“If you don’t come to the Home Evening Group activity, you are breaking a commandment!” I shouted to my BYU-I roommate as I rushed out the door for the weekly round of games and brownies.
Though I said it half jokingly, I believed it to be true. After all, Home Evening Group was a church-wide program established by prophets, seers, and revelators who I trusted were speaking in behalf of God. Thus, by willingly not attending, my roommate was, by transitive property, disobeying God.
Now, that may seem like a logical leap, but I felt my heart was in the right place. I really cared about him and I worried about how his decision to skip Home Evening would jeopardize his relationship with God. Little did I know I was being a Pharisee.
Now, I don’t use the word Pharisee as a simple euphemism to describe an annoyingly overzealous person. I mean true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool, bonafide, literal Pharisee.
Hebrew scholar and former Pharisee, Dr. Nehemiah Gordon has identified five pillars of Pharisaism. Though I didn’t realize it as an undergrad, those five pillars were also part of my Mormon belief system.
The five pillars are:
1) Two Torahs
2) Absolute Authority of the Rabbis
3) Right of Irrational Interpretation
4) Sanctified Tradition
5) Right to Add to the Torah
To understand what these pillars have to do with Mormonism, we will go through each one individually.
1. Two Torahs
Hebrews believe the Torah is the law spoken by the mouth of God and written by Moses. Since the law was given as a word-for-word, “thus-saith-the-Lord” revelation directly from God, it should have absolute authority, right? Well, not to Pharisees.
You see, Rabbinical Jews also have another law — the Talmud, or Oral Law. The Talmud contains the laws taught by the rabbis, the religious leaders who “sat in Moses’ seat.” The rabbis interpreted the Torah and dictated the policies and procedures that defined orthodox Judaism.
Though the Talmud was not given by direct revelation, the Pharisees believe that it is equal to the Torah because it was, after all, written by the men in authority.
Latter-day Saints also have word-for-word, “thus-saith-the-Lord” revelations that were dictated by Joseph Smith. Since Joseph Smith, there have been almost no such revelations given to the church. However, those in authority continue to prescribe rules that are recorded in the Church Handbook of Instruction, the For the Strength of Youth Pamphlet, and other such publications.
Latter-day Saints thus have two laws — The scriptures (the Torah) and the handbooks (the Talmud).
Is there a difference between the two? Should Latter-day Saints regard an ever-changing set of policies as equal to the direct words of God? Has God himself ever vouched for the Handbook? Has the Handbook been accepted by common consent? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
2. Absolute Authority of the Rabbis
The Pharisees believed the rabbis were the final authority on all spiritual matters. They were free to invent new commandments and contradict scripture at their leisure. Because they were so important, the rabbis were treated with great respect and even reverence.
Latter-day Saints likewise give the same deference to those who “sit in Joseph’s seat.” Without any “thus-saith-the-Lord” revelations, Latter-day Saints take the words of Church leaders as the explicit mind and will of the Lord. It does not matter if the brethren make up new commandments or contradict scripture, their words are accepted as gospel truth. This attitude is, of course, perpetuated by the leaders themselves who continue to assert that they “will not, [and] cannot lead you astray.”
Such devotion to living leaders, be they rabbis or apostles, can create attitudes unbecoming of true spiritual leaders. We can see a shift in focus from inward spirituality and indiscriminate love to outward appearances and nuanced procedures.
Do you ever wonder why we stand when an apostle enters the room? Sure, it may be a sign of respect, but it is it a sign that Jesus would approve of?
Have you ever wondered why the Brethren are so particular about calling leaders by their proper titles? Are titles something that Jesus would use?
Have you ever wondered why the leaders sit in the best seats at the front of the room, where they can be seen by the congregation? Is that where Jesus would want them to sit?
Have you ever wondered why the brethren wear the finest clothing of the business world and encourage members to dress the same? Sure, it makes for a good outward appearance, but since when is good outward appearance a requirement for discipleship?
5 But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,
6 And love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues,
7 And greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi.
8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren.
9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.
10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.
11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant.
12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.
Do Latter-day Saints show respect to Jesus when they show respect to the leaders? Perhaps. Would they show more respect to Jesus by actually doing what he taught? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
3. Right of Irrational Interpretation
Pharisees believe that the leaders in authority have the responsibility of interpreting scripture. Their interpretations do not have to make sense, since after all, “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
Irrationality would not bother a Pharisee, because to them, authority is all that matters.Which is why the Pharisees were adamant about asking Jesus, “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23)
Modern Mormon Pharisees are the same. Bruce R. McConkie wrote in a letter to professor Eugene England, “It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent.”
To Elder McConkie, it did not matter if Professor England taught from the scriptures or if he repeated the teachings of other church leaders; Elder McConkie’s authoritative word was what mattered.
Like the Pharisees, Latter-day Saints leave the interpretation of scripture to their leaders. Though their policies (like the recent policy about children of gay couples or the older policy about blacks and the priesthood) may contradict scripture, members simply acknowledge that “God’s ways are higher than our ways,”that all will be made known someday,” and that the leaders know best.
4. Sanctified Tradition
Perhaps just as important to the Pharisees as the Law itself, are the unwritten traditions of the rabbis. These reforms, precedents, and traditions were seen as essential elements of rabbinical Judaism. However, it is important to remember that they were not actual commandments given by God, although they have been treated as such.
Jesus was frequently accused of breaking the traditions of the Pharisees.
Matthew 15 reads:
1 Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying,
2 Why do thy disciples transgress the traditions of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.
3 But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
Jesus had no regard for the traditions of the elders in authority. He cared only for the actual commandments given by the mouth of God. He did not simply assume that everything or anything spoken by the elders was the will of the Lord. Instead, he openly disobeyed the sanctified traditions to demonstrate his obedience to God.
8 This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.
9 But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Latter-day Saints likewise have their sanctified traditions. Boyd K. Packer called them “The Unwritten Order of Things.” Of these traditions, he said, “Although they are very ordinary things, they are, nevertheless, very important! We somehow assume that everybody knows all the ordinary things already. If you do know them, you must have learned them through observation and experience, for they are not written anywhere and they are not taught in classes.”
The precedents identified by Packer include: leaders sitting on the stand with the first counselor on the right hand of the one presiding, the one presiding speaking at the end of the meeting, not refusing callings, not speaking about the deceased at their own funerals, calling people by their titles rather than first names, and wearing “Sunday best” to church.
These traditions, he argues, are the marks of a good leader and will bring upon a person the power of the Lord.
So was President Packer revealing the mind and the will of the Lord concerning titles, seating arrangements, and clothing, or was he teaching for doctrine the commandments of men? When you compare his words to the words of Jesus, what are the differences? Whose word takes precedence?
5. Right to Add to the Torah
The Pharisees believe rabbis have the authority to add to scripture. An overzealous Pharisee might even declare, “I am scripture.”
I’ve sat through many Sunday School lessons where members of the church criticized the Pharisees for building hedges around the commandments, unaware that Latter-day Saints have a long history of doing the same thing.
Take for instance the Word of Wisdom. Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants clearly states that the dietary prescriptions found therein were given “not by way of commandment or constraint” (verse 2). Though Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and many other leaders of the church drank alcohol, and though the Word of Wisdom itself recommends beer (verse 17), alcohol today will keep you out of the temple and could affect your standing in the church.
How is it possible that drinking alcohol could keep someone out of the symbolic presence of the Lord when the Lord himself drank alcohol throughout his life?! Latter-day Saints say because the Word of Wisdom didn’t use to be a commandment, but now it is.
Since when? Can someone cite a revelation that changed the direct word of God given to Joseph Smith in the canonized Doctrine and Covenants?
You can’t because it never happened. No revelation or official change of scripture can be cited. It is simply a principle that first turned to a policy and now to a commandment by the traditions of men.
If you want to assert that God speaks today, then you could at least cite something he’s recently said, right? No, not something LDS Newsroom said. No, not something President Monson said in conference. What has GOD said? As Jeremiah taught, “Thus shalt thou say to the prophet, What hath the Lord answered thee? and, What hath the Lord spoken?” (Jer. 23:37)
Jesus spent his life mingling with all levels of society. And though he came across sinners and apostates (even choosing one as an apostle), his rebukes were not toward them. His harshest words were reserved for the Pharisees, the ones who claimed to speak for God, the ones who delighted in their own righteousness, the ones who held the authority of Moses.
Why did Jesus dislike the Pharisees so much? Because their whole system made idols of men. They created commandments, rituals, and traditions, and then used these as standards to judge other people. And since it’s impossible to accurately judge a person’s heart, their standards focus on outward actions and indicators — sleeves, shorts, swimsuits, tattoos, ear piercings, beards, white shirts, hot drinks, movie ratings, hair styles, titles, and seating arrangements.
23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.
24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.
26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
A Concluding Parable
Jesus once told a story about two people, a Pharisee and a publican, who both prayed in the temple. Let that imagery sink in for a minute. The Pharisees were the prominent religious sect of the day. They claimed the authority of Moses and thus were leaders in the church. They were very devout and pious. They prayed, fasted, attended the temple, and were full-tithe payers. This is your cream-of-the-crop, upper-crust member of the church.
The Publicans, on the other hand, were apostates who had been excommunicated for betraying their people. They were resented by the Jews and were frequently lumped in with “the sinners.” Yet Jesus did not view them that way. I mean, he even chose a Publican as a disciple. Could you imagine the outcry? That would be like John Dehlin being called to the apostleship!
So here we have a Pharisee and a Publican in the temple. The Pharisee prays:
11 … God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
Not a bad prayer right? He’s got a lot to be grateful for! He keeps his covenants. He hasn’t turned his back on the Gospel. He hasn’t broken the commandments and given into the sins that have troubled so many others. Unlike the apostate Publican, he has a shot at receiving the blessings the Lord has in store for the righteous.
13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.
14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.
Something to ponderize.