Priestcraft in our Teaching?

Our love for the Scriptures may have negative consequences

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We will first address the importance of continual learning. Then we will reflect on whether we are ever guilty of priestcraft in our teaching, class participation or social media sharing—and what we can do to eliminate that from our hearts.

What we learn in this life we take into eternity. Learning is especially important to us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Learning is truly an eternal endeavor. President Henry B. Eyring is known for his great learning and intellectual capacity—beside his tremendous spirituality. He was a professor at Stanford University. He is an example for all of us. But learning was not always easy for him.

“It was a soft and loving voice — but firm. The words voiced were these: ‘When you realize who you really are, you will be sorry that you didn’t try harder.’”

In college, President Eyring went through some critical moments in which he thought of abandoning his studies. He recalled skipping the first question in a test when he did not know the answer. He felt much fear when he reached the end of the test and had not been able to answer any of the questions. He considered quitting his studies. One night he felt the reassurance of the Spirit on this matter:1

“I can remember it as if it had just happened,” President Eyring said. “Help came as a voice, an actual voice, in my mind. It was not my voice. It was a soft and loving voice—but firm. The words voiced were these: ‘When you realize who you really are, you will be sorry that you didn’t try harder.’”1

As I read these words from President Eyring, I felt something very beautiful. I not only considered the intellectual and academic aspect, but the Gospel in general. If we knew who we really were in the premortal world, and the blessings that the Lord has in store for those who keep their covenants and endure to the end, we would not easily give up. But, let us return to the topic of academic and Gospel study and the importance of learning.

President Eyring took comfort in knowing the Lord knows everything. When he leaned upon the Holy Ghost, he discovered, “[I could learn] true things beyond my human ability… With the influence of the Holy Ghost, we can learn things, know things and do things beyond our personal powers … Believe that we have a divine mandate to go on learning for as long as we live and then into eternity. Believe that the Father can send us the Holy Ghost, who is the Spirit of Truth. Be patient and persistent in learning. With the help of the Holy Ghost, and by learning line upon line as we are diligent in our efforts and full of faith in Jesus Christ, we will be able to accomplish much more than we thought possible.”1

Furthermore, President Eyring counseled: “You will never regret learning—neither in this life, nor in the world to come. Indeed, you will treasure forever what you learn and what you learn about how to keep on learning.”1

Learning at Church and at home

We learn so we can share with others. There is no learning more important than learning about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have seen an important and beautiful transition in the educational system of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints between the days I joined the Church in 1974 and today. It is expected that teachers involve their students much more. The trend is towards facilitating learning and away from lecturing.

In the worldwide devotional for youth this past June, President Russell M. Nelson spoke to the youth about the importance of not only praying, but also of listening to the answer to these prayers.2In today’s Church classrooms teachers make every effort to have students receive inspiration from the Spirit, so they can better comprehend the Scriptures and how to apply them in their lives. Furthermore, the move from a three-hour to a two-hour block is not just to give people more time, but to promote Gospel learning in the home. There has never been a more blessed time to be alive.
And there never has been a more wonderful time to be involved in the preaching of the Gospel, either directly as teachers in the Church, or indirectly as students or class participants. We live in a time when information, both that which is correct or that which is false, is at the reach of individuals.

President M. Russell Ballard taught: “Gone are the days when a student asked an honest question and a teacher responded, ‘Don’t worry about it!’ Gone are the days when a student raised a sincere concern and a teacher bore his or her testimony as a response intended to avoid the issue… One way to know what questions your students have is to listen attentively to them… In addition to listening to your students, encourage them in class or in private to ask you questions about any topic.3

Every member of the restored Church participates as a student or teacher, and generally in both roles at different times of the same week or day. We participate in the learning process in our homes, at Church and through the social networks. We have the duty of not only learning, but to be sensitive about sharing with others without offending. We share as moved upon by the pure love of Christ.

President Harold B. Lee observed: “We would remind you that the acquiring of knowledge by faith is no easy road to learning. It demands strenuous effort and a continual striving by faith. … Someone has said, in effect, that such a process requires the bending of the whole soul, the calling up of the depths of the human mind and linking it with God—the right connection must be formed. Then only comes ‘knowledge by faith.’”4 And is this not what moves us; The desire to change lives and help others, and ourselves, to turn hearts unto Christ.

Voice of warning against Priestcraft

Our prophets have sounded the voice of warning, especially to those who love to study, teach and share. We must feel this warning constantly, in the home, Church, with our friends and neighbors, and in the social networks. The following words are a combination of some thoughts I have had of late and especially of two sources I have cited (you may wish to read the complete articles for sources 3 & 4, especially if you are a CES teacher or have a calling to teach at Church). These two talks were directed to those who work for CES, but I feel the advice applies to all of us who love to study the Scriptures and the teachings of the modern-day prophets.

Years ago, Elder Oaks delivered a talk that deeply affected me and which I quote frequently. He explained that we must be vigilant so our strengths do not turn into weaknesses (Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall).4 Among these, Elder Oaks warned against a specific type of pride, called priestcraft, wherein individuals “set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may [receive the] praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Nephi 26:29). Note, the double problem, wherein individuals (1) seek to “set themselves up for a light” and (2) “they seek not the welfare of Zion.” Before concluding this article, we shall see a powerful antidote against such pride.

President M. Russell Ballard warned, “Now a word of caution: Please recognize you may come to believe, like many of your students do, that you are a scriptural, doctrinal, and history expert. A recent study revealed that ‘the more people think they know about a topic, the more likely they are to allege understanding beyond what they know, even to the point of feigning knowledge of false facts and fabricated information.’ … It is perfectly all right to say, ‘I do not know.’ However, once that is said, you have a responsibility to find the best answers to thoughtful questions your students ask.”3

President Ballard also spoke about the importance of keeping up to date: “In teaching your students and in responding to their questions, let me warn you not to pass along faith-promoting or unsubstantiated rumors or outdated understandings and explanations of our doctrine and practices from the past. It is always wise to make it a practice to study the words of the living prophets and apostles; keep updated on current Church issues, policies, and statements through mormonnewsroom.org and LDS.org; and consult the works of recognized, thoughtful, and faithful LDS scholars to ensure you do not teach things that are untrue, out of date, or odd and quirky.” He also warned that individuals who think they understand may fail to “[educate] themselves in precisely those areas in which they consider themselves knowledgeable.”3

Elder Dallin H. Oaks said: “Another illustration of a strength that can become our downfall concerns the charismatic teacher. With a trained mind and a skillful manner of presentation, a teacher can become unusually popular and effective in teaching. But Satan will try to use that strength to corrupt the teacher by encouraging him or her to gather a following of disciples… Teachers who are most popular—and therefore most effective—have a special susceptibility to this form of priestcraft. If they are not careful, their strength can become their spiritual downfall.”4

Elder Marvin J. Ashton likewise said, “Be careful, be aware, be wise when people speak well of you. When people treat you with great respect and love, be careful, be aware, be wise. When you are honored, pointed out, and recognized, it can be a cross, especially if you believe what is said about you. … Praise of the world can be a heavy cross.”4

President Howard W. Hunter warned, “Let me give a word of caution to you. I am sure you recognize the potential danger of being so influential and so persuasive that your students build an allegiance to you rather than to the gospel. Now that is a wonderful problem to have to wrestle with, and we would only hope that all of you are such charismatic teachers. But there is a genuine danger here. That is why you have to invite your students into the scriptures themselves, not just give them your interpretation and presentation of them. That is why you must invite your students to feel the Spirit of the Lord, not just give them your personal reflection of that. That is why, ultimately, you must invite your students directly to Christ, not just to one who teaches his doctrines, however ably… Give them the gifts that will carry them through when they have to stand alone. When you do this, the entire Church is blessed for generations to come.”4

Elder Robert D. Hales explained, “There is nothing more dangerous than when a student turns his or her love and attention to the teacher the same way a convert sometimes does to a missionary rather than to the Lord… Once we have touched the lives of the youth, we have to turn them to God the Father and His Son, our Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ, through prayer, study, and the application in their lives of the gospel principles.”4

The Warning Signs

There are signs that warn us that the pride of priestcraft is affecting us. Some of these include:

Feelings of superiority. The opposite is knowing that words of inspiration may come through any of the class participants.
Speaking more than the students. The opposite is to ask questions, and provide the pauses, that will truly motivate students to participate.
Directing the class to a select group of students. The opposite is to promote participation among all who are present.
Overly controlling the direction of the class. The opposite is to permit the Spirit to help participants resolve doubts, contribute, and turn their hearts to Christ.
Share articles or teachings to a select and meritorious group. In truth, there is no such thing as an elite group within the Church. Outside of what we learn in the temple, we should share information freely or not at all.
Think that we teach deeper doctrine.4
Think that our leaders are not emphasizing important doctrine.4
Think that leaders do not understand Church doctrine.4
– “We are embarrassed if a student asks us a question and we don’t know the answer.”4
– “We might teach our own philosophies about the doctrines.”4
– “Establishing ourselves as the expert in our own wards and stakes in gospel matters. If there is ever a difficult question in gospel doctrine class, do most of the people look to us for the answer?”4
– “Our own pursuit of knowledge takes priority over the students and over our teaching.4

The consequences of Priestcraft

May I suggest that the foremost consequence of priestcraft is the loss of the Spirit, as we become our own light. There are few things that offend God more than pride. This is why we must be vigilant in eschewing priestcraft. Avoiding study and learning, on the other hand, is not the answer.

Conclusion and Antidote

Praise can be a very positive influence in our lives. Knowing how to politely accept, and interpret, praise is vital. I have worked with a performance appraisal approach where praise is one of the main ingredients and has resulted in positive effects on employee performance.5

The moment we begin to make comparisons and wish to surpass others, that is the moment we cross the line. As recipients of such praise, we turn it into the spiritual poison called priestcraft.

Now to the antidote. A friend wrote a book that helped me understand an evasive doctrinal point about grace. I wrote to thank him. After graciously accepting the compliment, he redirected the praise towards our Savior. Over time, I observed he followed this pattern of redirecting praise to Him whom all praise belongs. It is an example worth emulating.

Also, I think that we should more carefully participate in classes, at home, and in social media, praying to the Father to know if our contribution would be acceptable in His sight, being careful that we are filled with the pure love of Christ as we speak or write. When we are filled with this charity, then priestcraft vanishes.

I would love to hear your suggestions of additional steps we can take to avoid the pride of priestcraft.


Sources

Photo of President Henry B. Eyring, by Scott G Winterton, Deseret News.

[1] The life-changing moment that made President Eyring realize his full potential, Deseret News, Church News. Leaders and Ministry. 6 November 2018.
[2] Worldwide Youth Devotional: Messages from President Russell M. Nelson and Sister Wendy W. Nelson, 3 June 2018. Conference Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.
[3] The Opportunities and Responsibilities of CES Teachers in the 21st Century. President M. Russell Ballard. • 26 February 2016 • Salt Lake Tabernacle.
[4] “The Dangers of Priestcraft,” Teaching Seminary: Preservice Readings (2004), 106–11.
[5] Party-Directed Mediation (3rd Edition), University of California, Gregorio Billikopf.

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Gregorio Billikopf belongs to the Llanquihue Branch, Puerto Montt Stake, in the south of Chile. He is the author of Isaiah Testifies of Christ and an emeritus academic of the University of California and professor of the University of Chile; author of Party-Directed Mediation: Facilitating Dialogue between Individuals and other books. Gregorio’s paternal grandparents are Lithuanian Jews and German Jews and on his mother’s side of the family he is Chilean. He found Christ through reading the Book of Mormon. You may contact him through bielikov2@yahoo.cl.

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