My good friend Bobby Gilpin put together a team to comment on the October 2012 General Conference of the LDS Church. He kindly asked me to comment on the Relief Society session and my thoughts were duly posted on his blog Mormonism Investigated UK I reproduce it here.
General Relief Society Meeting
The Relief Society of the LDS Church is often referred to as one of the oldest and largest women's organisations in the world. Established in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1842, what was originally proposed as another Benevolent Society was named the Relief Society.
Their declared object was,“that the Society of Sisters might provoke the brethren to good works in looking to the wants of the poor—searching after objects of charity, and in administering to their wants—to assist; by correcting the morals and strengthening the virtues of the female community, and save the Elders the trouble of rebuking; that they may give their time to other duties, &c., in their public teaching."
Although I was a Mormon for fourteen years and my wife was once a local Relief Society president, I have never been to a Relief Society meeting, nor listened in to the conference general session. So, despite my first-hand experience of Mormonism, I was looking at this as an outsider of sorts.
The first thing that struck me was how impenetrable this might be to an outsider. You have to cut your way through thick layers of cultural overgrowth to even begin to understand these proceedings.
But, of course, it must be remembered that the Mormon General Conference in its entirety, while presented as an opportunity to “come listen to a prophet's voice,” is a tableau, intended to give an impression rather than offer instruction – even to the faithful.
Each plays their part, speakers and conference goers alike, the latter attending with the determination to believe, the former fuelling that belief with Mormon tropes, homilies and anecdotes.
In an hour and twenty-six minutes that is how this Relief Society session proceeded. It taught you very little about what Mormons believe but delivered the impression of an admirable group of women who should be proud of their achievements, resolved to achieve more, expectant of many trials and determined to win their heavenly reward by diligence and good works.
Only the observant with a grasp of Mormon doctrine and praxis might spot the complete absence of grace and total dependence on works for salvation. The session, like the whole of Mormonism, might be summed up in the words of the Mormon 3rd article of faith; “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.”
The Speakers and their Message
Linda K Burton has been the general president of the Relief Society since March 2012, along with her counsellors, Carol M Stephens (first counsellor) and Linda S Reeves (second counsellor). The keynote speaker was Henry B Eyring, first counsellor in the Mormon presidency. Through choking tears and brave smiles they told their stories, encouraged the sisters to self-congratulation, to awake to their duties and strive to be covenant-keepers. You can read a summary of the meeting here and hear and watch the full proceedings here
Henry B Eyring urged LDS women to greater acts of service and sacrifice.
Carole M Stephens emphasised covenant and duty with a particular emphasis on worthiness.
Linda S Reeves spoke of her personal experiences and trials and urged sisters to look to God for strength in times of trial.
the christian bit
There was much with which Christians might feel they can identify.
Christians are, indeed, a covenant people who worship a covenant-making God (1 Cor.11:25; Heb.9:15)
When we are born again we enter into a covenant relationship with God and recognise that, “the Lord has assigned to each his task” (1 Cor.3:5);
We are acutely aware of our need to follow obediently (James 2:14-20); maturing in our Christian lives (James 1:4; Eph.4:11-14)
We expect to face trials of many kinds (James 1:1-5) and know that these are our participation with Christ in his suffering because we bear his name(1 Peter 4:12-16).
But the Scripture makes clear that any work, however good it looks, will not survive judgement if it is not built on the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Cor.3:10-13) It was the Relief Society president who most clearly elucidated the true foundation of Mormonism, although a previous knowledge of Mormon doctrine is necessary to understand the short-hand in which she speaks.
the Mormon bit
Linda K Burton spoke of the importance of having the principles of Christ's Atonement written on Mormon women's hearts. She listed three principles of the Atonement:
Principle 1: “All that is unfair about life can be made right through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
Principle 2: There is power in the Atonement to enable us to overcome the natural man or woman and become true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Principle 3: The Atonement is the greatest evidence we have of the Father’s love for His children.
Central to this idea is an old and familiar illustration of a woman who fell into a deep pit. She could not get out herself and called for help. A kind passer-by heard her cries and lowered a ladder. Sister Burton told the women in the congregation they are like the woman in the pit. Sin, she said, can be likened to falling in the pit. The power of the Atonement “not only enables us to climb out of the pit, but also gives us power to continue on the strait and narrow path leading back to the presence of our Heavenly Father.”
Every Mormon will know this illustration and many Christians might be impressed by it but what does the Bible have to say about the true state of sinful man?
when a pit is a grave
Where the Mormon likens the sinful state of man to falling into a pit the Bible speaks of the state of such a man in much more dire terms:
We are told that death spread to all men because of sin (Rom.5:12)
That the wages of sin is death (Rom.6:23)
That it is through sin that death reigns (Rom.5:21)
That sin kills man through deception (Rom.7:11)
That full-grown sin brings sure death (James 1:15)
The sinner is not simply fallen into a pit but is actually dead! The pit is not an unanticipated trap but an inescapable grave. The Bible tells us that:
The reign of sin makes us obey sins passions (Rom.6:12)
The influence of sin enslaves us (Rom.6:20)
Because sin lives in our very being (Rom.7:17)
The sinner is not just fallen into sin, sin has fallen into him! It inhabits him so that sin's passions are natural to him, sin enslaves him and lives in him to rise up at a time sin chooses. If we don't identify the true nature of the problem we cannot expect to find an adequate solution.
Where the Mormon sees Jesus as a passer-by who lowers a ladder into the pit so the unfortunate sinner can climb out the Bible portrays Jesus as:
Giving his life to ransom the sinner from sin's enslavement (Mt.20:28)
So that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (Jn.3:16)
He was able to do this because he had life in himself (John 1:4; 5:26)
“For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” (Rom.5:17)
She who is dead in sin but who has come to trust in Jesus now has eternal life as a present possession, has crossed over from death to life and need no longer fear judgement (John 5:24)
The Plan of Happiness?
The true role of Jesus in Mormonism is articulated as president Burton makes plain that, “Without an understanding of Heavenly Father’s perfect plan of happiness and the Saviour’s Atonement as the central feature of that plan, [life's] challenges could seem unfair.”
The Mormon gospel is not about sin and death, faith and life but about “Heavenly Father's perfect plan of happiness and the Saviour's Atonement as the central feature of that plan.”
The “plan of happiness” is the ladder and “the Saviour's Atonement” lowers the ladder but the sinner must climb, scramble to freedom, follow the plan. Of course, if you are in a pit and a saviour provides a ladder then it is reasonable that you should climb. But the sinner, if she is in a pit, is lying there – dead! You could install an escalator and it would not help one whit.
It is important to realise that Jesus is “a central feature” of the Mormon plan. With Jesus in place, playing his part, the Mormon is now enabled to be “saved, by obedience,” as the third article of faith has it.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6) The biblical apostle said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we may be saved” (Acts 4:12)
The Mormon apostle Joseph B Wirthlin testified, “Jesus Christ taught the words of life. He showed the way to truth, the way to peace, the way to happiness.” The Mormon apostle Dallin H Oaks said, “I testify that as the Light of the world, He has provided the way for us to return to our heavenly home.” (Special Witnesses of Christ, Ensign, April 2001)
The Christian Christ and the Mormon Jesus
The Jesus of the Bible is the way while the Jesus of Mormonism shows the way. He is a central part of God's “plan of happiness” but Mormons must follow the plan to gain their heavenly reward.
The Mormon Apostle Neal A Maxwell declares "Having purchased us (1 Cor.7: 23) with His atoning blood (Acts 20:28) in the great and marvellous Atonement, Jesus became our Law-giver (Isaiah 33:22). It is by obedience to His laws and His commandments that we may return one day to His presence and that of our Heavenly Father." (Special Witnesses of Christ, Ensign, April 2001. You can read a full report on this here)
This is the gospel message turned entirely on its head! Where Biblical Apostles have the law leading us to Christ, Mormon Apostles have Christ leading us to the law. Where Biblical Apostles have men and women justified by faith in Christ who fulfilled the law, Mormon Apostles have us justified "by obedience to His laws and His commandments", laws that we ourselves must fulfil.
This is the true background to these Relief Society talks. This is the way Mormon women listening would understand what was said and why so much emphasis is placed on covenant, duty and service. Where the Christian keeps covenants and serves out of the new life they have in Christ, the Mormon strives for the perfection Jesus offers us through simple faith in the finished work of the cross.
The lot of the redeemed is not to find themselves climbing to the top of a ladder and following the plan, but free from sin where once she was slave to sin, alive in Christ where once she was dead in sin, standing in life where once she stood in fear of condemnation. This is the foundation on which she stands to serve, sacrifice and obey.
This is why Paul was able to write to the troublesome Christian believers in Corinth “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Cor.3:16) Because of the finished work of Christ their immaturity (1 Cor.3:1) did not disqualify them from the free gift of salvation in God's kingdom.
As we ponder the differences between the Christian message and the message of Mormonism we might be forgiven for marvelling at how “Christian” Mormonism sounds. The Bible tells us, however, that we must make sure we build on the foundation of Christ otherwise we build in vain; sadly, Mormons who left this conference determined to redouble their efforts and “lengthen their stride” as one Mormon prophet put it, are building in vain.