Ethics and Community


Baha'u'llah abolished the professional religious class, whether priests, gurus, mullahs, rabbis, monks, or nuns. Baha'is consider that while such people may have been useful in an earlier time when most people were illiterate and needed guidance, this usefulness has now passed. Education should be universal and compulsory and so all Baha'is should read the scriptures for themselves and come to their own understanding of their meaning. This is one of the features of the maturity of humanity—it no longer needs to be told by a cleric what is wrong and right; it can determine this for itself by study and consultation with others on the meaning of the text of scripture.

The leadership function of the clerical class has been taken over by the elected Baha'i institutions. These have the authority to provide direction to the Baha'i community in its community activities but they have no right to interpret the scriptures or to dictate beliefs. On the other hand, they have the duty to maintain the unity of the community, so if there were a dispute in the community over beliefs or interpretation of scripture, this would usually be referred to the Universal House of Justice for a decision.

The Universal House of Justice does not compel a Baha'i to believe anything but it may require a Baha'i to cease advancing a contentious belief if it is causing disunity. Baha'is have wide latitude to believe and act as they please. It is only at the extremes (activities causing dissension or bringing the Baha'i community into disrepute) that a Baha'i may face sanctions, and usually only after they have been warned several times. The usual form of sanction is withdrawal of administrative rights until that person corrects any misbehavior; such a Baha'i cannot vote, be elected onto Baha'i institutions, attend the Nineteen-Day Feast, or contribute to Baha'i funds.

A higher level of sanction is only applied when a person persistently and willfully tries to create a division in the community or defies direct instructions of the Universal House of Justice. Such a person can be declared a "covenant-breaker," which means that they are excommunicated from the Baha'i community. They are, however, free to ask for readmission and many have been readmitted. A small number of individuals who have demonstrated a failure to understand the requirements and commitment implied by membership in the community have had their membership of the Baha'i community withdrawn. They are then regarded exactly as anyone else who is not a Baha'i and they are also free to apply for readmission.

Responsibilities of the Elected Members of the Baha'i Institutions

The duties of those whom the friends have freely and conscientiously elected as their representatives are no less vital and binding than the obligations of those who have chosen them. Their function is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent. They must regard themselves in no other light but that of chosen instruments for a more efficient and dignified presentation of the Cause of God. They should never be led to suppose that they are the central ornaments of the body of the Cause, intrinsically superior to others in capacity or merit, and sole promoters of its teachings and principles. They should approach their task with extreme humility, and endeavor, by their open-mindedness, their high sense of justice and duty, their candor, their modesty, their entire devotion to the welfare and interests of the friends, the Cause, and humanity, to win, not only the confidence and the genuine support and respect of those whom they serve, but also their esteem and real affection. They must, at all times, avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations. They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel.

In the Baha'i writings, those elected or appointed to Baha'i institutions do not have any spiritual rank or any special privileges. They are called upon to approach their task with extreme humility and to avoid any spirit of exclusiveness or secrecy. They should attempt to gain the confidence, the respect, and the support of those whom they serve by their open-mindedness, their sense of justice and duty, their candor, and their devotion to the welfare of humanity. Membership in these institutions is looked upon as an opportunity for service rather than a promotion to a position of power.

The pastoral function of the clerical class is an aspect of Baha'i community life that is still developing at present. The local spiritual assembly has the ultimate responsibility to ensure that pastoral functions are provided. However, under its current plans, the Universal House of Justice is encouraging all Baha'is to visit the homes of Baha'is and others and to provide pastoral support. The idea of accompanying others as they begin acts of service has also recently been promoted.

The role of the clerical class in providing spiritual guidance is replaced in the Baha'i community by groups of Baha'is coming together to study the Baha'i scriptures, to consult about them, and to derive spiritual guidance from them. For more specific guidance about problems in one's life, the appointed or elected institutions of the Baha'i community can be consulted. Alternatively, the Baha'i scriptures advise that a group of friends be called together to consult about the problem.

Statements made by Baha'u'llah regarding Consultation

The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

Say: no man can attain his true station except through his justice. No power can exist except through unity. No welfare and no well-being can be attained except through consultation.

Consultation bestoweth greater awareness and transmuteth conjecture into certitude. It is a shining light which, in a dark world, leadeth the way and guideth. For everything there is and will continue to be a station of perfection and maturity. The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.

Such matters should be determined through consultation, and whatever emergeth from the consultation of those chosen, that indeed is the command of God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.

In all things it is necessary to consult. This matter should be forcibly stressed by thee, so that consultation may be observed by all. The intent of what hath been revealed from the Pen of the Most High is that consultation may be fully carried out among the friends, inasmuch as it is and will always be a cause of awareness and of awakening and a source of good and well-being.

One notable aspect of the functioning of the Baha'i community is that a deliberate attempt is being made to separate power from authority. The Baha'i elected institutions have the authority in the Baha'i community to direct the community and to lay out their plans. They also have powers at the extremes if Baha'is misbehave (as described above). But they have very little power over individual Baha'is under normal circumstances. Each Baha'i has the freedom to implement the plans of their local and national institutions or not, as they wish, with no sanctions being applied if they do not. Thus while authority lies with the elected institutions, the power to carry out the plans lies with the individual Baha'i. Another aspect of the functioning of the Baha'i community is that the Baha'i institutions do not regard past practices and decisions as setting a binding precedent; each major issue facing the community should be thought out afresh based only on the principles to be found in the authoritative Baha'i texts and not on traditional practices.

Study Questions:
     1.     Why do Baha’is not have a clergy or priesthood?
     2.     What are the privileges and duties of those elected to Baha'i institutions?
     3.     How are the pastoral functions of the clergy and their role in giving spiritual guidance fulfilled in the Baha'i community?
     4.     What is the difference between “authority” and “power” and how is this difference manifested in the Baha'i community?

Back to Religion Library