When God redirects us
The converts of Ammon never cease to amaze me. These remarkable converts who "never did fall away" exemplified quiet yet determined discipleship. When the Lamanite armies came to exterminate them, they did the unexpected.
NOTE: This is an update of a post I originally wrote in 2018.
The covenant of peace
All the people were assembled together, they took their swords, and all the weapons which were used for the shedding of man's blood, and they did bury them up deep in the earth.
And this they did, it being in their view a testimony to God, and also to men, that they never would use weapons again for the shedding of man's blood; and this they did, vouching and covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives.
Note that this wasn't just a symbolic gesture. Mormon specifically uses the word covenant. This was a covenant so important that, when they were about to break it out of love for their Nephite brethren, "Helaman feared lest by so doing they should lose their souls."
The covenant of war
Ultimately (and thankfully), the Ammonite converts never broke their covenant of peace. But that didn't stop them from helping in the cause They offered provisions, lands, and other aid to strengthen the Nephites. Then, in an act of godlike sacrifice, these wonderful Christians offered their own sons to become one with and then save the Nephites:
But behold, it came to pass they had many sons, who had not entered into a covenant that they would not take their weapons of war to defend themselves against their enemies; therefore they did assemble themselves together at this time, as many as were able to take up arms, and they called themselves Nephites.
And they entered into a covenant to fight for the liberty of the Nephites, yea, to protect the land unto the laying down of their lives; yea, even they covenanted that they never would give up their liberty, but they would fight in all cases to protect the Nephites and themselves from bondage.
Notice the "covenant" word appearing over and over again to describe the promise made by those willing sons.
Comparing the covenants
There are interesting textual similarities between these two generations of righteous Lamanite converts:
- Both groups "assembled" together to make the covenants as a community.
- Both groups took upon themselves new names in conjunction with this covenant
- Both covenants involved with weapons of war (see also the Nephites covenanting with Moroni with swords in hand).
There are also interesting points of contrast:
- The Ammonite converts covenanted not to fight. Their sons covenanted that they would fight.
- The Ammonites covenanted that they "never would" use weapons" and "never would shed blood." Their sons covenanted that they "never would give up their liberty"
- The Ammonites covenanted to "bury" their weapons. Their sons covenanted to "take up arms"
- The Ammonites referred to the oncoming Lamanite armies as their "brethren." Their sons referred to them as their "enemies."
Many aspects of these two generations' covenants are remarkably similar. But in most respects, the nature of what these sons were covenanting is exactly the opposite.
Reacting to inspired changes in direction
Mormon wrote that "God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing." God will never cease loving His children. And the core doctrines of the Gospel are eternal truths. However, God will modify the specifics of how we are to live that Gospel. Sometimes, the instructions He gives us might even be the opposite of the instructions He gave our predecessors. If a mother tells her young son not to play with matches, then tells her teenage daughter to start the campfire, she os not contradicting herself– she is guiding different children at different points in time and different circumstances. Policies, practices, and even the nature of our covenants can and will change from time to time according to the circumstances of God's children and the continuous direction God reveals to His leaders.
Sometimes this change is hard to bear. Ancient Israel struggled to accept the higher law preached by Christ. Christians in this dispensation struggle to accept the truths of the Restoration. Early members in this dispensation struggled to accept the institution of polygamy, and their descendants struggled with its end. Some 50 years ago struggled to accept extending priesthood ordination to African decent. Some today (myself included) still find ourselves using phrases like "Mormon," "home teaching," and "lds.org."
So what should we do when new guidance arises?
1. Understand the difference between doctrine and practice
For the purpose of this discussion, let's define "doctrines" as the eternal, unchangeable truths relevant to our salvation or exaltation. Doctrines are taught in every dispensation, and are found in the standard works and the united, consistent voice of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. They are the only truths we can safely use as foundations for our testimonies.
By this definition, virtually nothing– from Church basketball to priesthood ordination requirements to the Sacrament itself– meets the high bar of "doctrine." The basic doctrines include:
- The existence and attributes of Heavenly Father
- The existence and role of Jesus Christ as our Savior
- The Plan of Salvation
- The cleansing and enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ
- The principles of the Gospel: faith, repentance, obedience, sacrifice, consecration, etc.
- The power of God manifest in our lives as the priesthood
- The divine nature of eternal marriage and family ties as outlined in the Family Proclamation.
Everything we practice outside these basic truths is subject to change. Our first step is to make sure our testimonies are not built upon practices that may shift underneath us.
For example, requirements for priesthood ordination have changed numerous times throughout the millennia. Sometimes, only prophets were ordained to priesthood office. Eventually a portion of that authority was granted to the Levites. New priesthood offices were introduced over time. Eventually, all worthy adult males excluding those of African decent were permitted ordination. Later, Aaronic priesthood offices were conferred on kids as young as 12 (now 11). Eventually, all worthy males regardless of race were blessed with this privilege.
Will women may someday be ordained to priesthood office? Maybe. The scriptures and the Prophets are meticulously silent on whether that will occur, so there is space for that possibility within the doctrine of the Church. Because priesthood ordination requirements are not doctrinal, we should not use the current requirements as expectations or foundations for our testimony.
2. Changes we like
Sometimes, the course of the Church changes on a contested issue in a way that we favor. For example, I never personally saw the benefit of the Church's association with Scouting, and was happy to see it die. Likewise, if the Lord does choose to extend priesthood ordination to women, millions of Church members who currently wish it would happen will celebrate.
However, we need to be extremely careful. While our changes may be possible under Church doctrine, it would be inappropriate and arrogant to try to force the hand of the Lord or our leaders to bring them to pass (looking at you, Ordain Women). This is evil. If our preferred policies are implemented, we must avoid the smug attitude, congratulating the Brethren for "finally coming around" to our point of view, or attributing the change to our advocacy efforts.
Instead, we must pray to gain a testimony that this change is what God would have us live at this time and for the humility to treat it as such. We must learn to accept both the Lord's will and the Lord's timing with gratitude for continual revelation.
3. Changes we don't like
What about when new directions contradict our personal views?
First, we need to be careful not to minimize the change. As I said earlier, distinguishing which aspects of the Gospel are doctrine is important. We don't build our testimonies on things that can change. However, we reject the Lord whenever we say "This isn't doctrine, so it's not important, it's not inspired, or I don't need to obey."
Let's call this attitude what it is: apostasy. And 2021 was full of it. Half the Church complained about the continued stance against homosexual activity while the other half complained about the counsel to mask and get the Covid vaccine. Both sides tried to justify away prophetic counsel by saying "It's not doctrine so I can ignore it."
Second, we must avoid feelings of anger or betrayal. It can be difficult to accept changes you do not agree with, especially when earlier proponents of the change are gleefully shoving it down your throat. In these instances, our responsibility is the same as for changes we like:
We must pray to gain a testimony that this change is what God would have us live at this time and for the humility to treat it as such. We must learn to accept both the Lord's will and the Lord's timing with gratitude for continual revelation.
In all cases, we are to thank God for a Prophet and "love to obey His command." No matter when. No matter what.