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Journeying from Hierarchy to Stewardship

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

"Behold, it is not expedient that we should have a king; for thus saith the Lord: Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another" (Mosiah 23:7).

One of my dearest people is an "anarchist". She doesn't believe in authority and certainly not in hierarchy (defined as "a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority"). Egalitarianism is one of her fundamental principles and she stand opposed to any system that places one individual above another.

Getting past the shock value of the term "anarchist" and listening more to what she means by it, I've come to understand that we agree on many fundamentals, especially the sacredness of human equality. It's taught in scripture. See, for example, Alma the Elder's explanation that monarchy is a dead end because it's intrinsically wrong to elevate ourselves or anyone else above others (Mosiah 23:7- cited above). See also Jacob's exhortation to "Think of your brethren like unto yourselves," (Jacob 2:17). Having recently learned from Brooke Rasmussen about the difference between vertical and horizontal relationships, these scriptures have become even more important to me. As I've listened to my dear one's concept of an ideal society, I've recognized a resemblance to Zion. We are both seeking to establish communities of equals who care for each other without compulsory means. The key difference between our visions is that the only way I can see us ever getting there is by each seeking after and becoming filled with the love of Jesus Christ.

But what about authority and hierarchy? How do I reconcile the doctrine of equality with the imperative I feel to be "subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates" (Article of Faith 12)? More significantly, as a believing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, does my commitment to sustain my priesthood leaders mean placing myself as subject to prophets, general authorities, stake presidents and bishops? That word "subject" is tricky for me, both in light of the doctrine of human equality and because of my own experience of abdicating personal stewardship in order to obey my leaders.

Deference to Civil Law

I find in Alma the Elder's example some clues about how I can resolve the first question. Although Alma taught his people that having kings was wrong, a few years later, he led them to the land of Zarahemla where they became subjects to righteous King Mosiah. I don't think that means that Alma changed his mind about human equality. The fact that King Mosiah later dissolved the monarchy and set up a system of judges seems to suggest the opposite: that Alma's influence moved King Mosiah toward greater political equality.

I suspect that Alma led his people in subjecting themselves to a righteous king because he understood that mortality is messy. While it is true that the Lord desires for all His children to treat each other as equals, many of His children do not yet share that desire. The society that Alma established in Helam was entirely made up of people who had voluntarily and joyfully covenanted to come into the fold of God and to bear one another's burdens. They didn't need a king to uphold secular law because they were united in their desire to abide by God's law of love. But then the priests of Noah and an army came on the scene, Amulon got himself appointed as their king, and the people of Alma were enslaved. When at last the Lord led them out of bondage and to the land of Zarahemla, I imagine that Alma saw value in becoming subjects to a righteous king because a) joining with the Nephite nation protected them from their enemies and b) the people of King Mosiah were not yet ready to live as equals and still needed enforcement mechanisms for civil law.

I believe the 12th Article of Faith approves our subjecting ourselves to civil authorities in "obeying, honoring and sustaining the law" for the same reason. Until we establish a society where the law of God is written on all our hearts, we will need civil law, and civil law relies upon some sort of authority figure/s to direct it. So when I consent to be governed by rulers, it is not because I see that person as above me, but rather because sustaining a system of law that protects our inherent and inalienable rights (D&C 134:5) creates a safe environment where we can learn to become a society of equals.

Gospel Schoolmasters

It isn't just in civil matters that the Lord makes use of less than ideal systems that mirror the readiness of the people within them. We know that because the New Testament and modern prophets have been very clear that, although it came by revelation, the Law of Moses was deeply flawed. The scriptures tell us the Lord wanted to give the Children of Israel something better, but they weren't ready for it (JST, Exodus 34:1-2; D&C 84:24-27), so they were given a highly regulated system of worship as "a schoolmaster to bring [them] unto Christ" (Galatians 3:24).

Hierarchy in the Priesthood Pyramid

Is it possible that Church hierarchy is another example of a deeply-flawed system that came into being because we weren't ready for better? By Church hierarchy, I mean a priesthood pyramid model of gospel government, featuring the prophet at the top as head of the Church, his counsellors right below him, then the 12 Apostles beneath them, with other General Authorities, area authority seventies, stake presidents, bishops and finally husbands/fathers, all on their successive tiers. When I used the priesthood pyramid model, I felt like I had to obey everybody up the line, unless they were clearly out of harmony with the teachings of the gospel, in which case, I needed to skip a level and obey the leader above them. This model is hard to reconcile with Alma's teaching that we are not to "esteem one flesh above another," nor is anyone to "think himself above another" (Alma 23:7) because if I must obey my priesthood leader, then he is above me and we are not equal. But maybe I don't need to reconcile it, because maybe it's a model I'm intended to grow beyond.

Stewardship Model of Government

As I understand my covenants, it is the Lord and the principles of His gospel that I have committed to obey, not even the prophet. Since the Lord directs me to receive the prophet's word "as if from [the Lord's] own mouth, in all patience and faith" (D&C 21:5) making that distinction may seem like splitting hairs. But it matters because if it's the Lord I'm obeying instead of His prophet, then the prophet becomes my fellow-servant instead of somebody who is above me. This allows me to consider what may be a truer model for God's government, one based on stewardship.

As I envision this model, it looks more like a Venn Diagram, with many overlapping circles that represent each of our stewardships. Each of us have a fundamental stewardship from God for our own selves (Moses 7:32), to choose our path, to develop our gifts, to recognize and take responsibility for our own needs. As we become increasingly capable of self-management, we are entrusted with additional stewardships. Many of those stewardships overlap, but our self-stewardship - our agency - remains ours alone. This means that leaders do not have a stewardship over other people (which would put them above those people). Rather, they are entrusted with building a redemptive relationship with the individuals they lead, approaching them from the same level with the voice of invitation instead of command. This is consistent with D&C 121:41-42:

"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile".

By way of illustration, temple recommend interviews are a place where multiple stewardships overlap, as clarified in a First Presidency letter issued October 6, 2019. It is the stewardship of the First Presidency to identify the questions that determine temple readiness. It is the stewardship of my bishopric and stake presidency members to build a redemptive relationship (to "lift, inspire and bless" me) as we review those questions, and to ascertain by my answers and the Spirit whether they can sign their names as witness to my temple readiness. And it is my stewardship to collaborate in building that redemptive relationship, to examine my own heart and practice with regard to the questions I am asked, and to give an honest answer. It is not my bishop's role to encroach on the First Presidency's stewardship or mine by asking additional questions; for instance, how many hours I wear my temple garments on hot summer days. The letter instructs leaders, "they should not omit, add to, or modify any of the temple recommend questions... They should not present personal beliefs, preferences, or interpretations." Instead, on the issue of temple garments, they are to read a message of instruction from the First Presidency which includes the counsel, "Endowed members should seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to answer personal questions about wearing the garment." Nor is it my role to encroach on the First Presidency's stewardship by deciding that some of the questions don't count and don't need to be answered honestly, (for example, discounting the Word of Wisdom because it was first introduced by invitation and "not by commandment or constraint" (D&C 89:2)). Insofar as we honour our personal stewardships as well as each other's, the Spirit of the Lord will likely be present and the interview will be edifying.

Parable of the Talents

Although the stewardship model of Church government seems much better aligned with gospel principles, that doesn't mean there is no place for hierarchy. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) seems to identify that place. In the parable, a master entrusts three of his servants with varying amounts of money before he goes away on a journey. One is to care for five talents, another is charged with two, and a third receives just one. When the master returns, he interviews each of his servants about what they did with what he gave them. The first and second servants report that they were able to double the money he left with them. He tells each of them, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matthew 25: 21,23). Then the third servant comes forward with just the initial talent, explaining that he was afraid and so he buried it the ground. Anxious to be rid of it, he hands it back to his lord, saying "there thou hast that is thine." The master, instead of thanking him for keeping the single talent safe, reprimands him for being a wicked and slothful servant, handing his single talent over to the care of the servant who was able to magnify five.

I think the meaning of the parable becomes clearer if we replace the word "stewardship" for "talent". The first stewardship everyone receives is their own selves. Then the Lord entrusts additional stewardships to servants who are ready for that much responsibility. By way of illustration, perhaps one servant is entrusted with building a redemptive relationship with a spouse. Another is to build redemptive relationships with their spouse, their child, their fellow-servants, and their lord's storehouse.

Then comes the time for an accounting. When the servant who received five stewardships comes before the Lord, they see that they have responded to obstacles in their lives as opportunities for personal growth. Their deep and loving relationship with their spouse has not only matured into a powerful, godly partnership, but it has also inspired another couple to do the same. They learn that their relationship with their child has taught that child to love and trust goodness; to go forward with confidence and become a facilitator of mercy in other lives. Their encouragement of fellow servants has created a collaborative work environment where most feel inspired and liberated to give their best and grow in capacity. And the storehouse items they distributed to hungry families in the deep of winter have been doubly replenished by those families and their neighbours after a bountiful harvest. Every stewardship has been multiplied. The Lord commends them, entrusts them with even more responsibility and invites them into the joy of the Lord.

The servant who similarly magnified two stewardships receives the same response. But then the servant who had only their own self to manage comes forward and reports that, for fear of displeasing a "hard" lord, they have been very careful, risked nothing, and they are no worse off than they were at birth. I think this answer displeases the Lord for three reasons: first, because He wanted to bring them into His joy, not have them cringing from Him in fear; second, because the whole point of this exercise was growth; and third, because the agency He gifted them in the Garden of Eden (Moses 7:32) was never truly received if they haven't dared to use it. He has said:

"For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. ... But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded... the same is damned" (D&C 58:27-29).

Faced with a servant who is too afraid to act, the Lord establishes a hierarchy. Instead of taking back the agency that is so eagerly offered Him, He puts it into the care of the servant who has demonstrated capacity as an agency builder. The goal here is not to punish the unproductive servant but to help them grow so that eventually, they can leave the outer darkness of subjugation and also enter into the joy of the Lord.

Hierarchy Is Temporary

So there is a place for hierarchy. It's a response to the woundedness of people who are not yet prepared to fully take responsibility for themselves. It was instituted in Israel when the people requested a king to rule over them and the Lord instructed Samuel to go ahead and anoint one, "for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them" (1 Sam 8:7). But Zion, where we see eye to eye and lift up the voice together (Isaiah 52:8) is not hierarchal. Neither is heaven, where we are joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). So hierarchy's place is transitional and its goal is to help us move into claiming and magnifying our stewardships.

I believe that much of the direction we've been receiving from the presiding officers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is to help us do just that by seeking personal guidance from the Lord, rather than just obeying the voice of a leader. The changes in For the Strength of Youth that were announced in October are a clear example of this effort. Encouraging youth to "seek your Heavenly Father's guidance as you make choices", the booklet explains:

"The purpose of For the Strength of Youth is not to give you a “yes” or “no” about every possible choice you might face. Instead, the Lord is inviting you to live in a higher and holier way—His way. ... While others can help you, your spiritual growth is personal. It’s between you and the Lord." (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2022). Make Inspired Choices, For the Strength of Youth, 4-5.)

The Transition is A Changed Perspective

To me, it's beautiful that I can transition from a priesthood pyramid model to a stewardship model of Church government just by changing my own perspective. I don't need the Brethren to state that the Church is not a hierarchy. For some, it needs to be and so it will remain until they are ready to make that transition themselves. Meanwhile, I can fully claim my own stewardships while honouring the stewardships of all others, whether they are my priesthood leaders or my non-LDS neighbours. And I can remember that I don't need a calling through Church channels to build redemptive relationships with everyone around me. Jesus gave me that stewardship already, when He said, "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" (John 13:34).

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Dec 23, 2022

I read your post and felt excited to thank you. The reminder of human equality resonates with me. I've been realizing how much I'm worth and that has slowly been leading me to realizing how much other people are worth. The exploration of how to work with stewardship and the potential need/place of hierarchy was also comforting. When we give up responsibility for what we have been entrusted, we naturally experience a reduction of agency, and we are eager for someone to tell us what to do. I also appreciated your words about community. Furthermore, I feel empowered when I think I can modify how I live simply by shifting from hierarchy to stewardship in my own thinking. It seems…

Anne Kassel
Anne Kassel
Dec 24, 2022
Replying to

I love your thoughts. I find myself musing especially on two of your sentences: “When we give up responsibility for what we have been entrusted, we naturally experience a reduction in agency, and we are eager for someone to tell us what to do” and “Knowing Jesus increases our agency and our ability to relate to each other grounded in stewardship.” Both resonate with me. Re: the first— I think about times when I felt trapped/in bondage/resentful. And I didn’t realize that I was giving up responsibility for my own self. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to do and I wanted somebody to tell me what more I was supposed to do so that I could…

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