Today common consent in the church is equated with “sustaining your leaders” however it certainly wasn’t always the case. A few weeks ago, my ward held their semi-annual ward conference. In this meeting the stake leadership gives talks and prepares all the lessons. It is a convenient way to ensure all the wards are more or less in sync and the stake doesn’t have a ward going “rogue”. At the start of this meeting the members are all asked if they sustain the top leadership as prophets, seers, and revelators. The speaker then continues down to more local leaders and the members are asked to sustain them as well. This continues until all leaders are named and sustained.
Essentially as a formality, after a sustaining opportunity is given then an opportunity to oppose is also given. Even though the members are given an opportunity to oppose their leaders in practice it is almost unheard of to actually see someone do it. In fact, it is so rare that when a small group did it in conference it became a sensational news story. As a consequence, the act of sustaining has become a habit of simply raising your right arm every time a leader asks you to do so. Not doing so is visibly evident and immediately puts you at odds with the entire group. Therefore, I can understand why members don’t do it more.
Common Consent Today
Today common consent is seen as an opportunity for members to publicly “sustain” their leaders and show to God that they will obey them. President Nelson in a 2014 talk, “Sustaining the Prophets“, mentioned that sustaining is to follow the leader and bind our will to theirs.
Our sustaining of prophets is a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to uphold their prophetic priorities. Our sustaining is an oath-like indication that we recognize their calling as a prophet to be legitimate and binding upon us.President Russell M. Nelson
I do agree that the people of God should follow the prophets of God. However as was shown in the article, What It Means To Be a Prophet, that is not always what God wants us to do. Sometimes he wants us to show that we will follow him even when it sometimes is challenging socially. However, the leaders are still human and as a consequence can and do make mistakes.
Today though members are socially conditioned to ignore the mistakes and obey anyways. Elder Oaks even went so far as to say in a 1986 fireside, “It’s wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true.“. He later corrects this to say he meant don’t be critical, which I can agree with. However, through his later statements and the many other statements from leaders the real meaning is obvious. The LDS church says being critical will cut you off from the spirit. They also mention at being critical of the church will lead to darkness and confusion. Lastly, they say that criticizing your leaders will lead to spiritual death.
It is important to note, there is a distinct difference between criticizing and being critical. Criticizing your leaders is finding fault with them as a person and consequently everything they do. Being critical though is analyzing their actions and determining whether they measure up to the revealed word of God. The 2 are vastly different and are very important to separate. D&C 136:24, states that we should “[edify] one another” which is impossible to do if we don’t instruct or improve them which is the meaning of the word edify. God is also not content with his people spiritually walking off a cliff if their leaders are intent on doing so. JST Mark 9:47 states what we should do to our leaders if they no longer see for us.
And if thine eye which seeth for thee, him that is appointed to watch over thee to show thee light, become a transgressor and offend thee, pluck him out.JST Mark 9:47
How could we possibly “pluck him out” today if the leaders can’t be wrong or we as members are not allowed to disagree with them?
Common Consent Historically
One of the first revelations given to the early church, D&C 26:2, stated “all things shall be done by common consent in the church”. This was quite literal because a later revelation was given stating the possibility that even some callings may be disapproved by the members of the church.
And a commandment I give unto you, that you should fill all these offices and approve of those names which I have mentioned, or else disapprove of them at my general conferenceD&C 124:144
The members at the time felt free to express their disapproval also. During an 1841 conference, several members expressed disapproval at some of the leaders being presented. The disapproval was noted, and the respective groups met to reconsider the callings. During a later 1843 conference, some members expressed disapproval of Sidney Rigdon as a counselor in the First Presidency since he was largely absent due to an extended sickness. Joseph Smith expressed his approval of Sidney and a vote was taken which resulted in Sidney retaining his position in the leadership.
As a side note, the modern church says that Joseph didn’t want Sidney as a counselor anymore and the people did. However, the truth is quite the opposite. The first account was published contemporaneously and so should be considered more accurate. The second was publish well after the incident and fits with the general exhibited pattern of changing history.
President Joseph Smith arose and satisfactorily explained to the congregation the supposed treacherous correspondence with Ex-Governor Carlin, which wholly removed suspicion from elder Sidney Rigdon, and from every other person. He expressed entire willingness to have elder Sidney Rigdon retain his station, provided he would magnify his office, and walk and conduct himself in all honesty, righteousness, and integrity; but signified his lack of confidence in his integrity and steadfastness, judging from their past intercourse.
*Material in bold was removed from the History of the Church account
President Joseph Smith arose and explained to the congregation the
supposed treacherous correspondence with ex-Governor Carlin, and expressed entire lack of confidence in his integrity and steadfastness, judging from their past intercourse.
The conference voted that Elder Sidney Rigdon be permitted to retain his station as Counselor in the First Presidency.
President Joseph Smith arose and said, “I have thrown him off my shoulders, and you have again put him on me. You may carry him, but I will not.”
*Material in bold was added to the History of the Church account
This process of presenting changes to the membership of the church and then voting on it even continued with the general acceptance of the Lectures on Faith as scripture. These were presented to the church along with the revelations of the time and the church accepted them as scripture. The modern LDS church however says the Lectures on Faith were never accepted as scripture even though that is provably not true. The church voted and accepted them as scripture and they were removed in 1921 without a corresponding vote of the church which was wrong and against the revealed word of God.
In addition, there are numerous scriptures which further support the “voice of the church” and that things should be done according to the consent of the governed. These include, D&C 38:34, 41:9, 51:4, 58:49, and 102:9. This allows a certain amount of checks and balances as well as giving the members a voice in their own religious direction. This is not to say that members will dictate their own doctrine. It is though an opportunity for members to collectively show their leaders when something may be off-kilter and needs correction.
As has been shown, today things are not quite so black and white. In reality nothing is presented to the church membership for a vote and instead we are told the policies and practices of the church that will govern us. This of course leads to the current situation in the church which is an echo chamber. Members feel it is not their place to disagree or question their leaders. This can lead to very bad things being perpetuated over time.
In the current church it is almost unthinkable to even begin to question the leaders even when they are obviously wrong. For instance, my Stake President used Luke 10:16 to indicate that the words of a visiting seventy were the words of Christ. I told him that there was a JST correction, and the scripture instead pertained to the apostles. In return he told me I was an apostate for correcting him.
Without a doubt though, the leaders in general are good people doing what they feel is the best for themselves and the church as a whole. This however is not good enough because as Mosiah 4:19 says, “the natural man is an enemy to God”. We need the constant direction of God otherwise we will be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” as written in Ephesians 4:14. If Joseph Smith tells us to correct false teachings if they are not scriptural then I think that is a good approach to live by.
If any man writes to you, or preaches to you, doctrines contrary to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, set him down as an imposter.Times & Seasons, April 1, 1844
What Did Jesus Do
Jesus was of course a perfect example and in this there is no exception. He sustained goodness by his actions and called out evil wherever he found it. During his mortal ministry Jesus was very quick to point out incorrect beliefs and traditions of the people and their religious leaders. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount contained in Matthew 5, Christ repeatedly followed the pattern while teaching by stating the current belief and then correcting it by essentially saying “you have heard it was said … but I say to you …”.
Jesus also was very quick to bluntly correct the Pharisees and Sadducees who were the religious and civic leaders of his time. In Matthew 23, Christ condemns them 7 times and calls them out for their wicked and deceitful behavior. I am not suggesting that the current LDS leaders are at this level however if they were then we have a perfect example of what God would expect us to do.
Jesus was mercifully much more compassionate to his disciples when they made a mistake. This is evident in Matthew 8, where Christ is sleeping after a long day in the sun. The group was crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm arose. The storm was sufficiently fierce that they felt the need to awake Christ and seek his divine help. He rebuked them in v.26 by saying, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”. In hindsight it would have been strange that God would let them capsize and drown when Christ was with them. However they were likely quite fearful and let fear take over.
Lastly, in Luke 9:46, the apostles were strangely bickering about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God. I am sure everyone had a good reason as to why they would be the greatest. Jesus however gently corrected them by redirecting their attention to a nearby child and saying the least among them, like the child, would be the greatest in God’s Kingdom. This had to have been humbling and was quite counter intuitive to them at the time.
What Should We Do
We should be like Jesus and live a life of truth. We should sustain our leaders, when they are doing the work of God, and help them to become better people. This may mean that we correct them however it will mean that we seek out righteousness and truth and build it up wherever we find it. Of course, this can be painful at times, and it is hard to receive correction from anyone. This is especially true if someone thinks they are spiritually “above” the person that is correcting them. Being humble however, while giving and receiving correction is an attribute of God that we all must work on.
The early Elders of the church were given a divine mandate to reprove the world and there is no reason this shouldn’t also include the members themselves.
Behold, I send you out to reprove the world of all their unrighteous deeds, and to teach them of a judgment which is to come.D&C 84:87
The scriptures must be our guide and when the leaders of church say or do something that is not in harmony with the revealed word of God then the members must collectively stand up and let them know. Without this then the leaders have an unfettered reign and the members themselves are just along for the ride. The leaders themselves are certainly not perfect and God never intended them to go unchecked. Bruce R. McConkie recognized this when writing a letter to BYU professor, Dr. Eugene England.
Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine. This is one of the reasons the Lord has given us the Standard Works. They become the standards and the rules that govern where doctrine and philosophy are concerned. If this were not so, we would believe one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors.Bruce R. McConkie letter to Dr. England
If we are to govern ourselves and our teachings by the Standard Works, as mentioned by Joseph Smith, and the leaders can make mistakes in not following the Standard Works. Then we should be free to correct the leaders and the teachings so that we can be in harmony with the revealed words of the Eternal God. Otherwise, we are intentionally letting ourselves be deceived. This pattern of deception can compound over time leading to people being lost because of the “mist[s] of darkness” in 1 Nephi 8. Many were on their way to the Tree of Life however were overtaken because they lost sight of the eternal words of God.