By Eric Johnson
A Viewpoint on Mormonism episode on this topic will air during the week of April 15th.
During the weekend of March 10, 2019, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints flew all fifteen of its general authorities to Rome, Italy–a nation where up to 85% of its residents are Roman Catholics–as the newest temple built by the 16-million member church was officially dedicated.
Among other events that weekend, President Russell M. Nelson was given a personal audience with Roman Catholic Pope Francis. There were many other photo ops as this was the first time in history that all fifteen general authorities had been together in one place outside the United States.
One snapshot taken at the LDS Rome temple caught my attention. Nelson stood next to the statue portraying the apostle Peter, first in line to the marble statues of Jesus’s other apostles. His hand slightly reached out to touch the keys held in Peter’s right hand. No doubt Matthew 16:19 is being referenced. It says, “I will give you (Peter) the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The comparison was clear. Peter, whom the Roman Catholic Church claims to be its first pope, is the head of the “former” day saints; Nelson, meanwhile, is the leader of the “Latter-day Saints.” Seeing the photo for the first time, my jaw hit the ground.
Understanding a little bit about LDS doctrine and teaching is important to comprehend what was intentionally meant.
The Church you belong to, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is the restored Church. When you know what restored means, you will understand why standards of conduct are as they are. Following the Crucifixion of Christ an apostasy occurred. Leaders began to ‘teach for doctrines the commandments of men.’ They lost the keys of authority and closed themselves off from the channels of revelation. That lost authority could not just be repossessed. It had to be restored by those who held the keys of authority anciently. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a remodeled version of another church. It is not an adjustment or a correction or a protest against any other church. They have their ‘form of godliness’ and their goodness and value” (“The Standard of Truth Has Been Erected,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2003, p. 24).
A church manual says this,
One by one, the Apostles were killed or otherwise taken from the earth. Because of wickedness and apostasy, the apostolic authority and priesthood keys were also taken from the earth. The organization that Jesus Christ had established no longer existed, and confusion resulted. More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy. Soon pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians (Gospel Principles, 2009, p. 92).
Occasionally, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is criticized for teaching doctrine not found in the Bible. In reality, the teachings of the Church reflect reiterations of truths once had in Christ’s Church that were lost through many centuries of apostasy and the consequential absence of divine authority and priesthood keys (“Latter-day Scripture,” Church News, January 10, 2009, p. 16).
What is important to note is that only one can hold these keys at a time. Referring to LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, D&C 132:7 states how “there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.” (Also see Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 224; History of the Church 6:46; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324; the Book of Mormon Student Manual Religion 121 and 122, 1989, p. 46.) Today that man is the president of the church.
BYU professor emeritus Robert L. Millet explained:
Any of the General Authorities may speak the mind of the Lord and thus proclaim scripture, but only the living Prophet has the keys necessary to declare, clarify, or introduce doctrines and commandments for the entire church (Magnifying Priesthood Power, 1989, p. 109).
This idea of authority is crucial to Mormonism. The leaders don’t claim this is just another church but rather “the Church.” If Peter was the figurehead for the former day saints, certainly the church’s president is the figurehead in these “latter” days. Henry B. Eyring, the second counselor in the First Presidency, told an April 2008 General Conference crowd:
This is the true Church, the only true Church, because in it are the keys of the priesthood. Only in this Church has the Lord lodged the power to seal on earth and to seal in heaven as He did in the time of the Apostle Peter (“The True and Living Church,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2008, p. 20).
Where did the Photo Go?
With these citations as a background, perhaps it can be seen why this photo turned my head. Could it have been doctored in Photoshop? It had to be! After all, we live in a world where no photo can be trusted, especially of a smirking LDS president suggestively accepting marble keys from Peter. It would certainly be considered offensive by the Roman Catholic hosts who allowed for the Mormon temple to be built in Italy–and Rome, for that matter, where the Vatican lives! In fact, I as a Protestant was offended when I saw it.
I decided to do some sleuthing. Less than a minute later, I found the photo displayed on an official church website, confirming that the Photoshop doctors were not involved. I shook my head and, though I was not surprised, thought to myself, “What arrogance!”
A few weeks later I decided to look once more at the photo. However, when I searched Google, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Ten minutes later, my colleague Bill McKeever used these words in his search on Google: “Peter statues keys nelson rome temple.” Looking under images, he found the photo displayed with a link to an article on “thechurchnews.com.” A screenshot of what came up can be seen at the right. (This is a good reminder that anything put onto the Internet doesn’t go away, even if you delete the source!)
When he went to the link, however, the picture was gone. Someone associated with the site apparently had taken it down! Meanwhile, the article on that page references the “keys” given to Peter in Matthew 16:
President Nelson was joined by every member of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Rome, one of the most influential cities in the history of Christianity. The Church leaders stood together on March 11 in the Rome Italy Temple Visitors’ Center for iconic photographs — symbols of their unified testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ.
In addition to the group photograph, President Nelson — who holds all the keys to the Church — stood near the statue of Peter. The keys held in Peter’s hand are symbolic of Matthew 16:19, where Christ promised Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Although there was no reference in the article to Nelson having had his picture taken with the statue, an article on lds.org (“President Nelson talks ‘unprecedented future’ of Church following Rome Italy Temple Dedication”) does mention it:
An additional photograph of President Russell M. Nelson was taken in front of the statue of Peter. The keys held in Peter’s hand are symbolic of Matthew 16:19, where Christ promised Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This reference to an “additional photograph” is more proof that this questionable photo was not doctored or created out of someone’s imagination!
So why did the church delete this tasteless photo? Did the leaders respond to complaints? Or did they come to realize how offensive it was? We may never know the real answer. Regardless, it is obvious that this attempt to be “cute” should have been kept on President Nelson’s cell phone and never made its way onto an official church website.
For more on this topic, visit “Are Rome and Salt Lake City on the Same Page?“