Is John Dehlin like unto King Saul?: Reflections on orthodoxy and dissent
by Nick Galieti
“The worth of souls is great in the sight of God (D&C 18:10).”
Greatness is woven through the DNA of every soul that qualifies for a place in mortality. While some individuals challenge this notion from time to time, seeing that every soul is of great worth is one of those eternal truths that occasionally slips our minds. This is especially true when it comes to good examples of bad examples. Examples of these types of individuals found in the scriptures can be people like Laman and Lemuel, and to a certain extent, Jonah; men who’s fates are ambiguous but most likely fell short of their divine appraisal.
Another example can be that of King Saul in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 8-15). A man anointed to be king over the covenant people of the Lord. His was a position and power quite unlike anything we read in the proceeding record. While not the spiritual leader of the people, he was considered by the people to be someone who “may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” Prior to coming to his position of influence over the people, the Lord had given Saul “another heart” signifying a covenant relationship, a spiritual rebirth or sorts. While starting out showing signs of a man with promise, a man who was dedicated to completing the tasks given him with full obedience, as power and influence came to him Saul lost that willingness and replaced it, with incomplete and selfish devotion.
While not a prophet, Saul took upon himself the role of a prophet by re-interpreting his role and adding unto it; he went beyond the mark (Jacob 4:14). In one such example in 1 Samuel 13, there came some Philistines that began to make preparations for war against Saul’s people, the people of Israel. At some point prior to this, Samuel the prophet had given Saul some instruction to meet him at Gilgal in seven days. When the time for Samuel’s arrival didn’t come, Saul decided to take upon himself the mantle of prophet and offered sacrifice—under the assumption that this was presumed to be a righteous act—a sacrifice meant as a peace offering for the sake of his people.
As soon as Saul had done this, Samuel did arrive, and corrected Saul for his misstep, “Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God, which he commanded thee.” To assume that the power and order of God was something man could control or manipulate, even a powerful king, is a misunderstanding of the way God operates. This also showed Saul’s impatience, which can also be interpreted as a lack of faith in the Lord and in His timing. Additionally, it would seem that there was an element of societal pressure when in 1 Samuel 13:7 it reads, “As for Saul, he was yet in Gilgal, and all the people followed him trembling.”
On the surface it would seem that Saul was a well intentioned leader—and he may well have been at one point. All combined, Saul’s mistakes included not trusting in the Lord, or his servants, making a mockery of sacred rites and rituals, and for basing decisions on the popular mindset of their time as opposed to the counsel of a prophet.
If this example from the scriptures were not enough to fill out a full character analysis of Saul, a further test was laid out from Samuel to Saul, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (1 Samuel 15:3)
While I am not fully able to comment on the cultural response someone in Saul’s day would have given to such a directive, a modern reading gives me pause. Does this sound like a Christ-like commandment from the Lord’s prophet? In some ways the directive doesn’t seem to fit the type of thinking that would take place today—or even if it was given today, it would be highly unpopular. However, to Saul’s credit, he accepts the charge and moves forward.
By this time, Saul has been given multiple opportunities to show the Lord and the prophet Samuel that Saul is the king he was anointed to be, and can fill the measure of his opportunity for good in the world. With this task, he was given yet another chance. While a seemingly strange task to a modern reading, Saul ventured forth to fulfill the directive to kill everything, including animals, women and children. While some may postulate on the reasoning for such a directive it would all be for opinion as no such reasoning is made clear. And if there is injustice in such an act, the Lord is full capable of making restitution in the hereafter.
Saul, again using what sounds like a well intentioned rationale in some regards reserved, “the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.” (1 Samuel 15:9) In explaining his plausible reasoning for retaining animals he was otherwise instructed to destroy Saul stated “I have performed the commandment of the Lord. Saul said, They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.” (1 Samuel 13,15:15) Upon first look it would seem that Saul may have been well intentioned. However, this was not Saul’s first lesson in obedience.
When Samuel the prophet further inquired into the actions of King Saul, other narratives were offered by Saul all designed to shelter him from the responsibility that he was anointed, “And Saul said unto Samuel…the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God in Gilgal.” In one manner of speaking, it became the people’s fault, not Saul.
Regardless of the excuse, or the discourse Saul hoped Samuel would follow, Samuel knew the voice of the Lord on the matter, and gave the well known counsel, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king.” (1 Samuel 15:22-23)
It would seem from the record that Saul fell prey to several temptations during his time as king. Pride, peer or social pressure, and to a certain extent, Saul forgot the Lord and how he operates. Samuel reminded Saul of this by saying, “When thou wast little in thine own sight, wast thou not made the head of the tribes of Israel, and the Lord anointed thee king over Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17) When he became big in his own sight, Saul lost all he had been given. What changed was that Saul went from a person who loved orthodoxy, to a person that spent more effort dissenting from that which he was commanded to do.
Is John Dehlin like unto King Saul?
The question can be asked, but not answered with an unalterable yes or no. While many similarities exist between John Dehlin and King Saul, John’s future is his to write. Brother Dehlin’s soul is great in the sight of God. As a public figure, a podcast host, and a blogger, John Dehlin has publicly taken what is otherwise a faith crisis, and moved into producing material that is a steady stream of criticisms of the Church and the leaders. He has been successful at gathering a group of followers/listeners that have turned more to John Dehlin for answers, than Church leaders. While some may see this as a problem, others do. In comparison to King Saul, John Dehlin is also great in his own sight. While John Dehlin’s efforts started out as a way for people who struggle with faith, or to find answers to certain elements of the LDS Church and the acts of its leadership, his works have turned into a misguided effort that causes destruction of faith, and allegiances to the wrong king. It is one thing to have questions, and to seek for answers to those questions; it is another thing entirely to promote doubt–a conscious decision to recognize a conclusion and disagree with said conclusion with the intent of proving that conclusion wrong. A cursory study of John Dehlin’s public discourse shows more honor for discord than harmony with gospel teachings. And more interest in pursuing the proof of his gospel rather than the one revealed by prophets.
While people make petitions and cry out to local leaders to allow John to stay LDS (an irony given the fact that one John Dehlin’s websites operates under that name—staylds—yet he now finds himself almost unable to remain so himself) the one thing that remains equal between Saul of old, and the public declarations of John Dehlin himself, is an ownership of all that is good within their own eyes, and condemnation, or disassociation with all that comes of the Lord and His servants. John Dehlin’s bishop and stake president are no more at fault for John’s disobedience than were the lambs, and the sheep, and the oxen, that Saul did not slaughter resulting in his disobedience. Yet, in all of this, these are they ones being sacrificed on the altar of public opinion, not those who must take ownership for the things they have said and how they have acted accordingly.
Excommunication is not a forgone conclusion when one is summoned to a disciplinary counsel. Nor is necessarily a permanent condition. It was never meant to be such, but rather a step in repentant progression. But when one considers the growing effort by John and by others who support him to disparage the faith that he claims to want to be a part of, one has to wonder, to what end is there a benefit or injury for continuing the charade? How can one reconcile the continual insults of church leaders and open disassociation with church teachings, yet make a public case for staying a member of such an organization? How does that benefit John, and how would it benefit the church?
John Dehlin is a PhD candidate studying Clinical and Counseling Psychology at Utah State University. As such, it is safe to assume through his course study, and in consideration of some of the assertions made on his various public outlets, that he is aware of issues surrounding abuse, both verbal, sexual, emotional, etc. Given the history of behavior over the course of the last 8 years John Dehlin has continually entered into attacks on the LDS Church, its leaders, sweeping generalizations about its members, and its teachings; in short, everything that makes up the identities and teachings of the LDS Church; only to follow those attacks by stating how he loves the faith, and owes much of his identity to the church and its culture–a simple analysis could help to make sense of the apparent contradictions.
As a student of psychology and clinical counseling practices, as John claims to be, if one was to hear such duplicitous language, the almost inevitable diagnosis would be that if John Dehlin were a spouse and the church were the other spouse, John would be guilty of emotional spousal abuse.
As did King Saul, John now faces his spiritual authority to answer for his choices. The great potential with which both men stood to inherit has been smothered by the pride and power of their positions, and made worse by a desire to follow the dictates of their own gospel, rather than the standards and counsel of the Lord and his Servants. When a person enters into a covenant with the Lord, particularly the Oath and Covenant of the Melchizedek Priesthood, one must receive the Lord’s servants in order to receive the Lord’s power and blessings. When one ventures to reject the Lord’s servants (as John has done publicly several times) then one in turn rejects the Lord. Even as John has done this unto one of the least of these brethren, he has done it unto the Lord.
Is John like King Saul, that is still up to John to decide. However, going on national/international news outlets to insult the church, belittle the leaders, and to state your continual displeasure and lack of belief in the church’s teachings, only to then turn around and say you love it and don’t want to leave it, is similar to the act of either a delusional individual, a schizophrenic, or an emotionally abusive person who deserves very little pity.
There is no room for triumphant celebration by faithful members who have disagreed with John Dehlin (as such behavior would be easily judged to be as un-Christlike and hypocritical). However, after years of taking the emotional abuse, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has finally had it and is filing for divorce. With God as the Judge, the dissolution of the bride from the bridegroom is still to be determined.