Commentary on the “Faithful Disagreement Policy”

The Restoration has a complicated relationship with balancing Common Consent and Dissent. The two extremes represent total submission to authority and the other essentially just being a solo-practitioner.

The RLDS church was essentially founded upon the concept of dissension, namely in response to Brigham Young’s claim to be Joseph Smith Jr.’s successor. However, over the years it has not been immune from the struggles between these two concepts. From the Frederick Madison Smith’s “Supreme Directional Control” controversy, where Smith set himself up to be the final decision maker in the church, to the Position Papers controversy which starkly divided conservative and progressive theologians, the church has constantly been on the move to understand how to strike a balance between Common Consent and Dissent.

The latest challenge for balancing these was the question of inclusion of the queer community. Ultimately, the answer we received was D&C 164 in 2010, which paved the way for institutional “Faithful Disagreement” through National Conferences. After taking several years to figure out what they wanted the intricacies of these conferences to look like, the First Presidency released its 2013 policy entitled “Faithful Disagreement“.

This new balance has been heralded as groundbreaking and fully inclusive, but I believe many of us were seeing this policy through rose-colored glasses. We were willing to ignore its imperfections, because they were not being employed against us in negative ways. However, this is been a very emotional and complicated year for everyone. Therefore, I decided that a renewed critique of this policy was warranted.

I love the aspiration of the Faithful Disagreement policy, and there are large sections of it with which I have no problems. However, the sections that I do take issue with are rather heinous, so I will only be focusing on those. Again, you can read the whole document here

3. Implicit Judgement of Dissenters

“Holding a differing view from the church’s position on a specific matter does not lessen in any way a person’s participation as a faithful, generous, committed, and responsible disciple. Nor does having a differing view impact a person’s eligibility to hold a priesthood office or partake in the sacraments.”

Although the statement claims that differing views should not impact a person’s participation, it still suggests that dissenters may be seen as less faithful, generous, committed, or responsible. This implicit judgment can create an environment where dissenting individuals feel unvalued and discouraged from expressing their perspectives.

Additionally, if someone’s identity is in opposition to a church policy, then their very character may be implicitly associated with dissent, and thus the quality of their character.

5. No accountability in the event of exclusion and alienation

“A person is not to be excluded by a congregation or mission center because of holding a differing viewpoint on a specific church position.”

Without clear guidelines and safeguards for accountability and inclusivity, this entire point may be rendered ineffective. Without such protections, individuals with the church may face social or even institutional consequences for expressing or embodying dissent.

6. Public Disagreement Not Permitted

“A member or a priesthood member with a differing viewpoint is not to use public-ministry opportunities to speak against the identity, mission, message, or beliefs of the church. Nor should a member or priesthood member publicly criticize the church’s stance on the particular position with which the person disagrees. Public ministry must focus on proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ in ways that align with the church’s identity, mission, message, and beliefs.”

This point formally specifies that you are not allowed to dissent in “public-ministry”, which, in essence, bars you from discussing church-related dissention at church activities. However, this isn’t even the most egregious portion of this point. The next sentence says:

“Nor should a member or priesthood member publicly criticize the church’s stance on the particular position with which the person disagrees.”

In this sentence, the “ministry” qualifier has been dropped and any criticism of the church is now unpermitted within the public eye when you’re in priesthood. In fact, the very article that you’re reading now would be consider “unfaithful disagreement” in light of this sentence if I were in priesthood.

7. Admission of secret policies; policy paradox

“Agreeing with Community of Christ positions, official and unofficial, is not a test of faith for priesthood, members, and friends.”

Although the statement acknowledges that agreeing with the church’s positions is not a test of faith, it does not elaborate on how this principle is upheld in practice. I would argue that in fact the church does have tests of faith, despite its long history of disliking them. Most recently we see the February Policy, which essentially boils down to a test. If you are polyamorous then you fail the test and you are not permitted to become a part of priesthood. The question becomes whether the administrators who created this policy would still process calls for openly polyamorous people, as this point of the Faithful Disagreement Policy says that agreeing with an position is not a test of faith for priesthood. This in essence creates a policy paradox.

Nevertheless, the fact that “unofficial positions” exist should raise eyebrows, as this essentially gives IHQ a blank check to do whatever they want and claim that it was an “unofficial policy” all along.

8. Administrators not permitted to exercise faithful disagreement – only speak it in private.

“A person cannot ignore policies because he or she disagrees with a particular policy. Ethically, administrators must consistently apply the official policies and procedures of the church.”

In short, administrators (and priesthood) are expected to not only conform to policies they find ethically problematic, but also enforce them. This compels administrators to either choose between keeping their title as an administrator or following their moral compass.

As a result, this scenario discourages the very people who are most likely to encounter harmful, outdated, and unethical policies from examining them and seeking necessary reform within the church.

9. Anything that makes the church look bad is not permitted

“At no time is any action that harms the body of the church considered in harmony with the principles in this document.”

The statement does not define what constitutes harm or provide any guidance on how to discern between dissent and harmful actions. This lack of clarity may result in dissenting voices being dismissed or labeled as harmful without proper consideration. It is conceivable that in some situations that even damaging the church’s reputation by pointing out its misdeeds could be considered an action which “harms the body of the church”.

10. Lack of Learning from Diversity

“In seeking to create genuine signal communities, we listen respectfully to one another’s viewpoints. In addition, we try to see from each other’s perspective. We trust in each person’s commitment to Christ and motivation to see the mission of the church flourish. We seek to celebrate our unity while learning from our diversity.”

While the church espouses to “seek to celebrate unity while learning from our diversity”, in practice there are no real processes to learn from such diversity. In the early 2000s we had “learning circles”, which sought to bring more awareness of the queer community, but these spaces tapered off and altogether ended after the National Conferences. Today, the lack of such a place keeps marginalized people in a place of marginalization by not educating the broader church community about the nuances of what it means to be a marginalized person.

11. Who gets to Continue Revelation?

“As a community that embraces Continuing Revelation, we strive always to remain open to the Holy Spirit. We understand that sometimes both individually and collectively we respond wisely to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and sometimes we do not fully understand. Through our vulnerability to the Holy Spirit, we trust God will continue to guide us in refining positions held by the church.”

One of the church’s “Enduring Principles” is “Continuing Revelation”. However, this has a complicated dynamic. Historically, “revelations” have been solely the prerogative of the president of the church. In fact, WCR #709 bars the lay people from voicing such prophetic statements.

With the advent of the Enduring Principles and the Faithful Disagreement Policy, are we as lay-people able to have revelations? Under what contexts are we allowed to have them? In believe the next point of the Faithful Disagreement Policy provides the church’s answer to this:

12. Change from Lay People Only Comes Through Conferences

“Various legislative conferences and consent-building methods used by the church, allow a person holding a differing viewpoint to continue to seek change to the position with which she or he disagrees.”

While I believe that democracy is the best form of governance, the flaws of democracy have been discussed since Socrates. Some of the Socratic criticisms include:

  1. Lack of Expertise: One of the significant drawbacks of the World Conference delegate system is the lack of expertise required to hold such a position – there is no emphasis on knowledge or qualifications related to the legislation at hand. In fact, the sole criterion for becoming a delegate is the need for more volunteers in a Mission Center. Furthermore, the valuable insights and guidance offered by knowledgeable experts often goes unnoticed or overtly disregarded by those who are ignorant and uninformed.
  2. Majority Mob Rule: The absence of expertise in decision-making processes can lead to a situation where the popular majority opinions dictate the fates and rights of minorities.
  3. Demagoguery: Charismatic and/or wealthy figures may exploit the emotions and fears of an uninformed majority to further their agendas or for personal gains, all while failing to present rational or well-founded arguments.
  4. Lack of Accountability: Collective decision-making inherently lacks individual accountability; there is no individual or group to hold responsible for the consequences of their actions. Without effective and timely mechanisms in place to address and rectify flawed decisions, the cycle of detrimental outcomes may persist unchecked.

I believe that our church does not effectively avoid these fatal flaws, and thus solely relying upon the democratic system for change is unwise.

In light of this, the Faithful Disagreement Policy has some fundamental flaws that undermine its efficacy. If we are to be a prophetic people, then we should take it upon ourselves to improve things like this policy. That is why I created the “Ethical Dissent Policy”, which I believe is a natural progression of the Faithful Disagreement policy and its other predecessors.

You can read the whole of it here. In essence, it employs a “Accept, learn, grow” approach.