The topic of idolatry has been on my mind recently, spurred in part by an email conversation with one of my brothers and the conversation going on between a number of acquaintances regarding a recent change in focus for the LDS church. I touched this issue briefly a while back in one of my posts, which I’ll bring back here, but it’s still a “live” issue for me at the moment.
In order to properly preface this post, it might be useful to define a few of the terms inherent in this discussion, namely “worship” and “idolatry.” The 1828 Webster’s Dictionary defines idolatry as, “The worship of idols, images, or any thing made by hands, or which is not God. Excessive attachment or veneration for any thing, or that which borders on adoration.” It also defines worship as, “honor; respect; civil deference; obsequious or submissive respect.” It may also be useful to add veneration to this list, which is defined as being, “The highest degree of respect and reverence; respect mingled with some degree of awe; a feeling or sentiment excited by the dignity and superiority of a person… .”
Now, in turning to these two discussions to which I was privy, I will share a few details. In the discussion my brother and I had, he had posed a couple of questions regarding the new “Gospel Principles” manual. The issues raised tie into the post I did on new members, as well as his general questioning of this manual. This post isn’t about the manual, it’s good and bad points, but rather about a greater issue which has become visible in this discussion. In his questioning, he made the following point:
“It’s weird, that the restoration was brought about by a question over some confusing topics and young Joseph found solace in James 1:5. Asking is not weird nor is Joseph’s quest for the truth, but today, it seems odd that when one individual questions a policy or a program it is viewed as heresy or apostate for questioning the brethren, when in fact, we are truly on a quest for answers just as Joseph was. It is also weird because it becomes hard to confide in anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I am not questioning my testimony or my faith, but I feel alive and feel vigor when searching for these answers and for asking these questions.”
Though it goes unsaid, he is experiencing what many experience – namely criticism for even questioning the decision of the hierarchy or body of the church. Far too often, the mere act of the questioning of a decision made by the church or, perhaps more appropriately, by the correlation committee, is viewed as inherently weak, made by one who is wavering in their testimony and a sure sign of “apostasy,” whatever that means in the general LDS lexicon. The only “real” apostasy that can happen is apostasy from Christ, but instead it’s viewed as apostasy from the church as an institution.
The second issue was brought forth in an email discussion of a group that I take part in. The discussion was largely around the LDS church adding a “new emphasis” to the threefold mission of the church, namely caring for the poor and needy. This pronouncement was largely heralded by various media outlets as being “a dramatic move and very important message,” “a move that tells the world that Mormonism is Christian more effectively than changing the logo to make the words ‘Jesus Christ’ stand out,” and one reflecting the life and service of the President of the LDS Church, Thomas Monson, “giving to and helping others is just a natural part of his life. He is saying to every single member: ‘You, too can … make a difference.” Other news organizations repeated these same statements almost word-for-word. There was no official press release through the LDS.org Newsroom.
In both of the above examples, there were two sides to the story. One side firmly believing the “official” explanation (i.e. never question a decision that comes down through the approved church channels; the “new emphasis” of caring for the poor and needy is honorable and deserving of the praise given to the church); one side (of which I, myself, am a part) questioning the logic, reasoning and motives behind such pronouncements and programs. It is, truthfully, interesting to see the differing sides talk and discuss, though sometimes there’s less talking and discussing (as in my brother’s situation).
How, you might be asking yourself, does this play into the topic of this post – idolatry? Good question. The answer to which I will try to give as best as I can.
Taking the first example, how might idolatry be perceived? Taking the definition from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary, can those who adhere to the “no questioning” side of the argument be viewed as being excessively attached, submissively respectful, and paying more respect and reverence than needed? Perhaps, perhaps not. Mostly, this is an individual application. I have personally witnessed such “obsequious respect” and have been left wanting. Anytime, as the definition suggests, we lay down and accept something without thinking it through, it would seem this would fall in the definition of “worship” and “idolatry.” If we think and presume that everything that comes from an individual, organization or any thing or body else, then we’re bordering on idolatry, if not already being idolatrous.
Taking the second example, could this be perceived as idolatry? I think this example is further proof of our idolatrous nature. In reading over the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News articles, as well as searching the LDS.org newsroom site, I was struck by the language used to describe the addition of this new addition to the threefold mission of the church. All of the references to why this decision was made either had to do with the Church itself, or Thomas Monson, as President of the Church. In the group discussion on this, the point was made, by at least one person, that we take these announcements at face value because we believe the Church to be the Lord’s church, and Thomas Monson to be the Lord’s prophet here on the earth. As such, what they do and support are evidences of the Lord’s hand guiding them.
In thinking on this, it was made known to me that the language contained in the available quotes from church leadership on this topic and the newspaper articles previously mentioned neither contained any references to this being what the Lord actually wanted, nor the Lord’s hand in this decision, nor the example of the Lord in His teachings about caring for the poor and needy. Instead, the focus was on the Church and the President of the Church. My question, then, is if the Lord is indeed guiding the USS LDS Church on its journey, and if this is being implemented through the President of the USS LDS Church, the Lord’s prophet, then why are there no references to Christ, His teachings, or His example? Christ has effectively been removed from the conversation and has been replaced by the Church itself and the President of the Church. Some may say that this is of little importance given the name of the Church and given the titles that follow the “President” of the Church. I argue the opposite. Replacing Christ with an organization and a man is the essence of idolatry. All true prophet s point back to Christ in all they do. They teach what Christ would have taught and they inspire those they teach to seek Christ and Christ alone. They deflect attention away from themselves and onto Christ.
To his credit, Bishop Richard Edgley stated, in an article at Mormon Times, “”All we’re trying to do is fulfill what he (Christ) has taught us. We’ve been trying to do it forever, and we’ll continue to do it.” That statement, however, was the only mention of Christ in that article before refocusing the attention on the President of the Church, “The principle coincides with the strongly held sentiments of the LDS Church’s current leader, President Thomas S. Monson. ‘Anyone who knows President Monson knows his wonderful experiences and the wonderful example that he’s set for the rest of us,” said Bishop Edgley, adding “he has by example led us in how we can reach out and help with those who are suffering.’”
In thinking this topic over I returned (once again) to the words contained in Come, Let Us Adore Him, a book written by Denver Snuffer on the importance of seeking Christ. In this book, he offers the following insights:
“How easy it is to become distracted by the things of this world. How easy it is for ministers claiming to be on God’s errand to stray into being on their own errand. How easy it is for those who handle tithes and property to lose sight of the Lord and His house, and come to value only the property. Measurable things – numbers, growth charts, revenues collected, statistics on attendance, numbers of buildings built – everything which could evidence prosperity, overwhelms those who think succeeding in their stewardship depends on increasing that which can be measured. Nephi warned that we would also succumb to this number-crunching mentality. And as we do, we will conclude, just like the scribes and Pharisees, that all is well (see 2 Nephi 28:21). Magnifying a calling has never been statistics-driven.”
“After losing the Spirit, the mind runs wild. It substitutes rationally developed theology for inspired direction. Indeed, after becoming blind, they believe their conclusions are inspired. All their followers fall in line once “authority” and “inspiration” have become conflated. The people then find it easy to “strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” Everything is disproportionate. Since the light of the Spirit is gone, there is no way for them to tell the difference between the gnat and the camel.”
“…darkness can take hold of any people. When it does they are inevitably led to take offense when the Lord (or any messenger sent by Him) walks in the light. Darkness and light are always two different paths. They are incompatible. The people hearing Christ’s sermon at this time were required to choose between everything they had been taught all their lives and what Christ was teaching. They were God’s chosen people, led by leaders chosen by God. They were taught respect for the priestly authorities of their society by reading the scriptures, which assured them they were God’s “chosen people,” and by observing the traditions of their fathers. They were led by recognized leaders, chosen in an established system of succession, on the one hand, and then this Man from Nazareth, lacking any sort of credentials, on the other, asking them to “come follow” Him. Even though they had shouted “Hosanna!” at His arrival the day before, this sermon (Matt. 23) demanded they reject the established authorities in order to follow Him.”
“(Matt 23:27-28)…The hypocrisy and iniquity of these religious teachers was so toxic, so wrong, and so dark that it made others unclean. This forced the audience to choose. There could be no middle ground. Either we trust in the traditions of our fathers, or we follow Christ. This choice has always been required of God’s people. Nephi assures us (2 Nephi 28:14) this will also be the case for our day. Only a very few will find the way, and it will require them to overcome bad teachings; “because of pride, an wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are le, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.”
Part of the reason why I feel these words relate to this topic of idolatry is because I think the Church and the President of the Church have replaced Christ in most member’s lives. I highly doubt that this has happened purposefully, but rather through a serious of decisions and changes made over the course of the past 150+ years, the church has slowly been led away from Christ and led to Church. Instead of confirming truth with and through Christ, we confirm truth by what the Church does. If the Church does something, anything, then it must be what Christ would do, or so most members think.
Richard Scott, member of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles of the LDS Church, discussed this very topic in a stake leadership meeting. In that meeting he discussed what was being taught to the members and openly questioned whether the members of the church were being taught to Come Unto Church or to Come Unto Christ. He stated it this way:
“Most the problems you are dealing with such as divorce, spouse abuse, child abuse, alcohol and drug abuse, anger, contention, fighting, immorality, many financial problems, many emotional and physical health problems, lack of temple attendance, lack of desire to go home teaching, lack of convert retention, lack of commitment – are merely symptoms of a root problem and what is that root problem? Lack of a conversion to Christ! Most of these painful symptoms could be vanished by what? A personal conversion to and a personal relationship with Christ. We have a serious problem within the Church in that we have been teaching one another to Come unto Church when we should have been teaching one another to Come unto Christ! It’s as if we actually think the Church can save or exalt us. If we would spend more of our time teaching one another about Jesus and His Infinite Atonement, we would see most of our painful symptoms go away and we would find greater desire to serve Him and love others.” (Layton Northridge Stake Conference 1995)
Both Denver Snuffer and Richard Scott teach that we, as individuals, must somehow find and, with the help of the Lord, establish a personal relationship with Him. If we blindly follow what the Church does, if we give all the accolades and praise to the Church and the President (or presiding authorities) of the Church, then we are practicing idolatry.
As I alluded to before, I shared a quote from The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith which discuss this very issue and can, in my opinion, be applied to our idolatrous relationships with the Church and the leaders of the Church. From that, I quote:
Joseph Smith similarly addressed the saints, though in a different context, whereupon he was expounded the meaning of the fourteenth chapter of Ezekial in the Old Testament.
As found in The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, we read:
“President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel – said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church – that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls – applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall – that they were depending on the prophet, hence were darkened in their minds – in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy.”
The idolatry evidenced in Ezekiel 14 was that the people went to the prophet for their knowledge of God, not to God himself. They set up a stumbling block, a mediator for THE mediator (our Lord and Savior). That is to say that instead of approaching God through prayer, supplication, fasting or whatever method, for knowledge of Him and his Son, we tend to approach a man. No matter how inspired that man may be, the gospel is an individual gospel meant for “the one.” That one, to me, is me. That one, to you, is you. As mentioned above, it is an imperative duty we have to seek an individual relationship and connection with God and when we do not undertake to fulfill that duty our minds must become “darkened.”
If we apply that to this topic – idolatry – what Joseph Smith is saying is that anytime we replace Christ with something else, either the President/Prophet or the Church itself (or anything else) – we are being idolatrous and the end result of that idolatry is a darkened mind. This darkening of the mind is even more poignant when we consider the quote shared above from Denver Snuffer on how “darkness can take hold of any people.” Instead of solely linking idolatry to a golden calf, or money, or cars, we should also be willing to admit when the Church and its leadership become the essence of idolatry in our own lives. Making that connection, though, is much easier said than done.
Instead of ostracizing or ridiculing those who question programs, policies, procedures or whatever it may be that comes down through the centralized hierarchy of the Church, we should invite the open-minded inquiry. Instead of assuming that all that happens and is published by or through the Church has the stamp of approval of the Lord, we should seek out Christ and obtain our witness through Him and Him alone. When we replace the Lord with the Church or the President of the Church, blindly following what they say and do, then our own minds are necessarily darkened because of the true light which we reject.
In closing, the following passages are especially applicable to our day and time and may indeed provide a very compelling parallel to what we, personally, are witnessing. Pay special attention to verse seven, and what follows:
5 For he put down all the priests that had been consecrated by his father, and consecrated new aones in their stead, such as were lifted up in the pride of their hearts.
6 Yea, and thus they were supported in their laziness, and in their idolatry, and in their whoredoms, by the taxes which king Noah had put upon his people; thus did the people labor exceedingly to support iniquity.
7 Yea, and they [the people] also became idolatrous, because they were deceived by the vain and flattering words of the king and priests; for they did speak flattering things unto them.
8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of aprecious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;
9 And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things.
10 And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the atemple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass.
11 And the seats which were set apart for the ahigh priests, which were above all the other seats, he did ornament with pure gold; and he caused a breastwork to be built before them, that they might rest their bodies and their arms upon while they should speak lying and vain words to his people.
12 And it came to pass that he built a atower near the temple; yea, a very high tower, even so high that he could stand upon the top thereof and overlook the land of bShilom, and also the land of cShemlon, which was possessed by the Lamanites; and he could even look over all the land round about. 
 http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,idolatry. Retrieved 2/6/2010.
 http://www.lds.org/library/display/0,4945,8865-1-4828-2,00.html. Retrieved 2/6/2010.
 “LDS to boost emphasis on helping the needy.” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705350795/LDS-to-boost-emphasis-on-helping-the-needy-Salt-Lake-Temple-not-closing.html?pg=2. 10 December 2009. Retrieved 02/06/2010.
 Care for Needy is Ongoing Charge for Mormon Church. Mormon Times. 12 December 2009. http://www.mormontimes.com/around_church/general_authority/?id=12237. Retrieved 02/06/2010.
 Snuffer, Denver. Come, Let Us Adore Him. Pages 205-210.
 Scott, Richard. Layton Northridge Stake Conference. 1995.
 Smith, Joseph. The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pages 237-238.
 Snuffer, Denver. Come, Let Us Adore Him. Page 209.
 See Mosiah 11.