Figuring out free agency
At a recent conference in our stake, Elder Bednar spoke of his time as president of BYU-Idaho. From time to time, students would complain that honor code restrictions somehow limited their free agency.
"Why can't I choose for myself?" they would ask. "Aren't we free agents?"
His answer was to compare them to "free agents" in the world of professional sports. When a star player's original contract expires, his services are "up for grabs." But once he signs with a new team, he no longer has the option of showing up in a different uniform, playing for another team.
"You were a free agent, but now you've chosen to sign with BYU-Idaho," he'd say (though I'm paraphrasing). "As long as you're here, you live by the team rules."
This can also apply to our lives in the Church. When we're baptized, we've signed with a team. While we're on that team, we're expected to live by certain rules. We don't have to keep deciding every week which church we're going to go to, which callings we're going to fulfil, which commandments we're going to obey.
The topic came up again this week in priesthood meeting. Someone in the quorum compared our being a "covenant people" to real estate covenants. "They already exist. By buying a house in the neighborhood, you're signing on to the neighborhood covenants. If you sell your house, the covenants continue without you."
Signing with a sports team, accepting admission to a university, and, yes, joining the Church, you are adding yourself to a set of rules, covenants, and obligations that already existed before you signed up. You promise to behave the way that members of the group are already behaving.
It's all so simple and clear. Except that there's one thing you can count on in the Church: If an idea can be misunderstood, somebody will misunderstand it.
In the few weeks since Elder Bednar's visit, I have already heard the following statement more than once: "Once you join the Church, you're no longer a free agent."
Now, that's true of professional sports, but it is not true and will never be true of the Church of Jesus Christ -- not if by "no longer a free agent" you're implying that you no longer have your God-given free agency.
Let's keep in mind that "free agent" is a specialized term in professional sports. That's because each of the major leagues is a monopoly or cartel, in which all the teams have agreed that during the duration of any player's contract, the other teams will not bid for his services or attempt to lure him away.
Even if the player wants to change teams, he can't do it. The other teams will refuse to hire him until his preexisting contract expires. The best he can hope for is to ask his team to trade him and then hope they'll send him somewhere that he likes -- where he will continue to play out his contract, but with a different team.
Only when his contract expires does he become a "free agent," able to entertain offers from any team.
The Kingdom of God and the World of Men have no such agreement and form no such cartel. All human beings are permanent free agents. Both teams are constantly poaching each other's players.
We Mormons send out many of our "poachers" two by two, wearing ties and name tags. They offer everyone they meet a chance to change teams.
Meanwhile, almost every television program, website, radio show, book, college class, store display, workplace, and social group outside the Church will offer us, one way or another, many an enticement to switch away from Team Mormon to play for the other side -- at least for a few minutes.
Joining the Church doesn't stop those enticements; if you decide to hop the fence and hang out with Team Satan for a little while, your fellow Saints may try to persuade you to come back, but nothing stops you from exercising your free agency to choose.
Here's the point that Elder Bednar was making: Yes, you have your free agency to do whatever you want that is within your power. But if you make certain choices, like failing to live up to promises you made to God, you cannot then evade the consequences.
When you make a choice, you have chosen all the consequences, even if you later decide that you don't like them after all.
You can avoid some of the eternal consequences of sin through the grace of Christ -- but even then, you can only receive his infinite gift if you conform yourself to his requirements: "Go and sin no more."
Elder Bednar's analogy with professional sports is designed to help us understand that we cannot remain a member of the Lord's team unless we keep the covenants we freely entered into.
But his analogy is not to be understood as applying to theological free agency. When we sign up with the Lord, we have not lost even the tiniest speck of our free agency. We remain free agents as long as our mortal life persists.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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