Weightier Matters

By Elder Dallin H. Oaks

Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

From a devotional address given at Brigham Young University on 9 February 1999.

Diversity and choice are not the weightier matters of the law. The weightier matters are love of God, obedience

to His commandments, and unity in accomplishing the work of His Church.

Dallin H. Oaks, "Weightier Matters," Ensign, Jan. 2001, 13

The book of Matthew contains the Savior’s denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees: "Ye pay tithe of

mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith:

these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone" (Matt. 23:23; emphasis added).

I wish to address some "weightier matters" we might overlook if we allow ourselves to focus exclusively on

lesser matters. The weightier matters to which I refer are the qualities like faith and the love of God and His

work that will move us strongly toward our eternal goals.

In speaking of weightier matters, I seek to contrast our ultimate goals in eternity with the mortal methods

or short-term objectives we use to pursue them. The Apostle Paul described the difference between earthly

perspectives and eternal ones in these words: "We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things

which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal"

(2 Cor. 4:18).

If we concentrate too intently on our obvious earthly methods or objectives, we can lose sight of our

eternal goals, which the Apostle called "things … not seen." If we do this, we can forget where we should

be headed and in eternal terms go nowhere. We do not improve our position in eternity just by flying

farther and faster in mortality, but only by moving knowledgeably in the right direction. As the Lord told

us in modern revelation, "That which the Spirit testifies unto you … ye should do in all holiness of heart,

walking uprightly before me, considering the end of your salvation" (D&C 46:7; emphasis added).

We must not confuse means and ends. The vehicle is not the destination. If we lose sight of our eternal

goals, we might think that the most important thing is how fast we are moving and that any road will get us

to our destination. The Apostle Paul described this attitude as "hav[ing] a zeal of God, but not according to

knowledge" (Rom. 10:2). Zeal is a method, not a goal. Zeal–even a zeal toward God–needs to be

"according to knowledge" of God’s commandments and His plan for His children. In other words, the

weightier matter of the eternal goal must not be displaced by the mortal method, however excellent in itself.

Thus far I have spoken in generalities. Now I will give three examples.

Family

All Latter-day Saints understand that having an eternal family is an eternal goal. Exaltation is a family

matter, not possible outside the everlasting covenant of marriage, which makes possible the perpetuation of

glorious family relationships. But this does not mean that everything related to mortal families is an eternal

goal. There are many short-term objectives associated with families–such as family togetherness or family

solidarity or love–that are methods, not the eternal goals we pursue in priority above all others. For

example, family solidarity to conduct an evil enterprise is obviously no virtue. Neither is family solidarity

to conceal and perpetuate some evil practice like abuse.

The purpose of mortal families is to bring children into the world, to teach them what is right, and to

prepare all family members for exaltation in eternal family relationships. The gospel plan contemplates the

kind of family government, discipline, solidarity, and love that serve those ultimate goals. But even the love

of family members is subject to the overriding first commandment, which is love of God (see Matt.

22:37-38), and the Savior’s directive, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). As Jesus

taught, "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or

daughter more than me is not worthy of me" (Matt. 10:37).

Choice, or Agency

My next example in this message on weightier matters is the role of choice, or agency.

Few concepts have more potential to mislead us than the idea that choice, or agency, is an ultimate goal.

For Latter-day Saints, this potential confusion is partly a product of the fact that moral agency–the right

to choose–is a fundamental condition of mortal life. Without this precious gift of God, the purpose of

mortal life could not be realized. To secure our agency in mortality we fought a mighty contest the book of

Revelation calls a "war in heaven." This premortal contest ended with the devil and his angels being cast

out of heaven and being denied the opportunity of having a body in mortal life (see Rev. 12:7-9).

But our war to secure agency was won. The test in this postwar mortal estate is not to secure choice but to

use it–to choose good instead of evil so that we can achieve our eternal goals. In mortality, choice is a

method, not a goal.

Of course, mortals must still resolve many questions concerning what restrictions or consequences should

be placed upon choices. But those questions come under the heading of freedom, not agency. Many do not

understand that important fact. We are responsible to use our agency in a world of choices. It will not do to

pretend that our agency has been taken away when we are not free to exercise it without unwelcome

consequences.

Because choice is a method, choices can be exercised either way on any matter, and our choices can serve

any goal. Therefore, those who consider freedom of choice as a goal can easily slip into the position of

trying to justify any choice that is made. "Choice" can even become a slogan to justify one particular

choice. For example, today one who says "I am pro-choice" is clearly understood as opposing any legal

restrictions upon a woman’s choice to abort a fetus.

More than 30 years ago, as a young law professor, I published one of the earliest articles on the legal

consequences of abortion. Since that time I have been a knowledgeable observer of the national debate and

the unfortunate Supreme Court decisions on the so-called "right to abortion." I have been fascinated with

how cleverly those who sought and now defend legalized abortion on demand have moved the issue away

from a debate on the moral, ethical, and medical pros and cons of legal restrictions on abortion and focused

the debate on the slogan or issue of choice. The slogan or sound bite "pro-choice" has had an almost magical

effect in justifying abortion and in neutralizing opposition to it.

Pro-choice slogans have been particularly seductive to Latter-day Saints because we know that moral

agency, which can be described as the power of choice, is a fundamental necessity in the gospel plan. All

Latter-day Saints are pro-choice according to that theological definition. But being pro-choice on the need

for moral agency does not end the matter for us. Choice is a method, not the ultimate goal. We are

accountable for our choices, and only righteous choices will move us toward our eternal goals.

In this effort, Latter-day Saints follow the teachings of the prophets. On this subject our prophetic

guidance is clear. The Lord commanded, "Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it" (D&C 59:6).

The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Our members are taught that,

subject only to some very rare exceptions, they must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange

for an abortion. That direction tells us what we need to do on the weightier matters of the law, the choices

that will move us toward eternal life.

In today’s world we are not true to our teachings if we are merely pro-choice. We must stand up for the

right choice. Those who persist in refusing to think beyond slogans and sound bites like pro-choice wander

from the goals they pretend to espouse and wind up giving their support to results they might not support

if those results were presented without disguise.

For example, consider the uses some have made of the possible exceptions to our firm teachings against

abortion. Our leaders have taught that the only possible exceptions are when the pregnancy resulted from

rape or incest, or when a competent physician has determined that the life or health of the mother is in

serious jeopardy or that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.

But even these exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Because abortion is a most serious matter,

we are counseled that it should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their

bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer.

Some Latter-day Saints say they deplore abortion, but they give these exceptional circumstances as a basis

for their pro-choice position that the law should allow abortion on demand in all circumstances. Such

persons should face the reality that the circumstances described in these three exceptions are extremely

rare. For example, conception by incest or rape–the circumstance most commonly cited by those who use

exceptions to argue for abortion on demand–is involved in only a tiny minority of abortions. More than

95 percent of the millions of abortions performed each year extinguish the life of a fetus conceived by

consensual relations. Thus the effect in over 95 percent of abortions is not to vindicate choice but to avoid

its consequences. 1 Using arguments of "choice" to try to justify altering the consequences of choice is a

classic case of omitting what the Savior called "the weightier matters of the law."

A prominent basis for the secular or philosophical arguments for abortion on demand is the argument that a

woman should have control over her own body. Not long ago I received a letter from a thoughtful

Latter-day Saint outside the United States who analyzed that argument in secular terms. Since his analysis

reaches the same conclusion I have urged on religious grounds, I quote it here for the benefit of those most

subject to persuasion on this basis:

"Every woman has, within the limits of nature, the right to choose what will or will not happen to her

body. Every woman has, at the same time, the responsibility for the way she uses her body. If by her

choice she behaves in such a way that a human fetus is conceived, she has not only the right to but also the

responsibility for that fetus. If it is an unwanted pregnancy, she is not justified in ending it with the claim

that it interferes with her right to choose. She herself chose what would happen to her body by risking

pregnancy. She had her choice. If she has no better reason, her conscience should tell her that abortion

would be a highly irresponsible choice.

"What constitutes a good reason? Since a human fetus has intrinsic and infinite human value, the only good

reason for an abortion would be the violation or deprivation of or the threat to the woman’s right to choose

what will or will not happen to her body. Social, educational, financial, and personal considerations alone

do not outweigh the value of the life that is in the fetus. These considerations by themselves may properly

lead to the decision to place the baby for adoption after its birth, but not to end its existence in utero.

"The woman’s right to choose what will or will not happen to her body is obviously violated by rape or

incest. When conception results in such a case, the woman has the moral as well as the legal right to an

abortion because the condition of pregnancy is the result of someone else’s irresponsibility, not hers. She

does not have to take responsibility for it. To force her by law to carry the fetus to term would be a further

violation of her right. She also has the right to refuse an abortion. This would give her the right to the fetus

and also the responsibility for it. She could later relinquish this right and this responsibility through the

process of placing the baby for adoption after it is born. Whichever way is a responsible choice."

The man who wrote those words also applied the same reasoning to the other exceptions allowed by our

doctrine–life of the mother and a baby that will not survive birth.

I conclude this discussion of choice with two more short points.

If we say we are anti-abortion in our personal life but pro-choice in public policy, we are saying that we

will not use our influence to establish public policies that encourage righteous choices on matters God’s

servants have defined as serious sins. I urge Latter-day Saints who have taken that position to ask

themselves which other grievous sins should be decriminalized or smiled on by the law due to this theory

that persons should not be hampered in their choices. Should we decriminalize or lighten the legal

consequences of child abuse? of cruelty to animals? of pollution? of fraud? of fathers who choose to

abandon their families for greater freedom or convenience?

Similarly, some reach the pro-choice position by saying we should not legislate morality. Those who take

this position should realize that the law of crimes legislates nothing but morality. Should we repeal all laws

with a moral basis so that our government will not punish any choices some persons consider immoral?

Such an action would wipe out virtually all of the laws against crimes.

Diversity

My last illustration of the bad effects of confusing means and ends, methods and goals, concerns the word

diversity. Not many labels have been productive of more confused thinking in our time than this one. A

respected federal judge recently commented on current changes in culture and values by observing that "a

new credo in celebration of diversity seems to be emerging which proclaims, ‘Divided We Stand!’ " 2 Even

in religious terms, we sometimes hear the words "celebrate diversity" as if diversity were an ultimate goal.

The word diversity has legitimate uses to describe a condition, such as when one discusses "racial and

cultural diversity." Similarly, what we now call "diversity" appears in the scriptures as a condition. This is

evident wherever differences among the children of God are described, such as in the numerous scriptural

references to nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples.

Yet in the scriptures, the objectives we are taught to pursue on the way to our eternal goals are ideals like

love and obedience. These ideals do not accept us as we are but require each of us to make changes. Jesus

did not pray that His followers would be "diverse." He prayed that they would be "one" (John 17:21-22).

Modern revelation does not say, "Be diverse; and if ye are not diverse, ye are not mine." It says, "Be one;

and if ye are not one ye are not mine" (D&C 38:27).

Since diversity is a condition, a method, or a short-term objective–not an ultimate goal–whenever

diversity is urged it is appropriate to ask, "What kind of diversity?" or "Diversity in what circumstance or

condition?" or "Diversity in furtherance of what goal?" This is especially important in our policy debates,

which should be conducted not in terms of slogans but in terms of the goals we seek and the methods or

shorter-term objectives that will achieve them. Diversity for its own sake is meaningless and can clearly be

shown to lead to unacceptable results. For example, if diversity is the underlying goal for a neighborhood,

does this mean we should seek to assure that the neighborhood includes thieves and pedophiles,

slaughterhouses and water hazards? Diversity can be a good method to achieve some long-term goal, but

public policy discussions need to get beyond the slogan to identify the goal, to specify the proposed

diversity, and to explain how this kind of diversity will help to achieve the agreed-upon goal.

Our Church has an approach to the obvious cultural and ethnic diversities among our members. We teach

that what unites us is far more important than what differentiates us. Consequently, our members are asked

to concentrate their efforts to strengthen our unity–not to glorify our diversity. For example, our objective

is not to organize local wards and branches according to differences in culture or in ethnic or national

origins, although that effect is sometimes produced on a temporary basis when required because of language

barriers. Instead, we teach that members of majority groupings (whatever their nature) are responsible to

accept Church members of other groupings, providing full fellowship and full opportunities in Church

participation. We seek to establish a community of Saints–"one body," the Apostle Paul called it (1 Cor.

12:13)–where everyone feels needed and wanted and where all can pursue the eternal goals we share.

Consistent with the Savior’s command to "be one," we seek unity. On this subject President Gordon B.

Hinckley has taught:

"I remember when President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., as a counselor in the First Presidency, would stand at

this pulpit and plead for unity among the priesthood. I think he was not asking that we give up our

individual personalities and become as robots cast from a single mold. I am confident he was not asking that

we cease to think, to meditate, to ponder as individuals. I think he was telling us that if we are to assist in

moving forward the work of God, we must carry in our hearts a united conviction concerning the great basic

foundation stones of our faith. … If we are to assist in moving forward the work of God, we must carry in

our hearts a united conviction that the ordinances and covenants of this work are eternal and everlasting in

their consequences." 3

Anyone who preaches unity risks misunderstanding. The same is true of anyone who questions the goal of

diversity. Such a one risks being thought intolerant. But tolerance is not jeopardized by promoting unity or

by challenging diversity. Again, I quote President Hinckley: "Each of us is an individual. Each of us is

different. There must be respect for those differences." 4

On another occasion he said:

"We must work harder to build mutual respect, an attitude of forbearance, with tolerance one for another

regardless of the doctrines and philosophies which we may espouse. Concerning these you and I may

disagree. But we can do so with respect and civility." 5

President Hinckley continues:

"An article of the faith to which I subscribe states: ‘We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God

according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship

how, where, or what they may’ (A of F 1:11). I hope to find myself always on the side of those defending

this position. Our strength lies in our freedom to choose. There is strength even in our very diversity. But

there is greater strength in the God-given mandate to each of us to work for the uplift and blessing of all His

sons and daughters, regardless of their ethnic or national origin or other differences." 6

In short, we preach unity among the community of Saints and tolerance toward the personal differences

that are inevitable in the beliefs and conduct of a diverse population. Tolerance obviously requires a

noncontentious manner of relating toward one another’s differences. But tolerance does not require

abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of

reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.

Strong calls for diversity in the public sector sometimes have the effect of pressuring those holding

majority opinions to abandon fundamental values to accommodate the diverse positions of those in the

minority. Usually this does not substitute a minority value for a majority one. Rather, it seeks to achieve

"diversity" by abandoning the official value position altogether, so that no one’s value will be contradicted

by an official or semiofficial position. The result of this abandonment is not a diversity of values but an

official anarchy of values. I believe this is an example of former Brigham Young University visiting

professor Louis Pojman’s observation that diversity can be used as "a euphemism for moral relativism." 7

There are hundreds of examples of this, where achieving the goal of diversity results in the anarchy of

values we call moral relativism. These examples include such varied proposals as forbidding the public

schools to teach the wrongfulness of certain behavior or the rightness of patriotism. Another example is the

attempt to banish a representation of the Ten Commandments from any public buildings.

In a day when prominent thinkers have decried the fact that universities have stopped teaching right and

wrong, we are grateful for the countercultural position at Brigham Young University. Moral relativism,

which is said to be the dominant force in American universities, has no legitimate place at BYU. The

faculty teach values–the right and wrong taught in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In conclusion, diversity and choice are not the weightier matters of the law. The weightier matters that

move us toward our goal of eternal life are love of God, obedience to His commandments, and unity in

accomplishing the work of His Church. In this belief and practice we move against the powerful modern

tides running toward individualism and tolerance rather than toward obedience and cooperative action.

Though our belief and practice is unpopular, it is right, and it does not require the blind obedience or the

stifling uniformity its critics charge. If we are united on our eternal goal and united on the inspired

principles that will get us there, we can be diverse on individual efforts in support of our goals and

consistent with those principles.

We know that the work of God cannot be done without unity and cooperative action. We also know that

the children of God cannot be exalted as single individuals. Neither a man nor a woman can be exalted in the

celestial kingdom unless both unite in the unselfishness of the everlasting covenant of marriage and unless

both choose to keep the commandments and honor the covenants of that united state.

I testify of Jesus Christ, our Savior. As the One whose Atonement paid the incomprehensible price for our

sins, He is the One who can prescribe the conditions for our salvation. He has commanded us to keep His

commandments (see John 14:15) and to "be one" (D&C 38:27). I pray that we will make the wise choices

to keep the commandments and to seek the unity that will move us toward our ultimate goal, "eternal life,

which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God" (D&C 14:7).

Gospel topics: abortion, agency, family, goals, perspective, plan of salvation, tolerance, unity

© 2001 Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

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