I came home from Church the other week having loved my time with the Saints. But I was secretly uncomfortable about what had happened in Sunday School. The more I thought about the class discussion, the more uncomfortable I became. There was something that seemed off about the teachings being taken for granted in the class. Surely there must be a doctrinal test to help us determine if what is being taught is true.
My wife and I talked at length over the course of a number of days about what was nagging at me, but I wasn’t getting any closer to an answer. Finally, I decided I needed to talk to one of my Church leaders to check on the doctrine people kept teaching that made me so uncomfortable. But no sooner had I sent an email asking for an appointment than I had a phrase come into my head to use in a search on the Church website. That one simple search showed me what I was looking for, and also taught me a way to determine if something being taught in Church is true.
Test 1 – Is it clearly taught in the scriptures?
As I write these articles for my website and other websites, I occasionally come up with teachings for which I can’t recall a source. My mother always says the same thing to me – “Can you back it up in the scriptures?” If I try to say something, but I am not sure if it is true, my first stop is to see if I can find any evidence that what I want to teach is in the scriptures. We don’t have all the scriptures the Lord has had written by prophets through the ages, but we have the fulness of the gospel in what scriptures we have. If there is an important point that will affect our salvation, you can be sure that some prophet somewhere in our current scriptures has said something about it.
It is so important that we know where we can turn to to back up any doctrine/teaching we want to talk about in a gospel setting. The subject I was feeling uncomfortable about is the ever-increasing frequency of references I am hearing in Church to our “personal relationship with Christ.” That phrase, or something akin to it is popping up all over social media and in people’s websites. It is also making appearances in people’s sacrament meeting talks and testimonies.
If a teaching is true, one of the first places we should be able to find evidences of that teaching is in the written word of God, right? Even in the latter days, if something is true today that is as basic as having a personal relationship with Christ then it should be talked about by the holy prophets of every dispensation. After all, having a relationship with the Savior is not something that can be possible only in the last days. This is one of those basic things that should have been not only possible, but taught about since the days of Adam. All the holy prophets taught of Christ and the importance of Christ, so our relationship with Christ should also be an important topic for discussion.
Interestingly, I have found no references in the scriptures, either ancient or modern about us having a relationship with Christ. There is plenty to be said about our need to draw near to the Father of us all, but I have found nothing at all about our need to develop a special relationship with Christ. The phrase, “come unto Christ” refers to being willing to make covenants with God, so that one doesn’t count.
Test 2 – Do the living oracles of God teach it?
Some doctrine wasn’t taught in the days of Abraham, or Moses, or even in the early Church. Some doctrines were reserved for the latter days, but have not yet made it into our written canon of scripture. However, we have more than one source for scriptures. Scriptures are the written word of God that have been accepted by the Lord’s people as His official teachings. That’s what makes up our Standard Works. But we are blessed to have continuing revelation, which means we have a constant flow of revelation from our great head, Jesus Christ, through his prophets and apostles. We can find these words in places like General Conference talks, our hymns, and official declarations from the Brethren, like the Proclamation on the Family, and the Testimony of the Apostles on the reality of the risen Christ.
If a teaching we are hearing at large in Church is true then we will also have the Apostles and the prophet teaching that doctrine. President M. Russell Ballard said the following in a Mission President’s seminar.
Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.
“And as you teach your missionaries to focus their eyes on us, teach them to never follow those who think they know more about how to administer the affairs of the Church than … Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ do” through the priesthood leaders who have the keys to preside.
I have discovered in my ministry that those who have become lost [and] confused are typically those who have most often … forgotten that when the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time.
My question was this: What do the Apostles and Prophets have to say about my relationship with Jesus? If I am supposed to have a special relationship with Christ then surely the prophets have taught this truth and the apostles have demonstrated how this is to be done. So I went to www.churchofjesuschrist.org and looked up “relationship with Christ” as my search. I got a total of one talk by an apostle on the subject, and that was a BYU-Provo devotional from 1982. That seemed odd to me that something people are talking about as so basic and vital to our salvation has not been discussed publicly by an apostle or prophet since 1982.
Test 3 – Is it simple, explainable, or is it mysterious?
President Russell M. Nelson has taught the Church that the gospel administered by Christ is a simple one. It is not complicated or convoluted, but simple. As I thought about what President Nelson has taught about the simplicity of the gospel, it occurred to me that any teaching should therefore be easy to explain and learn. There should be simple steps to learning any basic behavior needed for our salvation. And these should not only be able to be understood by an 18 year old missionary, but they should be teaching such things in their discussions. Do missionaries have in their materials anything about teaching people to develop a personal relationship with Christ? This is supposed to be something both basic and vital for our salvation, right?
Again, I can find nothing about this subject in anything taught by the missionaries. The basics of the gospel are easy, like drinking a glass of water. Not complicated. Don’t get me wrong, many teachings require faith before they can learn and receive their testimony and get converted to a commandment, but the process is easy, whether it is tithing, fast offerings, law of chastity, or Word of Wisdom. What is difficult is the faith required part, not the implementation part.
I have asked people over and over again how one develops a personal relationship with Christ, and the answer is always the same. Each time the answer is vague, nondescript, and ethereal in nature. There don’t seem to be any concrete steps that can explain why this relationship is so important, what is supposed to happen to me to tell me when I have it, or how it is supposed to be obtained. In my mind it is all very Protestant in its feel and application.
The truth about this teaching
Here are some paragraphs from the only talk I have found so far from the Brethren about this relationship we are supposedly supposed to develop with Christ. There was a book that went viral in the 70’s about our personal relationship with Christ, and even a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy who spoke about the subject. But in 1982 Bruce R. McConkie, one of the greatest scriptorians the Lord’s Church has ever produced gave a devotional talk entitled “Our Relationship with the Lord.” Here is what he taught about the subject. I encourage you to look up the whole talk and think your way through his logic. Elder McConkie was an attorney and his logic and reasoning is pretty clean.
Now, it is no secret that many false and vain and foolish things are being taught in the sectarian world and even among us about our need to gain a special relationship with the Lord Jesus. I shall summarize the true doctrine in this field and invite erring teachers and beguiled students to repent and believe the accepted gospel verities as I shall set them forth.
There is no salvation in believing any false doctrine, particularly a false or unwise view about the Godhead or any of its members. Eternal life is reserved for those who know god and the One whom he sent to work out the infinite and eternal atonement.
True and saving worship is found only among those who know the truth about God and the Godhead and who understand the true relationship men should have with each member of that Eternal Presidency. …
Our relationship with the Father is supreme, paramount, and preeminent over all others. He is the God we worship. It is his gospel that saves and exalts. He ordained and established the plan of salvation. He is the one who was once as we are now. The life he lives is eternal life, and if we are to gain this greatest of all the gifts of God, it will be because we become like him.
Our relationship with the Father is one of parent and child. He is the one who gave us our agency. It was his plan that provided for a fall and an atonement. And it is to him that we must be reconciled if we are to gain salvation. He is the one to whom we have direct access by prayer, and if there were some need—which there is not!—to single out one member of the Godhead for a special relationship, the Father, not the Son, would be the one to choose.
…you have never heard one of the First Presidency or the Twelve, who hold the keys of the kingdom, and who are appointed to see that we are not “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14)—you have never heard one of them advocate this excessive zeal that calls for gaining a so-called special and personal relationship with Christ.
You have heard them teach and testify of the ministry and mission of the Lord Jesus, using the most persuasive and powerful language at their command. But never, never at any time have they taught or endorsed the inordinate or intemperate zeal that encourages endless, sometimes day-long prayers, in order to gain a personal relationship with the Savior.
Those who truly love the Lord and who worship the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Spirit, according to the approved patterns, maintain a reverential barrier between themselves and all the members of the Godhead.
I understand that some people worry that they need to come to know Christ as he knows them. We are promised in the scriptures that someday we will see him as he sees us, and we will know him as he knows us. But what is important in that teaching is that he already knows us. And even in our weak and sin-ridden state he still loves us more than we can comprehend. Elder McConkie teaches us in his devotional that we need to learn respectful reverence for all three members of the Godhead. No one person in the Godhead should be singled out for any kind of special worship or relationship. They are unified, are one. In order for us to learn what that means we also need to learn to see them as a working team, all pulling together in their separate and unique roles to bring us back into the presence of God, our Father. But when we get there we will find that all of them are there, not just our Father.
I believe the Savior is disturbed when we focus too heavily on him to the neglect of our Father or the Spirit. He spent his whole ministry in mortality trying to teach everyone to look to and acknowledge the role of our Father in Heaven. That is why we learn that we “worship the Father in the name of the Son by the power of the Spirit.” We cannot properly single any one of them out for special treatment.
Anytime we run into something that seems off, unfamiliar, out of the ordinary, or unusual in the gospel, we can apply these three tests to the teaching to see if it measures up to the Lord’s pattern for teaching. Is it in the scriptures? Do the Brethren teach it clearly today? Is it simple and easy to understand, or is it mysterious? You should be able to choose any doctrine and have it fit at least two of these three tests. The most important of the three is the second test. The most important spiritual support we have in today’s world is the presence of living oracles of God. There is no safer place to be than in obedience to their teaching. Today’s revelations are more important than any other revelations ever received, for those received today are given for our immediate salvation.
Here is the link to the full talk from Elder Bruce R. McConkie.
Personal note: It has been pointed out to me that Elder Holland did a Church video in 2016 in which he strongly advocates creating a personal relationship with Christ through our experience with the sacrament each week. I don’t know if he is talking in the Protestant sense, if he is suggesting we take the Savior’s sacrifice very personally, or something else I might be missing. So here you have two Apostles advocating a difference in the interpretation and application of doctrine.
I hasten to add that what would settle this is teachings from a prophet, but to date I have found no prophet who has addressed this issue. So here you have one of those topics that needs to be put on the proverbial shelf until such time as a prophet clarifies it for us. Both Elders’ Holland and McConkie have my profoundest respect. I understand that language is a tricky thing, and that it can be difficult with some concepts to communicate things clearly. So until someone is able to clearly define whether or not we should be singling out the Savior from the rest of the Godhead for a special relationship, we should just tolerate and be understanding of differing points of view, since we don’t know what is correct. The three tests for determining whether or not something is true or false, I maintain are valid. Here is the link to watch Elder Holland’s video.