Prophet, Priest, Member, and Disciple– A way to understand Mormon life

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Christianity and religion in general lately. I’m trying to figure out what was going on when I was a full-believing Mormon, and how to compare that to the religious lives of others.   I came up with some simple (i.e. over-simplified) categories of roles people play while involved in an organized religion like Mormonism.  I found them helpful in providing a way of understanding my Mormon experience and comparing it with others without worrying too much about theology.   I see four roles people play in organized religion:

Prophet: receiving spiritual guidance from the Spirit of God.

Priest/Clergy: administering teachings within a community. Teaching, preaching, helping, managing, setting policy, etc.

Member: special attachment, loyalty, and duty to particular community or group

Disciple: a devotee seeking to practice the principles taught by the prophets.

I admit it’s an over-simplified model;  there are a bunch more roles that come into play: e.g.,Saint, Missionary, Theologian, Convert, Skeptic, Monk, Mystic, etc.  And I am probably not using the terms in a  completely standard way.  But for me it’s a start on trying to grasp all the dynamics involved in living a faith.

It seems to me that these roles are distinct, yet can be present in one person in concert and at various levels of intensity.  They can also be competitive. Mormonism– perhaps to its strength–gives each of these roles to almost every member:

Prophet: Mormon obviously believe that there are men that can speak authoritatively for God now, but they are also taught to cultivate an attitude of prophecy– explicitly told that each member is entitled to revelation. The doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost makes the role of prophet central to every Mormon’s life.

Clergy/Priest:  Mormonism gives most members the opportunity to be clergy. Every male member is in the role of priest or clergy and are generally given– or should be given– specific responsibilities to administer in the congregation.  Women also have ecclesiastical/pastoral roles, if limited to areas not involving ordinances. There are low barriers to entry into ecclesiastical roles– no diploma is required. High levels of responsibility are offered to lay members without any training. Many times callings are given in spite of abject lack of qualifications (the prophet  role at work).  Generally willingness to do the work is the only requirement.

Member:  Mormons make a big deal about being a member of the church. Membership solidifies a community, makes members feel distinct from the world, and makes being a part of worldwide community not subject to question once you meet the criteria.  Mormons have all kinds of groups– each with a membership dynamic. The dynamic permeates to the most basic relationships.   Family membership– being a eternal part of a distinct family group–is not only approved by God, but integral to the purpose of life.   Most members wear their membership like they wear their citizenship. It is a role that they own and that they are ordained to be. The dynamic is akin to citizenship, which may be part of the reason that patriotism is strong in Mormonism.

Disciple:  Mormonism is very practical.  A good Mormon wants to be good. Mormons generally read the scriptures like a handbook for life.  The goal is to “liken the scriptures” to your life.  I have heard it said that because everybody will have the chance to be baptized, the Scriptures are ultimately not much more than a method of convincing people to keep the commandments.  Not a common belief, but it demonstrates how living the religion, rather than simply belonging or believing is part of the aim of Mormonism. Mormons differ from some Christian disciples in that they don’t generally have the cult-like devotion to Jesus or anybody else really. Being a disciple is a matter of contract with God.  Discipleship is practiced for the self as well as for God.  Mormons are taught that God is bound when we do what he says. (a remarkable thought actually.)  Mormonism discipleship incorporates minor elements of asceticism (fasting, Word of Wisdom), monastic life (Missionaries).

A visit to a Mormon congregation will reveal all of these roles– and the various members’ emphasis on the roles– in different degrees.  A Bishop is a sort of prophet for his ward as well as a priest and a disciple.  Every member has pastoral responsibilities as a visiting or home teacher.  The preaching is done by members. The doctrine of the Gift of the Holy Ghost combines membership with a prophetic role– giving it deep spiritual significance. Discipleship– arguably the most difficult role for a Christian– is generally taken very seriously.

For those that can bear the confines of Church culture (e.g. gender roles, legalism, conservative politics,homophobia, etc.) it can be a very fulfilling place to practice Christian religion. It can lead to a very rich religious life allowing the believer the spiritual benefits of the many roles. Because they are well-defined–and essentially thrust on people–it pushes them outside their comfort zone and can lead to personal and spiritual growth.  It also creates a close-knit community of disciples.  It forges a strong identity that persists independently of practice or belief.  It leads people to found and foster strong families, generally focused on virtue.

Of course there are downsides to the Mormon approach. Mormons are wont to get stuck in roles that they are not suited, at the expense of their happiness and spirituality.  I know Mormons who are so stuck in trying to be a prophet–at least in their own lives–that they live in a literal hell of personal compliance with arbitrary rules in order feel be worthy of the Spirit. Some are far to ready to consider their personal feelings to be divine.  I know some that are stuck in the role of priesthood leader and judge, and miss the point of Christian love and forgiveness.  Mormon focus on membership can lead some to exclusivity and pride, at the expense of discipleship.  Mormon discipleship lacks a personal element and can devolve in transactional religion– playing quid-pro-quo with God. And sometimes it’s all  too much to balance.   A common Mormon complaint is that there are too many things to do; religious roles often crowd out family roles– especially when professional responsibilities are added to the mix.  (Mormon women often express how liberating it is not to have to fill the role of priest.)

Evangelicalism probably offers a lot freedom but perhaps higher barriers to entry to some roles. You generally don’t have to worry about being a prophet, priest, or even a member.  When the roles are not thrust upon you, it seems you can pick those you most like or are most suited to fulfill.   The doctrine of grace that can be readily embraced lifts a lot of the heavy weight of discipleship, and actually frees people up to only do what they want to do. (Of course this allows people to choose very shallow levels of activity, which could be seen as a strength or a weakness of the faith.)

I think the freedom from defined role allows Evangelicals to incorporate passion into their religion better.  Evangelical seems to allows most to approach God as themselves, and not in relation to a role they should fulfill.  Evangelicals may also simply have time to praise.  Its easier to take an hour or so and stand and sing praise songs to Jesus when you don’t have a Sunday school lesson to prepare (and several to listen to), a home teaching assignment, a welfare assignment, a talk to give, a job to work, a bunch of kids, and a church leadership calling.

Recognizing the dynamics of the benefits and drawbacks of defined roles– both chosen and imposed–leads me to all kinds of questions:   Is there a better balance between individually chosen roles vs. institutionally defined roles that could be struck in Evangelicalism and Mormonism?   How could Mormonism benefit by allowing members to de-emphasize certain roles without judgment, and allowing people to chose their roles more?  Could Evangelicals benefit from more roles that are imposed on them by others? As an individual, what roles would be best for me to act in and which would be best for my family and others?

Maybe these sorts of questions can lead us to think more collectively and creatively about how Christianity works across Mormon and Evangelical traditions, how it could work better for us, and how we could work better for it.

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9 thoughts on “Prophet, Priest, Member, and Disciple– A way to understand Mormon life

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading through the discussions on this blog. Today, I had to chime in.
    I have a very good friend who is Mormon so that’s one of the reasons I like learning more. She’s taught me a lot about the LDS faith and I’ve seen how many things her church and mine share. Now here’s the part where I hope you don’t tune me out. I’m Roman Catholic.

    I believe Jesus founded *a* Church. http://www.cathtruth.com/documents/church.htm I believe that He does have roles for us to play as members of His Body here on Earth. I believe the priesthood is still alive though not the same as it was during Jesus’ time on Earth. Our priests today act in Jesus’ place. http://parishbulletin.com/Organizations/8190/Documents/InPersonaChristie.pdf

    Now I know many people have pre-conceived notions of what the Roman Catholic Church is. I pray that you all will read and learn about His Church and make up your own minds. Jared, I think it would be very easy for a Mormon to accept the hierarchy and authority in the Catholic Church as you’re already used to that.

    All God’s blessings!
    In Christ,
    Kathy

  2. Jared — Interesting post. I have found that one of the strengths of the LDS system is that it encourages, almost requires, the participants to be part of a community — it’s much harder than it is in some circles of evangelicalism to take a consumer approach. At its best, the LDS system encourages spiritual growth in part by getting us out of our comfort zones.

    I’m certain that in more than 20 adult years in non-LDS churches that I never delivered a sermon, and I can recall leading a congregation in prayer only once (although there may be a few times I don’t remember). Despite being an every-Sunday attender and being more theologically knowledgeable than most, I was never asked to teach an adult Sunday school class, nor for that matter to do much of anything other than donate money and occasionally help out with children’s programs. (I’m not saying I couldn’t have done more, but as an introvert I wasn’t inclined to make myself more visible.) If I had just disappeared I doubt if anyone other than the pastor would have noticed.

    But — and I think it’s more for better than for worse — that type of invisibility would be close to impossible for anyone who regularly attends an LDS congregation, even one of the larger ones (I think they top out around 500 people). For me, that involvement — even at a time like now where I have a low-stress, little-time-commitment calling — has been a huge positive.

    And, yes, there are negatives too, but after a week of seeing some of the worst of Mormonism played out in an all-too-public fashion, I’d rather focus on the positive.

  3. Kathy,

    I appreciate the comments. I am interested in Catholicism now, mainly because it seems to more readily allow membership in a community without intellectual commitment to a particular doctrine or belief. The diversity of thought and practice among Catholics is refreshing.

    I have been reading a lot of Catholic conversion stories on the web and I see the joy many have to be able to embrace a community that is authoritative, intellectual, adaptive to the world at large, by-and-large quite tolerant of diversity in morality, and diverse. It is a nice change of pace from the dynamics of Protestantism where the standard is disagreement.

    I think Catholics and Mormons both strongly incorporate the membership dynamic in their faith–which leads to a stronger community across cultures. The Catholic church seems to grow into and from the community. Catholic practice and rituals are strongly influenced by the community and vice-versa. Mormonism is starting to move in that direction in an effort to keep lots of different kind of members under one tent.

  4. Jared,

    I question if you have an accurate understanding of the defined and undefined roles that evangelicals exercise in congregational life. I am not sure who you think teaches Sunday school, keeps the books or cleans the building in most Protestant congregations but contrary to the common Mormon misconception there are any number of unpaid volunteers that keep the doors open. Most protestant congregations, not all but most, have unpaid laity elders and deacons that are called, trained, and ordained to work alongside their pastor’s.

    The absence of a cookie cutter system of required ward callings says less about the importance of the covenant community, service, or church membership inside protestant congregations than it does about not looking for personal or spiritual fulfillment from a bureaucracy.

  5. Gundek,

    This isn’t a beauty contest. It’s a discussion of the way these roles play out in different groups of Christians. I am sure there are plenty of protestant congregations that have very positive ways of playing each of these roles. Mormons may have a lot to learn.

    But what–if anything–does your protestant experience say about the benefits of seeking personal or spiritual fulfillment from a bureaucracy (i.e. the way most Christians seek it.)

  6. Of course it is not a beauty contest, but you shouldn’t be all that surprised when someone questions the effort you have taken to understand the roles in an evangelical church when you make comments like this…

    “Its easier to take an hour or so and stand and sing praise songs to Jesus when you don’t have a Sunday school lesson to prepare (and several to listen to), a home teaching assignment, a welfare assignment, a talk to give, a job to work, a bunch of kids, and a church leadership calling.”

  7. I grew up a Roman Catholic. And then in my thirties I started attending non-denominational Evangelical churches. And when I was forty I started to go to the same Lutheran church that I am currently a member of.

    I found that the Roman Church and the non-denominational churches looked radically different, but they had basically the same theology. That being, ‘a lot of God, and a little bit of me’. There was always something left for you ‘to do’, in those places to become a better Catholic, or better Christian.

    In the pure gospel of (our brand of traditional) Lutheranism, I finally arrived and found true rest in the finished work of Christ (for sinners like me)…alone.

  8. Gundek, this blog post is the start of my efforts to understand other churches. Tell me how it works in your church. I would honestly like to know how people play these sorts of roles in your community and what Mormons could learn from that. It seems to me that the value in Protestantism is that it allows churches to create all kinds of roles. It is the free-market of religious practice. Given the number of ways Protestantism has been tried, it stands to reason that you will find some of the most interesting and powerful use of roles among them. I have met Lutherans in Finland with very similar religious experiences to Mormons in Utah.

    I think you are misunderstanding my statement here as a veiled criticism of standing around and singing praise songs. I absolutely see the religious value in praise songs. Mormons miss out on praise songs, on the joy and release of praise songs. It’s a deficiency caused–at least by my speculation–by crowding it out with other roles.

  9. I didn’t take your comment as a criticism of praise music, but as a misunderstanding of the amount of time that evangelical members volunteer to their congregations.

    Sunday school and catechism classes are staffed by volunteers, the nursery is filled by the entire congregation (including the pastoral staff) on a regular rotation. The full time missionaries our congregation supports in Japan, Peru, India, and Mexico is done with voluntary giving. The regular mission trips by members of the congregation to support these men and women and the local churches they minister to is financed and staffed by volunteers and led by our elders. Being blessed with a number of doctors and medical professionals a bi-annual medical clinic for migrant farm workers is organized by our diaconate. Our congregations’ participation in the cooperative food bank and homeless shelter with other local churches is done with all volunteers.

    Although I’m believe that elders and deacons are the perpetual offices for leading the Church there are probably as many systems for the day to day as there are congregations and think that is fitting based on the diversity of gifts that the Lord has given.

    Looking at your categories

    Prophet: We believe that the word properly preached by a minister is the very word of God. William Perkins calls the sermon the “art of prophesying”.

    Clergy/Priest: Understanding the priest as an intercessor between God and His people, the priest as an exclusive category has been negated by the perfect mediation of Christ. The Clergy (teaching elders) are those who have been called, trained, examined, elected, and ordained into a ministerial office in the Church primarily the preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments. In addition there is laity nominated to the offices of ruling elder and deacon by the congregation that functions in leading both spiritually and administratively.

    Member/Disciple: If discipleship is being a student and follower of Jesus Christ and membership is based on belonging to the covenant community it’s difficult to separate the two. The covenant community is in a supplicative relationship with God not transactional because God binds himself by his promises. The centrality of Christ to the covenant cannot be understated.

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