MERIDIAN EXPAND

“…and your mind doth begin to expand.” – Alma 32:34

 While many set faith at odds with critical thinking, Meridian’s Expand promotes an alternative model of the life of the mind. Here we engage current moral, political and cultural issues with intellectual rigor from a faithful LDS standpoint.

The following is taken from an address given this year at the FairMormon Conference. See its original publication here.

I. Introduction to Mormon Gnosticism

Apologetics is a very broad field and different topics can involve extremely different audiences. My topic today is a little delicate, because the audience I hope to reach is a certain group of members of the church, good and faithful and well-meaning members, who believe in God, believe in Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet, and have no problem with most of the doctrines and truth claims of the Restoration. You may now wonder why on earth I’m even up here.

The unfortunate reality is that even for such a faithful person, there’s still the possibility of spiritual danger. One particular spiritual threat is gaining strength among some church members, particularly via the internet. What we’re seeing is a modern spin on an old song–that the church has lost its way, church leaders are not inspired or in favor with God, so God has raised up new leaders outside the church hierarchy whose visions and teachings are important for us to follow. It is likely you know someone who finds this narrative persuasive, or at least intriguing, even if you don’t know that they do. It is also possible that you and I have some seemingly harmless beliefs that can lead to this danger.

Central Tension

There is an interesting central tension in our faith. On the one hand, we believe that everyone can—and should—receive personal revelation from the Holy Ghost. On the other hand, God calls prophets to receive essential revelations that are binding on each of us church members. On the other one hand, Christ said many times to ask, seek, and knock, and promised He will answer. On the other other hand, Christ said that answers come in His own time, not automatically like putting a quarter in a pop machine. On the other other one hand, He wants us to come unto him with all our hearts, which is intensely personal and can be done without help or participation from anyone else. On the other other other hand, Christ commands us to receive ordinances which by definition require another ordained person to administer them to us, leaving us helpless if no such person is available. To boil it down: there’s a tension between religion as practiced on an individual level, and the many ways access to religion is mediated through the church organization.

Most church members resolve this tension without too much trouble—guidance from prophets and personal revelation work together to confirm one another and show a harmonious whole picture of a divine plan for our lives. We seek additional revelatory knowledge, but accept that it may take years of preparation and waiting before we receive answers, and that some answers never come in this life. We seek spiritual gifts, but know not to seek for signs. We recognize that ordinances, becausethey are performed by the power of properly-authorized priesthood, are like vehicles that carry us more quickly and powerfully to Christ than we could manage on our own.

And yet the church is losing good members who are not successfully resolving this tension. They embrace a particular set of assumptions and interpretations that I’m going to call, for our purposes today, “gnosticism.” People who believe in “gnosticism” are “gnostics.” In our case, Mormon gnostics.

The religious history nerds among us (you know who you are) will recognize that I’m using “gnostic” in a very loose, adaptive way, not a historically rigorous way. So if you’re inclined to start debating about the demiurge and manicheanism and whatnot, just back that train up. For today’s purposes, Mormon “gnosticism” is just the belief that esoteric knowledge–hidden, deep doctrine–is necessary for fulfilling our spiritual potential, and that seeking for it is more spiritually advanced.

“But,” you may respond, “aren’t all Mormons gnostics? We believe we have truths that were lost to the rest of Christianity, and that you have to receive temple covenants that are only administered to those who prove worthy.” Good point, Imaginary Questioner. Let me explain more of what makes Mormon Gnosticism distinct from mainstream Mormon belief, and problematic.

Mormon gnostic thought emphasizes all the one hands, and downplays all of the other hands: it emphasizes that each individual can get revelation, and downplays the role of prophets. It emphasizes that Christ tells us to ask and knock and promises to reveal knowledge and mysteries, but downplays the occasions when seekers were told “not yet” or even “stop asking that.” Gnostics emphasize the importance of individual spiritual effort and purity, but argue around the need for priesthood authority administered by the church’s organization.

In short, Mormon Gnostics emphasize personal spiritual effort and de-emphasize the role of the church in spiritual progression. This can lead them to conclude that they have learned a new scriptural interpretation, contrary to what church leaders have taught, or that they have discerned that church leaders and members have strayed, and God has called new leaders or revealed a new means of spiritual progress without prophets. Gnostics try to get at a supposed hidden, deeper truth that most members don’t find due to supposed faithlessness or lack of passion for spiritual things. Gnostics seek for what the scriptures “really” mean, or what prophets are “really” saying, or for teachings that were known a long time ago but aren’t part of modern mainstream belief, perhaps because they were unofficial and hence abandoned, or prophets revealed better understanding.

Part of the reason why Mormon Gnosticism is so persuasive to many members is that it’s easy to make a very persuasive-sounding case based on only half the truth. Just leave out the other half. We have plenty of scriptures and quotes from church leaders telling us to seek knowledge, seek more light, be spiritually self-reliant, don’t blindly follow prophets or other church leaders, seek spiritual gifts including revelation and prophecy, and seek higher spiritual experiences like the Second Comforter and having our calling and election made sure. By focusing on all that, a Mormon Gnostic can make the leap to the conclusion that the other half–church organization, priesthood hierarchy, priesthood keys–is unnecessary when one is sufficiently spiritually advanced. Some Mormon Gnostics make the leap even further, saying that the church is corrupt and has lost its authority.

Hallmarks of Gnosticism

This leads to a lot of different varieties and degrees of error. At one end of the spectrum, the comparatively harmless Mormon Gnostic is That One Guy in every High Priest Quorum who constantly brings up deep false doctrine[1]. The extreme version is the polygamist splinter groups who totally withdraw from the church. There are a vast number of Mormon Gnostic sites you can find online, if you have a lot of time on your hands and very weird hobbies, and I’ve put together a list of some of their hallmark terms and concepts:

  1. Inordinate interest in the Second Comforter or Second Anointing, complaints that the church does not teach or emphasize them enough, and belief that books or teachings by individuals who are not church leaders are the best way to obtain them.
  2. Belief that visions claimed by individuals other than church leaders are authoritative for general church membership and important to temporal preparedness and spiritual progression.
    1. Predictions about “tent cities” where those who diligently prepared for future calamities will go for protection.
  3. Claims of divine authority that was not received via regular priesthood within the church, but from an angel or vision or other unusual divine means.
  4. Claims that a “remnant” group of spiritually elect are more obedient and spiritually advanced than general church membership, or even that the “remnant” are the only non-apostates, and everyone else has gone astray. This of course violates the principle that Joseph called “a key that will never rust” and “a key by which you will never be deceived”–that if you stay with a majority of the church, a majority of the apostles, and the records of the church, you’re with the right group. A tiny “remnant” is not the majority and are therefore the apostates.
  5. Criticism of the LDS church and its leadership for spending priorities, corporate organization, purported lack of recent revelation, or on other grounds. It is interesting how among ex-Mormons, those who have gone off in the atheist direction, and those who have gone off in the opposite, Gnostic, direction, still come together sometimes to generate and discuss criticisms of the church. They’re very different movements, but they unite in their hatred of the church.

Not all Mormon Gnostic groups endorse all of these ideas, but most exhibit at least one. Their common theme is emphasis on an “advanced” spiritual state or manifestation. Gnostics take the truth that we should seek more knowledge and spiritual power, and pursue it to an inappropriate degree or in an inappropriate way. Always individualism at the expense of the role of the church.

II. Teachings from Church History

As I said before, these ideas are not new. They’re really obvious problems one would face in the course of establishing a church based on prophetic authority and revelation, and Joseph Smith faced them. Reviewing the history of the church and these similar challenges as they arose early on, we see that in response, God revealed a comprehensive framework for evaluating Gnostic claims.

When the church was first restored, the wider culture was much more accepting of divine manifestations than today. Which is not a high bar to clear, but still. Many early members of the church knew individuals who claimed to have received visions and revelations[2], and although Joseph Smith was persecuted for claiming a revelatory gift[3], he was also acting within a long-established tradition.[4]

Hiram Page

Therefore, it isn’t surprising that the question arose of how to tell which revelators had authority and validity in the early days of the church. Less than six months after the church was organized, Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, claimed to receive revelations through a stone. Page’s “revelations” were not outlandish or obviously evil; they pertained to church organization and were persuasive enough that Oliver Cowdery considered them to be of value.

In response to Page’s claims, the Lord revealed Section 28, and a clear set of principles:

No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses. And thou shalt be obedient unto the things which I shall give unto him, even as Aaron, to declare faithfully the commandments and the revelations, with power and authority unto the church. And if thou art led at any time by the Comforter to speak or teach, or at all times by the way of commandment unto the church, thou mayest do it. But thou shalt not write by way of commandment, but by wisdom. (D&C 28:2-5)

Oliver wasn’t merely told that Page was wrong, but was also given general principles to follow in judging all such claims as Page’s:

  1. No one receives commandments or revelations in the church except the prophet.
  2. Others can have the authority to declare the commandments and revelations with power, and to speak and teach by way of commandment, but when writing should couch it as wisdom instead of commandment.

It’s important to notice what the Lord does not say. He does not say “you all have the gift of the Holy Ghost, so when someone comes among you proclaiming revelation and authority, you should be able to just discern if it’s legitimate or not without revealed standards to guide you.” We are not told to face a free-for-all anarchy of truth claims out there, any of which might be of equal weight to revelations received through prophets. We know at the outset that some claims are not true.

A few months later, in early February 1831, the Lord fulfilled an earlier promise to reveal the Law by which the church should be governed. This is Section 42, which includes this important passage:

“It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by someone who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.” (D&C 42:11)

So here we have more important principles regarding revelation:

  1. Authority to preach and organize the church comes through ordination by someone with authority;
  2. That person with authority has to be known by the church and ordained in the church through priesthood channels.

Again, notice what the Lord did not say. He didn’t say “you all have the gift of the Holy Ghost, so if someone comes along directing how to run the church, you should be able to discern whether or not they’re legit.” The Lord never places that responsibility on us without revealed standards to guide us. If someone claims revelations and authority to preach and lead the church, but didn’t come through official church channels, you know he’s either deceived or deceitful.

After these revelations, there were still more difficulties to untangle. In late February 1831, a Mrs. Hubble “professed to be a prophetess of the Lord, and professed to have many revelations, and knew the Book of Mormon was true, and that she should become a teacher in the church of Christ. She appeared to be very sanctimonious and deceived some who were not able to detect her in her hypocrisy.”[5] As with Hiram Page, she wasn’t being outrageously, obviously evil. She claimed good things, like the truth of the Book of Mormon. But some truth does not legitimize other errors. In response, the Lord revealed:

Ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church [this refers to Section 42], through him whom I have appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations from my hand [meaning Joseph Smith]. And this ye shall know assuredly—that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he [Joseph] be taken, if he abide in me. But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him; for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead. And this shall be a law unto you, that ye receive not the teachings of any that shall come before you as revelations or commandments. And this I give unto you that you may not be deceived, that you may know they are not of me. For verily I say unto you, that he that is ordained of me shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before, to teach those revelations which you have received and shall receive through him whom I have appointed. (D&C 43:2-7, emphasis added.)

This revelation reiterates many of the concepts of Sections 28 and 42, and adds to our list of important principles:

  1. If the prophet goes astray, to the extent of losing his authority to receive revelations and commandments for the church, he would still have the ability to appoint his successor. This was very early in the church, before the full organization of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, so I assume the procedure would change somewhat later. But the principle remains that a fallen church leader does not vacate the church’s authority to perpetuate inspired leadership.
  2. Anyone ordained of the Lord will “come in at the gate’’–that is, will be easily recognizable as an authorized messenger, and not have to gain influence by courting popularity, and gradual coalition-building and the like.

Regarding that last item, there’s a reason we keep pictures of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in church buildings, so that there’s no confusion about who our leaders are. We can’t be deceived by pretenders.

Once again, notice what the Lord did not say. He did not say “you all have the gift of the Holy Ghost, so you need to be constantly on the lookout to judge if the church and its leaders are falling away, and discern who is the new authorized revelator.” God never placed that responsibility on us. It’s not like God was caught unprepared for the fact that His chosen human leaders are fallible. He wasn’t exactly shy about chastising them, publicly in scripture, and cutting them off and replacing them when it was warranted. The church structure put in place by revelation made the church impervious to destruction via fallen human leadership.

Taken together, these revelations leave no room to be mistaken about the Lord’s assurances that we can trust in the legitimacy of the church and its leaders. Revelation comes only through a regularly appointed prophet. Anyone else purporting to receive revelation and teach it to the church is out of line–even someone as respected and spiritually privileged as Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses, could not dispense revelation without authority. (I emphasize Hiram Page’s calling because it is common for Mormon Gnostic visionaries to emphasize their high callings in the church, as though we should believe someone because he used to be a High Councilor, or even because he used to be a personal friend of an Apostle. That’s moonshine. It simply doesn’t matter.)

These sections also disprove the possibility that a new prophet would come out of nowhere to replace the church’s prophet who went astray. There is no legitimate way to claim revelatory authority on the basis of the church or its leadership having gone astray. Even a fallen prophet still retains the authority and ability from God to designate his successor. Anyone who says that the church has apostatized and God has chosen a new leader without the current church leadership’s knowledge is violating the Lord’s revelation in Section 43. The Lord ensured that the LDS church would always be His authorized, approved church, even if individual leaders within it failed in their callings. God is good at building and preserving His church.

Some Mormon Gnostics say it’s church members’ fault; their faithlessness that caused the church to go astray. The implication is that if the members were are as spiritually diligent as the Gnostics, the church would have survived. And that if members were as spiritually diligent as the Gnostics, they would see that so-and-so has been called as the new prophet. This totally ignores God’s statements about the permanence of the church in this last dispensation, and God’s logical plan for ensuring the church’s survival in spite of human frailty.

Because God has said the church will not fail this time. This is the last dispensation.

The church is also central to our evaluation of those claiming to be teachers: a legitimate teacher will “come in at the gate and be ordained” to teach revelations. This protects us from false teachers. A purported teacher acting outside the organization of the church is trying to sneak under the gate. There are a lot of wonderful things to be learned from teachers outside the church organization, but when it comes to speaking authoritatively about revelations and commandments, only those authorized through the church may do so.

It makes good sense that the Lord set things up this way. It is true that all of us are obligated to seek the Spirit and discern truth from falsehood. But that does not mean life is a constant test wherein we’re required to discern over and over again whether the church is still true, or whether the church’s leaders are still approved by God. Other teachers and teachings may be wise or good, but we are not obligated to find, believe, and follow them as though they were commandments from God.

Our temporal survival and eternal progress do not depend on our good fortune in finding, or our spiritual ability to evaluate, teachings and teachers outside the LDS church organization. We are only accountable for our faithfulness to the church and its leaders and teachings.

III. Specific Mormon Gnostic Claims

I can see I’ve abetted your afternoon food coma, some of you, so I just want to point out that I could have been far worse. I mentioned before that there are vast numbers of Mormon Gnostic sites online. I do not recommend you go find them, because life is short. The amount of time that some enthusiastic Mormon Gnostics spend online, writing blog posts bandying about tidbits from church history and theJournal of Discourses and whatnot on message boards, is really impressive, if self-justifying obsession impresses you. As a result, when I started preparing this presentation I quickly abandoned any idea of thoroughly rebutting all or even any significant fraction of Mormon Gnostic arguments, because I only have one hour and not one week. Or month. Seriously, they are prolific. And so I’ve tried to illuminate underlying principles that turn the other arguments into minor details instead of dispositive linchpins. But there are a few specific claims I do want to address.

A. Claim: “Gnosticism can support the Brethren”

As I mentioned before, there are many degrees of Mormon Gnosticism, from That One Dude spouting so-called “deep doctrine” in Sunday School to self-proclaimed prophets. In another example of how Mormon Gnosticism is insidiously attractive because it incorporates some truth, many flavors of Mormon Gnosticism do not denounce the church and its leaders, and may even encourage loyalty to the church and its leaders. It’s good that they do this. But followers of this strain are still in spiritual danger.

As I’ve researched the online world of Mormon Gnosticism the message boards are the most interesting, because you can track the change in some participants over time. It’s very sad to watch. Many start out as very good, faithful, stalwart saints. They join the message board because they’re thirsting for more knowledge and discussion with other seekers–they’re Gnostic, but not severely. But as they read other posters’ spectacular spiritual claims, and marinate in the culture of criticism of the church and its leaders, they tend to follow a common progression to apostasy:

  1. I’m a loyal church member and I follow church leaders. I read about others’ prophecies because I long to hear more of God’s word and prepare for the future.
  2. I assume church leaders have visions and prophecies just like these others I’m reading about, since they all come from God. It’s a shame church leaders can’t talk openly about them; it must be because most church members are too faithless to handle it. I’m glad I’ve found these other sources for learning these things.
  3. Maybe church leaders don’t have these visions and prophecies. Perhaps because they’re too wrapped up in managing the church’s assets and employees. It’s a shame the church has become so corporate and uninspired. There is no prophecy or revelation from God to the church anymore.
  4. The church is apostate. I have found the replacement.

Mormon Gnostics who dispense their supposed visions and revelations are providing a gateway drug to apostasy. Even if they mean well, even if they tell people to follow the Brethren, and even if their followers are largely sincere, active church members. Violating the Lord’s instructions regarding authority and revelation has harmful consequences.

B. Claim: “I was commanded to share my revelation”

Many self-proclaimed visionaries would respond, and I know this because this is part of their public teaching, that they were commanded by the Lord to share their vision(s). Some of them even make a great show of humility and reluctance, saying they wanted to keep it quiet and had no desire for publicity, but the Lord or another messenger told them they must tell the world. But that is not possible; this claim violates scripture and revelation. It’s another example of false teaching being very persuasive because it incorporates much that sounds true. The Adversary is good at being subtle.

Gnostic visionaries love to quote Joel 2:28, which foretells that men and women will prophesy and have dreams and visions. But the Lord gave us an important caution in the Book of Mormon:

“It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.” (Alma 12:9)

In more modernized language, this means that many people receive knowledge from God, but if one receives more than God has revealed to the world in general through the prophets, it should be kept private. A “strict command” is strong language; a person’s unwitnessed, unauthorized claim that she was commanded in her vision to share it widely is not sufficient to overcome a strict command.

I cannot speak authoritatively as to the reasons for such a command, but it does make good sense. We know that the last days are perilous times where even the very elect will be deceived. We each have the privilege to receive revelation for ourselves and our stewardships. But if one receives a revelation, especially spectacular revelation, and one is allowed to share it widely, pride and priestcraft are obvious dangers. Everyone would be setting themselves as a light.[6] And after I had taught my spectacular vision, and someone else came and taught their visions that contradicted mine, it would become a war of words and a battle of pride. And ordinary members of the church would have no choice but to become as Paul warned, with itching ears to discover each new thing.[7] Those who are imperfect in discernment ability (that is, all of us) would be at constant risk of deception.

Joseph Smith put it succinctly: “Let us be faithful and silent, brethren, and if God gives you a manifestation, keep it to yourselves.”[8]

Joseph Smith also wrote in a letter: “Respecting the vision you speak of we do not consider ourselves bound to receive any revelation from any one man or woman without his being legally constituted and ordained to that authority, and giving sufficient proof of it. I will inform you that it is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves; therefore you will see the impropriety of giving heed to them; but if any person have a vision or a visitation from a heavenly messenger, it must be for his own benefit and instruction; for the fundamental principles, government, and doctrine of the Church are vested in the keys of the kingdom.”[9]

Joseph F. Smith held out the possibility that a revelation received by a member of the church other than the prophet could be properly taught to the church, but only if first approved by church leadership:

“[N]ot even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority–the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints as a religious body. The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated [i.e., taught or spread about] until proper permission is given.”[10]

A subset of the claim that “God commanded me to publicly teach my vision” is the claim that one has had priesthood authority conferred upon him by a heavenly being. This attempts to sidestep the requirements in Doctrine and Covenants. But it doesn’t succeed, for two reasons.

First, it doesn’t get around all of the conditions in D&C 42. Verse 11 says that those who preach the gospel and build up the church must be “known to the church” to have authority, and have been “regularly ordained by the heads of the church.” Unwitnessed ordinations by sneaky angels just don’t cut it, and sound like exactly what they are–claims by the cunning or the deceived that are meant to deceive others.

The “ordained by an angel” claim violates Section 43, as well. It says quite clearly there is “none other appointed to you to receive commandments and revelations,” and that “he that is ordained of [God] shall come in at the gate and be ordained as I have told you before.” All for the express purpose that we “may not be deceived.” There is no precedence and thus no legitimacy to unwitnessed ordinations by sneaky angels–even Joseph Smith’s angelic ordinations were witnessed, and the Lord made it clear that after Joseph’s ordination, all ordinations would be by mortals. Joseph taught:

“The angel told good old Cornelius that he must send for Peter to learn how to be saved: Peter could baptize, and angels could not, so long as there were legal officers in the flesh holding the keys of the kingdom, or the authority of the priesthood. . . . Jesus himself when he appeared to Paul on his way to Damascus, did not inform him how he could be saved. He had set in the church first Apostles, and secondly prophets, for the work of the ministry, perfecting of the saints, etc.; and as the grand rule of heaven was that nothing should ever be done on earth without revealing the secret to his servants the prophets, agreeably to Amos 3:7.”[11]

A second subset of the claim that “God commanded me to reveal my vision to the world” is the online communities of people who claim to have received the Second Comforter, or to have had their calling and election made sure. Receiving these experiences can not possibly include permission to yammer on about it for all of Google and the world to see. These people talk as though God, the scriptures, and the priesthood are insufficient to help people reach their spiritual potential, so it’s up to these communities and their message boards to spread the word. I think we can give God and the Holy Ghost rather more credit than that.

C. Bad History and Scriptural Arguments

Let’s look back again at the apostasy progression we talked about before:

  1. I’m a loyal church member and I follow church leaders. I read about others’ prophecies because I long to hear more of God’s word and prepare for the future.
  2. I assume church leaders have visions and prophecies just like these others I’m reading about, since they all come from God. It’s a shame church leaders can’t talk openly about them; it must be because most church members are too faithless to handle it. I’m glad I’ve found these other sources for learning these things.
  3. Maybe church leaders don’t have these visions and prophecies. Perhaps because they’re too wrapped up in managing the church’s assets and employees, or they’re too full of themselves and their high calling. It’s a shame the church has become so corporate and uninspired. There is no prophecy or revelation from God to the church anymore.
  4. The church is apostate. I have found the replacement.

By the time a Mormon Gnostic gets to stage 3, he’s looking for a way to justify his conclusion that the Church has lost its way and Church leaders are uninspired and even corrupt. They often turn to a cherry-picked, twisted historical narrative that finds fault with church leaders and actions throughout history.

I’m not going to address these historical arguments today, because I don’t have time, and because it’s already been done, primarily by Gregory Smith and Brian Hales in the publication Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. I will link to the free online version of their articles in my transcript and encourage all who are interested in the nitty-gritty to access them for reading at your leisure.[12]

I do want to just briefly address the Gnostic argument, often seen in books and online, that the Book of Mormon prophesied that the LDS church would apostatize. This claim takes verses completely out of context, and misunderstands how Book of Mormon writers understood the future they were describing.

One often-cited scripture to support this false claim is 3 Nephi 16:10-11, where Jesus teaches the Nephites about future events, saying:

“And thus commandeth the Father that I should say unto you: At that day when the Gentiles shall sin against my gospel, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, and shall be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and shall be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy, and murders, and priestcrafts, and whoredoms, and of secret abominations; and if they shall do all those things, and shall reject the fulness of my gospel, behold, saith the Father, I will bring the fulness of my gospel from among them.”

Gnostics argue that “Gentiles” means the LDS church, who sin against the gospel by not being faithful enough and reject the fulness of the gospel by not agreeing with Gnostics that some esoteric principle should be elevated above everything else and pursued with obsessive Gnostic enthusiasm. But this interpretation requires you to assume that the only way to reject the fulness of the gospel is to have first accepted the gospel, which is invalid logic. The Gentiles rejecting the fulness of the gospel, which is contained in the Book of Mormon, are the world in general who are offered the gospel by missionaries and members but choose not to accept it. And even the most determined Gnostic, who thinks the church has gone completely astray, would I hope be hard-pressed to sincerely propose that the church suffers from such a frightening degree of wickedness as that verse describes.

This is just one example of erroneous scriptural analysis, and again, I encourage anyone who is interested to read more in Interpreter.

IV. Spiritual Dangers

I’ve left for last an analysis of some of the spiritual dangers of Gnosticism. The greatest spiritual danger is outright apostasy, but that’s pretty straightforward, so we’re going to talk about lesser dangers that are still very serious, and make it more likely a person will be led on to apostasy.

I do need to make the caveat that I have no spiritual stewardship here. I’m just some girl at a conference and these are my observations; hopefully they are wise but they are not authoritative. In order to be authoritative I’d have to come in at the gate through proper priesthood channels–see what I did there?

The most basic danger is to think that as long as we’ve made the proper covenants, aren’t actively sinning any spectacular sins, and are active in church and loyal to the church, we’re A-OK being Gnostics. But Gnosticism is always spiritually stifling, in addition to predisposing us toward apostasy. There’s no benefit.

To see why, consider Jacob’s teaching about “looking beyond the mark.” Jacob says that the Jews were looking beyond because they “despised the words of plainness,” which can be easy to do when you’ve been hearing pretty much the same words of plainness every Sunday all your life and you feel like you should be getting more out of them. The proper response to that urge is to invite a greater measure of the Spirit into your life through service and worship and obedience. The improper response is to pore over the scriptures and commentaries with the determination to learn about “deep doctrine” that will set you apart from everyone else who’s still stuck on those basic “Primary” answers. That’s elitism, and with elitism, the adversary can use even scripture study against us.

There are no “deep doctrines,” because there are no shallow doctrines that we can outgrow and deemphasize. The deepest doctrines are faith in Christ, repentance, obedience, and service. Any enticing gospel hobby that detracts from those is a snare. Any belief that you’ve found a more “deep,” more “spiritual,” way to understand those doctrines, apart from steady dedication and humble incremental progress among your fellow Saints, is a snare.

It’s good to study what church leaders have taught about future events and to prepare for them. It’s bad to put stock in the mystical visions of individuals outside church leadership with no stewardship over you. Especially if they tell you nail-biting accounts of impending calamities, then sell you a bunker full of food storage and a tent.

It’s good to read scriptures and church leaders’ teachings about the Second Comforter, and to strive to receive it, by steady dedication to your covenants and following the Savior by loving and serving others. It’s bad to make the Second Comforter into a gospel obsession, thinking that your special quest makes you more spiritual or righteous than others, and buying books by self-proclaimed experts and discussing them for hours with strangers on the internet.

It’s good to seek to acquire and develop spiritual gifts. It’s bad to be taken in by accounts of outlandish spiritual abilities, pseudoscientific and new age healing claims, and any spiritual knowledge or power for sale. That a claim or gift is spectacular does not make it more spiritual or more true. Or even true at all.

Gnosticism, by promoting spiritual elitism, undermines the very goals it claims to help you reach. It claims it will help you go very far spiritually, and yet it fosters pride, which is fatal to spiritual progress. Gnosticism encourages shrinking inward when Christ invites us to reach out. A Gnostic brings a book to church because the lessons are just not fulfilling or deep enough, but we should be praying for the teacher, for better understanding, and for the best way to make comments that invite the Spirit and edify others. A Gnostic seeks out others on his or her “elite” spiritual level to have “deep” spiritual discussions, which nowadays means spending a lot of time online. In contrast, we should be finding ways to reach out to others at all circumstances along their spiritual journey, and being constantly surprised at how someone we might have thought was immature in the gospel is in fact way beyond us. Gnosticism tells us to prepare for the call to go to a tent city in the wake of some catastrophe so that we can build Zion there with other spiritual elites. That is so completely wrong–we should be building Zion right now, right where we are.

The great irony of Mormon Gnosticism is that it promises more revelation but cannot deliver, because it encourages elitism and withdrawal from one’s community of fellow Saints. The only way to actually get more revelation is the complete opposite–to invite the Spirit by humbling ourselves, reaching out to love and serve others, and deepening our understanding of the most basic gospel principles like faith in Jesus Christ.

V. Conclusion

I expect to get a lot of email and maybe even some questions today from Mormon Gnostics whom I have not convinced at all; if there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing them these last few years, it’s that they’re a single-minded and devoted crowd. If someone you love or serve has fallen into Gnosticism, I would try to salvage anything of their faith that you can. For instance, if you can help them recognize the feeling of spiritual darkness that comes from reading accusations against church leaders, that’s progress. If you can help them see the value in disengaging from internet forums in favor of serving those around them, that’s fantastic. If you can help leaders and teachers in your ward be well-prepared and engaging in leading meaningful discussions on basic (but important!) gospel topics, that might be really helpful.

If you are something of a Gnostic, I apologize for any seeming harshness as I spoke so frankly. I’m sure you’re still a wonderful person. It’s important to be clear-sighted about essential principles and errant ideas. We’ve all been called out for mistaken beliefs, and can all correct our course and move forward as brothers and sisters and fellow saints. I sincerely hope this has been helpful, and that as we all reason together we can understand better.

 

Notes:

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5THhmPQgdw4

[2] http://emp.byui.edu/SATTERFIELDB/Rel341/RobertMason.htm

[3]http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Legal_issues/Trials/1826_court_appearance_for_glasslooking

[4]http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Translation/Joseph%27s_use_of_the_seer_stone_as_a_youth

[5] History of the Church, 1:154n

[6] 2 Nephi 26:29

[7] 2 Timothy 4:3

[8] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, edited by Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1938), 91.

[9] “History of the Church,” Times and Seasons, 5 (January 1, 1844): 752.

[10] Joseph F. Smith Correspondence, Personal Letterbooks, 93–94, Film Reel 9, Ms. F271; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 221–222.

[11] “Baptism,” Times & Seasons 3/21 (1 September, 1842): 905, reprinted in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 264. Emphasis added.

[12] Book review by Gregory L. Smith, part one:http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/passing-up-the-heavenly-gift-part-one-of-two/

Book review by Gregory L. Smith, part two:http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/passing-up-the-heavenly-gift-part-two-of-two/

A Response to Denver Snuffer’s Essay on Plural Marriage, Adoption, and the Supposed Falling Away of the Church, Part 1: Ignoring Inconvenient Evidence by Brian Hales: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-response-to-denver-snuffers-essay-on-plural-marriage-adoption-and-the-supposed-falling-away-of-the-church-part-1-ignoring-inconvenient-evidence/

A Response to Denver Snuffer’s Essay on Plural Marriage, Adoption, and the Supposed Falling Away of the Church, Part 2: Facade or Reality by Brian Hales:http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-response-to-denver-snuffers-essay-on-plural-marriage-adoption-and-the-supposed-falling-away-of-the-church-part-2-facade-or-reality/

Dissenters: Portraying the Church as Wrong so They Can Be Right Without It by Brian Hales: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-response-to-denver-snuffers-essay-on-plural-marriage-adoption-and-the-supposed-falling-away-of-the-church-part-2-facade-or-reality/