Editors’ Note:  For more ideas on family and personal wellness, get the BYU Studies book Eternal Values and Personal Growth by Dr. Allen E. Bergin.

Can a powerful person be loving, humble, and committed to equality? For Latter-day Saints, the answer seems obvious-at least in theory. True, there has been a noticeable emphasis within the Church on equality between men and women, but the message is sometimes slow to take hold. The cultural forces of the past that placed men to rule over women still linger in some places, and the Brethren continue to work to stamp out the last vestiges of that attitude wherever it is found: “In some cultures, tradition places a man in a role to dominate, control, and regulate all family affairs. That is not the way of the Lord,” says Elder Richard G. Scott. “In some places the wife is almost owned by her husband, as if she were another of his personal possessions. That is a cruel, unproductive, mistaken vision of marriage encouraged by Lucifer that every priesthood holder must reject. It is founded on the false premise that a man is somehow superior to a woman.” 1 We have heard similar denouncements many times, but it is quite another thing for Latter-day Saints to truly believe it.

We may teach that faithful women are queens, priestesses, co-creators with God, and prophetesses; we may teach that the universe and the plan of salvation and even God himself would come to naught without women, but ask a young woman, Who runs the kingdom? and she will too often say, “The men.” Such an answer comes from a skewed vision of what power is and how it should function in families and in the Church.

Power and Love

Jesus Christ embodies every good trait, and we see the combination of power and love exemplified in His servants. Those who remember President Spencer W. Kimball have no problem envisioning power, love, and humility reconciled within the same individual. Yet when it comes to the way many of us apply these principles, the practical answer to the question of power is much more difficult; we often fail to develop such traits harmoniously within ourselves. As Joseph Smith taught, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39).
 
Latter-day Saint psychologist Dr. Allen E. Bergin explains, “Social scientists tend to separate power and love in order to accurately describe human relationships and organizational dynamics, but the gospel intent is that power and love become unified in a singular style.” Societal attitudes have a way of encroaching and creeping into every nook and cranny of our worldview, and we must make a constant effort to understand the difference between the world’s version of power and the Lord’s. Bergin calls the gospel ideal revolutionary, but one that the world does not find “natural or possible” to implement.
 
So what is the gospel ideal of power, and what is the world’s? Again, Joseph Smith captured the essence of Godly power in scripture: “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” (D&C 121:41). The result of exercising this kind of power is “an everlasting dominion” that exists “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46). On the other hand, any time a person exerts influence in a forceful manner, or whenever the exercise of power is motivated by something other than love-such as a craving for control, admiration, or the accomplishment of self-oriented goals-the individual uses worldly power.

Power and the Church

Power in the Church is different than power in the home, as described by President Boyd K. Packer: “In the Church there is a distinct line of authority. We serve where called by those who preside over us. In the home it is a partnership with husband and wife equally yoked together, sharing in decisions, always working together.” 2 In other words, the distinct line of hierarchical authority we often set up between husband and wife should not exist. And a distinct line of authority governing Church service does not mean that groups cannot counsel and work together. Being called to a high position in the Church does not give a leader license to utilize coercive means of influencing those within his or her stewardship. The same ideals of love and persuasion are always required of Latter-day Saints, no matter the setting.

Dr. Bergin encourages appropriate submission to Church authority when it coincides with the will of God, but at the same time he warns against blind obedience. “Church decisions come from the top down,” he points out, but “all members of the Church should understand that they are not required to submit to unethical, immoral, or other unrighteous abuses of power.” Hopefully such abuses are rare, but even one instance of compulsion is one too many. Look at the Mountain Meadows massacre; now there is a chilling example of unrighteous dominion. The tragedy where Saints were compelled to kill did not just suddenly happen one day; it was preceded by a climate created by some local leaders of extreme authoritarianism. This isolated culture of compulsion, even with the threat of war looming, only brought horror and a loss of faith to many Saints who were involved. (See BYU Studies, Mountain Meadows Massacre Documents.)

Not all power abuses occur in a mean-spirited way. Sometimes leaders innocently but mistakenly use “worldly rewards to motivate achievement in performance.” For example, Dr. Bergin explains that if a mission president “sets statistical goals for baptisms and offers external rewards,” a missionary may start pressuring investigators to accept baptism. The missionary becomes motivated by a self-centered focus on achieving recognition rather than a service-oriented mindset. Likewise, a Relief Society president’s obsession with achieving good visiting teaching numbers may result in her pressuring the sisters. Such guilt tactics “might motivate a higher number of visits but they will likely be more mechanical and perfunctory,” Dr. Bergin writes, which defeats the purpose of visiting teaching. Utilizing worldly power may assuage a leader’s desire to control people’s behavior in order to achieve validating statistics, but the Lord desires that His children truly love and serve each other with sincere motives.

We have all experienced those in Church settings who use methods from their secular fields of learning. When applied to church settings, many are put off by the motivational tactics used in fields such as sales, business, or the military. Bergin uses the example of a man whose Church and family relationships were influenced by “his work, where a corporate culture required aggressive and competitive behavior.” There is much that is good in the secular fields, but we must be careful about absorbing worldly methods into the Church of Jesus Christ. “While it may seem natural to transfer these ideas into Church roles, members should consider carefully before doing so. They should reflect on their behavior and correct themselves if necessary so that secular experience is used in harmony with the Spirit.”

Good leaders “sacrifice their self-interest for the benefit of others,” Dr. Bergin concludes. Whether in the family or the Church, “a person in power who is pure in heart has a loving, redemptive effect on all those within his or her influence. In this respect, the model for power and love is the same for both men and women.” That model is Jesus Christ.

Power and the Family

An important arena where unrighteous dominion can occur is within the family. Dr. Bergin writes, “God has given specific principles for how families are to be governed so that each member is nurtured in love and growth.


Unfortunately, Latter-day Saint families do not always follow these principles.” Specifically, spouses may adopt habits of unrighteous dominion in their relationships when they adhere to oft-misunderstood biblical scriptures at the expense of heeding latter-day prophets. Taking certain teachings out of context from the whole gospel spectrum can lead some people to erroneously conclude that it is men’s responsibility to lead and women’s obligation to follow.

For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley explained that Adam’s “ruling over” Eve as stated in Genesis means “to responsibly provide for, to protect, to strengthen and shield [his] wife.” 3 President Spencer W. Kimball quipped: “We have heard of men who have said to their wives, I hold the priesthood and you’ve got to do what I say.’ Such a man should be tried for his membership.” 4

While it is wrong for a man to use the priesthood as an excuse to dominate, it is also wrong for a woman to insist on independence to the point of ignoring her husband’s opinions and counsel. Seeking to be in control at the expense of cooperating with one’s spouse is unrighteous dominion, whether the controlling spouse has the priesthood or not. Instead of engaging in power struggles, spouses should adopt “the principle of unanimous consent in decision making, as used in the presiding quorums of the Church,” which is outlined in D&C 107:27-31. Dr. Bergin writes, “Neither partner in a marriage should go forward with a decision or action without agreement from the other partner.” Instead of conforming to a worldly power structure wherein one person leads from a higher position, Latter-day Saints must “accept and act upon a revolutionary vision of differentiation without dominance and of distinctiveness without inequality.”

“Distinctiveness without inequality.” That is the power structure of God’s plan. Powers are divided up, so that all beings, male and female, have a necessary part in the plan of salvation. It has been set up in such a way that we must rely on each other. No man can be exalted without the powers and gifts given only to a woman. No woman can be exalted without the specific powers of men and priesthood.

Who runs the kingdom? The women. And the men. And God. Take any of their powers away, and the whole plan falls to pieces.

*****

For more ideas on family and personal wellness, get the BYU Studies book Eternal Values and Personal Growth by Dr. Allen E. Bergin. 


Notes

1 See Richard G. Scott, “Honor the Priesthood and Use It Well,” Ensign, Nov 2008, 44-47.

2 See Boyd K. Packer, “The Relief Society,” Ensign, May 1998, 72.

3 See Gordon B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, Nov 1991, 97.

4 See Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 316.