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Guest Post: The Myth of Missionary Obedience

Rusty - September 28, 2005

Tim Jacob and I were in the same mission in Guatemala. When he was a greenie I was his first zone leader (though I barely remember the little tyke). He has recently discovered the Bloggernacle and is once again a greenie feeling his way around. He’s a baby sucking his thumb. He’s a cub in a nest of pythons. He’s a duckling without a… er, okay, I’m just trying to make myself feel superior since he told me that after I left the mission it got better. (In other words, don’t be too nice to him just because he’s new)

Oh, and as a disclaimer, I don’t necessarily agree with this post, his ideas, or his haircut. I’ve just been too lazy to write posts lately and hey, what better way to fill the void than taking advantage of newbies?

A few weeks ago, my wife and I had the missionaries over for dinner as we do about once a month. This time we had the pleasure of having four missionaries, one of which being a so-called “greenie.” This particular greenie was obviously going to be a good one. He was sharp looking, very personable, and seemed to have a good attitude about things.

As we were sitting down to dinner, this greenie asked, “Brother Jacob, did you ever take naps on your mission?” With what was probably a fairly large grin, I replied, “If I was tired, absolutely.” The other three missionaries all laughed and gave each other high-fives. I must have reinforced something they had been telling him. Apparently, this new missionary had been reading a little after lunch only to have fallen asleep on his bed. He awoke and immediately felt awful for having done so. The other elders told him not to worry about it, but that didn’t help.
After hearing this, I took it upon myself to rescue this missionary from wasting two years worrying about the wrong things. I got very serious and asked the missionaries if they would like to know the secret of the mission. “Of course,” they replied.


The room went silent. They could not believe what I was saying. To defuse any speculation, I stated that I wasn’t a rebel on my mission, and in fact was quite the opposite. I then told them the following:

1) Breaking a mission rule is NOT a sin. If waking up at 7:00am isn’t a sin before or after your mission, it’s not a sin during your mission. Same goes talking to your companion in “tú or “vos,” listening to secular music, rules about dress, watching TV, etc., etc., etc., etc. Nor do breaking these rules have anything to do with your ability to be guided by the Spirit or to have It present in a discussion.

2) The mission rules are simply standards and guidelines to prevent missionaries from sinning. For instance, dating before the age of sixteen IS NOT A SIN. It is a guideline so that a sin is not committed. However, I believe this guideline should be followed as most 14-15 year olds are not mature enough to handle the dating scene. Another is how many holes a woman can have in her ear. This is the standard, not to prevent a woman from having three, but rather having five or six plus her eyebrow, lip, nose, etc. On both these issues the church set a standard to prevent the extreme. Same as the mission. You wake up at 6:30 so you don’t sleep in until noon. You are home by 9:30 so you’re not out until midnight.

3) Breaking a mission rule does not disqualify you from the guidance of the spirit nor its presence during discussions, study, etc. One thing that always bothered me about the mission, and especially the MTC, was how arbitrarily everybody threw the Spirit around. It was as if they could decide when you will have It and when you won’t. They also threatened that if you disobeyed, “you would not have the Spirit.” This seemed wrong.

For example, the MTC routinely and randomly inspects your room to make sure it is clean and tidy, and then leave behind a report on the condition thereof. One week we were caught with a fairly messy room, which the Branch President was made aware of and we were subsequently admonished. “The Spirit cannot dwell in a messy room,” he insisted. This made sense at the time, but after a bit of thought, it seemed like more of an assumption than an assertion. I thought to myself if this meant that if I was visiting an investigator who lived in a messy house, we would have to help tidy up before the discussion in order to have the Spirit be present. This of course, is not the case.

Like the above example, I picked up on other contradictions. I had always heard how strict the MTC was and was prepared for it. It definitely didn’t disappoint in that aspect. However, the second day I was there, the MTC President’s wife was speaking. She said that she had hoped we might have stayed up past 10:30, getting to know our companions. I was also in the MTC for Christmas. On Christmas day we watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with a nude Donna Reed standing in the bushes. I am not crying “HYPOCRITE.” I’m just saying that there was flexibility with these rules as well as others, and most rules are misinterpreted as absolute commandments.

Another example. On my mission, the Area President ruled the area with an absolute iron fist. One rule we had was that we were not to gather together on P-day with other missionaries. No basketball, no soccer, no nothing. Just you and your companion sitting in your room writing letters. I think it is safe to say that this was probably the least obeyed rule in the mission. Nobody obeyed it.

Well, one day I was riding with the mission president to a remote area in the mission. After discussing several topics, he asked us what was the reason we were not able to baptize more than what we were currently doing. It was an interesting question since we had taken great strides getting the mission to where it was at that time. President then told us he thought that the reason was that missionaries were still getting together on p-day (thus eliminating them from the guidance of the spirit). Now, my mission president was a level-headed man. He also rarely ever preached obedience, and I had always felt as though he didn’t really believe in this rule either. Apparently, I thought wrong.

A few months later, both my mission president and the area president returned home. This obviously brought a new mission and area president with new rules and new standards. One change that came was that the aforementioned p-day rule was done away with. So now, all of a sudden, we could both get together on p-day AND have the spirit. This obviously had zero effect on missionary performance for better or worse.

I don’t want you to think that I am advocating breaking mission rules nor am I saying there shouldn’t be such rules. I am simply saying the rhetoric we use in teaching the importance of these rules and the enforcement thereof needs to change. There are too many missionaries who are paralyzed because their focus is in the wrong place. The missionaries need not worry what rule they are or aren’t breaking. They need to worry about THE WORK. It is then, and only then that they will progress as missionaries.

Tim Jacob


  1. Dude, you better watch out. If Prudence McPrude hears about this, she is going to open a can of whoop-ass on this place!

    Comment by Randy B. — September 28, 2005 @ 12:06 pm

  2. Tim, you make a good point about priorities, but generally speaking, I disagree. Breaking a mission rule itself may not deter the spirit, but a hard, rebellious heart will. Can you break a mission rule with a broken heart and a contrite spirit? I suppose it’s possible, given certain extenuating circumstances, but generally not. Lack of obedience means pride, and pride will certainly deter the spirit.

    Comment by Eric Russell — September 28, 2005 @ 12:37 pm

  3. Your examples are interesting, but I think there is a BIG difference between willfully breaking a mission rule and inadvertantly breaking one.

    Willfull disobedience to the rules that govern the church will lead to the loss of the spirit and much more. Who are you to choose which rules you will keep and which you won’t and then still assume you can have the spirit anytime you want.

    When someone in authority sets a rule I think we should look long and hard before we decide to ignore it or not obey. There are ways to change the rules.

    Comment by don — September 28, 2005 @ 1:07 pm

  4. Great post, Tim. I agree completely. Missionaries get hung up on the letter of the law and ignore the most important thing: creating and building trust with investigators. Unfortunately, they are often encouraged in this by mission presidents who think they can avoid problems by making silly and draconian rules.

    I once had a companion accuse me of driving away our investigators because I didn’t do the companionship study with him in the morning.

    Comment by NFlanders — September 28, 2005 @ 1:40 pm

  5. And I have to respectfully disagree with Don. As Tim’s story showed, there really is no way to change dumb rules except waiting out the person who made them. For better or worse, the church is not a democracy and you really have no recourse for decisions you don’t like.

    Comment by NFlanders — September 28, 2005 @ 1:45 pm

  6. Again, read the last paragraph. I think the rules ARE important. I just disagree in the way they are taught and how they are enforced. The only reason we are told to obey is because that’s how you get the Spirit–which is false. The missionaries only focus is often obedience and thus they equate how successful they were with how obedient they were as well.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 2:10 pm

  7. Nor do breaking these rules have anything to do with your ability to be guided by the Spirit or to have It present in a discussion

    mission rules are simply standards and guidelines to prevent missionaries from sinning.

    the church set a standard to prevent the extreme

    Tim, you assume a lot. Like, way too much. It is very presumptuous of you to think that you know what mission rules are for and why the Church sets standards. I’m not sure I’m comfortable making the same assumptions.

    Now, I agree that the rhetoric we use regarding obedience-to-mission-rules-equals-success should change, because it’s just not true. There was a former missionary in our mission that was legendary in his disobedience (went inactive, had lots of sex, started a business, went to Mexico City… all in the mission) yet had tons of success. We almost wanted his baptisms to go inactive to prove that his disobedience brought bad fruit.

    One rule we had was that we were not to gather together on P-day with other missionaries.

    Uh… I don’t remember that rule… :)

    Comment by Rusty — September 28, 2005 @ 2:16 pm

  8. After the President returned from a Mission President training seminar run by Elder Packer, he said one interesting question was asked by one of the other presidents. He asked why is it that disobedient missionaries were still able to have success in the mission? Elder Packer replied that Heavenly Father would not deny the gospel to someone who was truly searching for it on account of an Elder’s disobedience. I thought this was interesting.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 2:22 pm

  9. The worst advice any missionary is ever given is, “Obey your mission leaders and everything will be OK.” This was terrible advice for my mission. I have two things that I tell prospective missionaries.

    1. Buy about 16 pairs of identical socks. Nice ones. All the same. If one is lost keep the other since you really don’t have pairs, you have 32 individual socks.

    2. Strive to have the Spirit and follow it’s advice. If it contradicts your leader’s advice, pray about it. I had some terrible leaders on my mission. I wouldn’t hesitate to call them evil. A whole culture evolved that enabled this and kept the mission president out of the loop. I am grateful to those missionaries that were brave enough to defy their so-called leaders and stand up for what was right.

    That doesn’t have much to do with obeying white bible rules, but I know that this advice saved a few missions. Especially the sock part.

    Comment by a random John — September 28, 2005 @ 4:43 pm

  10. Welcome to the ‘Nacle, Tim. And congratulation on such a misguided inaugural post — I’ve rarely seen a first post that is so wrong. ;-)

    Your primary problem is illustrated here: Breaking a mission rule is NOT a sin. If waking up at 7:00am isn’t a sin before or after your mission, it’s not a sin during your mission.

    You have made the colossal mistake of thinking that sins are equated with actions universally. This is just plain false. If a missionary agrees to obey mission rules and then breaks that promise it is a sin. By your logic, Jesus was a serious sinner for drinking wine. But the fact is that the Word of Wisdom is a rule that applies to us now and if I drink a beer it is a sin for me. But my neighbor, who has not made promises to God to abstain from alcoholic beverages, can down a cold one without offending God in the least. Missionaries have different rules than the rest of us just like Mormons have different rules than non-Mormons. Your assertion is just plain false.

    Now I think you are also missing the point about obedience as a missionary in general. Obedience is a foundation for powerful faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; powerful faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is what allows missionaries to work mighty miracles. That is the point. “So what” if God must utilize loser missionaries on occasion to get his work done — those missionaries get little or nothing from the experience spiritually anyway. In fact, such experiences usually are spiritually detrimental to the loser missionary because they get to go around talking about what a loser they were who still had success… that does not provide much incentive for said loser to humbly and prayerfully draw closer to God later in life.

    Not that all of your post was wrong. It is cleary a mistake to assume obedience leads directly to miracles without the crucial middle portion of increased faith in Christ. But just because many people misunderstand this process is no reason to undermine to foundational obedience that makes it all work. I hope those four missionaries you preached your sermon to figure that out.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 28, 2005 @ 4:54 pm

  11. Hey Tim… welcome to the crucible which is Nine Moons.

    : )

    I appreciate the sentiment… as I felt too often that many mission rules were draconian and/or capricious. But your argument fails for its logic. Eric put it best… but in the mouth of two or three (blah blah blah): rules can come and go, the operative agent in the equation, though, is having an obedient spirit.

    Now, hopefully, the mission president and the APs will have the corresponding spirit of not-being-capricious-draconian-teach-them-principles-and-letting-them-govern-themselves. Which is, from many accounts, a rare gift.

    The strange thing is that while argument is off, your comments to the elder will most likely be a real help to an elder who shooting past the mark.

    Comment by Silus Grok — September 28, 2005 @ 4:55 pm

  12. Again, I’m not advocating the willful breaking of mission rules. Nor do I or did I participate in the persecution of those strictly obedient Elders (which went on quite frequently).
    What I am saying is that there is a focus on obedience that is so intense that it simply paralyzes missionaries because it is all they can think about. I will also repeat that I hate when leaders throw around the Spirit, arbitrarily deciding when HE will and won’t manifest Himself. He is a member of the Godhead and will manifest Himself if He wants an investigator to know the Gospel is true. He will not withhold His power simply because I accidentally slept in a few minutes that morning, or because a leader said He cannot do so.

    I was called to preach the Gospel, and did so with everything that I had.

    BTW Geoff, just because a missionary struggles with obedience doesn’t make him a “loser.” In fact, this is the type of rhetoric that needs to be changed.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 5:13 pm

  13. About mission rules not being a sin, I didn’t think this would be the most disputed point of discussion, but oh well.
    I’m willing to accept a few of your arguments, however, the level of guilt that is bestowed upon Elders who happen to break a rule is not so great that they have to fall to their knees, confess their grave sin and beg for forgiveness.
    This leads to an inordinate amount of guilt, which is one of the two biggest reasons for the loss of Spiritual guidance during one’s mission. Yet they never teach this.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 5:20 pm

  14. Ezra Taft Benson:

    “One of the greatest secrets of missionary work is work. If a missionary works, he will get the Spirit; if he gets the Spirit, he will teach by the Spirit; and if he teaches by the Spirit, he will touch the hearts of the people; and he will be happy. There will be no homesickness, no worrying about families, for all time and talents and interests are centered on the work of the ministry. That’s the secret—work, work, work. THERE IS NO SATISFACTORY SUBSTITUTE, especially in missionary work.” Emphasis added.

    It’s about the WORK. He doesn’t mention obedience.

    James Faust:
    “Nothing you do as a missionary should get in the way of your important message: not your dress, not your hair length, your attitude..”

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 5:35 pm

  15. Geoff, just because a missionary struggles with obedience doesn’t make him a “loser.”

    I didn’t say a chronically disobedient missionary is a loser as a human being, just a loser missionary…

    If it makes you feel better, we could refer to them as “crappy missionaries”, “dinglefritzes”, or the favored term in my mission “Lennies”…

    the level of guilt that is bestowed upon Elders who happen to break a rule is not so great that they have to fall to their knees, confess their grave sin and beg for forgiveness.

    I guess this depends on the nature of the transgression. We would all agree that breaking universal laws like, say, the law of chastity would warrant this. Not all rules are created equal after all. Disregarding a order from a DL is not the same as disregarding a rule in the missionary handbook (white thingy) for instance. And accidentally taking a nap is very different than intentionally snoozing when you should be serving. You are absolutely right in your point that there are nuances in all of this… (BTW – and sorry if I blasted you too hard, bro.)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 28, 2005 @ 5:50 pm

  16. I agree with Geoff that the key is Faith in Jesus Christ. That said, I know for a fact that obedience does not equal Faith in Jesus. Plenty of people go through missions obediently but increase little in faith. And while obedience can strengthen one’s faith, I think there are things that contribute to it just as much…like why you are obedient…and what particular laws you are obedient to.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 28, 2005 @ 5:53 pm

  17. Geoff,

    I still disagree they’re a loser missionary. I agree with the rationalization that there are different rules which requires a different repentance process. But this again leads me back to my point, This is never taught! Most missionaries view them the same carry with them the immense guilt of breaking a smaller rule.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 28, 2005 @ 5:58 pm

  18. J – Now you’ve done it… Now I’ll have to write a post on this. Here is my theme for my post tonight: Faith precedes the miracle and obedience precedes the faith…

    Tim – Alright, you’ve talked me into it. I’ll not refer to chronically disobedient missionaries as “loser missionaries” anymore — Dinglefritzes has a better ring to it anyway! ;-)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 28, 2005 @ 6:16 pm

  19. I agree that missionaries get way hung up on obedience with the arbitrary rules that are specific to a mission. For example, in my mission we had this rule that you couldn’t eat food from street vendors or fish if your body couldn’t take it. This was usually in response to some elder getting sick. The president would pass this down to his ZL’s and by the time it made it to the normal missionary it was an absolute sin to eat an awesome fish taco from a street vendor. Missionaries would feel horribly guilty and think they weren’t worthy to have the spirit if they ate a fish. They also might have pissed off a lot of members because they refused the tuna fish sandwich that they made for dinner. There was also another rule that you had to exercise and carry around a bottle of water everywhere to drink. I didn’t do either, but I had success. It was funny to watch elders obsess about their bottle of water. It was like the bottle had some type of magical powers that would bring baptisms. When I was traveling with president as an assistant, he would lament about missionaries becoming pharisaic about some rules.

    Comment by Brett — September 28, 2005 @ 7:35 pm

  20. Lennies? That’s funny, I haven’t heard that before. I’ve always known it as fubeca.

    Comment by Eric Russell — September 28, 2005 @ 11:53 pm

  21. Eric,

    I’m pretty sure that fubeca is specific to Brazil. Your comment plus Brett’s reminds me that we had one elder in particular who was not allowed to eat street food. The prez was sick of paying for monthly enemas for the guy. Needless to say he didn’t follow the rule despite frequent meetings with the president about it. Other than that we had very few rules. I was told I was going to be AP while at the bottom of a dogpile playing tackle football…

    Comment by a random John — September 29, 2005 @ 12:27 am

  22. Sure brings back the memories

    Comment by Andy — September 29, 2005 @ 2:31 am

  23. Consider the can of whoop-ass opened, all you lovers of darkness. I never cease to be amazed at the rationalization of sin and sloth that is so second-nature to the pathetic blog-addicts that lurk in filthy corners of the internet like this one. When your mission president gives you rules, the thinking has been done. Dare to be disobedient if you will, but don’t act surprised when you wind-up shortchanged in the eternities. You’ve been warned, reprobates.

    Comment by Prudence McPrude — September 29, 2005 @ 3:17 am

  24. I think there are a number of interesting issues and distinctions being discussed in this post (and some of the comments), but the whole conversation is somewhat muddled by the imprecise use of terminology. However you want to draw distinctions between various levels of infraction (based upon their severity, origin, timelessness, context, etc.), and however you want to use various terms to label those distinctions, the interesting question (for me) is: How useful is much of the rhetoric of obedience in promoting effective missionary work among 19-year old elders? Personally, I think much of it leads to a lot of silly side-shows and preoccupations, and we’d be better off just telling missionaries why they have the rules they have, why lines have been drawn the way they have, and cutting down on a lot of the pious nonsense that so often accompanies discussion of the rules.

    I posted about this once upon a time. Take a look:


    Aaron B

    Comment by Aaron Brown — September 29, 2005 @ 3:35 am

  25. “If waking up at 7:00am isn’t a sin before or after your mission, it’s not a sin during your mission.”

    Couldn’t someone use the same logic about sex: if it’s not a sin during marriage, it’s not a sin outside of marriage?

    Comment by Kim Siever — September 29, 2005 @ 10:37 am

  26. Don’t missionaires understand that when they go on a mission there will be rules to be obeyed? The rules will be different than the ones they are living under at school or at home.

    Some rules may seem silly, like getting up at 6:00am (our mission) companion study, no swimming, don’t eat blood pudding or blood sausage, be in by 9 and in bed by 10 etc. So what if all of the rules seem silly! If I commit to go, then in that commitment should be I’ll obey the rules.

    I question whether a missionary who has the attitude of willfully breaking the mission rules can have the spirit or not. There’s a big difference to having the spirit and having the spirit manifest itself to an investigator. The spirit doesn’t need you and I think in many cases it comes in spite of the missionary, it comes because the investigator is seeking it…not because some rule breaking hot dog has a great personality.

    Comment by don — September 29, 2005 @ 1:45 pm

  27. Great post. Amen. Exact obedience generally makes for a poor missionary. Had a great mission in Western Europe. Found taught and baptized a good bit in a statistical mission hell hole. Worked hard, played hard, had a relaxed attitude and ignored any rule that thwarted the work. Most “arrows” weren’t at ease enough to developed rapport w/ people, rarely got referrals or baptized, and went home bitter having bought into the exact obedience crap.

    If any still have a copy of “Drawing on the Powers of Heaven”, burn it and send the ashes w/ a note to some GA or MP still preaching exact obedience and destroying the faith of many in the process.

    Comment by Steve EM — September 29, 2005 @ 2:27 pm

  28. Let me quickly say a few things. I’m not saying obedience isn’t important. IT IS. I don’t think mission rules are not important (except for maybe that p-day one). THEY ARE. And they should be obeyed as well as we possibly can.

    All I am saying is that obedience is the only thing taught in the mission and especially the MTC, when the real key to the work is WORK. See my previous comment with Benson’s qoute–he says it all right there.

    I just wish a mission leader would say, “Here are the mission rules. We expect you to follow these to the best of your abilities, but we do realize that nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. So if you do happen to sleep in one morning, take a nap, etc., don’t worry about it and try a little harder next time. What I do expect from you is that you don’t waste a minute of thte Lord’s time and that when it is time to go to work, you do so with all your heart, might, mind and strength.”

    My other problem is the mission leaders who tie obedience to the Spirit instead of the spirit of the work. Just because you were obedient doesn’t mean you (nobody specifically) were a good missionary.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 29, 2005 @ 2:59 pm

  29. Isn’t it a univeral mission rule to work? So therefore working hard is being obedient to mission rules. I don’t think you can separate work from the overall topic of obedience in the mission field as you appear to trying to do, Tim.

    Therefore we get back to prioritizing obedience to mission rules…

    Comment by Geoff J — September 29, 2005 @ 3:12 pm

  30. Tim,
    If your post had been worded like your last comment, I think most of us would agree. And I like that Benson quote, I referred to it all the time on the mission.

    I wonder how many of the rules are made because of those few bad apples and how many are linked with doctrine (don’t be with other missionaries on P-day vs. don’t teach women without husband’s permission vs. don’t date). My friend was in a mission in which he wasn’t allowed to talk to a woman on the phone… at all, ever. This is ludicrous. Wait, I feel a post coming on…

    Comment by Rusty — September 29, 2005 @ 3:18 pm

  31. All right. I didn’t want to have to discuss the whole “is breaking a mission rule a sin or not.” I still believe it is not in the classic sense.
    Geoff, a non-member drinking a beer is still sinning, only to a lesser degree. It falls under the “greater light, greater condemnation” thing.
    Kim, sex is not a sin but fornication is. Fornication is sex outside of marriage.
    Another example, if a student at BYU grows a beard over the weekend (thus violating the honor code) is it a sin? Even if there is a student at U of U, who serves in the bishopric, and happens to have a bit of facial hair. IT IS NOT A SIN. I guess the nature of sin should be its own post.
    Many of you argue this point to then discredit the entire theme of the post, which I guess is a valid thing to do.
    BTW, Geoff, you just proved my point. Work and obedience goes hand in hand. But like I’ve said–THIS IS NEVER TAUGHT! What is taught is, “Obey every rule, call those that aren’t obedient to repentance, then you will have the spirit, and you will be successful.” They never say how mch work it truly is or exactly what the most effective way to work is. Those who adhere to the manuals and ,the manuals only, are WRONG. Manuals do not govern this Church–the Spirit does. Again, I only want to change the rhetoric.

    Comment by Tim Jacob — September 29, 2005 @ 3:34 pm

  32. This is part of a debate that will never end between the “free agency and how to enforce it” BY wing of the church and the “we teach them correct principles and they govern themselves” JS wing. It’s part of the war in heaven that continues here.

    I’ll pick JS over BY any day of the week.

    Does BYU still keep a plaque of that famous JS quote in a dark hall in the basement of the admin building? That said it all about the place when I attended there.

    Comment by Steve EM — September 29, 2005 @ 4:18 pm

  33. Geoff, a non-member drinking a beer is still sinning, only to a lesser degree.

    Wha… !!?? (Please tell me you are joking)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 29, 2005 @ 4:35 pm

  34. “Kim, sex is not a sin but fornication is. Fornication is sex outside of marriage.”

    Which is precisely what I said.

    Comment by Kim Siever — September 29, 2005 @ 4:51 pm

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