Command Responsibility

Mountain Meadows Massacre Memorial. Some 120 members of the Baker–Fancher emigrant wagon train were murdered near this location on September 11, 1857.

The US military has a principle called command responsibility, such that a leader is responsible for the actions of subordinates up to and including war crimes. There are varying circumstances such as:

  1.  Did the leader knowingly fail to prevent or punish subordinates for their unlawful actions?
  2. Should the leader have known of his subordinates unlawful actions, regardless?


In The Art of War, written during the sixth century BC, Sun Tzu argued that a commander’s duty was to ensure that his subordinates conducted themselves in a civilised manner during an armed conflict.

Similarly, in the Bible (Kings 1: Chapter 21) is the story of Ahab and the killing of Naboth. Naboth was a citizen of Jezreel who was executed by Queen Jezebel so that her husband Ahab could possess his vineyard. King Ahab was blamed for the killing of Naboth, because Ahab (as king) was responsible for everyone in his kingdom including Queen Jezebel. As punishment for this incident, the prophet Elijah visited Ahab and prophesised his death and the extermination of the Omride line. Elijah also foretold the death of Jezebel.

Charles VII of France issued the Ordinance of Orleans in 1439 which imposed blanket responsibility on commanders for all unlawful acts of their subordinates, without requiring any standard of knowledge.


U.S. President Abraham Lincoln issued “General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field,” on April 24, 1863. This is commonly known as the “Lieber Code” after its main author Francis (Franz) Lieber. The Lieber Code set out rules of conduct during hostilities for Union soldiers throughout the U.S. Civil War. The main sections concerned martial law, military jurisdiction, and the treatment of spies, deserters, and prisoners of war. The document insisted upon the humane, ethical treatment of populations in occupied areas.  This code eventually led to conventions that leaders could be held accountable for subordinates’ war crimes.


General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the commanding general of the Fourteenth Army Group of the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippine Islands during World War II. He was charged by an American military tribunal with violating the laws of war. The charge stated that Yamashita, “While commander of armed forces of Japan at war with the United States of America and its allies, unlawfully disregarded and failed to discharge his duty as commander to control the operations of the members of his command, permitting them to commit brutal atrocities and other high crimes against people of the Philippines.” These atrocities included the Manila massacre where 100,000 civilians were killed. The Japanese forced Filipino women and children to be used as human shields into the front lines to protect Japanese positions. Those who survived were then murdered by the Japanese.

The defense acknowledged that atrocities had been committed but contended that the breakdown of communications and the Japanese chain of command in the chaotic battle of the second Philippines campaign was such that Yamashita could not have controlled his troops even if he had known of their actions, which was not certain in any case

The tribunal found Yamashita guilty, and he was sentenced to death and executed by hanging in 1946. 


Do the Brethren bear any responsibility for either the actions or misdeeds of local priesthood leaders as they perform their church callings? The practical answer is “No.” The Brethren claim that they are only accountable to God and not to man. Any member who criticize a leader, even though the criticism is true, has the spirit of the devil according to President Oaks. See: Criticism.

Higher leaders often give faith-promoting stories in church meetings explaining how they received divine inspiration to call a certain man into a leadership position. What then when the lower leader exercises “unrighteous dominion” over members?

Does the stern counsel given to such traumatized members to forgive their leaders effectively abrogate the responsibility of the leaders to apologize and make amends?


President Brigham Young and Apostle George A. Smith were never held accountable for the Mountain Meadows Massacre even though their inflammatory speeches beforehand may have contributed to the tragedy. Young may have also concealed evidence after the fact.

President Gordon B. Hinckley firmly denied that the LDS Church had “any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful and tragic day” referring to the massacre in a monument dedication ceremony in 1999. Reference


Doctrine and Covenants 121

34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?

35 Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—

36 That 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.

37 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.

38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

43 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;

44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; 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.

46 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.

Eli (1 Samuel 1:28)

Eli was the High Priest of Shiloh and also a Judge of Israel.  He was also the “Prophet.”

Eli faithfully served as a father figure to Samuel. He also had the wisdom and inspiration to realize that Samuel should be the next high priest, rather than one of Eli’s own sons.

Eli was a righteous man but had a tragic flaw. His sons Hophni and Phinehas behaved wickedly by taking for themselves all the prime cuts of meat from sacrifices, and by committing adultery with the women who served at the sanctuary entrance.

Eli became aware of their behavior but rebuked them too lightly and ultimately did not stop them.

Eli’s sons continued their sinful behavior. Samuel prophesied that Eli and his family would be punished for this, with all male descendants dying before reaching old age and being placed in positions subservient to prophets from other lineages. Eli’s sons were ultimately killed in battle against the Philistines. The Philistines also captured the Ark of the Covenant. Eli fell backwards out of his chair and died from a broken neck upon learning of this awful news.

There are several lessons from Eli’s tragic life. Among others, it is a calamitous example of a leader’s failure to stop sexual abuse committed by those who serve under him.

“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9


– Tom Irvine

3 responses

  1. […] any past or present Church leaders bear any Command Responsibility for the […]


  2. […] higher LDS priesthood leader bear any Command Responsibility when lower leaders under their authority commit sexual abuse or other forms of unrighteous […]


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