Unrighteous Dominion
by Elder H. Burke Peterson
from an article titled “Unrighteous Dominion,”
Ensign, July 1989


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.

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.

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 to one who reminds her continually of her failings, letting her know she is not living up to his expectations.”
One sister underscored 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. Perhaps they are sports enthusiasts, TV-watchers, or non-communicators. 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.

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.

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 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 men. 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 gospel which declares that men are superior to women. 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. 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.” (Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., comp. Bruce R. McConkie, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-56, 3:178; italics in original.)
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 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.

Paul has counseled,
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Eph. 5:25)
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. Authority in the priesthood comes by the laying on of hands by one having the proper authority. However, power in the priesthood comes only through righteous living.
“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.

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.

• 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 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, 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:
“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. 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.

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.

Another misunderstood and misused scripture is:
“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.

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.

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!

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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