Now I want us to go a step further into the meaning of "authority", which is one of the most important aspects of law.
Where do babies come from?
When a young child asks, "Where do babies come from?", we offer all kinds of answers.
Some answers are partially true ("babies come from their mommy's tummy").
Though we mean no deception, we sometimes try to preserve the child's innocence by giving them an answer that is . . . creative ("the stork flies them to the hospital").
Occasionally we attempt to give a clinical response ("Babies are made when sperm cells produced by the father combine with a mother's eggs through a process called meiosis"). Procreation is much more sublime than that. I often find the "clinical" answers to be the most misleading.
Here's my point: none of our answers -- not a single one -- is complete.
Aspects of the gospel are the same. We are children in our understanding. What we perceive is incomplete -- a part, a fraction, a shadow -- of the reality.
Does the Lord treat us like children? I hope so! After all, he commands us to become like "little children." Maybe that's why he says things like:
Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand?
Speaking unto you that you may naturally understand.
These commandments . . . were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
As it says in Le Petit Prince, "Le langage est source de malentendus." ("Words are the source of misunderstandings").
I feel bad for seers, revelators, and translators, who have to render spiritual realities into the modern vernacular, which is like sticking eternity into a thimble.
One of my favorite quotes is from Joseph Smith, who lamented:
Oh, Lord God, deliver us in due time from the little, narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen and ink;
and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.
(Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, November 27, 1832, in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and BYU Press, 2002), 287.
Cat got our tongue?
What would we tell Moses in 1200 B.C. if we had to explain to him the nature of deoxyribonucleic acid?
If you know what that is, then you're already off to a good start.
For the rest of us, deoxyribonucleic acid is more commonly known as DNA.
"Okay, Moses, so there are these . . . um . . . building blocks -- yes, little tiny building blocks that are invisible to the eye, that spiral around each other and make up all organisms on earth, including us. Hey, you still with me?"
From that explanation, do you think Moses got this:
You might be wondering, "Why does it matter if we understand DNA? What has guanine or thymine ever done for me?"
Well, what if we wanted to teach Moses something about spiritual DNA that travels through generations, like lineage?
We lucked out! Moses
beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold,
discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God.
Eternal truths are best understood through our own experience. Who better understands where babies come from than mothers who experience childbirth?
Joseph Smith believed:
Reading the experience of others, or the revelation given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God.
Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose.
Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.
(History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 50)
We believe in an experiential faith.
By What Authority?
Now we're ready to talk about "authority" (and you thought I had forgotten).
What is "priesthood"?
The legal principle of "agency law" might sound familiar: a person (the "principal") authorizes another person (the"agent") to act on their behalf. The acts of the agent are deemed to have been performed by the principal, and binds both.
We usually hear, "Priesthood is the power and authority to act in God's name."
Well . . . is that like saying, "Babies come from their mommy's tummy"?
A Priesthood of Common Consent
The best scripture I have found to describe spiritual authority is this:
For the word of the Lord is truth, and whatsoever is truth is light, and whatsoever is light is Spirit, even the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
This "light" of Christ (this part I really love)
giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God.
The Jews and Pharisees wanted to know where Christ got his authority.
The chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?
Jesus dodged their question. (Why would he do that?)
And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.
The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?
And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell.
And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.
(Matthew 21:23-25, 27)
So mysterious! Is this one of the mysteries of godliness, to be understood only through personal experience?
We get some help from the Book of Moses, where we learn that authority played a central role in the War of Heaven.
Satan, even Lucifer, that "angel of God who was in authority in the presence of God" (D&C 76:25), said:
Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor.
Here's where things heat up. Look for a word that starts with the letter "A" that has everything to do with "authority":
Because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten,
I caused that he should be cast down; and he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will.
The Great Lie
I want to paraphrase what is happening: Satan's great lie -- the one that he uses to "deceive" and to "blind" those who listen to him (and those that listen to him become his "captive") -- is that honor was owed him because of his authority, and that his authority could be used to abrogate the agency of man.
When in fact it is just the opposite!
Thus we see that "unrighteous dominion" is when we seek power over another because of our "authority" (or in other words, our office or position) rather than through the bonds of charity and the mutual love that binds us.
Remember when I asked, "Where do babies come from?"
Well, authority comes from love.
Just like babies!
Let me say it this way: genuine authority emerges from and exists only within loving relationships, as we see demonstrated in the way Christ honors his Father.
That kind of relationship, and authority, requires "agency" to be held inviolable.
When authority is exerted at the sharp end of a bayonet, or at gunpoint, or under duress of any kind, where we attempt "to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men", then any fleeting power we possess is illusory because it generates fear: the very thing that repels love, and renders authority null and void.
Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
But when persons choose to honor each other, sharing an affection so profound that it is described as unfailing, whose hearts are knit together by an unbreakable bond . . . then we are beginning to understand the glory of God, and nature of his power.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
(1 Cor. 13:2)
The problem comes from viewing authority as "top down" -- which creates class division and divides us by status -- rather than as a reciprocal expression of love, which makes us "one." How does an "authority figure" who acts unilaterally honor the agency or consent of the other person?
If I expect you to do something and obey my counsel because I am your bishop, rather than because my counsel is light, and truth, and spirit, even the spirit of Jesus Christ, then I am practicing priestcraft.
But it gets worse: if I expect you to do something and obey my counsel because I am your bishop, and in fact my counsel is not light, and not truth, and not spirit, even the spirit of Jesus Christ, then I am acting in the spirit of Anti-Christ.
Behold, what will these things testify against you? Behold, will they not testify that ye are murderers?
Ouch. Alma explained his understanding of "murder" to his son:
I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction.
We lead people "away unto destruction" when we make them captives to our will rather than the will of God.
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.
The Great News
But the good news is that the spirit of Christ is also the spirit of freedom! Only in an environment of liberty can authority ripen, nourished by love, into a relationship worthy of the Holy Spirit of Promise.
What message was so important that God condescended to earth to deliver it? What message was brought to us by the Messenger of the New and Everlasting Covenant, sealed in love’s blood? “For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:11).
As the Father hath loved me, so I have loved you: continue ye in my love.