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The Seductive Deception of “Informed Consent”

In demanding activities we don’t always know exactly what we’re getting into. Thank goodness.

We recently read a social media post about informed consent from a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She shared her concerns about the commitments that members make when they are baptized into the Church. As part of her post, she attached a lengthy online letter that outlines reasons why some people stop believing in the Church. The former member’s stated intention for posting? To publicly help current and potential church members to better understand a variety of issues, issues that this former member doesn’t feel that the Church has been historically transparent about. Said differently, this former member was expressing the truth as she perceives it. And, she seemed to have a sincere desire to help others make better, more informed decisions. 

On the surface, that seems fair: when it comes to relationships, whether it’s with other people, or with products/services, or the government, or with institutions like the Church, most people agree that informed consent is healthy and good. In theory, when honest and upright people invite others to join in important undertakings, they should be as open and transparent as possible. But in practice, there are many areas of human experience where informed consent is not a realistically attainable ideal.

Consider, for example, the following stories of disillusionment:

My Friend Died After Working in Investment Banking

In ‘Drop Out Club,’ Desperate Doctors Counsel Each Other on Quitting the Field

Why You Need to Leave Academia, The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind

How I Left the Social Justice Cult

I Hope the Military Doesn’t Change my Brother Like it Did Me

Each of these stories contains common threads.  High-demand systems like investment banking, academia, medicine, activism, and military service all produce stories of profound disillusionment where former adherents describe a sense of not ever having really known what they were getting into.  Some look back with appreciation upon the good things they learned in these systems, while others carry resentment so deep that they wish they had never been involved with these systems in any way.

Yet for each of these stories, there are plenty of stories that reflect the opposite view; many people thrive in these systems despite the struggles and the intense demands.  Many people understand that they entered these systems with very limited knowledge of the demands they would be facing, and limited knowledge of problems and challenges in the institutions to which they would devote so much of their time and energy.  And despite these limitations in their knowledge, and despite having to painfully recalibrate assumptions and expectations on a regular basis, these people have adapted and have found in these systems the means for living a vibrant and healthy life.

It is good to have realistic expectations when it comes to seeking detailed information to inform good decisions.

It is important to note that there are two contexts—schooling and marriage—where societies actively encourage and even require participation in systems based upon very limited information.  Public schooling, in particular, is considered by many to be an extremely valuable system, yet many emerge from the public schooling experience traumatized due to bullying, personal failures to meet expectations, or a number of other adverse experiences.  The commitment of marriage is widely considered a foundational social good, yet it is also the source of painfully shattered expectations for most people who take their legally binding marital vows.  Neither of these systems is based on fully informed consent because that is not a realistic standard.

It is good to have realistic expectations when it comes to seeking detailed information to inform good decisions. In many situations, it can be extremely difficult to draw a healthy balance and share the right amount of information, in the right way, and at the right time. This is due to the many complex variables at play. That is why, when it comes to important decisions, we often depend on things like intuition, faith, hope, and trust when navigating the often murky waters of decisions. For example, when we go on a first date, do we share everything about ourselves? Or, do we keep it lighthearted and fun, and try to advertise the best things about us? When we walk into a gym to sign a membership contract, does the sales manager disclose all of the negative feedback people have left in the suggestion box?

Instead of seeing informed consent as a prerequisite to any relationship, it is a realistic and healthy approach to view it as a destination or an ideal, something toward which we are working. To expect full disclosure in every situation isn’t rational, or charitable, or even healthy as it would preclude some of life’s most valuable experiences. Of course, certain experiences and relationships merit more disclosure than others, but oftentimes full disclosure isn’t necessary for our commitments to be healthy and productive.

So, when is it a good thing to insist upon full disclosure? In the case of marriage, where we are devoting ourselves to another person for the rest of our lives, we need to be given enough pertinent details before consenting. But what information is considered pertinent? That is one of the many variables that needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Before accepting a marriage proposal, do we need to know the full medical history of our fiancée’s biological parents? How about any current or past addictive behaviors? Number of previous partners? High school GPA? Any debt or savings? A history of mental health or anger issues?

When it comes to marriage, is it “buyer beware” or simply “follow your heart”? Or is the ideal somewhere in between? If we demand that every potential spouse provide a comprehensive disclosure about every negative life detail, we may never find someone to be with. On the other hand, if we don’t seek or expect pertinent information while dating, we may get stuck in a very unhealthy relationship.

Now let’s return to where we started, to that former member’s concern about the Church and what she perceives to be a lack of transparency. What information needs to be disclosed before someone chooses to be baptized? In the Christian tradition, joining a church is sometimes portrayed as a marriage. In the Bible, the husband (or bridegroom) represents Christ, and the bride represents the members. In Christianity, baptism is meant to symbolize the start of a loving, eternal relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. 

Like a real marriage, shouldn’t a potential convert be given all of the most critical information? Probably, but let’s take a closer look at how Christ himself behaved:

Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets; and He called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed Him (Matt 4: 18-22 NASB).

These faithful men dropped everything and pursued a life-altering journey. They followed a stranger and were asked to trust completely. They had no idea what was in store for them. All of the work, all of the sacrifice, all of the suffering, all of the walking on dusty trails. Were they deceived? How did they feel about not having a complete picture from the beginning? Most of the disciples seemed pleased with the way that Jesus called and led them. At least one did not.

God instructs and guides us in simple ways. He asks us to believe and follow. He asks us to trust Him, without giving us a lengthy disclosure form or a contract that contains every detail. God’s approach doesn’t sound like the kind of informed consent that is expected in 21st-century marriage. It sounds very different—like God doesn’t believe in or practice informed consent, at least when it comes to discipleship. Why? Because God is worthy of our trust.

In our faith, we believe in contractual relationships that we call covenants. When we receive ordinances like baptism, we make promises with God and He in return makes promises with us. These are very simple promises, and when children or adult converts choose to be baptized, they consent (or covenant) to do some very simple things, such as believing in and following Jesus, keeping the commandments, and loving others.

So, while our leaders and missionaries could definitely be more open and humble about difficult issues in our past and present-day church, we should remember to whom we are offering consent (i.e. making covenants). Our covenants are with Christ, not with church leaders, not with church doctrine, and not with the Church itself. The Church should be viewed as a vehicle or a tool to assist us in our covenant worship, not the object of our worship.

How does God ask us to build our relationships with Him? Instead of informed consent, He offers a very simple solution: Faith.

How does God ask us to build our relationships with Him? Instead of informed consent, He offers a very simple solution: Faith.  The fruits of this process are happy participation in a thriving community where members are constantly developing in their love for God and for each other.  And just like other commitments we make in life, the greatest experiences are available to us as we act upon limited information.

We believe and we follow without knowing everything. We learn to be comfortable with uncertainty and learn to spiritually sense our way forward. We’re patient with the limitations and temporary purposes of the Church. At the end of the day, we trust God and His ability to guide us safely home.

About the authors

Leo Winegar

Leo Winegar is the founder of the Uplift Community of Faith. He specializes in helping individuals navigate faith crises.

Dan Ellsworth

Dan Ellsworth is a consultant in Charlottesville, VA, and host of the YouTube channel Latter-day Presentations.
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