I am a great believer in a robust Christianity, sustained by a strong discipleship programme in the Christian Church. Jesus said:
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Mt.28:18-20)
What does this discipleship look like? Well, the same Jesus said:
‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ (Mt.11:28-29)
This isn’t a promise of an easy life, and Christians are called to take up our cross and follow him. But Michael Green, in his commentary on this passage in the BST series points out that, in Judaism, it was the Law that was the yoke, with its endless regulations, and duties. Pronouncing six woes on the Pharisees, Jesus said, ‘…you load people down with burdens they cannot carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.’ (Lk.11:46) Here Jesus is comparing his yoke with that burdensome yoke of the Law.Rev. Green writes of Jesus’ yoke, ‘…it is a yoke of love, not of duty. It is the response of the liberated, not the duty of the obligated. And that makes all the difference.’ It is with this in mind I approach the Saturday sessions of this semi-annual General Conference.
Is the Gospel Working for You?
It was Dieter Uchtdorf, second counsellor in the first presidency, who kicked off the morning session with a message that sounded so close to what Michael Green brought. His message is summed up in these word, ‘I pray that we will focus on “the simplicity that is in Christ” and allow His grace to lift and carry us.’
Asking the question, ‘Is the gospel working for you?’ he urges those who struggle under the burden of duty and performance to let the gospel invigorate and renew their spirits, recommending members simplify their discipleship. ‘Sometimes we take the beautiful lily of God’s truth and gild it with layer upon layer of man-made good ideas, programs, and expectations,’ he insists. He urges people to devote their energy and time to things that truly matter.
He also counsels that members ‘start where you are.’ ‘God will take you as you are,’ he insists, ‘at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord.’
This Mormon leader consistently brings messages of comfort at conference and, overlooking his Mormonism, and taking his messages at face value, Christians might easily identify with him, want to hear more of him. He is likeable, soft-spoken, charming, reassuring. I sense if you put him in a room with Michael Green they could not fail to get on. But is this the message of Mormonism? Is the Mormon yoke easy, and its burden light? Do Mormons find rest for their souls in their religion? Perhaps he has already given a clue to the answer in having to raise the question, ‘Is the gospel working for you?’
The Old Ship Zion
Russell M Ballard spoke of the counsel of Brigham Young to ‘stay on the Old Ship Zion,’ and about the security the saints enjoy in following living prophets. I want to say something about this old Mormon saw about living prophets. When Jesus was challenged by the Sadducees about the resurrection (Mt.22:23-33) Jesus’ answered,
‘You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God…have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.’ (vv 29-33)
This is a reference to Exodus 3:6 in which God declares himself to Moses as ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ In other words, at the time of Moses these ‘dead’ patriarchs were still alive to God. That being the case then those prophets we might otherwise consider dead are no such thing. Mormons will want to make some remarks about the relevance of contemporary prophets but ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35) and all Scripture thoroughly equips us for the life of godliness (2 Tim.3:16) and those prophets speak to us today in Scripture. This is the same Scripture Mormons reject because the prophets who speak to us through them are ‘dead.’ By referencing ‘living prophets’ as opposed to ‘dead prophets’ these Mormon prophets demonstrate that they do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.
Having killed off the prophets Jesus considers still living, he goes on to reassure us that God speaks to us through living prophets today (though quite why he is quoting the dead prophet Brigham Young is a mystery). These living prophets are far from perfect but, ‘While neither perfect nor infallible, these good men and women have been perfectly dedicated to leading the work of the Lord forward as He has directed.’ He goes on:
‘Too many people think Church leaders and members should be perfect or nearly perfect. They forget that the Lord’s grace is sufficient to accomplish His work through mortals. Our leaders have the best intentions, but sometimes we make mistakes. This is not unique to Church relationships, as the same thing occurs in our relationships among friends, neighbors, and workplace associates and even between spouses and in families. Looking for human weakness in others is rather easy. However, we make a serious mistake by noticing only the human nature of one another and then failing to see God’s hand working through those He has called.’
I wonder if they had this sentiment in mind as they excommunicated members who didn’t quite agree with church policy that was formed by less than perfect and infallible leaders. Must have slipped their minds. Notwithstanding all this, it is on ‘the old ship Zion’ steered by living prophets that we find safety. It is here that we begin to discover the endless and onerous duties of a deckhand and begin to wonder if Elder Uchtdorf really meant what he said about keeping it simple and making it work. You see, ‘Commandments and covenants are priceless truths and doctrines found in the Old Ship Zion, where God is at the helm,’ insists Russell Ballard. Now we come to it. Get your checklist out and follow as these speakers reminding us of the weight of the yoke of Mormonism.
Russell M Ballard urges us to:
Follow and obey fallible men
Follow the Plan of Salvation– baptised, laying on of hands, tithing, regular family home evenings, priesthood (for which you must be worthy), temple recommend (for which you must be worthy), baptism for the dead, temple endowment, temple marriage (all dependent on having a temple recommend, for which you must be worthy), raising an ‘eternal family’, church callings, home/visiting teaching, accept and obey the commandments and covenants of the church, heed and obey Mormon apostles, build a perfect family and home life, keep the Sabbath, including fasting once a month (that’s Sunday, not Saturday, for those who spotted it), have your own exaltation as your goal, wash, rinse, repeat.
Elder Richard Maynes of the Seventy reminds us:
‘Brothers and sisters, like the clay on the potter’s wheel, our lives must be centered with exactness in Christ if we are to find true joy and peace in this life.’ Note the word ‘exactness.’ There is no room here for, ‘Lord have mercy on me a poor sinner.’ Struggling? Then how ‘exact’ is your centeredness? Its rather like asking of Moroni’s promise, ‘but did you pray with sincerity?’
Neill F Marriot of the Young Women’s General Presidency urges us:
‘adhere to our temple covenants. Faith in our Redeemer and His Resurrection, faith in His priesthood power, and faith in eternal sealings…’ Have you ever heard a Christian preacher urging, ‘Have faith in your baptism’? When were you last told, ‘Of course God hears you. You come to church, don’t you?’ Can you see a picture of, ‘Do these things and you will be acceptable’?
Elder Larry Lawrence of the Seventy asks:
‘What lack I yet?’ As though I didn’t carry a great enough burden, along comes perfection!
When I was a young adult, I began investigating the Church. At first I was drawn to the gospel by the examples of my Latter-day Saint friends, but eventually I was attracted to the unique doctrine. When I learned that faithful men and women could keep progressing and ultimately become like our heavenly parents, I was frankly amazed. I loved the concept; it rang true to me.
Soon after my baptism, I was studying the Sermon on the Mount, and I recognized that Jesus taught this same truth about eternal progression in the Bible. He said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt.5:48)
Now we get to the nub of it. Mormons understand this to mean the perfecting of ourselves so we can attain godhood. Is this what Jesus is talking about here? The Greek here is telios and means completeness, maturity, perfection. William Hedrikson, in his commentary on the text explains:
‘In the present connection…’perfect’ means, ‘brought to completion, full-grown, lacking nothing.’ Jesus is saying…that we should not be satisfied with halfway obedience to the law of love, as were the scribes and Pharisees, who never penetrated to the heart of the law.’
James writes, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’ (Js.1:2-4)
This is about love being a settled mark of our character, a maturity in our attitude to others, expressing an undiscriminating love to friend and enemy alike. It is agape love, a love that springs from the nature of the donor rather than the worthiness of the recipient. Which takes us back to Michael Green’s quote at the beginning, in which he describes Jesus’ yoke, ‘…it is a yoke of love, not of duty. It is the response of the liberated, not the duty of the obligated. And that makes all the difference.’
Paul writes a startling note on this in his letter to Christians in Rome:
‘What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.’ (Ro.9:30-32)
Paul’s answer to Uchtdorf’s question ‘Is the [Mormon] gospel working for you?’ would be, ‘You are pursuing righteousness ‘not by faith, but as it were by works,’ so no! It doesn’t work.’
The Mormon Plan of Salvation sees Mormons striving to achieve the highest kingdom possible in the next life. Mormons think in terms of progression, self-improvement, divine potential, “It is our duty to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we are today.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation) There is so much here that is attractive, even helpful, but finally the thankful obedience of the saved is very different to the striving obedience of the celestially ambitious. That makes all the difference.
‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life…For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.’ (Jn.5:24-26)
Jesus has life in himself (John 1:4) and gifts it to all those who trust in him and his word. He didn’t come to show us the way, but to be the way, the truth, and the life (Jn.14:6)
Mike Thomas is a former Mormon and Chairman of Reachout Trust, a ministry that reaches out to those in the cults.