Everybody says it is. All my life, I have heard people tell me so in Church.
But can anyone tell me where this idea came from?
I've tried to track down the origin of it. When did this teaching became "a thing?"
And the fact that it has become so popular? What does that say about who we are as a people, enshrining obedience as a virtue above all others?
Well, guess what, it started with a bold assertion made by Bruce R. McConkie in his best-seller Mormon Doctrine:
"Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest" (Mormon Doctrine, p. 539).
There you have it. Ever since, people have taken that check to the bank as good-as-gold.
Bank Teller: "I am sorry, sir, but there are insufficient funds in your account."
You don't have to tell me.
Ah, The Plot Thickens . . .
Hold on! Bruce R. McConkie did not coin the phrase, after all.
Elder McConkie was simply the one who gave it long, smooth legs, stretching all the way from the 20th century into the 21st.
It appears the credit belongs to his grandfather-in-law, Elder Joseph F. Smith, who first taught this principle back in October 1873.
Now, grab your seats. You ARE GOING TO GET SUCH A KICK OUT OF THIS.
The context for Elder Joseph F. Smith's famous quote, "Obedience is the first law of heaven," is . . . wait for it . . .
"So sisters, do not flatter yourselves that you have nothing to answer for so long as you may have a good husband. You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven."
(Joseph F. Smith, October 1873 General Conference, published in Deseret News, Nov. 12, 1873, 644.)
Wow! So obedience to our husbands is the first law of heaven?
Telephone Game Strikes Again
This is the gift that keeps on giving.
Back in 2013, President Thomas B. Monson told the saints in General Conference:
"Declared President Joseph F. Smith in October 1873, 'Obedience is the first law of heaven.'"
(Thomas B. Monson, "Obedience Brings Blessings," April 2013 General Conference)
First of all, in 1873 Joseph F. Smith was not "President" ― Brigham Young was.
But did you notice how President Monson completely removed the context of the quote?
For decades, leaders have used this quote to teach us to be obedient to . . . who?
President Monson is not alone. Many others have joined the marching band, trumpeting the virtues of obedience as heaven's primordial law, including David A. Bednar, who was President of BYU-Idaho before being called as an apostle, and he told the students in a devotional in January 2004 that "obedience frequently is referred to as the first law of heaven; it is also the key which opens the door to the happiness."
But why are really smart people repeating something so stupid?
The Case Against Obedience
Well, this looks like an example of the way incorrect traditions take root in the Church.
Things don't just survive for generations on their own: they need to be regularly nursed and fed.
To gain enough traction to stick around for decades (even centuries), incorrect teachings need a political purpose; in this case, it serves the interests of leadership.
If you think I am being cynical, forgive me; I didn't mean it that way. I am not trying to be critical, either: I am just explaining the reason why some ideas have such a long shelf-life.
In this case, the reason is obvious: obedience is the meat-and-potatoes of a hierarchy.
Emphasizing obedience is a way of creating and maintaining boundaries around the authority of those in charge.
So I would like to make a case to prove that obedience is an IMPOSTER.
Point 1. Lucifer was someone's priesthood leader.
If obedience is the first law of heaven (meaning we're supposed to obey our priesthood leaders), then I feel sorry for those who were under Lucifer's "keys" in the First Estate.
After all, Lucifer was "an angel in authority in the presence of God" (D&C 76:25) who bore many priesthoods.
If someone as exalted as Lucifer could lead us astray, then how is it an octogenarian man whom we honor as prophet ― in failing mental health, whose day-to-day consists of Solitaire and root beer floats ― can't lead us astray?
Okay, if you say so.
There's a reason that Peter (who was intimately acquainted with the mysteries of God's kingdom) warned us:
Jesus Christ who is gone into heaven and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.
(1 Peter 3:21-22)
You see, angels, spiritual authorities and even the powers of heaven can lead us astray.
That's right: be careful even with angels! (I mean, why do you think they're angels and not gods?)
Christ alone is our Head.
So all this talk about rank-and-file leadership and following the lines of authority really means nothing once we understand that anyone can deceive us, including Lucifer.
Let's follow Christ. Full stop.
Two Laws that Precede Obedience
Let's approach this from a purely logical perspective.
Why is believing obedience to be the first law of heaven a non-sequitur?
2. Agency Comes Before Obedience.
Before God asks anyone to obey Him, we first need a couple of things.
Like agency. Just ask Adam and Eve.
I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency.
That's pretty cut-and-dry. You can't obey without agency.
So maybe the first law of heaven is agency?
3. We must be able to discern good from evil before obeying.
Before we obey, we have to figure out whether the thing we are told to obey is of God, or someone else.
It seems backwards to teach people to obey per se. Don't we need to equip them with the tools to discern whether to obey, first? Otherwise, we're asking for their blind, unthinking obedience.
In other words, before obey, we have to make sure the source of the commandment is Christ.
So maybe the first law of heaven is knowledge of good and evil (discernment)?
4. There is absolutely no reason to obey anyone other than God.
What benefit comes from obeying those who are not in tune with the Spirit of Christ?
What good is it to teach obedience to medical professionals and government leaders if they are not inspired by God? Why would we follow elites over Christ, when the two disagree?
Because God is not interested in our obeying the arm of flesh, which happens when we "lean unto thine own understanding."
If we make the gospel about obedience, then we risk making people's worth dependent upon their obedience.
Obedience, then, becomes weaponized, allowing us to righteously marginalize those who are "disobedient."
5. Obedience, when given from a doubtful heart, damns us as much as disobedience.
If obedience is the first law of heaven, then we're all in trouble.
Because our unhealthy attitude towards obedience creates a community of slothful servants.
He that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.
Does the Lord prefer innovation and initiative to obedience?
After all, the Lord says we are to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will" (D&C 58:27).
Focusing on obedience creates a stagnant spiritual culture because it divests us from personal initiative as we wait upon leadership (since we don't want to "get ahead of the Brethren").
It reminds me of a story my brother-in-law shared several years ago after some severe flooding in his stake in Texas. The destruction was devastating (the sort where people are sitting on their roofs to get above the waterline).
Anyway, Texas is a state with lots of wonderful, go-get-em types. And so, while other Christian churches pulled up their overalls and went to work, my brother-in-law said that in his LDS stake and in the neighboring stakes, they . . . held lots of meetings to get organized to help.
(Yes, we're good at convening meetings, and conferences, and trainings; we are trained to identify the presiding authority while blindfolded with two hands tied behind our backs; so if heaven has lots of meetings we'll be well-prepared.)
It was frustrating for my brother-in-law. While the members waited for the leaders to plan the rescue effort, waiting by the phone for the elder's quorum president to call and make assignments and distribute the yellow t-shirts, so much time passed that by the time the members of the Church finally mobilized and started helping . . . the other Christians had pretty much taken care of things.
That, my friends, sums up all we need to know about a hierarchy.
Whereas Christ, it seems, is looking for us to do many good things of "our own free will."
God is not interested in creating well-behaved, trained, bureaucratic middle-managers for heaven; Christ needs us to put on our big-boy pants and to stop waiting for the "grown-ups" to decide how we dress, act, speak, walk, work, serve, teach, pray and everything else the Handbook says.
But isn't that the problem? While we're busy "looking to the Brethren," all around us people are perishing, sitting on their rooftops, as we stand by, waiting for a coordinated council to come up with a solution or to authorize us to do something.
6. If obedience is the first law of heaven, then the apostle Paul was a false teacher.
Finally, obedience to the law of works cannot save or exalt any of us.
In fact, our fixation on obedience produces pride and self-righteousness with the intensity of a Rolling Stones groupie on crack cocaine.
Paul spent his whole life trying to convince us to stop being Pharisees. If anyone was a good Pharisee, it was Saul; but then he saw the light of Christ and became Paul.
None of us can be as "obedient" as the Pharisees were to the law. But our hope does not lie in the works of obedience.
If we want to see the light, too, then shouldn't we focus on the love of Christ, which Jesus said WAS the greatest of all the commandments, upon which all the laws of heaven hang?
So if we're wondering what the first law of heaven is, maybe it's love?
Our hope lies not in the First Law, but in the Firstborn.