Govern Ourselves

When Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, saw him judging the people “from the morning unto the evening,” he said, “The thing that thou doest is not good.” Moses explained to him that the people needed his help resolving disputes and that this was his opportunity to teach them about God’s laws. Jethro replied, “This thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone” (Exodus 18:13-18). He advised Moses to do three things:

  1. “Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God” (Exodus 18:19). In other words, seek revelation when there are questions affecting everyone.
  2. “Teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do” (Exodus 18:20). This implies to me instructing them as a group and teaching broad principles which they can apply to specific circumstances.
  3. “Provide out of all the people able men…and let them judge the people” (Exodus 18:21-22). Delegate, and let other people share the work.

President Dallin H. Oaks has encouraged us to think about this story not just from Moses’ perspective, but from the perspective of his people:

We often note how Jethro counseled Moses to delegate by appointing judges to handle the personal conflicts (see verses 21–22). But Jethro also gave Moses counsel that illustrates the importance of the personal line: “Thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do” (verse 20; emphasis added).

In other words, Israelites who followed Moses should be taught not to bring every question to that priesthood leader. They should understand the commandments and seek inspiration to work out most problems for themselves.

Two Lines of Communication,” General Conference, October 2010

When Joseph Smith was asked how he governed the people in the city of Nauvoo, he replied, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (John Taylor, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, p. 339, quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, “Chapter 24: Leading in the Lord’s Way“).

Brigham Young remembered Joseph explaining his approach in this way:

I do not govern them at all. The Lord has revealed certain principles from the heavens by which we are to live in these latter days. The time is drawing near when the Lord is going to gather out His people from the wicked, and He is going to cut short His work in righteousness, and the principles which He has revealed I have taught to the people and they are trying to live according to them, and they control themselves.

Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, June 7, 1870, p. 3, quoted in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, “Chapter 24: Leading in the Lord’s Way

When King Mosiah abolished the monarchy among the Nephites and established a system of judges, one of the reasons he gave was the undue burden that the monarchy placed on a single person:

Many more things did king Mosiah write unto them, unfolding unto them all the trials and troubles of a righteous king, yea, all the travails of soul for their people, and also all the murmurings of the people to their king; and he explained it all unto them.

And he told them that these things ought not to be; but that the burden should come upon all the people, that every man might bear his part.

Mosiah 29:33-34

Today, I will govern myself. I will seek advice from others as needed, including my leaders, but I will be careful not to overburden others with decisions which I can make on my own, by applying the principles which I already understand.

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