Seven Deadly Heresies

I’ve been thinking recently about some of the wild theological controversies in Christian history, such as the inclusion of the word filioque in the Nicene Creed (having to do with whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son), which was one of the dividing lines between East and West; the Reformation debate over justification by faith alone; and the meaning of the Eucharist: transubstantiation, or just a symbol? (I recently read about how during a particular historical period in England when anti-Catholic sentiment carried the day, you could be outright imprisoned for elevating the Host.)  And I’ve been thinking also about Mormon disputations with other Christians, focused on issues like the nature of God and salvation by grace, as well more internal Mormon controversies over matters such caffeinated drinks, Book of Mormon historicity, and of course all kinds of questions related to gender and sexual orientation.

Those who are deemed on the wrong side of these debates might get the label “heretic.” Bruce R. McConkie famously spoke of “seven deadly heresies”: the doctrine that God is progressing, the theory of evolution, the idea that temple marriage guarantees exaltation, the notion that you can get a “second chance” in the next life, the idea of progression between kingdoms, the infamous Adam-God doctrine, and the teaching that you have to be perfect to be saved. While I might actually believe in some of McConkie’s particular heresies, or at least be open to them, I’m thinking that there are nonetheless certain teachings that I’ve heard regularly which I think are deeply destructive—in my view, much more so than not  having the “right” view of the Trinity/Godhead, or even of Book of Mormon historicity. So here’s my list of my own “seven deadly heresies”:

1) If you keep the commandments  and/or engage in certain religious practices, you can escape life’s adversities. I feel like I’ve encountered this sentiment in all kinds of forms, ranging from “if you go to the temple regularly, your children will be protected from all harm” to “if you have enough faith, your depression will be cured.” It’s perhaps a natural outgrowth of the Deuteronomistic theology also present in the Book of Mormon that those who keep the commandments will “prosper in the land” (to use the BoM language). It’s this mindset which causes people to attribute their financial affluence, for example, to their righteous behavior—and even more obnoxiously, assume that the poor must have brought their poverty upon themselves through bad decisions.

The thing is—as reflected in the book of Job, among other places—life doesn’t actually seem to work that way. You can do everything “right,” and your life can completely fall apart. And if your faith was that God would give you a “get out of adversity free” card for righteous behavior, it can be incredibly devastating when that doesn’t happen, and feel like a terrible betrayal.

2) There is one person out there whom you are destined to marry, and you just need to find her/him. In other words, the “Saturday’s Warrior” theology that you promised your significant other in the pre-mortal life that you would find her/him. To say that this can mess people up when they are trying to make decisions about marriage is an understatement. (Though I should maybe add that I think the other extreme of “any two people with a testimony can make it work,” sometimes quoted in singles wards to chastise everyone for being “too picky,” is equally problematic.)

3) Your faith can trump other people’s agency. For all that agency is central to LDS beliefs, it seems to go out the window in certain cases. Many approaches to missionary work, for example, rest on the idea that if you have enough faith, God will override the agency of prospective converts and force them to choose baptism so that you can meet your goals. I also see as problematic the idea that the faith of parents will ultimately override the agency of their children, such that wayward children will eventually have to return if their parents were faithful enough. In a similar vein (and related to heresy #1 on my list), I’ve heard it preached over the pulpit that if you have regular family prayer and scripture study, your children are guaranteed  to stay in the church. The fallout from this one can be pretty bad. (And in an LDS theological worldview, I don’t see how it holds up: even God doesn’t get any guarantees that her/his wayward children will return—in fact, an entire third of them rebelled at the very beginning—so why would human parents get to override their children’s agency?)

4) Every person who engages in behavior x will get outcome y. I can’t tell you how many promises I’ve heard over the years, sometimes from people holding high church positions, that “the person who pays tithing will never apostatize” or “every person who goes through the temple comes out spiritually edified” or “if you take seminary, you will not regret it.” (I remember that last being stated at a fireside at the beginning of a school year when I was in high school, with great emotion, and an absolute promise that seminary would make your life better. I faithfully went to seminary. I in fact graduated from seminary with straight As. It totally messed me up, and if I could go back and tell my high school self one thing, it might well be “drop seminary!”) I’ve just gotten super skeptical over the course of my life about promises that certain religious practices will have the same outcome for everyone. And when they don’t, the unfortunate tendency is to blame the person for whom the practice didn’t work (“you must have not had enough faith/done it wrong.”) I realize that Moroni’s promise, which is central to the current LDS theology of conversion, fits in this vein, and I don’t know quite what to make of that. All I know is that I’ve met way too many people over the years who prayed and prayed and prayed about the Book of Mormon, and got—nothing. I wonder whether we could temper the absolute nature of this promise with the teaching found in both Paul and the Doctrine and Covenants that different people have differing spiritual gifts.

5) Everything that church leaders say is directly inspired of God. I grew up hearing “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over,” and as a kid, I was taught that this went all the way down the chain so that even every word that came out of the mouth of our poor bishop was held to be the exact will of God for our ward. I’ve blogged before about my view that Mormons tend to believe in “practical infallibility,” even if not theoretical infallibility. That this is a set-up for disillusionment when it turns out that even prophets have taught things that were later abandoned or repudiated seems pretty obvious to me.

6) Suffering is inherently virtuous. Christianity has a complicated—and I would say, not always very healthy—relationship with suffering. The problem is that once you see the redemption of the entire universe as the result of someone’s amazing act of suffering, it’s not such a leap to see suffering as a good thing, maybe even something to be emulated. This appears most explicitly perhaps in devoted religious people who over the centuries have sought out physical suffering as a way of emulating Christ. But while Mormons don’t generally engage in that kind of thing, I do think there is a certain cultural ambivalence about suffering. If God is engineering our trials for our growth, as sometimes gets taught, the motivation for working to reduce suffering in our own lives and in the world kind of has the rug pulled out from under it—because who are we to interfere with the divine character-building plan? I grew up in a family in which medication of any kind was suspect; it was seen as a sort of cop-out to drug away your pain, because the truly virtuous person would embrace the suffering. That’s probably an extreme view, but at least in the Mormon culture in which I was raised, that kind of thinking wasn’t unique to my family.

7) You have to be worthy to have a relationship with God. If I end up breaking with Mormonism, it may not be over polygamy or Book of Mormon historicity or even patriarchy—it may be over this. I really struggle with the elements in the tradition which suggest that a relationship with God is only for those who have merited it, who are qualified for it. I remember a BYU bishopric sending all the members of the ward a letter which shared what I think is a fairly common view: yes, God will love you whatever you do, but don’t expect to ever feel that love or have a relationship with the divine if you aren’t keeping the commandments. I still remember the bleak, hopeless feeling that settled over me as I read those words. I think this worldview is reinforced by the teaching that you have to be worthy to take the sacrament, to participate in temple worship, and even to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. I’m open to the possibility that some find that that way of thinking inspires them to do better. But in my own life, I’ve come to reject any hint that a relationship with God is something only offered to those who are sufficiently righteous. The radical message of Christianity, as I see it, is that God seeks to be in relationship with everyone, that Christ died for us “while we were yet sinners.” (Romans 5:8)

So that’s my list of deadly heresies. What would you add (or subtract)?


  1. I categorically reject the widespread supposition that “We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet” is a song about prophets, appropriate for occasions celebrating The Prophet.

  2. Wow, Lynnette! I love your list. I’ve definitely run into all of these many times in church, and I agree with you that they’re destructive. Your #3, about one person’s faith overriding another’s agency, is one that stands out to me. I remember finding this approach just so, so depressing when I was a missionary. When I wasn’t able to force people to let me teach or baptize them, that was always on me, and I was wicked for not being able to override their agency. Looking back, it seems like an obvious admission that the mission culture (at least in my mission) was a sales culture, and the agency of our targets (sorry, potential investigators) was irrelevant. And you make a great point about connecting this to how parents are taught about their kids’ agency, as epitomized by the infamous “tentacles of divine providence” quote. I’m sure this type of teaching accounts for much of parents’ anxiety over their kids leaving the Church that I’ve heard so much about as I’ve hung out with fringe and ex-Mormons.

    Thinking more broadly about your list, I wonder if #1, #3, and #4 can’t all be at least partially attributed to power-of-positive-thinking/self-help/business speak leaking into the Church from the surrounding culture. They all seem to stem from an oversimplified view of the world where if you’re not succeeding at something, it’s just because you haven’t tried hard enough or haven’t tried the right recipe yet. I think the impulse to teach people to be responsible for their own lives as much as they can is a good one, but as illustrated by these teachings, it can go way overboard into destructive territory.

    If I could add to the list, I think I would pick the general suspicion of recreation that I’ve learned in the Church. GAs can’t even mention recreation without compulsively adding the descriptor “wholesome” to it to make clear that they’re not talking about actual recreation, but rather, some semi-recreational pseudo-fun thing that’s maybe about as fun as chuckling at a joke in a Conference talk. There are all the good talks and lessons about the evils of idleness, and the helpful D&C telling us that we need to go to bed early so that we can get up and work. I just think it’s harmful to be taught that you should be constantly concerned with your duties, which make up a list far too long to ever keep up with, and that you shouldn’t ever actually take a break to enjoy yourself.

  3. I haven’t run into #6 much in the Church.

    #1 feels like a subset of #4, but I suppose I can see why you’d give it its own place on the list.

    #2 used to be ubiquitous (is it still?) and I always found it silly, but if church members want to believe it about themselves (as my maternal grandparents did), that’s fine. Just don’t teach it as a general rule.

    #4 and #5 are both maddening, and they’re what much of my ire and angst have been directed at over the years. I feel like I’m surrounded by toddlers when I run into these notions at church. Books could be written on these topics.

    I agree with you about #7, but I’m a Johnny-come-lately to this concern. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I just never bought it.

    Aaron B

  4. We had a talk at stake conference that held that “luck” is a bad word. That good outcomes are rightfully, and righteously, blessings from God.

    I think the inescapable conclusion of that mindset is that bad luck is either a curse from God or God withholding a blessing. Both of which are devastating viewpoints, especially when combined with a healthy dose of heresy #4 (do X, get Y).

    For me, there’s just no room for such an intrusive God and one committed to free will. Sometimes (most times) a good break is just plain luck.

  5. I don’t know if this rises to the level of deadly heresy, but a damaging fallacy is “Living in a traditional family with a dad, a mom, and a pile of kids has always been the one God-approved route to a happy and fulfilling life.” For example, one of the documents on Mormon leaks, which was about training volunteers to campaign for Prop 8, had the statement, “Proposition 8 does not discriminate against anyone, it simply restores the definition and meaning of marriage as it has been known since the beginning of time.” It’s ironic and disturbing all in one run-on sentence.

  6. I think #7 might be the worst for me, although I do agree with the others and have seen their corrosive effects on many Saints over the years. One of the best ways we could limit the effects of #7 would be to stop recommending Pres. Kimball’s horrible book, The Certainty of Damnation (I might be off a little on the title) to bishops and to people going through a difficult repentance process. Talk about a killer of hope…

  7. All of these. But especially #5, which I tended to reject just enough to identify myself as not “church broke” enough to ever be a teacher. Except for that one time when they needed someone both thoughtful and compassionate to handle the emotionally disturbed kid who kept running off all his teachers, but that is another story.

    My problem with prophetic infallibility is that it leads to a lack of rigor in critical thinking among members who lean toward the soft comfort of avoiding wrestling with complicated questions. “When the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” is the way it was quoted in my youth, but in reality I have found no substitute for taking the time to acquaint oneself with a thorny problem, and to think it through, in order to judge correctly how to deal with it.

    And yet I had a hopeful belief in some of the other items on your list, especially the one about family habits — prayer, scripture reading, and regular home evening in particular– would keep one’s children from straying. I have had a years-long experience of observing the complexities of reality and thinking that one through, and my results, as usual, differ from the soft and comfortable platitudes I began with.

  8. The only two I feel like I was ever taught were #4 and #7, although for #4 I learned that we are always blessed for following the commandments but those blessings were not the same for everyone.

    #6 is not a very widespread belief in my experience with Mormonism but I think it is the most dangerous. I had a friend that believed that as long as someone else was helped that any suffering (my friend) endured would be worth it. This was justified by saying that Jesus suffered for all and it was worth it. My friend would sacrifice anything for everyone and often only got 1-2 hours of sleep helping people with all their problems, but it was “all right” because being on the verge of a mental breakdowns is ok as long as someone else is being helped. Eventually my friend did have a mental breakdown and took years of therapy to recover. Suffering =/= good.

    #7 seems very widespread and I finally understood that it’s not true when I was not doing the things I should. I just wanted to know if I was worth anything and I prayed to God to find out. I’ve never felt closer to God than at the moment yet I was definitely a sinner and not worthy. Feeling close to God helped me conquer my feelings of self worth and depression, even while I still sinned. Eventually I stopped sinning and became “worthy”, but I’ve never felt closer to God than while a sinner struggling with self doubt and depression.

  9. Regarding your #4:

    Listen (no transcript there) to it is a talk given by Sterling W. Sill in January, 1960. In it he states the most egregious example of this fallacy I have ever come across: “Every Beatitude is a promise to pay; every commandment has a blessing attached. If we keep the Word of Wisdom, we get a reward. If we honor our father and mother we get an award. If we keep the Sabbath day holy we get the promised blessing. Even when one is honest or thinks right he bestows a blessing upon himself. Of course, we only get those blessings that we are willing to live for.”

    Regarding the infallibility issue: Nov 6, 1994 – Apostle M. Russell Ballard tells 25,000 students at BYU that general authorities “will not lead you astray. We cannot.” This claim of infallibility is officially published, and he repeats it to another BYU devotional meeting in March 1996.

  10. I think the overarching theme in most, if not all, of the popular heresies is the idea that there is one correct way. Certainly Christ said that strait is the way and narrow the gate but he was describing a path not a set of footprints. A path is a path. Some of us may walk to the right, some to the left. Some will have snow. Some will have sun. Too often we (you, me, all of us.) believe that if we step. exactly. where. others. step that we will get XYZ, good or bad. We forget that we each have a different stride, entered the path at a different time, and have different companions on the journey.

    There are recognized landmarks along the way and common traps which need to be avoided but some of us will miss a landmark and some of us will fall in a trap. While others are quick to point out how these diversions cause heart ache and pain they are less quick to recognize that these diversions also alter our path. They often also fail to recognize that their path, the only reference path they understand, becomes less adequate to understanding our journey.

    Lastly, to ensure this analogy is beaten to death, too many concentrate entirely on the path and judge others accordingly. The Priest and the Levite were path oriented yet the Samaritan is the hero of the story.

    I’d toss something in here about flowers but you get the idea.


  11. I think the attempt to turn God into a vending machine is so pervasive that it is mind boggling.

    I’ve had a number of people as my wife what sins she committed that we had three children die in five years.

    Kimball spoke aggressively against the theme of prophetic infallibility and in favor of the doctrine that embracing infallibility will lead you straight to hell.

    We need another to restore that.

  12. You point out that there are two competing ideas:

    “There is one person out there whom you are destined to marry, and you just need to find her/him.”

    “Any two people with a testimony can make it work.”

    I think the second idea is ascendant in recent years, and the first is headed towards the dustbin. But for Mormons it has to be one or the other, because they cannot accept a middle position: You should pick someone with whom you are compatible and work hard at incorporating Christian principles in your marriage, but recognize that sometimes righteous people make the wrong choice and it just doesn’t work out.

  13. Upon further thought, I think I’d revise #6. I do think the idea that suffering is virtuous gets taught in a certain subset of Mormonism. But I think the related problematic idea that’s much more broadly taught is that God has engineered the trials in your life to test you, or build character.

  14. Okay, yeah. On that note, I’m really? over the idea that problematic systems are part of God’s Plan.

    Babies die of cancer? Part of the plan.
    Poor people suffering? Part of the plan.
    Women have no institutional voice? Part of the plan.

    I’m going to go ahead and suggest that any time you want to tell someone what God’s plan is for them, you better pause and take a hubris check, because God is awfully secretive about what his actual plan is and the details of how it works, despite any enthusiastic claims of Restorationists.

  15. Numbers 1 & 4 are the pendulum swings past the center mark away from the most widespread worldly heresy. Basically stated it is: there are no or minimal consequences for some sins or even non-sinful actions because they are not really sins/bad actions, they are of lesser importance, those laws do not apply to me, or I can be saved in ignorance.
    For an older example of this: some people are like George Burns and can smoke and drink every day of their adult life and still live to 100 years. He had much lower consequences for these actions than many other people, but there were still some, smaller than normal, negative consequences. For some, they get immediate spiritual manifestations of many things, for others it takes lots of work to barely discern the spirit’s voice. Our actions have consequences, but some of those vary widely from individual to individual.

  16. Great list. I remember a promise we received as missionaries that if we worked a certain number of hours in the next month, then one of our investigators would be baptized. The bizarre thing is that I was 100 percent sure I got a strong spiritual confirmation that the promise was true. Well, we worked the required number of hours, and guess what? Nobody got baptized. I know there was no time limit other than an implied one, but I’ve even kept in touch with Church leaders in that area and checked membership records. Nobody we taught has ever been baptized. And it’s been 40 years now, so I’m not holding my breath. We also had a mission president who had us commit to a certain number of baptisms. He told us if we had sufficient faith, we could baptize that number of people. I guess I didn’t have enough faith, because I baptized about 1/10 of my committed goal. Or maybe it had something to do with people’s agency and the fact that my European mission was full of hard-headed agnostics.

    To add to Ziff’s comment, when I worked at Church magazines we were not allowed to print the word “fun.” I heard it had something to do with Elder Haight, who didn’t believe Mormons should have “fun.” So, yeah, that kind of recreation.

    SteveS, if we toss out the penal substitution theory of atonement, we have to toss the Book of Mormon, so maybe we’d better rethink that one.

  17. Ransom, it has often struck me that “We Thank Thee O God For a Prophet” is not actually a hymn about prophets. Maybe we could just quickly sing the first line when the prophet walked in, and then stop? 😉

    Ziff, even though I didn’t serve a mission myself, I’ve been kind of of blown away by hearing how pervasive the sales culture focused on numbers seems to be in many missions. (LOL about “potential investigators” as “targets.”) And oh yes, the “tentacles” quote. Even setting aside the theological problems, is anyone actually reassured to hear that divine tentacles will be reaching after them?

    I agree that a lot of this comes from the culture of positive thinking, in which the individual has absolute power to shape reality. (The last time I was in the hospital, the CBT preacher said that explicitly: “through the power of your mind, you can change reality!” I thought, if only I could change the reality that I’m being forced to sit through this CBT group.)

    Really interesting point about the suspicion of recreation. There does seem to be an idea in Mormonism that you should be busy all the time “doing good,” and the church makes sure that there is such a long list of good things to do that you will never run out—so the possibility of having some down time and just doing something enjoyable sometimes doesn’t appear a lot.

    Aaron B., as I said on FB, I agree that 1 and 4 and not unrelated, but what kind of substandard heresies list stops at six? 😉 I’m interested to hear that you never bought 7. Some of these I didn’t internalize at all (I think 2, for example, always seemed silly), and some I maybe internalized a bit, but 7 is the one that most seriously messed me up.

    Spencer, yikes! I agree that interpreting every single good thing as a deserved blessing from God gets you in serious trouble fast.

    Tokozile, yeah, the idea that the “traditional family” as currently constituted by the church is the one and only way to happiness has run completely amok. (And that quote re Prop 8 wants to make me tear my hair out. For one thing, yes, Prop 8 discriminated. That was the entire point of it!)

    Grey Ghost, yes! I read SWK’s The Certainty of Damnation as a young teen and wow did it mess with my head.

    MDearest, I think 5 is everywhere. I could never teach it, either, so I only got called to be at a teacher in wards that were already heretical. I honestly don’t get the appeal of not having to think about anything, because the leaders have already performed a vicarious work of thinking on your behalf. Maybe it’s connected to another teaching I might add to this list: “obedience is the first law of heaven.” If the entire point of life is to practice obedience, thinking is just a distraction, maybe?

    Sam P., I have known people like your friend. We don’t teach boundaries enough, in my opinion, especially for women. And I very much relate to your experience with 7—I finally managed to start questioning it when I noticed that God didn’t seem to following it at all in her/his interactions with me.

    fbisti, yep. I got an email about this post complaining that I should have put in GA quotes with each heresy to demonstrate that the church doesn’t actually teach them, but my observation is that the church (if “church” is code for GA’s) does actually teach at least some of them.

    STW, the one correct way notion does seem pervasive, and is perhaps inevitable, I’m wondering, in a church which proclaims that it is the one true church? Given that in the LDS worldview there’s only one right way to do baptism that God will accept, to give one example, it makes sense that the idea that there’s also one right way to do scripture study might also bubble up. The tension between noticing that people seem to thrive on different paths, but not going to the extreme of saying that all paths are equally good and all lead back to God, is something I’ve wrestled with a lot in my theological work.

    Stephen, I’ve seen the vending machine God everywhere, too. I hadn’t heard that SWK was so anti-infallibility—though that would maybe make sense of why he wasn’t on board with ETB’s “Fourteen Fundamentals.”

    SteveS, I would happily throw out penal substitution; I think it’s a horrifying doctrine. But I think it would take a lot more cultural pushback than currently exists to declare it a deadly heresy. One difficulty, as noted by R below, it is presence in canonized texts. I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker, because we’ve managed to completely ignore other things in canonized texts, but it’s something to consider.

    gst, that’s a really interesting point about LDS ideas about marriage. I agree that the possibility that it just might not work for two people who are doing their best is not a live one in current LDS discourse.

    Random, I also have serious reservations about theodicies in which everything is just a part of God’s plan; I think on some basic level, that viewpoint is a denial of the reality of evil and of the tragic (because things which appear “bad” are re-defined as “good” from an eternal perspective).

    el oso, I think where it gets dicey is that many non-LDS (and some wavering LDS) dabble in things considered sin by LDS (e.g., coffee or premarital sex), and when it doesn’t ruin their lives, of course they’re going to question whether LDS assertions that those things are sin really hold up. That raises more complicated issues than I can do justice to in a brief comment, but I do think the church might be better off dropping the catastrophizing discourse about the consequences of certain sins, and frame the matter in other ways (e.g., “I don’t drink coffee as a reflection of my personal commitment to God, not because coffee will lead to an early death.”)

    R, wow, that’s a great story about your mission. And so interesting that “fun” was explicitly prohibited. When we were kids, Ziff always claimed that the first commandment was “thou shalt not have any fun.” He may have been on to something! Re penal substitution in the BoM: I agree that it’s there, but I would add that the BoM isn’t univocal on the subject.

  18. Heresie that as man is God once was and as God is man may become. God is eternal. There was no God before him or beside him and will never be a God after him.
    Heresie that God didn’t preserve his words and that the early church failed. Upon this rock Jesus built his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
    Heresie of temple work. God does not dwell in temples made with hands. The heavens are his throne and the earth is his footstool, what house will we build God?
    Heresie that Jesus is not God in the flesh. The Book of Mormon teaches in Alma 11 and Mosiah 15 that Jesus is God in the flesh but in church we are taught that Jesus is our spirit brother. Jesus showed us in many different ways that he is Lord of all.
    Heresie of works salvation or earning your way to heaven. Salvation is not of ourselves but by grace. Free gift of God to those who believe. Jesus said if we don’t believe that “I am he” we will die in our sins. If we are saved by grace we cannot be saved by works otherwise it is no more grace. Born again when all things become new. When were you born again.
    Heresie we must believe Joseph was a true prophet. There is no other name in heaven or in earth by which we can be saved. Only Jesus.
    Heresie of secret handshakes, secret names, oaths of secrecy. Jesus said nothing in secret. What he says to us he says to all.

  19. Daniel, yawn. I might have been deliciously shocked at one point in my life to hear that some Mormon beliefs were heretical from the Protestant point of view you seem to be advocating. But really, Old News.


Comments are closed.