Alma 6

Alma 6 is a bridging chapter, between the sermons in 5 and 7, and so it’s likely not to make quite so much of a doctrinal impact. However, there’s some useful details about the Church in here:

And now it came to pass that after Alma had made an end of speaking unto the people of the church, which was established in the city of Zarahemla, he ordained priests and elders, by laying on his hands according to the order of God, to preside and watch over the church.

And it came to pass that whosoever did not belong to the church who repented of their sins were baptized unto repentance, and were received into the church.

And it also came to pass that whosoever did belong to the church that did not repent of their wickedness and humble themselves before God—I mean those who were lifted up in the pride of their hearts—the same were rejected, and their names were blotted out, that their names were not numbered among those of the righteous.

And thus they began to establish the order of the church in the city of Zarahemla.

(Alma 6:1-4)

Alma ordains priests and elders, he ensures that the penitent who don’t belong to the Church are baptised, and that those who are impenitent are removed from the records of the Church. Running through all this is a theme of order, and I don’t just mean (although it certainly includes) the sense that this all requires authority from God. There is a sense of putting things into their proper place and order by placing those who are genuinely repentant and thus already part of God’s people in their hearts into God’s church in truth, and likewise removing those from it who have no desire to belong or to live according to its standards, and so who are already not members in their heart.

Verse 5 and 6 caught my eye too:

Now I would that ye should understand that the word of God was liberal unto all, that none were deprived of the privilege of assembling themselves together to hear the word of God.

Nevertheless the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God.

I think most people would read verse 5 as being connected with verse 3 (those who were removed from the Church), and I think they are linked; removal from church records (including excommunication) is not to be a bar on anyone seeking to attend Church meetings or worship services (see, for instance, Christ’s instructions in 3 Nephi 18:22-23). But the text ties this in with its statement in verse 6, which it places in some contrast. Verse 6 quite obviously speaks to the Church being commanded to meet together often, and fast and pray for those who don’t know God. So I’m wondering in what sense verse 5 is in contrast to this.

There may be several possibilities; perhaps some of the distinction is down to the fasting and praying for those who don’t know God. But I wonder if it’s partly down to the notion of people being commanded in verse 6. Members of the Church are commanded to meet together often to worship. But that command is by no means a limitation: if people wish to meet together at other times to hear the word of God they are not deprived from doing so (in the same way, for a modern example, that when “Come Follow Me” was introduced it was suggested that some groups might like to meet together informally to discuss their scripture reading). While there is order in the Church, it’s not meant to limit or direct everything we do in terms of our relationship with God. We are meant to “do many things of [our] own free will” and not to be “compelled in all things” (D&C 58:27, 26). Yet at the same time it is right that there be certain expectations: anything we do off our own backs is in no way meant to keep us from worshipping together as God commands.

Alma 4

In the past few chapters, we’ve had considerable conflict centred principally on those who’d rejected the Church and embraced the false teachings of Nehor. However, lest we think mere Church membership grants us immunity from human ills, what we have in this chapter are problems caused within the Church:

And it came to pass in the eighth year of the reign of the judges, that the people of the church began to wax proud, because of their exceeding riches, and their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen, and because of their many flocks and herds, and their gold and their silver, and all manner of precious things, which they had obtained by their industry; and in all these things were they lifted up in the pride of their eyes, for they began to wear very costly apparel.

(Alma 4:6)

A recurring theme in the Book of Mormon, as we shall see, is how prosperity can lead to pride, and pride be the “gateway” for further wickedness. As this chapter clearly shows, members of the Church are by no means immune to these temptations.

Now this was the cause of much affliction to Alma, yea, and to many of the people whom Alma had consecrated to be teachers, and priests, and elders over the church; yea, many of them were sorely grieved for the wickedness which they saw had begun to be among their people.

For they saw and beheld with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure.

And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.

And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.

(Alma 4:7-10)

Pride here causes members of the Church to set their hearts upon riches, to mistreat each other, and to lead to “great contentions”, “envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions”. Perhaps most damning of all is that last phrase, speaking of the pride of these members, which did “exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God”. Simple membership alone does not confer virtue, and in this case it seems things had become so bad that many members were worse than those outside, despite the fact that they’d presumably been taught against such things. I found that quite something to think about (and that this became “a great stumbling-block” and “the church began to fail in its progress” seems inevitable under the circumstances.

However, I also found Alma’s reaction interesting. I’ve read these passages many times before, so there’s not any plot elements, so to speak, that come as a surprise. So I’ve had the opportunity to read many times of Alma giving up the office of chief judge (to Nephihah, vv. 16-17), and keeping the office of high priest (incidentally separating them once again), so that:

… he himself might go forth among his people, or among the people of Nephi, that he might preach the word of God unto them, to stir them up in remembrance of their duty, and that he might pull down, by the word of God, all the pride and craftiness and all the contentions which were among his people, seeing no way that he might reclaim them save it were in bearing down in pure testimony against them.

(Alma 4:19)

Upon reading it this time, however, I was struck by the fact that for many of us, giving up an office in these circumstances may have felt like a failure. We tend to look upon such things as accomplishments, or opportunities for accomplishments, and so simply giving up the office in this way may feel like a confession of inadequacy. Likewise, many people seeking to make changes in the world seek political office and power: Alma, seeking to make a change, had political power and gave it up. Moreover, as I think the subsequent chapters show, he was right to do so. It’s perhaps an example to reflect upon when we consider what constitutes failure and inadequacy on one hand, and on what we should be doing if we seek change too on the other.

Mosiah 25

And so in this chapter we’re all finally caught back up into the same time frame, with Limhi and his people and Alma and the Church all now at Zarahemla with King Mosiah.

Firstly, something of a demographic note:

Now there were not so many of the children of Nephi, or so many of those who were descendants of Nephi, as there were of the people of Zarahemla, who was a descendant of Mulek, and those who came with him into the wilderness.

And there were not so many of the people of Nephi and of the people of Zarahemla as there were of the Lamanites; yea, they were not half so numerous.

While leadership amongst the Nephites has remained amongst the Nephites proper (v. 13), we find here that they are actually outnumbered by those who are ethnically descendants of Mulek. Furthermore (and this will be of particular relevance in the book of Alma), both groups together are significantly outnumbered by those grouped under the term Lamanites.

I was struck by verses 5 & 6:

And it came to pass that Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records of Zeniff to his people; yea, he read the records of the people of Zeniff, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until they returned again.

And he also read the account of Alma and his brethren, and all their afflictions, from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.

I guess what dawned on me is what would have happened if Zeniff and his people, and Alma and so on, hadn’t kept any records? Obviously Mosiah wouldn’t be able to read anything. This who communal experience they’re about to have wouldn’t happen. The knowledge, the teachings, the experiences and the wisdom gained from them contained in those records would be lost. I guess it underlined to me – as a number of passages in the book of Mosiah have, the importance of record keeping..

And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement.

For they knew not what to think; for when they beheld those that had been delivered out of bondage they were filled with exceedingly great joy.

And again, when they thought of their brethren who had been slain by the Lamanites they were filled with sorrow, and even shed many tears of sorrow.

And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.

And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.

(Mosiah 25:7-11)

This passage reminds me a bit about some discussions I’ve had with people about the synchronised response to King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 5. There’s no reported speech here, so there’s no issue with that, and we have a range of feelings described. While the passage is speaking of all the people, the way these feelings are juxtaposed together leads me to think they can be mixed in multiple ways. One is as a sequential series of feelings; King Mosiah is, after all, sharing the records, and different parts of that story are likely to provoke a different response (and some of these responses are to specific events in the narrative being told). But I also think that – just as is true for us – it is likely that different people in the audience responded differently, that different parts of the account leapt out at them and made an impact. Some people may have been moved more to sorrow, while for others such feelings may have been dwarfed at their joy at seeing those delivered. I think the way this passage is narrated really communicates that mix of feelings amongst the audience. I don’t know of any particularly profound point that can be drawn from that, other than that as individuals, we’re likely to have different emotional responses, or find different things personally resonating, to anything we come across (including the scriptures themselves, which is presumably why a key aim with the “Come Follow Me” programme is that we not only study, but then share what we’ve learned with others.

The final passage that I’d like to comment on is in verses 19-21:

And it came to pass that king Mosiah granted unto Alma that he might establish churches throughout all the land of Zarahemla; and gave him power to ordain priests and teachers over every church.

Now this was done because there were so many people that they could not all be governed by one teacher; neither could they all hear the word of God in one assembly;

Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches; every church having their priests and their teachers, and every priest preaching the word according as it was delivered to him by the mouth of Alma.

This is an important transition step, amongst a bunch that will be happening over the next few chapters. For much of the immediate preceding history, the political and religious leadership has been the same: King Benjamin and Mosiah were both the political and religious leaders of their people, in much the same way that Moses, Joshua or even Nephi were. Zeniff too consecrated priests, as for that matter so did Noah, though obviously that didn’t go so well (Mosiah 11:5). Abinadi seems a bit of an exception, since he seems to come from outside the hierarchy and opposing the king, in a manner akin to Elijah or Elisha, and like them he did so alone. Alma then established the Church, but it was for a while a separate society and entirely self-governing. Here, however, we have a clear step to the Church being a distinct institution, with a distinct earthly leadership (namely Alma) from the state in the form of the monarchy, but co-existing alongside it at the same time. It’s interesting that this actually happens at a point when both the high priest of the Church and the king are inspired individuals; perhaps that’s what made this step possible (it’s undoubtedly part of the reason that the co-existence, at this point, is so smooth). As we’ll see over the next few chapters, this is part of a range of changes that are occurring in Nephite society at this time.

Mosiah 21

And now we catch back up to the “present” after the flashback scene (just before we embark on another flashback scene with Alma!). There’s a few things in this chapter that caught my eye today.

The first is in verses 24-26:

But when he found that they were not, but that they were his brethren, and had come from the land of Zarahemla, he was filled with exceedingly great joy.

Now king Limhi had sent, previous to the coming of Ammon, a small number of men to search for the land of Zarahemla; but they could not find it, and they were lost in the wilderness.

Nevertheless, they did find a land which had been peopled; yea, a land which was covered with dry bones; yea, a land which had been peopled and which had been destroyed; and they, having supposed it to be the land of Zarahemla, returned to the land of Nephi, having arrived in the borders of the land not many days before the coming of Ammon.

We could have perhaps inferred this before, but this seems to be the first time it is clearly stated: those who’d set off to obtain help from Zarahemla and found the destroyed cities of the Jaredites instead thought they actually had reached Zarahemla. But rather than being their last source for help, they found nothing but ruins and evidence of an extinct people. It must have seemed truly hopeless (it’s like that scene in Battlestar Galactica – the “new” one – where they find “Earth” only to find it a nuked out wasteland). So when Ammon and party announced that they actually were from Zarahemla, there must have been some (good) emotional whiplash.

Next is perhaps a more minor note, but verse 28 reads:

And now Limhi was again filled with joy on learning from the mouth of Ammon that king Mosiah had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings; yea, and Ammon also did rejoice.

However, in the 1830, the line (the 1830 edition doesn’t have verses) reads a little differently:

And now Limhi was again filled with joy, on learning from the mouth of Ammon that king Benjamin had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings; yea, and Ammon also did rejoice.

IMG_20200515_134836257

See!

What’s going on here? Is this a mistake? Well that’s possible (the Book of Mormon, after all, disclaims inerrancy on its very title page). That’s probably why it got changed to Mosiah in the 1837 edition, although Benjamin is also on the printer’s manuscript (see Royal Skousen’s Analysis of Textual Variations part 3, in which he goes into this verse in some detail in pp. 1418-1421. As he notes, Ether 4:1 similarly originally read Benjamin and not Mosiah). It could of course be an error on Mormon’s part. However, it’s possibly not an error at all and should read Benjamin. Note that in Mosiah 6 it is recorded that after abdicating (becoming King Emiritus?), “king Benjamin lived three years and he died” (Mosiah 6:5). And Ammon’s party were sent to find the colonists after the people started nagging the king “after king Mosiah had had continual peace for the space of three years” (Mosiah 7:1). In other words, it’s possible that Benjamin was still alive when Ammon and his party set off, although the time frame is tight (especially for Ether 4:1, which also requires Benjamin to still be alive, if only for a short time, when Ammon returns; but again, that might actually be possible). Of course, the correct reading here matters little in terms of the principles that are being taught, but it’s interesting to think about.

A final thing that stood out to me while reading today comes from Ammon and his party’s reaction to the events they’ve been told about:

….and they also did mourn for the death of Abinadi; and also for the departure of Alma and the people that went with him, who had formed a church of God through the strength and power of God, and faith on the words which had been spoken by Abinadi.

Yea, they did mourn for their departure, for they knew not whither they had fled. Now they would have gladly joined with them, for they themselves had entered into a covenant with God to serve him and keep his commandments.

It’s interesting that Ammon has a desire to unite with the church Alma organised, although he’s already made a covenant with God during King Benjamin’s sermon. There’s a couple of more examples coming up in the next few chapters, but what I feel this really illustrates is some important differences between what “the Church” meant here and what it tends to mean to us today. We think in terms of one, singular, formal organization, and perhaps have a very monolithic picture in which it encompasses all our religious endeavours (and maybe we go too far in that sometimes; it’s in modern scripture that we are told that we should not need to be “command[ed] in all things”, and should “do many thing of [our] own free will”, D&C 58:26-27). But that’s certainly not the case with the “Church” (which, it should be remembered, is generally translating words that can be rendered as “congregation” and “community”) in other dispensations. The early Christians, for instance, continued to worship at the temple (and thus recognised the authority of the priesthood there) after the resurrection of Christ. Likewise here: King Benjamin is a seer, and an inspired man who received specific revelation from an angel on what to teach people, and taught his people so they might enter into a covenant with God. But he didn’t organize a church like Alma did, and so one who has entered into a covenant under the instruction of King Benjamin sees no contradiction in wanting to join Alma’s church, and recognises the divine hand and authority behind both.

Mosiah 18

I find that as I read the account of Alma preaching, his words on baptism and the account of the Church he established, there’s a few things I’m curious about; I’ve noticed (and wondered about) them before, and so am still wondering:

  1. Where and when (and how) precisely did Alma obtain his authority? He mentions having it when baptising Helam (v. 13, as is proper; we still do the same!), and again reference is made to him having it when he ordains priests in verse 18. Did this require something like angelic intervention, or was his prior ordination as a priest considered legitimate, even if the priests and Noah himself had been corrupt? There doesn’t seem to have been any opportunity for Abinadi himself to be the conduit (at least in terms of conveying it by ordination).
  2. Why did Alma immerse himself in the water at the same time he baptized Helam? That doesn’t seem like it would count as a full baptism (contrast, after all, the fact that John the Baptist had Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery alternate in baptizing each other, JS-H 1:70). Was it a symbolic act, or did it have deeper significance?

As said, these are curiosities rather than concerns. They shouldn’t trouble us as such: I think one thing this chapter illustrates is that there can and have been significant differences in Church organization and ordinances in different dispensations, but at the same time deep continuity. Sometimes I see people confused over the idea that God and truth don’t change on one hand, but seeing or experiencing changes within the Church on the other.

This is sometimes seen as contradictory: a conflict between “doctrine” doesn’t change and yet “doctrine” apparently changing. Of course, that really depends on how one defines “doctrine”; the word just means “teaching”, after all, and we tend to use it in a much more expansive and woolly sense than the Book of Mormon itself does. But not everything we do within the Church, even when commanded by God, is an eternal truth. The Word of Wisdom, for instance, may be based on good principles but is also a specific instruction for the last days (D&C 89:2). Likewise, the Mosaic prohibition against eating pork does not apply now (since I like bacon, I think we got the better half of the deal). Even the prohibition against murder can only apply while mortal life (and so the possibility of murder) exists (and there’s also been specific exceptions to that in this life…) God is eternal, but a wide variety of instruction, teachings, counsel and even commandments do change. This is because they are manifestations of God’s will to enable us to hold onto unchanging truths in a world where the challenges we face shift and change, not unchanging instruments in and of themselves.

And I think this chapter really demonstrates and shows that. Thus the Church is organized quite differently from the way we have it today, in the sense that only one in fifty members was ordained as a priest (v. 18). This may seem very different to members used to the current idea of every worthy male member being ordained; indeed so different that some readers attempt to project back modern practices and in doing so end up misreading the book. But – while it may not be entirely clear quite where Alma got it from – it is still the case that performing ordinances, teaching, and conferring authority required authority from God. The details may have changed, but there is a core of continuity. Likewise, the words that Alma baptizes Helam with are quite different from those given by Christ (which we largely follow today) in 3 Nephi 11. But conceptually the connection is so clear that this chapter including those very words are still used a primary resource to teach about the covenant we make at baptism. Indeed, the notion that we covenant to “serve [God] and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you” (Mosiah 18:10) is clearly expressed in current ordinances in the sacrament prayers. The form may have changed, but the truths expressed have not.

Why go to church

I’ve recently seen several posts, giving various reasons why people found it emotionally difficult to go to church and in some cases had stopped. It’s happened to coincide with a few things in my personal study, so I thought I should touch on the topic. It’s one where – for all the difficulty I have with empathy – I think I’m in some position to understand. I too find church difficult at times. Part of this is simply due to the fact that I find groups difficult anyway (thankfully people in my ward are very understanding about this). On some occasions, however, I do run into the same difficulty that I’ve seen mentioned: namely the emphasis the Church places on the family. I’m a 35 year old never married male, in a Church where one prominent leader taught that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”*. Nor do I particularly have a litany of successes outside the “home”. So when the topic turns to families, or eternal marriage, or whatever, it’s hard not to feel like some sort of failure. And I know there’s quite a lot of people in different circumstances who experience similar feelings of falling short.

I’ve seen some attempts to regard this as some sort of cultural difficulty, as opposed to a doctrinal matter. Yet I do not believe that can resolve everything. While there are definitely sentiments and so on out there that are the product of culture, culture isn’t exactly something that can be easily or swiftly steered, and certainly isn’t easily amenable to central direction (I can only imagine that governments would love to if they could). Furthermore, this isn’t just an issue of culture: the importance of the family, the covenant of eternal marriage and so on are matters of doctrine, and they’re ones the world needs to hear. At a time when such matters are increasingly depreciated in Western civilisation, the Church would be failing in its divine responsibility were it not to speak frequently on these topics. The Church’s message is true and needed, even if it may cause discomfort in those who’d like those blessings but who have not received them. There’s a dilemma here that reminds me of Jacob 2 and 3, where (as I mention) Jacob is left having to give a message that may cause some distress because other people need to hear it.

And, after all, this is not the only such thing that may cause discomfort in attending church. I’ve mentioned my own personal difficulty around groups of people. Others may feel they don’t fit in, or face some other anxiety about their situation. Many have their crosses to bear, in many cases through no fault of their own. While others can perhaps make these things easier, ultimately some individuals will be faced with choosing between attending church and incurring some discomfort, and choosing not to.

I can understand the latter decision. But I believe it is a mistake, and one perhaps grounded in a misunderstanding of what attending church is supposed to do. From the way that I’ve heard a number of people speak, there seems to be an expectation that attending church is something we do for our sake, so we feel uplifted or edified or so on. With that expectation, it is understandable that people may conclude that if it is not doing that, well, why go?

It is true that one of the purposes of meeting together is to be “instruct[ed] and edif[ied]” (D&C 43:8) and “speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls” (Moroni 6:5). But if that were the only reason, well we’d often fall short. To quote Bruce R. McConkie:

…We come into these congregations, and sometimes a speaker brings a jug of living water that has in it many gallons. And when he pours it out on the congregation, all the members have brought is a single cup and so that’s all they take away. Or maybe they have their hands over the cups, and they don’t get anything to speak of.

On other occasions we have meetings where the speaker comes and all he brings is a little cup of eternal truth, and the members of the congregation come with a large jug, and all they get in their jugs is the little dribble that came from a man who should have known better and who should have prepared himself and talked from the revelations and spoken by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Sure, it’s an opportunity to be uplifted and enlightened, and when that happens: great! But the Lord has chosen in his wisdom to staff the place with very imperfect volunteers, and so we don’t always deliver what other people need. We should try harder, of couse. But if we were to assess the Church as if we were some sort of consumer, expecting a service to be delivered, then we are bound to be disappointed.

But that’s not why the Lord has us meet together, certainly not as mere recipients of a service. Setting aside the fact that the Lord also expect us to seek to teach and encourage others also, the scriptures give us a number of other key reasons to worship together.

Firstly, it’s a commandment. If we believe in a God who has given us commandments, we have to take seriously scriptural statements that “the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft” (Alma 6:6), or (as part of a modern decalogue) the commandment “and that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” (D&C 59:9).

Secondly, as in the verse quoted above, its an opportunity to participate in sacred ordinances, most especially that of the sacrament. Participating in this is likewise a commandment, one we are to “always observe to do” (3 Nephi 18:6-7, 10-12, D&C 20:75), and a major reason for the Church to “meet together oft” (Moroni 6:6).

Thirdly, and encompassing the points mentioned above, we are to gather together not to receive a service, but to worship. The “children of God” were commanded to meet together often to “join in fasting and mighty prayer in behalf of the welfare of the souls of those who knew not God” (Alma 6:5–6). They “assemble[d] themselves together at their sanctuaries to worship God before the altar, watching and praying continually” (Alma 15:17). The church established by Alma at the waters of Mormon had “one day in every week that was set apart that they should gather themselves together to teach the people, and to worship the Lord their God, and also, as often as it was in their power, to assemble themselves together” (Mosiah 18:25). As the commandment in Section 59 elaborates (v.10):

For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors, and to pay thy devotions unto the Most High;

None of these other purposes really depend upon what other people do or feel or say. Other people might be insensitive, or unthoughtful, or unsupportive or even judgmental (though I often find people worry about being “judged” by a congregation who are actually far more worried about their own problems). We may not fit in; they may not like us; we may not enjoy it; we may not feel we have gotten the right “experience”; it may be uncomfortable or even painful. But none of that matters.

This is not to detract from the fact that attending church may require much more from some people than it does others. I sympathise with those facing that. I also know the Lord is just and merciful, and I have no doubt that He will recognise that, and judge (and bless) accordingly. But perhaps it will help us if we recognise that going to church is not about what other people do or feel towards us, or even about how we feel and whether we feel good or uplifted. It’s about about obeying and worshipping God, and Him only. Other people are involved because He has commanded us to worship collectively, and as part of our worship He has expectations as to how we treat them and the rest of his children. But whether we enjoy church or not, whether we fit in or not, whether we feel uplifted or not: none of this can stop us from paying our devotions to the Most High. And if we attend and reverently offer our worship, despite our difficulties, then we are doing what the Lord requires of us.

 

* Postscript: Interestingly, it seems that David O. McKay did not coin this particular quote, but was actually quoting a particular author. President Harold B. Lee also offered a paraphrase of this particularly quotation, which may be encouraging for those who are trying but feel like they are meeting little success in family life: “Remember, paraphrasing what President McKay said, “No success will compensate for failure in the home.” Remember also that no home is a failure as long as that home doesn’t give up.” (Emphasis from linked blog).

On Sustaining the Brethren

The brief discussion here (and the linked ‘letter’) reminded me of several conversations I’ve had in the last few months, in the wake of things like the amendments to the Church handbook of instructions. In particular I’ve been asked, by a friend who has had difficulties reconciling themselves with the policy, whether given certain conditions I’d still put up my hand and sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve.

To which the answer would be yes. But any such question, I believe, can help us to understand what we’re truly doing.

When we’re asked to sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators, we’re not being asked if they’re nice guys. We’re not being asked whether we agree with their talks or their actions. We hypothetically might have disagreements about particular policies or issues (and hopefully we should recognise that while we do not claim infallibility for anyone, that includes ourselves!). But really, that’s not what we’re being asked about. I happen to think C.S. Lewis got an awful lot of things right, but I’m not raising my hand to sustain him as prophet, seer and revelator.

What that question is asking is whether we accept that God has called them to their positions, that they hold His authority in His Church, and that they are entitled and able to receive revelation from God to guide His Church. And that’s something we can only really come to know from God through supernatural experiences of our own.

As it happens I’ve had those experiences. I’ve felt, heard and seen marvellous things, and have continued to experience and see God’s power, including through His priesthood and His Church. I don’t say all this to boast, because I don’t really have much to boast of; I am just fortunate that God is merciful. But having had them, I need to remember them and not ignore them; having had them and the big questions answered, any other issues really just become a matter of details.

So for anyone else who is wondering whether they should sustain the brethren, I really think its important to ask the key questions: not upon what they may think or feel about any particular policy, but on whether they believe and/or know that this is the Lord’s church and that God has called those men as prophets within it. If they’re not sure at present, I’d encourage them to work from what they do know God has revealed to them and to remember what experiences they’ve had. If they’ve written them down at all, reread them. If they haven’t had those experiences yet, then they should seek for them. If they have, I’d encourage them to seek new such experiences from him, because the gospel teaches not that we should work things out for ourselves (how can we?), but that each of us as individuals may approach and get answers from He who is the source of all truth. And what we’re putting our hand up to is really what we believe and/or know He thinks.

Wolves and Sheep

Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.

(Matthew 7:15)

But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep.

(John 10:12)

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him.

And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you; and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.

(Alma 5:59-60)

Pastoral images are used frequently in the Bible, often to describe the relationship between us and Christ, and particularly between Christ and his Church. John 10 and Alma 5 develop this image most fully, to slightly different ends: the principal point of John 10 hinges around the identity of the good shepherd; Alma 5 as to whether we are included with his sheep.

But there is another aspect to these images, as the quotes above illuminate: the existence of wolves.

Wolves are very real.

People can do a lot of damage. And others can be very vulnerable.

Wolves are also a very pertinent topic. I’ve seen in a number of places opposition to the idea that anyone has to deal with them, that some people are wolves at all, or that actions to exclude them – such as excommunication – are at all necessary. This opposition appears to me to be founded on several misconceptions:

The first is the idea that Christ himself would never exclude or judge. This itself is a myth, when it is Christ himself who will be our ultimate judge. I’ve written about this before.

The second is that in the Church the spreading of ideas should carry no consequence.  It is certainly the case that Wolves, human predators, can take a variety of forms. Physical, emotional, sexual or financial predators are all threats, and certainly many of the scriptural warnings above and the injunctions about protecting the flock (whatever flock that is) from wolves apply. Much of what I will say here would also apply. We should always aim to protect the innocent. But the first scripture quoted above has Christ warning particularly against “false prophets”, not these other categories of predators. We are warned in the latter days against “false teachers” and “false doctrines” (2 Nephi 28:12), and need to be vigilant in an age when men “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:50, 2 Nephi 15:20).

Ideas have consequences. They affect what we feel and what we do, and we will be held accountable for them. As the episcopal spirit is asked in C.S Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” Alma likewise teaches that in addition to our words and works “our thoughts will also condemn us” (Alma 12:14). And there is a world of difference between someone who is personally wondering and questioning over what is true (something I am sure most must face at some stage) and someone campaigning to replace the teachings of the Church with their own ideas. That’s not questioning: they’ve already settled their own mind. Indeed they’re trying to remake Church doctrine in the image of their own mind. Nor, for that matter, are they making a great stand for openness and free thought when they demand their own precepts should enjoy immunity from criticism, but that they should be free as members of Christ’s church to denigrate its teachings.

They are, as individuals, free to campaign for whatever they wish. But the Church is under no obligation to act as a neutral witness, or act as a host for those who oppose its teachings. And when people teach others that certain sins are not sins, for example, or teach a denial of the resurrection, or teach disbelief in experiences (such as revelations and spiritual gifts) that are necessary for salvation, their teachings can lead others down to hell. Is there to be no accountability for this? Is the Church of God supposed to stand idly by and just watch the deception of the flock? Certain false teachings can lead to eternal damage, and the Church is under no obligation to permit people to use the cloak of Church membership to lead its members astray.

The third misconception is the idea that Christ taught us that we must never judge. It is certainly true that there are certain judgments we must leave to God, and eternal judgments are his prerogative. We are meant to focus upon our own sins, and in my experience we usually have enough to keep us busy. But Christ’s command in the Sermon on the Mount to “judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1) is sorely misunderstood if we believe that means we must never judge (and we are in serious danger if we believe that frees us personally from any accountability). As the next verse shows, the point of the passage is that we will be judged by same standard we extend: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2). Christ also teaches us to “judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24), as does the JST of Matthew 7:1-2. Alma likewise teaches that we should “judge righteously” and then “ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again” (Alma 41:14).

This is because some judgment is inevitable in this life. Yes, we must be careful and cautious (for, as I heard a wise Elders Quorum President teach once, we often have the tendency to judge others by their actions but ourselves by our intentions). We must “judge righteously”. But even as individuals it is often necessary for us to judge who we associate with, who we marry and who we trust. We have to judge who we listen to, who we take counsel from, and who we ultimately follow. And many people have responsibilities that go beyond the individual that demand they judge. Parents need to judge in order to look after and protect their children. And Church leaders have a responsibility to judge to protect the flock; indeed Christ teaches above that if one does not, such a shepherd is a mere hireling.

Now there is obviously a need for discernment, wisdom and divine aid in this judgment. Overzealousness can be damaging. It is a terrible mistake if some wandering sheep, or a prodigal son, or even just some poor sheep that’s with the ninety and nine but is confused about a few things is treated as a wolf. It’s also wrong if we as individuals infringe upon the duties and responsibilities of those who have this task. But those in a position of a responsibility have the duty to judge: to both judge who needs especially help (indeed it’s a tragedy if a wandering sheep is judged not to need any help) and to protect the other members of the flock from those who’d prey upon them (in whatever way that might be). This is especially true for those whose calling specifically labels them as a “judge” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:17-18, 64:40, 107:72-74).

The fourth misconception is that such judgments are inherently unloving, and fail to display Christlike love. It is important for us to remember that every human being born on this earth is a child of our Father in Heaven, and he loves them. We are likewise commanded to love all his children (2 Nephi 31:20). Wolves are not born wolves, and it is possible for former wolves to become part of the flock, like Alma the younger and the sons of Mosiah. Furthermore Christ commands us to love even our “enemies”, and pray for those who mistreat us (Matthew 5:44). If someone is acting the part of a wolf – in any of the variety of ways I mention above – that is something to be mourned.

But I believe there is often here a significant misunderstanding of justice and mercy (something I hope to return to in the future) and the role of divine love in each. We sometimes seem to treat justice as something bad and mercy as something good, but this is not the case. Both are divine attributes (Alma 42:15). An unjust God would be a more terrible thing than it seems many can even imagine, punishing the innocent and rewarding the guilty. Justice isn’t just about punishing the transgressor, it is also about protecting those transgressed against, and restoring their hurts. Mercy extended to predators without condition is showing merciless cruelty to their prey.

If those who have a duty to care for a flock (a family, a congregation, or whatever), out of a misguided sense of love and compassion, give a wolf the opportunity and license to savage the flock, they are being unloving to the sheep. It’s not even good for the wolf eternally: to take the example of Church discipline, that can prompt repentance and a goal is to save the soul of the transgressor as well as protect the innocent. But it is especially uncharitable to any sheep who have been sacrificed to the idea that mercy can rob justice. If charity and compassion cause the sheep to be left to the mercy of the wolves, then the shepherds have blood on their hands.

That is not the example of the good shepherd. The good shepherd drives out the wolves, and even if necessary destroys them (Alma 5:59) not because he hates wolves, but because he loves his sheep. He “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The good shepherd cares for and is vigilant in protecting his sheep, and those who have some responsibility for his flock likewise have the responsibility to feed, care, heal and protect his sheep.