In my last post I wrote about how we are all forced to take a thought and translate it into words and that this is a sloppy and imperfect process. To make matters worse, the person that has to take those words and decode them back into a thought will fail to do so correctly in many cases because they’ll get stuck on the words used, either because they don’t realize words have many meanings or because they have incentive to misunderstand.
In this post, I want to apply what we’ve discussed to a real life situation: Bruce R. McConkie’s talk on worshipping Jesus.
Case Study 2: Do Mormons Worship Jesus?
The word-offense in question comes from Bruce R. McConkie’s now famous (infamous?) talk entitled “Our Relationship with the Lord” where McConkie states that Mormons do not worship Jesus.
Anti-Mormons, with eyes full of glee, shout “Ha! Mormons don’t worship Jesus! We do!”
Disaffected Mormons say “McConkie says Mormons don’t worship Jesus, but Hinckley changed that doctrine and now Mormons do worship Jesus! (See! That’s proof the Church isn’t Divine!)”
And even believing Mormons might ask “So which is it? Do we or don’t we worship Jesus?”
But all such questions, by their very nature, are really just word-offense. None of the above questions attempt to capture the real nuance taught by Elder McConkie on the subject.
The question that a person sincere about understanding McConkie (and perhaps by extention, sincere about understanding the LDS Church) would ask is “In what sense does McConkie believe Mormons worship Jesus? In what sense do they not worship Jesus?”
Now through word-offense, it might be easier and more fun to attack McConkie and simplify his full nuanced beliefs into something he never taught, but let’s keep in mind that, thanks to the Bible, this can be done to any Old Testament-believing religion:
1 Chr 29:20 states: “And David said to all the congregation, Now bless the Lord your God. And all the congregation blessed the Lord God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshipped the Lord, and the king.”
Through word-offense, I can now make the claim that all Bible-believing Christians and all Jews believe that King David was a god and that he is to be worshipped. And thanks to the single use of the word “worship” for both King David and God, I can wreak some real havoc against any counter arguments about how they are worshiped in different senses of the word. 
This issue of word-offense on the word “worship” is not just a Mormon issue.
With this in mind, let’s make a sincere attempt to understand McConkie’s full nuanced teachings about worshipping Jesus so that we can understand what he really meant.
Understanding the Purpose and Context of McConkie’s Talk
Bear in mind Joseph Smith’s teachings that we need to try to understand the context of a scriptural (or in this case Apostolic) statement to really understand it: “I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire [sic], what was the question which drew out the answer…” (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 276 – 277)
McConkie tells us himself that he was concerned that members of the Church might be starting to pray unto Jesus directly to gain an inappropriately intimate relationship with the 2nd member of the Godhead that down plays or excludes other members:
Now, it is no secret that many false and vain and foolish things are being taught in the sectarian world and even among us about our need to gain a special relationship with the Lord Jesus.
He [the Father] is the one to whom we have direct access by prayer, and if there were some need–which there is not!–to single out one member of the Godhead for a special relationship, the Father, not the Son, would be the one to choose.
There are yet others who have an excessive zeal which causes them to go beyond the mark. Their desire for excellence is inordinate. In an effort to be truer than true they devote themselves to gaining a special, personal relationship with Christ that is both improper and perilous.
Another peril is that those so involved often begin to pray directly to Christ because of some special friendship they feel has been developed.
It is a fine and sacred line, but clearly there is a difference between a personal and intimate relationship with the Lord, which is improper, and one of worshipful adoration, which yet maintains the required reserve between us and him who has bought us with his blood.
McConkie Used the Word “Worship” in Multiple Senses
McConkie did not intend for us to understand that Mormons do not worship Jesus in any sense of the word. Again, he tells us this plainly:
I know perfectly well what the scriptures say about worshipping Christ and Jehovah, but they are speaking in an entirely different sense…
In the full, final, and ultimate sense of the word the divine decree is: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy might, mind, and strength; and in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him. [D&C 59:5]’
In What Sense Does McConkie Say it Is Appropriate to Worship Jesus?
In this very talk alone, I was able to make the following list of McConkie’s ideas of appropriate attitudes towards Jesus that would, in many people’s minds, constitute worship:
- Revealer and manifester of God the Father
- The way to the Father
- Praise his holy name
- Ascribe unto Him honor, power, glory, might, and dominion
- Treat Him as Lord, God, and King
- Worshipful adoration
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.
In What Sense Does McConkie Say It is Not Appropriate to Worship Jesus?
As quoted previously, the only example he specifically gives of inappropriately worshiping Jesus is praying directly to Jesus or forming a special or more “intimate” relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of or down playing the other members of the Godhead. To McConkie, this distinction is the difference between a lesser form or “worship” and “worship” in the “true and saving sense.” (“Worship in the true and saving sense is reserved for God the first, the Creator,” says McConkie.)
It would certainly seem that the LDS Church does indeed believe in addressing all prayers to the Father alone, though in the name of the Son.
Worshipping Jesus as Part of the Godhead: Deconstructing McConkie’s Doctrine of Deity
Now this might seem to be the end of our inquiry here: McConkie says that we both do and don’t worship Jesus. We do in that we have certain feelings towards Him appropriate to Diety alone. We don’t in that we don’t directly address Him in prayer because that is reserved only for the Father. I think it would be significant if we could at least get this much out of McConkie’s talk and end our word-offense over it.
But as it turns out, there is more to the story, as McConkie himself tells us.
You see, McConkie, ever on the attack against his (in my opinion incorrect) understanding of “sectarian Trinitarianism”  was himself somewhat of a “Social Trinitarian.” For example, McConkie says:
Thus 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.
McConkie, as with all Social Trinitarians, does not seem to make a complete separation of the Godhead/Trinity. In my opinion, this proper understanding of McConkie’s own theology of God is necessary to understand McConkie fully.
To McConkie, while we are to address prayers only to the Father – this is McConkie’s key point – such worship is actually towards all members of the Godhead, in a sense, because they are all one.
Look one more time at this quote… and read it very carefully… it will pop out at you now:
He [the Father] is the one to whom we have direct access by prayer, and if there were some need — which there is not! — to single out one member of the Godhead for a special relationship, the Father, not the Son, would be the one to choose.
McConkie later adds:
First, be it remembered 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.
McConkie’s Full Teaching: We Do Worship Jesus When We Worship the Father Because They Are One
I do feel McConkie was not entirely clear on this last point within this particular talk. But if you will allow me to take McConkie’s teachings as a whole rather than forcing one talk to represent the man, consider the following McConkie quotes:
The Father and the Son are the objects of all true worship. [Note the use of a single word here for both members of the Godhead]… No one can worship the Father without also worshiping the Son. … 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) (Mormon Doctrine, p. 848-849)
Though each God in the Godhead is a personage, separate and distinct from each of the others, yet they are ‘one God'” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 319)
There are three Gods – the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – who, though separate in personality, are united as one in purpose, in plan, and in all the attributes of perfection. Thus anything, in these fields, which is revealed with reference to any of them is equally true of each of the others; and hence no attempt need be made in these fields to distinguish between them.
This understanding of McConkie’s beliefs helps us understand why McConkie believed in one very notable exception to praying to Jesus. He taught it was entirely appropriate if Jesus was bodily present. In his commentary of John 16:24 he said,
Perhaps as long as Jesus was personally with them [the disciples] many of their petitions were addressed directly to him rather than to the Father. Such was the course followed by the Nephites when the resurrected and glorified Lord ministered among them. They prayed directly to him and not to the Father.
He then quoted 3 Ne 19:17-18, 22: “…they pray unto me [Jesus]; and they pray unto me because I am with them…”
A Summary of McConkie’s Teachings About Worshiping Jesus
So what can we say for certain about McConkie’s teachings about worshiping Jesus?
- McConkie taught that in one sense of the word “worship” we do not worship Jesus. This sense is specifically stated to be either a prayer addressed to Jesus when He isn’t bodily present or forming a special relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of the Father or the Godhead as a whole.
- McConkie taught that in another sense we do worship Jesus. He gave many examples of different sense in which we do worship Jesus.
- McConkie taught that we are to address all prayers to the Father in the name of the Son.
- McConkie taught that we can and do worship Jesus, albeit indirectly, when we worship the Father.
- McConkie taught that it was appropriate to pray to Jesus in one circumstance, when He’s physically present.
Based on my reading and understanding of every General Authority before and after McConkie, it seems to me that McConkie was really attempting to express exactly what the LDS Church has always taught and still teaches today about worship of Jesus. So I believe McConkie does in fact represent LDS beliefs on this subject even if we wish he had worded it differently.
Comparison to Other Christian Religions
What I find interesting is that the above teachings about worshiping Jesus seem quite similar to the teachings of many “orthodox Christian” religions on this very subject. 
I do not see this as a coincidence. I’ve learned to not overlook the ability of other religions to find truth from the Bible. On this very subject, it’s hard to miss –
- Jesus only taught people to pray to the Father, not to Him. For example: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsover ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” (John 16:23. See also Matt 26:39, John 15:16, and many others).
- The Bible forces people to accept that there is more than one definition of the word “worship.” 1 Chr 29:20 is the best example of this, but there are others. 
Many non-Mormon Christians solely and exclusively address their prayers to the Father because of Jesus’ teachings on this subject. I am unaware of any non-Mormon Christian denomination that, at least officially, advocates having a special relationship with Jesus to the exclusion of or de-emphasizing the Father. 
The one area that we might have some disagreement between McConkie’s teachings and other Christian religions (and possibly even Mormonism) is in having an “intimate” relationship with Jesus. But here we again bump into word-offense. What does the word “intimate” really mean as McConkie uses it? As McConkie uses the term contextually, do other Christian religions really believe in having, as it were, an inappropriate relationship that doesn’t “maintain the required reserve between us” and God? 
Notes: Margaret Baker, an unfortunate favorite of Mormon apologists, actually does try to make the argument, based on this verse alone, that Jews believed King David was a god in the same way other polytheistic religions believed their king was a god. But at least Margaret Baker was tolerant enough to not claim that all modern Christians are really secretly polytheists because their scriptures teach king David is God. That would be word-offense.  McConkie bore a misunderstanding the traditional view of the Trinity, as do many Mormons, as well as many non-Mormon Christians: “They say he is one-god-in-three, and three-gods-in-one who neither hears, nor sees, nor speaks.” He thought the Trinity was Modalism.  Okay, I admit there are exceptions. On my mission there was a lady that would start out her prayers “O Holy Spirit of Jesus.” When asked why she did she’d say “well they are all the same person!” In other words she had misunderstood the Trinity doctrine to be Modalism. My real point here is that amongst non-Modalist Christians, which technically speaking is all of them if they understood their doctrines, there are few if any Christians that believe in worshiping Jesus in some special sense as McConkie is fighting against. (In my next article I’ll address how this means McConkie was himself taking word-offense against other Christians.)  Remember, these are the very same Christians that feel our doctrine of deification is blasphemous because there needs to be a strong separation between creator and created. From their point of view it is we Mormons that believe in having an “intimate” relationship with Jesus and the Father that is inappropriate and without the required reserve appropriate for worshipful adoration.