What Are “Fence Laws” and How Do They Relate To Your Faith?

About The Author

John Hilton III was born in San Francisco and grew up in Seattle. He served a mission in Denver, and got a Bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. While there he met his wife Lani and they have six children. They have lived in Boise, Boston, Miami, Mexico, Jerusalem and China. Currently, they live in Utah. John has a Masters degree from Harvard and a Ph.D from BYU, both in Education. John is a Professor of Religious Education at BYU. John has published several books with Deseret Book, and enjoys speaking with Especially for Youth, Education Week, and many other organizations. His education research has influenced policy both in the United States and internationally. John loves being with his family, doing humanitarian work, learning Chinese, and performing magic.

Note from Greg: The following guest post was written by John Hilton III, an Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University. He reached out to me based on a connection between my my book, The Cultural Evolution Inside of Mormonism, and his book, The Founder of our Peace. Both John and I welcome your comments on this post below. You can also contact John directly.

We live in the time foretold by the Lord when “peace shall be taken from the earth” (D&C 1:35). Today’s headlines trumpet that worry, stress, anxiety, and depression are all on the rise. As I write this post, many in the world are gripped with fear surrounding COVID-19. All of these difficulties may be common, but they are not new. The scriptures speak of those who were “depressed,” “greatly afraid,” “worried,” and experiencing “great anxiety.” We can take heart and learn from the principles that brought peace to our scriptural heroes and heroines.

I recently published a book called The Founder of our Peace, which offers Christ-centered patterns for easing the worry, stress and fear. This post draws on one chapter from that book to talk about an important approach to gaining peace.

Sometimes we struggle to feel peace when we’re trying to live the gospel. This is paradoxical, because living the gospel actually brings peace. But we can be tripped up by a proliferation of obligations that are not commandments but rather cultural traditions or good ideas that work for some people, but not for us.

As Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf has taught: “Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters … , diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation. And gradually, eternal principles can get lost within the labyrinth of ‘good ideas.’”

What might Elder Uchtdorf have meant by “well-meaning amplifications of divine principles”? How can these amplifications harm our personal peace? Do we inadvertently use them to harm the peace of others? Let’s use a parable to explore these questions.

The Parable of the Hole

Imagine you had a giant hole in your backyard that, no matter how hard you tried, you simply could not eliminate.

What might you do so that people could safely enjoy being in your backyard? You probably would build some type of fence around that hole to keep people from falling in.

In this analogy, the hole represents breaking a commandment, or sin, and the fence around it is a “fence law,” to protect us from sin. The phrase, “fence laws” is drawn from the Mishnah, a written collection of Jewish oral traditions. In one section of the Mishnah, readers are told that early Jewish leaders were told to “make a fence around the Law.” These leaders promoted the idea of creating a protective fence to keep people from getting anywhere close to breaking the law.

What are Fence Laws?

I use the term fence laws broadly to describe rules, practices, and guidelines that protect us from breaking core laws. Core laws include love of God and neighbor, the Ten Commandments, and commandments relating to our temple recommends. Fence laws can come from many sources, such as prophets, the Spirit, parents, teachers, or simply be traditions we’ve always done.

Fence laws can include both dos and don’ts: for example, “Don’t go to bars” (fence law to protect me from breaking the Word of Wisdom), or “Do write down a tender mercy each day” (fence law to help me love God with all my heart). Fence laws exist around many commandments and come from a variety of sources, including teachers, families, culture, prophets, and the Holy Ghost. Whether or not we realize it, we frequently interact with fence laws. Consider the following questions:

  • What movies are appropriate to watch on Sunday?
  • What type of swimwear is appropriate?
  • Is it appropriate to go for a drive through the mountains on Sunday? What about a boat ride?

Your reactions to these questions likely depend on what types of fence laws you have and how deeply you hold to them.

Consider a specific example: the Lord’s law of chastity forbids sexual relations with anybody other than your spouse. Because it is so sacred and the pull to break it is strong, we might adopt a variety of fence laws to help us keep this law. A mother could tell her children, “Never go into the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex.” An unmarried college student might pray and feel inspired to create a personal fence law, such as “Don’t kiss for more than three seconds.” A married couple might decide to avoid being alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse. Going into somebody’s bedroom, kissing for more than three seconds, or riding with a member of the opposite sex do not directly violate the law of chastity; rather, incorporating such personal standards can serve as a protection against breaking the law of chastity.

Fence laws can be extremely helpful. Prophetically inspired fence laws provide safety and protection from spiritual dangers we might not otherwise see. Personal fence laws, given by the Holy Ghost to individuals seeking personal inspiration, can fortify individuals in their weakest areas. We should follow prophetic or spiritually inspired protective fence laws because they help us avoid the pain and sorrow that inevitably come with breaking God’s commandments.

Although fence laws from prophets and the Spirit are beneficial, other types of fence laws, including cultural practices or personal rules unnecessarily imposed on others, can be problematic. Let’s explore four ways that needless fence laws can harm our peace and the peace of those we love. These are (1) feeling a heavy yoke, (2) missing the weightier matters, (3) judging others, and (4) teaching fences instead of the doctrine.

Fence Laws and Feeling a Heavy Yoke

During the time of Jesus Christ, one law the Pharisees emphasized was, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). They erected a series of fence laws around keeping the Sabbath. Over time, these fence laws became increasingly complicated, and because of these restrictions, Sabbath day observance, although meant to be a blessing of renewal, came to be a burden.

In fact, the Savior specifically stated that the Pharisees would “bind heavy burdens … grievous to be borne” (Matthew 23:4), likely referring to the many fence laws they had developed. We can thus find additional meaning in the Savior’s statement, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Perhaps His reference to being “heavy laden” related in part to burdensome fence laws. In fact, collectively, these fence laws were anciently known as the “yoke of the Law.” Jesus Christ said: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29–30), emphasizing that following the Lord’s law is not grievous but a joy.

I liken this to going to a beautiful lookout, but not being able to see the breathtaking view because of all the fences that have been created.

In some cases, ideas we hear from our peers may be good, but collectively the can become demoralizing. For example, we know we should study the scriptures. A woman might feel inspired to study for 30 minutes a day. She also decides to take her ministering sisters’ challenge to keep a scripture journal. Then she decides to follow her Relief Society president’s encouragement to read Daughters of My Kingdom cover to cover in three months. Next, she thinks it might be a good idea to accept a high councilor’s invitation to read the general conference talks three times between conferences. The sister’s joy in scripture study becomes swallowed up in a frenzy to do all these good things she has chosen to add, and guilt ensues when she can’t do it all.

Occasionally, cultural traditions may lead to fence laws that border on the ridiculous. One woman described how her congregation had been strongly cautioned from the pulpit against overusing the word awesome. In a different Church meeting, people were counseled not to chew gum in church. For some, these might be appropriate fence laws that help deepen reverence for Heavenly Father. But for others, they could be a burden that is not part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

These fence laws can make it particularly difficult for those outside the Church to enter in. Sometimes it’s not the doctrine of the church, but cultural fence laws that become the stumblingblock. We can find peace by prayerfully considering our personal practices and make inspired personal decisions about which ones will invite the Spirit into our lives and which ones we should let go.

Missing the Weightier Matters

In creating their fence laws, the Pharisees often emphasized minor aspects of the law, while completely missing the major ones. Christ pointed this out when he called the Pharisees, “blind guides, which strain [out] a gnat, and swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24). The gnat is one of the smallest non-kosher animals, while the camel is among the largest non-kosher animals. Thus, Christ stated that the Pharisees would make meticulous efforts to avoid the smallest sins while figuratively swallowing serious ones.

On one occasion, the Pharisees found fault when “many publicans and sinners came and sat down with [Jesus Christ] and his disciples” (Matthew 9:10). The Pharisees had many fence laws regarding whom a person could eat with; consequently, they indignantly asked Jesus’s disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” (Matthew 9:11).

The Savior responded, “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Matthew 9:12–13; see also Hosea 6:6).

Even more than our offering prescribed sacrifices, the Savior wants us to be filled with mercy. He cared less about the strict observance of Pharisaical fence laws (e.g., prohibitions against eating with sinners) than about hearts being filled with love and seeking those who were lost.

At times, a ward organization can make it harder to experience peace at church because of additional fence laws they create. I experienced this as a young missionary in Colorado. My companion and I invited Bryan, a recent convert, to bring his wife and children (who had not been baptized) to hear us speak in church. I remember sitting on the stand feeling nervous because the meeting had started and Bryan hadn’t yet arrived. This ward had a tradition (we might call it a fence law) of shutting all the chapel doors once the sacrament hymn began. To protect the sanctity of the moment, young men stood by the door to ensure that people did not enter the chapel during the sacrament.

From my vantage point on the stand, I saw Bryan step into the chapel, along with his wife and children, while the sacrament was being passed. He looked so proud to be at church. I knew it had taken great effort to persuade his wife and children to come with him to church, and I could see the exuberant expression on his face: “We made it! My family has come to my new church!” Then I watched the usher say to him, “You can’t be in here right now. You can’t come in.”

Bryan turned, along with his wife and children, and walked straight out of the chapel. Love would have compelled me to immediately walk off the stand and find him. However, the power of the cultural fence law was strong, and I didn’t want to interrupt the meeting. Instead, I waited until after the sacrament, hoping he would come back. When Bryan didn’t return, I left the chapel with one of the other missionaries and drove to Bryan’s house. Bryan was humiliated and exclaimed, “I’m never going back to that church.” And he never did.

Is it good to have a reverent atmosphere for the sacrament? Of course. However, the structure used to create the reverent atmosphere caused a well-intended young man and me—a missionary who should have known better—to miss the weightier matters. Do you and I have fence laws in our life that are causing us to miss the mark of loving God and loving our neighbors? Do we have opportunities in our church service to make sure that we don’t inadvertently create barriers that keep people out?

Teaching the Fence Instead of the Doctrine

Another challenge with fence laws comes when, in our efforts to erect effective fences, we are distracted from teaching principles and doctrine that will inspire the peace that comes from making good choices. If we’re not careful, those we teach will understand the fence, but not the underlying doctrine.

I learned this the hard way! When my oldest child was ten, I set a rule (fence law) of no PG-13 movies until kids were thirteen. I didn’t have a clear reason for this rule, other than postponing having discussions about which movies my oldest child could see. What do you think he wanted to do on his thirteenth birthday?

Several years passed, and a younger child (then age twelve) asked if she could see a popular PG-13 movie. Thinking about fence laws vs. principles, I told her she could choose for herself. Aghast, my daughter said, “But I thought we’re not allowed to watch PG-13 movies until we’re thirteen!” I asked her, “Why do you think that we made a rule of no PG-13 movies until you’re thirteen?” She thought for a moment and then responded, “I know dad, so that we won’t see bad stuff until we’re older.”

I had taught the fence well, but I hadn’t explained the principle that what we watch influences our ability to feel the Holy Ghost. My daughter understood the fence, but not the principle behind it!

At times parents and leaders need to establish and enforce fence laws. But as the needs of those in our stewardship permits, our normal practice should be to powerfully teach doctrine and principles and then invite others to pray and receive their own inspired applications.

Fence Laws and Judging

One of the biggest challenges with fence laws is linked to the Savior’s commandment to “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Judging is particularly prevalent around fence laws and applies to both those who have strict fence laws and those with none at all. For example, one person might condemn his neighbor who plays basketball with his kids on the Sabbath for not being strict enough. Another person might criticize a ward member whose family doesn’t watch any television on Sunday for being too strict. These reactions to individual fence law choices are manifestations of the judging that Christ specifically forbade.

Sometimes we even judge the people we perceive are being judgmental! Consider the following story—do you automatically judge any of the people involved?

Denise’s daughter, Jennifer, was asked to prom. The problem was that Jennifer was to turn sixteen four days after prom. Denise told Jennifer that she could decide for herself. After some deliberation, Jennifer decided to go to the dance. A few days later, the boy who had invited Jennifer asked her, “How old are you?” Jennifer explained she was fifteen but would be turning sixteen four days after prom. The young man promptly uninvited her to the dance.

As I’ve shared this story, it’s interesting to see how almost everybody passes judgment on at least one individual in this story. One person said, “Serves Jennifer right. Now she will learn what happens when you don’t follow the prophet.” Somebody else said, “That boy is really a jerk!” Another person commented, “Denise should have done a better job of teaching her child.” I’ve also heard, “I’m sure it wasn’t the boy’s fault, it was his mother who made him not go to the prom. If Jennifer were my daughter, I wouldn’t want her marrying into that family and having such a judgmental mother-in-law!”

No matter your perspective on this story, it is challenging to avoid any judgmental thoughts.

These issues are not unique to our time. In fact, the Apostle Paul directly addressed early Church members who had conflicting opinions on what foods were permissible to eat. Paul urged people not to become preoccupied with this question, stating, “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him” (Romans 14:3).

In our day, members might judge each other on Sabbath observance, diet, media, or other fence laws. Whether others are stricter or looser than we are, we must not hold others to the standard of our own personal practices. It’s a happier way to live and brings peace, both to ourselves and others.

So What Should We Do?

 While most Latter-day Saints probably have not given fence laws much conscious thought, fence laws may play an important part in our day-to-day lives, for good or ill. When the prophet or Spirit provides us with fence laws, we should follow them, because following the prophet and the Holy Ghost brings blessings and helps us avoid the very real dangers of sin.

When it comes to fence laws, we can each ask ourselves, “Lord, is it I?” (Matthew 26:22). Do I need more specific fence laws? Fewer? Am I missing the mark? Should I change my teaching? My tendency to judge? As we “search diligently in the light of Christ” (Moroni 7:19) to know how to  best integrate or apply or reject specific fence laws, we too can find “peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17).

Want more? See additional posts from John Hilton III related to his book, The Founder of our Peace.

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