When deciding how to go about reviewing this month’s Ensign magazine, I wasn’t sure whether to try to summarise the whole publication or to focus on one particular article. As I scanned the article titles, one stood out to me: “Dear are the sheep that have wandered” by James Faust, who was a member of the first presidency. This title immediately grabbed my attention since I would probably be defined by most of the magazine’s intended readership as a ‘sheep that has wandered’. I intend to respond to Faust’s comments by highlighting what appear to me to be cultural insights into the LDS mentality, and also by providing a biblical response to LDS doctrine.
I have to say that the article begins with many examples of highly charged and emotive language. These phrases permeate the whole article too. I am referring to words such as: “hope and solace to heartbroken parents”, “despaired”, “follow the path of evil and destruction” and “deep anguish”. It is an insight into the LDS way of thinking that Faust expects that parents will feel these things and hold these views about non-practising or non-believing LDS offspring. This reveals the stigma attached to all people who become ‘inactive’ and this stigma is shared by the families of such people.
Faust then goes on to reassure such parents that if they have followed the teachings of the church in bringing up their children to repent and have faith in Jesus, to be baptised and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost then they have done their part. I believe that Faust is again trying to counter some of the cultural norms of Mormonism in his opening words when he says that, “successful parents are those who have sacrificed and struggled to do the best they can in their own family circumstances.” (italics mine).
It is interesting to me that he states that sacrifice and struggle can be the qualities of successful parents since the implication in a lot of LDS teaching is that success is simply the result of keeping the rules. Culturally, successful LDS parents are those that get their (often numerous!) children off on their missions and then married in the temple soon after their return. These married offspring in time will then repeat the process. With the huge emphasis on families in LDS belief and practice, the pressure for their offspring to turn out in the LDS mould must be huge for parents.
The unwritten word is sometimes just as, if not more, powerful than the written one. An example of this can be seen a little further on when James Faust says, “Children who are obedient and responsible bring to their parents unending pride and satisfaction.” So what do those ‘sheep that have wandered’ bring? Unending shame and disappointment could well be the implication. A massive guilt trip to the many LDS offspring who can’t accept the church’s teachings; just look at how you’ve made your parents feel. And not just that, the implication is that your parents now look like failures in front of their peers. The fact that Faust felt the need to correct that mentality (as I stated in the previous paragraph) is indicative that such an attitude exists in the LDS church. I would also claim to know of it through personal experience.
Faust then poses the question, ‘Is there hope?’ Other LDS leaders have spoken on this in grave terms. Consider the words of Ezra Taft Benson: “One who rationalizes that he or she has a testimony of Jesus Christ but cannot accept direction and counsel from the leadership of His church is in a fundamentally unsound position and is in jeopardy of losing exaltation.” And the words of Harold B. Lee: “…those who criticize the leaders of this Church are showing signs of a spiritual sickness which, unless curbed, will bring about eventually spiritual death. … I have watched over the years, and I have read of the history of many of those who fell away from this Church, and I want to bear testimony that no apostate who ever left this Church ever prospered as an influence in his community thereafter.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1947, p. 67.) Finally, Brigham Young can always be relied upon to tell it like it is: “You cannot destroy the appointment of a prophet of God, but you can cut the thread that binds you to the prophet of God and sink yourselves to hell.” For Faust to be considering that there may even be the possibility of hope, given these quotes – particularly Young’s – strikes me as rather surprising.
Yet Faust makes the case that LDS parents of ‘sheep that have wandered’ should have cause to hope. In presenting his case, he quotes Orson F. Whitney at length. “Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold.” What a fascinating quote! Just prior to this, Faust had referred to the story of the prodigal son as an example of parental love. In that story, “… when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20) So when the prodigal son made the choice to return, the Father ran to him and hugged and kissed him, yet in Whitney’s view the sheep will return because they will feel the ‘tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them.’ I know which image I prefer!
Whitney’s view of how wayward sheep are to return continues in this unbiblical vein: “they will suffer for their sins”. Any Christian knows that Christ suffered for our sins. To suggest that Christian people will suffer for their sins is to be ignorant of Bible teaching. 1 Peter 3:18 – “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” We are the unjust, He is the just. To claim, as Faust does, that the stray sheep must ‘pay their debt to justice’ is to miss the point of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus entirely. It is also to miss a major part of the story of the prodigal son. In this, the prodigal son rightly acknowledges his total unworthiness, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” So what is the Father’s response?
Does he say, “Yes you are quite right, you will live as the humblest of my servants, doing the most demeaning labour and living in squalor and discomfort until I see that you have suffered fully for what you have done to me.”? No, he says: “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Surely this, along with his running to greet the son and kissing him, tells us that he is welcomed back as a son, the robe and ring signifying his position in the household. The father responds with love towards the son before the son has even had a moment to speak, and when he does speak, it is to confess his sinfulness. The Father then responds instantly to demonstrate that he wants him back with him as his son. There is immediate love, forgiveness and acceptance. This is the teaching of Jesus, not the LDS version of the story.
Faust then goes on to explain that, after death it is possible to repent. “The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.” (D&C 138: 58-59) This contradicts the Bible, since Revelation tells us: “thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.” Revelation 5:9-10. (Italics added) We are not redeemed by the ‘ordinances of the house of God’ (i.e. LDS temples) but by the blood of Jesus.
It is interesting to note also here that God has made those whom he redeemed kings and priests. They were not made kings and priests by their own actions, but rather by God. It must also be pointed out that the idea of ‘the dead who repent’ does not fit with what we know about the next life as it described in the Bible: “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” Hebrews 9:27
Back to Faust: He tries to argue that a repentant ‘wayward’ child can be saved through repentance and Christ’s atonement, but that he / she must earn their exaltation. Firstly, it is important to say that there is no Biblical case to be made in favour of the LDS understanding of exaltation (i.e. progression through works that can eventually lead to godhood). Secondly, as shown above, the Bible points out that God redeems by the blood of Jesus and is also the one responsible for exalting us, for example, to be his ‘kings and priests’ as it states in Revelation.
Faust then says that ‘The question as to who will be exalted must be left to the Lord in His mercy’. Yet he has also just stated that it must be fully earned. Being granted something through mercy is in direct contradiction to earning that same thing. Stating that both are true as Faust does is not logical. LDS teaching is clear, “Exaltation is eternal life, the kind of life God lives. He lives in great glory. He is perfect. He possesses all knowledge and all wisdom. He is the Father of spirit children. He is a creator. We can become like our Heavenly Father. This is exaltation.” On reading this chapter of ‘Gospel Principles’, it is abundantly clear that exaltation is very much an ‘if… then…’ proposition, not something granted by God’s mercy.
We then have the suggestion that the ‘sealing cords of righteous parents’ could play an important role in the saving of wayward children. Is this an extra ‘carrot’ to keep those parents active and faithful church members? Possibly. It is certainly not what Jesus taught. “For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.” Luke 12:52-53 Believing in Jesus is a choice, you either do or you don’t. No ‘sealing’ ordinances in temples can take away individual choice to accept or reject Jesus.
The article then moves on to some general points about good, strong parenting. One sentence stood out: “If we do not discipline our children, society may do it in a way that is not to our liking or our children’s.” A stark reminder of parental duty, but not a specific religious teaching, so nothing to agree or disagree with here.
Faust then warns that even temporary straying by parents may lead to children following that example. Again, more pressure on parents! Yet in the following paragraph, he advises children not to be too critical of parents who have been ‘less than they should have been.’ Once again there is that tone of criticism and not being ‘up to the mark’ that pervades an awful lot of the language used by Mormon leaders. Here we are back into the territory of the thinking in Mormon culture. The following sentence is clearly a reprimand to people who are judgemental of the parenting abilities of others: “It is very unfair and unkind to judge conscientious and faithful parents because some of their children rebel or stray from the teachings and love of their parents.” Faust clearly felt there was a need for the LDS faithful to be reminded / warned of this.
We then read more emotive, highly-charged language again here such as: “worthy, righteous parents who struggle and suffer with disobedient children,” and “When parents mourn for disobedient and wayward children…” Here, we are being told not to judge those good parents who have children who don’t want to be LDS, but please note the guilt-trip put on anyone who is brought up LDS but no longer wants to be LDS. I feel this keenly. There is a strong expectation that my own parents are expected to have struggled and suffered with me, their disobedient child and also to have mourned for me being disobedient and wayward. Mourned? If these are the words used by members of the first presidency, then I think we are now seeing what they really think. They agree with the words of Brigham Young quoted much earlier: “you can cut the thread that binds you to the prophet of God and sink yourselves to hell.”
I can’t help but be amused by this next sentence: “No one can say with any degree of certainty what their children will do under certain circumstances.” Really? Perhaps LDS members really do think that with enough time spent in primary, the young men’s or women’s program, missionary work, priesthood duties, seminary, Institute and temple rituals their children will have no power left to think for themselves?! Amazingly, some still do.
Towards the end of this article, we have one concrete example of someone who left the LDS faith, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a rather extreme example of someone whose life went off the rails due to drug use. This is a rather sinister ploy in my opinion. It serves to equate all ‘wandering’ from the LDS faith with the tragic waste that is a life controlled by drugs. How ridiculous. Most people who leave the LDS faith do so in order to have more control and choice over their own lives, not less. These people find that choices made freely are much more valued than choices made through fear of choosing the alternative. Also, thankfully, there a great many who leave the LDS faith because they have come to know who Jesus really is, rather than the reduced picture presented by the LDS church.
Typically perhaps, Faust ends with a quote from Jeremiah where Rachel is weeping for her children and is comforted that they may ‘come again from the land of the enemy’. However, no context is provided for this verse, so it misleads the reader into the suggestion that those who have rejected the LDS church could return to the fold and therefore back on the path to exaltation. Again, we know that those who leave the LDS church are viewed as lost and unable to be exalted, or as prophet Brigham Young explained, those who cut the thread that binds them to the prophet of God are sinking themselves to hell.
I feel the opportunity to write a response to James Faust’s article has given me the chance to explore some of the cultural attitudes in LDS thinking and also share a Biblical view on current LDS teaching regarding LDS ‘inactivity’ or apostasy. This was an article that resonated personally for me, so I look forward to reading any personal responses to what I have written.