by Sharon Lindbloom
28 July 2022
In July (2022), LDS author Jana Riess made an interesting observation:
“During the last four years, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has introduced a host of changes that have made the church a little more mainstream, a little less weird.”
In her article, Dr. Riess notes some of these changes, such as shortening the length of time members are expected to be at church on Sundays, allowing missionaries to call home once a week rather than only twice a year, and loosening the dress code for both male and female missionaries. But there’s more. Dr. Riess writes,
“And of course, we don’t talk about becoming gods of our own planets someday, or any of the more esoteric theological teachings of our past. Leaders nowadays rarely exhort us about imminent cataclysms — we don’t speculate openly about how we’re living in the end times, talk about the latest Antichrist who’s arisen in geopolitics or require members to store two years’ worth of food in preparation for the apocalypse.”
All changes, Dr. Riess says, that make Mormons seem “boring” rather than weird, mainstream rather than unique. She applies this same motivation to the bombshell dropped four years ago by the church’s president, Russell M. Nelson, when he said the church would no longer use the word Mormon. Dr. Riess recalls,
“…to renounce the word ‘Mormon’ was an about-face that made little sense given the tremendous work the church had just put into associating that word with everything positive about our people. Overnight, what had been an affectionate term used by members and nonmembers alike became verboten.”
But, Dr. Riess writes, “I have finally…realized that making us sound like everyone else was a major part of the point of President Nelson’s rebranding-that-he-clarified-was-not-a-rebranding.”
It seems to me that President Nelson’s insistence that this name “correction” came by way of direct revelation from God, and that every use of the phrase “Mormon Church” is a victory for Satan, puts the rebranding outside of what most people would consider mainstream. Yet, as Dr. Riess notes,
“Shedding the term ‘Mormon’ helps us to assimilate ever more comfortably because the word, with its accompanying history, is one of the most distinctive things about us.”
Actually, many distinctive things about Mormonism have fallen by the wayside over the years. This is a religion that is continually changing as it tries to find its place in the world. Polygamy was one of the first Mormon distinctives to be left behind. The church’s position on people with dark skin was another. As the LDS church tries to “fit in” with Christianity, it changes shape and focus as church leadership deems necessary.
Back in the 1980s when I first began investigating the LDS church, I was shocked to learn Mormonism taught that human beings could/would become Gods in eternity (as the 1985 edition of Gospel Principles stated on page 290 – Gods with a capital “G”). I asked LDS missionaries about that doctrine and was told, “Oh, no, we don’t believe that. We teach that people should strive to become more like God – every religion believes that.”
This attempt to reframe (for non-Mormons) the LDS doctrine of exaltation as something akin to the Christian doctrine of sanctification sought to make Mormonism seem more Christian and less peculiar.
Later, a different answer to the question was provided: that Mormonism indeed taught that people could become gods – but “gods” with a lower case “g.” The idea here was to align Mormonism’s heretical doctrine of exaltation with the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of theosis — a false parallel, but one that, if accepted, would again make Mormonism seem more in line with Christianity.
Recently, while reading the July 2022 issue of the LDS church’s Liahona magazine, I came across another subtle change in language that could be a reframing of a long-standing Mormon doctrine. In this issue’s Gospel Basics section, the topic is “Scriptures: The Word of God.” The article explains,
“The official scriptures of the Church are the Bible (which includes the Old Testament and the New Testament), the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price.” (22)
This set of LDS scriptures is collectively called the standard works. Following a short explanation of each of the four volumes, in the context of the topic “scriptures,” the Liahona article includes a short paragraph about “Modern Prophets.” It says,
“When prophets and apostles today speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, their words are like scripture. One example of this is general conference. We can study the teachings from conference in the May and November issues of the Liahona.” (24)
The phrase that caught my attention was “like scripture.” In the past, church leaders have been quite clear that when LDS prophets and apostles speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, what they say is scripture. Consider this from Harold B. Lee, the 11th president of the LDS church:
“There is scripture other than the standard works. Some people get the idea that the only scripture we have in the Church today is that which is contained in the four standard Church works. Now, the Lord in a revelation has spoken of something else [which He] defined [as] scripture. I read from the sixty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. This was a revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. [The Lord] said this: ‘And, behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth— and this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.’ (D&C 68:2-4).” (Harold B. Lee, The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 148. Italics and brackets in original.)
The LDS study guide and teacher’s manual, Gospel Principles, is also pretty clear:
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts four books as scripture: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. These books are called the standard works of the Church. The inspired words of our living prophets are also accepted as scripture…In addition to these four books of scripture, the inspired words of our living prophets become scripture to us.” (Gospel Principles, 2011, Chapter 10, “Scriptures”)
These few examples (though more could be cited) include one each from three different official sources within Mormonism: scriptures, prophets, and church manuals. All say the inspired words of LDS prophets are actually scripture. But this doctrine is definitely not “mainstream.” Modern prophets whose words are accepted as scripture on par with the Bible itself is an unconventional belief in the minds of many. And it is heretical in Christianity, which recognizes the Bible alone as scripture.
So when the Liahona, the official magazine of the LDS church, presents the idea that the inspired words of modern prophets are like (i.e., similar to) scripture rather than actual scripture, is it an attempt to lessen the impact of this bold doctrine in order to appear more mainstream?
I don’t know the answer to that. In fact, I may be making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe the author of the article was merely imprecise in his language. Yet it is curious.
Only time will tell whether the LDS church is backing off a bit on the public face of this doctrine as it has on the doctrine of people becoming Gods — capital “G” – creating and populating worlds throughout eternity. But we should not mistake this appearance of becoming more “mainstream” for the real deal.
Unbiblical doctrines remain the warp and woof of Mormonism even though the LDS church may publicly present itself as an ordinary Christian religion with nothing really distinctive about it. While Dr. Riess notes that Mormons no longer talk about becoming Gods of their own planets, the truth is that the church has never renounced that doctrine or called to account the long line of church authorities who have taught it as the highest eternal reward Mormonism has to offer.
Some years ago, then-church president Gordon B. Hinckley remarked in general conference on the good favor and acceptance the church was receiving from the world. He said,
“Those who observe us say that we are moving into the mainstream of religion. We are not changing. The world’s perception of us is changing. We teach the same doctrine.” (Ensign, November 2001, 5)
It’s the same today. The LDS church is rebranding, rewording, and massaging its image in order to be perceived as a mainstream religion. But Mormonism isn’t really changing in any meaningful way. It’s merely putting on sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15).
To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.
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