Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.Proverbs 11:14
Alma was troubled.
As the high priest over the church, he had taught church members “that there should be no contention one with another,” but that they should have “their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another” (Mosiah 18:21). He taught them that they should have no king and that “every man should love his neighbor as himself” (Mosiah 23:6-15). He clearly wanted them to self-govern as much as possible and to appeal to him as an arbiter as little as possible.
But as the church grew, he eventually faced the distasteful task of determining whether some members had strayed too far from the teachings of the church to retain their membership in the organization.
He was reluctant. He apparently held off on taking action until “there were many witnesses” and “the people testified of [these members’] iniquity in abundance” (Mosiah 26:9). He asked King Mosiah for help, who responded that this was a church matter, not a civil one. Then, he went to the Lord for advice, “for he feared that he should do wrong in the sight of God” (Mosiah 26:13).
Following the guidelines he received, he and the other priests were again able to establish peace and order within the church.
On February 7, 1834, in Kirtland, Ohio, a group of church members gathered for the purpose of establishing the first high council, a group of twelve high priests tasked with “settling important difficulties which might arise in the church, which could not be settled by the church or the bishop’s council to the satisfaction of the parties” (Doctrine and Covenants 102:2).
A set of procedures were agreed upon in this meeting, to ensure that decisions were made thoughtfully and fairly. Here are a few of those procedures:
- They should decide in advance on the difficulty of the case in order to dedicate sufficient time to more difficult decisions (v. 13-14).
- They should ensure that both sides of every question are considered thoroughly, including giving both the accused and the accuser the opportunity to speak for themselves (v. 15-18).
- The president of the council may pronounce the decision, but if any member of the council disagrees with the decision, he should speak up and the decision should be reconsidered (v. 19-22).
- The president may seek revelation to clarify points of “doctrine or principle” that may not be clear to council members (v. 23).
- The decision of the council may be appealed to a higher authority if needed (v. 27).
All of these procedures are calculated to produce an environment of deliberation, of transparency, and of mutual respect as important decisions are made. Like Alma, church leaders who must make decisions that affect the lives of members want to ensure that those decisions are made carefully, with a full awareness of all relevant information, and in harmony with the will of the Lord. Assembling a group of people to make that decision together increases the probability of a wise, inspired decision. Even then, the participants in such a council are aware of their own limitations. Members of the first high council promised “to fill their offices according to the grace of God bestowed upon them” (Doctrine and Covenants 102:4).
I have served twice as a member of a high council, and I have observed leaders discussing thoughtfully and compassionately difficult situations involving church members. Sometimes, the member is seeking help and welcomes the guidance and support offered by the council. Other times, members have been accused of harmful actions, and in some cases they disagreed with the accusations. I don’t envy anyone who must participate in such a process, but I am grateful that the Lord has provided guidelines to help us make difficult decisions in a spirit of peace and love, and to maximize the probability of acting in a way that lifts all participants closer to Him.
Today, I will follow the guidelines used by high councils as I make important decisions. I will listen to advice from multiple people. I will be thorough in weighing information about all sides of the issue. I will also seek revelation in an effort to align my decision with the will of God.