I have observed on Facebook and through other interactions, both personal and virtual, that there is an explosion of open criticism of the LDS church and its leaders among disaffecting, disaffected and even faithful members. This is a phenomenon whose scale, if not its nature, is unprecedented in the history of the church. There have always been those who question, even criticize the church and its leaders, but now those who do so have a much broader forum for sharing their questions, doubts, concerns, and criticisms. It would be inappropriate and hypocritical for me to speculate on their motives. I have not walked in their shoes, and I choose to assume they are motivated by an honest and sincere search for truth.
In my teaching at the Salt Lake County jail, I often share the concept of a personal tool chest. The lessons we’ve learned in life, the knowledge we’ve gained, our successes and failures, the things we have faith in: all go into our tool chest, and we use these things when making decisions and solving problems. The purpose of this post is not to call anyone to repentance. In fact, I believe the Lord encourages us to question and to constantly seek greater light and knowledge. That is the only way they can become what He wants us to become. This cannot be done without some risk. Nope – I’m not suggesting in any way that people not question, but I do suggest that we stop and think carefully before that questioning turns into criticism. It is important to make sure that if it does, the criticism is justified and constructive.
There are many things about the church and its leaders that may be subject to criticism, as is the case with any prominent figure or organization. Scriptures abound that appear to call today’s church to repentance and warn us of apostasy in the latter days. I’ve heard many equate today’s church with the churches who were confronted by Abinadi and Samuel the Lamanite. There are scriptures that declare that the church is under condemnation (D&C 84:54-57) with little or no evidence that such condemnation has been lifted. President Ezra Taft Benson confirmed this condemnation in his conference talk “The Book of Mormon, Keystone of our Religion”. Quite frankly, I think most of these issues are very real – if misunderstood – and that one would do well to make the effort to understand them. Dismissing them is decidedly NOT a good idea. Actually, to question and to receive answers can and should, if done in the right way, be a faith building experience. Joseph Smith has told us that it is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance (D&C 131:6). Ignorance may be bliss, but ignorance is not exaltation. So, we must question, but before we jump on the bandwagon of criticism, might I offer the following observations for inclusion in your personal tool chest:
Little Tommy Monson
I don’t think any of our leaders in today’s church asked to be apostles, or presidents, or general authorities. I live in President Monson’s ward. Shortly after he was called as the prophet, I was visiting with a small group after sacrament meeting, and I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there was President Monson, inquiring about the health of an elderly member of the ward with whom he had been friends for some 50 years. He then began talking about an upcoming trip to Brazil, and I sensed something in his manner. I received the impression that here was “Little Tommy Monson”, the terror of his primary teachers, the life-long friend of the widows in his ward, finding himself suddenly called as “The Prophet” of 14 million people – 14 million people the vast majority of whom he had never even met, but who nevertheless pretty much expected him to be perfect. I saw a man, a prophet, a leader, who was overwhelmed and a little scared, yet who was still willing to walk forward in faith.
President Monson was 80 years old when he was called as the prophet. I have to think he was tired even then! Many of the “old men” who lead the church, and whom we target for our criticism, should, by all rights, be retired, fishing, playing golf, and enjoying their great-grandchildren. These 15 men will have no “retirement”. They will instead sacrifice the last 20-30 years of their lives to serving full time, if not more, for the church, its members, and the Lord. They will continue traveling the world, managing the affairs of a worldwide church until they die or their health prevents them from doing any more. This is not something one does for enjoyment, or even for power. It is most likely quite a heavy burden, but one that they agree to carry to the end of their days.
How Much Do They Know?
How much do these church leaders, know? Do they know that the church is under condemnation? Do they recognize that we Latter Day Saints threw away our opportunity to build Zion, and that the tithing we pay now is considered by the majority of saints to be nothing more than a pale substitute for the law of consecration, much as the 10 commandments were a substitute for the laws of the gospel? Do they understand that we only follow a shadow of the word of wisdom, completely ignoring the Lord’s word that it is “pleasing unto” Him that the flesh of beasts “should not be used only in times of winter, or of cold or famine” (D&C 89:12),meaning basically that is pleasing unto the Lord that we be vegetarians. Do they collectively and individually bemoan the fact that, if we’re lucky, only half of Latter Day Saints will be prepared when the Lord returns in His glory as indicated by the parable of the ten virgins? And do they recognize just exactly how far we the membership live beneath our promised blessings, or how much we mistake culture, policy, even folklore for doctrine? And yet, in spite of this knowledge, do they continue to wear out their lives serving out of obligation, commitment, and love for us and for the Lord? Do you think that perhaps their tears water their pillows (2 Nephi 33:3) at night on behalf of their brethren and sisters in the gospel? Don’t know? Neither do I, but have we truly considered this possibility?
Many criticize the financial affairs of the church. Obvious projects such as City Creek, the new Philadelphia center and the Florida land purchase come under particular scrutiny. “Why don’t we give this money to the poor and needy?” critics say. I was recently prompted by a post on Facebook (thanks – whoever you are) to consider the jobs that were created by City Creek – both in building it and in staffing it now that it is open. I was prompted to ask myself, “is it better to give people money to feed them, or to use that money to create jobs that will continue to feed people for decades”? I am also prompted to ask, “What future purpose might the Lord have for these projects?” And, of course, I ask myself, “when did we become so expert in urban planning, world-wide finance, macro-economics, and the prophecies of the last days that we are qualified to criticize the church in such decisions?” I don’t know the answers to these questions, but then I guess that’s my point.
Trusting the Arm of Flesh
One of the favorite mantras used by those who question, judge, and criticize the church is that one should not trust in the “arm of flesh” (2 Nephi 4:34). This is true, of course, but by rejecting the word of Brigham Young, or Neil Maxwell in favor of that from some more recent book, blog, or website; unless you’ve done the primary research, and/or have received a confirmation from the spirit that what someone says is true, you are simply trading one arm of flesh for another. It seems to me that people are far too quick to accept a new concept or new truth simply because it contradicts the old one, which we perhaps never fully understood. After all, this is “learning”, right? Yet, does new learning always have to be gained at the expense of old learning? Perhaps we should be careful in making this trade, and make sure that we are being guided by the only guaranteed testifier of truth – the Holy Ghost.
The Purpose of Publishing Criticism?
One should probably ask oneself, “What is the purpose of publishing criticism” of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints? Is it to simply promote truth and independent thought – ultimately to let the reader decide for themselves what it true? Is it to help overcome the culture of the church and encourage people to seek to understand true doctrine and to worship Christ, and not the church or its leaders? If so, these are truly worthy endeavors, and I whole-heartedly support them. Such learning should prove to be faith-building, not faith-destroying. If, however, the criticism does not meet these criteria, then one is left to wonder just exactly what the purpose is. In my mind, criticism that simply tears down serves no good purpose. If light is being obscured, then we must be sure to point out how to embrace the sought for light after removing the obscurity. I have personally read both types of offerings – sometimes from the same author. But such authors (myself included) must be careful that what they write is edifying to their audience – that it builds them up – and that their words and thoughts are words of love and charity, not simply words of contention and destruction.
I’ve written before about judgment – that it is a necessary part of life. I spoke above about the value of questioning, of how it is essential to our eternal progression. Questioning, when answers come, inevitably leads to judgment. That is the purpose of questioning. I am left to ask, though, what happens when judgment turns to criticism? What happens when judgment is rendered without empathy, compassion and charity? My personal experience has taught me that such judgments almost invariably end up feeding our own pride and becoming the seed of hypocrisy.
I repeat, I’m not saying these criticisms are, at least on the surface, completely unwarranted. I, too, have found myself questioning many things about the church, our history, our leaders and our current affairs. I really question some recent excommunications that I have become aware of. I question the role of culture in the church, and have observed repeatedly how it can distract us from the true target of our worship – the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, I noticed while I was questioning that a bit of darkness crept into my soul. I began to pray simply because it made me uncomfortable. Being told by others that “truth is hard” didn’t satisfy me. I continued (and continue) to pray.
I received answers, and the Lord was much more compassionate and understanding. The Lord gave me to understand that I don’t know all things; that I don’t walk in the shoes of the church leaders; and that the whole of His plan has not yet been revealed to me. More importantly, he gave me to understand that judgment, rendered without charity, leads to contention, and we all know that contention is the enemy of our quest to become one with the Lord (3 Nephi 11:29) – that contention is the enemy of light.
Yes, the Lord Himself taught me that the real purpose why we covenant not to speak evil of the Lord’s anointed has nothing to do with the Lord’s anointed, but it has everything to do with us. The Lord’s anointed do not suffer when we criticize them. The church does not suffer when we speak evil of it. No, we suffer when we speak evil…of anyone. We are the ones who are poisoning our spirits, injecting insidious wedges of darkness between ourselves and the Lord.
The Lord also taught me that, even if there are things terribly wrong with some people, with some leaders, with some decisions, even with the Church itself, none of it justifies us inviting contention into our hearts. Correction, if necessary, is best effected in the same way the Lord teaches us – with love, compassion, and empathetic instruction. Our example, teaching, and nurturing is what is called for. D&C 121:34-46 remains our guide in all things. If chastening is required, that is the Lord’s responsibility, not ours. In short, we take too much upon ourselves when we seek to “steady the ark”.
There is an interesting paradox illustrated here. We hopefully question things because we have a sense of how things “should be”. This sense is, for most of us, the result of a laudable sense of morality and justice. This sense is offended when we see things that seem to contradict it. However, I’m afraid we fail to realize:
- That few of us, likely including the church leaders, know and understand the Lord’s complete plan for us, the church, and the world
- Just how human the leaders of this church, just like us, truly are, no matter how god-like we might like them to be
- That we hurt others as well as ourselves when we criticize things without having the full picture.
In summary, brothers and sisters, it is very tempting to jump on the bandwagon of criticism. I understand; I’ve fallen prey and I’ve felt its sting. But if you find yourselves feeling a little bit dark, perhaps even a little dirty, consider these things I have shared. Take care that you don’t invite spiritual poison by exercising judgment without charity or by criticizing without full knowledge. Go to the Lord, the only true messenger, with your questions – I promise He will answer them in truth and righteous, with full knowledge, wisdom and love. You may or may not like all the answers, but you must respond to them with charity. I believe this is the only way that we can fulfill for ourselves the right word of the Lord, which promises:
That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day. (D&C 50:24)