Why Would God Create Ordinances?

LDS Church leaders have made it abundantly clear that the Church’s claim to be the “only true and living Church” does not mean Mormons have a monopoly on truth or divine inspiration; nor does it mean the LDS Church is the only organization through which God works to guide his children and accomplish his good purposes. To the contrary, LDS leaders have stressed that other religions and churches, and their leaders and adherents, receive God’s inspiration and are instrumental in accomplishing God’s work. (See here for numerous quotes.)

What the “only true and living Church” claim does assert is that the LDS Church is the only church possessing the priesthood keys that are necessary to perform saving ordinances (such as baptism) that everyone must receive, either in this life or the next, to obtain exaltation in the Celestial Kingdom of God. Which leads me to the question I’ve pondered for years as an active member of the LDS Church: Why would God choose to create a system of ordinances in the first place? Why not simply determine a person’s worthiness for exaltation by looking into that person’s heart and mind?

In the most recent General Conference, Elder Eyring plainly declared: “This is the true Church, the only true Church, because in it are the keys of the priesthood.” (Henry B. Eyring, “The True and Living Church,” Ensign, May 2008, 20–24.) Elder Eyring went on to explain that priesthood keys are necessary to perform ordinances on Earth that are recognized as being authoritatively binding in Heaven: “it is through the Church and the ordinances which are in it that the blessings of the sealing power reach into the spirit world.” In short, what makes the LDS Church the “only true” church is its exclusive possession of priesthood keys, and what makes those priesthood keys important is that they are needed to perform saving ordinances for all mankind, both living and dead. (See here, for example.)

In LDS doctrine, ordinances are so absolutely necessary to one’s salvation that even deceased persons who did not receive them while alive (even if through no fault of their own) cannot dwell with God unless they first accept the ordinances performed on their behalf by Mormons in LDS temples all over the globe. And when it comes to believing in the absolute necessity of ordinances, Mormons put their money where their mouth is. Every year, the LDS Church spends millions of dollars and man hours constructing and maintaining temples that are mostly devoted to performing ordinances on behalf of deceased persons.

LDS doctrine about ordinances raises a number of questions in the minds of many both inside and outside the Church because it presents an interesting case study in the longstanding theological debate between formalism and informalism, legalism and non-legalism, which virtually every religion and church has confronted. While the Catholic and Orthodox churches taught that God must be approached through the church, subjecting oneself to its leaders’ authority and receiving its ordinances and sacraments, the Protestant Reformation challenged the notion that man could only approach God through a human intermediary, and advocated a more direct, personal, informal, non-legalistic relationship with the divine. When it comes to questions about the necessity of a church, divine authority, and ordinances/sacraments, LDS doctrine is very similar to that of the Catholic and Orthodox churches; of course, the main difference is that Mormons believe they are the ones with the divinely recognized authority and ordinances.

Those who see God as taking a more direct, informal, non-legalistic relationship with his children might ask the following questions about the LDS doctrine of priesthood keys and ordinances:

  • Why would an omniscient God need ordinances to determine worthiness for exaltation?: Why would an omniscient God who can discern human hearts and minds need to use our acceptance or rejection of outward ordinances administered by men to determine our worthiness for exaltation?
  • Why would a loving God limit the availability of his blessings?: If God wants to maximize the scope of his blessings to his children on Earth (which a loving Father would presumably want), why would God limit access to vital blessings in this Earth-life (e.g., gift of the Holy Spirit) by giving them only to those who have received ordinances at the hands of men who currently constitute less than .1% of the world’s population, who are still unable to perform those ordinances in many nations, and who could not be found on the Earth at all for a space of about 1700 years if the Mormon doctrine of the Apostasy is correct?
  • Why would God divert his Church’s limited resources away from the poor and needy?: If God is able to judge deceased persons based not only on what they did on Earth, but also by what God already knows they would have done had they continued to live, why require the living to spend millions of dollars and man-hours performing ordinances on behalf of deceased persons only to give them an opportunity to accept or reject a proxy ordinance that God already knows they would have accepted or rejected had they had the same opportunity while living on Earth? Couldn’t the time and money that is spent researching genealogy and performing ordinances for the dead be better spent feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, administering to the sick, etc.?

Those who see God taking a more formal, legalistic approach in his relationship with mankind by requiring ordinances might answer the questions posed above as follows:

  • Ordinances are about making covenants. It may be true that an omniscient God does not need ordinances to judge a person’s spiritual worthiness. God might require ordinances, not because he needs them, but because we do. And why might we need ordinances? Perhaps the answer has to do with the fact that ordinances almost always involve our making covenants with God to strive to live according to his eternal ways. As we live as God lives, we become like him. And the first step toward living as God lives is to make a clear commitment to do so.
  • Although an omniscient God doesn’t need ordinances, vacillating humans do. As just noted, the first step toward accomplishing something is to make a commitment to do it. If we didn’t have ordinances to memorialize our commitments to God (e.g., baptism), how would we be able to determine for ourselves whether we had clearly and completely made invisible commitments to an invisible God? Might God create a divine legal system of ordinances for the same reasons that humans have created certain legally-recognized ceremonies and transactions, i.e., to clearly and unquestionably signal to their participants that they have undertaken certain commitments and obligations? When we participate in a marriage ceremony or sign land purchase agreements, we don’t have to wonder whether or not we have committed ourselves and agreed to take on certain obligations; we know we have because we performed a marriage ceremony or deed transfer for the express purpose of demonstrating that commitment. Likewise, God might have us perform ordinances so that we can clearly know for ourselves that we have committed ourselves to him, and as noted, clearly committing ourselves to God is the first step toward becoming like him.
  • Although an omniscient God doesn’t need ordinances, forgetful humans do. It’s easy for us to make a commitment, but because of our forgetful natures, we often quickly forget what we’ve committed to do. A system of ordinances gives us a structured way to regularly remind ourselves of those commitments. For example, we take the sacrament each week to remind ourselves of our baptismal covenants. Likewise, performing ordinances on behalf of deceased persons reinforces and reminds us about the covenants that we ourselves have made in the temple.
  • Ordinances require us to attain, maintain, and measure personal worthiness. Ordinances require both their administrators and recipients to attain and maintain standards of personal worthiness. Moreover, requirements like periodic temple recommend interviews provide opportunities for us to periodically evaluate how successfully we have been honoring our commitments to God. Thus, ordinances create both an opportunity and need to “raise the bar” above what we might otherwise require of ourselves.
  • Ordinances create definable moments of serene reflection. We live in a fast-paced world full of distractions. Although there’s nothing stopping us from forcing ourselves to “be still and know that [he] is God,” I think if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that having ordinances, such as the sacrament or temple endowment, create far more definable moments of serene reflection than I would otherwise be able to carve out for myself. A Protestant neighbor stated as much to me after touring an LDS temple before its dedication. He said he had been longing for serenity and reflection at the churches he’d been attending, but that it seemed they were more focused on creating an “exciting” and “energetic” worship environment. He said as he visited the Celestial Room where Mormons ponder and pray, he wished he had some place similar in his own faith.
  • Ordinances create human interdependency. The criticism that ordinances create unnecessary and artificial dependence on human beings for our salvation begs the question: doesn’t God want us to have to depend on other human beings? After all, Christ’s ultimate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was that we would “become one”. If there were no such thing as saving ordinances, we wouldn’t need a church to administer and receive them. Of course, if we didn’t need a church to perform ordinances, we might opt to create and join one for other reasons. But would we still feel an equal sense of loyalty and obligation to stick with it through thick and thin, at times sacrificing our own preferences and opinions, for the sake of achieving the unity that Christ wants for us?
  • Although the number of priesthood holders is very limited, the availability of ordinances is not. Although it is true that very few persons in the world hold LDS priesthood keys (less than .1%), it does not necessarily follow that God has therefore restricted the availability of his blessings to mankind. For example, in a recent General Conference, Elder Bednar provided an example of how a righteous mother helped heal her child with her faith even though she didn’t hold the priesthood. The lesson: most important blessings don’t require someone to hold the priesthood or to perform or receive an ordinance. Moreover, the fact that relatively few people can perform an ordinance does not mean that only a few people can receive it. Vaccines are likewise possessed and administered by a very small percentage of the world’s population, and yet they are available to virtually all who simply wish to receive them. And as time goes on, the availability of ordinances, like vaccines, will increase.
  • Ordinances encourage us to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, administer to the sick, etc. The argument that we should divert money and time away from our ordinances and devote them to humanitarian efforts assumes that you will still have the latter in abundance without the former. However, it could very well be that taking away these regular reminders to sacrifice one’s time, talents, and means to serve others would actually reduce acts of charity. There is a demonstrable link between religious activity, church attendance, and charitable giving. Moreover, the largest charitable organizations have religious affiliations. For example, the largest charitable organization in the U.S. is a religious one: Catholic Charities. There is no question that churches, and in the case of the Catholic church, one with a heavy emphasis on ordinances and sacraments, inspire acts of charity. If Catholics stopped spending their money and time building cathedrals and attending mass, baptisms, confirmations, and other sacraments, would they become even more charitable? Or do ordinances serve as regular reminders to perform charitable acts? Moreover, numerous studies have demonstrated a link between the frequency of one’s church attendance and one’s charitable donations. Although I’m not privy to the records I’d need to examine to prove it, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a similar correlation between temple attendance and charitable acts and donations amongst Mormons.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ve summarized what I consider to be the strongest challenges to the concept of ordinances, and I’ve summarized what I consider to be the strongest arguments as to why God might create a system of ordinances. As always, if you have additional challenges or questions of your own about the concept of ordinances, or any additional arguments in support of the concept of ordinances, I’d love to hear them.

Comments

comments

20 comments for “Why Would God Create Ordinances?

  1. Floyd the Wonderdog
    February 15, 2009 at 6:43 am

    May I add another? I feel it is implied, but not stated outright in your well-thought out list.

    Ordinances are a rite of passage: Baptism draws a line of delineation between the old man (or woman) and the person who has taken upon them the name of Christ. Sacrament serves as a reinforcement of, a restatement of, and a reinstatement of that delineation. The initiatory ordinances further separate us from the world. The endowment serves as a type of milestone in our progression toward being like Christ. Priesthood ordinations serve as a visible rite of passage in the young LDS man’s life.

  2. February 15, 2009 at 7:15 am

    Andrew:

    I think you have written a superior summary of the need for ordinances. I especially appreciate your insights on how ordinances create a need for interactions (dependancy) upon others. The gospel is here to provoke us to render service to others. Ordinances certainly play that role.

    As a supplement, I recommend: The Source of Apostolic Authority.

  3. February 15, 2009 at 8:14 am

    @1 (and generally): But then why work for the dead?

    That, for me, is one of the conundrums of LDS theology. If we believe that the ordinances are not formally required, as suggested in this essay, then why go to the massive amount of work required to extend them to those who are already deceased, and cannot interact with many of the suggested benefits above?

  4. February 15, 2009 at 10:17 am

    I touched on this issue a few weeks ago in Gospel Essentials class (which I teach, and where we have two couples who just joined the Church in the past 5 months). I freely acknowledged that I don’t have all the answers, but I pointed out that having the ordinance of baptism by immersion at age 8 or later makes it absolutely clear to us that we have made this covenant (e.g., your “forgetful humans” observation).

    Beyond that, the non-legalist argument listed above (“Why not simply determine a person’s worthiness for exaltation by looking into that person’s heart and mind?”) could be applied to all of mortality. Why not just set up a system whereby we are born (in order to gain a body) and then immediately die, since God knowing us could judge us? Why do we need to go through all the pain, anguish, and injustice of life in mortality?

    Indeed, given infant mortality rates throughout most of the Earth throughout most of human history and prehistory (>50% by age 8) , one could argue that this is exactly what God has done for the majority of those ever born here. Of those who made it past age 8, the vast majority (probably >90%) in Earth’s history have lived and died without even a chance to receive the proper ordinances from those holding the proper authority and keys. They will make their commitments in the spirit world (“live according to God in the spirit”, 1 Peter 4:6), not here, but it is up to us here to do their ordinances for them. What’s left is the relatively small remnant (we the living) who have an opportunity to hear and accept or reject the Gospel in this life and, having accepted, can receive the ordinances in the flesh. It may be that God set things up this way specifically for us, that small remnant. I find it interesting that, in the scriptures, baptism (as a properly authorized ordinance) tends to be introduced/restored as part of a “church of anticipation” ahead of major upheavals.

    I gave a talk in Sacrament meeting many years ago where I stood up and said, “I’m going to talk today about the mysteries of the Kingdom”, paused a beat, then went on to talk about faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. I really do think they are the true mysteries, because while I can certainly explain them to you, I cannot truly teach them to you and then evaluate your ‘skills’, the way someone could teach you piano lessons, math, or English (via drill, practice, memorization, tests, etc.). Ultimately, only God can see and evaluate our faith, our repentance, and our living up to the ordinances of baptism and confirmation.

    Great post and interesting discussion. ..bruce..

  5. February 15, 2009 at 10:18 am

    OK, auto-conversion of emoticons can be really annoying at time. In my post above (#4), it should have read [open parent]>50% by age 8[close parent]. ..bruce..

  6. February 15, 2009 at 10:27 am

    And for completeness’ sake, here’s a link to a further discussion of baptism in the Book of Mormon, particularly noting that the Savior, when He appeared to the Lehites, re-introduced baptism, re-gave the authority to do so, introduced a different baptismal prayer, and required that all his disciples be (re)baptized. Also, the Book of Mormon suggests that baptism may have been restored yet again under Mormon. I’ll shut up now and go away. 🙂 (Emoticon intended.) ..bruce..

  7. Ray
    February 15, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Excellent post, Andrew. There is nothing new or unique in the following summary of my own take on this, but here it is:

    I believe vicarious ordinances are more about touching and turning our hearts than “saving” others, but I also believe they simply must be framed fundamentally in terms of helping others. God can save however He wants to save; I think it’s all about the effect on our attitudes for people, in general, and our ancestors, in particular – and blunting our natural gravitation to social Darwinist egotism.

    and what you said.

  8. jjackson
    February 16, 2009 at 12:34 am

    Thanks for laying it out this way. I’ve been wondering about the questions you posed for a while, and the answers offered are really helpful.

  9. James
    February 16, 2009 at 4:20 am

    “There is a demonstrable link between religious activity, church attendance, and charitable giving. Moreover, the largest charitable organizations have religious affiliations. For example, the largest charitable organization in the U.S. is a religious one: Catholic Charities.”

    The Mason’s even though they don’t really have religous links you can be any religion you want is one of the biggest charitable organizations in the world.

    But it might have the effect you say they meet often and their major goal as an institution is to service and charity.

  10. steve w
    February 16, 2009 at 5:11 am

    I think that the ordinances are for us to help us with our life as a member of the LDS church.

    I certainly felt different the moment after my Baptism
    and although some might say that I had changed already as I was willing to BE baptised, I think that the actual symbol of the Baptism was very important to me and probably many others

  11. Andrew
    February 16, 2009 at 12:07 pm

    A comment on #4 — perhaps that is what Christ meant in the parable of the one sheep versus the 99. We who survive to adulthood in a time where we can get the ordinances of the gospel just might be the one who needed extra attention from Heavenly Father. And so the other 99 pass away quickly, not needing as much finding as we do. This is a total speculation, but the thought occured to me as I read your comment.

  12. Andrew
    February 16, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    And the Andrew in #11 is not the same Andrew who wrote the post. Sorry
    –AJD

  13. Eric
    February 16, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Andrew, thoughtful and careful. Nicely done.

  14. Floyd the Wonderdog
    February 17, 2009 at 6:04 am

    Vicarious ordinaces can certainly be rites of passage for those for whom they are performed. Passage from Spirit Prison to Paradise. Quite a passage I’d say.

  15. John Nilsson
    February 18, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Andrew,

    Nice post. There is a wonderful disjunction between your title and the language you use in the body of the post. The title assumes God “created” ordinances, while the body of your post talks instead about God “requiring” ordinances. I have yet to see a good reason to think that God has “created” a single ceremony we enact here on earth. There’s lots of evidence that humans are the ones who create the form of the ceremonies which are in some way linked to other ceremonies which other peoples and tribes enact to spell out their own meanings. In an LDS context, one could argue that God literally devised the exact way to stand when baptizing, how to hold the person being baptized, etc. But that seems ridiculously stage-managed for a modern conception of God.

  16. GN
    August 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm

    I think one argument missing here is this. If it’s man that “needs” ordinances, not God, how come these super helpful and essential ordinances were only available to such a limited geography of people and/or such a limited amount of time in history? I know that we perform the ordinances for the dead because they are “essential” for salvation. However, this article is arguing that the primary benefit of the ordinances is to help man stay on the strait and narrow during our probationary state. Seems fairly inefficient to have these super helpful ordinances available for less than 1% of the population in history.

  17. September 29, 2013 at 7:37 am

    “My experience with Family History” Sacrament Talk on Sep 29, 2013

    The highlight of my experience with family history is when I first went through the temple for someone that I had searched for. Thomas Edward Armstrong was born in 1837 in New Brunswick Canada. He died in in 1885 in Wisconsin. He never had a chance to make covenants with the Lord through his authorized servants. On Aug 9 I was endowed for him. It was a more personal experience than I have ever had before doing work for the dead.

    So why are these ordinances important?

    In D&C 84:19-21 it says, “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh;”

    Alma the elder described our covenants this way in Mosiah 19:8-11

    “Behold, here are the waters of Mormon … and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

    Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

    Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

    And now when the people had heard these words, they clapped their hands for joy, and exclaimed: This is the desire of our hearts.”

    What is this Spirit that Alma talks about? It is the Spirit of God. And it rests on those who are willing to follow the will of our Father in Heaven. It rests on any man, woman and child whether or not they are a member of this church. It rests upon them so they may be directed to the only Good One.

    The Spirit can only go so far before we are willing to enter into a holy contract with God. What does Alma say? “that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon [us]” Do you hear the imagery? He pours out his Spirit as water. Water to clean us from all unrighteousness. We become clean. Now unburdened by the sins that held us back so much. We are now free to serve and be served by a holy community.

    Now that we are clean the Spirit comes as a fire. It enters into our heart. We recognize the power of being clean and want others to feel the freedom of God that comes with it. The Spirit directs us to share it with our friends and family and neighbors. Whether they be members of the church or not we share our new found freedom.

    Now this feeling of missionary work does not stop at the grave. What I have found in the last several months is that the power of covenants extends beyond the grave. That my ancestors and their descendants are real people. I have come to know a little of what is might have been like to live their lives. Where they were born and lived. They have become more real to me.

    I went on August 9 to be endowed for a descendant of one of my wife’s ancestors. I was able to extend the great promises to him. They are available for him to accept. He can have all the blessings of the covenants I have made in my life. He can be free of sin. He can be free to serve his family and friends where he is now. Free from the bondage of anything that may have been weighing him down.

    This has been my experience with Family History. I have been able to connect with my kindred dead. They have become more real to me. I have been able to extend the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.

  18. September 29, 2013 at 7:41 am

    Thank you for this article. It helped to direct my thoughts for my talk in Sacrament. “Why would God create ordinances?” It is a great question that deserves to be answered

  19. Bilbo Baggins
    February 18, 2014 at 6:13 pm

    So I assume that, in all fairness, those who would accept the saving covenants, whether in this life or the next, will have the chance to do so? One who wants to follow God’s ordinances will eventually get the chance to partake in and accept, right? One genuinely good person will not “run out of time” and be unfairly forced to a lower kingdom because his ordinances weren’t done, right?

  20. Curtis
    May 23, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    This is an awesome article! My son was just asking me about this last night. He doesn’t understand why ordinances are necessary if God knows our hearts. This is his reading assignment for tonight.

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