Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why should you care?

In Bible Study, we recently finished reading the epistle of James, and are now in the midst of Galatians. In preparing (and teaching) for these studies, I find myself challenged with establishing the immediate relevance of the issues and questions contained in The New Testament for a group of students made up largely of LDS people who are under 30. On the surface, it may seem like many of the letters written by the New Testament Apostles deal with concerns that are almost entirely specific and unique to the time in which they were written, and in some cases to the culture of the people to which the epistle was addressed. And this raises the question, why should a modern-day Christian (or anyone else for that matter) care about such questions as whether or not Gentiles needed to be circumcised, or what role (if any) the Mosaic Law will play in our lives under the Law of Christ (The Gospel)? In an effort to address this question, I plan to write a series of articles ( beginning with this one) about why you should care, using various episodes from the scriptures as basic examples of things that you should care about, even if you don’t.

Those of you with a short attention span may want to skip to the end where it says: "Here's why you should care."

This first answer deals with the problems that the Church faced, early in it’s development, when it came to extending the teachings and blessings of the Gospel to those people who did not have Jewish lineage, and were not familiar with any of the teachings and traditions of Judaism. Why should you or I care about this? We no longer have any kind of compunction against sharing the Gospel with all of God’s children, and we are certainly in no danger of falling back in to the rituals and observances of first century Judaism, so why should this be even remotely important for us to read and ponder?

1) The dispute over the issue of Gentile circumcision, and it’s eventual resolution, serves as a time capsule of sorts in which the organizational and administrative structure of the church is preserved for all to see. We are privileged to observe the Apostles gather together in Jerusalem in AD 49 to decide this question, not through political maneuvering, and not solely by seeking consensus, but by seeking revelation from the Lord, through the Spirit. We are shown the method through which revelation is obtained (by those who are worthy), namely that after much deliberation, and reasoning it out in their respective minds, the Apostles sought confirmation of their collective decision through sincere prayer. Having obtained divine direction and guidance, they then made a declaration to the whole church concerning what precisely it was that God required of the Gentile converts for their salvation.

2) We also have the fact demonstrated to us that questions such as this one, namely those that concerned the entire church, could not be decided by Bishops or even councils of Bishops, but that only the 12 Apostles (under the direction of the First Presidency, which presumably consisted of Peter (Cephas), John, and the successor to James (son of Zebedee) who had been martyred in AD 44) held the authority to answer such questions, and that they could only do so by revelation.

3) There is a less positive lesson to be learned from all of this. In Galatians (as well as in 2 Corinthians, and Acts 15) we read of certain apostate teachers who, in defiance of the authority of the Apostles, taught a false Gospel according to their own opinions and interpretation of Scripture. These men held that, in order to be saved, one must be circumcised and continue to observe the strictures of the Mosaic Law. Paul calls these men “false apostles” in reference to the likelihood that these men falsely claimed some sort of authority to preach their false gospel. They in turn accused Paul of being himself a false apostle (or at least they may have insinuated as much), and did as much as they could to discredit him in the minds of the people whom they were leading astray. It is likely that these men were Jews that had at one point converted to Christianity, but who had fallen away over the question of the continued validity of the Law, and/or the acceptance of Gentile converts into Christianity without their first converting to Judaism.

I am reminded of similar moments in the history of the restored church of Christ. Think of the apostasy that resulted when President Wilford Woodruff (with the sustaining vote of the Twelve Apostles) issued the official declaration concerning the discontinuance of the practice of polygamy by the Church. Even today there are splinter groups, not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who continue to practice polygamy. To justify their heretical practices, they claim that President Woodruff was a false prophet, or that he was acting out of expediency and not under divine direction.
A modern example of “false apostles” who claim or at least imply that they are speaking with authority would be certain BYU professors (now excommunicated) who preached false doctrines ranging from those as outlandish as praying to a heavenly mother, to writing books or articles (that trade on their status as BYU professors and the perceived authority that accompanies that status) that question church stands on such things as gay marriage, to criticizing and denouncing current church leadership individually or collectively. There is even a danger among the regular membership. I myself have seen people who in many respects seem to fit the stereotype of a “molly mormon” openly criticize and even refuse to follow their local ecclesiastical leaders, and in one case a person I knew openly refused to follow the counsel of the Prophet, because they disagreed with his teachings on a philosophical level.

The lesson we can take from the apostasy described in Acts and Galatians (and in many other places in the New Testament) is that we need to pray fervently (and live in the manner necessary) to be able to discern the true messengers of God from the false ones. This will give us the spiritual guidance that we need to be able to avoid falling into the same traps that the Galatian saints did. They were new to the Gospel, and likely did not have a lot of experience with the Spirit, and they also may not have fully understood the structure of this new church that they had joined. When men came from Jerusalem, claiming authority to preach the Gospel, the Galatians did not know enough to reject them. It is therefore crucial that we learn to recognize the voice of the Lord when he speaks. The way to go about this is by seeking to build up what I call the three pillars of testimony. These are the three principles that will help us to build our foundation upon the rock of the Savior “that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall (Helaman 5:12).” These three pillars are: constant prayer, consistent scripture study, and regularly and worthily partaking of the Sacrament (which also means attending your church meetings regularly).

1) Constant and sincere prayer will help us to become conversant with voice of the Lord. Meaningful and sincere prayer will help us to grow closer to the Lord and, with the appropriate time and effort on our part, to develop a close personal relationship with our Father in heaven through faith and obedience to him. We can gain a testimony of the truth of any principle if we will ask God with a “sincere heart, and…real intent” (Moroni 10:4). The Lord has specifically commanded us to seek him out in prayer for a witness of the Spirit and protection (conditioned upon our obedience to that testimony) against apostasy:

“But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart, walking uprightly before me, considering the end of your salvation, doing all things with prayer and thanksgiving, that ye may not be seduced by evil spirits, or doctrines of devils, or the commandments of men; for some are of men, and others of devils. (D&C 46:7)

2) Consistent scripture study will help us, with the guidance of the Spirit (according to our own diligence in learning), to gain the facts that we need in order to make an informed decision about what is right and good and what is not. The scriptures contain many simple and easy to understand bits of advice concerning how to discern a true messenger (and/or message) of the Lord from a false one, and thus avoid deception. Some of the best (for example) is in Doctrine and Covenants Section 50:17-24, where we are taught by the Lord that a true messenger of God will "preach [his] gospel by the Spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” This is to the end that “he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.” The Lord instructs us further that “…that which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.” Also, the scriptures provide many examples of people (like Paul or Alma who both had to face down apostates) who went through similar situations, and we can learn from them. Lastly, the scriptures “open the window to revelation” (see Preach My Gospel Ch. 4, pg 95). They are filled with the records of prophets speaking on behalf of the Lord. The words and the teachings in the scriptures are his, and the Holy Ghost will help you to receive the divine answers to your questions as you read them.

3) It is also important to regularly attend church, partake of the Sacrament worthily (which implies that you are keeping God's commandments to the absolute best of your ability), and fulfill any assignments and callings you may receive. There are many reasons why this is important, but the most relevant are these:

a) King Benjamin said (in Mosiah 5:13) “How knoweth a man the master he has not served, and who is a stranger to him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” How can we expect to be granted the ability to discern God’s word (and his true servants) if we ourselves neglect to follow it (or them)? If we do not serve God by obeying his commandments, we will lose the guidance of the spirit altogether, and then we will be truly lost. The surest way to gain a testimony of the truth of any principle is by obedience to that principle, as Jesus stated in John 7:16-17: “My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

b) Paul said in Ephesians 4:14 (see 11-14) that the organization of the church was established by the Lord (in part) “That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;” The Lord has provided a prophet in this age as in ages past to act as a “watchman” (see Ezekiel 33), to warn us of danger and to tell us things as they truly are. The prophet and the twelve apostles are there to keep the doctrine pure, and to speak “as they are moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21) for the benefit of church as a whole. We need the guidance of “apostles;…prophets;…evangelists; and…pastors [bishops] and teachers” to help us avoid the pitfalls that Satan has placed in our way. It falls to us to humble ourselves enough to follow these men, who are just men, but nevertheless are men who have been called and ordained of God to receive revelation from the Lord on our behalf, and to teach us the Lord’s will. The same also applies to the various simple lay teachers that we listen to each Sunday. They have been called to teach and instruct us, and while they are not perfect, we can only benefit from listening to (and applying) the things we learn at church.

c)  Regularly and worthily partaking of the sacrament (which includes regular church attendance)  The renewal of our covenants through the ordinance of the Sacrament is probably the most important. As we make and renew this covenant, the Lord promises us that we will “always have his Spirit to be with” us, if we in will “always remember Him and keep his commandments which he has given us.”

Here’s why you should care: Apostasy and false teachings are all around us. We are constantly being inundated with ideas that will lead us away from God, and if followed to their conclusion, will ultimately lead us to destruction. These ideas are broadcast through our televisions, promulgated across the internet, and are even passed along by those whom we would call our peers. If anything, we are in more danger of being led astray than the people in the New Testament were in their day. This danger is not merely external, but in some cases can come from fellow members of the church. I have often been heard to say that the membership of the church today exists in a liquid state of apostasy (or at the very least error) and/or righteousness at any given moment (righteousness coming in place of apostasy and error as we each individually repent and are taught correct principles), and that without the direction of Lord through the Prophet and the Twelve Apostles, we as a people would shortly and collectively devolve into a fully apostate state. In this state, we as people would be wholly directionless and lost in error. I feel that it is important to state that we are not required to follow our leaders blindly and ignorantly, far from it. We have been given great resources from which we ourselves can gain a testimony of the truth of the words of the prophets, through faith and diligence on our part. We will each be judged according to the light that we have, and in our case we have a great deal of light. We can turn to volumes of recorded scripture, and we have been taught (even commanded) to turn to the Lord in prayer for guidance on any question of truth. It is easy for individuals, as well as groups, to become prideful, and to trust more in their own wisdom than in the wisdom of The Lord and his servants. When this happens, it is only too common for people to become offended over some small question or perceived slight, and to fall away. When this happens, these people will become hardened to the Lord and his servants (see Alma 24:30). Some (many?) will become hardened to the point that they deny the Gospel, and even Jesus Christ himself. These people become enemies “to all righteousness” (see Mosiah 2:36-37) or as John said (in 1 John 3:18-19, 22) they become liars and antichrists. Those who let themselves come into opposition to God and his church shall be “cut off”(see 1 Nephi 22:14,19), or as Paul declared of the false apostles of his day (in 2 Corinthians 11:15), their “end shall be according to their works.” It seems to me to be a shameful waste of great divine potential for people who have accepted the Gospel to subsequently reject it and fall away. Unfortunately it may happen that we each could someday find ourselves in danger of becoming one of those people. Let us be always mindful and vigilant, that we may always be found to be acting in accordance with the Lord and his wishes, and may we be humble enough to repent speedily when we are not.

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