In his recent General Conference address, Elder Donald L. Hallstrom made the following observation:
“Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed.”
In the same conference, Elder Robert D. Hales said the following:
“Worthiness to hold a temple recommend gives us the strength to keep our temple covenants. How do we personally gain that strength? We strive to obtain a testimony of Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the reality of the Atonement, and the truthfulness of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration. We sustain our leaders, treat our families with kindness, stand as a witness of the Lord’s true Church, attend our Church meetings, honor our covenants, fulfill parental obligations, and live a virtuous life. You may say that sounds like just being a faithful Latter-day Saint! You are right. The standard for temple recommend holders is not too high for us to achieve. It is simply to faithfully live the gospel and follow the prophets.”
Now, these two quotes aren’t in direct contradiction, but they illustrate two trends within the church that I think need to be addressed. Temple worthiness is viewed as the natural outcome of living the Gospel in the Church, but, at the same time, we acknowledge that one can live in the church without becoming converted. We want life in the Church to lead to a deeper conversion, but we acknowledge that simply participating in the Church is insufficient to generate this conversion. Temple worthiness, barring occasional flashes of the spirit of discernment, is not a measure of conversion to the Gospel; instead it is a measure of participation in the Church. This results in actual conversion being an optional correlary to making temple covenants. This strikes me as problematic in several ways.
First: These trends have cheapened the value of temple covenants and temple worship generally. If temple worthiness is generally considered easily achievable, then I think we will tend to assign to it the same value we assign to most easily achievable feats, which is not much value. For that matter, if we take a look at our fellow congregants on any given Sunday and an honest look at ourselves, we may come to the conclusion that temple worship doesn’t inherently do anything to edify the soul once we’ve left the building. Certainly we all keep sinning, temple covenants or no. So I’m suggesting that the assumed ubiquity of temple worthiness can cause us to place less value on temple worthiness.
Second: These trends have isolated the struggling in our church. If temple worthiness is assumed to be ubiquitous and if you also assume that you have roughly the same light and knowledge as your neighbors, well, then why are you so messed up? Why can’t you give up the drugs, cigarettes, internet porn? Why can’t you just believe, like your neighbors do, instead of wondering what the Brethren are up to all the time? If you have the impression that you are the only person who is unworthy in your ward (or, worse, if you have the impression that you are the only person willing to admit to imperfection in your ward), then the tendency to withdraw is high. Maybe you are angry at your fellow congregants who just don’t understand or maybe you are tired of feeling guilty for sullying their worship. Either way, you may feel, if you aren’t ready to hold a temple recommend yourself, that you aren’t a part of the group.
Third: The assumed ubiquity of temple worthiness can give one an inflated sense of self-worth. ”We” are different, more godly, than “the world” or some other substitute. Part of the problem is that, for the most part, the temple recommend interview isn’t a measure of how converted you are. It can’t be; that is primarily between you and God. Rather it is a measure of some easily observed phenomena. Not entirely, of course, but most of the sins we discuss in regards to temple unworthiness are sins of commission (smoking, fornicating). We don’t normally focus on the minutiae of specific belief (although I’m sure it happens). So, if you are not inclined toward sins that result in breaking the word of wisdom or the law of chastity, it is fairly simple to maintain a temple recommend. If you pretty much pay your tithing and pretty much believe the church, you are good to go. But, as Elder Hales notes, this doesn’t make us all that special. Plenty of Mormons manage to not drink; even more non-Mormons manage the same. Elder Uchtdorf’s bumper sticker comes to mind. Nonetheless, there is a clear temptation to use temple worthiness as a marker that sets Mormons higher on some moral scale than surrounding folk. It seems to me that this is a bad idea.
Am I suggesting that we do away with worthiness standards? Not at all. I’m not even suggesting that we change them. What I am suggesting is that, and it pains me to say this, I think President Hunter’s advice for us to make temple recommends (and, by extension, temple worship) the most visible signifier of our faith may have outlived its usefulness. If full participation in the church, including temple worship, is insufficient to convert us, we should stop pretending that temple covenants are a culmination. They are just another gate to pass through, a necessary one to be sure, but they are not unlike baptism. We generally undergo them before we are prepared to live in accord with the covenants or even really understand what we are doing (this is especially the case with the endowment). Maybe, if we made temple worthiness more an option than an assumption in church life, it would function more successfully.
In order to do this, we’d need to have scriptural support for people participating in the church partially, but still remaining faithful. I’d suggest two figures. There is Philip, in the New Testament, who, as far as the text tells us, never received the Melchizedek priesthood, but who nonetheless served and acted as a missionary. In the Book of Mormon, there is Ammon, who led a group of Nephites into the wilderness and acted as a savior to the people of Limhi, but who abstained from priesthood work for some unspecified reason. Both men were faithful, but both men could not or would not embrace all the covenants available, at least in the recorded portion of their lives. If we can create a space in the church for members who wish to be with us, but who cannot fully be with us, that can only be a good thing. Pulling back from the assumption that temple worthiness is necessary to be a “good Mormon” would be a good first step.
Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood. I think the temple, in aggregate, is a good thing and I would like to see more people participate worthily and willingly in temple covenants. But, until we as a people are more interested in being converted to the Lord, as opposed to hoop-jumping for community, I’m not sure that’s possible. In the meantime, let’s just be nice to each other, okay?