"A Gospel, a Gospel, We Have Got a Gospel, and We Need No More Gospel!"
What is the gospel?
That seems like a silly question, doesn't it, when we have been taught the gospel our whole lives. Of course we know what the gospel is!
Or do we?
I mean, is the gospel we hear on Sunday the same one Christ preached? The only-true-and-living gospel?
"Wait, Tim; are you saying there's more than one?"
Yes and no. Obviously there's THE gospel (or "good news") that Christ delivered as the Messenger of the covenant and of our salvation (Malachi 3:1).
But who can say what that is, with it being buried under all the knock-offs and two-thousand years of commentary?
Sometimes it's hard to discern Christ's gospel from the window dressing and elevator music we see and hear at Church.
You know what I mean. All the splintered and sugared teachings we pass around as if they were the genuine gospel, the real McCoy ― but in reality we're "adding" to or "subtracting" from what Christ preached.
And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock.
(3 Nephi 11:40)
Ouch; mea culpa. I am guilty of this. I think we all are. At times we have dressed the gospel up in the emperor's clothes of manmade religion and paraded it around like a huckster opening his trench coat at Times Square selling fake Rolexes.
This is a constant struggle, it is, keeping all the noxious weeds out of the Garden of Gethsemane. They are endlessly sprouting new thorns and (let's be honest) who likes weeding?
So I repeat: What, exactly, is the "pure" gospel of God?
I Call to the Stand My Expert Witness: Boyd K. Packer
President Boyd K. Packer was viewed by many as a great doctrinal teacher. Even today, all these years later, there is a news story about the Area Presidency in California telling local leaders to stop letting women sit on the stand because of (as Elder Packer coined it) "the unwritten order of things."
So let's look at the version of the gospel Elder Packer believed in:
"I’d like to talk about exceptions. On one occasion when I was president of the New England Mission we were holding a Relief Society conference of several hundred women. We were trying to get our sewing circles and gossip festivals turned into Relief Societies. We were setting standards for Relief Society."
Pause. Right away I am struck by the way Elder Packer describes the women of the Church as being out-of-order with their "sewing circles" and "gossip festivals." He apparently had "standards" to enforce upon the Relief Society and their short-comings.
After all, doesn't "living the gospel" mean we live up to its standards?
"A woman stood up in the audience and defied [the relief society president] and said, 'You don’t understand. Things are different up in Vermont. This is different, we are an exception. We can’t do that. You must make an exception.'
"Then [the president] quietly, but firmly, said, 'Dear sister, we’d like not to take care of the exception first. We’ll see to the rule first and then we’ll take care of the exception.'
"Accommodate the rule first!"
Wait; sorry to interrupt this story-in-progress again, but this seems backwards, doesn't it? Because, by definition, we don't "accommodate" rules. We "accommodate" things that don't comply with the rules. We make accommodations for the exception.
Like stairs. Stairs are the rule, but the accommodation = wheelchair-accessible ramps for those who are not able-bodied.
So why does Elder Packer say we should accommodate the rule first?
"There is great power and great safety in holding to the scriptures and having an abounding obedience to . . ."
Me again. I agree that we should hold to the scriptures; but what in the world does he mean by "abounding" obedience? Who do we obey? God and His Christ? The law of the gospel?
" . . . to our constituted priesthood authority."
Ah, there's the punchline; he has been leading up to this: the gospel of obedience to Church authorities (is this the gospel Christ preached?).
You see, "exceptions" are subversive; they deviate from the rule. They fall short of the ideal and thus are deemed unworthy, less-than ― even dangerous to the flock (should they multiply and replenish).
Elder Packer concludes with this statement worthy of careful consideration:
"[We should] obediently say, 'Lord, I don’t ask to be an exception.'"
I think I understand the point he's trying to make. But on the other hand, didn't the Lord seek out the exception? Didn't He go after the lone, lost sheep ― leaving the rule-oriented-ninety-and-nine?
The Gospel of Exceptions
Look, most people believe in a gospel of ideals. I don't blame them! There's someone out there whose ideal version of the gospel resembles an episode of Leave it to Beaver.
Wouldn't that be nice? To have a gospel that was an expression of a Celestial Standard that we must all match? No exceptions.
We could all set our watches to that! Women would all style their hair in the most celestial way (which, come on, has got to be the bouffant). And men's ties would settle on a single width, no more hipster skinny ties or wide-awful 70s ones. We'd know, at last, whether two-button or three-button suit jackets were appropriate (and heaven help the sucker in a double-breasted one).
The idea of the gospel being the embodiment of an "ideal" is appealing; after all, isn't Christ our "ideal"?
And, being perfect, shouldn't He tell us what the best-way-of-doing-everything-is? He could tell us how to speak and dress and which mouth wash He prefers.
This type of gospel ― a gospel of ideals ― delights in drafting handbooks and correlating our religious etiquette, measuring our spiritual statures without regard to circumstances or individuation. And if we fail to make-the-grade, it must be our own fault.
The Ideal Gospel (trademark pending) is seductive because it feels objective and eternal and unbendable. Nary-a-bit of moral relativity in sight, to spoil our supper! No hungry waifs sitting outside our windows to disturb our repast, because we shall all be seated in designated spots around the table eating a pre-selected menu, chosen by our wise-and-noble-head.
Sound good? No? Just wait until we apply the Ideal Gospel to families.
Now, applying the Ideal Gospel to families, we'd get something like, well, the Proclamation on the Family, wouldn't we? We see it fully metastasized in 1995.
Sure, sure, "circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation" yadda yadda. But we all know the truth (*wink wink*): there's only one right way to family in the Church (well, two if you count polygamy). Either way, it's the one that'll get us the jackpot in the resurrection.
And so we strive for the "ideal" by getting a temple marriage and staying on the covenant path, with a righteous man married to a righteous woman (or several, if you practice polygamy), who are fertile and have a large family of well-behaved children in a suburban home with a white-picket fence, with a mother who nurtures the children while baking casseroles as the father toils away at his steady employment.
Hmmm. What shall we do, then, with all the messy exceptions? With single sisters; single mothers; widowed fathers; dead-beat divorced dads; and barren couples unable to conceive?
Orphans; meth babies; down-syndrome children; unemployed parents; and children on government welfare who listen to rock music in shredded jeans?
What does the Ideal Gospel offer them? Well, nothing ― that is, unless they want to change. If the "exceptions" will conform to the "rule", then we can play ball.
But what about the Savior? What does Christ's gospel offer them?
Anyone who has read the New Testament understands that Christ’s gospel is exceptional because it is specifically made for the exceptions.
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need no physician, but they that are sick.
You see, Jesus came to minister to the exceptions, not the rule. The Pharisees really hated that (because, for whatever reasons, they really loved being rule-abiding and making others be, too).
The Pharisees thought it sacrilege for Christ to mingle freely and happily with publicans and sinners (like today, how we think God is found in the temple amid the crystal and finery, whereas it is just as likely we'd find Him hanging out in a gay bar amidst the chaps and cocktails).
If we needed a second example, take the story of the Woman at the Well, who was living (unmarried) in sin with her boyfriend (after five husbands, to boot) ― ideal or exception?
What was Christ's response to her?
Wrong Way To Tell a Story
What's curious about the story of the woman at the well is that we don't hear Christ telling the Samaritan woman to reform her behavior and live up to some "ideal."
In fact, the story doesn't have an ending (let alone a happy one) at all; it says nothing about what transpired after her encounter with the Savior. Wouldn't it be nice to know "the rest of the story"?
No, it doesn't matter. But we'd love, wouldn't we, to see the woman cleaning up her lifestyle for one year and then going to the temple to be sealed to her boyfriend for time and eternity, and raising good little children whom she dresses in hats and flower dresses on Easter Sunday.
No, instead, the story ends abruptly:
The woman then left her waterpot, [how irresponsible! Those waterpots don't grow on trees, you know. And won't the men in town be thirsty?] and went her way into the city, and saith to the men,
Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?
Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.
That's it. Isn't that the worst Hollywood ending ever? ALL WE'RE TOLD about this woman's conversion is that she (1) believed in Christ; and (2) invited others to "come, see."
Where are the fruits that she's a true believer? Did she forsake her no-good, free-loading boyfriend to live the law of chastity and begin paying tithing? Did she begin wearing the Tichel to cover her hair like a respectable Jewish woman should? Did she refer to the Church by its proper name?
None of that is in the story.
"Well Tim," someone says, "Coming unto Christ means she's going to have to repent of her sins and start living the commandments, like a good person. That'll show she's sincere."
For I will send my servant unto you who are blind; yea, a messenger to open the eyes of the blind, and unstop the ears of the deaf;
And they shall be made perfect notwithstanding their blindness, if they will hearken unto the messenger, the Lord’s servant.
(Isaiah 42:19, JST version)
Now please don't misunderstand me. There are a thousand sensible, very good reasons I can think of to behave well and honorably!
The gospel just isn't one of them.
Because the good news is, Christ asks us to become little children, trusting Him with our broken, blind hearts.