Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bruce R. McConkie and "Our Relationship With The Lord"/Do Mormons Worship Jesus?

In 1982, Bruce R. McConkie gave a talk at BYU entitled Our Relationship with the Lord. I was not there in person (I was not quite two), but apparently, it has spawned a lot of confusion, both inside and outside of the Church. I have read it, and I just re-read it, to make sure my understanding was correct. My understanding is that in this particular speech Elder McConkie was warning against emphasizing having a special relationship with one particular member of the Godhead while neglecting the other two. It seems to me he was trying to teach about balance and proper perspective, but in doing so I think he ultimately ended up throwing things out of balance.

Rightly he taught that “there are, in the Eternal Godhead, three persons--God the first, the Creator; God the second, the Redeemer; and God the third, the Testator. These three are one--one God if you will--in purposes, in powers, and in perfections. But each has his own severable work to perform, and mankind has a defined and known and specific relationship to each one of them”.

The end goal of the gospel then isn’t to have a “special relationship” with one of the members of the Godhead (ie: Jesus), but to be brought back to the presence of the Father. I suppose you could say this is done by having a "proper" relationship with each of them. I don’t think Elder McConkie meant to de-emphasize the covenant relationship with Christ that gets us home to our Father in Heaven, but merely say “hey, don’t mistake the means for the end”.

I don’t get the feeling that Elder McConkie had a lot of patience with those who did not believe in the gospel just like he did, whether within or without the Church. I also doubt that he was ever accused of having the most tact. :) He was, however, definitely bold (harsh?); especially when he felt that truth was being challenged. Apparently there was a book out which persuaded some BYU students that they could or should emphasize a special or advanced relationship with Jesus while neglecting the other two persons of the Godhead, and he came down hard on that, to call out "heresy".

Naturally, we believe that the end goal of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to reconcile us with the Father—Christ is our Mediator. Thus, McConkie seems to emphasize here that it’s not proper to single out one member of the Godhead for some special attention. One could argue that he’s making a mountain out of a mole-hill, since when we worship the Son we worship the Father, and visa-versa. Truly, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute the One God we worship.

Even McConkie admits here "that most scriptures that speak of God or of the Lord do not even bother to distinguish the Father from the Son, simply because it doesn’t make any difference which God is involved. They are one. The words or deeds of either of them would be the words and deeds of the other in the same circumstance." It’s just obvious in this talk that McConkie decides to focus on their distinct and separate roles, rather than their practically infinite unity. I can see how that can and has caused some confusion (inside and outside the Church), and that’s unfortunate.

One particular statement, however, may have done more harm than good. In my opinion he distracted from the heart of what he was trying to get at in this talk when he chose to use the words “we do not worship the Son”. Shocking right? Well, apparently he’s reserving a different definition of worship than even he has used on other occasions and that he admits, directly after saying it, that the scriptures even use. Perhaps he could or should have said that we do not worship the Son in the same role as the Father. Clearly, he's trying to differentiate degrees of worship and the different relationships we have with each person in the Godhead, but as he admits, it is a "fine line".

God the Father is our Father—we are his children. So when we pray, we pray directly to our Father in the name of Christ--just as Jesus taught; not directly to Jesus. (Even though a song of the heart is considered to be a prayer, and many of our hymns are in essence prayers to Jesus.) McConkie is, for better or worse, emphasizing the Father’s preeminence. But in that same talk he makes clear that while our relationship with the Son is "one of brother or sister in the premortal life", it is now "one of being led to the Father by him while in this mortal sphere". In the talk he elaborates on Jesus the Christ:
He is the Lord Jehovah who championed our cause before the foundations of the earth were laid. He is the God of Israel, the promised Messiah, and the Redeemer of the world. By faith we are adopted into his family and become his children. We take upon ourselves his name, keep his commandments, and rejoice in the cleansing power of his blood. Salvation comes by him. From Creation's dawn, as long as eternity endures, there neither has been nor will be another act of such transcendent power and import as his atoning sacrifice. We do not have a fraction of the power we need to properly praise his holy name and ascribe unto him the honor and power and might and glory and dominion that is his. He is our Lord, our God, and our King.

Even in his (infamous?) book Mormon Doctrine, under the heading “worship”, McConkie writes that:
The Father and the Son are the objects of all true worship. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” (Matt. 4:10; Luke 4:8; Ex. 34:14; Mosiah 18:25; D&C 20:17-19.) No one can worship the Father without also worshiping the Son. “All men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.” (John 5:23.) It is proper to worship the Father, in the name of the Son, and also to worship the Son. “Believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.” (2 Ne. 25:16, 29.)

So, of course, it would be disturbing to any Christian, LDS or not, if somehow they stopped reading at one point in the talk and determined that McConkie was saying that Latter-day Saints don’t worship Jesus—but that is just false. It’s also false to say that Latter-day Saints don’t believe we should have a relationship with Christ—he was just saying we shouldn’t have one at the exclusion of the other persons of the Godhead; let’s keep things in perspective.

In my opinion, now and after all is said and done, the proper relationship we have with Christ is pretty special. That covenant relationship we have with Christ is our only hope--without Him we would be lost. Furthermore, He is the father of our spiritual rebirth. We become born again as His sons and daughters. And we need to be very clear on this point. Elder M. Russell Ballard, in a talk entitled "Building Bridges of Understanding", cautioned members of the Church:
We occasionally hear some members refer to Jesus as our Elder Brother, which is a true concept based on our understanding of the pre-mortal life with our Father in Heaven. But like many points of gospel doctrine, that simple truth doesn't go far enough in terms of describing the Savior's role in our present lives and His great position as a member of the Godhead. Thus, some non-LDS Christians are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a secondary role for Christ in our theology. They feel that we view Jesus as a spiritual peer. They believe that we view Christ as an implementor for God, if you will, but that we don't view Him as God to us and to all mankind, which, of course, is counter to biblical testimony about Christ's divinity…

Now we can understand why some Latter-day Saints have tended to focus on Christ's Sonship as opposed to His Godhood. As members of earthly families, we can relate to Him as a child, as a Son, and as a Brother because we know how that feels. We can personalize that relationship because we ourselves are children, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. For some it may be more difficult to relate to Him as a God. And so in an attempt to draw closer to Christ and to cultivate warm and personal feelings toward Him, some tend to humanize Him, sometimes at the expense of acknowledging His Divinity. So let us be very clear on this point: it is true that Jesus was our Elder Brother in the premortal life, but we believe that in this life it is crucial that we become "born again" as His sons and daughters in the gospel covenant.

One of the great ways to learn about real Mormon doctrine is to actually learn the doctrine in the Book of Mormon. 2 Nephi 25:29 states:
And now behold, I say unto you that the right way is to believe in Christ, and deny him not; and Christ is the Holy One of Israel; wherefore ye must bow down before him, and worship him with all your might, mind, and strength, and your whole soul; and if ye do this ye shall in nowise be cast out.

Ideally, informed Latter-day Saints will correct the caricatures of this talk which have been spawned both inside and outside of the Church. Besides a Mormon Matters post, Offenders for a Word, Part 2 - Do Mormons Worship Jesus?, S. Faux at Mormon Insights has written a relevant essay entitled: Do Mormons Worship Jesus?. Even with a full understanding of the differences between traditional and restored doctrine, the correct and obvious answer is a resounding "yes".

17 comments:

Papa D said...

Excellent summary, CC. Thanks.

Bruce in Montana said...

Good food for thought.
There is a thin line between worshipping an entity and revering an entity.

R. Gary said...

The book Mormon Doctrine is "infamous?"

Tom said...

I took a class from Joseph Fielding McConkie, and he told us the background on that talk:

At BYU in the late 70's / early 80's there was a popular idea going around that you had to have some "special experience" that granted you a "special relationship" with Jesus Christ above and beyond what was described in the scriptures. His BYU talk condemned THAT idea, not the scriptural injunction to be born again and have a personal relationship with the Savior. We have always preached, and Elder McConkie concurs, the need for a personal relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. We are not to seek some "special" relationship with one of them - for they all play an ESSENTIAL role in our salvation.

"And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent."

(I would add that that knowledge comes through the Holy Spirit - 1 Cor. 12:3, John 14:26, John 16:13, etc.)

Elder McConkie believed it, we believe it. Period.

J. Stapley said...

I think this is an area where Elder McConkie was wrong.

Clean Cut said...

J. Stapley--feel free to expound upon your opinion.

Katrina said...

Thanks for the post Clean Cut. I appreciate the straightforward easier to understand explanation.

Stephen said...

Christ is our friend, though I realize why the talk was given the way it was -- and why it needed to be given.

Christ does not sit in the next room and darn our socks for us. That there was a popular idea going around that you had to have some "special experience" that granted you a "special relationship" puts it mildly, there were several married ward where there were serious problems when husbands could not demonstrate that they had that kind of special relationship where Christ does the dishes for you.

Jared said...

Clean Cut--

I was there when this talk was given. I heard it and to this day it still doesn't make sense. I know some of the background that brought this talk on. As others have said, it was to attack the idea of developing a personal relationship with the Savior that was being taught at BYU. It was a hash and unkind presentation and I can imagine Elder McConkie would like to redo it if he could. Elder McConkie is one of my favorite writers and speakers, but he missed it on this talk. It created, and still is creating confusion.

I noticed in the years since this talk was given that church leaders have taken up the phrase "personal relationship" with the Savior and used it in their talks and writing. This is an indication to me that it is a perfectly good way to describe our relationship with the Savior, and the Father.

Go to LDS.org and type in "personal relationship" and you will find it was used before and after Elder McConkie's talk.

J. Stapley said...

It is demonstrable that it is Church doctrine that we are to worship Jesus Christ and has been since the dawn of the Restoration. Just do a bit of searching on lds.org or in the D&C or in Conference Reports. See for example President Hinkley's comments.

Clean Cut said...

Bruce in Montana--to be clear, I both revere AND worship Jesus Christ--the Son of God AND God the Son. I don't think McConkie was trying to say otherwise. I really feel that McConkie was just stating that we worship them in different roles, Q.E.D.

I dislike the talk immensely. It's more problematic than helpful--and even confusing. Now, if McConkie really actually was saying that we only revere the Son but do not worship Him--then I line up with J. Stapley and say that McConkie was just flat out wrong. But the point of this post was to provide an alternative understanding and still say that we all know, believe, and understand that Mormons worship Jesus the Christ.

Tom, I appreciate the clarification from your class with Elder McConkie's Son, Joseph Fielding McConkie. I hate to admit this publicly, but I'm going to do it anyway. I took a New Testament class (second half) from Joseph Fielding McConkie my freshman year at BYU and I was completely bored to death. It was a frustrating experience. I can't remember if I learned anything OR if I even felt the Spirit in that class. Sad to admit.

In all fairness, I may have just been an unprepared freshman. But contrasted with my experience when I decided to take the SAME class over again several years later (because I really wanted to learn something from it) with Stephen E. Robinson--my experience was night and day different. It became truly one of the most memorable classes I had ever taken at BYU.

Thanks all, for the comments.

Clean Cut said...

One more thing I'd like to add, and I wonder how many others would agree with me, is that I personally feel that what I do know about the Father, I know because I've come to know the Son. After all, he said "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father." I tend to think that means that they are so alike, so one, that I can know the Father better by knowing Christ.

I readily admit that I feel like I know more about Jesus than I do of the Father. We have several paintings hanging up in our house of Jesus, and the scriptures too are a constant reminder of the preeminence that Christ has in my life right now. There are less physical reminders of my Heavenly Father. But remembering the forgoing statement, that to see Him is to see the Father brings peace to my soul, for to worship one is to worship the other. To glorify Christ brings glory to the Father.

I pray to the Father (my Father in Heaven) in the name of Christ, since Christ taught that we should do so. But I depend on Christ to be reconciled to the Father. So it should also come as no surprise if I tell you that it is Jesus who occupies the majority of my thoughts, as well as my adoration.

CJ Douglass said...

Great write up CC.

FWIW, I'll just say that I think we emphasize the Father TOO much in the church - saying things like "Heavenly Father lives and this is HIS church". Sure, they're ONE anyway - BUT there is actually a good reason its called the church of Jesus Christ - instead of the Church of Elohim or Church of the Godhead. I think there is a good reason that when ever the Father speaks (in the scriptures) its only to praise or introduce his Son. Its pretty clear that the Father WANTS is to focus on the Son.

Bob Stephens said...

What seems to be a misunderstanding or maybe you don't know is God is our Father and did create us but after you are born again you come into the final relationship that Jesus becomes your father and you carry this thoughout the eternities. "

jamie said...

I have to laugh at all of us, it seems to me that we are all missing the mark. I personally think it is a wonderful thing to develop a relationship with Christ to understand the Father and know Him. There is no other way to learn of the Father but through Christ - by what He taught and how he lived and in everything he did. But that is what I personally believe and in the big picture who cares. If you follow what the Spirit and the Majority of the Apostles you will never to lead astray and it seems that everyone get worked up when something new or different is said. Time and time again there are General Authorities that say something that will be a different view on what his brother had said earlier. This happens. But don't let it get the best of you.

Besides I have heard a few things about this talk and there was a whole other story than the doctrine that was being argued.

cji said...

Once a year if not more I re-listen to this talk - each time I gain more insight to it and the context in which it was given. Noted that when one listens or reads anything the first time much is missed as our minds try to evaluate and correlate what we are hearing or reading.
Comprehension and understanding come somewhere after the 6th time of listening or reading material especially as important as what is being taught here.
This would be no different from reading Scriptures - my wife and I are somewhere between the 17th time or more reading the Old Testament together - and somewhere around the 70th time of re-reading the Book of Mormon.
Over and over we go through the books of Scripture - following the various references - reading additional material for clarification and discussing with each other what we understand.
Having met Elder McConkie at a Stake Conference years ago in Rochester NY - allowed me to get an insight to him in person. This was also the occasion of the first talk I gave in the Church and he sat on one side of me and the Stake President on the other.
What is said in this talk is true - and also if any have reasonable questions go back and review the King Follet address by President Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1844.
Doctrine is hard for many to grasp - when I was growing up I was not a member and would run away often - while having long walks between rides hitchhiking (1959) I had long discussions with my Elder Brother - these were not prayers - but I needed someone to talk with and I figured he was more likely to listen than Father in that I just needed to talk.
Understand there is a lot of doctrine many in the Church don't like - it doesn't mean it isn't true - the same as many deny the Savior's resurection - it is still true - it did happen. Remember also that the brothers of Nephi saw and had an angel of the Lord speak to them - but they didn't let it alter what they were thinking.
There is nothing easy about being a member of the Church - c/ork

Clean Cut said...

Related post:

http://rationalfaiths.com/rewriting-mormon-history/