Lots of Rules
Mormon missionaries have a lot of rules. You can read them for yourselves in the Missionary Handbook.
There are 92 glorious pages, filled with gems like these:
- “Refer to other missionaries, including your companion,
as “Elder” or “Sister” and their surnames, not
by their first names, nicknames, or surnames alone.”
- “If you play basketball, volleyball, or another sport, do
not allow the situation to become intense or competitive.
(For example, do not keep score.)”
- “Do not watch television, go to movies, listen to the
radio, or use the Internet (except to communicate with
your family or your mission president or as otherwise
I’ve intentionally taken these rules out of context to heighten their “weirdness,” particularly for those who aren’t familiar with how Mormon missions work. They demonstrate some examples of the “do”s and “don’t”s that I was expected to live by for two years.
Another rule that was often tedious was the rule about backing up a vehicle:
- “One missionary is to stand outside the vehicle and direct the driver whenever he or she is backing.”
Think about the logistics of this, and you can imagine how it would get old really quickly. Anytime you reverse your car – anytime – your companion would need to exit the vehicle and watch from behind to make sure you didn’t hit anything.
And that was my experience every time I was in a car as a missionary.
Well, every time except once.
I was on what we call “splits” with another missionary, Mat Mors (er, “Elder Mors.” I forgot the rule for a second.). We were in his area, so naturally he was driving. That left me to spend the day “backing” any time we needed to reverse.
Towards the end of the day (missionaries are expected to proselyte – be missionaries and do missionary stuff – until 9pm), we had gone to check on someone Elder Mors and his companion were teaching. He wasn’t home, so we headed back to the car.
Something we did must have alerted some nearby dog(s) to our presence, and suddenly in the darkness there was a chorus of barking – a chorus that was growing louder. In a panic, we frantically rushed to the car and started to drive away.
But there was a problem. We couldn’t quite make the turn to leave the cul-de-sac.
Mors (I can’t help it, that’s what we called him!) tried his best to get his Mazda 3 to make the tight turn we needed it to. Let me tell you, missionaries get creative to avoid having to go through the whole backing thing, and if any car could go the distance when it came to turning radius, it was that Mazda 3. But in this case, it wasn’t enough. We were stuck without backing up.
As I was doing some quick mental processing, wondering how many dogs there really were, and if they were (or it was) behind a fence or not, and how nimble I could be in suit pants, Mors calmed my anxiety.
“Don’t worry. I got this.”
And he backed while I was still in the car.
(I know, right?!)
And then we drove away.
We didn’t discuss it. Really, there was nothing to talk about. Technically, we’d broken a mission rule, but I’d wager we’d both do it again. It fit the circumstances.
Many Things of Their Own Free Will
As I’ve thought on that experience, I think there are wonderful parallels to non-mission life.
Let me tell you what Mors and I didn’t do after that night.
We didn’t write letters to our mission president or the area Seventy or the apostle of our choice to discuss how an important addendum needed to be made to the backing rule.
We didn’t agitate within the mission to have backing rules relaxed because of the way they could potentially put other, more rule-zealous missionaries, in danger.
We didn’t discuss how out of touch our leaders were, and how only those missionaries in the field like us knew what it was really like.
We didn’t do a lot of things.
But what did Mors and I do? In a phrase… “many things of (our) own free will” (see Doctrine and Covenants 58:26-29).
You see, there’s power in correlation. We’re not given commandments because God wanted to impose arbitrary boundaries. We’re given commandments because they’re actually good for us. If you live gospel standards, I’d venture to say that you’re life is generally going to be better than it would be otherwise.
But I’m not naive enough to suggest that everything is black and white. We’re taught the standards, we discuss the standards, and for the overwhelming majority of the time, we live the standards, because therein lies safety (and happiness, by the way). And yet, we can make choices for ourselves based on our own circumstances.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks, after giving potentially controversial counsel, offered,
“If you feel you are a special case, so that the strong counsel I have given doesn’t apply to you, please don’t write me a letter. Why would I make this request? I have learned that the kind of direct counsel I have given results in a large number of letters from members who feel they are an exception, and they want me to confirm that the things I have said just don’t apply to them in their special circumstance.
“I will explain why I can’t offer much comfort in response to that kind of letter by telling you an experience I had with another person who was troubled by a general rule. I gave a talk in which I mentioned the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13). Afterward a man came up to me in tears saying that what I had said showed there was no hope for him. “What do you mean?” I asked him.
“He explained that he had been a machine gunner during the Korean War. During a frontal assault, his machine gun mowed down scores of enemy infantry. Their bodies were piled so high in front of his gun that he and his men had to push them away in order to maintain their field of fire. He had killed a hundred, he said, and now he must be going to hell because I had spoken of the Lord’s commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
“The explanation I gave that man is the same explanation I give to you if you feel you are an exception to what I have said. As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.
“The Prophet Joseph Smith taught this same thing in another way. When he was asked how he governed such a diverse group of Saints, he said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” In what I have just said, I am simply teaching correct principles and inviting each one of you to act upon these principles by governing yourself.“
So, great, we get to make our own choices. Here’s the kicker, though – we’ll be held accountable for the choices we make. We’ll be called to account for the times we deviated from the standard.
If at some future judgment, God asks me about letting Mors get away without backing, I’ll gladly account for my actions. I’d probably suggest that I’d do it again, given the option.
But I also got out and backed that dang car every other stinking time it needed to reverse.
“Correlation” Isn’t a Bad Word
As usual, my thoughts on this subject aren’t coincidental. Ordain Women still pops its head up occasionally (oh my gosh go away). A BYU student wrote a piece about (among other things) the university’s oppressive sexual standards (SPOILER: there’s definitely more to the story than her 250 word Cosmo piece). There’s always news about someone or other attempting to throw off the shackles of the Church’s correlated teachings.
That makes me sad, because there’s safety and happiness in correlation. When we deviate from the standard, we shouldn’t feel the need to convince anyone, outside of our Heavenly Father – if we’re in the right. The need for someone to seek outside, secular validation for comfort suggests that we’re not feeling the comfort from another source.
I’ve struggled at times with what I’m doing with this blog. I’m not an apologist – not really. I’m not an academic. I’m not a scientist. In fact, I don’t really consider myself to be a subject-matter expert in anything, let alone anything relevant to the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints. I do fairly well with analyzing and responding to arguments, and my upbringing in the Church gives me a good enough background, but I’ll be the first to admit that you won’t be finding many ground-breaking thoughts here on Religious Reason. That’s one reason I confined the scope of this blog.
But I know enough to recognize when people aren’t telling the whole story. To recognize when they, instead, and slanting their stories to manipulate their audience.
That’s what takes place anytime people trash the correlated principles of the gospel and hold their personal exception up as a beacon to other similarly-oppressed individuals.
Don’t believe any of it. Trust in correlation. Trust in the leaders of the Church.
“Therein lies happiness, brother.”