When Mormons become Pharisees

Edit: It’s been pointed out to me that Pharisees may be misrepresented by Christianity in general, and that they may have simply been striving to follow the teachings of God as they understood them. I haven’t had much time to look into these claims (thanks to my work schedule) but I did want to give a disclaimer to be safe. When I speak of “Pharisees” in this article, I’m referencing people who follow the law down to the letter. It’s entirely possible to follow it to the letter without losing sight of the reason for the law, but I’m speaking of those who lose sight of that.


My last post on the challenges of being obedient as a missionary reminded me of an unusual lesson that my mission president taught us. At the time there was a somewhat secret underground group in my mission that played Magic: The Gathering in their (extremely limited) free time. When my mission president got wind of this, he immediately banned not only Magic but all games.

In the Zone Conference following this, my mission president got up and asked us a simple question: What are the temple recommend interview questions? Being the diligent missionaries we were, we started rattling them all off, and when we got to the seventh question, he stopped us.

“Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?”

My mission president paused and asked us what we thought this meant. Several missionaries replied by saying that faithful members of the church should not affiliate with groups who fight the church. One Elder suggested that it wouldn’t be acceptable to be part of an organization that was lobbying for the legalization of gay marriage. Another hypothesized that it would be wrong to affiliate with a political party that wanted to restrict religious freedom.

My mission president followed this up with a variant of the slippery slope fallacy that was so blatant that I couldn’t take it seriously.

Before we get to that though, let’s review what a slippery slope fallacy is:

“You said that if we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen too, therefore A should not happen.”

“The problem with this reasoning is that it avoids engaging with the issue at hand, and instead shifts attention to extreme hypotheticals.”

Source: Your Logical Fallacy Is

President Smith (as I’ll call him here) told us that we were associating with a group that opposed the church by playing Magic: The Gathering because some of the cards depicted demonic creatures on them. He went on to explain that this was dangerous because it glorified Satan and gave an inaccurate depiction of him and his followers.

To put it simply: We were fighting against the church by playing Magic: The Gathering

President Smith (who I still love and respect) utilized a variant of the slippery slope fallacy by applying a temple recommend question to an extreme hypothetical, but this type of thinking isn’t just limited to my mission president. I actively see examples of this extreme hypothetical thinking every day in the church:

– Casinos use face cards, so faithful members of the church shouldn’t use them
– The Word of Wisdom bans coffee and tea, which both have caffeine in them, so members shouldn’t drink anything with caffeine in it (hello Coke and Pepsi!)
– President Hinkley asked women to only wear one pair of earrings, so they probably shouldn’t have any
– For the Strength of Youth prohibits R-rated movies, so they’re inappropriate for members of any age
– Conference talks and MoTab are the only appropriate thing to listen to on Sunday. Because the Celestial Kingdom will be a giant Sabbath day, truly faithful members should only listen to conference talks and MoTab during the week.

These are all things that I’ve heard different members of the church claim at one time or another, and for years I couldn’t figure out why I was bothered by it. I can now see that these members, well-intentioned as they may be, were starting at point A and extrapolating to point Z when there’s no evidence to suggest that doing so was prudent.

A Pharisaical Mind Set

The point I’m trying to make is this: Mormonism has a curious tendency to turn well-intentioned people into Pharisees. Members become so concerned with following the letter of the law that they invent new parts of the law. At that point they aren’t following the Gospel of Christ, they’re following the Gospel as interpreted by them, and they inevitably end up missing the entire point of the original rule. The “spirit of the law,” or the reason that the law was given in the first place, becomes less important than the “letter of the law.”

My mission president was trying to do the right thing when he banned Magic from the mission. He was worried that we would become distracted and end up staying inside playing rather than going out and doing missionary work. In his desire to follow the spirit of the law (don’t let games become more important than your work), he got carried away and created a law that dismissed the good that could have come from letting us play in our free time (critical thinking skills and lower stress levels.)

So next time you encounter a rule that seems unusually strict and arbitrary, ask yourself: What is this trying to accomplish? In my experience, many of these rules are unnecessary and are often the result of extrapolating a simple idea past the point of usefulness.

Don’t be a Pharisee.


Note: In pointing out the logical fallacy used by my mission president, I’ve become hyper-sensitive to my writing. I hope that my argument doesn’t utilize any logical fallacies, but if it does, feel free to let me know, and I’ll try to fix things up.


One thought

  1. The Pharisees actually get a really unfair rep, thanks to the Biblical text (or peoples’ assumptions based on it).
    The Pharisees were the sect of Judaism most similar to the views of the historical Jesus, from what we can tell. They were simply devoted to striving to live what they believed to be the “law of god” as earnestly as possible.
    There’s no reason their belief tradition deserves to be synonymous with hypocrisy. And as for Jesus death, it was the Sadducees (the ruling priest class) not the Pharisees who conspired to bring it about (If you accept the NT record).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s