Having A Form of Godliness : Modern Mormon Pharisees

As an LDS missionary in South America, I once knocked on the door of a staunch catholic. At least that is how he described himself as he hurriedly explained why he wasn’t interested in our message. I had heard this same excuse from others many times before. But this particular man sticks out in my memory because of something else he said. Just before slamming the door shut, he blurted: “Look, I don’t believe in the Virgin; I don’t believe in the Saints; I don’t believe in the Pope; I don’t even believe in Jesus or God! But I was born Catholic and I will die Catholic!”

In recent years, a number of Mormon intellectuals have been spreading the meme that what matters in the church is not correct belief (orthodoxy) but correct practice (orthopraxy). In other words, like the Catholic contact I met years ago, they believe that it doesn’t really matter if you believe in the principles and doctrines that the leaders of the church teach. So long as you conform to the practices that the church can easily measure, such as paying tithes, obeying the dietary restrictions of the Word of Wisdom, attending church meetings, and holding regular family night, then you are a good, faithful Mormon and beyond reproach, even if you spend your time on the internet, and elsewhere, trying to convince others to adopt unorthodox beliefs that are clearly contrary to church teachings and leaders.

Let’s call this “Orthopraxy” meme what it is: Pharisaism. Those who practice Mormonism after this fashion are modern Mormon Pharisees.

Despite the fact that it is the conservative members of the church who are more often labelled “Pharisees” for their perceived rigid insistence on conformity to church teachings, it is this liberal cafeteria mode of Mormonism that matches more closely to the doctrine of the Pharisees.

Contrary to popular modern assumptions, in many respects the Pharisees were not the conservative, entrenched church hierarchy we often envision. It was the conservative Sadducees who were the wealthy, aristocratic, and priestly class that clung stubbornly to scriptural literalism. Politically the Pharisees were by comparison the more liberal populists, receiving more support from the common people and having a more democratic sentiment. The Pharisees were the intellectuals and scholars. Unlike the Sadducees, they believed in a continuously expanding understanding of the scriptures based on ongoing intellectual debate between rabbis and continual analysis and arguments, as well as “oral Torah” traditions and the precedents of previous debates. The Talmud’s Pharisaical declaration that “”A learned mamzer takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest” is echoed by their modern intellectual heirs who insist, contrary to President Packer, that the intellect is far, far greater than the mantle.

Were there righteous Pharisees?  Yes, of course.  Jesus condemned the Pharisees of his time not for being intellectuals but for being hypocrites. The word hypocrisy comes from Greek roots related to “stage acting”. Hypocrisy is about putting on a show; it is “feigned belief.” The Pharisees were not condemned for their rigid insistence on conformity to church teachings, as common modern accusations against faithful Mormons would imply. All of the competing contemporary groups of the time were also legalistic and rigid regarding following the law, including the followers of John the Baptist who earned Jesus’ approbation. It was the fact that the Pharisees insisted on conforming rigidly to the open, visible religious practices while in secret rejecting the Lawgiver himself and conspiring to have him unjustly put to death that made them truly hypocritical.

In practice they had a form of godliness (orthopraxy) but they didn’t actually believe in the power thereof (orthodoxy).

We all fall into the kind of hypocrisy where our private actions conflict with our public statements. This is often a hypocrisy of weakness, where our actions do not always conform to our verbal statements of belief; not because our belief is not sincere, but because in our imperfection we fall short of that sincere belief. The Pharisees were clearly guilty of this kind of hypocrisy, and in that sense we are all Pharisaical.

But those who advocate “orthopraxy” as a mask for unbelief are endorsing a systematic hypocrisy in which they knowingly go through the motions of belief before men, to give the appearance of belief, when they do not in fact believe. That is truly Pharisaical in a way that true believers can never achieve.

And like their ancient spiritual progenitors, modern Pharisees often try to justify themselves using legalistic technicalities: technically, they believe the Book of Mormon is “inspired” because “inspired” means something more nuanced than what most believers mean…; technically they believe Joseph Smith is a prophet, because a prophet is something more broad than most believers understand; technically they believe the church is “true” in the sense that….

Even in their “orthopraxy” they use technicalities to claim belief: they gave about 10% directly to a charity of their choosing instead of the church, so technically they are a “full tithe payer”; since the Word of Wisdom says people should eat meat sparingly, and people who eat a lot of meat answer the temple recommend question about obeying the Word of Wisdom in the affirmative even though they clearly don’t obey all of what it says, they also technically can say they obey the Word of Wisdom, even though they regularly drink coffee or alcohol; technically, Faith is the same thing as Doubt because Faith means that you don’t know for sure, and not knowing is technically doubting….

This is the same technicality-game played by bright children and rebellious teens with their parents in which they conveniently vacillate between ambiguity and an absurd degree of literalness to achieve a technical win: “You said I couldn’t GO play with my friends, you didn’t say that THEY couldn’t COME HERE to play with me!” “I didn’t bite her, I pinched her with my teeth!”

They aren’t really fooling anyone. Getting off on a technicality isn’t the same as being innocent, and they know it.

To make these kinds of pettifogging justifications, they employ a Reductionist approach in which they try to break Faith down into oversimplified, singular, analyzable steps and definitions; linear hoops through which they can jump, the sum of which supposedly amount to “Faith.” But Faith is more than the sum of its apparent parts. It is not reducible. This is the exact error that the Pharisees made. They tried to reduce Faith into orthopraxy; a multitude of strict hoops through which they jumped as an alternative to real Faith. And just as faith without works is dead, works without faith are dead. Modern revelation makes this concept of “dead works” explicit. If you show me your faith by your works when you don’t actually have faith, then you are being Pharisaical.

Where does this leave those who do not yet believe, but are trying to get a testimony through action? Clearly even Jesus taught that if you want to know if the doctrine is of God, you have to do it to find out. And Alma taught that you plant the seed in order to see if it grows. In fact, all our beliefs almost always come about through action. The confirmation comes through action. What if a person does not believe in God and so they attempt to pray to find out if God exists? Isn’t this also “orthopraxy” without “orthodoxy”? Why isn’t this also hypocritical?

The difference lies in the fact that the Pharisee is going through the motions in order to maintain an appearance of belief to other people, or at least certain other people. The Pharisee’s goal isn’t to increase his belief, but to legitimize and maintain his unbelief while reaping some kind of benefit associated with belief.

The searcher, on the other hand, does not claim to believe, but is honestly seeking belief through action. It’s the difference between dishonestly pretending to be what you are not and honestly attempting to become more than you are. The seeker isn’t going to feign belief or quibble about technical belief in order to get a calling, or receive a temple recommend, or keep family peace. The seeker isn’t looking to influence the Church into changing to match her views, she is attempting to change her views to match those of the church by putting into practice what the church teaches.

In his interview with PBS, Elder Holland made it clear that we aren’t going to kick people out of the church just because they do not believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. But he also warned that if they try to convert others to that view then they have crossed a line. Even then, he says, the church tries to be patient, but that patience is an act of charity, not acceptance. It’s still apostasy. And the church is exhibiting patience with apostasy motivated by love, not tolerance for a different kind of acceptable faithfulness.

“But, they have fervent testimonies of the Atonement of Jesus!” I hear some remonstrate. “They are good people.” These things are equally true of many Catholics and Protestants I know and it doesn’t make them Mormons. I have no problem with my Catholic and Protestant friends who want to hang with us Mormons, come to church, participate in activities, and basically participate to the full extent any non-member can. They may even come to hold Joseph Smith in a favorable light, and consider the Book of Mormon to be inspired after a fashion. But that doesn’t make them Mormons either.

So let’s resist this new Mormon Pharisaism and aspire to real faith; to be real, believing Latter-day Saints and not Mormons in Practice Only. And to those who do not yet believe: aspire to believe; yearn to receive a personal witness and act upon that yearning with integrity.

Let us strive to have not only the form of godliness but also the power thereof.

UPDATE: Please see my comments in the conversation below where I address some of the immediate criticisms of this post, as well as some of the more common criticisms I have seen elsewhere.  My comments are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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38 Responses to Having A Form of Godliness : Modern Mormon Pharisees

  1. I was reluctant to follow your argument in the opening paragraphs because I don’t think you accurately identify the motives of most internet participants who focus on orthopraxy, at least not in the corners of the internet where I spend time. Things could be radically different elsewhere. But to whatever extent there are in fact people who advocate orthopraxy as a disguise and who then justify their deceit this way (and I’m sure there *are* some, I just don’t know how widespread it really is), I think you make a valid argument.

    I’ve been working on learning about the historic context of the New Testament to better understand Jesus Christ’s condemnation or praise or behavior when he associates with different kinds of people. What I appreciate most about your post is that it caused me to work back and forth between modern Pharisees and what I’ve learned about New Testament-era Pharisees, helping to clarify other reading I’ve done. I learn easiest with examples and analogies, which are often in short supply in academic writing, and you’ve supplied some necessary help to me here.

    I suspect you will have riled some feathers somewhere with this, so I&#