title as the “servant of the servants of God.” Was Lazarus a mover and shaker in the early Christian Church? What about the the wise men? The scriptures are replete with stories of the righteous, often unnamed, who, as far as we can tell, were not leaders in the institution of the Church and whose quiet devotions merit a brief but profound mention. Elder Bednar’s talk in the last general conference on “They of the Last Wagon” was a powerful sermon on this point. 

Unnecessarily reinforcing status hierarchies within elite and human families and members might be the kind of thing that institutions and natural men are prone to, but ultimately doing so can cause problems down the road of its own making. In the marvelous film Little Miss Sunshine, the tragic protagonist figure of the wannabe motivational speaker states that  “there are two kinds of people in this world, there are winners and there are losers” (sounds like some zone leaders), with the rest of the film implicitly mocking his aspirations as his own life clearly slides into the latter category. While it might be tempting to rank order people, Christian theology is clear that ontologically there is only one Winner, and we are all in the same category as losers, and personal spirituality is complex enough that I would not be surprised if the arm of flesh typically has little real idea how someone is rank ordered in the eyes of God. 

10 comments for “Judging and Being Judged By Church Leaders

  1. “… I think most Church leaders handle it quite well.”

    I am not so sure you are correct on this. I think we could do much better if leaders openly announced that they were in the same category as the losers. Most sermons extoll them as the winners.

  2. Although i very much enjoyed this article and find the thought process astute, I have to agree with Anon on the state of our current church. I’d argue that the reason there is so much ‘glee’ (ugh, but true) when an LDS leader fails is because we currently have a leadership structure that puts so much effort into vaulting up itself. I mean, just listen to how leadership speaks of itself at the various conference.

    Also shown in this line:”for example, in the feet washing ordinance found in various faiths, including ours.” Pretty sure only the highest of the high get to participate in this (2nd anointing) in the LDs church, not average people.

    How much more powerful of a metaphor it would be if an apostle washed the feet of an inactive, lgbtq member, struggling with an addiction. (No criticism of any of the above, just trying to demonstrate the spiritual hierarchies as I see them. )

  3. I think it’s a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. Anecdotally, of the Church leaders I’m familiar with maybe 10% of them have had an obnoxiously elitist streak, which isn’t bad given human nature (of course there *I* go rank ordering people).

    I do think there’s a lot less of this nowadays; people are just much less tolerant of it. Bruce R. McConkie’s letter to Eugene England would not pass correlation today. We like to talk about how no power ought to maintained by virtue of the priesthood, but just as important is the fact that no power *can* be maintained by virtue of the priesthood even if they try. More and more if people don’t feel love, the spirit, and sincere concern from the leader they just ignore them.

  4. I think there is a possibility that you are less bothered by some of the elitism, harshness, and judgmentalism than are others. Maybe you see less than Anon and ReTx because it doesn’t register for you in the same way?

  5. This is only tangentially related to the post, but it’s relevant to me, so I feel like sharing. When I was seventeen or so I made an offhand comment to a girl my age about how she never attended Sunday School. She snapped back at me “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” I responded with the second verse about how you’re going to be held to the same standard that you judge others with, and I told her that I was fine with being judged by the standard of somewhat regular meeting attendance. She huffed off.
    Today I was reading a reddit post where someone mentioned how their parents got angry at them for not joining in of the mocking an LGBT person. The mom justified her mocking attitude with “Judgement Day is coming.” This caused me to think back to that church experience from over twenty years ago. While the mother and father might be perfectly safe in being held to a standard of not being tempted with same sex attraction, that doesn’t give them the excuse to mock/judge that other individual. It’s given me something more to think about when it comes to the scriptures about not judging, as well as the scriptures that teach about righteous judgement.

    Nice post, I’m sure you’re referring to something on social media, and I have no idea what it is.

  6. @jader3rd, I’m guessing that Stephen’s point about schadenfreude-by-proxy is an allusion to President Ballard and Tim Ballard. And I agree with Stephen that reveling in others’ downfalls is taking the low road, but we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been guilty of it. Although unconditional grace is a wonderful ideal, our scriptures and leaders are at best ambivalent on the subject. (See our current Church President’s non-endorsement of the idea of God’s unconditional love.)

    As one example of many, Joseph Smith wanted his opponents to receive their comeuppance, and we’ve canonized his plea: “Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs.” God obliges by detailing how he will punish not only Joseph’s enemies, but also their posterity. If we’re serious about regarding schadenfreude as anti-Christian, we might have to jettison a large chunk of our scriptures.

  7. I just wanted to point out that I’m not really referring to anything or anyone in particular on social media or not. I’m speaking in general principles here, and I’ve seen examples of this in historical as well as more contemporary leaders. For example, if you were made to feel spiritually lower in the 1950s because some Church leader didn’t feel right about you (hypothetical example), the exposure of Richard Lyman’s double life that he was living right under their noses probably felt a little satisfying. That’s the kind of thing I was alluding to.

    In terms of D&C 121, the plea of Joseph Smith to wreak vengeance on their enemies is alongside Joseph Smith’s desperate pleading for God to show Himself. It’s pretty clear from the context that that’s Joseph Smith speaking to deity, not deity Himself speaking, although I’m fine canonizing Joseph Smith’s cries for help right next to the revelation because it powerfully frames the dialogic back-and-forth.

    FWIW I’ve always read the “They shall not have right to the priesthood, nor their posterity after them from generation to generation” as a clear, natural consequence of people who have “cr[ied] [the prophets] have sinned when they have not sinned before me.” The fact is that those family lines are usually cut off from the Church, and the children and children’s children are not in the gospel, and do not have the right to the priesthood. I have a hard time seeing anything in current or past policy that operationalizes this verse as literally transmitting the sins of the parents onto the heads of their children in any reified way.

    And as far as God visiting judgment on people, that’s fine. He’s God. The point of the OP was not that judgment should not exist at all in the eternal scheme of things, just on mortals taking on more personal judgment than is necessary.

  8. I appreciate the OP. Comparing people in general is so corrosive, but we don’t often think much about the effect on those compared and found wanting.

    I also appreciate Elder Bednar’s talk and this is not a criticism, but he really addresses “They of the Middle Wagon.” He pays tribute to the ordinary Latter-Day Saints who provide so much service and do so much good without a lot of fanfare.

    President Clark paid tribute to those who are last in the wagon train for a reason. He tells of a (fictional, because forgotten) family where the wife is pregnant and ill, one of the children is sickly, and the father is barely able to get them on the trail every morning. “But they prayed again and pushed on, with little praise, with not too much encouragement, and never with adulation. For there was nearly always something wrong with the last wagon…So corrective counsel, sometimes strong reproof, was the rule, because the wagon must not delay the whole train.” They’re the ones being compared and found wanting. “But yet in that last wagon there was devotion and loyalty and integrity, and above and beyond everything else, faith in the Brethren and in God’s power and goodness.” It’s even more of a levelling message than Elder Bednar’s.

    I first encountered the talk at a critical time, when my family was so caught up in our own struggles that we couldn’t do much more than get on the trail every morning, and I felt completely inadequate compared to what I was “supposed” to be doing. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it.

Comments are closed.