Friday, January 20, 2006

Ordinances and Covenants

I study numerous religions, most notably Mormon splinter groups. The different factions truly fascinate me. One of the major criticisms they fire upon the LDS Church is the changing of ordinances, most specifically those having to do with the temple. I wish to clarify the significance of ordinances, and justify any changes that have been made. I will start by using a quote by Brigham Young:

“Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell” (Journal of Discourses, 2:31).

This quote has been used a great deal by others defending said changes, indicating that the endowment is not the presentation itself. There are certain key components that must be kept, but the things that have been changed are not included in that category. I don’t need to mention my penalties for revealing what I’ve learned when I am before the guardians of Heaven, for instance. It is not part of the a necessary part of the endowment, according to Brigham's quote. I think the key words will suffice.

But what could justify a change in an ordinance? If the delivery vehicle of the ordinance (i.e. the drama of the endowment), was given by revelation, then even if some things are not absolutely “necessary for salvation,” shouldn’t it still remain the way it was revealed? Well, I will show a little history of changes made in revealed ordinances. The sacramental prayer has to be repeated if even one word is misread. But how should we say the prayer? Compare closely the two versions of the prayer over the bread in scripture, namely Moroni 4:3, and D&C 20:77. Both using sacred scriptural language, but one uses “hath” where the other uses “has.” “Not significant,” you might say, but if no changes are allowed and no word should be said wrong, for the pure perfectionist this is actually a big deal. Even worse, compare the other prayer in the Church that must be given an exact way, i.e. baptism: 3 Nephi 11:25 vs. D&C 20:73. The phrasing between those two is even more discrepant.

I contend that the only reason any ordinance should be stated any exact way is because that is simply what God asks of us. If he were to ask the sacramental prayer to be changed, it should be no big deal. If the prayer for baptism be changed, we should accept. After all, the prayers for baptism were offered differently before Christ (see Mosiah 18:13). What’s more, not all baptismal prayers were offered the same (3 Nephi 11:28). Christ standardized the prayer to prevent contention, but those that were offered before in their diverse manners weren’t invalid, were they?

God is flexible and understanding. He doesn’t ask us to perform these rituals because he gets a kick out of watching us perform them. He uses them to teach us a lesson. In the early days of the Restoration, wine was used for the sacrament, and many just felt that the crust of the bread should be removed. The Lord revealed that such wasn’t necessary in D&C 27:2. We now use simple tap water, and our bread is usually cheap, store-bought, crust-covered, preservative-saturated bread. Does this make the ordinance less sacred? No! It simply teaches that the sacredness of it lies not in its exact usage, but in the spirit in which it is done.

The House of Israel was the covenant people of the Lord. The Law of Moses which directed their lives was taken upon them all in covenant. Part of that was keeping the Sabbath Day holy. They had their strict rules on what was within the Law and what was outside. When the Lord Jesus Christ broke what they saw to be the fixed rules of the Sabbath, he taught them that, “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, that day was set up by God to improve and bless man. And we know that the sabbath was later changed to honor the resurrection of Christ. This flexibility can apply to all ordinances and covenants we enter into. They are for our benefit, not merely for the sake of the ritual involved.

Showing this history, I have tried to teach that making alterations in ordinances is not a new thing, nor is it a bad thing. It can be done at any time under the direction of the Lord. The temple ordinances are no exception, and despite the many changes that have taken place, they are still true and teach us what we need to know to return to God. But some may ask, “If the ordinance can be so flexible, wherein lies its sacred nature? I thought that a revelation on how to covenant with God would have to be unchanging, else we change the covenant itself.” I will dispel that thought by posing a few questions myself: Do we believe in transubstantiation (the literal change of bread and wine to body and blood)? Do the sacramental emblems become magical after the prayer? Must we pray over every plate of food we serve, lest it not “nourish and strengthen our bodies?” Are our sins floating around in the baptismal water after we’ve been dunked, until washed down the drain? The answer is obviously no. None of these is true.

An ordinance is a symbolic means of God making a covenant with us. It is absolutley sacred, with something to be learned in each case; likely more than can be learned in a lifetime. Yet, it is not the ritual itself that is eternal and unchanging, but the two-way promises we make with God. He asks us to covenant with him, and he sets up the way to do it. But what if my baptism wasn’t performed properly and nobody caught it? Am I doomed to hell? No, because God knew that I made the covenant, and that we all did our best to do it properly. I made my promises to God, and I will not be held back simply because the physical representation of my spiritual promise wasn’t performed properly. I think, as members of the Church, we sometimes may get distracted by the very tool that is meant to teach us. The endowment is not the drama, the sacrament is not bread and water, and baptism is not a quick rinse. It is something far deeper.

Always remember that the symbolic nature of our ordinances is to represent what we promise to God. Every time you take part in an ordinance, think a bit more on what you are truly doing, and be not held back by worldly distraction.


J. Stapley said...

I don't disagree with your analysis. You do, however, have to accept that the changes other churches have made to any ordinances is therefore not a big issue. The issue becomes why we change them.

darth_ender said...

Good point. I in fact have little problem with such changes, such as the Vatican II in the '60s. I believe that the important thing is to understand whether such changes were improved from God or if they were simply man's tampering. I guess that determines the "why." Is it out of simple mainstreaming, as some would accuse, or as an more user-friendly vehicle for delivering the ordinance inspired, or at least approved, of God?

Ben S. said...

My BYU BoM teacher, speaking about changes in general (doctrine, practice, scriptures, temple) said "It's never a question of whether changes have been or are made. It's a question of the authority that changes them.

Best Hair said...

I agree that ordinances change and I have no problem with it, but I don't agree that all ordinances and doctrine change happen because God says so. I think there's a lot human tampering. One example is the temple garment. There are several quotes from early church leaders that said the design of the temple garment was inspired by God and could never be changed. That's why women used to wear the exact same ankle length and wrist lenghth garment as men. I'm sure lots of women griped about it and lo and behold we have a different pattern for women. Not only that, the garment has been modified to accomadate modern clothing. Garments no longer go to the ankle or wrist. Instead of just one pattern, I can go to Behive clothing and choose from an array of patterns made from an array of materials. I'm pretty sure the Brethern don't get together in the temple and pray if it's all right to make garments out of dri lux or silk.

mathoni said...

I believe Joseph was inspired to design the original garment as he did. But if, instead, Oliver Cowdery had been tasked with the duty of designing the garment, would it have turned out the same? I sincerely doubt it. Would it have been any less inspired? Again, I doubt it.

When the members of the church were paying cost for their garments, was it inspiration? Or was it inspiration that President Hinckley said the church should subsidize the cost? Where is the inspiration? Does it matter?

I believe the brethren act on their own, at least part of the time, because the Lord is not babying them. Instead, he is training them, as he trains each of us, for our higher destinies in the next life. That means that sometimes, our leaders muddy up the waters of truth with their own quirks, personalities, and biases. And yet, the truth marches on, despite any human error.

So, when ordinances are changed, it could be a godly, inspired change. Or, it could be a man-made change. As long as certain key elements are not changed, the Lord doesn't seem to mind. I talked about this topic in an earlier essay, linked here: Bruce R. McConkie and the Humanity of our leaders

darth_ender said...

Mathoni, I am glad you referred to your own essay. I was actually planning on doing so myself. I believe that you and Best Hair are right, that God doesn't initiate every change that takes place. I believe that he approves of all things though. Think about it. The Presidency and Twelve spend hours in the temple every week, and the Prophet often resorts to the Holy of Holies. He prays that all of his actions may be guided, and probably specifies particular questions that trouble him. Maybe there aren't particular revelations directing certain actions, but I believe that the minds of our leaders are guided, and the Lord permits (at the least) certain actions.

But in this essay I don't refer just to simple things, like the prices of garments or the textual variations and clarifications within the Book of Mormon. I suspect in cases of ordinances they take things more seriously. As mathoni has said elsewhere, the leaders leave their fingerprints on such things. Yet, I truly believe they would never make a change without consulting the Lord on the matter.

Alex C said...

This is quite and old post, but I thought I might add my two cents.
I not only believe that our leaders take action on their own many times, but are expected to do so. One of my favorite passages of D&C is 61:28-29
"Wherefore, let those concerning whom I have spoken, that should take their journey in haste—again I say unto you, let them take their journey in haste.
And it mattereth not unto me, after a little, if it so be that they fill their mission, whether they go by water or by land; let this be as it is made known unto them according to their judgments hereafter"
Our leaders are expected to fill their missions according to their judgements. It is not only their prerrogative to do it that way, but imagine what the Lord would tell them if they asked for approval on the fabrics for garments. The brother of Jared asked something that he could determine on his own, and the Lord sent him back to figure it out for himself.