Where do our notions about the plan of salvation come from?
We tend to think we have the complete picture, all set in stone. It is true that the revelations will all be fulfilled. Absolutely. But it is also true that there has been variation in the way they have been interpreted over the dispensation.
And the general principle is that everything that is not the word of the Lord speaking by revelation, or delivered by vision, or by angels, or by his own presence, is open to at least some error and debate.
Everything else, even inspiration by the holy Ghost, is less complete and perfect. At least for mortal men.
John 3:35 For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God; for God giveth him not the Spirit by measure, for he dwelleth in him, even the fullness.
God gave Christ the Holy Ghost without measure. But not so for the rest of us. We receive, if we are worthy, the Holy Ghost in one measure or another at times. But not without measure the way that the Savior received it. Each of us must learn line upon line.
Alma points out that it is as easy for God to send his angels at this time to deliver his message as at any other. And we should recognize that a message like the one King Benjamin delivered, in which he dictated a message given to him by an angel for his people, is on a completely different plane of understanding than mortal men can normally deliver. It is completely different in the scope and perfection because of the being that delivered the message.
We should recognize that when God delivers words to Joseph Smith through the Urim and Thummim, those words will be on a completely different plane than the words Joseph Smith speaks of his own accord by the light of inspiration. That is because the words of Jesus Christ are more perfect than the words that any mortal man can speak under the light of inspiration by the Holy Ghost. When we obtain the words of Jesus Christ himself speaking to us, as Joseph Smith obtained through the Urim and Thummim, then our message comes from a being who is on a completely different plane of understanding than any of the rest of us. It is far more perfect than the words any mortal man can assemble.
It is sad that we do not realize this. We look back with a bit of humor when we study these verses and the circumstances that surrounded them.
D&C 67:5 Your eyes have been upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and his language you have known, and his imperfections you have known; and you have sought in your hearts knowledge that you might express beyond his language; this you also know.
6 Now, seek ye out of the Book of Commandments, even the least that is among them, and appoint him that is the most wise among you;
7 Or, if there by any among you that shall make one like unto it, then ye are justified in saying that ye do not know that they are true;
8 But if ye cannot make one like unto it, ye are under condemnation if ye do not bear record that they are true.
Consequently we read in the history of the church:
“After the foregoing was received, William E. M’Lellin, as the wisest man, in his own estimation, having more learning than sense, endeavored to write a commandment like unto one of the least of the Lord’s, but failed; it was an awful responsibility to write in the name of the Lord. The Elders and all present that witnessed this vain attempt of a man to imitate the language of Jesus Christ, renewed their faith in the fulness of the Gospel” (History of the Church vol 1)
But while we chuckle to ourselves at the folly of William E M’Lellin for trying to write a revelation that was like unto one of the least of the Lords, we at the same time take the revelations and, more or less, disregard what is written in them in favor of our current practices glibly saying “Well, its just continuing revelation”.
And we really ought to revere the revelations of Jesus Christ better than that.
I invite you to carefully read D&C 107 and D&C 20 verse by verse, and try and write down what the Lord revealed there, completely forgetting all you ever read anywhere else, or learned growing up. Read them for exactly what they are: they are the revelations of Jesus Christ to man.
You will find, if you do that honestly, that we have more or less done our own thing. There is some sense in which that is allowed, for the Lord does frequently give inspiration on a local level, or in an instance, or for a time, that makes exceptions to his revelations. For example, in D&C 20 members are to be baptized, and then to have sufficient time to learn the doctrine of the church and to prove by their behavior that they will walk in obedience to the commandments, that there may be works matching with their faith, before those members are to be confirmed and given the gift of the Holy Ghost, or allowed to take the sacrament. Nevertheless, there are a number of times in which Joseph Smith baptized and confirmed people on the same day. There is even a case where Joseph Smith baptized a man, and then ordained him to be an Elder only a few hours later. The spirit directed him to handle those cases differently than was stated in the revelations.
Now my intention is certainly not to try and stir up criticism of the leaders. That’s not the point at all. In fact, if we become accusers of the brethren, God will cut us off.
Rather, I think we need to be reading the revelations honestly. It is one thing to vary a bit from the revelations knowing that we have done so, with an eye to finding our way back there in time, and it is another thing altogether to ignore the revelations or to blindly declare that all that is found in the handbook is precisely in agreement with the revelations.
We should measure carefully where we are not in agreement with the revelations. What I see instead of this is a determination to appear loyal to the church that is made up of pretending either that what is in the handbook is precisely what the revelations lay out, or else by instead glibly passing all the differences as being “continuing revelation”.
Lesser revelation can, for a time, change the course to handle specific periods or circumstances. But that difference should be one we consider with trepidation, and caution, and always with an eye for when we are to return to the revelations as they were originally spoken.
There are other obvious differences between our existing practice and the revelations. Once again, it is not my intention to stir up criticism, but rather to simply remind us of the importance of the revelations because it should rest in the back of our minds as a guide to where we must one day return. We cannot write a revelation like the revelations of Jesus Christ. So let us always be aware of where we have felt that he wanted us to deviate from them for a time, that we may know where to come back to.
Don’t get me wrong. I firmly believe that the leaders are leading the church precisely the way the Lord wants it led. It is not a matter of criticism, but of knowing where our home is, so that we can return at the appointed day.
A few obvious differences between the revelations and our current practices off my head are:
The priests are only supposed to administer the sacrament when the Elders are not present, for the duties of the priest when an Elder is present do not include administering the sacrament. Going through the history of the church we see the practice stands by this revelation again and again. The Elders administer the sacrament if there is an Elder present.
The congregation is directed to kneel together to pray for the sacrament. I think we still did this when I was quite young. If I am correct, I recall my family being quite relieved when it was changed.
Priests and Elders have the responsibility to travel and preach the gospel. Consequently priests are not normally sixteen or seventeen years old.
Teachers and Deacons do not travel. Instead they are to watch over the church. Teachers are exactly what they sound like – they teach. None of these would normally be teenagers or youth.
Stakes are supposed to be somewhat independent bodies, sort of mini-churches that can stand almost in their own right. An apostle or seventy who visits a stake that has a high council does not have the right to order the affairs of that stake. These days, this has been replaced with something like what is found in the military. In the military captains salute majors and obey their every order, and majors salute generals and obey their every order. But that isn’t what D&C 107 describes and in history of the church Joseph Smith stands by the revelation at least twice, saying that Apostles nor seventy have the right to go and order the affairs of a stake except the people of the stake agree by vote. This is quite different than what we do, since we now believe we have no right to inspiration on what is best for our own stakes or wards, and consequently instead of every man voting based on what he feels the Holy Ghost directs, instead our voting is a gesture of support that we feel we have no right to withhold. (It needs to be added that what the twelve does as a quorum, and agrees on unanimously, holds independently for the entire church, it is when they are less than a quorum that the above principle applies). D&C 107 lays out a church structure with far more local independence, more akin to the sort of limited large scale government found in the constitution.
Again, my point is not to accuse the brethren by any means. My point is just what I said. The revelations and the Book of Mormon are the covenant of this dispensation just as the law of Moses was the covenant of his dispensation. We should not take lightly the revelations of Jesus Christ, and we should know in our hearts and minds what he laid out for us, so that we can carefully measure the differences between our practices and his revelations to us. By this means we can testify to him that we kept the covenant of the dispensation, even if there were matters that the Leaders felt inspired needed to be altered from time to time. The revelations are where we will always end up returning to as we learn to come unto Christ as a people, because they are the revelations of Jesus Christ.