There’s several scriptural warnings about wresting the scriptures (2 Peter 3:16, Alma 13:20, Alma 41:1 and D&C 10:63), of distorting their meaning, consciously or unconsciously, to suit our own ends or views. And it’s possible that the overall lack of scriptural literacy and respect for the scriptures has the effect of making that less of a problem compared to some other eras. But I believe there is one broad manifestation of the same sort of thing that does transcend eras, and one that is certainly popping up now.
I’ve seen in a number of places – blogs, online comments, personal conversations – a number of assertions about what Christ would or would not do. And a big theme among most of what I run across is the idea that Christ in his mortal ministry always accepted, without conditions, that he never judged, never excludes and never condemns sin. This leads to claims that teaching certain commandments or maintaining that certain things are right or wrong is not Christlike.
Yet this image of Christ doesn’t square with the Christ we actually know, the one who:
And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables
Or the one who prophesied:
Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
Or the one who taught:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.
Or the Jesus who told his opponents:
Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
Of course Christ extended His (and his Father’s) love and mercy. But he associated with publicans and sinners to save them from their sins, not to reassure them in their sins. He did not stone the adulterous woman, but he still told her “go, and sin no more”. And yes, he teaches us to “judge not, lest ye be judged”, but not only is that instruction often sorely misunderstood (we should definitely refrain from eternal judgments, but parents who don’t “judge” who is fit or unfit to look after their children are being derelict in their duties), but Christ also asserted that the Father had “given him authority to execute judgment” and “as I hear, I judge”. Nothing in Christ’s teachings authorises the modern idea that all judgment is wrong, or that we have some sort of right to never have anyone disapprove of our behaviour – even God. And an image of Christ that does is a partial and distorted image. We cannot follow God and Christ if we espouse love and mercy,but forget their justice and their righteousness. Mercy cannot rob justice.
This is not the only way our image of Christ and God can be distorted of course (the 17th century, in a mirror of ours, seems to have often forgotten His love and mercy), though perhaps it is one of the most common ways today. We are all flawed human beings, of often limited understanding, and we are all likely to see and understand an imperfect picture. But any attribute we leave out, and any teaching we neglect diminishes our understanding because we have effectively made an image of our own making the object of our worship. To truly follow Christ, we need to follow the whole Christ, and if we hope “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] son”, then it helps if our image embraces the whole truth.