Tuesday, December 9, 2014

When Tithing Settlement Goes Horribly Wrong


Previously: Not Quite The Same

In the October general conference following the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, members were newly encouraged to give their all for the completion of the Nauvoo temple.  In order for the temple to be finished in time before the Saint's planned departure for the Rocky Mountains, members would have to newly commit to paying their tithes, whether in substance, in labor, or both.

During the previous three years under Joseph Smith, the great sense of urgency among the people had been to see their dead ancestors receive the saving ordinance of baptism. To this end, there was a frenzy of such baptisms performed regularly in the waters of the nearby Mississippi river. When members couldn't think of any more dead ancestors, they set to baptizing each other on behalf of dead celebrities such as Christopher Columbus and George Washington.*
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*Often more than once, as documented here.


But now John Taylor, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, felt that all other endeavors, including these baptisms, should be put on hold for the time being, because "the first thing we have got to do is build the temple."  According to the scribe who wrote down Taylor's words,
"He said further, in relation to the baptisms for the dead, that it would be better for the saints to go on and build the Temple before we urge our baptisms too much. There are cases which require being attended to, and there are provisions made for them; but as a general thing he would advise them not to be in too great a hurry. He said one of the clerks had asked whether any should be baptized who had not paid their tithing; it is our duty to pay our tithing...and a man who has not paid his tithing is unfit to be baptized for his dead." (History of the Church, Volume 7, pg 293)
In recent years Taylor's words have been taken completely out of context.  That excerpt is taught today as though Taylor meant that a person behind on his tithes should be prohibited from entering the temple. But the temple was not yet finished, and baptisms in those days had never been performed in any temple. No, Taylor was merely expressing his opinion that any person during that time of great urgency who refused to assist in getting the temple finished, probably wasn't fit to stand in for a proxy baptism down at the river. 

Many today also invoke John Taylor's name because they presume he was president of the Church at the time he spoke those words, which in their minds means he must certainly have been speaking for the Lord, rather than merely expressing an opinion. And so today that offhand remark has somehow attained the status of doctrine in the minds of many modern latter-day Saints.

I don't disagree with what John Taylor said. It would be difficult to understand why anyone in those days would refuse to pay his tithes toward completion of the temple when the necessity of completing it was such an urgent priority.  But I suppose someone must have felt he could slough it off and that it was more important to continue with baptisms, or Taylor's clerk probably wouldn't have asked for his opinion on the matter.

But although I agree with John Taylor's opinion, his opinion is not doctrine. And until fairly recently, Taylor's opinion was rarely used to justify keeping a believing latter-day Saint from entering the House of the Lord.

I bring this up because once again we find ourselves in the month of December, the traditional time of ward tithing settlement, and Taylor's quotation is often trotted out not only to encourage members to be current with their payments, but also as a gentle reminder that they could risk losing their temple recommends if they fall behind.

As I demonstrated in a previous post, tithing settlement today is a bit of an anachronism, not really necessary for most members to take part in. Although the Lord set up tithing as an annual payment, most members keep current monthly. Still, for farmers and others whose increase is not calculated until after the harvest, bishops have traditionally set aside a couple of days to "settle up."  During most of my lifetime in the church, there would be an announcement in Sacrament meeting to the effect that a sheet of paper would be on the door of the bishop's office, and anyone needing to meet with the bishop for tithing settlement could just sign up.

In recent years (and I'm not sure exactly when this started) tithing settlement somehow became mandatory. Members of the bishopric would corner you in the foyer or call you at home to make sure you had an appointment to show up.  People who felt they had escaped attention have written me to report the bishop coming to their home and sitting at their kitchen table to discuss their personal finances. Rather than a convenience extended to those few members requiring it, tithing settlement has become a year-end "fatherly visit" with the bishop so he can make sure you pass muster.

And for those who hold temple recommends, John Taylor's words are often invoked to remind them their recommend can be revoked any old time the bishop feels like pulling it.

It's A Recommend, Not A Rewards Card
I would probably agree with John Taylor even if he said someone who didn't pay tithing probably shouldn't be attending the temple, but let's remember that he did not say anything of the sort.  My personal opinion? I'm not sure someone who has the means to contribute to the maintenance of Church facilities, yet consistently refuses to do his part in support of those facilities, has any inherent right to demand use of them.  Still that's my opinion, and I note that the Lord does not share my opinion, having made it clear instead that all are welcome into our churches, and all who are worthy should not be barred from His holy house. (And by "worthy" I mean devoted to Christ, not "worthy" as defined by the Corporate Handbook of Instruction, or the whim of anyone with a title attached to his name.)

What I am particularly not keen on is the current practice of granting or withholding access to the temple over the heads of some members as though it were a reward or a punishment. 

Believe it or not, members didn't used to be grilled and interrogated with a set list of questions in order to be found "worthy" to enter the temple. There was a time when your bishop knew you well enough to know your heart and was able to judge your devotion to Christ. The people at the temple didn't know you from Adam, however, so your bishop would give you a written "recommend" to show at the door, so called because it said to the staff at the temple, "I know this guy. I recommend him." And in you went.

Alas, Church headquarters no longer trusts your bishop is qualified to be a judge in Israel, capable of spiritual discernment, so these days he is required, pursuant to the Corporate Handbook of Instruction, to ask you several questions. Most of those questions are pretty softball; any believing latter-day Saint would have no problem answering them. But there are two in particular that can get you barred from the House of the Lord even when the Lord Himself would probably like to have you there.  I'll paraphrase those questions:

1.  Are your Corporate Dues paid up in full?
2.  Are you willing to swear an oath of loyalty to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve?

You may think the way I've worded those questions is an unfair exaggeration, but I can give you a long list of names of faithful members who would tell you that's pretty much what it comes down to.

Let's set aside question two for now, and concentrate on the failure to comply with the first obligation, the obligation of tithing.  Every one of the people I refer to on that list I keep believes wholeheartedly in the law of tithing.  They wouldn't begin to think about not continuing to pay their tithes. They have just decided not to entrust those sacred tithes to the corporate Church for the time being, that's all.

And I can't argue with their reasons. Chief among those reasons is that those currently in control of the Church's purse strings have, since 1959, consistently disobeyed God's clear commandment that all monies taken from the treasury must be approved by the membership at large. (D&C 26:2 and 104:71; see also see here, along with my previous post, Lake Wobegon Mormons for an in-depth discussion.)

Such flagrant disobedience to God would suggest that the leaders have broken their part of any covenant regarding tithing, thereby nullifying any obligation members might have to disburse their tithes directly to the Corporation of the President. Why? Because, without so much as a revelation from God instructing it,  the LDS Church was reorganized in 1923 with the specific purpose of evading any obligation the president of the Church may have had to obey some of the commandments of Jesus Christ.  Here is how the corporate charter now reads:
"The object of this corporation shall be to acquire, hold and dispose of such real and personal property as may be conveyed to or acquired by said corporation for the benefit of the members ...this corporation shall have power, without any authority or authorization from the members of said Church or religious society, to grant, sell, convey, rent, mortgage, exchange, or otherwise dispose of any part or all of such property." (Emphasis mine.)
Now, I want to make a couple of points perfectly clear. First, I would not presume to advise anyone reading this that they should not tender their tithing directly to their local bishop. Certain persons associated with Church headquarters in Salt Lake City get kind of itchy when they suspect anyone might be hampering the flow of funds into Church headquarters, as I learned immediately after I published this information.

The last thing I want is to get on anyone's bad side.  So let me make this clear: if you feel inspired to pay your tithes into the coffers of the Church, by all means continue to do so. I think you should.  All I'm doing here is reporting on what others have chosen to do to fulfill their obligation to the Lord. I ain't takin' sides.

But I will happily mention some of the reasons a growing number of Saints are getting fed up with the status quo. And when I say a growing number, I'm talking about an estimate of a couple of thousand, conservatively. I'll tell you where I got those numbers at some later date.

I'm not talking here about inactives. The Church claims 15 million members. Of those, only about 4.5 million could be considered active in the church. The remaining 10 million or so, it can be safely assumed, are not what we might call full tithe payers, so let's forget about them for now.  I'm interested in reporting on those who want to pay tithing, who continue to pay tithing, but who, in the past couple of years or so, have felt strongly inspired to pay their tithes somewhere other than directly into the bank account of the Corporation of the President, which is where all LDS Church tithing funds are deposited now. So let's talk about the why.

Hungering For Zion
I grew up being told that tithing doesn't count if you pay it anywhere other than directly to the Church. That's what I was taught.  But I'm not real sure there's any truth to it. I think tithes and offerings count most when you give them where they are needed most.  So this growing number of faithful Saints are asking the question, "why hasn't the Church been leading us toward Zion? Isn't that largely the purpose of the church in the first place, to lead us to Zion?"

Why, they wonder, do we seem to be heading at such a frantic pace in the opposite direction?

Most of us believed if we would only "stay in the boat and hold on," and follow the directions of our leaders, those leaders would lead us to Zion. Russell Ballard said as much in the last session of conference.  But Elder Ballard was teaching us falsehoods, among them that when the leaders of the Church speak, it is the same as if the Lord himself was speaking. Had we been paying attention to our scriptures all these years, we would have realized that Zion is not a church, and that "staying in the boat" and depending upon someone else to lead us back home to God sounds suspiciously similar to the scheme proposed by Lucifer in the pre-existence.

In his recent blog post, Anonymous Bishop reminds us what Zion is supposed to look like:
To establish Zion we must become of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and have no poor among us. (Moses 7:18)
But many active and faithful tithing paying members have concerns about what the church has been and is doing with their tithing.  More importantly, many are wondering if the church’s expenditures are getting the world any closer to establishing Zion....Some wonder why the church is so focused on buildings, real estate development, farm ownership, and marketing when its true goal should be to build a Zion people?  Are meetinghouses and Temples and TV ads truly that important in this effort?  Could you imagine what could be done if the church used its tremendous tithing fund (instead of just the fast offering fund) to assist the poor in the church and around the world?  What effect might this have in bringing souls unto Christ and to the establishment of Zion?
On his blog, the bishop shows a photo of a video Billboard the Church is leasing in Times Square, which is costing the Church millions of dollars. The question that immediately comes to mind is "how many converts can we expect to get as a return on those millions?"

I'll venture a guess: very few. But those who authorized that expenditure had to know that converting anyone to the gospel of Christ was not the reason our tithes are being spent in that particular venue. The reason for the expenditure is the same as any other such advertisement by any other major corporation: to enhance our image and increase our visibility.  Just as with the Church's latest fiasco, the recent box office bomb Meet the Mormons, no one really cares about our image except us.  Virtually no non-members were motivated to fork over money for tickets to see Meet the Mormons in theaters. The few who did show up, an estimated 64-75 thousand, already happened to be Mormons and had, oddly enough, already met scads of other Mormons before showing up to that movie.

I don't know how things went where you live, but here in California attendance was sparse on opening weekend (when box office numbers are tallied by the trades); it did well the following Monday for family night, then immediately dropped like a stone. I was actually embarrassed to read that the Church held a "premiere" opening for the film, complete with press, a smattering of VIPs, and a collection of what passes these days for LDS celebrities. 

We are spending desperate amounts of money because we desperately want the world to understand we're just regular folk. That was the objective of the recent "I'm A Mormon" video campaign, which featured a disparate collection of Mormons who actually didn't seem to be anything like the rest of us, other than having in common membership in the same church.  At least the people in that campaign were rather ordinary in their extra-ordinariness. The people in the movie Meet the Mormons were so not like any other Mormon I've ever met, it made me wonder what the filmmakers had in mind by profiling them.  They were featured because they lived lives of singular accomplishment.  So was it the purpose of that movie to show the rest of us how utterly mundane and uninspiring our lives were in comparison to theirs? As if I wasn't already depressed enough, Jeffrey Holland. Thanks for bringing the funk.

One thing I thought was curious about Meet the Mormons was that it profiled a Mormon wife and  mother who also happened to be a female kick boxer.  Is this what the Prince of Peace would have us celebrate -a woman whose chosen vocation requires her to beat the living snot out of her non-member opponents?

Besides, doesn't celebrating a woman who fights for sport contradict the counsel of one of our own late apostles?
"Unfortunately, we see some poor role models of womanhood in today's society. We see women boxers and wrestlers as we flip through the television channels trying to find something uplifting. I believe the women of our time need to be strong, but not in that sense. In my opinion, these activities demean the nobility of womanhood." (Apostle James E. Faust, April 2000 general conference)
Well, James Faust has been dead seven years now, so we can ignore him, right? Aren't we constantly reminded that only the living oracles have any clue what they're talking about? So relax. It was living prophets and apostles who promoted this movie featuring a scrappy dame as somehow representing "the nobility of Mormon womanhood." James E. Faust can just talk to the hand.
     
The apostle Paul would make a pretty good coach: "She should cover her head." (1 Cor 11:6 NIV)
Anyway, I've got news for the marketing geniuses at Church headquarters: most people have already met a Mormon or two sometime in their lives. So why would they want to pay good money down at the Cineplex to see an infomercial about six unusually accomplished members of our faith? Most people already know we're "just like them" and they still don't like us.

So why throw buckets more of the member's hard-earned tithing on a movie that doesn't even touch on what it is we Mormons believe in? Again the answer: To enhance our image and increase public visibility. We are busy marketing the Church as if it were a product, one we want people to have a positive impression of.  Those in Church management throwing ideas at the wall aren't even thinking in terms of religious belief, but in hopes of developing the Church as a recognizable brand. That's why Church spending today is not controlled on a spiritual level, but by the corporate mindset.  You believe Jesus Christ is still guiding this Church? Then why don't we rely on Him instead of enlisting outside firms and focus groups to help us plot our next strategy?

There is more than a little truth to what blogger Will Carter observed: "The Church, whether by precept or example, actually steers people away from coming to Christ."

What we ought to be doing is start behaving more like our namesake and learn to emulate Him.  If our leaders would stop trying to think up more and more rules they want us to follow, and focus instead on the Golden Rule, we might begin to get some positive attention from the outside world that wouldn't have to be paid for with bribes.

Meet The Mormons In The Marketing Department
I was on the phone today with a friend who is a former bishop, just recently released. (You'd be surprised how many bishops -mostly former, but some currently serving- have contacted me to lament about what they see happening to the church they love.) My friend wanted to talk about the new banner ad the Church paid $400,000 to place at the top of the page when folks log in to YouTube. (That's just the cost of placing the ad; that number doesn't include production costs.) It's a nice, two and a half minute mini-movie that reminds us that Jesus is the gift of Christmas. There's certainly nothing wrong with it. I like it, and so did he. Very moving.

But, the bishop asked, to what end did they spend that money? What was the motivation for spending the people's tithes on a film that doesn't really say anything new? Does the Church think the public is unaware of the true meaning of Christmas? What is unique about that message? In other words, what purpose does it serve other than to remind people (as many others are already doing) that this is the season we celebrate the birth of Christ? Will it serve to convert anyone to Christ who isn't already converted? I don't think so. Will it serve to convert anyone to our church who isn't already converted? I highly doubt it.

As I write this, so far the movie has received over two million hits, and I'm glad it has. I hope it gets millions more. So you may wonder why I and the bishop remain dubious.  Why so cynical? Did we fail to see the message of this ad?

We're not cynical, and we didn't fail to see the message.  We just wonder what the leaders who green lit that $400,000 expenditure expected to accomplish with it, especially in light of what they could have done with that money that might have actually pleased Jesus by accomplishing His purposes.

Did they hope to engender good feelings? Then mission accomplished! Did the ad engender good feelings toward Mormons? Perhaps, but not likely. At least, I don't think it will change anyone's mind about us one way or the other.  There's nothing really unique about the message, after all. The view that Jesus is the gift, that His birth is the reason we celebrate Christmas, is a belief shared by all of Christendom.

After the ad is over the viewer is asked to click a box if they'd like a visit from the missionaries.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

Aside from the fact that most people surfing YouTube can't wait to skip past any ads, the thing the bishop reminded me of was this: if the video is good enough, it will go viral on its own. After all, it already had hundreds of thousands of showings from missionaries and enthusiastic members without ever being on YouTube's front page.  So what does it say when the church has to pay nearly half a million dollars to nudge it further in hopes it will gather more buzz? If you think my bishop friend and I are cynical, what do you think the reaction is among the public at large?  As the bishop aptly summarized the problem, "the Church spends millions of dollars creating mediocre crap, then they spend millions more advertising the hell out of it."

(That's right. I heard an actual bishop use the words "hell" and "crap.")

Here's a similar Christmas message that's already gone viral. And it didn't cost any tithing funds to get it there:


This incessant promoting of ourselves is not part of the mission of the church. As another Mormon blogger aptly put it, "public relations is not a priesthood responsibility."  Yet here's the thing this bishop and I both agree on: under certain conditions, neither of us would have any problem with the Church shoveling millions of dollars of surplus funds on marketing and advertising, whether it's this Christmas tribute on YouTube, the "I'm a Mormon" campaign, or that infomercial disguised as a documentary recently released in theaters as if it were an actual feature film.

No, what bothers us is that the Church hierarchy did not first earmark sufficient tithes toward the purposes God intended them for. Once the tithing is spent for God's purposes, we couldn't care less how much leftover funds they put toward marketing the institution itself.   But here's the disparity: Tithes are estimated to bring in something in the neighborhood of 5-7 BILLION dollars a year, and the leaders spend almost none of that in the only way it counts: to alleviate the suffering of those who are truly hurting. Instead, they concentrate their efforts into marketing The Brand.
For instance, did you know?
• About 120,000 active LDS children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
• 10% of malnourished children die
• The remaining 90% suffer lifelong cognitive and physical defects that severely reduce their earning potential as adults
• This leads to a cycle, in which their own children will be malnourished as well.
• $50 can provide nutritional supplements for one child for a year
Those four and a half million members who faithfully pay their tithing? Most of them probably think their money is being used to at least help alleviate the suffering of their fellow Mormons around the world. But it isn't. Too much of it is spent on promoting the idea that Mormons are groovy.

All 120,000 of those hungry Mormon kids could be helped for a year on only $6 million.  Yet the LDS Church, that same corporate behemoth that sank THREE BILLION DOLLARS into a high-end shopping center in Salt Lake City, doesn't provide assistance that could nourish its own member children living in poverty. That responsibility instead has been assumed by a group of concerned latter-day Saints who have formed a charity called the Liahona Children's Foundation, and they go around begging the rest of us to please do something to assist our own.  Maybe the Church(TM) can't alleviate world hunger, but is it too much to expect someone at Church headquarters to re-funnel some of those advertising dollars in the direction Jesus Christ would have them spent?

For heaven's sake! These are Mormon kids going without, many of whose brains will be irreversibly stunted for life because of the effects of malnourishment on their bodies; children who happen to belong to a church that used to be known for taking care of its own. 

Maybe now you can see why literally thousands of faithful latter-day Saints are saying "enough!" to the corporate fraud and financial abuse, and are diverting their tithing funds where they feel the Lord wants them. 

Have you even heard of the Liahona Children's Foundation? Well, maybe that's because they don't have any money to waste on feel-good marketing campaigns trying to convince the world how unique they are (while at the same time of course being noticeably normal). The Liahona Children's Foundation instead depends upon the generosity of fellow Mormons like you and me, and they neither waste money promoting themselves, nor do they practice priestcraft like certain people I could name.[1]

100% of the donations to Liahona go toward programs to feed and educate the children. All overhead costs are funded privately and managed with volunteer support.   Maybe you'll consider pitching in.

Because that's how tithing money should be spent.
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[1]"Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29) "You keep your eyes riveted on the prophet and the twelve apostles. We will not lead you astray. We cannot. So keep your eyes riveted on the leadership of the Church. (Russell Ballard speaking at BYU in 1996)  


More and more good latter-day Saints are baffled when they learn how much tithing money is squandered on pet projects that promote admiration for Mormons as a people, instead of promoting the gospel of Christ.  Some are looking at what's going on in Salt Lake City and asking "What in the world are they thinking?"

Denver Snuffer recently offered an explanation for the current marketing strategy. Here's an excerpt:
"The LDS church is not the same today as it was 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The Church makes decisions using models based on business and political theories. This is ill-fitted for a religious movement. The result is that changes are made hastily and without careful consideration given to doctrine or how abandoning doctrine affects members.
"The LDS church sells the product "Mormonism" to a target market of the unconverted or non-members. Their present customer base (members) have been put through jarring changes...Despite these dramatic changes, the institution has largely managed to keep their loyal customer base. This gives the leadership confidence that the greatest part of their customer base is secure and will never leave. Therefore, their adaptation is tailored to their target market. This includes a demographic who are in large part...noticeably lacking in the ability to think critically. This is the future Mormon consumer or target audience.
"To make this work, the church pares down its teachings, and reassures the loyal customer base that the radical changes are okay because the church cannot lead its customers into error or apostasy. There are two important tenets that have superseded all others: the church is led by a "prophet" and the leaders "cannot lead you astray." These MUST emerge as the primary themes. Any dedicated study of doctrine and history shows the church is riddled with contradictions, mistakes, missteps, changing and untrue claims regarding history and non-scriptural dogma. This is excused and rationalized by the propounding of the two mandatory teachings of a "prophet" who "cannot lead you astray."
There is more to this analysis on Denver's post titled Patience and Faith.

The Natives Are Getting Restless
If you want to see some stirrings of discontent, look no further than the comment section at Anonymous Bishop's blog. Within hours of that post going up, over a hundred comments appeared, most of them from members testifying of the blessings they are already seeing from directing their tithes toward palliating pain and suffering. There's also a lot of dissatisfaction in the ranks, and regret from many that they didn't see the light sooner. Here is just one sample of the stories I found there:
"My parents recently served a mission in a third-world country. I am sad to report that in trying to get people qualified to go to the temple, they regularly told people that it was more important to pay their tithing than to FEED THEIR CHILDREN. I wonder what these poor parents with starving children would say if they discovered that the sacred funds they donated to the church, in good faith, would be used to buy the front page of YouTube, or to buy a billboard in Times Square, or to make an extravagant movie — about Mormons?"
Or how about this one, an echo of the Church the way it used to be:
"I can remember in leadership training – probably 40 years ago, maybe more – that helping those in need at that time was a primary obligation. We were told that, should fast offering funds run out, those in need had a claim on the tithing funds of the Church. While a financial clerk during that period, I recall writing a check for over $10,000 for an operation one of the ward members needed – one who had never come to a meeting while I lived in the area. More recently, one of my sons needed assistance with his family (lots of medical and financial challenges) and he related some of his humiliating experiences he had with that. My, how things have changed."
 Here's a blunt assessment:
"I think a corporation that encourages the poor to sacrifice food, heating and warm clothing to help it increase it’s billions of dollars of assets is despicable."
And another:
"When the church spends 3 billion dollars to build a mall in the courtyard of the temple, I think it is pretty safe to say that any input Christ may have had was not taken into account...Maybe He is just letting the watchmen on the tower do as they please while the rest of us daub the wall with untempered mortar (Ezekiel 13). The solution that my wife and I have decided to take is to give our tithing directly to the Lord, and to bypass the middle church entirely.

"We did not arrive at this conclusion easily. I wish that I could be in denial over this, but I cannot. I am now taking full and complete responsibility for my own salvation into my own hands. Now I actually have my own eyes on the lookout for anyone who has less than I (which in my case is not many), and offer them my tithes in the form of gas, groceries, materials, or just plain old cash – whatever in my best judgement they are in need of...

"Because of this decision, I no longer consider myself worthy to enter the temple...I still go to church because I believe in Christ, and because I love the members. But mostly because I love Christ. I am in President Eyring’s ward and have an interview with his son (the Bishop) this Sunday. I guess it will all come to a head then. I think it is unfortunate that I can no longer attend the temple. I was sealed in the temple to my wife, and our children and eternal relationship means everything to me, but if the gatekeepers deem me unworthy, I pray God will understand. All I know is that when I put my tithes into the Lord’s hands directly (and receive tithes from others – God bless their souls), it feels like Zion, and I love it."
And finally, this reader adequately describes the irony of attempting to pay a proper tithe:
"I’ve been pondering and praying about these very issues for the last year. I have been a full-gross-tithe-payer for all of my more than forty years. I customarily send my tithing at the end of each year as a bank wire to church headquarters. However, this year, I’ve been deeply troubled as to how to act. Many months ago, when I read that verse from the JST Genesis that you quote, my eyes were opened, and I was deeply convinced that tithing is primarily about the poor. Only when the poor have been well-taken care of should we look to other priorities.
"My question to the Lord was, how should I act on that knowledge? I am not in a position of authority or influence. And how can just one person make any difference? Then, one evening in September, as I was washing the dishes, my answer filled my mind and heart, and I knew just what to do. I waited several months to make certain that my answer was sure, for the sake of my wife and family, given the possible consequences.
"Just two days ago, I signed up for tithing settlement. Next Sunday, I’ll hand over my check to the bishop. But instead of checking the “tithing” box on the donation slip, I’ll check “fast offering”. My entire tithing donation for this year will therefore go to the poor and needy. I will still formally declare myself as a full-tithe payer, as I truly believe I am and will still be before the Lord.
"I will be completely open with the bishop about what I’m doing, and why. The bishop (and possibly stake president) will then need to decide whether to take away my temple recommend as a result. Will I be deemed unworthy to attend the temple if I prioritize assisting the poor and needy over building, maintaining, and proselyting? Can I continue to hold my calling which requires a current temple recommend? It will be an uncomfortable decision no matter which way it goes. Do you judge worthiness by the church handbook or by Matthew 25:40?

"My sad observation: if I pay Zero dollars to the tithing fund, I’m not worthy to enter the temple. But if I pay Zero dollars to the fast offering fund, I’m good to go."
What Alma Had To Repent Of 
A few years back, I was reading in the book of Mosiah, chapter 18 when I stopped for a moment on verse one where we are told "Alma repented of his sins and iniquities."  Now, normally I would skate right over those words, not realizing we are being told something very specific here about Alma's past sins. But this time I was intrigued that Mosiah would specify sins AND iniquities.

It goes without saying Alma had much to repent of.  After all, he had been a high priest in the court of King Noah, as guilty as the others of lording it over the people of the church and living off their substance for his own comfort.

I had never looked up the meaning of the word "iniquity" before. I saw it everywhere in the scriptures, but simply assumed it was a synonym for "wickedness."  Chances are so did you. But notice how often we see the word used in conjunction with other sins, such as "sins and iniquity" or "iniquity and abominations."

As it turns out, iniquity has a very specific meaning.  It's a sin, alright, but iniquity is mainly the result of an especially egregious type of sin, a sin that can only be committed by those in high places. Iniquity is defined as "lacking equity" or "inequitable due to injustice." In a sense, it has to do with people being unequal.

But don't misunderstand: this has nothing to do with not being equal in the way most of us are to some extent by nature. You may be my superior in abilities like sports, or learning, or even in earnings, and in that sense we are not equal. And everyone is fine with that. Everybody's different. 

Iniquity, on the other hand, results when one group benefits at the expense of others under their control. The relationship between them is unjust. It is not in balance. It is lacking in equity before GodAnd all as a result of the assumption that one party is just a little bit superior, a little bit more worthy, a little more entitled than the other.

A curious earmark of iniquity, and one reason it is difficult even to recognize once it has been in place for a sufficient time, is that those who find themselves in the inferior position in the relationship often don't tend to question the arrangement. They just think of it as "the way things are."  In a previous post, Lake Wobegon Mormons, I pointed to the example of the class distinctions in the British Isles, which had been in place for centuries, and how the people of the lower classes unquestioningly accepted the right of the privileged class to rule over them. Class distinctions required members of the working class to be ever obsequious to those who ranked above them.  An English footman or scullery maid might find themselves bowing and scraping to a member of the superior class on the street, even when not in that person's employ.  God made some men superior to others -that was just the way things were. An extreme example of iniquity could be found in antebellum America, where most slaves, born into that life, never even thought to question the propriety of the practice. To both master and servant, it was the unquestioned natural order; one ordained by God. Even generations after slavery was abolished in America, iniquity remained, as black parents taught their children the importance of "knowing your place."

Alma and his cohorts in the court of King Noah were living pretty high on the hog at the expense of the humble people they ruled over, and the people seemed to accept it, however begrudgingly. It took a certain old man with an amazing amount of chutzpah to even challenge this natural order, and when he did, the entire court turned on him for his appalling lack of deference. The priest class had been taking the substance of the people for themselves for a very long time. They justified it because, in their minds, they were using the substance for the benefit of the Church.  It was not difficult for them to justify their entitlement to a portion of the tithes for themselves, even an unusually large portion, because of the selfless service they believed they were performing on behalf of the people.

Those leaders managed to live in relative comfort, even if some of the people supporting them had to struggle to pay their tithes.  The Book of Mormon warns us repeatedly to be on the lookout for the sin of iniquity in our own day. Crack open your concordance and you'll find 216 separate instances in the Book of Mormon where that warning is given, and dozens more in the Doctrine & Covenants.

Yet for years I overlooked that word's meaning. As it happens, one of the primary messages of the Book of Mormon is that the sin of Iniquity would be the great sin of the Church in our day, and that we must be ever watchful when we see it taking root among us. Nephi saw into our day and delivers a very harsh assessment:
"Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up. They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up." (2 Nephi 28:12-13)
The leaders of my Church today are exempt from paying tithes. Yes, that's right. As often as they harangue the rest of us to get our tithing money in on time, they don't have to pay any themselves.  And that isn't because the Lord issued a revelation declaring the priest class exempt from the law.  What happened was that a mere seven months after our founding prophet's body was in the grave, the twelve apostles took a vote among themselves and decided they were too important to have to pay in like everybody else.

Every now and then I'll read about someone who has left the church who says, "the best part of quitting the church is I just voted myself a ten percent raise!"

The Quorum of the Twelve voted themselves that same raise, and they didn't even have to quit.

Today the general authorities of the Church live very comfortably off the tithes of the Saints.  They have fine homes and sanctuaries, they wear expensive suits, and they are chauffeured around in new cars that are traded in every year for even newer ones.  They receive an impressive salary which they prefer to call "a modest stipend," and they are each provided the use of bottomless credit cards for which there is no oversight (what toady in Church accounting is going to audit their use?)

They enjoy all these perks of office and more because they have literally robbed the poor to obtain them. You think I'm exaggerating? There was a time when it was understood in this church that widows, the disabled, and the destitute were exempt from tithing. That was frequently taught from the pulpit by apostles such as Orson Pratt and James Talmage.

Not any longer, as evidenced by this April 2005 conference talk titled "Tithing-A Commandment Even For The Destitute."  You may be interested to know that the general authority who gave this talk made his personal fortune founding the Franklin-Covey Leadership Seminars, and likely hasn't a clue what it means to be truly destitute. He also does not provide within that talk any doctrinal statement from the Lord to support his thesis.

I couldn't help thinking of Nephi's words about "robbing the poor" as I read this instruction given to the poorest of the poor in the December 2012 Ensign magazine:
“If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing."
Here's a more accurate way of reading that counsel:
“If paying tithing means that you can’t pay for water or electricity, pay tithing, for your tithes help to ensure that the water and electricity in the homes of the general authorities continues to flow unabated. If paying tithing means that you can’t pay your rent, pay tithing, for your tithes are required to pay the costs of the exceptionally nice homes the general authorities have been given to live in, as well as for their vacation homes in Utah's resort areas. Even if paying tithing means that you don’t have enough money to feed your family, pay tithing, because your tithing ensures that the general authorities and their children will never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from."
Our beloved general authorities also enjoy perks of office that border on the silly. While you and I are expected to walk from our cars to the temple, the elite of the Church get the privilege of being transported underground from the Church office building to the temple on electric vehicles through a short tunnel that leads to an entrance in the basement of the temple. Now, it may seem petty for me to bring this up, until you recall that there are people in this church who don't have the use of their legs at all, and who earn very little money; yet those valiant members struggle to pay tithing so the privileged class can use those tithes to hire drivers and have little electric carts shuttle them fifty yards to the temple.

At least apostle Tom Perry has refused to take advantage of this privilege, if only for the sake of his pride. "I'm a former Marine," he told a friend of mine, "That'll be the day when I have to ride a golf cart to the temple."

Well, let's not quibble here. Let's just accept that these men are too important to make it to the temple under their own power.

Apparently, they're also too important to join with the rest of us in prayer:



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Announcements:

Welcome To The Remnant

A handful of fellow bloggers and I have been in talks about holding a family reunion of sorts to be held in Colorado in May for those kindred spirits who have resolved to start putting Christ and His gospel first in our lives. Already over 200 people have confirmed plans to meet with us there, and if you share any of the sentiments presented on this blog, I would hope you might wish to come too.

Sadly, already there are some wild rumors and assumptions about what we hope to accomplish, which I suppose is to be expected.  So to answer the main question, what we hope to accomplish is simply this: We'd like to get together with other devout latter-day Saints and meet one another and make friends.

The event will be very loosely structured, and no, it is not an attempt to "start a new church" or found some kind of commune or establish Zion then and there. There will be no leaders at this event. I'm not even sure you could even call this thing an "event."  If you were to get together for potluck dinner with a group of friends, you wouldn't expect any one person to emerge as the "leader" at the table, would you?  You would simply enjoy one another's company unhindered by any preconceived expectations. 

So think of this retreat as simply a family reunion for family members who have not yet met one another. And the best part: it's free! There should be no admission charge to hang out with friends.  More details will be forthcoming in January on Bret Corbridge's blog, 77 Truths.  In the meantime, in an attempt to quell some of the silly rumors already circulating, Adrian Larsen recently posted some clarifications about our little shindig, which I will repeat here:
1. So are you trying to start a new church or group or something?
No. This event is not designed to start any organization or association. It is just an open invitation to whoever is interested in joining together for instruction, worship, and fellowship.

2. Are you trying to start Zion?
No. Only the Lord can bring again Zion. The purpose of this retreat is merely for those interested to join together for a weekend of worship, learning, and camaraderie. Principles concerning Zion will no doubt be taught and discussed, but nobody is laying out a city plat, making assignments, setting up rules, or anything else along those lines. Zion must begin in each individual's heart, not with a gathering or group.
3. Who, or what, is the Remnant? 
In the context of this retreat, the Remnant refers to those who believe in, and want to preserve and continue the restoration started by Joseph Smith. All who share this common desire are welcome.

4. Are we rushing things, rushing the pass, or otherwise doing things in haste?
I'm not inclined to think so. This retreat is much like any other educational opportunity we all might engage in—like Education Week, or a weekend training seminar, or, dare I say, General Conference (only without teleprompters). I'm not aware of any efforts to do anything other than learn and worship, nor of any efforts to change anything currently happening within or without the LDS church. If I felt otherwise, I would not be publicizing this event.

5. Why gather together just to fail again? Won't the Lord gather His people when the time is right?
This is not a "gathering" like a permanent community, tent city, or relocation. Rather, it is a "gathering" like when all the relatives come for Thanksgiving and leave two days later. Nobody is staying.

Many smaller groups all over the U.S. are doing this same sort of gathering each week for worship, study and fellowship. This is an opportunity for the smaller groups to get to know one another.

6. Why this location? 
The location was chosen by Bret Corbridge because he finds it enjoyable and sacred. Having never been there myself, I'm looking forward to visiting the Mesa.

7. So who is speaking? 
Bret informs me the speaker list will not be announced in advance. This is specifically so that people who are coming to the retreat will come because they feel the Lord directs them to come—not because they are a fan of any particular speaker.

8. Is Bret trying to be a strongman? 
No, Bret is only doing the work to organize the retreat. He will not even be speaking at this event. He is not seeking to be any kind of leader.

9. So should I go? 
Well that really depends on whether the Lord is directing you to go. There's no reason you should attend this event unless the Lord directs you to.

10. Should I bring my kids?
Great question. I'm told Bret and others are working to find a way to accommodate children at events that will otherwise be more geared toward teens and adults. Got any suggestions how to make that work?
Since Adrian created this FAQ, we have heard from a nice young couple who are working on organizing and supervising activities for younger children, and perhaps even something geared toward teens.  Children will be shown how to fish and make pottery while the adults are otherwise occupied, so I'm excited at how this thing is coming together.

I'm told the Colorado location is a five hour drive from Salt Lake City, so you may want to contact Bret about local motels well in advance.  Efforts will be made by some local Saints to take some of you in, and there will be plenty of room to pitch a tent for those who enjoy camping.  Here again is the flyer containing all pertinent information so far:

As I said, although the dates are set, more details will be provided in January. Meanwhile, for additional information and updates, keep checking here, here, here, and here.

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Related Posts:

Of Alms And Offerings

Bring Ye All The Tithes Into The Stores

City Creek: How Did We Come To This?

Lake Wobegon Mormons

Are We Paying Too Much Tithing?

How To Calculate What You Owe In Tithing

Not Quite The Same

Here's a podcast interview with Liahona Children's Foundation co-founder Robert Rees

A Note About Commenting: I again remind those who wish to comment that posting only as "Anonymous" is no longer permitted. You do not have to use your real name, but if you insist on choosing "Anonymous" from the drop-down menu, you must invent a username and place that either at the top or bottom of your comment so that readers can tell you apart from the many others who for some reason keep choosing to post under the anonymous option.   If you have a Google registration, use that one, otherwise it's best if you check the box that says "Name/URL", place your preferred username in in the "name" box, and ignore the box that asks for a URL. That way you can still remain anonymous if you so wish, but then other readers have a handle to address you with when responding. Comments missing any kind of identifying moniker are at risk of being deleted. I'm very strict about this because too many people posting as "anonymous" has resulted in chaos in the past.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Not Quite The Same

Previously: How To Become An Apostate In One Afternoon

We latter-day Saints can be as bad as some Baptists when it comes to quoting scripture out of context when it seems to support a position we favor.  Never mind if that position is questionable, or the scripture we're using doesn't mean anything near what we think it does. We'll still use it to settle an argument.  Take, for instance this one tiny phrase near the end of a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants that reads "Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same."

Those words are frequently batted about in the Church today to "prove" that anything that comes out of the mouth of a general authority is the same as if it came out of the mouth of God himself.  And that goes double if those words are spoken during general conference. Here is how Henry Eyring, First Councilor of the First Presidency of the Church put it during October conference of 2010:
"I know the servants of God who will speak to you during this conference. They are called of God to give messages to His children. The Lord has said of them: “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”
And here's Russell Ballard in October session just last month:
"When the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time. The Lord reminds us, ‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.’"
By and large, both these men's talks had much to recommend them. They bore sincere testimonies of Christ.  I share their belief in a loving God and the gospel of the restoration as revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith.  But their use of a statement God made under circumstances different from where they intend to apply it promotes a common falsehood, one which we all deserve to re-examine.  This false teaching is one we are all intimately familiar with, even if only one out of a thousand has taken the trouble to read the rest of the revelation that contains this phrase.


Is context important to understanding God's revelations?  I would suggest it's very important.  "An awareness of the background of Joseph Smith's revelations allows us to better understand their significance...The form in which we find the revelations today is the product of a complex process of revelation, recording, editing, publication, and prophetic revision." (The Doctrine and Covenants Revelations In Context: the 37th Annual Sperry Symposium at BYU)

I might add that the form in which we find the revelations today is oftentimes misunderstood. But that's not God's fault, it's ours. If we're going to go around quoting God, we should be paying better attention to what it is He was actually saying.  So with context in mind, here's some background on the verse in question.

These Commandments Are of Me
"Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" is a phrase found in the next to last verse of section one in the Doctrine and Covenants. The first thing we get to understand about section one is that although it's first in the book, it was not the first revelation Joseph Smith received from God. By my count, Joseph received 74 revelations between 1828 and 1831 prior to that one.  Typically, after Joseph received a revelation, he would disseminate it to the church by publishing it in the Church newspaper, The Evening And Morning Star.

In 1831 the Lord commanded Joseph to publish a book containing 64 of these revelations, and on November 1st of that year the Lord provided one more revelation which he instructed Joseph to use as a preface to that book. This book, known as the Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ, was published in 1833, and the Lord's preface appeared as the first chapter. Two years later, another book was published and given the title Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected From the Revelations of God.  As the title suggests, the book was divided into two parts. Part One was "Theology On the Doctrine of the Church of the Latter Day Saints" which consisted of seven lectures, known collectively as the Lectures on Faith.  The second part of the book was titled Covenants and Commandments of the Lord, to His Servants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and was essentially a revision of the Book of Commandments.  The revelation from God that had served as the preface to the Book of Commandments was retained as Section One of this second part of the book. As before, that revelation served to introduce the reader to God's reasons and purposes for promulgating the revelations that followed.

In this preface, the Lord makes it known that the revelations are addressed not only to the fledgling church, but to all the inhabitants of the earth. When reading this preface, you'll note several things pertinent to our conversation here. First, He's telling us He's back. This is God's way of announcing to the world that the heavens are open once again. Second, He's not fooling around. He makes it clear in no uncertain terms that He means business, and that time for repenting is short. This book of commandments and revelations is to go forth to all mankind, that they must prepare against the day when judgment is meted out; that all will be recompensed according to the measure in which men treat their fellow man. The Lord reiterates that He is fully aware of the calamities which are to come upon the face of the earth, and that just because many prophecies have not yet been fulfilled, we should not be complacent and think they never will be. This, he says, is why he called his servant Joseph Smith and spake to him from heaven, and gave him these commandments: as a voice of warning.

Now, I'm simplifying and summarizing here, so I'm leaving out a lot of important stuff. What you might want to do is read this entire section yourself, and read it the way it was intended to be read: as a preface and introduction to the revelations, prophecies, and commandments in the sections that follow in the original Book of Commandments. I'd suggest you get yourself a facsimile of the original, because reading it in it's original format is key to understanding what the Lord was getting at in verse 38. In this introduction God is telling his people that all the prophecies foretold in the chapters that follow will come to pass. Why? Because He had spoken it, "and I excuse not myself."  Those who doubt the veracity of his word and fail to repent and prepare will be caught up short. He speaks not only of those calamities foretold in the Book of Commandments, but all that was written by the prophets anciently shall also be fulfilled.

In what we have now as verse 37, the Lord gives specific counsel:
"Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled." 
Note the Lord is counseling us to search these commandments -the ones in the revelations in this book. No reference is made in this chapter to anything a Church father might one day say in the future. This is important in understanding the next verse:
"What I the Lord have spoken I have spoken, and I excuse not myself."  (He is God; he makes no apologies for the predictions he has made. We should note that God is speaking here in the past tense. What He has spoken He has spoken.  He is not saying anything about what some future leader of the Church might say in a conference talk in 2014.  He's referencing HIS words here, and his words only.)

"And though the heavens and the earth may pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled." (If God said it; you can count on it happening.)
 Now here comes that part where a lot of us get tripped up:
"Whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same."
This is where we should ask ourselves the question "what is the same?" What is it God is talking about here that is the same as His voice?

Well, it should be obvious to anyone reading the revelations as given. He is talking about His word as revealed in this book. His prophecies. His predictions. The calamities He assures us will certainly come to pass. And the servants he is referring to are those men to whom these particular revelations were given and recorded: Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Sidney Rigdon, John, David, and Peter Whitmer, et al. How could anyone miss the clear reference in verse six to "my servants" being the ones instructed by Him to publish these words? These are the "voices of the servants" he speaks of again in the penultimate verse of that chapter: the men who wrote down these revelations, and whose "voices" in this book are to be considered as valid as God's own.

We get to ask ourselves, "is God referring here to anything even Joseph Smith might say or teach at some future time as being "the same" as if God said or taught it? How about Hyrum? Rigdon? Cowdery? David Whitmer? What about John Whitmer?  All these men are, after all,  the servants of God referred to in the revelations contained in the book. Does that mean their voices are to be thought of as the same as the voice of God whenever they open their mouths? Or is God here referring to just these particular revelations which he revealed through these servants at this time, and which are now being published in this book?

The answer should be obvious. God is making a specific claim regarding a specific set of revelations given at a specific time.  He is not giving carte blanc to any of these servants to speak for him any old time they feel like pontificating. Not even Joseph Smith presumed to have that privilege or ability. How could anyone possibly read this and assume it gives some kind of blanket authorization to random Church officeholders in the future?

If we think we can extrapolate out this idea that the voice of God is inherent in any official pronouncement of a future Church president, we need only consider some of the things Brigham Young taught from the pulpit before we're ready to run away from that notion.  Here is just one official pronouncement Brigham made that instantly comes to mind:
"You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, uncomely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind . . . Cain slew his brother.  Cain might have been killed, and that would have put a termination to that line of human beings.  This was not to be, and the Lord put a mark upon him, which is the flat nose and black skin." (Journal of Discourses, vol. 7, p. 290).
Today we recoil from those words. We wholly reject them. The LDS Church, on its official website, has repudiated these beliefs as not having come from the mind of God.  Yet if we are to promote the prevalent teaching that "whether it be by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same" we would be forced to concede that God himself must have said those words, and that Brigham Young was merely acting as God's vessel in repeating them.  After all, didn't Brigham also say that when his discourses "are copied and approved by me they are as good Scripture as is couched in this Bible, and if you want to read revelation read the sayings of him who knows the mind of God "?  (Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, p. 264)

Yowza! Brigham Young claiming to know and convey the mind of God? We may have a problem here.

Well yes, you might say, but that was a long time ago. And well...er...um...that was Brigham Young, after all, so he doesn't really count, right?  We've had to learn to put up with owning Brigham; the best we can do is keep him in his room when company comes over. We love Brother Brigham the way we love Gary Busey; he is what he is.

Well then, how about a statement from a modern apostle? Here's Mark E. Petersen, who served the Church with distinction during half my lifetime. Elder Petersen presents a kinder, more gentle view than what we often heard from Brother Brigham:
"Now we are generous with the Negro. We are willing that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I would be willing to let every Negro drive a Cadillac if they could afford it. I would be willing that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. But let them enjoy these things among themselves." (Mark E. Petersen, “Race Problems as They Affect the Church,” Speech at BYU August 27, 1954).
Show of hands: how many of you reading this would be willing to attest that what Peterson said there "is the same" as though God himself had spoken it?

If we in the church continue to teach that whether something is spoken in God's voice, or the voice of His servants, it is the same, we are going to paint ourselves into a corner we won't be able to get out of.  Such a ridiculously transparent falsehood would cause God's word to be subservient to the words of a man or group of men not yet born.  Have we forgotten that even Joseph Smith (an actual prophet) warned the church to be aware that "a prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking as a prophet"?

Well then, what does a prophet sound like when he's speaking as a prophet?  Good question. When the people of Moses wondered how they would recognize a true prophet once Moses was gone, God gave them the answer through Moses:
"I will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him."
That was Moses' voice, but those were God's words. That's the important distinction. Moses was speaking, but God put those words in his mouth.  It was God speaking through Moses, saying some very precise and specific words as though God himself had spoken them.  This is one of those cases when "whether it be by mine own voice, or the voice of my servant, it is the same" actually applies.

They Have To Be God's Words
When we read something as precise as "whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants, it is the same," we should be able to tell God is talking about something quite separate from simple inspiration.

When I'm reading the first part of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, the Lectures on Faith, I'm reading  inspired words,  just as most of the excerpts of his speeches and writings that have since been collected in the book Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith are inspired. These teachings may have been inspired of God, but they come to us in the "voice" of Joseph Smith.

On the other hand, when I'm reading the second part of the book, the "Covenants and Commandments of the Lord to His Servants," I'm reading revealed words.  The inspired words are things Joseph spoke or wrote down under inspiration from the spirit.  These revealed words may have been written down by Joseph Smith (and others), but they are in the voice of Jesus Christ, speaking in the First Person. In the first instance, it is Joseph speaking. In the second instance, it's the Lord. Only when speaking in the Lord's "voice" is it the same as the Lord himself having spoken it. Notice how he phrases it. He says "by (as in "through the medium of") the voice of my servants," not in the voice of my servants.

The Lord's hand is present in both sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, but only in the second part can we say we are actually hearing the voice of the Lord.  I have little doubt that much of what we hear in general conference comes by way of inspiration.  But almost none of it comes through revelation. How do I know that? Because if, say, Thomas Monson was delivering a revelation from the pulpit, he would make it clear to us all that, although it is his voice we are hearing, the words are coming from God. The rules of revelation require he identify the Savior as the author of any true revelation.

Am I saying that nothing the general authorities of the Church present to us in conference is of any  benefit to us? Do I make the claim that the general authorities in our day are incapable of delivering a message in God's voice?

Of course not.

What I'm saying is that those revelations God introduced in the Book of Commandments provide us a template for recognizing when someone's voice is to be considered the same as God's, and when it is not. Since "the word of God" consists of the words that God speaks, the person claiming to speak for God should inform us in no uncertain terms whose words it is we are hearing. Whenever the Lord has spoken to us through a latter-day revelation, he has made himself known. He introduces himself by using some variation of  "Thus saith the Lord."  Our Doctrine and Covenants is riddled with examples:

"Hearken unto me, saith the Lord your God" (Section 51); "Behold, I am God; give heed unto my word" (Section 13);  "Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your redeemer, the Great I AM" (section 29); "Listen to the voice of the Lord your God, Even Alpha and Omega" (section 35), and so on.

Do you want to see an example of a "revelation" that did not come from the voice of God? Crack open your scriptures to D&C section 20. The introductory paragraph states that it is a "revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet," but those italicized introductions were written by a committee that compiled that edition of the scriptures in 1981. The committee was mistaken. Nowhere in there does Jesus Christ identify these words as coming from him.

We now know, thanks largely to the Joseph Smith Papers project, that section 20 is a hodgepodge thrown together by up to a half-dozen early Church leaders in a hurry to get it ready for publication. Joseph Smith the Prophet may have been among them, but the original document also shows "voices" in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, John Whtimer, Sidney Rigdon, and possibly others. All of these men would have been considered the same "servants" God referred to in his preface to the Book of Commandments, but in this particular case the voices were the voices of God's servants only, and not "the same" voice as God's.

Does this mean that section 20 is invalid? Not necessarily. That section contains many of the patterns and theories for governing the operations of the church. But it's important we be clear that these were the patterns created by men (parts of it suggest a decided Campbellite influence), and not necessarily the pattern for government of a church laid out by God Himself. [1]

There are some in the church who feel it is not necessary for our modern Church leaders to preface their comments with "thus saith the Lord" in order for it to be taken as scripture.  To those people I would respond that if it's good enough for a heavenly being to follow that pattern, it should be good enough for men.
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[1] In his series, "A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon," Daymon Smith demonstrates that not everything we assume to be distinctly "Mormon" was obtained through revelation from God. Quite a bit of our belief system was actually brought into the church by the earliest converts, who came from the early frontier Campbellite tradition. This is one reason it's important to distinguish between bona fide revelations and those we merely assume to be such.

Pulled Over By An Angel
Section 27 is a revelation I find quite intriquing.  Here is a revelation given in the voice of one of God's servants, and that servant is not the prophet Joseph Smith. It seems that one day Joseph had hitched his wagon and set out to buy some wine for the sacrament. On the way he was stopped by an angel, who warned him he was about to purchase the wine from his enemies, and that he might want to think twice about doing that.  What is interesting about this angel is that he didn't warn Joseph in his own words. Instead, he started right out by saying "Listen to the voice of Jesus Christ, your Lord, your God, and your redeemer, whose word is quick and powerful."

From there the angel dove right into the message he had been sent to deliver. He recited it word for word just as if it had come from the mouth of God Himself, and then he departed. That is what it means in D&C 1:38 when God said "Whether it be by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants it is the same."  The angel, one of God's servants, recited the precise message God had sent him to deliver, and in the exact words God would have used had He been there in person.

But there's more to this story. The angel's recitation wraps up pretty quickly. He delivers the message and gets out, closing out with (and again, these are the words of the Lord) "for the hour cometh that I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you, on the earth, and with all those whom my Father hath given me out of the world."

That's the version we get in the Book of Commandments.  Short and sweet.  The entire revelation took up less than one small page in the Book of Commandments, and the Book of Commandments is so small it can fit in your pocket.

Now pull out your modern set of scriptures and see for yourself what happened to that revelation by the time it got reprinted in your D&C.  In the middle of verse 5, that angel seems to suddenly shift gears and say, "I will drink of the fruit of the vine with you on the earth, and with Moroni..."

Wait...What?! How did Moroni get in there?  There was no mention of Moroni when the angel spoke those words the first time! Two years previous, the revelation was winding down to a close at that point, but when it's published later in the D&C, the angel appears to have gotten a second wind, blithely changes the lyrics, and proceeds to ramble on for another 13 lengthy paragraphs about things that have nothing to do with what he had been talking about originally. In this second version, more ancients show up to the wine tasting, including Elias, John the son of Zacharias, Elijah, Joseph, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham; Michael/Adam; also Peter, James, and John. This was originally framed as God offering to raise a glass with his friend, but it's become a crowded Bacchanal. And the text shows effusive commentary on every one of these crashers to the party.

What in the world is going on here?

Oliver Cowdery. That's what's going on here. Oliver Cowdery got hold of the revelation prior to its second publication and is suddenly beset with uncontrollable logorrhea. Effusive embellishment was Oliver Cowdery's Modus Operandi; he just couldn't help himself. And so he free-styled it until he finally ran out of words, or out of paper, or the quill wore down.  (Daymon Smith describes Cowdery's proclivity for purple prose as "full of circumlocution and biblical cliche.")

Now, it should be pointed out that Oliver Cowdery had every right to dictate scripture -surely more right than anyone in the Church hierarchy today. As the Second Elder in the early church, he was next in rank to Joseph Smith himself, and yes, he did often receive bona fide revelations from God just the same as Joseph did. So if he felt inspired to throw in with his two cents, well, who's to say he shouldn't?  Nothing he wrote was doctrinally incorrect. Just curiously out of place.

But let's be honest. Nothing Oliver Cowdery added in section 27 could, by any stretch of the imagination, obtain the status of "by my voice or the voice of my servant."  That angel who appeared to Joseph Smith spoke in the voice of God. Oliver Cowdery did not.

This brings us back to those modern general authorities who insist they should be held in deference because the words they speak are equal to the words of God. Remember what Henry Eyring said of his brethren in the hierarchy?  "The Lord has said of them 'What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”

But is Eyring correct? Is that what the Lord has said of them? Or did the Lord actually say those words about a different group of men, in a different time, regarding a specific set of revelations received directly through Him, and echoing His voice?  These men, the ones Henry Eyring is referring to, hadn't even been born when the Lord made that statement a hundred and eighty-odd years ago. Neither had their fathers, and neither had their grandfathers and most likely their great-great grandfathers. So I don't think that in the verse Eyring is quoting, God was talking about them. Maybe the Lord has, since then, said something similar regarding the current First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, but I have never seen a revelation saying so, have you? The Lord's words in D&C 1:38 can't be shoehorned into fitting the modern scenario Eyring intends.

What about Russell Ballard's claim? "When the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time."

I don't know how quick God is to take offense when people try to put words in his mouth he never said, but if it was me I'd be annoyed with that one.  In ancient times "taking the Lord's name in vain" meant representing God as saying something or taking a position on something which He never intended. Does Ballard even realize how arrogantly offensive his declaration is?  Vox Populi, Vox Dei is the exact opposite of how God operates. The word of God must actually come from God, not from a committee of men.

As author Rob Smith recently wrote,
"In order for words to have the power of God, they must proceed from the throne down, not from earth up.  Therefore, taken in conjunction with what God said elsewhere in the scriptures, the Lord can only be saying in D&C 1:38 "if someone speaks the word of God, it doesn't matter whether that someone is me or someone else; I will own those words because they came from me."

"Note that this is not the same as saying, "whatever a church officeholder says, I will consider that as if I had said it even though the words did not come from me."
"He explicitly says 'what I have spoken.'
"In fact, he says it twice. The 'whether by mine own voice' is not variable in the source of the word, but only variable in terms of which messenger (the Lord himself, an angel, or a man) delivered it. The word "servant" here does not indicate an office, but simply a role that can as easily be filled by a child,[2] a patriarch, or a heathen, as a saint. The only qualification for a true messenger is that the word they carry, as brief as it may be, originates from God. It is supremely important to heed God's word no matter who the messenger may be.
"The origination from God is critically important. Even Joseph, whose words God commanded us to receive as his own (an endorsement I am not aware of any man having received in this dispensation) had a limitation placed on his endorsement.  God explicitly limits his commission as a messenger to his word: 
'Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me.'  (D&C 21:4) Thus we call these people messengers, and not, say, authors. No man can dictate God's word independent of God giving it to him."  (Robert Smith, Commanded In All Things: Understanding the Power of the Word of God, 2014)
Did you get that? We are not commanded to heed Joseph Smith's words and commandments; we are to heed the words as Joseph received them from God.
 ________________________________________
That's right. A servant can also mean a child. "And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned." (Alma 32:23)

Darkened In Our Minds
Carol McConkie, another speaker at last October's conference, also engaged in unwarranted fawning over the Brethren when she singled out President Monson, his counselors, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and said "in their words we hear the voice of the Lord and we feel the Savior’s love...The Lord Himself has spoken: 'Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.' "

Sister McConkie is confused. We're not supposed to "hear the voice of the Lord" in their words. If these men are receiving revelations, we should be hearing them delivering a message in the Lord's words. 

So why don't we? Why don't we hear revelations from the pulpit anymore? I believe in continuing revelation; we are a church founded on continuing revelation; the men in top positions in the church are continuously hinting that they are privy to revelation. So where are the revelations?

With all this talk about how fortunate we are to have a living prophet on the earth to tell us God's will, wouldn't you expect the prophet's conference talks to be totally awesome? We're constantly assured that listening to his voice is the same as listening to the voice of God, so witnessing an experience like that should be unforgettable, shouldn't it?

Can you even recall what President Monson talked about in conference just three years ago?

Well, I can. But only because I wrote a blog post about it at the time. Otherwise, it would have slipped into the memory hole just as so many of his other talks have. I remember this one because in the piece I wrote I imagined what it might be like if suddenly the whole world took us at our word and tuned in to conference to see and hear the word of God as revealed to his prophet on the earth.

After watching that session, I'm fairly certain that, had the the rest of the world tuned in that day to listen to our prophet, they would not have been persuaded they were listening to a message from God.  I could be wrong. Decide for yourself.

Thirty years ago the president of the Church at that time hinted at the reason God is no longer communicating to His church through its leaders. President Benson told us the whole church was under condemnation, and would remain under condemnation until we repented as a people. But nobody really wanted to hear that, and once Benson was dead, the subject never came up in conference again. President Benson's prophetic warning has been replaced by a penumbra of thought that feels vaguely like "all is well in Zion -or it will be once we all learn to follow the Brethren."
 
Prior to his death, Joseph Smith warned the people on two occasions that they were depending too much on him, and hence were becoming "darkened in their minds."  Now mind you, this is the one guy we Mormons believe had regular conversations with God, and even he was telling the people to back off because the more they looked to him for guidance, the stupider they got.

Have you ever wondered what it means to be darkened in your mind? I've observed it first hand. It means your priorities are so confused that you can't see truth when it's staring you in the face.  I had an online discussion with a woman not long ago who typified this phenomenon.  It was a rather lengthy chat, so I'll distill it here to its essence:

Her: It is absolutely vital that we follow the counsel of our prophet and apostles.
Me: Why?
Her: Because they can teach us God's will for us.
Me: The scriptures also teach God's will for us. What are the leaders teaching lately that is more valuable than what I can find in the scriptures?
Her: They teach us that it is vital that we follow the living prophet.

That was pretty much the gist of the conversation, though we kept going round and round, and I never could get her to give me an example of something the leaders are teaching that is so profound and revealing that I can't find it anywhere else. Her entire argument could be summarized as "we need to follow the prophets and apostles because they teach us the importance of following the prophets and apostles."

And you know, I had a hard time arguing with her, because whenever I tune in to a conference session that is exactly what the speakers seem to be saying.

Do you want to ruin your family's thanksgiving this Thursday? Try this with a relative and see if you don't get the same result.

Truth Number 17
I sincerely wish the men at the top of the Church hierarchy were still receiving revelation for the church. When God again deigns to pour out his word through them, I'll be first in line to give heed.

Meanwhile, we do ourselves a disservice if we allow our wishful thinking to inform reality. This does not mean we should abandon the church. It also doesn't mean God has ceased to operate in our individual lives. It only means we should recognize our need to repent so that God will once again accept us as His people.

In his remarkable book, 77 Truths, author Bret Corbridge has this to say:
"Several decades have passed since doctrinal revelation was received by leadership and
disseminated as scripture to the church. The reality that the Church is not providing additional prophecy and scripture is self evident. Contrary to popular belief, reviewing teachings offered by previous prophets in general conference is not "new revelation." ...During this time of "silence" members are required to turn to the Lord and His Holy Spirit for additional revelation.

"Those who love the gospel hope the day will come when God will again provide additional revelation through the leaders of His church. Until that time, the wheat of the church are to seek learning, "even by study and also by faith." (D&C 9:7-8)
Here's an idea. What if someone compiled a book of recent conference talks which would include all the examples they believe represent the best in the category of "whether it be by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same"? Then we could compare that book with the examples we know God endorsed in the Book of Commandments and see how well those modern talks compare to the ones from 1833.

I wouldn't attempt to guess whether a book like that could fill very many pages. But I can suggest a preface to it, and it's one the Lord has already written and has ready to go:
"Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord." -Amos 8:11
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