The Insufficiency of Obedience Discourse

Seven Virtues by Francesco Pasellino

Recently my husband decided to start subscribing to the paper versions of all the church magazines. Out of curiosity I took a look, and I’m happy to report that the Liahona and Friend did a good job of featuring inclusive stories of Latter-day Saints from around the world. I was less enthused by the January 2021 For the Strenth of Youth magazine, which was less global in its scope and had an article called “Hear, Hearken, and Heed.”

Now it could be that I’m just automatically turned off by the word “hearken.” As someone who went through the temple twenty years ago, I had been wounded by that word and the way it was used against women. So I read this very short article about hearing, hearkening, and heeding the teachings of the Lord and the Lord’s servants with my hackles slightly raised. And this focus on obedience — because, really, those three H words when used together are ultimately centering on the idea of obedience — left me feeling disappointed.

Mormonism has various rhetorics of morality, but obedience rhetoric is certainly strong in these latter days: obey the prophets, obey the Lord, obey church leaders. Be blessed if you do.

But obedience messages don’t inspire me. They don’t lead to spiritual maturity, to moral maturity. They don’t help me to think bigger and more expansively. They don’t help me to reach beyond myself and love more generously. They don’t help me to become a stronger, more centered person. They don’t encourage me to thoughtfully tackle difficult issues and dig deep for my best self. Doing good things just because you’ve been commanded to by prophets — and because you’ll get blessed if you do and get punished if you don’t — isn’t sufficient moral development for me.

In my ideal world, my church community would deemphasize obedience rhetoric. I especially want this for my children, who are young teens and tweens. I hope my kids will become deeply moral people, guided by conscience, principle, and their best selves — not by facile directives to obey church leaders. Obedience rhetoric largely locates moral decision making outside the self. It’s external. It’s the “when the brethren have spoken, the thinking has been done” kind of approach. I’m more attracted to Joseph Smith’s ideas about teaching correct principles and letting people rule themselves. I want my kids’ moral centers to be located internally within them, centered on core understandings of good principles like fairness, compassion, love, and equality that they embrace and believe in.

One possible discourse that could steer us away from an incessant focus on obedience is that of virtue ethics. When one employs a virtue ethics lens on a situation, one doesn’t ask, “What’s the rule?” (which is what obedience discourse bends people towards). Rather, one asks, “What kind of person do I want to become?” When a person embraces virtue ethics, rules become far less important and developing virtues like courage, compassion, and love take center stage. In the musical Les Miserables, Jean Val Jean’s song, “Who am I?” is grounded in virtue ethics. He makes his decision to turn himself in based on his determination to be a certain kind of moral person. Javert, on the other hand, has a moral viewpoint grounded in rules and obedience.*

One important aspect of virtue ethics is its focus on process, development, and practice. One becomes a courageous person by practicing courage. One becomes a person of integrity by practicing integrity. Habituation and conscious effort to develop oneself are key. Elder Uchtdorf has hit on virtue ethics when he emphasizes the importance of practice, development, and process in our quest to become compassionate and kind people who are disciples of Christ.

Another possible moral discourse I would love to see supersede obedience rhetoric is the rhetoric of integrity. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife has articulated this idea beautifully (and with great nuance), arguing that what we should want for our kids and for ourselves is the development of integrity, which involves making moral decisions based on one’s own sense of right and wrong and correct principles, even if it puts a person in opposition to her community.  Finlayson-Fife points out that obedience discourse can put up important guardrails, but it cannot foster sufficient moral development. “You can’t obey your way into adulthood or selfhood,” she says.

Ultimately, for me, a focus on obedience is fundamentally insufficient. We don’t become our best selves when we are trained to export our moral decision making to others, when being good and doing good is located in docility to rules and leaders. I prefer moral decision making to arise from core values and principles, from determinations to be people of kindness, courage, and integrity . This may mean that people ultimately go in different directions with their moral decision making. Principles guide people as they work through issues, but they don’t always point to one exact behavior or destination. Certainly, if homogenous behavior is what you want, obedience discourse will be more effective. But in the end, growth, development, and moral and spiritual maturity are better facilitated when we allow people to work through competing goods and various principles and come to decisions that resonate with their own senses of godliness.


*While I critique a focus on rules and obedience, I want to acknowledge that many rules can be pretty good. I’ve always been impressed by Kant’s categorical imperative to never treat another person as a means to an end, but to instead treat them as an end in and of themselves.

Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.


  1. Love this. We have been trying to teach our kids virtues / values vs rules. Not a lot of Church materials to support that, unfortunately, so making our own curriculum …

    • Elisa, that’s a succinct way of putting this — virtues/values vs. rules. I like that framing. Please feel free to email the blog a guest post about the curriculum you are coming up with. I’m sure many people would love to read your ideas.

    • My family has found “The Family Virtues Guide” by Linda Kavelin Popov a great non-denominational resource. It identifies 52 virtues and creates a short lesson around each that can easily be adapted to a wide age range. We use it for our Sunday family lesson time (works better than church-based materials, since ours is a mixed-faith marriage).

  2. Thank you for this necessary look at a topic that is a thorn in my side. I was raised with the idea that is expressed in scripture that because God lived us first we show our love for him in return. And how do we show our love? Jesus has told us very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. Note that the Sermon on the Mount is the complete opposite of Deuteronomy which is replete with rules. Jesus doesn’t wants us to mindlessly follow a bunch of rules with the expectation that we’ll be patted on the head head or receive some type of reward. That’s the Law of Moses kind of life. Over and over again we see him castigate the Pharisees because they’ve turned religion into obeying a series of rules-many of them silly or downright petty rules that have nothing to do with worshiping God. Jesus emphasizes instead the two greatest commandments-love God and love others as we love ourselves. These two commandments deal with right relationships not right rules. I feel strongly that this is what Jesus means when He calls us to live the higher law. Since the time when President Monson took over but especially since President Nelson became the leader of the church I have become sickened by the increased emphasis on rules, rules, rules that can only be obeyed in a very narrow way and the deemphasis of loving relationships within our wards and branches as well as loving relationships with our communities and the larger world through genuine service that is unforced and not given to fill a quota that someone in a position of authority has decided that they will make the members of their congregation, stake or region participate in even if they have to use guilt and threats to accomplish it. Until we. Wise up to the fact that Jesus and Heavenly Father want us to have a loving relationship with them rather than to work as their servants and follow a bunch of rules that others have made up and have then said that we must follow all of the rules perfectly before we can even be acknowledged let alone cared about-I fear that the church will continue to alienate members who want to live in fellowship with each other and have a loving relationship with the Savior and our Heavenly Parents. I apologize if some of this doesn’t make sense. For some reason I wasn’t able to see my entire post as I wrote it.

    • Poor Wayfaring, I love your reading of the Sermon on the Mount and New Testament. “Right relationships not right rules.” That’s perfect. Your thoughts on this resonate well with my own.

  3. This really resonated with me – from being hurt by how “hearken” is weaponized against women to wanting my children to develop a moral center within themselves. Thank you.

  4. Amen, Caroline. I think the Church’s hyperfocus on obedience really makes it look like the GAs’ goal is to create a compliant membership more than a membership that is able to do moral reasoning on our own. I’m just thinking out loud, but I wonder if this is almost a limitation built into it because it’s an organization. It values its own survival (which is best assured by compliant, participating, tithe-paying members) over any other goal. Although I guess maybe it’s not inevitable. There are definitely lower-demand churches out there.

    • I totally agree that the GA’s are more interested in the strength and survival of the institution than the well-being of its members, and I try to avoid being angry or surprised when they do exactly that – it’s their job. But I love that you point out that being high-demand isn’t inevitable. Protecting an institution and developing a healthier spirituality isn’t either/or. Will it look different? Yes, I’m sure it would. But they have $100B. That’s a big rainy-day fund for them to deal with any fallout from painful but ultimately beneficial institutional changes.

      • Elisa, yes, the church totally does have some wiggle room given their 100B fund. I’d love to see them experiment with some other kinds of discourses and some other kinds of structures which are less hierarchical and patriarchal. While other traditions, like mainline liberal traditions, have moved away from obedience discourse and have lost membership as they’ve become lower demand, I like to think there’s still space for Mormonism to experiment with other discourses of morality and be successful. It seems to me that a massive strength of Mormonism is the community aspect. Maybe it could maintain its vitality through its lay organization and community building within, even if it shifts rhetoric. I’d like to think so.

    • Ziff, I think you’re right that one reason obedience discourse may be so popular among church leaders is their determination to keep the organization surviving and thriving. Our theology and ecclesiology also play into the issue. When you have a church based on prophetic authority, which teaches that our top leaders are the mouthpieces for God, you have a system that’s just built for obedience discourse. If it had a less hierarchical structure, if it had leaders who talked about the struggle to discern God’s will, it would be more natural (inevitable?) to expand beyond obedience discourse. And in terms of other churches, there are indeed lower-demand ones out there that don’t use obedience discourse much. And unfortunately (because I really like the liberal mainline traditions), from what I understand, they are bleeding members.

  5. I really love these framings, Caroline, and especially the difference between having an internal source of moral authority versus an external source. Thank you!

    • Thank you! When you figure out how to teach your kids about internal vs. external moral authority, please share your wisdom on the blog. 🙂 I have not yet figured out how to talk to my kids about this.

  6. Excellent topic. I am turned off by obedience rhetoric. Obedience is lax discipleship (ahem). I really what Jennifer Finlayson-Fife says and bringing integrity into the discussion. I really like Brene Brown’s definition of integrity as well.

    “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.”

    • I love that Brene Brown quote. Thank you! I really need to read some Brene Brown books. I keep meaning to, but I’m not sure where to start. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. 🙂

      • I would start with “Daring Greatly.” That’s a book I always recommend. I just read “Dare to Lead,” which I enjoyed very much and a few exercises in the book I use with some of my clients.

  7. Your piece resonated with me on so many levels!!!

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Our Stake President’s great moral compass is that of obedience… I do believe his heart is in the right place — ultimately wanting to follow God. But where it has become problematic is that in a quest to be “perfectly obedient” and not do anything he thinks might upset the Lord, inaction has meant that the marginalized are the ones that suffer.

    Inaction is more likely to benefit those comfortable with the status quo.

    It happened with our Zoom Church for Primary (better to not do anything than to do something wrong). And it happened when our Stake was facing the realities of sexual violence within leadership. And this is not just at the Stake Level — but every level of leadership.

    Being so concerned about saying something not perfectly, or doing something that might not be 100% within what The Church recommended meant that victims suffering was extended, the perpetrator was never fully accountable (because why talk about something so uncomfortable and hard) and justice can never prevail…

    I am beginning to see that we can too often chose the word “obedience,” when cowardice would be more appropriate.

    • “Inaction is more likely to benefit those comfortable with the status quo.” Absolutely. And that is so sad that inaction led to more suffering from victims of sexual violence. Just awful.

  8. This also reminds me of the scripture in the Book of Mormon which says that the stripling warriors were “exactly obedient.” I never liked that phrase, because I don’t think it’s possible to be perfect. On my mission, they used that phrase a lot. I feel like that phrase makes people fear making mistakes.

    • Absolutely. Scrupulosity is a serious issue and prevents people from having a healthy growth mindset. That’s too bad that “exactly obedient” idea was drummed into missionaries.

  9. As I was reading your piece, I kept thinking about Jennifer Finlayson Fife’s interview in Dialogue, and I’m so glad you linked in here. I appreciate what you wrote, and hope we can focus on who we are becoming instead of our checklists.

    • Thank you, Carol Ann. Yes, that interview in Dialogue is fantastic. More integrity, more becoming, fewer checklists, please. Totally agree.

  10. As a missionary I was given, in addition to the white handbook, another volume of mission-specific rules, and felt completely overwhelmed! I had always been “the good kid” in my family who wore obedience like a badge and sometimes bludgeoned others with it. But as a recent college grad on the edge of becoming properly adult, I was paralyzed by so many itemized rules (that we had to read from everyday in morning devotional).

    Months later, meeting with my zone leader because I felt overwhelmed and depressed, he ran through the major rules (left out things like keeping turtles in your bathtub) and when I answered to each that I was following it, he finally said “Are you having carnal thoughts?!?” And we both started to laugh hysterically because the whole litany of rule keeping and scrupulousity was so ridiculous and I felt relief for the first time in so long.

    It just clicked that strict obedience wouldn’t protect from depression, but added to the overwhelm, and it didn’t actually relate much to true service, love, or a closer relationship with Jesus. I’m so grateful for that moment and later moments when I’ve felt the Savior tell me that my imperfect efforts were enough.

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