We often think of idolatry as something like praying to a stone carving or being overly interested in sports cars, but modern-day idolatry can involve more subtle and nefarious "false gods": religious leaders.
"I am justified in wanting this expensive dress because it is important to wear my Sunday best to church to show respect to God. Also, I worked hard to earn the money for this dress, and hard work and self-reliance are important to God. My money is also a blessing from God because I pay my tithing, so this dress is a blessing."
"God is love, so restrictions on when/who/how we romantically love are not of God."
"God speaks through prophets, so I should obey and trust everything the prophet says. God also deserves my respect, reverence, and gratitude, so I will show that by being respectful, reverent, and grateful to his prophet."
The problem with this way of thinking is that it uses God and His priorities to justify our own desires. We use God to rationalize our idolatry, making Him in our own image.
"They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall." (D&C 1:16)"How is obeying and reverencing our church leaders idolatrous?"
This behavior becomes idolatrous when the object of obedience and reverence is a mortal person instead of God. We should obey the commandments of God and reverence God, not His servants. Of course God's commandments often come through His servants, but it is important to understand that God is the one we are obeying. His servant is merely the messenger; the message and commandments should not originate with the servant, therefore the obedience is not directed toward the servant.
The chasm between men and God is vast; putting church leaders on the same plane of deference and adoration is blasphemous and a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. We cannot bring God down to us by designating earthly substitutes for our worship. We must ascend to God on His terms. God did not say, "If ye love me, adore my prophets and lavish them with honors." He said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15).
|Idolatry is when we substitute something telestial, fallen, and carnal, for God.|
The Lord says in Exodus 20:
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;Are we expected and encouraged to participate in excessive physical displays of reverence and admiration for our leaders? Standing when the prophet enters the room, singing hymns for him, and even dancing for him? While I can't think of any instances of members literally bowing down to church leaders, we often use the symbolic and sacred phrase "at the feet of" when referencing the "honor" of being taught by general authorities, especially in person.
We're just showing respect! you might say. Really? Do you stand when your Bishop enters the room? Do you sing for your boss? Dance in costume for your favorite professor? Common respect looks very different from the adoration and worship we Latter-day Saints reserve for our favored religious authorities.
The Lord taught this poignant lesson during the last supper:
24 And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest.In this passage Jesus highlights the tendency of the Gentiles (among whom Joseph Smith identified the Saints in D&C 109:60) to idolize those "that exercise authority upon them," and then completely rejects that tradition. The Lord's apostles are to be humble servants, not oligarchical, authority-wielding celebrities endlessly praised for their service (and is it really service if they are paid?).
25 And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors.
26 But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.
27 For whether greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth. (Luke 22)
|What attitudes do we see in this picture?|
When you receive a gift in the mail, do you send a thank-you note to your mailman? No, you send one to the person who is actually responsible for the gift. Prophets are basically mailmen. Do you treat your mailman with basic respect and civility, and perhaps a simple expression of gratitude when you happen to see him at the mailbox? Sure. Do you throw him celebrity-hosted birthday parties? Do you keep a framed photo of him on your wall? Do you encourage your children to write in their journals about him? No, because that would be weird and completely disproportionate to their personal importance in your life. When we rationalize the same honors for our church leaders, that's a strong sign that we have come to prize the messenger more than the message, and that such adoration has become a dangerous distraction from God.
If you aren't faithful enough to get the initial message from God Himself (eventually you should be), then God will utilize someone else to pass on His truth. This method is merciful and loving, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the real value we receive from prophets exists completely independent of them; God's truth and work depend on no specific, mortal man. If one prophet dies, fails, or rebels, God can use another. Prophets are replaceable and interchangeable. Their worth is not in their heart-warming anecdotes, their sophisticated speech and accomplishments, or their likable personalities; their worth to us depends solely on their ability to receive and transmit God's word.
Why should we care if the prophet "sends his love"? Why should we care when his birthday is or what he likes to eat? Why should we learn anecdotes about the General Authorities' righteousness, rather than hear stories of their witnesses of God's power? Why should we place extra value on their examples, when we have Jesus Christ as our example?
"But loving, celebrating, and learning about our leaders aren't harmful!"
The fact is that life is generally a zero-sum game when it comes to time and resources. The time and energy you spend learning the GA's birth places and hobbies with printable flashcards could have been put towards studying the scriptures or serving someone in need. Of course the same could be said for each moment you spend on Facebook, pursuing a hobby, or exercising, but what's especially problematic about more subtle idolatries is that you give yourself credit for doing "something spiritual." Because "honoring the prophet" is equivalent to "honoring God" in your mind, you are okay spending an hour at church learning about all the great stuff a former church president did, feeling no alarm that the name "Jesus" was only mentioned during the opening and closing prayers. You feel like a good Mormon if you read a prophet's biography on Sunday afternoon, even if it means you didn't crack open your scriptures. You feel like you have "taught the gospel" to your kids when they've memorized the names of the Quorum of the Twelve or can sing the latest verse of "Follow the Prophet" (the anthem of Mormon idolatry). The fact is that living the gospel has nothing to do with following or adoring or learning trivia about our leaders. Living the gospel is about following CHRIST and obeying GOD.
Beyond the expenditure of time and resources, what can be most nefarious about idolizing our leaders is that it leads to outsourcing our relationship with God while also dulling our ability to discern truth from fiction in what they say. When you idolize your leaders and put them on a pedestal, questioning the veracity of their teachings becomes taboo. Questioning a man becomes as offensive to you as questioning God, a sentiment that is in direct conflict with the Lord's declaration that, "Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost" (2 Nephi 28:31). I wrote more here about our duty to verify everything by virtue of the Holy Ghost, and not by our level of admiration for the messenger. If you can't wrap your head around the idea of our leaders teaching us anything but pure truth, read this to see how the teaching that "the prophet can never lead us astray" is a false precept.
|Why was this picture staged this way? Why wasn't a simple headshot used to announce a devotional?|
When your evaluation of a leader's message is clouded (or completely prevented) by your emotional connection to the leader, you can know you're guilty of idolatry. When your loyalty to a church office is greater than your loyalty to truth, you can know you're guilty of idolatry. The Lord said in D&C 50:17-21:
17 Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
18 And if it be by some other way it is not of God.
19 And again, he that receiveth the word of truth, doth he receive it by the Spirit of truth or some other way?
20 If it be some other way it is not of God.
21 Therefore, why is it that ye cannot understand and know, that he that receiveth the word by the Spirit of truth receiveth it as it is preached by the Spirit of truth?In these verses the Lord is 1) establishing that it is possible for one of his ordained servants to deliver a message that is not of God, and 2) explaining that it is necessary to receive a message through the Spirit of truth (as opposed to "the Spirit of loyalty to your leaders" or "the Spirit of admiration for nice elderly men" or "the Spirit of warm-fuzzy groupthink"). Carefully examine your standards for evaluating the truth of the messages you receive from your leaders; it is telling if you have no such standards.
"Even if these things are idolatry, what the members do is not the fault of the leaders!"
Maybe not, but I wonder why they don't denounce such behavior and adoration as idolatrous. What would you do if President Monson walked into the conference center and said, "Sit down! I'm no one special. All your reverence should be reserved for God. In fact, why am I sitting in a chair comfier than yours? Why is anyone who isn't speaking in this meeting sitting behind the pulpit? And why all the memes praising me and other general authorities or the vapid things we say? They are vain and trifling, offensive to a jealous God. Stop acting like I'm a superhero, stop thinking it's an honor to be in my presence, stop putting my picture on your wall, and stop caring about anything I say or do unless I say I have a message specifically from God and that's confirmed to you by the Spirit. Oh, and don't read my biography, To The Rescue. You'd be much better off reading the New Testament--now there's a biography worth your time! Now for my talk, the content of which was provided me by an angel who visited me last night..."
|Do church leaders encourage and enjoy the adoration they receive from members?|
Does the church foster idolatry by promoting a cult of personality surrounding leaders? A cult of personality is the deliberate curation of an individual's public image through flattery and praise; positive traits and stories are emphasized while potentially negative traits and events are erased or minimized in the authorized narrative. The church certainly created an idolized mythology around Joseph Smith ... is the same true for current leadership?
|What emotional reaction were the producers of this photograph aiming for?|
General Conference is this weekend. If you're watching, I hope you'll evaluate each message on its own merits, and not based on your feelings for the speaker.
Listen for these phrases:
-"God instructed me to say ..."
-"An angel revealed to me ..."
-"In a vision I saw..."
-"Thus saith the Lord ..."
-"The Lord said to me ..."
-"The word of the Lord ..."
Watch out for:
-Flattery, especially directed at women.
-Boasting about the accomplishments of the church, missionary force, or leadership.
-Rationalization of disobedience.
-Anecdotes that highlight the righteousness of an individual rather than the power and mercy of God.
-The philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.
Follow Jesus Christ alone. Only He can save you.