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.