The gospel of Jesus Christ is riddled with many great pairs of principles — sorrow and joy, faith and works, mercy and justice. Each principle is incomplete without an understanding of its counterpart. An imbalanced approach to the gospel can result in a well-intended saint relying too heavily upon one principle or the other. Furthermore, an incorrect definition of either principle may lead individuals to define rules as religion, or, on the other end of the spectrum, commandments as conveniences. Such is the case with “the spirit of the law” versus “the letter of the law”, a tension tackled by Kurt Francom and Jason Hunt in one of the most popular interviews on Leading Saints.
Jason Hunt currently serves as a bishop in a young single adult ward. His leadership experience is extensive — he’s served in a stake presidency and a bishopric, among a variety of other callings in the Church. While some leaders commit to strict rules and regulations as soon as they are in authority, Hunt has focused on loosening up and understanding the spirit of the law while serving as YSA bishop. He, like all good leaders, wants to do all the right things. But more than that, he wants the young adults that he serves to experience the Savior’s love and mercy.
For those who may not have time to listen to the entire podcast, we’ve laid out Hunt’s key points to leading by both the spirit and the letter of the law.
Doctrines, Principles, and Applications
Finding the balance of following both the spirit and letter of the law begins with recognizing what is Church doctrine and what is Church culture, according to Hunt. He shares the poignant story of a young man who was barred from passing the sacrament on account of his blue shirt. In this instance, the adherence to letter of the law was, in fact, not even a law at all — no scripture or handbook states that the color of a man’s shirt disqualifies him from passing the sacrament. To put it briefly: follow the handbook, but don’t write your own handbook.
In witnessing such frequent obedience to arbitrary procedures that were wrongly treated as commandments, Jason has made the decision to “kill applications” — he determines to never see personal applications of practices as doctrine.
To understand Hunt’s approach, let’s first lay out a few definitions:
- Doctrines are factual statements of principles. They never instruct; they only define. (e.g., God is our Heavenly Father.)
- Principles are if-then statements that can be derived from doctrines. (e.g., If God is our Heavenly Father, then we are His children. He loves us and we should love Him.)
- Applications are practices to implement doctrines and principles. They can be changed by key-holding individuals. (e.g., God is our loving Heavenly Father, so one way we show our love for and worship Him is by attending church for two hours every Sunday.)
Some practices, like the example of two-hour church above, are given by leaders, while others are more personal.
Personal applications are not necessarily problematic. A student who avoids homework on Sundays may see great blessings as she shows her love for God and the Sabbath in this way. Yes — honor your individual practices, Hunt encourages. But don’t preach them. They aren’t a formula that everyone should follow. Just because one person goes to the temple every week and sees improved grades doesn’t mean that everyone else will. Sanctifying yourself is a sequence of personal choices. These choices cannot be made for you, nor can you make them for someone else.
This is the exact issue from which false doctrines and cultural norms are born — applications gone wild. Leaders should be especially careful that they do not build up formulas for repentance. Priesthood key holders should seek inspiration and not assign the same procedure to all individuals — that is why the handbook allows room for revelation.
Beyond personal approaches to principle are key holder promises — divinely appointed applications for a specific time and group of people. Those in a position of stewardship have the authority to receive revelation regarding practices that will bless the people they lead. For example, Moses revealed the promise of healing to the Israelites if they would look to a serpent. But this practice — meant for a specific time and people — is unlikely to cure an illness in our day and age.
Leaders should recognize that there is danger in giving too many procedures to follow. With excessive programs, action plans, and checklists, members can easily become overburdened and overbooked in their discipleship. A surplus of instruction can lead dedicated saints to stray from the core principles taught by the Prophet and other general authorities. Even more critically, application-overwhelm leaves little room for individuals to discern through the Spirit the personal actions that the Lord would have them take.
Hunt transitions from the discussion of principles versus applications to a conversation about different moral theories, or quadrants, which affect our application of laws. The four archetypes of moral theory that he describes are the consequentialist, the obligation theorist, the divine theorist, and the egoist.
Consequentialists look for the greatest good and will act in the interest of the best ultimate consequences. They favor mercy over justice. Their strengths include approaching questions, confessions, and sins with compassion and love. However, they run the risk of being too merciful and perhaps straying too far from prophetically prescribed procedures.
The Obligation Theorist
Obligation theorists are strict rule followers. They value order and obeying laws, both civil and religious, with exactness. While they excel when it comes to obedience, they must be careful not to worship rules. A strict obligation theorist risks incurring serious damage in the name of a principle taken too far. An obligation approach to honesty gives us telling examples: a woman honestly reveals the Jews hiding in her basement to the Gestapo; a husband honestly tells his wife that she is overweight. An overemphasis on justice leads an obligation theorist to accidentally make individuals pay for sins for which Christ has already paid. Their affinity for rules at times causes them to believe that cultural norms are in fact binding laws. Obligation theory becomes dangerous when rules are kept at the expense of anything, even people and relationships.
The Divine Theorist
Divine theorists are similar to obligation theorists in that they adhere strictly to certain rules and regulations. However, the difference lies in that they are especially adamant when it comes to obeying commands from God. This includes scriptural and prophetic teachings as well as impressions from the Spirit. Divine theory is sound in that obedience to God is requisite to righteousness. However, the danger of the divine theory manifests itself when an individual believes that God has said something that He didn’t actually say. Divine theorists are prone to using spiritual trump cards, like “I feel that” statements, to override the opinions of others. For example, a man may tell his girlfriend that she should marry him based solely upon his supposed spiritual feelings. Furthermore, divine theorists risk spiritual paralysis in demanding revelation and refusing to use their own agency when making decisions.
The final moral archetype Hunt describes is the egoist, who prioritizes personal interests. These leaders are dangerous in that they make decisions based solely upon the potential benefits — especially respect and authority — that they could personally gain. An egoist approach isn’t always corrupt or completely selfish. In some instances, as described by President Hinckley, it is important to prioritize one’s own family and health over religious responsibilities. “What shall it profit a man though he serve the Church faithfully and lose his own family?” (Gordon B. Hinckley, Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, 21 June 2003)
The Intersection of the Quadrants
Each of these moral theories has its own strengths and weaknesses. Hunt emphasizes that the best leader should be able to move through all four quadrants with ease. Nephi is the perfect example. When commanded to kill Laban, he initially refused, displaying his obligation theorist attitude towards God’s commandment not to kill. The Spirit then emphasized to Nephi that it was God who had delivered Laban into his hands and it was the Spirit of God who commanded Nephi to slay Laban. This reasoning appealed to Nephi’s divine theorist tendencies. Finally, Nephi made the shift to a consequentialist approach when he considered the generations that would be negatively impacted were they to not receive the records Laban held.
It’s important to not only cultivate each of the moral theories within ourselves, but to ensure that they are present within our organizations, presidencies, and quorums. A diversity of theories provides balance within a leadership organization. Call a counselor who is in a different moral quadrant than you are. Hunt explains that he, as a consequentialist, always makes sure to call at least one obligation theorist counselor so that he does not stray too far from the letter of the law. Embrace differences of opinion and use them to your advantage.
When frictions arise within a presidency, it can be helpful to recognize presidency members’ moral theories and then approach them from their respective standpoints. For example, if your counselor in your bishopric is an obligation theorist, approach him from a place of understanding and appreciating the rules. Open his mind by discussing which rules are based on correct principles and which are not.
Be a Friend, Not a Calling
While navigating between the various moral theories, it’s crucial for leaders to understand that it is not their responsibility to save those they have stewardship over, but rather to love and befriend them. Hunt insists that leaders should try to understand who individuals actually are before trying to make them become something. Create friendships so that people will want to come to you for support. You don’t need to do anything great or memorable in your leadership. Your greatest impact will come from being a friend to whom members can turn with their questions, concerns, and missteps.
Hunt describes how this friendship is especially helpful in working with youth who struggle with addiction. His first priority is always developing a relationship with the youth that he leads. He then uses analogy to help them feel removed from and capable of overcoming their problems.
For example, Hunt likes to liken pornography addiction to the body’s impulse to urinate. If you’re in class and your brain receives a signal from your bladder that it’s time to relieve itself, you won’t just go right on the spot. The prefrontal cortex will shut off that impulse until you are in a bathroom. The same thing happens with urges to look at pornography. The brain waits to say “okay” until you are somewhere where you can get away with it. For Hunt, this analogy is a good, friendly, and scientific way to cover a topic that is normally very sensitive and emotionally charged. When taught this analogy with love and understanding, youth learn that inclinations to view pornography can be as natural as the need to use the bathroom. It is not the impulse that is the problem, but rather what happens when the brain justifies satisfying that impulse. Youth need to identify their brains’ arguments and then argue back.
Youth must already feel comfortable with their bishops in order to understand these kinds of analogies and honestly discuss their difficulties. Progress can’t be made unless there is a foundation of trust.
But how does a bishop build that trust? Hunt points out that people coming to the bishop don’t need to hear how wrong they are. They already know that they are sinning — that’s why they’re in the office. Bishops are most effective when they love first.
Hunt wraps up his interview with a few powerful thoughts. One issue we often see within the culture of the Church is the temple endowment serving as a steppingstone to a mission rather than a cornerstone in the development of the individual. Hunt asserts that the temple is the culminating event — not serving a full-time mission. A mission is not a saving ordinance. The temple endowment is. Instead of focusing so much on getting their youth onto a mission, parents and leaders need to carefully help youth prepare for and celebrate their temple experience.
Finally, parents should exercise sound judgment when allowing their children certain privileges. Just as kids shouldn’t drive until they reach a certain age and level of responsibility, parents should be careful about what media and technology they make available to children. This is especially true with smart phones. Kids don’t have the cognitive ability to make mature choices with a device that is becoming increasingly adult.
When asked how his leadership has contributed to his becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, Hunt relates his development as a leader to his development as a child of God. To be a God, you have to be completely loving and forgiving. Leaders have to do so as well. Leadership teaches us to be more like Jesus Christ and our Father in Heaven.
It’s not easy to be a leader, especially in a volunteer organization. However, one blessing of the Church is that we have the opportunity to learn from other members. The mission of Leading Saints is to share those lessons learned in leadership. Jason Hunt’s guidance helps us follow the Savior:
- Focus on correct doctrines and principles as opposed to applications.
- Find a balance between moral theories of rule-following.
- Foster friendship with those that you lead.
Brooklyn Edwards is a 21-year-old student from Evergreen, Colorado, attending Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She is majoring in editing and publishing with a business minor. Her experience in Church leadership includes a full-time mission in Sweden as well as various callings within YSA wards, including service in relief society presidencies and activities committees. Brooklyn interns as an editor for BYU Continuing Education’s strategic marketing team. Along with writing, she loves running, reading, violin, cooking, and spending time with friends and family. Her desire to lead by following the Savior is what brought her to Leading Saints and keeps her passionately listening to and sharing its messages.