Unrighteous Dominion

How to recognize—even within yourself—this grievous problem and how to overcome it.

The letters and phone calls the Brethren receive from faithful wives and children who are emotionally and physically abused in their own homes continue to multiply. Their cries for help are heartrending. Their pleas and prayers are never-ending. It is tragic that too often husbands and fathers, even those who hold the priesthood, conduct themselves in their own homes in ways that would be censured in any other social setting. Countless heartaches and misshaped lives result from this unrighteous behavior.

Exercising unrighteous dominion can follow many patterns. It may be relatively mild when expressed as criticism, anger, or feelings of severe frustration. In more extreme cases, however, unrighteous dominion may emerge as verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. Unfortunately, in its less obvious forms, unrighteous dominion is often either ignored or not recognized as such. This article is an attempt to help husbands and fathers and their families come to grips with this grievous and growing problem in our society. By acknowledging and setting right these less-obvious forms of unsuitable behavior, perhaps we may help prevent the more extreme behaviors that can grow out of them.

Of course, unrighteous dominion is not a challenge just for men. Anyone—man or woman—who in any way guides or directs others may be guilty of unrighteous dominion. Each woman and each man—whether married or single, a parent or not—would do well to learn and practice the principles here addressed. I hope that the following insights and suggestions might find root in the believing and willing heart of each reader who needs help.

Examples of Unrighteous Dominion

One wife relates, “I have a dear, good, very hardworking husband whose desire is to see that I lack none of the material things of life. In fact, he devotes all of his waking hours toward this goal. He stops only long enough to sleep and eat, and to attend church on Sunday.”

Between the lines we read that she would rather have fewer material things and more of her husband’s time and attention. Furthermore, in his strong desire to provide for his family and to achieve, this husband often falls into a pattern of demanding perfection from them, and when he does not feel this is attained, his expressions turn to criticism. The wife continues:

“Life can be such a lonely struggle for women in these situations, for if they go to others for help they are most often told to change their own attitudes, to love their companions more, and to be willing to compromise to get along. So she gives up her desires, hopes, and dreams—which would appear to fit easily within the framework of righteous living—to one who reminds her continually of her failings, letting her know she is not living up to his expectations. How can a woman feel she’ll ever become what our Heavenly Father expects of her when no matter how hard she tries, she never pleases her husband?”

Another sister called on the telephone. Her concern was that her husband regularly purchased pornographic magazines and that every night he watched explicit videos and movies and then made inappropriate and offensive demands of her. Despite this culpable behavior—kept secret from priesthood leaders until his wife’s anguished telephone call—this man had served as a temple worker.

One sister expressed a concern felt by many when she said, “[We] are greatly in need of the support, and, yes, the willingness of priesthood bearers in our homes to put aside their own special interests on occasion when we are so in need of their understanding.” She underscores the difficult situation of women who are married but are almost without husbands, of children who live with but are almost without fathers. These husbands and fathers have other priorities that they have placed ahead of their families. They claim to be too involved in business or everyday work. Perhaps they are sports enthusiasts, TV-watchers, or noncommunicators. They may even be those who are “diligent” Church workers, even leaders, who spend extended periods of time at church “doing the Lord’s work” to escape the problems and pressures of home life. This real-life example of unrighteous dominion underscores what President Kimball taught: “Men often give women inadequate respect. I sometimes think our own Latter-day Saint women are ‘needy’ just because some of us are not as thoughtful and considerate of them as we should be. Our pantries can be filled with food and yet our sisters can be starved for affection and recognition.” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 317.)

Another example of unrighteous dominion is when a father demands compliance with rules he has arbitrarily set. This is contrary to the spirit of gospel leadership. Indeed, a man can add a rich dimension to his leadership when he considers rules with his wife and children who, together with him, can set them in place.

Autocratic leadership is manifested in other ways. Family home evenings were discontinued in one family because members of the family became discouraged by the contention and anger that infected each meeting. The father, who may have been conscientious about his responsibility to help his family improve, unwisely used most of the time to find fault with family members and to draw their attention to things he felt they were doing wrong. There was little recognition for achievement or accomplishments. Even though he made some effort to praise the children, it was not enough to offset his negative criticism.

The Husband Presides in the Home

Speaking of priesthood leadership, Elder John A. Widtsoe said: “The Priesthood always presides and must, for the sake of order. The women of a congregation or auxiliary—many of them—may be wiser, far greater in mental powers, even greater in natural power of leadership than the men who preside over them. That signifies nothing. The Priesthood is not bestowed on the basis of mental power but is given to good men and they exercise it by right of divine gift, called upon by the leaders of the Church. Woman has her gift of equal magnitude, and that is bestowed on the simple and weak as well as upon those who are great and strong.” (Priesthood and Church Government, comp. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 90.)

President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that this relationship extends to the home. “There is nothing in the teachings of the gospel which declares that men are superior to women,” he said. “The Lord has given unto men the power of priesthood and sent them forth to labor in his service. The woman’s calling is in a different direction. The most noble, exalting calling of all is that which has been given to women as the mothers of men. Women do not hold the priesthood, but if they are faithful and true they will become priestesses and queens in the kingdom of God, and that implies that they will be given authority. The women do not hold the priesthood with their husbands, but they do reap the benefits coming from that priesthood.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 3:178; italics in original.)

The principles, however, that we are discussing apply as well to homes where the husband does not hold the priesthood. President Kimball explained: “The husband presides in marriage. In the beginning when God created man and the woman, he said to the woman, ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule [but I like the word preside] over thee.’ (Gen. 3:16.)” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 316.) In this regard, it is interesting to note the dedicatory inscription in President Kimball’s biography. It reads, “To Camilia Eyring Kimball, equal partner.” (See Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1977.)

In the order of heaven, the husband has the authority to preside in the home. That issue is not subject to review. How he presides, however, is subject to review, and to correction, if necessary.

Sometimes a husband may believe that his role as head of the house gives him a right to be exacting and to arbitrarily prescribe what his wife should do. But in a home established on a righteous foundation, the relationship of a man and a woman should be one of partnership. A husband should not make decrees. Rather, he should work with his wife until a joint decision palatable to both is developed.

A man needs to understand that his power to influence his wife or children for good can only come through love, praise, and patience. It can never be brought about by force or coercion.

Many women carry heavy burdens raising children and attending to household responsibilities. They often accomplish near-miracles in balancing all the demands made upon them. A husband who is critical of his wife and communicates censure for what hasn’t been done rather than thanks for what has been done fosters discouragement. But if he will give a word of praise or offer a little help, he will see his wife try ever harder to do her part. Criticism has a negative influence on the feelings of love for and interest in one’s spouse. Women need love, affection, and emotional support from their husbands.

Paul has counseled, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:25.) In commenting on this counsel, President Kimball provided this important insight:

“Can you think of how [Christ] loved the church? Its every breath was important to him. Its every growth, its every individual, was precious to him. He gave to those people all his energy, all his power, all his interest. He gave his life—and what more could one give? … When the husband is ready to treat his household in that manner, not only his wife but also his children will respond to his loving and exemplary leadership. It will be automatic. He won’t need to demand it. …

“Certainly if fathers are to be respected, they must merit respect: If they are to be loved, they must be consistent, lovable, understanding, and kind—and they must honor their priesthood.” (Men of Example, pamphlet, Salt Lake City: Church Educational System, 1973, p. 5.)

Authority and Power in the Priesthood

Some brethren do not understand that there is a marked difference between priesthood authority and priesthood power. The two terms are not necessarily synonymous. Authority in the priesthood comes by the laying on of hands by one having the proper authority. However, according to revelation from the Lord, power in the priesthood comes only through righteous living. In the scriptures we are told:

“The rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

“That they 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.” (D&C 121:36–37.)

This power from heaven is the power to bless, to strengthen, to heal, to comfort, to bring peace to a household. To lift and encourage is priesthood power. To those who learn how to develop this power will come the promises described in Doctrine and Covenants 132:20–21:

“Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.” [D&C 132:20–21]

Inherent in the “law” spoken of in these verses is the principle of righteous dominion. Consider the Lord’s description of a man of power as contained in Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–42. This description is directed specifically at the priesthood, but anyone in authority, particularly husbands and fathers, would do well to adopt these principles. [D&C 121:41–42]

The Man of Power is one who presides—

  • By persuasion. He uses no demeaning words or behavior, does not manipulate others, appeals to the best in everyone, and respects the dignity and agency of all humankind—men, women, boys, and girls.

  • By long-suffering. He waits when necessary and listens to the humblest or youngest person. He is tolerant of the ideas of others and avoids quick judgments and anger.

  • By gentleness. He uses a smile more often than a frown. He is not gruff or loud or frightening; he does not discipline in anger.

  • By meekness. He is not puffed up, does not dominate conversations, and is willing to conform his will to the will of God.

  • By love unfeigned. He does not pretend. He is sincere, giving honest love without reservation even when others are unlovable.

  • By kindness. He practices courtesy and thoughtfulness in little things as well as in the more obvious things.

  • By pure knowledge. He avoids half-truths and seeks to be empathetic.

  • Without hypocrisy. He practices the principles he teaches. He knows he is not always right and is willing to admit his mistakes and say “I’m sorry.”

  • Without guile. He is not sly or crafty in his dealings with others, but is honest and authentic when describing his feelings.

Misunderstood and Misused Scriptures

Too often, scriptural teachings are taken out of context by those who are guilty of unrighteous dominion. For example, consider Matthew 10:37: “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]

Some misguided fathers and mothers use this scripture as a rationalization for neglecting their families. Having misunderstood the concept, they use this counsel to justify spending exorbitant amounts of time in Church activity. In many cases, they do it primarily to receive the accolades and attention that come from excelling in Church callings. Responding to the needs of family members at home (which, at times, may conflict with Church responsibilities) is not likely to be noticed, much less bring praise from others.

Of course, bishops, stake presidents, and other leaders appreciate members who are willing to accept and carry out callings and assignments. This is as it should be. Unfortunately, some leaders make the mistake of expressing a certain amount of disdain for members who now and then take care of a family duty rather than attending a function or immediately fulfilling a particular assignment. Such leaders have too little trust in the members’ ability to wisely choose between two right actions. At times, these leaders wrongly make a member who has chosen to minister to his family’s urgent needs feel guilty. This is not as it should be.

Another misunderstood and misused scripture is Doctrine and Covenants 121:43, which reads, “Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.” [D&C 121:43]

Perhaps we should consider what it means to reprove with sharpness. Reproving with sharpness means reproving with clarity, with loving firmness, with serious intent. It does not mean reproving with sarcasm, or with bitterness, or with clenched teeth and raised voice. One who reproves as the Lord has directed deals in principles, not personalities. He does not attack character or demean an individual.

In almost every situation in which correction is required, private reproof is superior to public reproof. Unless the whole ward is in need of a reprimand, it is better for a bishop to speak to the individual rather than to use the collective approach. Similarly, a child or spouse has the right to be told privately of mistakes. Public correction is often cruel or, at the least, misguided.

Brigham Young gave us a key to making righteous reproof possible:

“If you are ever called to chasten a person, never chasten beyond the balm you have within you to bind up. … When you have the chastening rod in your hands, ask God to give you wisdom to use it, that you may not use it to the destruction of an individual, but to his salvation.” (In Journal of Discourses, 9:124–25.)

Each husband, each father, should ask some questions of himself to see if he may be on the borderline of unrighteous dominion:

  1. 1.

    Do I criticize family members more than I compliment them?

  2. 2.

    Do I insist that family members obey me because I am the father or husband and hold the priesthood?

  3. 3.

    Do I seek happiness more at work or somewhere other than in my home?

  4. 4.

    Do my children seem reluctant to talk to me about some of their feelings and concerns?

  5. 5.

    Do I attempt to guarantee my place of authority by physical discipline or punishment?

  6. 6.

    Do I find myself setting and enforcing numerous rules to control family members?

  7. 7.

    Do family members appear to be fearful of me?

  8. 8.

    Do I feel threatened by the notion of sharing with other family members the power and responsibility for decision making in the family?

  9. 9.

    Is my wife highly dependent on me and unable to make decisions for herself?

  10. 10.

    Does my wife complain that she has insufficient funds to manage the household because I control all the money?

  11. 11.

    Do I insist on being the main source of inspiration for each individual family member rather than teaching each child to listen to the Spirit?

  12. 12.

    Do I often feel angry and critical toward family members?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we may need to evaluate our relationship with our family members. For one who holds the priesthood, the best test as to whether he is trying to control the lives of family members can be found by examining his relationship with the Lord. If a man feels a reduction or withdrawal of the Holy Ghost (manifested by contention, disunity, or rebellion), he may know that he is exercising unrighteous dominion.

Unfortunately, too many men may be denied the blessings of heaven because they have failed to understand and heed the Lord’s counsel concerning unrighteous dominion. But to those of us who learn to discipline ourselves and to master the righteous use of authority and “who let virtue garnish [our] thoughts unceasingly,” the Lord has promised:

“Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

“The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:45–46.)

What a glorious day that will be!

[illustrations] Illustrated by G. Allen Garns