Part II â€“ The Gospel is Perfect?
I did a google search as well as a search of the www.lds.org data base of two phrases: â€œThe Church is Perfectâ€ and â€œThe Gospel is Perfectâ€. I noticed an interesting pattern. By and large, faithful Mormons do not say â€œthe Church is perfectâ€, and the lds.org data base does not include a single incidence of that phrase. The faithful almost universally say something like “the Gospel is perfect but the people are not”, and the lds.org site does contain that phrase.
There is an important difference between the â€œChurchâ€ and the â€œgospelâ€. The Church is the collection of imperfect people who try to follow the dictates of the Gospel, which is taken to be the perfect word of God. Mormon leaders are quick to admit that they, and all of their predecessors are imperfect, and that their imperfections are not evidence that the Mormon Church is not Godâ€™s church. Mormons say that God must work through the agency of imperfect humans to accomplish his purposes, one of which is the â€œperfecting of the Saintsâ€. I recall being moved a number of years ago at General Conference by a women who spoke in that inimitable Intermountain West accent while modelling a squished beehive-type hairdo. She was, I think, I member of Primary General Presidency. She went on about how grateful she was that members of her ward and stake were imperfect! Spectacularly imperfect! This, she gushed, gave her the chance to develop her patience and love in the best possible environment for that kind of thing! The Church was perfecting her because of the imperfections of its members! Isnâ€™t that amazing! I wonder where else on Earth one might find imperfect human beings to test onesâ€™ patience? This must mean Mormonism is â€œtrueâ€!
In any event, the Mormon Church is clearly not perfect. And this goes far beyond its being comprised of imperfect individuals. The Church is structurally imperfect in ways that incline it toward certain kinds of predictable abuses. And these structural flaws are traceable to its foundational instructions as contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, a set of â€œrevelationsâ€ Smith purported to received from God, and in which he was instructed as to how the Mormon Church was to be set up and operated.
For example, the Mormon Church is non-democratic. History teaches us that when humans have power over other humans that is not carefully circumscribed and subjected to checks and balances that the train will run off the rails. It is not a question of â€œif, but rather of â€œwhenâ€ and â€œhow bad will the damage beâ€. This is why the invention of democracy and the emergence of the modern democratic state is considered to be of such monumental importance in human history. Mormon leaders are constrained in many ways by the rights of citizens within the democratic states in which Mormonism operates, but within their sphere of permitted operation they behave as should be expected of non-democratic leaders. They maximize their influence, and distribute as little information as possible to the membership by way of which they might be held to account for their actions, while extracting the maximum amount of resources of various kinds from their membership.
Among other things, the non-democratic nature of Mormonism explains the astronomical percentage of blood and marital interrelationships within the ranks of high Mormon leadership. The perquisites of Mormon leadership do not generally include a lot of money. But if you donâ€™t think that the right to order people around and have them worship you is something people will do almost anything for, read a little history.
I laughed out loud a short time ago when Gordon Hinckley, the current Mormon prophet, feigned astonishment that one of his sons had been nominated for high office within Mormonism. â€œI had nothing to do with itâ€, Hinckley assured his listeners. His son was called by God to Mormon officialdom, and Hinckley himself was not involved in the process. And I believe him, at least to the extent that he was not directly involved. That is the beauty of the Mormon leadership system â€“ Hinckley would not have to do anything. The rest of the leaders know what to do to keep the game going.
At the congregational level, Mormon leaders are generally chosen from among the more financially successful and respected of the male members. Some of them (Bishops particularly) are then required to dispense advice regarding important, intimate personal problems. These include marital disputes, career advice, teenage difficulties, who one should marry, whether one should go on a mission or to university, etc. The advice most often handed out by these generally well-meaning men is that one should obey the Lordâ€™s commandments (that is, stop sinning as defined by Mormonism), spend more time praying and studying the scriptures, and immerse oneself in Mormon service. That is one size fits all advice provided by men who have in general no training in counselling, and are not considered to need any. They rely upon “god’s inspiration” to guide them in the advice they give.
If a Mormon bishop is confronted by someone who is obviously mentally ill, most of the time he will tell them to see a doctor. And Mormonism has set up its own psychological counselling system so that Mormons in many places do not have to see a non-Mormon for help with lifeâ€™s emotional challenges. This was likely done because non-Mormon psychologists, oddly enough, often regard Mormonism itself as a big part of the problem and recommend disengagement. As this pattern became clear, the Mormon Church invested heavily in training and then employed a cadre of counsellors who would offer different advice that encouraged Mormon to remain Mormon.
I heard a few days ago about a young friend who is going through a difficult adjustment after coming home from his mission. He is having trouble deciding what to do for a career and hence what to study; his lacks confidence in his own judgement for a variety of reasons; etc. His bishopâ€™s advice â€“ â€œpray more, study your scriptures more, immerse yourself in church service, and are you sinning?â€ The boy does not think he is sinning, but who knows. If he follows the Bishop’s advice and does not feel better, what is likely to happen? He will become more depressed because not only does he feel poorly, but God is not responding to him and the most likely reason for that within the Mormon worldview is that he is sinning. And so a more strict adherence to Mormon behavioural norms would follow, and this cycle could continue for some time. That could be depressing on a new level. I suspect his difficultly lies in the kind of thing a good psychologist and some career counselling could straighten out without too much trouble.
A medical doctor friend told me recently of a call he received from a bishop of an LDS singles ward with whom he has been friends for years. The bishop was concerned with the degree of depression he was seeing and hearing about during the interviews he conducts with members of his ward. He wanted the docs advice as to whether the problems he was hearing about were clinical, and hence whether he should refer members of his ward to a doctor, or whether the â€œpray more and stop sinningâ€ advice was enough. This bishop is more perceptive than most.
After listening to the bishop’s summary of the problems his ward members had, my friend said that most of what he heard sounded clearly clinical to him, and he asked what percentage of the ward was in this state. The bishop replied that he thought it was in the 50% range. Lots of kids are depressed because they are not married, and perhaps have sexually sinned while trying to get married. Others are depressed because they donâ€™t want to get married and are under a lot of pressure to do so. Others because they are terrified of going on missions, and under great pressure to go. Others because they are simultaneously trying to give heavy time to LDS service and get the kind of grades they need to have to follow the LDS path â€“ successful professional etc. with large family and a high Mormon calling. Pretty picture. How do I get some of that?
So, we will agree that the Church is not perfect, and its members certainly are not. What, then, is the â€œgospelâ€, how does it relate to the â€œChurchâ€, and is it reasonable to say that the â€œgospel is perfectâ€?
The â€œgospelâ€ is generally defined as the good news of Christâ€™s redemption, usually interpreted as that version contained in the four canonical â€œgospelsâ€ in the New Testament. â€œGospelâ€ is also used as a synonym for â€œtrueâ€, as in â€œit is gospel!â€. However, in the Mormon context the word â€œgospelâ€ has a different meaning. In its introduction, the Book of Mormon proclaims itself to be the â€œfullnessâ€ of the Gospel. This no doubt follows various D&C passages that also say this (see for example, D&C 20:9, 135:3). And in the Mormon temple, prior to 1990 those who made the promises that are part of the Mormon â€œendowmentâ€ ceremony were required to agree that they would obey â€œthe Law of the Gospel as contained in the Book of Mormon and the Bibleâ€. In 1990, this was modified to say, â€œthe law of the Gospel as contained in the Holy Scripturesâ€, which would bring the D&C (amendable at any time by Mormon leaders) and other statements by Mormon leaders that are regarded as canonical into the Mormon definition of â€œgospelâ€. Theseinclude all statements of Mormonismâ€™s highest leaders made twice each year at Mormonismâ€™s general conferences. This is consistent with other aspects of the Mormon temple ceremony in which Mormons promise absolute obedience to Mormon authority.
So, for Mormon purposes the gospel is Christâ€™s message as contained in the Bible (as far as it is translated correctly), as restored by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon, and most importantly, as stated by Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders in any way that is regarded by Mormon leaders as being part of the Holy Scriptures.
But hold on. Didnâ€™t we agree above that the Church itself is not perfect? And now we learn that the Church is defined by the D&C which is part of the perfect gospel? Isnâ€™t that contradictory? If the gospel (the D&C) defines the Church, how can the Church be imperfect from a structural point of view?
I suspect that the Mormon answer to this question would be that only the parts of the D&C that do not relate to the â€œhumanâ€ side of the Church are perfect. Another way to look understand this is that anything that relates to the pre-existence or life after death or the nature of god, etc. is the gospel and the rest is not. That is, anything that canâ€™t be disproved is the gospel and hence perfect. Hmmmm. While I can understand why a Mormon might say this, it seems to quite clearly contradict many other things that Mormon leaders have said, as well as the Mormon temple ceremony. And, if the gospel is perfect, it does a pretty poor job of letting you know where its boundaries are. Is that not a contradiction in terms? How do you get poorly defined perfection?
In any event, one might note that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are notoriously difficult to interpret, as evidenced by the fact that there are numerous Christian and Mormon sects. If the gospel is perfect, why it is so confusing?
The Mormon answer would be that the Bible and Book of Mormon are only confusing to those who do not accept that the only people on earth who have the authority to speak for God are Mormonismâ€™s leaders. And they say, as do other religious leaders, â€œObey us and give us your money and other resources.â€ Hmmmmm. It is almost tempting to think that there is a scam going on here. Lots of nice sounding things that fall apart on analsysis. Nah, it couldn’t be that. These Mormons are far too nice and well-intentioned to be scammers, aren’t they?
What we are really confronted with in the realtinship between the Church and the gospel in Mormon doctrine is circular logic. That is, the definition of one thing relies upon another, which in turn relies upon the first. The gospel is perfect; the Church (including its leaders) are not perfect; and the gospel is defined by the Churchâ€™s leaders. So, the perfect gospel is defined by imperfect leaders? Hmmmm. Houston, we have a problem.
This is part of one of Mormonism (and other religionsâ€™) oldest tricks. Joseph Smith, for example, is Godâ€™s prophet and inspired by him, unless he is proven to be wrong. In that case, he is assumed to have made a human error that does not invalidate his prophetic power with regard to all that has not been proven wrong. And this is the case even when we learn that many of his errors were due to his having decided to mislead his followers because that would be in everyone’s (and especially his) best interest.
In like fashion, any error that Mormon leaders are shown to have made in defining the gospel was never really part of the gospel. This must be so because the gospel IS perfect. Hence, by definition anything that is eventually found not to be perfect was not part of the gospel. The error, really, was ours. We thought that because the imperfect Mormon leaders told us what the gospel was and that it was perfect, that everything they said about the gospel was accurate. We have been told that the leaders are imperfect and should not have been confused.
â€œWell then,â€ a confused Mormon might ask, â€œhow can I know what is true? If the members are imperfect, and the leaders are imperfect, and the Church itself is imperfect, I thought that I could at least rely upon the gospel. That was my unshakeable bedrock. And now you are telling me that I canâ€™t even rely on that as it is set out or interpreted by Mormon leaders in the Holy Scriptures? You say that I should be ready at any time to be told that what I have been told is part of the perfect gospel was just another error? Now I am really confused.â€
I can just the response of the Mormon leaders: â€œI bear you my solemn testimony, with tears streaming down my cheeks, that I know the gospel is true and perfect and that Joseph Smith restored it to us in spite of his imperfections. I know this beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have felt it in my very soul. I testify this to you in the name of Jesus Christ, and promise you in his name that if you will remain faithful to Mormonism, you will receive blessings beyond your ability to imagine them in the Celestial Kingdom!!â€ [pause for effect]
Well, that makes me feel much better about all of this.
All the best,