I had an interesting experience recently while at church. I live in a part of the world where the church has been developing very slowly and the branches are quite spread out, so a visit from the mission president is a rare and treasured event. A couple Sundays ago he came to our branch and requested that we give him the third hour for a special combined RS/PH lesson.
I want to preface this by saying that I have had several opportunities to interact with this president and his family on a personal level over the past few months, and they are wonderful people, and a breath of fresh air to this area. They engage with local members directly in a way that I have never seen before, and have done a lot of valuable training and teaching. I appreciate, support, and sustain this man as a leader.
Lack of Scripture-Based Teaching
However, as much as I respect and appreciate him and his work, I can’t bring myself to agree with his lesson in our branch. He led a discussion about missionary work, what it takes to be a member missionary, and different ways to do missionary work as a member. The entire hour, not one verse of scripture was referenced. (Not counting John 3:16, when it came up on screen while they showed us the new Christmas video.) There weren’t even any references to scriptural missionaries like Ammon or Paul, or quotes from early Church leaders. There were only references to Preach My Gospel and several modern GA quotes.
I have a few related thoughts I’m going to string together here, and I apologize in advance if it seems a bit disjointed. As I write this and think about the merit of the scriptures versus the words of modern church leaders, the quote from Brigham Young comes to mind: “I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.” What is a living oracle? It is a prophet, rather like Joseph Smith. Brigham would certainly have been referring to Joseph or anyone who had the same gifts: a true prophet, seer, and revelator. Think about it: Joseph, from his own mouth, spoke into being the entire Book of Mormon and most of the Doctrine and Covenants. He also demonstrated the ability to “correct” existing scripture as he prepared the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, and revealed many new and brilliant things throughout his lifetime. I believe that what Brigham was saying was that if all the “books” he referred to somehow were to go missing, he was confident that Joseph, or someone equal to Joseph in spiritual gifts, could replace them.
That leaves us with the question of whether modern Church leaders qualify as “living oracles” and Joseph’s equal, and therefore authorized to replace or override scripture. I know people have differing opinions about the prophetic gifts of our leaders today, but I doubt any of those leaders would claim to be Joseph’s equal when it comes to spiritual and revelatory gifts. In fact, I think we would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Church who would claim that modern general conference talks, say, are more valuable to our spiritual welfare than the Book of Mormon.
That said, let’s consider some of the different ways we receive Gospel teaching. I propose that all forms of Gospel teaching can be placed on a continuum according to their source. At one end of the continuum you have the word of God, as spoken from His own mouth or by angelic messengers, as recorded in the scriptures and the revelations received through Joseph Smith. (Arguably much of the scriptures don’t fit that definition, but I am comfortable putting all scripture very close to that end. I would also put personal revelation at this end of the continuum.) Somewhere along the continuum you have prophetic teachings and messages based on actual words of God as received from Him. But then we run into a bit of a problem: we start having general authorities quoting each other, which removes the message one step farther from the actual word of God. Then you have lesson manuals and other Church publications, which, even if they deal directly with scripture, more often than not are attempting to teach topically and usually take verses out of context (“proof-texting”), and those also use the GA quotes liberally, sometimes even using quotes of quotes to make the matter more complicated. Regurgitated and heavily edited talks and articles are worth a mention here, too. Also, many of these latter articles and lessons don’t even define authorship clearly; they could have been written by any committee or employee in the Church Office Building, so their divine/prophetic source is even more dubious. And then, lastly, you have the local teacher or speaker using the lesson manual or the talk to deliver their own form of Gospel teaching to the “end user.”
Regardless of what you think the relative merit of these various kinds of teaching is, can we agree that there is a continuum, and that we generally are spending too much time at the wrong end of it?
My point is that with each iteration, we get farther and farther away from the actual voice of God. I hope it is clear to all of us that the “philosophies of men, mingled with scripture” are inferior to the words of God, whether from His mouth or by the voice of his angels. Each iteration I described above adds a little more philosophy and uses a little less scripture. Frankly, even this article of mine is my philosophy, mingled with nothing, actually, because I haven’t even quoted any scripture yet. You should treat it accordingly: with interest (I hope), but also with discernment.
When I hear a presentation that ignores the scriptures, uses only contemporary quotes and sources, and borrows liberally from modern marketing techniques, I have to wonder about where it fits on my continuum, and to what degree it is “true.”
Means, Method, or Message?
However, the lack of scripture-based teaching paled in comparison to the real problem: the entire hour, all we talked about was the various means and methods of delivery of “the message”—we never even specified what “the message” was! This, in a nutshell, represents on a small scale what I believe is lacking from the church in general: presentation has become far more important that content. Many may argue with me that this isn’t true, and I will concede that probably no one has an actual intent to make the method more important than the message. But look at the evidence: in the Church, a vastly disproportionate amount of time is being spent planning, discussing, training, evaluating, praising, and extolling the way “the message” is disseminated, administrated, correlated, and controlled, compared to the amount of time repeating, understanding, and expounding the actual message, or anything even remotely close to it. Maybe we all assume that we already know the message, so the only thing left to learn is how to share it?
I don’t want to find fault with our leaders, who have heavy burdens to carry and are doing the best they can. But things seem to be going in the wrong direction. There is no one to point fingers at. I personally think it’s the natural consequence of having a complex administrative structure where the organization itself has gained its own momentum, carrying others along with it, despite their best efforts to do what’s right. Like any other large organization subject to the laws and methods of operation common in the world in which it exists, it has to ensure its own survival, and the tendency is always to do it the way the world does it: sophisticated marketing. And so the message entrusted by Christ to His disciples to personally deliver to the world gets lost in the noise, because the organization as a whole is trying to act as a united force, and somehow in the effort to have us all speak with a united voice, we forget what we were supposed to be talking about.
Let’s try to remember, shall we?
What is this mysterious “message” that everyone mentions as if we all understand it, but that nobody ever defines? It’s not all that hard. Jesus himself only needed a few verses to explain the whole thing. The best explanations I know of are both in the Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 31, and 3 Nephi 11. You know the formula: faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, enduring to the end.
That is the most common definition, but I believe we usually oversimplify the final step, obscuring what it means to endure to the “end.” I would like to pose a question here: what is the “end” we must endure to? Is it the end of a period of time, such as this mortal life, a dispensation, or final judgment? Or could “end” refer to a specific purpose or goal, the way we use the word in the proverb “the ends justify the means”? If “end” can refer to a goal, then is it tied to a specific time and/or place, or does it refer to the completion of that goal, regardless of where or when it happens?
According to Nephi, the “only and true doctrine” (v. 21) is repentance, baptism, receiving a remission of sins by the Holy Ghost, and speaking with the tongue of angels, doing everything Christ did with faith in him, and eventually receiving a personal promise of salvation from the Father. In this definition, “end” refers to the fulfillment of a very specific promise, an event that is not tied to any time or place or condition other than us completing the initial steps ourselves.
Christ also explained what His doctrine was, and prefaced it with a warning that he was giving a clear definition to prevent disputations. (Yet, somehow, we have a whole book of Mormon Doctrine—in conflicting, disputation-inducing editions, too!—that contains all sorts of things Christ didn’t see fit to include.) Christ’s definition also contained an explanation on the importance of witnesses, perhaps because the end goal of the gospel in his definition includes all three of the Godhead bearing witness to us. His formula is to repent and become as a little child, believe in Christ, and be baptized in the name of Christ. The “end” result is that the individual will be visited with fire and the Holy Ghost, and receive a witness by the Holy Ghost of the Son and the Father, and eventually the Father Himself will bear witness.
That is pretty serious stuff.
Milk before Meat
Another thought that keeps coming to mind as I write this is the injunction to give milk before meat. In my mind, the “milk” of the gospel is this, extrapolated from the scriptures discussed above: if I (and you, and every one of us) truly repent of my sins, having faith in Christ, and am baptized, I will be filled with the Holy Ghost, and if I continue to press forward in faith, I will eventually come unto Christ in the flesh and gain for myself a sure knowledge of Him and the fact that he has saved me. In other words, the “milk” of the gospel is a general understanding of the end goal, which includes spiritual gifts, the ministering of angels, and a personal manifestation of Christ to each individual who has prepared himself/herself. The “meat” of the gospel, I believe, lies in the HOW, because how we get there is too difficult for us to comprehend at first.
Lest anyone try to tell me that personal visitations and witnesses are meat, not milk, let’s look at the uses of that phrase in the scriptures.
The Three Instances of Milk vs. Meat in the Scriptures
1 Cor 3:2—Paul tells the Corinthians they are not able to bear meat, because they are “yet carnal,” because they idolize their Gospel teachers, instead of laying their foundation on Christ. This, incidentally, is the chapter where we learn that we are God’s temple, where God’s Spirit is intended to dwell; does it get any more up close and personal than that? “Therefore, let no man glory in men.” Get back to the milk—faith in Christ, not in leaders—so that God can come dwell in you.
Heb 5:12—In a chapter about the priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, which implies personal audiences with God (see D&C 84:19-22), Paul also mentions how Christ learned “obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” (Heb 5:8-9). I believe this is an oblique reference to “meat,” because if Christ learned obedience by suffering, and we must learn to obey Christ…therefore we must suffer as well. But that would be meat, and is left for another day, and therefore Paul returns to “milk,” and the following chapter is about the basic principles of the Gospel and enduring patiently to “obtain the promise” (Heb 6:15), which is when God swears “by himself, saying, surely blessing I will bless thee, and multiplying I will multiply thee” (Heb 6:13-14). So we read again: having your calling and election made sure, if I may call it that, is MILK, not meat.
D&C 19:22—A revelation about repentance and what to preach: “And of tenets thou shalt not talk, but thou shalt declare repentance and faith on the Savior, and remission of sins by baptism and by fire, yea, even the Holy Ghost” (D&C 19:31). The first half of this chapter, verses 1-20, talks about the opposite end of the spectrum: what happens if you don’t take that first step of faith and repentance. Despite the harshness of those verses, I believe they are also counted as milk. It is a warning about the importance of progressing in the gospel, and the importance of finding peace in Christ in the midst of your struggle to repent (v. 23), and “that you may enter into my rest” (v. 9).
A final thought: I absolutely agree that we don’t need to be teaching “meat” in church. However, considering the points above, and what God and his prophets considered appropriate “milk” teachings in those contexts, are we even teaching “milk” at all?
Authority vs Means
Back to missionary work and the means of spreading the gospel. Christ didn’t give his missionaries the same kind of training that we give ours. There was no discussion of technique, approach, or how to “bring the Spirit.” Christ gave them His word, His message, and told them who to go take it to. The power lies in the message itself, and God takes responsibility for its success. See D&C 50:21-22: “Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth? Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”
The preacher’s only responsibility is to preach under the direction of the Spirit and to teach the right message. The listener is either going to respond and receive, or not—that is no longer the preacher’s problem. There is no correct “method,” because God, by the Spirit of truth, is moving the word from the preacher to the receiver. That’s it. How can the preacher truly work under the direction of the Spirit if he has some acronym he is trying to fulfill, or a video he wants to share? You don’t need a M.E.T.H.O.D., the newest inspirational video, or a technique to set the right mood—you just need to deliver the message you have been given, and make sure you are delivering it at the behest of the Spirit.
It seems to me, therefore, that there are two things we each need to do to prepare, if we want to be “successful” missionaries: first, we need to get the message and make sure we understand it. Second, we need to be able to follow the Spirit. Any other study or preparation will distract us and end up making our task harder.
I better put my money where my mouth is. I wrote this article because I felt it was something that needed to be said, and shared. Yes, I believe the Spirit prompted me to write it and I have felt that guiding influence as I decided how to phrase my thoughts.
I prefer to say “believe,” because I personally don’t “know” much yet; I’m only at the beginning of the Gospel path. But this is the message and the doctrine that has awakened my soul, that makes me feel the most joy, that makes me see most clearly. Everything else I have ever heard that claims to be doctrine pales in comparison to this Gospel. I believe it is true, I do my best to follow it, and I am trying to share it with those around me and redirect conversation from less important philosophies of men to these fundamental truths.
I believe that no message is more important than the true Gospel, the one and only doctrine of Christ. And that Gospel is nothing more or less than the teaching that we must repent and come unto Christ, witnessing our faith through baptism, then continue towards Christ until we receive the promise of eternal life and God witnesses to us that He will receive us home to Him.