When I was first called as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I was 27 and very worried. About a lot of things. One of them was knowing when I should correct or not correct someone's doctrine from the pulpit or classroom. And then if I had to correct, how was I to do it, "for how to act I did not know." (JS-H 1:12.)
These are tough questions for bishops and for those that preside over them. It is not an easy thing to lovingly and tactfully correct a fellow member of the ward. I thought that perhaps, now that I am no longer serving as the bishop of my ward, it might be appropriate to share some experiences that occurred to me during my seven year tenure, and perhaps some personal reflections now that I am no longer serving. My hope is that if a bishop, currently serving, stumbles across this blog entry it may be of some small help.
One thing always had to be first and foremost: the principles found in D&C 121 had to be lived. No matter how a leader corrects a member of the congregation, if it happens, it must be done so that the member has no doubt that the correction was made because it was necessary. In my mind, a member will know it was necessary if the leader "shows an increase of love," and knows that the leader's "faithfulness is stronger than the chords of death." But for that to happen, the love that is given is clearly genuine and "unfeigned."
For me, the primary reason for ensuring the doctrinal purity is to always protect the integrity of the congregation. That said, my expression was usually enough to let the membership know I was at least uncomfortable with what was being said. My wife said she could always tell when I didn't like what was being taught because my face look upset or worried. Other times, such as in class, and I was teaching, if someone made a comment that I completely disagreed with, sometimes I wouldn't even bother to respond. Typically, my silence was response enough that I did not approve of what had been taught.
Another factor was that I had to weigh the feelings of the member teaching the false doctrine vs. protecting the integrity of the congregation. It seems to me that members in general don't intend to teach false doctrine. Because of that, for a member of the bishopric to stand up and correct them, can be a very embarrassing experience.
About ten years ago, I was asked to speak in my ward in the fifth Article of Faith. I gave my talk in the course of my remarks I shared an experience from the life of Elder Bruce R. McConkie about buttermilk (for the story, see The Bruce R. McConkie Story: Reflections of a Son, p. 258.). It was designed to demonstrate that we ought not to try to determine if our leaders are exercising unrighteous dominion. I thought it was a good story and illustrated my point quite well. At the conclusion of the meeting the bishop arose and said, "I just want to make a correction in regards to Brother Christensen and Elder McConkie's buttermilk story..." Then he proceeded to make his corrections. Essentially he said that we should never allow someone to exercise unrighteous dominion over us--particularly in the name of the priesthood. He said that far too often husbands do this and such practices must come to an end. I was shocked. I was shocked that I was being corrected. I was shocked that my bishop felt that I had taught something that was objectionable. I was terrified that my bishop perhaps thought that I exercised unrighteous dominion in my home with my wife. I remember the feeling I had as the bishop said that he was correcting me. I had only heard about this happening, but as of yet don't remember ever having seen it done. And not only was it being done, but it was being done to me! I was pretty bothered by it all week. Mostly because I was worried my bishop had misunderstood me and thought I was teaching false doctrine. Finally I resolved to call him. I brought up what happened at the end of Sacrament Meeting and apologized. I also tried to explain what I was teaching. To my surprise he said, "Matt, I have been meaning to call you..." Then he told me he perfectly understood and even agreed with what I had taught. His concern was for the small percentage of members who might not understand and confuse and even take license with the story and excuse their own behavior. He had something happen in the past and was not going to every let it happen again (unrighteous dominion) if he could help it.
Not long after this experience he called me as his second counselor and eventually I replaced him as the bishop of our ward. As we were going over the transition when he was released and I was called, I asked him about correcting people and how to do it. He said he had only done it publicly three times. I asked how they went. He said that only one time ended positively. I asked what happened and he said, "Matt, you ought to remember, it was you."
Another important factor that I weighed was whether or not I could correct the problem without drawing attention to the member or the doctrine. More than anything else, the one thing I tried to quickly assess in my own mind was, did anyone notice and do I need to address this? There was one occasion when a sister was speaking and said that we pray to Jesus. I knew this particular member well enough to know that she did not really believe that. Instead, I think she got flustered at the pulpit, perhaps a bit nervous, and what she meant to say and what she actually said were two different things. I know it has happened to me plenty of times. The other side of the token was I was not sure the members even noticed what was said. But in this case, because it is such a serious matter that some people in the Church don't seem to fully grasp, I felt that I had better say something. The way I determined to handle it was the best way I could in the circumstances. I arose at the conclusion of the meeting and bore my testimony on prayer: "I know that we pray to the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost." In this way, I was able to correct the falsehood (innocent yet egregious as it may have been) and did not draw attention to it or the sister that gave the talk. In the end, I think that the only people that would have recognized that I made a correction would have been the people that heard what she said earlier in her talk.
The above situation just mentioned is also closely related to the question as to whether the member even realized that what was taught was false or in error. As in the story I shared, and many others, I think that what was said was an accident. If that was the case, as in the example above, that would dictate how I would respond.
Was it worth the time to make the correction was always an important consideration. I have noticed that often, most members don't even realize there has been a statement of false doctrine made. Of course, sometimes that does't matter and if it was egregious the statement still needs to be corrected. But sometimes I realized that it wouldn't be worth it to make the correction. This also happened sometimes when something that I personally believe to be false doctrine, or something that I at least strongly disagree with, was taught. In these cases I had to really determine before hand, when I was first called, what the parameters of what I felt would qualify as worthy of correcting. I will have more on that below.
When I would hear something that I felt was false, I had to ask myself, "could I correct the person afterwards and in private?" I had no sooner been sustained and ordained a bishop, then the following Fast and Testimony Meeting, a member of the ward stood and shared some feelings that were inappropriate. I will share what he said in his "testimony" but I wish to first say that he is a very good man. He meant very well and I know that he meant no harm by what he said. He began by saying that when he and his wife were married, his parents called him, his spouse, and all their siblings and spouses to a special family conference. I remember thinking to myself, that is a good idea. He then said that his parents gave them two pieces of counsel that he has always tried to follow: 1) always stay close to the Lord and His Church, and 2) never do anything to prevent children from coming into this world. Then this well-meaning brother stated, "I know that many of you in this ward are newly-weds. I know a great many of you have been married for more than one year and you are not pregnant. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to repent and begin to fill the measure of your creations." Then he concluded in the usual way and returned to his pew. Needless to say the congregation was shocked (as was their new bishop). As he had been speaking the members all looked at me to see what my reaction was and to see what I was going to do. Like any good newly-called and ordained bishop, I did nothing. I was scared and was absolutely unprepared. I was teaching in Relief Society later that day and knew the sisters were traditionally more sensitive to the kind of remarks he made than the brethren. So I hoped that I could handle it there and make a correction that way. When I was in the Relief Society, when it was my turn to speak, I did not directly address what happened in Sacrament Meeting (I didn't even mention the incident). Instead I told the sisters that Heavenly Father loved them. That in our ward there were sisters from all walks of life and experience. I knew that some sisters have children that have left the house and moved on, and others are just beginning to have children. While others were still waiting and hoping to have children and others might not have the opportunity to have children in mortality. But that no one has the right to judge them and that they just needed to stay close to the Spirit and he would teach and comfort them. Later that week I had this man and his wife in my office for tithing settlement. After they declared their tithing status, I told them we needed to talk about what happened in Sacrament Meeting. I thanked him for his testimony and told him that I felt that what his parents had shared with him and his family was very appropriate in that setting. But that it was absolutely inappropriate to share that in a setting at Church even worse to call the congregation to repentance. The brother was surprised but humble and took the correction well. Especially for the fact that he was old enough to be my father (and for me to be his son). I then asked if he was aware of the policy on birth control as stated in the Handbook. He was not. I shared it with him: no member had the right to judge another member, that the decision as to when and how many children to have was deeply personal and only between the member and the Lord. This good man then said that of course, if I felt it was time for a couple to have children, I could call them in and tell them so. I reminded him what the Handbook said (no member can judge and it is between the couple and the Lord), and indicated that given the way the policy reads, not even a bishop could involve himself in that personal and sacred decision. At this point, his wife began to cry. We both looked at her and asked what was wrong. She said that she has been listening to her husband tell this to people their entire marriage (I think around 35-40 years). She had had four miscarriages and the MD's had told her to stop trying to have children because it was too dangerous for her. But because her husband had been so active in sharing the message, she felt too guilty and never felt she could stop having children (or at least trying). Her husband had no idea this good sister had been going through this agony for so many years. They both wept and some healing began. I wept too. In this case I was very glad that I didn't rebuke from the pulpit, because this healing moment would not have happened.
I am confident that there are other reasons and factors that need to be weighed in making these decisions on whether or not to correct someone in Church. These are just a few of that came to mind as I have reflected on this particular aspect of my service.
As I mentioned above, I had to make some determinations early on as to what I felt constituted "correction" worthy. I personally felt that anything that did damage to, disparaged, or taught contrary to a few central doctrinal points, I would of necessity need to take a stand. These things included some of the following: anything that taught that God was not our Father, Jesus was not the Christ, or we could not worthily maintain the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Also, if someone taught something that was contrary to the Plan of Salvation as revealed in the Last Dispensation would require me to speak up. And if a speaker or teacher taught or spoke out against Joseph Smith or any of his successors, or the General or Local Authorities, or the revealed order of the Priesthood, I would feel compelled to rebuke that person. Finally, if a member were to speak evil or disparage another member of the Church or community (local or global), I would need to correct that member. Now, if something were taught that touched on any of the above points, I would use my best judgment and discretion to determine if I need to involve myself in making a correction.
I am sure there are a host of other things that I could have or should have included. Perhaps I will think more on this and include an additional entry later. Perhaps not. My worst fear is that someone who presides over me will read this and find something that is out of line or in need of correction. Of course, if that happens I pray that I am willing to take the correction.