August 2, 2015

Pharisees and the LDS Church

The pharisees are known throughout the Bible and even in Latter-Day Saint tradition as men who were, "a major obstacle to the reception of Christ and the gospel". One of the things they were most known for were a monstrous amount of ideas and practices that had to be observed by people of religion in order to be seen as good and holy. I have long saw uncomfortable pharisaical practices in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (of which I am a member).  The recent release of an article on Sabbath Day observance has led me to begin to vocalize my long, uncomfortable belief of the pharisees likeness of the LDS church.

"Pharisees – A religious party among the Jews. The name denotes separatists. They prided themselves on their strict observance of the law and on the care with which they avoided contact with things gentile... The tendency of their teaching was to reduce religion to the observance of a multiplicity of ceremonial rules and to encourage self-sufficiency and spiritual pride. They were a major obstacle to the reception of Christ and the gospel by the Jewish people." 
– LDS Bible Dictionary 

A few months ago, the Stake President of my YSA stake came to speak to my ward. He prefaced his comments with his experience at leadership training coming from the Brethren. He said the empahsis on Sabbath Day observance is a coming focus of the church. Stemming from a belief that the Sabbath Day is losing its power and the members are not keeping it as holy as they should, he wanted to speak to us about our own day of worship.

In the following months, I began to hear many church talks and lessons on keeping the Sabbath Day holy. This didn't bother, as it would be a normal LDS topic for Sacrament meeting. I heard conference talks regarding the observance of the Sabbath which felt spiritual in nature and did not pique any particular interest. This focus did not bother me and seemed quite normal.

But then, the church released an article titled, "Five Ways to Celebrate the Sabbath as a Family". I read the article out of curiosity and because of there was an accompanying visual advertisement from the church (marketing always interests me). As I read the article, the dusty old thought of the church paralleling the Pharisees, became very clean and clear to me once again.

From the very first sentence, the author says it is easy to create a list of things we should do on the Sabbath, "As individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ, it’s easy to generate a list of things we can do to keep the Sabbath day holy." Growing up in the church, I was always taught that we should not have a list of things we can and cannot do on the Sabbath, but we should follow the spirit and what we individually decide. But now, the article endorsed by the church and published on their own site, encourages a list as a good thing.

Some of the articles, "ideas and practices" include: going to bed early on Saturday, wearing nice clothes all day long, listening to quiet CD's with religious music, special Sunday toys (toys that are not played with on other days of the week),  not playing with friends (though that is contradicted if a neighbor family of another faith can be involved and maybe invited to church), eating meals at a leisurely pace, and even taking a couples nap (seriously, that was an actual suggestion).

There is nothing wrong with any of these suggestions. Some of them seem very odd to me and I would never endorse them or the message they convey. Other seem very prudent and conducive to how I would want to spend my Sabbath Day. However, by the church endorsing and publishing the article on their website, the ideas and practice now become semi doctrine. Members will repeat and teach these ideas and practices in church and soon, they will become one with abstinence from caffeinated pop or dating before the age of 16.

It's not that the church is teaching the members to keep the Sabbath Day holy that bothers me. It is not that they are doing so as a church wide focus. It is not even the advertising campaign. It is the list. It is setting out specific dos and don'ts. But more than that, it is a pattern I have seen over the past few years; a pattern coming from the church leadership to the members, of things they should and shouldn't do.

I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” – John Taylor quoting Joseph Smith, “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, p. 339.
"I have taught [principles] to the people and they are trying to live according to them, and they control themselves." – Brigham Young, Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, June 7, 1870, p. 3.

When did we change to become a church and a people who are governed and controlled?  What happened to individual inspiration and acting according to principles as we see fit. Why do we need to be commanded in all things? Are we now slothful and not wise servants?

"For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward."Doctrine and Covenants 58:26

It was the Pharisees who commanded their flock to follow the strict ideas and practices of their day. Instead of following the spirit and letting each choose their own way to follow God, the Pharisees set out to prescribe the way things were to be done. Why then is it, that I see the church doing this today? Why do I see sacrament topics, Sunday School lessons and conference talks focused less and less on the life and teaching of Christ and more on the life and teachings of latter-day prophets and apostles? Today, I sadly see the church becoming more like the Pharisees of old.


  1. One of the highlights of my mission was when Elder Yoshihiko Kikuchi visited us at zone conference. He talked to us about following our current role as missionaries, but our future roles as leaders in Christ's church. In doing so, he cautioned us not to create our own Law of Moses. He mentioned a bishop who was concerned that many converts would fall away quickly after baptism, so he imposed a policy in his ward that investigators cannot be baptized until they have attended church for six weeks in a row, without missing once. He told us that as leaders and as missionaries, we do not have the authority to create policies and rules that, while well meaning, take away another person's agency, or creates a stumbling block. Less than one month after that zone conference, we had a man who had been excommunicated contact us. Both he and his non-member wife wanted to hear the discussions. We went through the whole series, his wife committed to baptism, and he expressed an interest in being baptized as well. He went through all of the proper channels and received permission to get baptized. A few days before his baptism, we found out that while his wife could get baptized, he couldn't. The reason why? None of the white jumpsuits that the ward had could fit him. The man was very large. My companion and I tried to find a larger jumpsuit, but no one had one that would fit. We suggested he wear white sweatpants and a white t-shirt, but the bishop and the stake president said "no." They said that everyone must wear a white jumpsuit to get baptized. (You know, just like the one Jesus wore in the Jordan River.) I was FURIOUS! I called our president, but he told me that we had to bend to the will of the Lord's representative in that stake. I tried to reason with him; I reminded him what Elder Kikuchi had said, all to no avail. We held the baptism for the man's wife, and a few months later I was transferred. I understand he was baptized a few months later after someone in the ward kindly made him a jumpsuit. Ugh, that kind of stuff makes me nuts. I see so many examples of it. We had a boy in our ward who wasn't allowed to pass the sacrament because he didn't have a white shirt on. Why? Well because as well all know, when Jesus first implemented the sacrament, he was wearing a white shirt and a tie. I can't seem to find the verse, but in the D&C it says something about a white shirt, right? "For verily I say unto you, if any young man passeth the sacramental tray but has not donned a shirt of white, the covenants of all who partake shall be null and void and they shall be thrust down to hell."

    There is a distinction between "the Church" and "the Gospel." There are so many things that we worry about in "the Church" that simply has nothing to do with "the Gospel,” or they are things the Lord couldn't care less about. Does He care that the three-year olds are called Sunbeams? Does He care if we have sacrament first and priesthood/Relief Society last? Does it really matter if I take the sacrament bread with my left hand instead of my right? Does the Lord care if the children learn to do hand motions when they sing "Book of Mormon Stories"? (Apparently that's not allowed any more...) Can my niece still go to the Celestial Kingdom if she has more than one ear piercing?

    I think the Lord said it best: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

    Let's worry about what matters with the Gospel. Let me decide what is best for me on the Sabbath. Don't give me some list that people will turn into their own Law of Moses so that it becomes an approved Sunday activity list.

    1. James, thank you for sharing your experiences. It is a sad truth that often members, local leadership and even church leadership get into the practice of setting meaningless ideas and rules (often to solve a very small or local problem) and it just simply gets carried away.

      What is even more sad to me, is in the case of your example, it starts to affect others salvation or progression toward Christ.

  2. I must have misread the article you linked. I thought it said the list "might help families", implying it was just giving ideas to people, not trying to make them live by any certain list.

    I love hearing and being taught about the Savior and his life in my meetings, too, Trevor. It can feel sometimes it's more " prophet " oriented than "Savior" oriented. I agree with you.

    @James: that makes me go crazy when I hear a story like yours, about the man wanting to be baptized, but no jumpsuit available. Or, the young man who can't pass sacrament with no white shirt. In my opinion, I'm glad the young man is there and wants to pass the sacrament. I'm not concerned about the color of his shirt. My former mission president later became a temple president. His approach was to invite anyone to come in and go through no matter what they were wearing. He told about two passing contractors on the freeway (in Europe) and feeling the spirit tell them they needed to get to the temple. They felt like they couldn't go because they had their painting clothes on. The spirit kept insisting they get to the temple. So, they pulled off the autobahn and got into the temple. Thank goodness they were not denied entrance because they didn't have suits and ties on.

    1. Duck, the problem with the church posting an article on their website, even if it is a "helpful" article, is the broad view from the membership that it becomes the official church position which becomes semi doctrine.

      The lines of what is official church doctrine and what is personal opinion from the brethren is one large grey area. That grey-ness leaves the general church membership to take everything said as doctrine, until it is declared not doctrine (see Blacks and the Priesthood articles).

  3. I am one of the leaders in my ward who went through the training on keeping the Sabbath Day Holy in a ward on the East Coast and I am surprised by your interpretation of what is being promoted by the General Authorities on this subject as being like the pharisees. I saw it as exactly the opposite, in a desire to move us away from pharisee like tendencies where we do things only out of rote or as a cultural practice. I understand that the reason for bringing this about was because a non-member acquaintance of Elder Holland decided to attend the LDS church in California and in a scathing comment mentioned that he had not heard the Savior's name mentioned once during the Sacrament meeting (the topic was apparently on emergency preparedness). We have been taught that the whole focus of keeping the Sabbath Day holy is about bringing greater focus on the Savior and putting the spirit into our homes and into this sacred day. If I may be so bold, the problem with tendencies to be like the pharisees is something I have noticed about the membership, particularly out West and not with the leaders themselves. If we hear the spirit of their messages then they are all about us connecting with the spirit and connecting with the Savior. Your focus on the "list" misses the mark about what they have expressed and only speaks to where your mind is at and not that of the leaders. When I hear something come from the brethren I always ask myself, "what is the spirit of what they are trying to tell us?" They have spoken very clearly about their intentions to us in this instance that it is about reconnecting with the basics that point us to the Savior. I see nothing Pharisee like in that message.

  4. Marianne, thank you for your comment.

    Remember that my post was not about the move to keep the Sabbath Day Holy as a general message, but focused on this list only. In fact, I am very pleased that the church is trying to "Christ up" our church meetings. I too often sit in church and never hear the Savior brought up. I am glad they are re-focusing the members and our Sacrament meeting on Him.

    "It's not that the church is teaching the members to keep the Sabbath Day holy that bothers me. It is not that they are doing so as a church wide focus. It is not even the advertising campaign. It is the list. It is setting out specific dos and don'ts."

    Yes, it is the list, endorsed on the church's website that I have an issue with. Because now, members will start to judge other members for doing something on the list (or not doing something on the list). I have been a member my whole life, and still am, and I know this will create a check off list to see who is righteous in the ward and who is less than. That concerns me. Remember the Pharisees following Christ on the Sabbath trying to catch him breaking the law by performing a miracle?

    Being endorsed on the website brings the article into a doctrinal grey zone. These blurred boundaries of what is opinion from the Brethren and what is doctrine is often damaging, instead of helpful (ie, see all of my life).

    Let it also be clear, I am not calling the Brethren Pharisees. I am calling the move to publish the article and the tone it brings, Pharisees-like. I am calling the certainty of members using this checkoff list to gauge righteousness (of themselves or others), Pharisees-like. I am calling the direction of the church to create dos and don'ts in other area's of life, Pharisees-like.

  5. I often say that if President Monson were to mention out in public once that he doesn't like broccoli, and that he doesn't want any served at General Authority meetings, the word will go out to "follow the prophet", and broccoli sales in Utah will plummet...not because President Monson said we shouldn't, but because many of us as members would somehow feel that it is some new commandment. I don't think that President Monson would be too pleased, but that's just how people are. Knowing that, I too cringe when I see these lists like Trevor has described. In some hands it will be deemed scripture, a word-for-word list for what is acceptable to do on Sundays, and what isn't.

    1. I have to agree with you! It is a dangerous balance of doctrine verses personal opinion and we have seen in recent CHURCH articles that we tend to over doctrine-ize opinion.

  6. Two comments were deleted at the request of the person who submitted them. They were ok with the content but wanted it anonymous. I will repose the comments below without the name.

  7. "The teaching and leading as pharisees is troubling. It scares some of us because we see how easily others will follow a list or spoken word from the brethren or church publication or local leadrs or others. It is the eagerness of church to have rules, ruling, case history, precedent, and so forth that brings fear of this. And temptation for those in a position to give it, to issue it.

    When I hear something come from the church, I ask myself the following: Is this culture, opinion, tradition, speculation, historical repeat canonized doctrine, business policy or current standard operating procedure, or new precedent (church often acts like a business) or revelation? Is there any way to distinguish? Some don't matter. ALL are hard to distinguish. The prophet, GAs, and church publications, almost NEVER directly say as the Lord liveth ..revelation. Neither do they often say, "oh and this is not doctrine". Most of the time we must guess. That frustrates me, but does not surprise. Most of the time it goes out very businesslike as church policy, standard operating procedures, which we are told are often "inspired" (just short of saying they are revelation). And when sometimes those just short of revelation things change or revise due to issues, it leaves us doubting how far to trust "inspired" since it is short or being “revelation”. It leaves a lot of leadership room to change, without locking in revelation.

    The scary questions is Why people so easily lean to want to follow Pharisee style . Easy for me to understand the rule maker aspect, but hard to understand the follower aspect. To anyone who has not been a nonmember before, or left the church for a time, or forever, it is harder to see. Without rules, rulings, precedents, policy, procedure, tradition, have to really stop OFTEN and ask yourself "where do I stand?". You cannot defer to a parent, a leader, or a prophet at that point. You must ponder, think, struggle, and decide. It can be uncomfortable if you are not used to it.

    I respect those who have thought it through for themselves, or had a time they did not follow merely out of habit and actively think for themselves. And I even admire those who think har themselves then and still choose to follow a prophet out of alignment; in fact those followers I admire the most because it is not vain following that I see, it becomes meaningful and purposeful..

    I question those that disagree under it allbut follow in faith (often with passive aggressive tendencies).

    It is easier to follow and have a ruleset, policy, standard, or all of the above tools I mentioned abundantly now. Sometimes people follow a leader out of passion, out of admiration, because of their capability in doing something you want done but defer to them to accelerate it, out of deep feeling, out of strong agreement. But sometimes people follow a leader, because they themselves don't want the burden of having to lead. Having to disagree, defend their position, speak up, think it through, be troubled in conscience if others they respect disagree, or when they don't know or don't have an answer yet, etc. Following is very comfortable. VERY. Taking those roles yourself is HARD. Brigham Young warned of the saints getting too comfortable. Other prophets modern as well have warned about DANGEROUS ways of following. If you think to yourself, thank goodness we have a prophet so I don't have to figure all these things out and struggle with them....I feel sorry for you, but recognize your comfort. But know you might be especially vulnerable if you are following for EASE instead of the other reasons I suggested."

    1. "There is another reason. FEAR. Though there are many contradicting prophetic statements (but you have to look for them more closely), people who are both AFRAID and looking for comfort and ease, cannot help but love a statement, like the prophet will never lead you astray, and rules and lists. Let's not even debate whether it is true or not, because honestly that does not really matter for what I am going to present. True or not, the following issues become real. Let's just look at the state of mind it leaves the person who accepts it in. Following for poor reasons. Avoiding thinking, struggling, pondering for self. Autopilot ease. It is comfy. But now it is not just ease. You are also afraid to think it out. What if you....get to a state of mind where your own thoughts disagree or don't match? Here comes the discomfort and dissonance again. And fear you have lost the path. Sometimes people avoid thinking deeply on it themselves first not just for ease, but for fear that if they do they will lose their way compared to someone judged of higher authority. It does not matter if that authority turns out to be more right or not. Lets assume they are right. The fear and lack of growth and self though still results, and paralyzes and leads to blind conditioned followership. Neither of these build a stronger individual. If anything it conditions to follow more and struggle in ourselves less. That is not good.

      My greatest issue with rules and rulings based followership, is that it will never change you inside as a person. Fear lacks the power for permanent change. Ease lacks the effort to reach it.

      I do not like the words to the song Follow the Prophet, because they are oversimplified. If the chorus were more like: "Study it out, Ponder, think for yourself and include what the Prophet speaks as you do and then decide how you will follow God and your conscience and follow for the right reasons, with your passionate beliefs aligned where you can and once you are or when you are able" I might sing that one, though I cannot imagine how to make it a catchy tune. There are times for faith yes. But following a prophet does not always imply faith. It can imply habit and pure blind conditioning. It can imply convenience in delegating hard thoughts. It can imply making your choices easy for convenience. It can imply fear of thinking. None of those create godlike growth in a person. None of them. If you are going to follow, let it not be for those reasons that will stunt your growth. Let it be for stronger passionate reasons that will grow you, and where you were actively not passively involved so your following will not handicap you."

    2. My response, in part because it got removed as well and I can't recover it all...

      "Cammie, you make many great points. I have come to terms with your question, "When I hear something come from the church, I ask myself the following: Is this culture, opinion, tradition, speculation, historical repeat canonized doctrine, business policy or current standard operating procedure, or new precedent (church often acts like a business) or revelation?" You are right it is hard to distinguish. But like you I cannot just take a blanket blind faith approach. And since when did we see the leaders of the church as infallible? I taught against such belief on my mission as we taught about the apostasy and certain religious leaders of those ages. on..."