Playing the Rules vs Playing the Game

Playing the Rules – World Cup Version

Another World Cup has passed with some exciting moments and some … flopping. For those who avoid soccer, flopping is when players try to dramatize falling to the ground to have the ref call a foul and give their team a penalty. Neymar, the Brazilian star, became quite the sensational meme and soccer teams around the world are “doing the Neymar” by falling ridiculously to the ground. Flopping has been criticized for a variety of reasons, whether as deceptive or as an affront to masculine norms of ‘machismo’. However, there’s a logic to it – doing so at the right time and with the right dramatization can provide quite the advantage in the game.

Yet – in my opinion – it’s also a tactic that breaks up the game. The rules of soccer are there to manage the game and protect the players from fouls, but players like Neymar are making the game about the rules. They dribble into players, hoping to catch them off-guard, hoping to be tripped and draw the foul. If they don’t get fouled, they want to be close enough that if they take the fall themselves, it will look like a foul (1). Rather than showing their own skills of the game, they so their skills of manipulating the rules. By playing the rules rather than playing the game, you lose the art and essence of soccer (and all sports).

The Christian Game and the Rules

Everyone can probably already tell where I’m going with this in terms of religion. But it is always worth repeating. Christ clearly told us what the game was:

Matthew 22:

37. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. …

39. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

That’s the game! That’s it! Nothing should detract from this. In fact, his next statement was:

40. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

So, for the Christian world, the game is loving God and loving your neighbor. People might say: but in verse 40, he clearly has place for the law! So the rules are part of those commandments!

Ish … with LOTS and LOTS of nuances.

In the next chapter of Matthew (23), Christ goes on something of a ranting condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes (AKA: the religious leaders of the time) for a wide variety of problems: hypocrisy, ignoring the poor, etc. One of these problems is exactly what flopping does: forgetting ‘the game’ by ‘playing the rules’. He says:

27. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.

28. Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

This criticism is that the leaders of the Church have focused on those commandments and rules that are easily attainable and only provide status symbols. They are all outward expressions of personal importance rather than understanding and applying “the weightier matters of the law” (Matt 23:23).

It really is that simple. God’s work is about love – not commandments. When we as a people focus on commandments and not love, then we also ignore “the weightier issues.” Commandments are not de facto expressions of love. Love is the de facto expression of love. But lets get into this a little bit more with the current status of the LDS Church.

Playing the Rules in the Modern Church

This frustration of rules is not new in the LDS Church (2), but watching the World Cup has given me this new way to look at it (and be annoyed by it). It reminded me of the press conference after the new First Presidency was called. In a previous post, I explored how the Presidents Nelson and Oaks’ discussion of “Love and Law” came down to a simple maxim (if I may quote myself):

“The logic of Presidents Nelson and Oaks is simplified to this: God loves us, so he gives us commandments. Commandments make us happy. We show LGBTQ people our love by compelling them to keep these commandments.” (see cited post for context)

This idea does not come out of the blue – it can be pieced together through various scriptures. For example, Alma 41:10’s classic “wickedness never was happiness” and Mormon 2:13’s “the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.” President Oaks has spoken on this topic since at least the 70s and cites verses that describe how commandments are linked to certain blessings or outcomes and thus, they must be a demonstration of God’s love. (3)

Now, because God perfectly loves us, I think it is safe to assume that every command from God is a manifestation of His love. However, there are at least three nuances to this.

First: commandments are not the only way God showed love. He (and we) can show love in infinite ways: by mourning with those that mourn, by giving a random blessing out of the blue, by protecting His people from calamity, by providing a comforting spirit, by gifts of testimony, etc. etc. We must remember that while all God’s commandments are expressions of God’s love, not all of God’s love is expressed in commandments. If we are discussing love to LGBTQ persons only in the purview of compelling them to follow commandments, we are missing the bigger picture.

To only discuss the law of chastity when talking to LGBTQ people is to reduce them to their sexuality or gender identity, something that Church leaders repeatedly say is dangerous. Yet, in interactions with bishops and parents, leaders often reify the sexual or gender identity by only reacting to that part of LGBTQ members. If we are truly concerned with helping someone be whole (physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, etc.), then repeated pleas to follow the law of chastity will not help. There’s a growing group of LGBTQ people who are married to a member of the same-sex or have gone through a gender transition that still come to Church to receive some spiritual nourishment. These people can be spiritually uplifted by discussing their service opportunities, their relationship with deity and how they might improve it, etc. Reinforcing rules and regulations does not uplift or help them feel connected to Christ.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that an overwhelming majority of LGBTQ members of the Church have experienced significant trauma. Our first response to showing love to someone who likely has gone through troubling experiences in Church should be to make sure they are not reliving that trauma. Those leaders who “play the game” (or follow Christ’s directive to love first and foremost) would react in minimizing trauma and working through the pain with the person rather than pushing rules or commandments.

Second: It does not (necessarily) follow that because God’s commandments are expressions of His love that compelling our family and friends to follow His commandments are expressions of our love. I have seen demands for righteousness fueled by hate and rejection. God recognized this and gave the leaders of His Church a warning:

D&C 121:37 – “That [the powers of heaven] may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man …

39 – “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. …

41 – “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (emphasis mine)

Unrighteous dominion seems to be a harsh claim against Church leaders who are simply “following the rules.” However, it’s important to point out that God knew the possibility that authority would be abused and gave warnings to that. Too many LGBTQ members have been abused in their interactions with leadership. Often, these leaders will simply tell sexual/gender minorities that if they do not follow the commandments then they are not welcome to Church. Parents threaten children with being kicked out in order to coerce obedience. But this is not the leadership that Christ envisioned. This is not “long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” Commandments should never be the ends we seek. Love is both the ends and the means.

Finally: We mistakenly assume that every rule, ‘commandment,’ or process of the Church is a directive from God, and thus an expression of His love. This is perhaps the most controversial nuance I’ll discuss, but also the most potentially dangerous if we do not understand it.

The Church isn’t perfect. The people aren’t perfect. The leaders aren’t perfect. While we often joke about this as a general Mormon community, we should also sit with this and consider the implications.

Mistakes in doctrine and policy have damaging implications when Church leaders carry with them the assumption that God is behind all they do. Think, for example, the damage done by Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness. In it, the soon-to-be prophet writes that homosexuality is the sin against nature, a consequence of sexual deviance, and a precursor to bestiality. Homosexuality was a choice to be extinguished. This pernicious idea, backed by someone meant to be the mouthpiece of God, continues to reverberate in Mormon circles. It fostered an environment where LGBTQ groups are not only ostracized, but hated and rejected. It has helped many LGBTQ youth be kicked out of their homes, be subjected to unethical and damaging psychological experiments, and made them feel that they were at fault for their situation and that God hates them for it.


But that’s not all – we’ve seen the Church, both ancient and current, refine or completely change “commandments” that previous Church leaders said were God’s command. We can easily think of the priesthood and temple restrictions placed on blacks in the modern LDS Church. Mormon leaders from the early 1900s onward made multiple statements saying that this was God’s will. (4) While the Church has since tried to back away from this, we need to grapple with the historical fact that leaders have made mistakes, claimed God’s hands in bad, human policies, and these have terrible consequences.

We cannot automatically accept that every policy, ‘commandment’, rule, or Church process comes from God. Because some of these policies and rules come from man’s own interpretation, not every rule is a direct manifestation of God’s love. The restriction of the priesthood ban was not ordained by God, not a manifestation of His love – yet, the Church lived by it and accepted it as such. This puts tremendous responsibility on each of us to thoroughly investigate every ‘commandment’ to determine if, for us, it is God’s will. (5)


Playing the Game in the Modern Church

Let’s imagine two simple scenarios:

  • Janet goes into the Bishop’s office to talk with him about being transgender. Janet asks Bishop to call him Jack from now on, but would also like to talk about his struggles with feeling connected to God.

A bishop “playing the rules” would simply respond that in the handbook, the Church frowns on gender transitions and he’s worried about how the members in the ward would react. He tells “Janet” that it would probably be best if she continue showing up to Church in a dress and go to Relief Society.

A bishop “playing the game” would begin by thanking Jack for being so willing to discuss this with him. He might ask Jack to describe his experience and his process so far: “I’m unfamiliar with people who are transgender. It sounds like a really difficult road. I’d love to hear your story and learn more about how I can help you.” The bishop might then address, before any rules, this struggle with feeling connected to God: what blocks are there? how might we get around that? perhaps a prayer together or a priesthood blessing?

  • Chris tells his mother that he is going to start dating men. He’s prayed about it and he feels like God is pushing him along that path.

A mother “playing the rules” would tell him that he’s breaking up the eternal family. Choosing to break the commandments ruined everything she was hoping for. She might even say that she would not want his partner to come home for the holidays because it would look like she was condoning his behavior.

A mother “playing the game” would ask him his story: “Tell me more about how you sought out God. I’m so glad you are working with Him to know His plan for you.” After listening, she might suggest: “While you start dating, it might be hard to know what you want. I hope you feel comfortable talking to me about things.” At this point, she might even counsel him to follow the law of chastity while dating: “For me, it was helpful to know that the people I was dating were interested in all of me, not just my body. So, following the law of chastity assured that we were an emotional match, not just a physical one. That’s something to consider as you start dating men, too.”

In neither of these examples of “playing the game” did the bishop or mother go against the commandments. Nor did they make any indication of approval, necessarily. Instead, they focused on the person. They let the individual tell their story and gave counsel where it was appropriate. The counsel was also going to be based on their specific situation, rather than a blanket “everyone should do X.”

It really is that simple. God’s work is about love – not commandments. Commandments sometimes fit into that plan of love, but they are not the entire plan. Remember: Commandments are not de facto expressions of love. Love is the de facto expression of love.

So, my hope is that our parents, Church leaders, and each one of us remembers to play God’s game, an outpouring of love for God and our neighbors, and to avoid playing “the rules.” Don’t flop – just love.

(1) – I’d point out that “Playing for the rules” is not just a soccer issue. We can see this in basketball, for example. Commentators often talk of players who are good at “drawing the foul” and fans will chant “AND ONE!” You can find article after article on how the craftiest players can draw the foul.

(2) – I think the easiest way to see the issue of playing the rules rather than playing the game in the LDS Church is by looking at the temple recommend questions and the evolution of the Word of Wisdom.

The temple recommend interview is full of ‘rules’ or ‘perception’ questions: do you sustain the prophet? Do you follow the law of chastity? Do you keep the Word of Wisdom? Etc. The only question(s) that really get to Christ’s issue of loving God or loving your fellow men is: “Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?” You might also add the question about fulfilling financial obligations to spouse and children. That is one (or two) questions close to love out of 15.

The Word of Wisdom, when introduced by Joseph Smith Jr., was meant as a guideline for moderation rather than strict enforcement. It starts in verse two as saying: “To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint”

(3) – I’m having trouble finding actual scriptural evidence that plainly lays out: ‘Because I [God] love you, I give you these commandments.’ For example, Elder Oaks had to create a parable describing this rather than cite a scripture in his talk The Challenge to Become:

A parable illustrates this understanding. A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:

“All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.””

I am guessing that the logic is simply: God loves us, so everything He does is out of love. God also gives us commandments. Thus, commandments are an expression of God’s love.

(4) – See the Appendix in Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue a Universal Church. It gives the official Church statements about the priesthood and temple ban as a directive from the Lord. For example, a quote from a 1949 statement:

“It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.”

(5) – God is free to give different commands to different people. Universally, He directs His people not to kill (10 commandments) – yet, Mormons believe that He commanded Nephi to kill Laban. Chastity has been a fluctuating standard for millennia and dietary restrictions are as diverse as cultures on the Earth.


3 thoughts on “Playing the Rules vs Playing the Game

  1. “The restriction of the priesthood ban was not ordained by God, not a manifestation of His love – yet, the Church lived by it and accepted it as such. This puts tremendous responsibility on each of us to thoroughly investigate every ‘commandment’ to determine if, for us, it is God’s will.”

    This is such a powerful paragraph! This changes a fundamental belief I have held on to since childhood.

    Well written article.

  2. Yes, he does say that. But he does not say:

    “I give you commandments because I love you.” (That is, from what I can find, an interpretation by modern day prophets.)

    He does not say:

    “Make sure other people keep the commandments as a demonstration of your love.”

    This post was about God’s love and commandments. Not our love and commandments. Yours is a separate issue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s