I’ve been noticing a recent trend in Church parlance that’s been driving me up a wall: using “covenant” as an adjective. A friend at BCC pointed me to this article that showed that the phrase “covenant path” really only entered the common vernacular when men started using it. Prior to that, Elaine Cannon had used the term in 1993, and it was then quoted in General Conference by Elaine Dalton in 2007 (who was quoting an Ensign article by Elder Holland from 2006). Of the first 15 uses of the phrase, 11 were women. The article concludes that we need to pay more attention to the words of women to glom onto these verbal gems. That’s where they lost me.
I hate the phrase “covenant path.” To me it sounds culty. It sounds like something a mega preacher would say before bilking you out of your hard earned money and then attempting to seduce you. It makes my skin crawl.
I was in a discussion with a convert friend, explaining that there was an instruction in the Church handbook for Relief Society presidents to police the way the women dress, and that I had seen two women attempt this, both times with awkwardness that made everyone uncomfortable. She challenged me to find it in the current handbook, and I found that it had been removed! (It was still in the November 2019 handbook).
Here’s what it used to say:
Dress StandardsThe Relief Society presidency teaches sisters to be well groomed and modest in their attire. Presidency members help sisters understand that at Church meetings, their appearance and clothing should show reverence and respect for the Lord. Relief Society leaders also help sisters understand that when they go to the temple, they should wear clothing that is suitable for entering the house of the Lord. On these occasions they should avoid wearing casual clothes, sports attire, and ostentatious jewelry.
Honestly, this resulted in two VERY uncomfortable Relief Society meetings in my experience. In one case, the Relief Society was going to do a pajama party theme for an activity. The President, for some reason, perhaps this paragraph, felt obligated to clarify that the women should “dress modestly” for this all-women Church party. Then she stopped, laughed at herself, and said to herself more than anyone else, “I mean, not that I think you are all going to show up in lingerie to a Church activity!” Then her eyes went as big as saucers, realizing she had said that aloud. She was embarrassed. Several in the room were embarrassed. It was probably the only moment I actually liked her. She was normally very black and white and judgmental.
The next time it came up was during our brief experiment with sitting in a circle in “councils” once a month. The Relief Society teacher, a good friend of mine, shared a story that I thought might be fictional about her daughter’s prom dress choice, and asked how we can help our daughters (it’s always the daughters, right?) gain a “testimony” of modesty, and how can we not worry about others judging us as mothers if our daughters aren’t “modest.”
I’m not sure I helped her out, even though I was her counselor. I said, “Well, I’m 50, and I don’t have a testimony of modesty. I honestly don’t even know what people are talking about most of the time. We should wear what makes sense for the situation and butt out of other people’s choices. As for our daughters, they don’t wear garments. They don’t need to dress as if they do.” The sisters laughed, and a few agreed with me that they didn’t really know what a “testimony of modesty” would entail and that temple rules didn’t apply to our daughters. I didn’t realize at the time that what I had said was a direct contradiction of the handbook which had instructed us to butt in and police other women’s dress. Why anyone thought that was a good idea is beyond me!
When I checked the new online handbook, this entire section was gone. Poof! As you can probably guess, it was never in the men’s section, but what I found was that the Relief Society instructions were still completely different from the Elder’s Quorum section due to the priesthood. All the men’s section is framed in terms of priesthood roles and responsibilities. The women’s section is now using a new phrase: “covenant responsibilities.” Specificially, Relief Society Presidencies are to “Teach sisters their covenant responsibilities.” I do not know what this refers to, and they are not listed. Is it mourning with those that mourn? Is it stuff from the temple recommend interview? Nothing is listed. Maybe that’s good; maybe that’s bad.
On the upside, it’s not explicitly about modesty policing adult women. On the downside, it could be about anything the Relief Society President thinks it’s about. More likely, it will be about nothing and will just be ignored for the vague nothingburger it is.
It’s not uncommon to use a noun as an adjective. For example, you can talk about peanut butter, and you can talk about a swirl, but a peanut butter swirl is a third thing. You can make a covenant. You can walk on a path. So a “covenant path” must be a third thing. Within the Church, using “covenant” as an adjective is a contemporary phenomenon, a new buzzword.
Someone in an online discussion group mentioned that they felt the term “covenant path” was stifling, like their whole life was laid out for them and there was no agency. You just have to continue along on this prescribed course. Your life becomes passive. It reminded me of the Monty Python skit called The Presentation in which an architect’s idea of the building’s plans are completely different than his clients’:
If you are allergic to peanuts, a peanut butter swirl might sound sinister rather than yummy. Peanut butter is just a flavor of swirl, though. In the phrase “covenant path” the word covenant hems the path in. When the women mentioned in the By Common Consent article used it, they were referring to a community of believers all on the same trajectory toward the same communal goal. Does that mean peer pressure is what keeps us on the “path”? (I mean, yeah, that’s legit how Church works). Social controls are still limiting, and often feel more limiting to women than to men.
I’m not sure what “covenant responsibilities” means. Is it gender roles? (If so, bite me–I for sure didn’t covenant anything about that). Is it paying tithing? I’m not sure what the “covenant path” is. Is it the Mormon milestone path: baptism, temple, mission, marriage, parenthood, church service, death? Either way, I don’t think I signed up for some prescribed path to my life. I still get to make choices, right? I’m not really on a conveyor belt, am I? I thought we were all supposed to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not just be a twig in a stream, carried along by a fear of not fitting in.
What I always found more appealing at Church was the idea of achieving our human potential, of striving to better ourselves, of reflecting on the enigmatic messages of Jesus’ parables and attempting to gain the type of wisdom he embodies. The phrase “covenant path” doesn’t do that for me. It feels compulsory, like it’s emphasizing that obligation over choice, compulsion over moral reasoning. Life is just not simplistic like that. We can’t make all our decisions at age 20 and never have to make another one.
My view of this phrase could be colored by the emphasis on obedience and authority within the Church. I recently listened to an interview with Mary Trump who mentioned very briefly a psychological disorder called Authoritarian Personality Syndrome. From Wikipedia:
The authoritarian personality is a personality type characterized by extreme obedience and unquestioning respect for and submission to the authority of a person external to the self, which is realized through the oppression of subordinate people.
A personality pattern reflecting a desire for security, order, power, and status, with a desire for structured lines of authority, a conventional set of values or outlook, a demand for unquestioning obedience, and a tendency to be hostile toward or use as scapegoats individuals of minority or nontraditional groups.https://www.dictionary.com/browse/authoritarian-personality
So maybe the real issue I have with the phrase “covenant path” is that it is being used within a culture that also focuses so much on obedience to human leaders quoting themselves and each other as authorities. It’s a strange mix to then talk about being locked into this covenant path as though that’s all there is. Everything else is bad or wrong or unwise or dangerous.
In a Church that talks so much about Religious Freedom, it sometimes feels like there’s no freedom to be ourselves within the religion, to make our own choices, to deal with life as it comes. By this way of thinking, if our lives don’t fit the board game version laid out for us, we are to blame. But that’s ridiculous! The entire point of life is that it’s organic and messy. We do the best with what we have. We try to learn to be wise. You can’t cookie-cut your way into godhood, or if you did, that would be like the IKEA equivalent of a planet. Sure, it would be easy to assemble, but it probably wouldn’t be the sturdiest thing out there. Likewise, people who comply rather than use their moral reasoning never develop into moral agents capable of difficult decisions.
- Do you like or dislike the phrase “covenant path” and/or “covenant responsibilities”?
- What do you think “covenant responsibilities” are? Why do you think women have “covenant responsibilities” while men have “priesthood responsibilities?”
- Were you aware that Relief Society Presidents used to be instructed in the handbook to police women’s dress?
- Do you think Authority Personality Syndrome is a problem in the Church? In your ward? Is it more or less of a problem than elsewhere?
Very thought provoking. I’ve never had much emotional reaction to “covenant path” or given much thought to exactly what “covenant responsibilities” are. I would say that “covenant responsibilities” does feel like compliance with cultural patterns of living that are presented as “ideal”, get married have children accept callings etc.
“Authoritarian personality”. This is a strong part of the personality, so to speak, of the church as a human institution. I think there are many who would like to dial down that aspect of the culture of the church.
“What I always found more appealing at Church was the idea of achieving our human potential, of striving to better ourselves, of reflecting on the enigmatic messages of Jesus’ parables and attempting to gain the type of wisdom he embodies. ”
100% Agree! I find myself in church questioning what happened to two quotes by Joseph:
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (no, today’s atmosphere is not one of just teaching principles of moving on, we have to go into details and codify everything in a manual that the members can’t see, as in the examples above)
“Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled.”
I don’t like the term “covenant path” because it is too often used to define or imply judgmentalism, whether of oneself or others. See “covenant path markers” (legalism per Scot McKnight) or “covenant path searching” (Tom Holmen — “searching for answers to the many questions where one’s belief in the covenant could be actualized, searching for the right path to living in covenant with God. In a key position lies the endeavor to loyalty. Belief in the covenant, however conceived in particular, entails the response of obedience on the part of people. To all who suppose themselves to belong to a covenant with God it is clear that their duty is to live faithfully according to the covenant.”). I prefer taking Jesus at his word that He is the way, i.e. the path, and thinking of the new covenant described in Hebrews 8. When I hear what has become popular Mormon jargon, I tend to tune it out. I think I can tune out “covenant responsibilities.”
I have seen Authority Personality Syndrome as a problem at Church hierarchical levels including bishop, stake president, mission president, regional representative, area authority, and seventy. I have suspected it at some higher levels. I have greatly appreciated leaders in those positions who have shown no sign of authority Personality Syndrome.
But anyway, following up on Dave B.’s September 2019 suggestion over at zelophehadsdaughters (“I’m thinking ‘follow the covenant path’ might be set to music, as it lines up very nicely with ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road.’ Performed, of course, by The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.”), I offer the following lyrics for consideration:
Follow the covenant path.
Follow the covenant path.
Follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow the covenant path.
Follow the narrow way, not the broad;
Follow the Prophet who holds to the rod.
Follow, follow, follow, follow,
Follow the Prophet of God.
We’re off to see the Prophet,
Our beloved Prophet of God.
Some find him flawed, but you will be awed!
If ever a Wiz* there was,
If ever oh ever a Wiz there was
The Prophet of God is one because,
Because, because, because, because, because.
Because of the wonderful things he does.
We’re off to see the Prophet,
Our beloved Prophet of God.
Definition of wiz
chiefly US, informal
: a person who is very good at something
I have a quotes slide show as my screen saver. The one most applicable to this post, attribution unknown: “Look at my life now and compare it to my former life. You will see that I am trying. Attack me then, but don’t attack the path I follow. If I know the way home but am walking it drunkenly, is it any less the right way?”
bobwhid – this quote is apparently from Tolstoy as quoted by Elder Holland in conference October 2017
Put me in the dislike camp – I think if you mentioned “Covenant Path” to a nonmember, they would think you were talking about an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail.
I’ve never been particularly bugged by “covenant path” other than the usual issue that I think we focus on the temple rather than Christ as our ultimate objective. So I would probably prefer “Christlike path” which is also significantly broader.
I did notice two related things that bugged me this conference:
-several speakers emphasized how “straight” and “narrow” the path is, which gets to your point about having no options and having only a very narrowly, prescribed life pattern.
-Pres Nelson talking about “covenant breakers” and so dividing the church into covenant breakers and covenant keepers (and offering comfort to covenant keepers who are obviously going to be super upset about their covenant breaking spouses / children). This may just have been personally triggering for me because I’m having such a faith transition and my husband is still very TBM (but has been understanding and kind and non-judgmental about me). It felt like Nelson was pitting us against each other and kind of made me worried that my spouse would start seeing me as a covenant breaker rather than, you know, a human / child of God / wife.
I’m sure Nelson was trying to offer comfort to people who may already be upset but it seemed to me to just reemphasize difference and division and suggest that people *should* be sad if they aren’t already. I found it quite hurtful. For a church that claims to value marriage and family, we sure tend to get in the way of healthy marriage and family when we divide people up into keepers and breakers.
President Nelson said:
“Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life?”
“We all have our agency. We can choose to be of Israel, or not. We can choose to let God prevail in our lives, or not. We can choose to let God be the most powerful influence in our lives, or not.”
I’m motivated by words. The words of the prophets motivate me to stay on the covenant path. I avoid getting caught up in the words of worldly philosophies, even though they sound reasonable and appeal me. When at a cross roads along the covenant path I’ve learned to not deviate off the path (on those occasion I have I noticed the Spirit of the Lord lessen).
Neal Maxwell taught:
“The Jewish people … rejected the gospel, in part because it lacked adequate intellectual embroidery.”
In other words, they looked beyond mark. They didn’t follow the KISS principle. They were prone to complicate simple things and ended up leaving the path. Jewish history and that of the Nephites and Jaredites rings loud in the ears of those who are striving to stay on the covenant path.
Oh should add – part of my concern about “will my spouse think I’m a covenant breaker” is the problem that the OP points out, I don’t even know what that means. I decided earlier this year that I won’t be renewing my recommend and stopped wearing garments, but I never covenanted to wear garments. Most of the temple covenants are subsumed in baptismal covenants, and I’m still into following Jesus (although my loyalty is to that and not to the Church, so arguably that contradicts a temple covenant but I don’t think that’s something that came from God and I’m still good building God’s Kingdom I just don’t interpret that as the Church). I certainly haven’t broken marriage covenants.
So yeah, what does that even mean? Seems more like Nelson means “following all the rules.”
I have been turned off by the “covenant path” terminology for quite some time for all the reasons mentioned. We don’t make this life up as we go along – we follow Jesus Christ. He is the bond that makes us free, not slavish devotion to a marketing slogan.
I am totally allergic to the phrase “covenant path”. It feels like something they ‘re trying to beat us over the head with to make us conform. I might be overreacting, but once I hear it I zone out and stop listening.
As to covenant responsibilities. Not a clue. And I don’t feel any motivation to dig down. At this point I try to fulfil my church callings and to support friends and family.
That modesty stuff was insane.
I recall my mother saying once when she was RS president the bishop tried to impress upon her the importance of women dressing in their Sunday best to go visiting teaching. She basically ignored that, preferring that sisters do their visiting teaching dressed however they wished over erecting barriers that would only make it more difficult.
I remember hearing the term ‘a covenant people’ frequently. I can’t recall when but it seems like it was well before the covenant path became the new corporate buzz word. Makes me wonder if the covenant adjective applied to all sorts of other stuff is an extension of it.
In terms of authoritarian, last week we got an email from our stake presidency that really agitated me. Arizona has a recreational marijuana initiative on the ballot this year. I saw a copy of a letter from the area presidency to be read in sacrament meetings in Arizona telling members to raise their voices in opposition to this measure. Not to study the issue and cast an informed vote, but to specifically oppose it. Then last week the stake email went even further, by instructing us to text friends and family about opposing the measure, posting on social media about it, reading a website that is opposed to it, and even holding a virtual or in person gathering to “inform” people about it. They even gave a link where you can get an “expert” to participate in your gathering.
I was PISSED when I got this email. No encouragement to use the brain and critical reasoning that God gave you to evaluate the issue and make a decision. Just telling you how to act. I’m bringing this up because there is no agency in the church, if you are trying to follow your leaders. None. This is how Zion works in RMN’s obedient utopia. Nobody questions him or his peers or dares disregard their advice. We preach agency but in reality don’t practice it.
Luckily for me I am not ceding my personal authority to any church leaders, so I retain my ability to disregard their instruction without much concern.
We had a previous SP who constantly spoke about dressing in your “Sunday best”. He brought it up enough that it became his “platform”. His counselors were obviously coached to give the same message and it sort of caused a bit of eye-rolling and chuckle out of a lot of folks. Suggestions included the covenants between a man and a woman and a celebration of their wedding (wedding reception) included wearing Sunday best to show your respect to the happy couple. Another example was women who wore dresses with flip flops and/or sandals and did not wear nylons. And men who did not wear ties or had facial hair. Again, his “platform”. Eventually it settled down and wasn’t as noticeable. Maybe it was during the first part of his administration.
I wonder if sometimes the “authoritarian personality” comes with the calling. You go from being one of the flock to being in charge. Of course authority suddenly is applicable.
Indeed, tired of hearing “covenant path.” Also tired of members and leaders treating the covenant as if it is between the individual and the church. In the theology, the church is the mediator that arranges for the covenant to be made. It isn’t the covenantee, the one to whom the covenant is made. The covenantee is God. That would make God the only one to say if a covenant had been broken or not and issue punishments for breaking the covenant. We should also bear in mind that if God doesn’t recognize the authority of the church or the validity of the covenant, the covenant is null.
Hence when an overreactive believing family member attempts to passive-aggressively guilt-trip a questioning or doubting loved one into obedience or belief by saying, “…but you made a covenant…”, the doubter need only respond that the family member has no right to judge whether or not God will save them and determine whether a covenant has been violated or that they don’t believe that the LDS Church fully represents God’s will. The doubter could also say they don’t believe in God. The believer could respond that the doubter is taking a huge risk, to which the doubter could reply that this risk is no greater than the one the believer is taking by not believing in Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s true and final prophet.
Wearing your Sunday best is nice but to make it a religious requirement tells me that the leader missed the lesson that Jesus was teaching when addressing why his followers weren’t washing their hands as prescribed by the “tradition of the elders”.
What’s disappointing is that Mark 7 where this is addressed was left out of “Come follow me” last year.
I’m sure it was just an inadvertent omission and not at all because they wouldn’t want members to see that Jesus said it’s ok to question non-scriptural fiats that have crept in to our religion.
Thank you, Parodist. That was … Wicked.
I think “Covenant Path” is just the latest catch phrase or broad term for “how Mormons ought to be living.” It sort of suggests there is a detailed list of duties or norms which are on some checklist; as if, theoretically, some apostle could give a Conference talk listing the 23 items on the checklist. But in reality There Is No List! It’s a hidden list or fictitious list. Any such list would be incomplete, and if you put 12 apostles in a room and forced them to compose their own List with pencil and paper, every List would be different and use different terminology. If some leader wants to pretend “cleaning the church once a month” is on the List, they can do so, but that’s just a clever way to say, “Hey, do what I’m telling you to do.” Because there isn’t really a List, just a vague phrase that suggests that somewhere, someone important has such a List. But it will never be published. If such a list were published, the last item would be “… and anything else a general or local leader wants to add to the list.”
Some vague phrases that have been used in the past by the Church, or that might be used in the future, include:
— Keep the Commandments (what are they, precisely?)
— Follow the Prophet (in doing what, exactly?)
— Be witnesses unto God in all times and all places (witness to what, exactly?)
— Bear one another’s burdens (and which burdens should we help to bear?)
— Just do it (do what?)
“Covenant Path” is my least favorite Conference buzzword. I didn’t even think about how ambiguous the phrase is until I read your article. From the moment I heard it I assumed it referred to following the Mormon milestones of mission, temple marriage, tithing, church, etc. The other comments suggest I was not alone. I think it says a lot about the priorities of the church and the messages we hear consistently that such an ill-defined phrase would be so uniformly and effortlessly interpreted by those listening.
I hope to see a change in philosophy from leadership. I believe mormonism at it’s best focuses most on personal revelation by cultivating an environment where people feel they can communicate directly with God and act on those revelations. Given the challenges we currently face as a church and society I think we need this approach more than ever with people acting at a local level according to personal revelation to build little pieces of Zion around them. Most of our best ideas as a church have come from regular members following their own personal revelations. Instead the focus has been assuming the leaders at the top have all the answers and everyone else should follow the “covenant path” (get in line), stifling the ideas and innovations members could make by insisting on conformity.
Covenant is not commandment.
Covenant emphasizes responsibility, and commandment emphasizes obedience: one is directed by spirit, the other is directed by law.
Covenant cannot be obeyed or broken, only fulfilled or neglected.
We need to recognize that the LDS culture reflects a corporate mentality: checklists, requirements, performance metrics, etc. These are good things in many contexts. But I’m not sure they work for everyone in every circumstance, especially in a church setting. And that is why being on the “covenant path” works for some but not for all.
Here’s a quick example. A few years ago our stake was making a big push on youth temple work and family history. YM and YW were called to be “family history consultants”. Youth were meeting every Friday morning to do baptisms for the dead. They were also setting monthly goals for individual and group indexing. For the really active kids from active families, this was all so natural and normal. But for some of the youth, it was a victory just to get them to church or a YM/YW meeting. And the idea that these less active kids were supposed to worry about an indexing and baptism quota was absurd. But did this mean that they were not on the covenant path?
We need to treat the Gospel as a means to bring people unto Christ, not fulfill corporate objectives and checklists. Unfortunately, the term “covenant path” often implies powerpoint performance.
Dave B., I suppose it may have been wicked, even if it wasn’t in “Wicked.” But I prefer to believe it appropriate to have a sense of humor about ourselves, our culture, and our Mormon-speak use of terms that originated elsewhere in the English language — appropriate even for those of us who feel called to be Christian’s in the Mormon context and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps if called on my parody, I’ll quote my favorite general authority to the effect that it shouldn’t be a problem because I “repent too damn fast.”
BTW, there have been reports of studies of the use and frequency of use of “covenant path” in general conferences. I wonder if anyone has ever counted the uses of “beloved” or “even”. Maybe my parody could be given a greater sense of holiness by adding a codetta: “…. even President Russell M. Nelson. Amen.” Whaddya think?
It’s all just boundary maintenance. This is the philosophy underlying so much, if not all, of what passes for inspiration and wisdom as it is disseminated over the dais twice yearly. The overt messages of ‘don’t be a racist’ and ‘ engage with your neighbors, even if they aren’t Mormon’ are overwhelmed by subtle admonitions that nag at the lizard brain and validate the need to feel superior, more obedient, more correct, more loved by the Mormon God.
Any religion that actively teaches members to NOT use the gray matter God gave them and instead listen to emotion and good feelings is separating the unquestioning, tithe-paying wheat from the problem-causing chaff.
Parodist, I liked your earlier comment. There’s a reason Saturday Night Live is still crazy, after all these years. I’m sure you’ll agree that parody and comedy can be more effective at pointing out failures and foibles than direct discourse. Honestly, Alec Baldwin does Trump better than Trump does Trump. There is a shortage of humor in the Church. Maybe they should call an entertainer or comedian into the Twelve at the next opening.
To me the covenant path means to diligently try to keep my covenants with the Lord, the most important of which is the weekly sacramental covenant. So I strive to remember Jesus’s example, and to love God by loving my neighbor as myself. Every thing else, including temple covenants, is just commentary.
I hate the word but for a silly reason: I get tired of the buzzwords. I guess it really is part of the corporate mentality to have a slogan. The word “ministering” makes my skin crawl.
I know we have already said it in the comments, but when I hear “covenant path” or “keep your covenants” I would like to ask whoever is saying those phrases – “tell me what you mean?” I never covenanted to wearing garments, but I bet you think we all did. We never covenant to love our neighbor, but we covenant to not expressing a secret word we have been given. We never covenant to clothe the naked or feed the hungry, but we do covenant to not speak badly about your Stake President. Our baptism speaks of our desire to join the Savior. That is our sign to Him. I honestly think the “Covenant path” is two steps: Baptism, and the Sacrament – where we covenant to remember Him. Let my remembrance of what He did for me, guide me to the places He wants me to go. That is the path. Can you imaging the spiritual growth if we focused simply on that path?
As the author of the linked article I was surprised by the last line of your opening paragraph — and even more so when I looked back and saw I had called it a “gem”! Man alives! I am not a fan and never have been.
I’m struggling to remember how it slipped it in that way as the point was not about the utility of that particular phrase but our tendency to listen to things once a man with authority says it. I think it’s proliferation once RMN used it in his opening remarks as president of the church is an absolutely an example of authority personality syndrome.
Compare ‘covenant path’ with something like ‘gospel path’ and it becomes obvious why I hate it: navel gazing. It points more to the Church and to the necessity of it, than it does Christ. The End.
I was not aware that Relief Society Presidents used to be instructed in the handbook to police women’s dress. Gag. I remember being 17, having to go to RS for the once a month, get used to going, obligatory lesson and getting chastised for wearing flip flops and pony tails- both of which were extremely disrespectful to Jesus. As I curled my Old Navy-flip flop clad feet as far under my chair as I could, my face hot and red with shame, the feelings I struggled with for years about belonging in the church were cemented. That Sunday was last meeting two of my friends attended while in YW.
I too have no testimony of “modesty.” Just last Christmas, we were at a family Christmas party at a church in Ogden, Utah. Hanging on the bulletin board adjacent to the chapel was a giant poster listing the “modesty rules” for youth activities with 10 rules for girls and 2 for boys. That poster made its way to where it belonged- the garbage can.
Brian, navel gazing is not just limited to leaders and so-called TBMs. Just look at the comments on this thread.
Many don’t like the term ‘covenant path’ because of how they perceive that it applies to them. The truth is we all use shorter terms to describe complex notions. Big tent mormonism, middle way Mormonism, TBM, BLM, plan of happiness (salvation), etc.
I think we all live in echo chambers of varying dimensions and generally gravitate toward opinions that define our own thoughts and experiences.
Having said that, I know that I would be much happier if President Nelson and the rest would just come out and say what I want him to say. Driving is soooo much easier from the back seat.
The “covenant path” language is simply the leaders trying to guilt people into conformity on the basis of promises made before they understood what it all meant.
@Yet Another John: are you saying that it’s “navel gazing” to take a statement the Prophet repeatedly uses and try to figure out what it means? I mean, I assume that in telling people to stay on the covenant path, RMN is asking us to do certain things so that we don’t end up in Sad Heaven. How is it navel gazing to wonder what those certain things are?
Maybe I misunderstood your comment but that doesn’t make sense to me.
“I never covenanted to wearing garments, but I bet you think we all did”
You hit the nail on the head. You’re venturing into dangerous territory now. Don’t tell the members that they haven’t made any real covenants (the temple is a little bit different story, no loud laughter folks). Their heads might explode. On that note, consider baptism. Can we nail down what covenant is actually being made? There is sort of no there there. You go into a font and someone says, “having been commissioned…I baptize you…” You don’t raise your hand saying you’ll do something. You don’t repeat promises before witnesses. The person getting baptized says nothing. The person doing the baptizing doesn’t ask the inductee anything. It is unclear what exactly you’re promising to do. Responsibility to do or say things is implied but not grounded in anything. Members think they’ve covenanted to do and believe all these things, but have they really?
“consider baptism. Can we nail down what covenant is actually being made? ”
Some would say “yes”. See Mosiah 18:8-10 [ “…a covenant with [God], that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you”, those commandments presumably including at least the ones specifically mentioned in verses 8 and 9 and apparently whatever else comes to be understood as “his commandments”]. Mormon baptism is supposed to be a sign, “a witness before [God]”, that one has made that covenant — those promises. Repeating them at the time of baptism (in addition to making them in deciding to be baptized, is wholly unnecessary. But, of course, unless that is clearly taught and understood prior to and as a part of one’s deciding to be baptized , it is questionable whether the baptism is a sign or witness of any such thing. Still, it could be ratified later by the member’s coming to understand the meaning and choosing to continue as a member.
There are parallels in Anglo-American contract law — concepts such as meeting of the minds, course of dealing, ratification, etc. Presumably Anglo-American law shouldn’t have anything to do with the BoM, but the point is that making a covenant by baptism doesn’t have to include any of the elements John W. complains of being missing from the ordinance itself.
Responding to A Lawyer, perhaps “baptismal covenants” in the LDS Church are more like shrink wrap contracts, where anyone who uses purchased software is legally bound by terms they haven’t read and may not know even exist. Users legally agree to those terms, or are deemed to agree to those terms simply by using the software. In the same way, Mormons are deemed (at least by the leadership) to covenant to a variety of things simply by agreeing to be baptized.
Now of course a diligent user of software can actually look up the shrink wrap terms and see what they (legally) agreed to. It’s harder to look up Mormon “baptismal covenants” and actually get a definitive list. As I noted in my first comment in this thread, there really is no list of baptismal covenants. That’s just a vague term invoked by leaders as a clever and softer way of saying, “Do what I am telling you to do. … you promised.”
The shrink wrap contract analogy is great! At least as to the common failure to teach, grasp, and mean the covenant Alma outlined as a condition of a decision to be baptized.
A Lawyer, I’m not a lawyer, but I work in real estate finance and work with covenants and contracts all the time. In modern law, covenants are formal promises to do something made before witnesses in the form of signing a written agreement specifying the promise before a notary public, or made by repeating exact words in front of a witness, or by signaling agreement before witnesses something read or said. If the Mosiah passages were read at the baptismal ceremony and it was said that by being baptized the initiate signals adherent to that, then yes, I would agree that that has covenant-making form to it. But that isn’t the case. Witnesses don’t witness the initiate actual promising to do anything. They only witness the baptism being done, not the promise being made.
In other words, a covenant should have 1) content (what is agreed or promised to), 2) place, and 3) witnesses. The baptismal ceremony has 2 and 3 but conspicuously lacks 1. People baptized into the church are operating under the assumption that they’ve promised to do all sorts of things that they haven’t actually promised to do before witnesses at a formal ceremony.
Thank you for articulating my thoughts on that annoying phrase.
It feels too much like, “one mistake and you’re ALL off!” (I’m thinking of Julie Beck’s conference address in 2004, “one little cup of coffee won’t hurt,” and suddenly only one of the ten children had a “worthy” (Yikes, Julie!) temple marriage and everyone else was off the path because of her very bad habit of keeping a coffee pot on the back of her stove.)
To me CP (ugh, no better) implies baptism, endowment, sealing PLUS myriad nebulous commandments.
I think it should be clarified that it’s the church covenant path, (CCP?) as Jesus only asked baptism of us to show commitment.
Another grating point: only the male priesthood holders can decide who’s worthy enough to even be on the church covenant path.
My actual path is a freaking horrifying roller coaster ride, despite my keeping nebulous covenants. The church covenant path implies that peace is the earthly reward/perk, eternal exaltation is the heavenly perk. (Entirely wrapped up of course, in various ribbons, leashes, cords, and strings of obedience.) I find peace in so many other ways!
Actually, modern contract law does not require a writing and does not require witnesses or notarization. However, the statute of frauds in most Anglo-American jurisdictions does require a signed writing in the case of contracts for sale, purchase, or mortgage on real estate. Even then notarization is not required to form a contract or mortgage. Instead, it is required in order to be entitled to record the contract. Recording is for the purpose of public notice and to give the parties priority over other claimants of an interest in the land whose claims are recorded later. (Exceptions, of course, for real property taxes, federal tax liens, and some other matters.) So, you have accurately described common and wise real estate contract practice, but have not accurately described the scope of contract law or covenant making.
E.g., a deed to real property must be signed and delivered to effect a transfer. It does NOT need to be recorded to be effective between the parties to that deed. It does need to be recorded (requiring acknowledgment/notarization, but no other witnesses) to be effective relative to the later claim of another whose document is recorded first.
Baptism and general covenant making are not bound in any way by the statute of frauds or the recording statutes.
The most pernicious is the idea that God’s love is “covenant love” rather than unconditional love. In other words, God only loves you if you are obedient.
@a Lawyer, there are a whole lot of other contractual principles (infancy, unconscionability, duress, mutual assent / meeting of the minds, definiteness, and the 1-year limitation on statute of frauds) that would most definitely invalidate a baptismal covenant and likely a temple covenant from a contractual perspective.
Whether written or oral or otherwise, contracting parties have to know the terms of the exchange or there is no mutual assent / meeting of the minds and therefore no contract. I think the point here is that we don’t necessarily know the terms of the exchange, so then the church can shoehorn a bunch of other stuff in and plaster it with the label “covenant” and tell you that you promised God you’d do it.
If I’m being told I covenanted to, for example, oppose gay marriage I’m going to have to say “unilateral mistake” or “fraud in the inducement” 😉.
In any event I’m getting into angels dancing on a pinhead territory so will leave the legal analysis at that.
Indeed, Elisa. Meeting of the minds is one I pointed out when I first waded into this. If we’re going to draw parallels between religious covenants (baptism) and Anglo-American law, you have identified more concepts that would be equally critical.
I agree that most don’t know the terms of the exchange — at least 8 year old and the majority of converts who are rushed into baptism. And in Anglo-American law 8-year-olds don’t have the capacity to contract anyway, though that wouldn’t prevent their ratifying such a contract after reaching the age of majority.
BTW, has anyone ever purported that you had covenanted to oppose civil legalization gay marriage? I haven’t seen or heard that one. It would be contrary at least to what Elder Christofferson taught.
Personally, in addition to the baptism infancy problem (if we’re importing legal concepts into religion), given the usual state of temple preparation, I’d suggest that, subjected to an Anglo-American contract law analysis, most if not all temple covenants are at least voidable.
The only point in the discussion, apart from the fact that “some would say” they can nail down the baptismal covenants, is that making a covenant does not require witnesses and does not require renewed discussion and agreement at the point of baptism, just as making a legal covenant does not require witnesses, a writing, or a repetition of all terms in the act of signing (if there is a writing). It’s far too easy to get carried away with legalism and apparently in some cases with purporting that people made binding covenants that they did not understand or even had no chance to try to understand. That’s one of the problems some see in the “covenant path” language — at least as it is sometimes used.
FYI: This is the list of questions a perspective member is asked prior to baptism. It spells out the expectation as a member and in the end does in fact spell out a covenant that they are agreeing to.
Baptismal Interview Questions
Do you believe that God is our Eternal Father? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior and Redeemer of the world?
Do you believe that the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ have been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith? Do you believe that [current Church President] is a prophet of God? What does this mean to you?
What does it mean to you to repent? Do you feel that you have repented of your past transgressions?
Have you ever committed a serious crime? If so, are you now on probation or parole? Have you ever participated in an abortion? Have you ever committed a homosexual transgression?
You have been taught that membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints includes living gospel standards. What do you understand about the following standards? Are you willing to obey them?
The law of chastity, which prohibits any sexual relationship outside the bonds of a legal marriage between one man and one woman.
The law of tithing.
The Word of Wisdom.
The Sabbath day, including partaking of the sacrament weekly and rendering service to others.
When you are baptized, you covenant with God that you are willing to take upon yourself the name of Christ and keep His commandments throughout your life. Are you ready to make this covenant and strive to be faithful to it?
A Lawyer, I grant your points on modern contract law. And no, I have not studied the full scope of it. I have only a vague exposure to it from my experience in real estate. Still, covenant-making in church practice requires witnesses. Baptism requires a witness. Proxy baptism requires a witness. Sealings require witnesses. The endowment says “before God, angels, and these witnesses.” The issue arises as to what the witnesses are witnessing (at least for baptism and priesthood ordination, the temple is a different matter). It appears to be that they are witnessing only a symbol/ritual, not the actual making of the promise itself. Granted, the ritual is supposed to symbolize the promise that was made, but what promise, where, and with whom arranging the promise?
Andy notes baptismal questions. Those are not set in stone. Plus, what missionaries will ask an investigator is different from what a bishop will ask an 8-year-old. In fact I believe that the handbook of instructions allows bishops quite a bit of leeway in what they can ask the 8-year-old. I remember on my mission how I was instructed to ask investigators seeking baptism if they masturbated. Questions and format vary from interviewer to interviewer. Plus, the interview isn’t presented as the place of covenant-making. It is presented as a preparatory conversation to the covenant-making.
“most if not all temple covenants are at least voidable”
Ya don’t say. Most? Does this suggest hesitation on your part over there possibly being some that are not voidable? The idea that someone could take another party to court over the alleged violation of a church covenant is really preposterous. Furthermore, the church has no authority to act as a government. It cannot actually punish someone whom it believes to be in violation of covenants in the form of a fine or imprisonment. It can punish them only in the form of denying them a select few privileges such as holding a temple recommend or having their name on the church rolls as a member. Church covenants are faith-based anyways. They are all based on the assumptions that God exists, the Mormon concept of God is the correct one, and that God authorized the church to act in God’s name. If one or any of these assumptions isn’t reality, then covenant-making in the church is nothing more than just a big ol’ game of pretend. Even if this is all true, God and God alone gets to be the judge. The covenants are made for the life that is after death. But no one can really say who is going to be saved except God, right?
@Andy, that’s a good call out. But I think people are still wondering what it means to keep Jesus’s commandments, especially when we keep getting commandments mediated through church leaders. Indeed, earlier in the interview it refers to “gospel standards” and asks the person to keep those standards. Are those different from commandments?
I know I’m splitting hairs and I’m really not suggesting that we have zero clue what RMN means by covenant. But it does still feel like covenant path = whatever we as leaders think you should be doing at any given time whether or not you ever covenanted to do that.
This discussion reminds me of the oath and covenant of the priesthood. A few years ago now, there was with the old teachings of the presidents manuals, a lesson on the topic, and I asked precisely when did anyone being ordained actually take an oath or make a covenant, it being something I had never observed during any ordination I had watched. One class member drew a parallel with baptism and baptismal covenants…
John W., I don’t know of anyone proposing that someone could take another party to court over the alleged violation of a church covenant. Yes, the idea is preposterous. “Voidable” is part of an Anglo-American law analogy to the concept of a religious covenant. That analogy is itself flawed. Can you not read “if not all”? The diction simply indicates not taking a public position on the applicability of the flawed analogy to “all.” I don’t have the same urge to take hard and fast positions or to demand that others agree with me that I infer from your comments. Maybe I just don’t understand you.
A Lawyer made mention of Mosiah 18:8-10, but that is not dispositive evidence of the making of a covenant. More important is v. 13. But our baptisms today do not use the v. 13 wording, so in my mind, there is no covenant. To me, baptism is an ordinance, a gift, to outwardly indicate one’s fellowship with the Saints and acceptance of Christ as the Messiah. Covenants are made afterwards, and are clearly known to be covenants.
I am not certain that witnesses are doctrinally essential for baptisms for the living. They are desirable, and the handbook calls for them, but God has not made it a firm rule. So maybe it is a practice rather than a doctrine. I support the practice as a practice. We don’t know of any witness to Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch. And if the First Presidency wanted to direct a priesthood holder to go alone and baptize a certain person, they could do so.
I hate the phrase “covenant path.” It is nothing more than a euphemism for “follow the prophet” or “we will never lead you astray.”
I had a bishop who was upset that I had politely questioned, in public, the wisdom of a new policy he announced for the ward. Later, he told the Elders Quorum President that he wanted him to address the Ward Council on how they can collectively meet my “needs” and get me back on the “covenant path.” The EQ President wisely refused.
My bishop wanted me to get on HIS covenant path, trusting that it was the same one as the Lord’s. And this is always the context in which the phrase is used by a church official: “I know the covenant path. It is your job to follow me as I lead the way.”
Thanks but no thanks.
I’m trying to recall that other buzzword that was really big a few years ago. Started with a P by Bednar I think. And if I recall it wasn’t a real word. Just remember it was gosh awful. Can anyone help me out here?
A Lawyer, why not just say “temple covenants are voidable”? Why qualify it?
“I don’t have the same urge to take hard and fast positions”
1) Inasmuch as you are a believing Mormon (I have strong reason to believe that you are), you have grown up in an environment where you take hard and fast positions on Mormonism being true. I have strong reason to believe that you at an early age took a hard and fast position that Mormon covenant-making is serious business, real, and often felt guilty or questioned yourself over whether or not you were keeping those covenants. I know I felt that way growing up. But eventually I came to realize that the covenants were an illusion.
2) You were brought up in a professional environment that takes clients and argues their cases. There is a large tendency to “sell out” in your profession (I don’t mean you personally). Hence, you’ve been trained to be a bit obtuse about truth. You have to be in the environment you work in. I get it. But internet debates aren’t held before judges to give sentences. The standards for evidence to make a good argument are lower. The excessively high standards for evidence in the legal profession allows for many attorneys to get away with all sorts of smoke and mirrors antics, and often incentivizes them to do so. I’m an academic by training. Have a PhD in history. Argumentation is a different business for me. I was trained in a professional environment where people argue positions they personally believe are true and right, not for the benefit of one or another client or interest group. Academics are rarely in it for the money (at least money is most certainly not what drove them to academia). Not all lawyers are driven by money. Many have noble intentions. But man oh man does money taint that profession.
3) It seems a bit presumptuous to come on here with the name A Lawyer, as if you’re deigning to enlighten us all. (Huh, maybe I should change my commenter name to a History Phd, that’ll impress people). I’ve had discussions with all kinds of people on this blog and others who practice law, have law degrees, and passed the bar. Come and share your opinion, sure. Drop the pretense that you’re the end-all-be-all opinion. In fact I’m a little skeptical about your arguments on contract law, but I have no intention to produce any counterargument right now.
Di, ‘ponderize’? Not Bednar for that one though. That was a failure because whoever it was’s family tried to profit off it.
John W, Wrong on most but not all inferences. As noted, I may well be wrong in some of my inferences, as well. I’ll butt out now.
I dislike the term covenant path, and I dislike the way RMN uses it. I also hate the term tender mercies, and the way Mormon influencers use it.
Being single and childless, I feel I am so far off the “covenant path”… ugh. I really don’t like that phrase.
A quick google of Tender Mercies, which somehow I have managed to miss that phrase;
“To allow one to face the punishment or rebukes of another person who will not show them any mercy, kindness, or sympathy. The phrase is used ironically.”
This doesn’t sound like a nice thing.
I find the words covenant path, as well as statements like, ‘ Obedience with exactness,’ disturbing.
What happened to simply, ‘Come follow me? ‘ Is the Church too busy rebranding itself?
What happened to teaching correct principles and governing ourselves? All we can do is row our boats in the right direction, the best way we can.
Psalm 25:6 “Remember, O Lord, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.”
Sounds like a nice thing. Perhaps the question is usage rather than the term itself.
“ponderize” – from one of our royal Mormon families
“containerize” – today’s word on my tear-off calendar, 365 New Words
As a former bishop, I tried to keep the baptismal interview for an eight year old pretty simple.
1. Did they love God and Jesus?
2. Did they try to do what’s right?
2. Would they try to be nice to everyone?
We talked about what repentance was and then ate some candy from the big jar on my desk.
Devin Durant was the “ponderizing” capitalist. Here’s a link to an article about it: https://www.google.com/amp/s/kutv.com/amp/news/local/amid-criticism-ponderize-website-removed-after-lds-general-conference
Sorry wrong spelling thanks to autocorrect—it’s Durrant.
I loathe “covenant path.” Thanks for articulating why it’s so problematic.
For members of the church who don’t baptize their children because they think they should decide for themselves as adults, if time is indeed running out as RMN says, then “covenant path ” is a good thing for them to hear. Or for those putting off any other ordinances as if the temple will always be here and they will too. Christ said to be baptized. He also said why. He Himself was baptized.
If we want to return to God, I don’t mind Him expecting us to take steps toward Him.
I cringe when I hear CP. The only point I can see to it, is a way of seeing who will follow the prophet unthinking/unquestioningly.
Lively and interesting topic and 66 comments. I very much liked the way it’s presented in the post.
‘Covenant’ inspires vague notions like the house of Israel or the temple, or D&C references, and recalls to mind the many Sunday school lessons I’ve attended where nuance may be either exposed or obscured, but is definitely discussed. It’s a dog whistle, code for something that for whatever reason isn’t clearly spelled out. It seems rather handy to officially engage women with their duty similar to the way men are corralled with priesthood duties, although it’s not specifically gendered. Unless it is. So it can apply to men or women, but when directed at women, it sounds demi-official, like priesthood lite. Am I making my point clearly? Ha-ha.
It may seem unfortunate that invoking the covenant path is divisive, in a Pharisee-ish, corporate way. But isn’t that the purpose of boundary maintenance?
I had no idea that the RSP was empowered by the handbook to enforce modesty. How patriarchal is that? And now that it’s on the radar of the riff-raff, poof, it’s gone. Except in the memories of all those RSPs who worked to gain a testimony of [other women’s] modesty.
Another word that I cringe when I hear it at church or conference is “worthy” or “worthiness”. According to scripture we are all fallen, and it’s only through Christ’s atonement that we can become worthy of all of the blessings that God desires to share with us. We can’t make ourselves “worthy” by following a list of rules made by humans or ourselves. The way worthiness is approached in the church, at least to me and other people that I’ve talked to, it’s all about external things that others can see. There is no humility involved, no personal loving relationship with the Father and the Savior, no gratitude for the Atonement. It is just a means to an end.
On the other hand, if we take the words of the sacrament hymn “I Stand All Amazed”, where in verse 2 it states
I marvel that He would descend from His throne divine
To rescue a soul so rebellious and proud as mine,
That He should extend His great love unto such as I,
Sufficient to own, to redeem and to justify.
Oh, it is wonderful that He should care for me enough to die for me!
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!
No matter how good we may be, the only way that we can be “worthy” is to be humble and grateful for what the Savior has done for us through the Atonement. He did it out of love for us. Checking off a bunch of rules or shoulds and should nots on a church approved list has nothing to do with the state of our hearts and our relationship with both God the Father and Jesus Christ. If we truly love them we will want to live in such a way that shows that what we say is what we really mean. If we really love them we will realize that humility isn’t being weak. If we really love the Father and the Son we will maintain an attitude of gratitude and humility while quietly doing our best to show our love and honor for them rather than putting on a show for everyone else in order for them to see our “righteousness”.
“[Jesus] said … : Enter ye in at the strait gate; for strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it.”