God the Mother
by Janice Allred
Him Shall Ye Hear
Prophets and People in the Church of Jesus Christ
[p.219]In the October 1993 general conference President Gordon B. Hinckley stated, “This church is established on principles that are divine. From the day of its organization, it has been led by prophets, and I solemnly testify that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose church it is and whose name it bears, will never let any man or group of men lead it astray” (“Bring Up a Child in the Way He Should Go,” Ensign, Nov. 1993,54). This statement points to an idea which prevails in the LDS church today, the idea that the Lord wiIl never allow the prophet to lead the church astray. Indeed, this idea has been so deeply entrenched in modern Mormonism that some Mormons believe it to be one of the principles of the gospel. President Hinckley hiimself suggests that it is one of the divine principles on which the church is established. In this essay I will attempt to show that this idea, rather than being a principle of the gospel, is actuaIly antithetical to it.
What exactly does this idea mean? Many Mormons seem to believe that it is a promise from God that neither the prophet nor the church wiIl ever go astray. But what is its actual propositional context? To answer this question we need to examine each of the four possible situations that could arise if we consider the faithfulness of the prophet and the faithfulness of the church to be independently determined. These are: (1) The prophet does not go astray and the church does not go astray; (2) the prophet does not go astray, but the church does go astray; (3) the prophet goes astray, but the church does not go astray; and (4) the prophet goes astray and the church goes astray. Now we must ask which of these situations could arise if it is true that the Lord wiIl not aIlow the prophet to lead the church astray. The first (1) is obviously possible. The second (2) is also possible because the church could go astray on its own even if the prophet remained faithful. It [p.220]is also possible that the third (3) situation could occur because the prophet might go astray but the church need not follow him. The fourth (4) situation is also possible because the prophet’s going astray and the church’s going astray might be independent events.
It would seem, then, that the statement “The Lord will never allow the prophet to lead the church astray,” strictly interpreted, has little content. It says nothing about whether the prophet or the church will ever go astray. It means only that “The Lord will never allow it to be the case that if the church goes astray, the prophet’s going astray is the cause of the church’s unfaithfulness.” However, this is certainly not what those who believe this idea mean by it. In fact, they would probably find the proposition stated in this way questionable.
Indeed, this idea does not function as a proposition for church members. This is suggested by President Hinckley’s statement at general conference. He made an interesting modification to the usual form of the statement without commenting on the change. In changing “prophetH to IIman or group of men” he evidently meant to reassure members who were concerned that the church was functioning without a prophet because of President Ezra Taft Benson’s incapacitation that the church was safe because the apostles would also be prevented from leading the church astray. When church leaders and members assert that the Lord will not permit the prophet or other leaders to lead the church astray, they are reassuring themselves that it is safe to follow the prophet or the brethren. The statement often becomes an implied imperative, “Follow the prophet!”
That little thought is usually given to the meaning of this statement is evident when we consider other ideas that are brought up in conjunction with it. These include: (1) Whatever the prophet says in his official capacity is true; (2) We should not question or criticize the teachings of our leaders; (3) We should obey the prophet (or our leaders) without question; (4) If the prophet or any other leader gives a commandment that is unrighteous and we follow it, the Lord will bless us for our obedience; (5) The Lord has promised that the church will never go astray; and (6) Whenever the First Presidency and/or the Quorum of the Twelve issue a statement or make a decision, it is a revelation. These ideas are not equivalent in meaning nor are they logically related. Their purpose is simply to support an authoritarian system.
Each of these ideas has recently been asserted or suggested by general authorities. In an interview with the L.A. Times (22 Oct. 1994) President [p.221]Howard W. Hunter was asked, “As prophet and seer of the Church, do you see yourself as speaking infallibly?” He answered:
I would not presume to hold myself [personally] as infallible, except on matters that are clearly defined by scripture and by revelations. When things are defined, we feel that the answer is scriptural and scripturally placed. Then we take a strong stand. As far as infallibility is concerned, the officers of the church and the council of the Twelve will support the First Presidency without question or difference of opinion … There’s a powerful unity in the leadership of the church that is followed without deviation by the membership.
This statement seems to declare that the prophet is infallible on matters of doctrine, that the church considers the First Presidency to be infallible in their statements and decisions, and that church members should not question or disagree with the pronouncements of the First Presidency.
In the October 1994 general conference Elder David B. Haight said, IIWhen we sustain the President of the Church, … it means that we covenant with God that we will abide by the direction and counsel that comes through his prophet,” and Elder L. Tom Perry asserted that sustaining the prophet means covenanting to obey him. These statements assume that ac~ cepting someone as a prophet means accepting the doctrine that prophets are infallible. In this same conference Elders James E. Faust and L. Aldin Porter also addressed prophetic infallibility. Elder Faust spoke on the keys of the priesthood and the kingdom of God and taught that they would remain in the church until the Second Coming (“The Keys That Never Rust,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 73). Elder Porter declared, “When you see any document, any address, any letter, any instruction that is issued by the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, it should be recognized for what it surely is-the mind and the will of the Lord to his people in this day” (“The Revelations of Heaven,” Ensign, Nov. 1994,65). Such statements are simply asserted without any attempt to offer revelatory, scriptural, or theological support for them.
Each of the six ideas associated with the statement that the Lord will not allow the prophet to lead the church astray can be refuted or shown to be insufficiently supported. To refute the first idea, (1) that the prophet is infallible, we only need to show one instance in which a prophet erred in his teaching. Brigham Young taught that Adam is God the Father, while subsequent prophets have said that he is not. At least one of these prophets must be in error.
[p.222]The second idea, (2) that we should never question or criticize the teachings of our leaders, is called into question by many scriptural passages. Job questioned and criticized God, which caused his friends to condemn him. But God chastised Job’s friends for misjudging Job and praised Job for his righteousness. If it is not wrong to question and criticize God, who is the source of all truth and righteousness, why is it wrong to question and criticize leaders, who as human beings are subject to sin and error? The Lord told Oliver Cowdery to admonish Joseph Smith in his faults (D&C 6: 19). It is not difficult to find errors made by prophets. Peter was given a revelation to take the gospel to the gentiles, but he delayed so long that the Lord called Paul to do this work instead. The brother of Jared failed to call upon the name of the Lord for four years. Joseph Smith delivered the 116 manuscript pages of the Book of Mormon to Martin Harris against the counsel of the Lord. The Doctrine and Covenants contains many passages about the imperfections of Joseph Smith and other early church leaders (see, for example, 3:4-11, 10:1-2, 24:1-2, 64:3-7, 67:5, 90:17-18, 93:47-49). It even contains a provision for a trial of the president of the church if he transgresses (107:82-84).
Concerning statement 3, we may ask why we should obey our leaders without question if there is a possibility that their commandments might not be from God. The idea (4) that the Lord will bless us for following our leaders even if they are wrong is an attempt to maintain the principle that we should obey our leaders without question even when it is admitted that they may be wrong. The notion that we are responsible for our own sins is implicit in the gospel of Jesus Christ which requires us to repent of our sins without regard as to why we committed them. Will punishing leaders for the mistakes they caused us to make erase the effects of these mistakes and help to make us righteous? Only through the atonement of Jesus Christ can we escape the consequences of sin and become righteous. Isaiah warns of what happens to those who follow leaders who err. “For the leaders of the people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed” (9:16). There is no scriptural support for the fifth idea. If the Lord has promised that the church will never go astray, where is the revelation in which this promise is made? It cannot be found.
Finally, declaring (6) that all official statements and decisions of the First Presidency andlor the Quorum of the Twelve are revelations is an attempt to set up an objective standard for knowing the mind and will of God. But the scriptures teach that the things of God can only be known through the spirit of God. Why should we assume that their statements and deci-[p.223]sions are revelations or based on revelations if they never publish the revelations? Furthermore, this attempt suffers from the same problem that limits all epistemological methods. We can use a method of determining truth to discover truth as defined by the method, but we cannot use the method to prove that the method itself yields truth. Doing so results in circular reasoning. The idea that the Lord will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray is usually supported by statements from general authorities that this is the case. This amounts to saying that we know the Lord will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray because some prophets have said this is true and we know that what they say is true because the Lord would not permit the prophet to lead the church astray.
Rather than being meaningful ideas which we can fruitfully explore, these statements invite us to lapse further and further into carnal securitycarnal security because they attempt to set up objective criteria which will provide us with spiritual and moral certainty and relieve us of the responsi~ bility of grappling with theological, spiritual, and moral issues.
I believe that these ideas are based on a misunderstanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the part that prophets and revelation play in our salvation, the nature and purpose of Christ’s church, and what it means for a church to go astray. Rather than examining these ideas further, I would like to illuminate the issues involved by exploring these questions: Who is a prophet? What is the nature of revelation? Which prophet are we commanded to hear? What is the relationship of the individual, Christ, and his church? How is a true church of Christ constituted and in what ways can it go astray? Finally, what do the scriptures prophesy about the church in the last days?
In the present-day LDS church the word prophet is used almost exclusively to designate the president of the church. This usage, however, is not scriptural. The scriptures make it clear that prophecy is one of the gifts of the spirit that may be bestowed on any disciple of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians to seek the gift of prophecy and told them that “ye may all prophesy, one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted” (1 Cor. 1: 14). Section 46 of the Doctrine and Covenants lists some of the gifts of the spirit which “are given for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me” (v. 9). Among these gifts is that of prophecy. Moroni also discusses the “gifts of God” that “are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them” (Moro. 9:8). One of these gifts is to “prophesy concerning all things”.
These statements do not say that any priesthood or office is required for [p.224]the gift of prophecy. Indeed, the only requirement for prophesying is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Moses understood this when he declared, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Nurn. 11:29) joseph Smith held this same view. He answered the question, “Do you believe joseph Smith, jr. to be a prophet?” by saying, “Yes, and every other man who has. the testimony of Jesus. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” J. F. Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City, 1968], 119). Here Joseph was quoting from Revelations 19:10. He repeated this doctrine on many other occasions. He taught that it was not only the privilege of every follower of Jesus to prophesy but that it was a necessity for preaching the gospel. “Salvation cannot come without revelationi it is in vain for anyone to minister without it. No man is a minister ofjesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus, and this is the spirit of prophecy” (ibid., 160). Numerous scriptures declare that prophecy and revelation come through the power of the Holy Ghost which is available to all faithful members of the church of Jesus Christ. The prophet Jacob declared, “He that prophesieth let him prophesy to the understanding of men; for the Spirit speaketh the truth” (4:13). The Lord himself says to all the faithful elders of his church “that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:34). And to the teachers of his church he says, “And as ye shall lift up your voices by the Comforter, ye shall speak and prophesy as seemeth me good” (D&C 42:16).
Revelation provides the connection between God and human beings. I have found it useful to distinguish between two types of revelation which I call transcendent and immanent. This distinction is based on another distinction found in the scriptures, that between the power of the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost as a being. The expressions “Spirit of the Lord,” “Spirit of God,” (‘Holy Spirit,” “the power of God,” “the word of the Lord,” “the voice of the Lord,” “glory” “light,” “intelligence,” and “truth” usually refer to the divine light, power, or substance which emanates from God and fills, quickens, enlightens, and enlivens his creations (D&C 88:5-13). Since our own spirits are composed of this spiritual substance Of power, they are capable of being enlarged and enlightened by it. The expressions “Holy Ghost” or “Spirit of the Lord” or variations may also refer to the individual spirit being who is a member of the Godhead or to other spirit beings ministering under the direction and influence of the Holy Ghost. The Lord said to [p.225]Oliver Cowdery, “I will tell you in your mind and heart by the power of the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart. Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation” (D&C 8:2-3). This does not clearly distinguish between the Holy Ghost as an individual and the spirit of revelation as a power. Is it the Holy Ghost herself who will come upon us or the power of the Holy Ghost? The distinction is even further confused by the Lord’s saying, “I will tell you.” Does he mean by his own voice or by the voice of the Holy Ghost or by another spirit messenger or is he referring to a spiritual power which he makes available to us? Individual identity is blurred in the revelatory process as the power of the spirit, which permeates all things, seems to be a unifying force.
In revelation something is communicated from God to a human being. Three elements afe present in this process: sender, receiver, and message. We should not, however, conceive of these elements as being static—they are interrelated. Since as human beings we can, by definition, never be the sender in the revelatory process, we will take the point of view of the receiver. He or she, then, is the subject. It is important to understand why I call the receiver of revelation the subject. Although she is passive in receiving revelation, the revelatory process requires her participation as a subject. The message is the content and the one giving the revelation I designate “the other.” The one receiving the revelation, the subject, experiences different degrees of awareness of the other ranging from recognizing the other as God himself to perceiving no other at all but experiencing the revelation as “pure intelligence … expanding the mind, enlightening the understanding, and storing the intellect with present knowledge” J. Smith, History of the Church [Salt Lake City, 1974]‘ 3:380).
These different degrees of awareness of the other constitute the distinction between transcendent and immanent revelation. In transcendent reve~ lation we afe aware of the other, the messenger, while in immanent revelation we are mostly aware of our own thoughts and feelings. Transcendent revelations include speaking with God face to face, hearing the voice of God, seeing and hearing an angel who delivers a message, hearing a voice, and seeing a vision. Immanent revelations include pure intelligence, insight, feelings, impressions, words communicated to the mind, and dreams. Transcendent revelations are experienced as originating outside ourselves; we must ask ourselves whether they are from God or from evil supernatural forces or if they might be an illusion or mental projection. Immanent revelations are experienced as originating from within ourselves, and the ques-tion we must consider is how we can distinguish our own thoughts and feelings from genuine revelation.
All revelation has both transcendent and immanent dimensions. In transcendent revelations, although we are in contact with a supernatural being, the power of the spirit also acts upon our minds and feelings, our spirits, and sometimes our bodies to enlighten, empower, and transform us. Imma nent revelations contain transcendent elements in several different ways. A spiritual being may communicate thoughts and feelings directly to Our hearts and mindsj we may receive an infusion of spiritual power or our own body may become the transcendent element, the thing outside our mind and heart which gives objectivity to our experience and helps us know that something outside of us is influencing our thought processes and feelings. In this case we may feel a burning in the bosom or a tingling or a quickening of the body, physical sensations which cannot be produced by an act of will.
The content of revelation—what is communicated—is another objective element. Generally we think of the content of revelation as some kind of knowledge. Here again, however, there is an interplay of subjectivity and objectivity. Jesus said, “I am the truth,” and “My spirit is truth.” “The word of God” or “the voice of God” is sometimes synonymous with “the spirit of God.” Usually we think of truth as being ontologically different from a person (even a supernatural one) or a power or a substance. For human beings truth is located in language or symbols, but the power to speak or write truth comes from the spirit through the mind (which in my view is an interaction of spirit and body). All truth is subjective in that it is created or embodied in language by a speaker or writer, but in its embodiment in language it becomes objective, which is to say that it takes on a physical form that can be perceived by another human being. These symbols become meaningful, exist as truth rather than as mere marks upon a page or sound waves, when another person reads or hears them and, in his own creative act, interprets them. Revelation in its most fundamental sense is this interplay of spirit with matter and the moment of revelation is the giving and receiving of this truth.
One advantage that revelation is often believed to have over other ways of discovering or knowing truth is its certainty. The Lord said to the brother of Jared, “Believest thou the words which I shall speak?” And he answered, “Yea, Lord, I know that thou speakest the truth, for thou art a God of truth, and canst not lie” (Ether 3:11-12). God is, indeed, the ultimate authority and we can be sure of the truth of his words; however) we cannot be sure of the truth of our interpretation of them. In the area of knowledge an authority is a person who possesses special knowledge which she has acquired through [p.227]her own experience, training, research, and thinking. Consulting an authority is a secondary way of gaining knowledge, and a person using this method should concern himself about the reliability of the authority he consults. To know something for myself, however, I must experience it, study it, test it, or research it. Knowing for myself and accepting knowledge on someone else’s authority, however, do not involve mutually exclusive methodologies. Usually we employ a combination of methods, and sometimes we are able to know for ourselves because we were able to consult an authority. For example, a student of geometry may wish to know whether a certain theorem is true. She may find a proof in her textbook and simply assume the textbook is correct without going through the steps of the proof. Or she may attempt to prove the theorem. If she is clever and understands geometry, she may succeed in proving the theorem and then will know for herself that it is true. But if she is not clever enough or skilled enough in the ways of geometry, she may not be able to prove the theorem. Nevertheless, if after finding a proof in her textbook, she goes over it carefully until she understands every step, she can then know for herself that it is true.
Transcendent revelation as a way of knowing is like consulting an authority. Our first question about this kind of revelation is whether or not it is true revelation. Did the person having it really hear the voice of God? Was the angel a true messenger from God? If so, then the message was a true message. However, experiencing a transcendent revelation is more than receiving a message, and the content of the revelation consists not only of the words uttered by God or the heavenly messenger but also the prophees interpretation of his experience.
Immanent revelation is more like other methods of learning. Since it comes to us in the midst of our thinking, within our daily experience, we must test its truth by empirical, rational, and pragmatic methods. Immanent revelation enables us to know for ourselves, but in knowing there is always uncertainty. This uncertainty is inherent in the dynamic nature of revelation. Truth is located in language, but a text can only be created by a mind engaged in the interplay of spirit and matter that creates truth. We may say that the text or parts of it are true, but this is meaningless unless the text is interpreted and re-interpreted, used and correlated with other texts, and there is always the possibility of misinterpretation, misuse, and invalid reasoning.
Because revelation has a content, we may prophesy to each other, that is, we may become revelators giving what we have received to others. Be~ cause a prophet is a human being, we must test his revelations in the same ways we test our own immanent revelations, by subjecting them to empiri-[p.228]cal, rational, and pragmatic tests. The scriptures admonish us to test prophecies in these ways. Jeremiah declared, “When the word of the prophet shall come to pass, then may it be known that the Lord hath truly sent him” (28:9). Sidney Rigdon was told by the Lord to test the revelations of Joseph Smith by comparing them to the revelations and prophecies of the scriptures. “Call on the holy prophets to prove his words as they shall be given him” (D&C 35:23). Alma taught the poor Zoramites to try the word of God by planting the seed of faith in their hearts, nourishing it, and seeing if it yielded the fruit of eternal life. These tests, while important, are still inconclusive. Prophecies of future events are oflittle use if we have to wait until they are fulfilled to know if they are true. Establishing consistency and pointing out contradictions requires judgment, and reason alone cannot tell us which if either of two contradictory ideas is true. Alma’s pragmatic test requires us to judge between good and evil results, and the pragmatic method does not give us a way of doing so. Certainty cannot be established by any objective method because it is, finally, subjective.
Knowing for myself is finally an internal process. Alma said:
Do ye not suppose that I know these things of myself? Behold, I testify unto you that I do know that these things whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety?
Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me (5:45-46).
The Lord told Oliver Cowdery that the greatest witness of truth we can have is from the spirit speaking to our hearts and minds. “Did I not speak peace to your mind … What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:23) Certainty can only be obtained by the witness of the Holy Ghost to our minds and hearts. This witness is sometimes also experienced in our bodies. “If it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you” (9:8).
Transcendent revelation is rare, while immanent revelation occurs daily. The Lord spoke of the rarity of transcendent revelations to Miriam and Aaron, the sister and brother of Moses. They were angty with Moses and spoke against him. “And they said, ‘Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? Hath he not also spoken by us?’” (Num. 12:2) The Lord called them to the tabernacle and said:
Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will [p.229]make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream.
My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him I will speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? (vv. 6-8)
Because transcendent revelations are rare, we usually do not call some one a prophet unless he receives transcendent revelations. Because so few people are able to communicate with God in this way, these prophets are a great benefit to their fellow human beings. Prophets like Enoch, Moses, the Brother of Jared, and Joseph Smith who have spoken with God mouth to mouth and those like Enoch, Lehi, Isaiah, John, and Joseph Smith who have gazed into heaven are able to teach us things about God and eternity that we can learn in no other way.
Joseph Smith had both the gift and the authority to receive transcendent revelations. The Lord declared that he “received commandments and revelations … even as Moses … For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed” (D&C 28:2,7). Joseph, in responding to a letter asking him to obtain revelation on a particular subject, wrote:
It is a great thing to inquire at the hands of God, or come into his pres, ence; and we feel fearful to approach Him on subjects that are oflittle or no consequence, to satisfy the queries of individuals especially about the things the knowledge of which men ought to obtain in all sincerity, before God, for themselves in humility by the prayer of faith (Smith, Teachings, 22).
Joseph here acknowledges his ability to receive transcendent revelations but declines to d? so on unimportant matters because transcendent revelation is Ila great thing” and should not replace immanent revelation.
Moses, who had the privilege of beholding the face of God and speaking with him, sought to extend this blessing to the children of Israel, but they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence (D&C 84: 23-24). They saw the thunderings and lightnings and the mountain smoking and were afraid to see God and said to Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with uS lest we die” (Ex. 20:19). Later, in his farewell speech, Moses reminded his people of this incident and prophesied that the Lord would send them a prophet
[p.230]From among yourselves, from among your own brothers, Yahweh your God will raise up a prophet like me; you will listen to him.
This is exactly what you asked Yahweh your God to do at Horeb on the day of the Assembly when you said, “Never let me hear the voice of Yahweh my God or let me see this great fire again or I shall die.”
Then Yahweh said to me, “What they have said is well said.
From their own brothers I shall raise up a prophet like yourself; I shall put my words into his mouth and he will tell them everything I command him. Anyone who refuses to listen to my words, spoken by him in my own name, will have to render an account to me” (Deut. 18:15-19, New Jerusalem Bible).
The Fall separated humanity from God. This separation, given mythic expression in the account of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, is a necessary part of our cosmic journey from intelligence to resurrected being. Be ing embodied allows us to achieve a distinct individual identity, to know for ourselves and to choose for ourselves. At the core of individual identity is desire because we desire that which we lack; thus desire establishes a boundary between the self and the world, the self and the other. Desire is also a principle of transformation as we seek to incorporate within ourselves the object of desire. When Eve desires then partakes of the forbidden fruit, she obtains a knowledge of good and evil. We must sin—we must go against the will of God to become moral agents able to distinguish good from evil. A child must refuse to do what his mother wants him to do in order to recognize his own desire, exercise his will, and establish his individual identity. Good and evil appear and are met in manifold forms; they are mixed and interconnected in various ways in mortality. Our task is to learn to distinguish good from evil and, by choosing the good, become good ourselves. This can only be accomplished by the power of God, but in this world this power must be veiled. We know that God is good, but we must learn to recognize good apart from God. How can we learn to recognize the good in this world when we and everything in it are separated from him?
Mormon says, “The Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore I show unto you the way to judge; for everything which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ, wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moro. 7:16). We must learn to recognize the good by comparing it to Christ, but how can we know Christ? One way is by realizing that all good comes from him. The first meaning we give to good is that which we desire, so it is by acting upon our desires that we learn to distin-[p.231]guish good from evil. The spirit of God permeates all things and “the elements are the tabernacle of God; yea man is the tabernacle of God” (D&C 93:35). Through the spirit of God within us we can learn to recognize God in all things and in all people, while we can learn to recognize the spirit within us by the feelings and thoughts that the goodness of others and God’s creations evoke in us.
The Israelites were afraid that if they heard the voice of God they would die. God acknowledged that they had a point. If God were to reveal himself in his power and glory to a mortal, unredeemed, and unsanctified person, that person would be destroyed. There is thus a potential violence or coercive power in transcendent revelation. But the power of God is not coercive; it is the power of love, the power of truth, the power of sacrifice. Transcendent revelation brings us into the presence of God. It gives us a light, an example, a touchstone, a standard to use in understanding God, good, and truth, but the purpose of mortality can only be accomplished by separating us from the transcendent God. We can only learn to know good and evil by being cut off from God. Transcendent revelation, though valuable and necessary, must be rare if the purpose of mortality is not to be thwarted.
Because the Israelites were afraid of the transcendent God, he promised to send them a prophet, a man like themselves. He promised to send them a prophet like Moses. Nephi tells us who this prophet is. Quoting Moses he says:
A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass that all those who will not hear that prophet shall be cu t off from among the people.
And now, I, Nephi, declare unto you that this prophet of whom Moses spake was the Holy One of Israel (1 Ne. 22:20-21) .
… and Christ is the Holy One ofIsrael (2 Ne. 25:29).
Peter, Moroni, and the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants all make this same identification (Acts 3:20-24, JS-H 1:40, D&C 133:63).
The prophet God would send was himself. God became a man so that we could relate to him as a human being; he became one of us so that he could raise us to become like him. Christ is the prophet we are commanded to hear. Jesus, the Son of God, God in the flesh, dwelt among us as a fellow human being; we must meet him as an equal and also as an other. But few of us were able to meet and know the mortal Jesus. We can read the accounts of his life and words in the New Testament, but we must also learn p.to know God as a fellow human being. We do this by learning to see God in the people around us.
The Lord amplifies the prophecy of Moses: “And the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people” (D&C 1:14). Who are the Lord’s servants? How can we recognize God in our fellow human beings? Nephi tells us that whoever speaks by the power of the Holy Ghost speaks the words of Christ (2 Ne. 32:2-3), so we mustleam to recognize the voice of God in every person. We can only do this by the power of the spirit in us. God in his glory is manifestly God. God as a human being could not be recognized in any objective way. As Jesus told Peter when he acknowledged him as the Christ, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16: 17). No calling or appointment to be a prophet can certify that any person speaks the words of Christ. “A prophet … [is] a prophet only when … acting as such,” as Joseph Smith said (History of the Church, 5:265), and we can only know that a prophet is prophesying by the witness of the Holy Ghost. The Lord never commands us to obey prophets or apostles simply because they are appointed to be prophets and given the keys of prophecy. We are only commanded to obey God, so we are only required to receive commandments from prophets when they receive them from the Lord. “And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him” (D&C 28:3). We are only to believe a prophet’s words “which are given him through the Comforter” (21:9).
Because of the inequalities among people, we are more likely to hear and accept the words of some than others. People speaking from positions of authority or having intellectual abilities or scholarly attainments or pas· sessing charm are more likely to influence us than those having no status, little education, few attainments, or little charm. It is in immanent revela, tion, the Holy Ghost speaking to our minds and hearts, that we experience the greatest freedom to develop our spirituality and know for ourselves. There is great equality in the thoughts and feelings that present themselves to us. None comes tagged as more important than the others.
To grant us free agency, God had to separate us from his presence so that we could learn to recognize good and evil, truth and error for ourselves. But if the separation were complete, then there would be no good or truth for us to recognize since God is the source of all truth and goodness. In mortality we meet the immanent God in ourselves and the mortal God in our fellow human beings. God within us is the Holy Spirit and we recognize God [p.233]in others by the power of the spirit. A few of us receive transcendent revelations in which the power, and sometimes the presence, of God is made manifest, but most of us only hear and read accounts of transcendent reve~ lations. We can know if they are true revelations only by the power of the spirit, and understanding them also requires the power of the spirit even for those who received them. It is by the power of the spirit, then, that we experience God in mortality and through the power of the spirit that we are enlightened and transformed, that we learn and grow spiritually and intellectually. Why, then, would God set up an authoritarian church and appoint a prophet and command us to obey and believe him without question? Would not such a prophet function as a transcendent God? Would not the commandments and revelations given by him be coercive?
Because there can be a coercive power in revelation, whoever claims to receive revelation must carefully identify what kind it is in order to assist others in judging it. Was he visited by an angel? Did she hear the voice of the Lord? Did he have a sudden strong impression? Did she feel a burning in the bosom? The third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” means that we should not claim to speak for God when we are not authorized to do so by the Holy Spirit nor should we act in his name when we have not been given the power to do so.
Let all men beware how they take my name in their lips.
Many there be who are under this condemnation, who use the name of the Lord and use it in vain, having not authority …
Remember that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by the constraint of the spirit (D&C 63:61, 62, 64).
The Primary teacher who tells her class that Jesus wants them to sit quietly in their chairs is breaking the third commandment, as is the church authority who fails to distinguish clearly between his own ideas, even those he feels are inspired, and those things given him by transcendent revelation. Because immanent revelation is subjective, we should not share it in a coercive way but simply offer it as a gift, using reason, evidence, and experience to support it if appropriate, but not obliging anyone to accept it.
Joseph Smith carefully recorded or caused to be recorded the exact words of his revelations, as far as it was possible, and the dates when they were ‘received, the circumstances surrounding them, and the manner in which they were received. The scriptures plainly show that all prophets who have been called of God to deliver messages to his people clearly identify their messages as being from God. We should not assume that someone who [p.234]holds a prophetic office is speaking for God unless he clearly identifies his words as revelation, and, of course, we cannot assume that someone is speaking for the Lord simply because he claims he is. All revelation must be tested. Although many church presidents and general authorities have said that the Lord will not permit the prophet to lead the church astray, none of them has ever claimed to have received a revelation from the Lord saying this. Since this statement purports to tell us what the Lord will do, it should be based on a transcendent revelation from him. No such revelation exists, but even if a prophet were to claim such a revelation it would have to be examined critically and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.
The Israelites wanted Moses, not God, to speak to them. God understood their fear of his glory, but he was angry that they refused to know him. They wanted Moses to command them, but God wanted them to have a direct relationship with himself. The role of a prophet is not to come between God and his people but to bring them to him. Because the Israelites refused his presence, the Lord took the fullness of his gospel from them. They were left with the preparatory gospel “which gospel is the gospel of repentance and of baptism, and the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments” (D&C 84:27). Missing from this gospel is faith in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost. It is through faith in Jesus Christ that we receive the Holy Ghost and through the Holy Ghost that we are directly connected to God; a church without the Holy Ghost must have prophets to command it, and the commandments given will be carnal commandments, rules, and regulations of behavior, for without the Holy Spirit working in us, we cannot develop godlike attributes or understand principles of righteousness. But the church of Jesus Christ is built on the fullness of his gospel. “This is my gospel … and upon this rock I will build my church” (33:12-13).
How is the church constituted? What is the nature of its existence? Nephi beheld in a vision that the church of the Lamb of God are the saints of God (1 Ne. 14:12). The Lord tells us that “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church” (D&C 10:67). When he appeared to the Nephites, Jesus told them, “but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel.” These scriptures show that the Lord sees his church as being constituted by individuals in a relationship with him. “It is my church … if they are built upon my gospel.” “They” refers to the people of the church; it is not the church but the people of the church who are built upon the gospel. Nephi says that the church are the saints of God. The Lord says that whoever repents and comes unto him [p.235]is his church, referring to the church as a person, not as an organization or corporate body.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is addressed to individuals.
Yea, repent and be baptized, every one of you, for a remission of your sins; yea, be baptized even by water, and then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost.
Behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and remem~ ber that they shall have faith in me, or they can in nowise be saved.
And upon this rock I will build my church; yea upon this rock ye are built (D&C 33:11-13).
It is the individual person who must have faith, repent, be baptized, and receive the Holy Ghost. When a person has faith in Jesus Christ, repents, and is baptized, she covenants with God to keep his commandments and receives the Spirit of God to enable her to do so. Our primary connection to God is through the Holy Ghost, and the principal way we keep the commandments of Christ is by following the promptings of his spirit. Nephi says, “If ye will enter in by the way and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things whatye should do” (2 Ne. 32:5).
Each individual in the church of Jesus Christ is directly related to him by covenant and by his spirit. Jesus Christ does not have a covenant with his church; individual members do not covenant with each other. (In a Zion community individuals may covenant with each other in various ways—see, for example, D&C 80: 15-19; 90:24—but these covenants are secondary to our primary covenant with God.) It should be clear that this primary structure of the church is egalitarian; every member is equal.
Although our primary relationship is with Jesus Christ, our new relationship with him also brings us into a new relationship with other people. Jesus tells us that whatever we do to any other person we do to him. He tells us that if we receive him we will receive his servants and if we reject his servants we reject him. Since all followers of Christ covenant to obey him, everyone who believes in Jesus is his servant and we must receive their words which are inspired by the Holy Ghost as if they came from him. Not only must we receive his servants, we must be his servants which means we must represent him to others.
I would now like to discuss three important characteristics of the church of Jesus Christ: its doctrine, structure, and righteousness through the Holy Spirit. When Joseph Smith asked Jesus which of all the churches was right, he “said that all of their creeds were an abomination in his sight… they teach [p.236] for doctrine the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (JS-H 2:19). The history of Christianity is one of schism after schism as doctrines have been debated and championed. When the resurrected Christ appeared to the Nephites, he told them, “Neither shall there be disputations among you concerning the points of my doctrine as there have hitherto been” (3 Ne. 11:28). He told them that they should not contend in anger over points of doctrine to try to establish one doctrine over another in the church. He then explained what his doctrine is.
And this is my doctrine, and it is the doctrine which the Father hath given unto me; and I bear record of the Father, and the Father beareth record of me, and the Holy Ghost beareth record of the Father and me; and I bear record that the Father commandeth all men, everywhere, to repent and believe in me.
And whoso believeth in me, and is baptized, the same shall be saved; and they are they who shall inherit the kingdom of God.
And whoso believeth not in me, and is not baptized, shall be damned.
… and whoso believeth in me believeth in the Father also; and unto him will the Father bear record of me, for he will visit him with fire and the Holy Ghost .
… this is my doctrine and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil (vv. 32-35, 39-40).
The doctrine of Christ is the gospel offaith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, and reception of the Holy Ghost. The church of Christ must teach his gospel. Members of his church should love and seek truth; they should explore and discuss theological questions, but they should not attempt to establish anything other than the gospel of Jesus Christ as the doctrine of his church.
Not only does baptism bring us into a covenant and spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ, it also makes us members of his institutional church. “Whosoever was baptized by the power and authority of God was added to his church” (Mosiah 18:17). Because the Fall established individual identity, the Atonement saves the individual, but it does not save him in isolation from his fellow human beings. The Atonement redeems or brings into harmony all dichotomies: spirit-matter, humanity-God, self-other, individual-community, reason-revelation, male-female. Salvation is not simply for [p.237]the individual but for all of creation. The earth itself will be redeemed, passing through a terrestrial state (the Millennium) before it becomes a celestial world. The individual is enmeshed in various economic, political, social, biological, and natural systems, and his salvation does not remove him from these realities but redeems them along with him. Indeed, the process of sanctification requires the individual to seek to create systems that will enable people to live together in freedom, justice, equality, and harmony.
Paul compared the church to the human body. “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). The church, like the human body, has structure with parts that have different functions. Like the body the church exists in time and space; it has a beginning and an end; real people are members of it and they use buildings, furniture, books, and food in their fellowship.
Leslie Newbegin in The Household of God states, “It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community” ([New York, 1954], 20). Jesus spent much of his time on earth teaching, training, preparing, and commissioning a small group of people to take his gospel to the world. Evangelizing, or missionary work, is one of the two main purposes of the church and priesthood is essential to it. The ordinances of the gospel can only be administered by authorized servants of Jesus Christ and this authorization is given through priesthood. One of the main purposes of priesthood is to empower those who receive it to preach the gospel and administer its ordinances.
The second purpose of the church is to perfect the Saints. Priesthood is also essential for this purpose. In the church today priesthood is usually thought of as the right of governance, administration, and leadership. The Doctrine and Covenants sets forth a different view. “And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the keys of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God” (84:19). “The power and authority of the … Melchizedek Priesthood is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (107:18).
This scripture identifies the receiving of revelation as the main function of priesthood. It distinguishes between the power and the authority of the [p.238]priesthood. Section 121 makes the same distinction but calls the authority of the priesthood the rights of the priesthood and the power of the priesthood the power of heaven:
Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. [Being called here means being given the fights of the priesthood; being chosen means actually receiving the power of the priesthood] And why are they not chosen?
Because their hearts are set s0 much upon the vain things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men that they do not learn this one lesson—
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled or handled only upon the principles of righteousness (vv. 34-36).
This revelation then explains that when we use our priesthood to gratify our pride, to cover our sins, or to control or compel people, we are using it unrighteously. This is often how governing and administrative power is used in the world. But priesthood is not for the purpose of controlling people. What is it for? The verse preceding “there are many called” asks, “What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the mighty Missouri river in its decreed course or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.” When we are given the priesthood, we are called to receive revelations. What will hinder us from receiving them? our misunderstanding and misuse of the powers of heaven. When we misuse our priesthood, the spirit of the Lord is grieved and withdraws. The powers of heaven are the spirit of the Lord. The power of the priesthood is to bless us with revelations which we then share by persuasion with gentleness, meekness, love, and kindness, imparting the pure knowledge which can enlarge our souls.
If the institutional church is the body of Christ, which gives structure, order, visibility, and continuity to the people of God, then the spirit of Christ must be present in the church to give it life. The presence of the Holy Spirit is essential to the church of Jesus Christ; without it the church is dead, a body without life. It is in the spirit that we begin our life in Christ, and after baptism every member is given the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. This gift is essential to the process of sanctification wherein we are made righteous.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is a witness that it is the [p.239]church of Christ. “Hereby know we that we abide in him and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4: 13). It is by the spiritthat we preach, teach, prophesy, and receive revelations. Even the daily life of the church should be guided by the spirit. Moroni wrote of the church, “And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done” (6:9).
The people of the church of Christ are blessed with the gifts of the spirit. Jesus told his apostles, “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover” (Mark 16: 17). Moroni writes, “Deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men [and women], to profit them” (10:8).
Jesus also said to his apostles:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.
Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit …
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing John 15:1-5).
The church of Jesus Christ brings forth good fruit: love (“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” [John 13:35]), peace (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you” [14:27]), equality (“Let every man esteem his brother as himself’ [D&C 38:25]), faith (“We are made alive in Christ because of our faith” [2 Ne. 25:25]), and unity (“If ye are not one ye are not mine” [D&C 38:27]).
The gospel of Jesus Christ mandates equality, but there are many inequalities in the church. Members differ in church callings, spiritual gifts, intelligence, talents and abilities, experience, spiritual maturity, economic and political circumstances, and other ways. Difference is a fundamental condi-[p.240]tion of existence; there can be no creation or life without it. How is it possible to have both equality and difference? Human equality is based on God’s unconditional love for us. We are all equally valuable to God. “All are alike unto God” (2 Ne. 26:33); “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). God’s unconditional love is manifest in the atonement of Jesus Christ by which God made himself equal to every person by sacrificing his life for each of us. Equality in the church must be founded on the unconditional love that each member extends to every other member. “Let every man [and woman] esteem … [each] brother [and sister] as ‘” [themselves]” (D&C 38:24). This love does not arise from natural attraction or affection but is a gift of God which he “bestows upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moro. 7:48). The love which I feel for myself is not based on any particular qualities that I possess. I love myself simply because I am myself and there is no way I can not be myself. I must feel what I feel, think what I think, and experience what I experience. I am absolutely committed to myself. When church members love each other as they love themselves, they are committed to be with each other and “are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9).
Unconditional love recognizes the other person as a subject, a thinking, feeling, desiring being who is able to choose. In making us individual beings God granted us our freedom. “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence. Behold, here is the agency of man” (D&C 93:29-31). Church members must respect one another’s freedom. We must recognize that each of us is a subject who should not be treated as an object to be controlled or manipulated.
Since there are and must be differences among the people of the church, equality can only be created and maintained if power is used to empower others and gifts are shared. This principle is honored in the administration of the ordinances; one who has the priesthood uses it to empower another. Different gifts are given to different people so “that all may be profited thereby” (D&C 46: 12). Equality demands reciprocity and requires us to change roles. The giver must become the receiver and the receiver the giver, the teacher the student and the student the teacher, the parent the child and the child the parent, the leader the follower and the follower the leader. Unity and love emerge from differences as we give and receive and recognize our interdependence.
Jesus taught both by word and example that in his church those with [p.241]greater power and gifts should use them to empower and benefit others rather than to exploit or abuse them.
Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them.
But it shall not be so among you: But whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister;
And whosoever will be your chief among you, let him be your servant:
Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many (Matt. 20:25-28).
Jesus made himself equal to us so that we could be made equal to him. Equality demands that the agency of every person be honored. Because the power to choose is located in the individual, an egalitarian organization must vest its decision-making power equally in every individual. The LDS church is a hierarchical organization; it can be represented as a pyramid in which the one at the top, the president, makes decisions for the church which he then communicates to those authorities below him in the “chain of command” or “priesthood pipeline” as it is sometimes called. Leaders on each level implement the direcrives they receive from above. They also have authority to make decisions for all the groups over which they preside. This model represents the power and revelation of God as being given at the top of a pyramid and then flowing down through leaders to individual members. The principle of common consent originally gave church members the power to approve or disapprove of leaders and their decisions. This practice is now limited to approving, but even when it was honored it did not give full decision-making power to church members.
I envision the church of Christ as an organization that can be represented by a group of interlocking rings of various sizes all connected to one great ring. The great ring represents Jesus Christ; it is interlocked with many small rings which represent each person in the church. These small rings are then interlocked onto larger rings of various sizes which represent different groups in the church. Decision-making begins with the individual and spreads out to larger and larger circles. Within each circle decision-making is consensual. In this model each person is directly connected to Jesus Christ as the source of life and revelation.
I offer this model as a possible way in which the principle of equality might be implemented in the church. In doing so I do not mean to suggest that all or even most of the revelations or decisions which have given us our [p.242]present church structure are false or wrong. I do not believe that the structure of the church of Jesus Christ will be exactly the same in all times, places, and cultures. Because the church is embedded in different cultures with different political, economic, linguistic, and social systems, the structure of the church may be very different in different cultures at different times. I believe that God wants and expects us to work with him and each other to create our own systems that embody the principles of his gospel. I believe that it is necessary for us as a church to learn by our own experiences the limitations and problems of a hierarchical system and to recognize that it can and has resulted in the abuse of priesthood power. I believe that the time has come when we, inspired by a vision of equality and filled with love for each other, must look for another way of being together, pleading with God to help us find it.
What does it mean for the church to go astray? Does the church have to teach only the truth, be perfect in its institutional manifestations, possessing an unbroken succession of priesthood authority from Jesus Christ, and have the presence of the Holy Spirit in all it says and does in order to be the true church of Jesus Christ? How far from perfection can the church stray before it goes astray? Is going astray the same as being in apostasy? Since, as we have seen, the church is its members, this question can best be answered by asking what it means to be a member of Jesus’ church. Do church members sin or go astray?
Mormons sometimes claim that the church is perfect although its members are not. But the church is its members. Do church members only sin in their private lives but always act righteously in their church callings? That would be impossible. Can a church sin and still be the church of Jesus Christ? How can a church of sinners be the church of God? To understand how a church of sinners can be the church of Christ, we need to understand how a sinner can be a son or daughter of Christ, and to understand this we must understand his gospel.
Through the Atonement Jesus extends his unconditional love to each of us. We accept and respond to this love by faith. As we experience the love and goodness of God in contrast with our Own sins and weaknesses, we desire to become like him. This desire leads to repentance as we open our hearts to receive his grace and be transformed by it. We then enter into a covenant with Jesus Christ by being baptized and receiving the Holy Ghost. The covenant with him is a covenant of grace in which he extends his grace to us as we have faith in him. Through faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the Holy Ghost, we become alive in Christ or enter into a [p.243]state of grace. In a state of grace we are justified or forgiven of our sins. Our sins are exchanged for Christ’s righteousness. Being justified we can begin the process of sanctification in which we can actually become like Jesus through the transforming power of his spirit. As long as a person is in a state of grace, she has the spirit of God to help her recognize her mistakes and repent, so sin itself does not dissolve the covenant. As long as a person remains within the covenant of grace, he is alive in Christ and a member of his church. What sin or sins will cause a person to leave the covenant and lose the spirit of God?
Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants lists three sins that grieve the spirit and cause it to withdraw: pride, covering our sins, and exercising compulsion over others. Having pride is the opposite of being in a state of grace. In grace we recognize our absolute dependence on Christ and realize that all others are equally valuable to him. In pride we are bound by our own egocentricity and alternate between arrogance and despair as we try to prove our superiority and independence. In pride we do not honor the agency and subjectivity of others, but we try to dominate and control them in order to meet our own needs. Obviously entering into a state of grace will not immediately cure us of our pride or propensity to control others. We can repent of sins of pride and control but not unless we are willing to see them and acknowledge them, not unless we are willing to receive criticism and be chastised. Covering our sins is even worse than refusing to see them. Jesus used his harshest language against the self-righteous because these cannot be redeemed as long as they refuse to see that they are sinners utterly dependent on his mercy. A person in a state of grace humbly acknowledges her errors, faults, and mistakes, but at the same time she has a strong sense of her own worth based on her knowledge of God’s love.
The church of Jesus Christ must be alive in him in the same sense that its members are. It must understand and teach his gospel. Jesus shows his acceptance of his people and his church by bestowing his spirit upon them. The people of his church will receive revelations and produce other fruits of his spirit; they will love each other and strive for equality. The other feature of the church, its institutional aspect, which includes authority and ordinances, is, I believe, the least important characteristic of Christ’s church, which is not to say it is not important—it is essential just as the body is essential to our redemption—but it is the spirit which gives life to the body not the body to the spirit, although the body does enable the spirit to do things it could not otherwise do. The church and its leaders will admit its [p.244]failures, acknowledge its faults, and welcome criticism since they recognize that we all sin in the process of sanctification.
An honest study of the church throughout time in the scriptures and historical texts makes it clear that the church of God always goes astray. The Bible and Book of Mormon tell this story again and again. The Doctrine and Covenants is full of warnings and chastisements to the church restored through Joseph Smith. Surely it is willful ignorance and pride which cause us to close our eyes to the sins of our church, which are our sins because we are its members. What arrogance could cause us to proclaim that the Lord will never permit the prophet to lead the church astray in violation of the principle of human agency which is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? The only way the Lord could prevent the prophet from leading the church astray would be to immediately judge and destroy the prophet or the church. Do we want this? It is utterly contrary to the purpose of mortality which is to grant us a time in which to learn and repent. What ignorance of the gospel could cause us to put our faith in the arm of flesh—a man or an institution—instead of in Christ himself and the power of his spirit? A church that believes it cannot go astray gives good evidence that it already has. However, going astray is not the same as being in apostasy or being “ripe in iniquity.” When a church is “ripe in iniquity,” it will receive God’s judgment. The scriptures also teach that his arm is always stretched-out, ready to redeem, ready to receive those who come to him with broken hearts and contrite spirits. “Have I put thee away, or have I cast thee off forever? … is my hand shortened at all that it cannot redeem, or have I no power to deliver?” (2 Ne. 7:1-2)
There is another possible interpretation of the idea that the prophet will never lead the church astray. This could be a prophecy rather than a promise or a principle. What do the scriptures say about the church in the latter-days? Will it go astray? Will its leaders or some of its leaders go astray? These are questions of wide scope and some difficulty since prophecies of the future are difficult to interpret. Obviously the scope of this essay does not allow me to present a thorough investigation of this topic; therefore I will just summarize the results of my research.
First I will consider some scriptures which have been interpreted to mean that the church will not go astray. Daniel prophesied that God would “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever” (2:44). We cannot simply assume that the kingdom of God referred to here is equivalent to the Church [p.245]of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Doctrine and Covenants 65:2 alludes to this revelation, saying, “The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.” What is the kingdom of God? Jesus says that the kingdom of God is within us. God within us is the Holy Spirit; the kingdom of God is the power of his spirit. Section 65:2 says that the stone symbolizes the gospel and that the keys of the kingdom have been committed to man. The fullness of the gospel is the Holy Ghost and the keys of the kingdom are the priesthood authority to bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost. In Section 35:25 Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, the kingdom is yours until I come.” When Jesus left his apostles before his crucifixion, he promised them that the Holy Spirit would abide with them until he returned.
In Section 112:30 the Lord states, “For unto you, the Twelve, and those, the First Presidency, who are appointed with you to be your counselors and your leaders, is the power of the priesthood given, for the last days and for the last time, in the which is the dispensation of the fullness of times.” This statement does not mean that the church and its leaders will never go astray. All that is required for its fulfillment is that some Melchizedek priesthood holders remain faithful.
The Book of Mormon contains many prophecies of the last days, but it is difficult to discover what they reveal about the course of the LDS church because Book of Mormon prophets never mention an institutional church of Christ restored in the last days. Nephi prophesies about the one who delivers the words of the book containing the fullness of the gospel (the Book of Mormon) to the people, but he says nothing about Joseph Smith founding a church. Nephi was told by an angel that there are only two churches, the church of the Lamb of God and the church of the devil (1 Ne. 14: 10). Certainly the angel was not talking about institutional churches, or visible churches, as they are sometimes called, but invisible or spiritual churches. Some people are spiritually Christ’s and some are spiritually the devil’s, and, of course, some are not yet in either church. The other main distinction that Book of Mormon prophets make about the people of the last days is between gentiles, Jews, and the remnant of Jacob. The remnant of Jacob are the descendants of Lehi in America in the last days. The gentiles are the descendants of the people who came from Europe to America, scattered the native peoples, and built a great nation. As Joseph Smith acknowledged, “[We members of the church descended from European nations] are identi-[p.246]with the Gentiles” (D&C 109:60). Thus all prophecies about gentiles in the Book of Monnon are potentially about the church. We must read them carefully to see if they apply to us. Nephi prophesies that some gentiles will believe the words of the book from God and will deliver it to the remnant of Jacob. This obviously refers to the church. He also discusses the many gentile churches of the last days which claim to be the Lord’s church but are not. He says that “they have all gone astray save it be a few who are the humble followers of Christ” (2 Ne. 28:14). Are there a few churches which are the humble followers of Christ? An institutional church is an “it”; it cannot follow Christ. Nephi is saying that all gentile churches have gone astray, but there are a few people in them who are humble followers of Christ. In verse 21 he writes, “And other … [people] will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth; all is well.” Which gentile church calls itself Zion?
At the end of the Book of Mormon, Moroni addresses the people of the churches in the last days who profess to believe in Christ and delivers a scathing condemnation of their sins. Like Nephi he makes no distinction among the churches. All the people of the churches, except a few, lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts. He cries, “Why have ye polluted the holy church of God?” (Morm. 8:38) Moroni could only be asking this of people whose churches were once or possibly still are the church of God. The Book of Mormon does teach that an American Zion will be established before and endure through the second coming of Christ, but it does not indicate that this Zion will be built by a gentile church. Jesus prophesied to the Nephites after his resurrection:
At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel [How could they sin against it if they had not accepted it?], and shall reject the fullness of my gospel [i.e., the Holy Ghost], and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things and shall reject the fullness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fullness of my gospel from among them (3 Ne. 16: 10).
And then will I remember my covenant which I have made unto my people, 0 house of Israel, and I will bring my gospel unto them …
[p.247]But if the Gentiles will repent and return unto me, saith the Father, behold they shaH be numbered among my people, 0 house of Israel … But if they will not turn unto me and hearken unto my voice, I will suffer my people, 0 house ofIsrael, that they shall go through among them and shall tread them down, and they shall be as salt that hath lost its savor (vv. 11, 13, 15).
In Doctrine and Covenants 101:39 the Lord says, “When men are called unto my everlasting gospel, and covenant with an everlasting cove nant, they are called the salt of the earth and savor of men.” This indicates that the gentiles Jesus is talking about are church members, people of the covenant.
Jesus tells the Nephites that the remnant of Jacob will build the New Jerusalem. The gentiles who repent will assist them. “And they [repentant gentiles] shall assist my people, the remnant of Jacob, and also as many of the House of Israel as shall come, that they may build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem” (3 Ne. 21:23).
The scriptures do not give any unconditional promises that the church will never fail, although there are some conditional ones. The condition of the promises is obedience to God, not obedience to leaders.
By hearkening to observe all the words which I, the Lord their God, shan speak unto them, they shall never cease to prevail until the kingdoms of the world are subdued under my feet, and the earth is given to the saints to possess it forever and ever.
But inasmuch as they keep not my commandments, and hearken not to observe an my words, the kingdoms of the world shall prevail against them (D&C 103:7-8).
Are there any scriptural passages which speak specifically of church leaders in the last days? Jesus warned his disciples that before his second coming many false prophets and false Christs will arise and deceive many. This warning surely applies to us as a church. A people who have been taught that they should accept whatever their leaders say uncritically without seeking their own spiritual confirmation of it will be a people easy to deceive.
Speaking of the church in the last days, the Lord said, “For it shall come to pass that the inhabitants of Zion shall judge all things pertaining to Zion. And liars and hypocrites shall be proved by them, and they who are not apostles and prophets shall be known” (D&C 64:38-39). This can only mean that some who have been appointed to be or daim to be apostles and prophets will be shown to be false apostles and prophets.
[p.248]Another passage in the Doctrine and Covenants reads:
And the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people;
For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant (1: 14-15).
The identification of this time as the time when those who will not hear the voice of the Lord will be cut off from among the people shows that this scripture is about the church in the last days. Isaiah also prophesies of a time of desolation brought about because the inhabitants of the earth “have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” (24:5). This scripture may prophesy of an actual change in ordinances as well as a falling away from gospel covenants. Who in the church has power to change the ordinances? Isaiah also prophesies of priests and prophets in the last days who “err in vision … [and] stumble in judgment” (28:7). Section 112 of the Doctrine and Covenants is directed specifically to Thomas Marsh, the first president of the Twelve, and through him to the Twelve; there is no indication that it takes on a broader audience. In the midst of this revelation the Lord prophesies of the time to come when
vengeance cometh speedily upon the inhabitants of the earth, a day of wrath, a day of burning, a day of desolation, of weeping, of mourning and of lamentation; and as a whirlwind it shall come upon all the face of the earth, saith the Lord.
And upon my house it shall begin, and from my house shall it go forth, saith the Lord;
First upon those among you, saith the Lord, who have professed to know my name and have not known me, and have blasphemed against me in the midst of my house (vv. 24-26).
The Lord will begin the judgments of the last days by judging first his own church, and in his church he will begin with the leaders who have blasphemed him in his temple.
Section 85 is a letter written by Joseph Smith to settle affairs in Missouri. In the middle of writing this letter, Joseph received a revelation from “the still small voice which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake, while it maketh manifest.” He testified that this revelation was from the Lord and would be fulfilled by the Lord. The revelation reads:
[p.249]And it shall come to pass that I, the Lord God will send one mighty and strong, holding the scepter of power in his hand, clothed with light for a covering, whose mouth shall utter words, eternal words; while his bowels shall be a fountain of truth, to set in order the house of God …
While that man, who was called of God and appointed, that putteth forth his hand to steady the ark of God, shall fall by the shaft of death (vv.7-8).
This revelation contrasts two leaders of the last days: one who is mighty and strong, another who is called of God and appointed. One has the power of God, the other has the right to lead. The one mighty and strong will be sent directly from God, the other leader will be called and appointed through authorized church procedures. The one mighty and strong will set the house of God in order, the church leader will sin by putting forth his hand to steady the ark of God.
“Steadying the ark” is usually interpreted by church membets to mean attempting to do something which one is not authorized to do, such as counseling or criticizing church authorities. But this man, who sins by steadying the ark, will be called of God and appointed. How can he be unauthorized to steady the ark? To answer this we need to think about the meaning of the symbol of the ark of God. Noah and his family were saved in an ark from the judgments of God. Could the ark be the salvation of God? The ark of the covenant of the Israelites symbolized the presence of God among them. The mercy seat, which covered the ark, was considered to be the place where Jehovah came to be with his people. “And there will I meet with thee and commune with thee from above the mercy seat” (Ex. 25:22). The Lord is present with his people through the Holy Spirit and he communes with them by its power. Will this man try to control the powers of God rather than seek to receive them by principles of righteousness? Will he try to put himself between the Lord and his people? Will he try to do the work of the Holy Spirit because of a lack of faith in the power of God?
In the parable of the ten virgins the Lord distinguishes between church members who are prepared for the Second Coming and those who are not. He describes the wise ones as those who “have received the truth, and taken the Holy Spirit for their guide” (D&C 45:57). The Lord does not advise us to be guided by the prophet. He does not tell us to follow the prophet. He says simply, “Follow me.” The Holy Spirit will guide us to him. Jesus Christ is the one we are to have faith in. He is the one we must hear.