Society Magazine

Correct Me If I'm Wrong

By Rockwaterman
Correct Me If I'm Wrong I had every intention of devoting this space to a discussion of some new tools available that would be of benefit to all of us in better understanding our religion, but I think I'll put that off for now in order to address a brewing controversy. 
In last month's comment section, a vigorous debate has ensued regarding what one reader considers my refusal to correct a factual error in my book  "What To Expect When You're Excommunicated." This controversy erupted into a vigorous debate between that reader, who goes by the username "Robin Hood," and another regular, whose online handle is "Log."
Circumstances forced me to be absent from monitoring my blog for a couple of days, and when I returned I was dismayed to see the conversation between these two bordering on the acidic. The primary reason for my dismay was because, outside the pages of this blog I consider both of these readers personal friends of mine.  I have engaged in discussions with both Log and Robin Hood on several occasions outside of this forum, and even met with one of them when he came through Sacramento for a visit. And though on occasion I have had disagreements with both these men, more often than not we have found common ground, and not allowed differences of opinion to color our friendships.  So I wasn't keen on seeing these two go after each other with what looked to be increasing acrimony. 
I was going to weigh in on this matter there in the comment section, but then realized this was a topic that warranted being addressed generally, because it concerns an issue I wish to bring to the forefront.  Not everyone reads the comment sections, after all, and since many of you have been wondering whatever happened to the threat of excommunication that has been hanging over me since last May, addressing this topic also provides an opportunity to catch everyone up to date on that situation.
The present controversy began because now and then someone will accuse me of teaching falsehoods on this forum, as was the case with a recent commenter named Matt, who appeared in the November comment section to declare, "I can't believe so many of you support the false doctrine that this blogger posts."
Correct Me If I'm WrongMatt proceeded to weigh in with additional comments, none of which zeroed in on what exactly I had written that he considered undoctrinal. Finally I wrote back and told Matt that if he would kindly point out the particular false doctrine he was concerned about, I would go back into the article and either delete or correct what I had written.  It has always been my policy to correct any errors I might have let slip, whether the error is doctrinal or historical, as I don't wish to use this blog to promote falsehoods.  Matt never responded to that request, and as of this writing, I'm still waiting for him to return and tell me exactly what the false doctrine was that got him so worked up. Because until he brings that actual mistake to my attention, I won't know how to make it right.
More recently this topic came up again when I told another reader it was my policy to immediately correct errors on this blog when errors are pointed out to me. That's when my friend Robin Hood weighed in to remind me that he had brought an error to my attention months ago in a personal correspondence with me which I had not yet corrected. The reason I did not fix the error, as I told him at the time, was I didn't feel it was an error.
And I wasn't being stubborn. In this correspondence, Robin Hood had taken issue with a statement in my book where I told how my bishop had informed me that a particular Area Seventy had made a complaint to my stake president about my blog, and insisted I either stop blogging or resign from the church. If I failed to comply with either of those instructions, my bishop informed me, I would face excommunication.  This ultimatum, I noted in my book, was a violation of both scripture and Church law, because general authorities are prohibited from intervening in such matters within the confines of a stake. (See this post, for documentation from the book Lost Apostles.)
Robin Hood wrote me privately to inform me that an Area Seventy is not a general authority.  General authorities, he said, are considered the First Presidency, The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and the First and Second Quorum of the Seventies headquartered in Salt Lake City. Other Quorums of the Seventy are not considered General Authorities of the Church, he insisted, but are "area authorities."
So I did a bit of research to learn about the function of these area seventies to see if my friend was correct.  At the time my bishop had informed me one of these guys had ratted me out, I hadn't even been aware of the office of Area Seventy. I was aware there were two quorums of the Seventy operating out of Salt Lake City, but I was frankly surprised when my bishop told me there were eight or nine quorums total (he was not certain which quorum our Area Seventy belonged to, but thought it might be the eighth).  According to my subsequent studies, the First Quorum of Seventy is located in Salt Lake City, and all other quorums (including the second), operate today as appendages to that quorum, and are spread out over North America and the globe.
I told Robin Hood that I had checked with Hans Mattson, who until recently had been an Area Seventy over much of Europe, and that Mattson had confirmed to me that "a Seventy is a Seventy," that they do not institute policy, but "operate under the direction of the Twelve."
This is another thing that didn't sit well with Robin Hood, who felt Hans Mattson was not a credible source because, according to Robin Hood, Hans Mattson is "a known apostate."
Now, I want to stress again that the man my readers know as "Robin Hood" is someone I consider a friend. I have great admiration for him, and there exists genuine affection between us. But I took offense at his characterization of Hans Mattson as "a known apostate." Here is how I responded to that allegation:
I disagree with you on your accusation that Hans Mattson is an apostate.  I don't see where he has apostatized.  As Area Seventy, the Stake Presidents under him constantly came to him with questions the members were having regarding certain truth claims of the Church that he could not answer.  Eventually a couple of reps from Salt Lake came out and met with Mattson and these leaders, ostensibly with the goal of answering their questions.
One of these men (I don't recall who the other was, but one of them was Church Historian Richard Turley) pointed to his briefcase and said something to the effect of "if you could see what we have in this briefcase, all your doubts would disappear."  But they never showed them what was in the briefcase, and the answers they gave to the member's concerns were evasive and non-responsive.
Mattson eventually resigned his position as Area Seventy because he did not feel he could fulfill the responsibilities given the doubts he now had.
My personal opinion is that the Church leadership failed to provide him sufficient backup.  But I don't see how that makes him an apostate.  He didn't turn his back on his basic beliefs as far as I remember.  He appears hurt and disappointed that he was left with no support.
He tells his full story here:
I am seriously bothered by the cavalier manner in which accusations of apostasy are thrown about today toward anyone who has serious concerns about how this Church is currently being managed. Actual apostasy is a serious thing, and we should be very careful about using that label on people we have disagreements with. John C. Bennett was an apostate. His defamation of the prophet cost real people their lives, including ultimately those of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Hans Mattson was a sincere seeker of truth. That those in authority over him failed to provide him with answers to his questions does not make him an apostate.
The New Face of Apostasy
In his presentation at last summer's Sunstone Symposium, Joe Jensen lamented how the Church now seems to have two differing definitions of what apostasy means;  one public, the other secret:
"The LDS church website, under the tag line ‘Gospel Topics,’ contains this description of apostasy:
When individuals or groups of people turn away from the principles of the gospel, they are in a state of apostasy.
"The idea here, as collaborated in the scriptures, is that apostasy is the mindful departure from the gospel. The Nehors and those who rejected the church in the time of Alma were cited for their dissent from the gospel.
"In contrast to the gospel as the barometer of adherence, the Church Handbook of Instruction (CHI), Handbook 1, page 57 contains the following definition of apostasy:
  • Repeatedly act in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders.
  • Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop or a higher authority.
  • Continue to follow the teachings of apostate sects (such as those that advocate plural marriage) after being corrected by their bishop or a higher authority.
  • Formally join another church and advocate its teaching
"As one can see from the CHI, the use of the boundaries of the gospel in the determination of dissent has been supplanted with adherence to and alignment with the church, church doctrine, and its leadership. There appears to be one definition of apostasy for public consumption and another private directive to church leadership. The use of the term Church doctrine and opposition to church leaders does not necessarily align with the gospel." (The Latter-Day Apostasy: A Scriptural Perspective)
Robin Hood's rejection of Brother Mattson's job description merely because Robin Hood considers Mattson an apostate is irrelevant. Compare Mattson's actions with those of William Binney, who until recently was the Technical Director of the NSA and America's top code breaker.  Binney did not resign from the NSA because he had suddenly turned his back on America. He resigned because his experience in that position of authority had convinced him that the federal government had gone rogue. We do not ignore William Binney now that he has resigned from government service; rather we recognize he has something important to say.
Likewise, Hans Mattson was unimpressed with what he saw as a lack of transparency at the top of the Church hierarchy.  He did not, as a result, turn his back on the gospel of Christ. Yet Robin Hood uses Mattson's resignation as proof that he is not qualified to tell us what his duties had been when he was an acting Area Seventy.  In  my opinion, that argument doesn't wash.
I maintain that if we are to glean an answer to our question, we must not wander off point and engage in name calling. Is an Area Seventy a general authority of the Church, or is he not?  That is the question.  Robin Hood says no, that an Area Authority is merely a regional authority. My research tells me differently. According to the section on "Quorums of the Seventy" in Priesthood and Church Organization edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, "...he is ordained a Seventy and set apart by the First Presidency of the Church, receiving the authorities and powers that pertain to his calling as a general authority." That section appears to be referring to all quorums of the Seventy.
In one of Log's arguments to Robin Hood, he provided this definition of "General Authorities" from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
"General Authorities are men called to serve at the highest levels of leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As general priesthood officers of the Church, they have Churchwide rather than local stewardship and may receive assignments anywhere in the world. In order of precedence, the General Authorities include the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Quorums of the Seventy, and Presiding Bishopric." (Encyclopedia of Mormonism Volume 2, pg 538)
 To which Robin Hood responded with this trump card:
"Members of the First and Second Quorums of the Seventy are considered General Authorities, meaning they have authority to serve anywhere in the church. Members of the remaining quorums are called Area Seventies, and their authority is limited to the area where they serve." (Quorums of the Seventy, LDS.Org
Well now. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism was compiled and published under the supervision of the Church, and LDS.Org is considered the current authority on all things Mormon. Yet their definitions contradict each other. Log refers to the Church's "sliding definition of Seventy." I think that's an apt description.
But I don't wish to quibble, so I hereby declare both Log and Robin Hood to be the winners in this debate. Because after giving it my best effort to learn the facts, I have to admit I just don't know.
We shouldn't be surprised the institutional Church can't make up its mind about what a Seventy is or does.  I stayed up all night pulling books off my shelves and diligently reading in an attempt to get at the bottom of of the controversy. Here are the sources I consulted:
Mormon Doctrine
The Encyclopedia of Mormonism
The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power
Mormonism In Transition: 1890-1930
Power From on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood
This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology
Joseph Smith and the Doctrinal Restoration
Want to know my conclusion? The entire history of the office of the Seventy is one indecipherable mess. I mean one confusing, convoluted, Gordian knot, holy hell of a mess!  From the pioneer days on, it seems the Church didn't know what to do with these guys. All I knew about Seventies before this was that while I was growing up in the church, most wards had a quorum of these guys who met during priesthood, just like the Elders and High Priests today. Then suddenly one day it was announced that the Seventies quorums within the wards would be disbanded, and that instead the Seventies would consist of a smaller group with limited authority operating within the hierarchy at Salt Lake.
Why that happened had been a mystery to me at the time. Today it continues to remain a mystery why the Seventies, once a powerful and completely autonomous apostolic group, have been weakened and folded into a sort of auxiliary organization answerable to the Twelve.  Here's an interesting excerpt from historian D. Michael Quinn:
"The First Council of Seventy experienced tensions with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve for more than a century. These struggles centered in two characteristics of the First Council of Seventy. First, until Brigham Young's death the office of Seventy was termed an apostolic calling, the 'seventy apostles.'
"Second, according to Joseph Smith's revelations, seven presidents were to preside over a large group of sixty-three other men, the First Quorum of Seventy, which was equal in authority to the Quorum of the Twelve, which was equal in authority to the First Presidency. [D&C 107:24-26]  Thus the Seventies felt that their authority was greater than the offices of bishop, elder, and high priest. In turn, the Quorum of the Twelve wondered if the power of the Quorum of the Seventy described in the 1835 revelation could threaten the Twelve's position." (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, pg 140)
Well, there's your first clue. It's a tale as old as time: men with supposed authority jealous to protect their status. Today we can argue about whether one brand of Seventy counts as being an official bigwig or not, but the larger question that should concern us is this: whatever happened to the division of power within the Church?
I realize I often beat this topic to death, but the Lord never intended His church to be structured from the top down.  The First Presidency, Apostles, and Seventies were to operate independently of one another, with no group having seniority over the other.  This system of checks and balances was not copied from the men who founded our constitution. On the contrary, America's founders got their idea of separation of powers from observing the law of Moses.
Sadly, today we take it for granted that the the president of the Church is the Big Kahuna over us all, with the Twelve Apostles operating under him as a kind of board of directors for the corporation.  The Seventies have been reduced to little more than lackeys who exist to take orders from the Twelve. If you don't believe me, dip into Malcolm Jeppsen's disturbing memoir of his years acting as willing lapdog to apostle Boyd K. Packer.
The important thing to be concerned about here is not the relative ranking of Seventies within the Church, but whether any Seventy is authorized to reach into the internal affairs within a stake and order stake presidents to discipline individual members.  As I documented in a prior post, they decidedly do not. And as it happens in my case, there's a possibility no such overreach actually took place.
The Plot Thickens
As I wrote on both this blog and in my book, my bishop was very clear when informing me that an Area Seventy, whom he named, had given instructions that I be disciplined if I failed to obey the ultimatum I was given. Since this bishop and I are friends, he told me he had not wanted to be the one to deliver this ultimatum to me, but told the stake president that since I'm a Melchizedek priesthood holder, I was under jurisdiction of the stake president, so the stake president should be the one to call me in.  The stake president responded that I was in the bishop's ward, so the bishop got the short straw and that's how I was informed that an Area Seventy had read parts of my blog and given orders that I had to either comply or go.  This is the information as I understood it, as it was related to me by my bishop last May.
Since I neither resigned nor ceased to blog, I finally got a chance to meet with the stake president the following September.  It was a cordial visit, but lasted two hours and our conversation was too lengthy and involved to go into here. Suffice it to say by the end of the meeting, he understood me, even if he didn't "get" me. He understood that my testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Christ, and of the gospel as restored through Joseph Smith was unassailable.  What he didn't get was why anyone would want to retain membership in this church if he didn't express fealty to Church leadership.
This way of viewing the Church seems to be a disease of our time. The aforementioned Matt, who commented several times on my blog in November, wondered the same thing, and posed this question to me regarding the current prophets and apostles:
"if you don't believe that they are who they say they are, where will you go? Do you have another church or restoration you are looking for?"
That's a strange question. But like I say, it's symptomatic of the disease now rampant within the church that assumes the leadership of the Church somehow is the church.
I spent almost ten years working for the Walt Disney Company after the death of its founder.  I and many others eventually grew dissatisfied with the current management, which we felt was operating contrary to the designs of the founder. It was eventually suggested that if we didn't like the way the current management was running things, we could leave and go somewhere else.
And you know what? They were right.  We were mere employees of the corporation. We had no say in how it was to be run.  Walt Disney's own adult daughters could not dictate company policy, because Walt Disney himself had never been the owner of the company; he only ran it while he was living. Disneyland was not a family business. And now, when I remained there in the late 1970's, there was new management in town, and they were absolutely in their rights to run the company to their liking. Even if they ran the company into the ground (and for awhile it appeared they might do just that), it was none of the business of us salaried employees, no matter how much we loved what it had stood for previously. The company belonged to the current stockholders and their managers, not to us peons.
But a church is not a business. The church of Jesus Christ does not belong to its managers. This is not the church of Thomas Monson, or Brigham Young, or even Joseph Smith. It is not the Church of the First Presidency or the Twelve Apostles. This is not some brand that can be marketed, owned, and controlled by those at the top.
There is a reason there are two possessives in the name of this church: it is the church of Jesus Christ and it's the church of the latter-day saints. This is our church.  It doesn't matter who is currently making administrative decisions; the managers are not in charge of the members. We are not in their employ.
As much as this point of view puzzled my stake president, a younger man raised his entire life in a closely correlated religion, I believe he was convinced that I am no apostate.  But he did tell me something that contradicted the information I had received from my bishop. He told me the ultimatum had not come down through an Area Seventy, but that he, the stake president, had been alerted to my blog by a member of my ward, and the stake president then consulted with the Area Seventy as to how to handle things.
If this is true, then that's good news, as only members of a congregation are permitted to initiate disciplinary action against another member.  I told him I was happy to hear this, and that he only needs to find one more witness against me before he can move forward.
But then he went too far. He told me he was absolutely assured by Church authorities that Denver Snuffer's excommunication had not been orchestrated out of Church headquarters.
We know from Denver's own testimony that apostle Russell Nelson personally directed Denver's stake president to expel Denver from the Church, and that the stake president, knowing Denver's character, resisted Nelson's instructions for a year and a half.  The intensity with which my stake president tried to get me to believe that members of the hierarchy would never overreach their authority has caused me to wonder if he was on the up-and-up with me regarding my own situation. 
I don't believe he was fibbing to me about Denver Snuffer's situation. I think he was simply repeating what he had been told.
As far as my situation, his story did contradict the version told me by my bishop.  A great deal of time had passed since the bishop gave me his report, and in that time I had documented both on my blog and in a book how utterly inappropriate it would be for the authorities in Salt Lake to instruct local leaders to take action against me. My story, and that of others, had been covered by several media outlets, and the possibility that the Church had violated its own scriptures (as it had numerous times in the past) was getting more difficult for the Church's PR department to defend.  It would not be unreasonable to expect that some in the hierarchy might see the need to back off and institute damage control.
Combine that with this: it is highly unlikely that anyone in my ward was disturbed enough by my writings to report me to the stake president, for the simple fact that almost no one in my current ward has any idea who I am.  When Connie and I first moved to this ward in July of 2005, we attended only briefly before Connie's health took a turn for the worse.  She could no longer attend her meetings, and I was required at her side to look after her needs.  We had not had much opportunity to make any friends in our new ward before we dropped out of sight completely. That was nine years ago.
The ward we had moved into was populated mostly by an elderly demographic, and attendance was sparse, to put it kindly. Members were literally dying off by the week.  This ward desperately needed new blood, and while we were absent, it got a powerful infusion. A neighboring ward full of young families was moved into our chapel and combined with our anemic one.  By the time I was able to get away from caring for Connie and resume attending, which was five months after disappearing, I found I recognized very few faces.  The one friend I thought I had in the ward was actually surprised to see me. "I thought you moved away," he said.  It would be accurate to say we had not been missed.
Upon my return to what was for all intents and purposes a new ward,  I showed up at a ward spaghetti dinner and felt like a complete stranger.  In the following years I would slip into Sacrament meeting once or twice a month, then slip out and return home to take care of my ailing wife.  I recognized only a handful of faces, and no one recognized mine. Even the bishop had been imported from the other ward, and he was among the few who ever acknowledged my presence. The other person was a home teacher who had been assigned to me.  (He has since been reassigned.)
So I'm a bit skeptical to hear that a member of my ward knew me as the proprietor of the Pure Mormonism blog and was upset enough about it to complain. Even the member of the bishopric who called to tell me the bishop would like to meet with me did not know about my blog or who I was.  I have no way of knowing for certain, but knowing as I do how often the Church hierarchy has interfered in stake business in this manner, I think it's more likely that the report I initially got from my bishop was the more accurate one.
Of course, those are just my thoughts. John Dehlin and I have spoken about recording the full story of my meeting with the stake president onto a podcast one of these days, but John has a lot on his own plate at this time, and a number of other interviewees are scheduled ahead of me. Until then, this brief account will have to suffice. If you haven't heard John's latest update on Mormon Stories Podcast, I'd recommend you give it a listen.  He provides an interesting update on his status and what he perceives will be the next move against him from the Church hierarchy.  In some ways I expect it mirrors what I can expect to face.
On the other hand, the stake president told me in that meeting that he has no immediate desire to expel me.  I believe he was sincere.  But it may not be up to him, and my writings are being monitored, so we'll see what happens down the road.
As for correcting that "mistake" in my book, I'm still not convinced it's in error, seeing as how even the Church's publications can't decide what the office means.  Still, there are four or five typos I've been meaning to correct (mostly minor misspellings in the tiny footnotes), and if I ever stop being lazy and get around to correcting them, I'll also delete the phrase "general authority" where it appears in connection to Area Seventy.
You're welcome, Robin Hood. Now you and Log go kiss and make up.
A Note About Commenting: I again remind those who wish to comment that posting only as "Anonymous" is no longer permitted. You do not have to use your real name, but if you insist on choosing "Anonymous" from the drop-down menu, you must invent a username and place that either at the top or bottom of your comment so that readers can tell you apart from the many others who for some reason keep choosing to post under the anonymous option.   If you have a Google registration, use that one, otherwise it's best if you check the box that says "Name/URL", place your preferred username in in the "name" box, and ignore the box that asks for a URL. That way you can still remain anonymous if you so wish, but then other readers have a handle to address you with when responding. Comments missing any kind of identifying moniker are at risk of being deleted. I'm very strict about this because too many people posting as "anonymous" has resulted in chaos in the past.

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