Several years ago my mom recounted to me a kerfluffle that had ruined a family gathering (I wasn't present for this one, lucky me, but I had no trouble picturing it).
Mothers mend many fences; often the most difficult are those that divide their children.
And so my mom described the argument that had spilled over into anger, hurt feelings, and tears. Mind you, I like to think that my family members are bright, thoughtful, and faithful adults.
So you might expect the conflict erupted over something serious. Nope.
It was over Face Cards.
As I understand it, one family brought playing cards to another's home, where face cards were not allowed. Even though my family loves card games (Rook, Phase 10, Uno, etc.), some of them are opposed to using face cards (I know, I know; be patient; not everyone has learned the valuable lessons of the movie Footloose yet).
Why was it an issue at all? Well, when a Prophet speaks . . . you know the rest. And in 1974, President Spencer W. Kimball said, "We hope faithful Latter-day Saints will not use the playing cards which are used for gambling, either with or without the gambling."
1974? I wasn't even born yet; but that was the last time I could find a General Authority talking about face cards. And yet, we see the power of President Kimball's words: they linger over us a generation later like a ghost, haunting a family gathering 40 years later, causing contention as siblings argue over what is "right."
Universal vs. Individual I wonder if 90% of the problems in the Church could be resolved if we stopped imposing our personal values on each other.
We don't do a very good job of distinguishing between universal commandments given by God (like repentance, which the Lord asks us to preach publicly) versus the preferences and personal inspiration we get as individuals, which is all-well-and-good for the one who receives it ― but, like chewing gum, shouldn't be passed around for others to enjoy. (Chewing gum would include telling them to not use the term "Mormon.")
Isn't trying to get others to follow "my way" of following Christ the epitome of "teachings for doctrines the commandments of men"?
Now, a crazy old loon like me can't do too much mischief because I'm not in leadership. If I suggested to the young women in my ward that reading rags like CosmoGirl is a waste of their time, that's just "my opinion." Even if it were good advice, the girls could take it or leave it.
But when their bishop tells them to not wear two pairs of earrings, and threatens to withhold their limited-use temple recommend until they comply; well, then it's not just good advice ― it becomes a matter of moral certitude and conviction (which has nothing to do with earrings, and everything to do with obedience to authority).
Whose light are we holding up?
Imagine a Frenchwoman in Paris who had recently converted to the Church scolding a couple of American missionaries for using vinegar since it contains a mild alcoholic proof. Madame AntiVin tells the missionaries they are breaking the Word of Wisdom by using vinegar in their escargot marinade (which was something she had been told by a former priesthood leader).
Now that sounds crazy, right? I mean, forget the vinegar: what about the fact they're eating escargot! But let's pretend, for argument's sake, that Joseph Fielding Smith said it, then it would have the force of priesthood authority behind it. Oh, now we're all ears! Now I'm raiding your pantry to see whether you're being a faithful member; I scold Sister Jones for using apple cider vinegar in her crock pot; I become a bloodhound of the Prophet in the war against vinegar; all the while, I wear the leash as an honor.
Ridiculous? Absurd? Umm. That is literally what happened with cola drinks during the 70s! And it is happening now with the term "Mormon" and prayer-pronouns: each generation sees leaders creating new ways for us to judge the level of orthodoxy of our neighbors (instead of just loving them) by concocting these artificial lines; and those lines keep piling up like barnacles, generation after generation, until our ship (faith) is dead-in-the-water.
Hence the reason people don't have playing cards in their homes, or drink Coke, or wear purple shirts to Church, or watch Rated-R movies.
That's how the real mischief happens: when Church leaders teach for doctrines the commandments of men, making their personal views public, incorporating their opinions into "the gospel," until at last the gospel resembles their moral codes.
"But Tim!" someone says. "They're special witnesses of Christ! Of course they're supposed to tell us what to drink, and how to dress, and how to speak; of course their job is to tell us whether we can wear open-toed sandals to Church. It's what we pay them for!"
Have we become, dear friends, The Church of Conglomerated Prophetic Opinions of Latter-day Saints? Or are we anchored in the Doctrine of Christ?
Clark Burt reminded me of the importance of the Word of God, and the danger of substituting it with morality and moral codes (see, https://fingerofgod.blogspot.com/2021/08/teaching-in-saviors-way-teach-word-of.html).
Are we bashed about in the waves, tossed to-and-fro by the wind, as changes rain down from administration-to-administration?
This is what Paul warned us about:
Be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; [but] grow up into Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.
We're all seasick; the ship needs Christ at the wheel and the power of His grace and glory; the last thing we need is more admonitions about whether our playing cards depict a Joker or an Old Maid.
Now, make no mistake: I am not a relativist. I believe there are universal commandments that must be kept; they are absolute. In other words, there are no exceptions. Not even Jesus! (See 2 Nephi 31:5).
This tells us something important (considering the fact we are all so different); it tells us that universal commandments are exceedingly uncommon and rare as hens' teeth. Why? Because they're decreed for everyone; they apply equally to everybody.
Take the example of a peanut allergy. If I am allergic to peanuts, but the Church taught that I have to eat Reece's Peanut Butter Cups to be saved, do they make me ingest peanut butter and let me die? No, the Church creates an exception. But the exception itself reveals that the requirement is not essential.
There are only a handful of universal commandments; everything else is just "good advice." My favorite universal commandment is the one Jesus gave at the Last Supper: "Love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). This applies to everyone ― regardless of race, gender, age, sex, nationality, etc.
Think of these things as the gospel "standards." They do not change. As Joseph Smith taught, "All must be saved on the same principles" (TPJS, p. 419). So Adam and Abraham and Genevieve and Jenny are all subject to the same criteria.
Question: Should instruction in the Church focus on the gospel standards (which include things like repentance, baptism and love), or upon moral living?
The main point I am trying to make is that contention is caused by the friction created between competing moral codes.
If that sounded confusing, let me explain. We go through life accumulating a lot of spiritual baggage. We adopt some of the moral codes ("traditions") of our parents; of our culture; and of our leaders, past and present.
Over time, what we find is we've cobbled together these pieces of morality into a Frankenstein we call "the gospel." That's right, instead of focusing on the Savior's universal and eternal words, we get stuck over:
- don't watch TV on Sunday
- don't date until you're 16
- when you pray, be sure to use the right pronouns
[If you're Jehovah's Witness] don't celebrate your birthday or holidays
[If you're Jewish] don't eat pork
[If you're Catholic] you must say Mass in Latin
[If you're Pentacostal] you must speak in tongues to be saved
In the end, we must choose between the image of Christ or the Frankenstein we've created from our moral codes.
This explains the reason that my family (who are amazing, good people) can fight over playing cards; it happens every day when we exalt obedience to our personal moral codes (and the authorities from whom we adopted them) to be the supreme, greatest, and most important part of the gospel.
Soon enough, we might even start to believe that redemption is found in our obedience to these moral codes.
Instead of being found, you know, in the love of our Savior.