I went to thesaurus.com and looked up the word worthy. Below the synonyms was a list called “opposite of worthy” (antonyms). This is that list:
When a person in the Mormon Church is told they a not worthy to bless the Sacrament, participate in a baptism, or go to the temple, how do you think this makes them feel? Which of the above words applied to 16- year-old me when my bishop said I was unworthy to pass bless the sacrament due to the length of my hair? Was I vile, valueless, disreputable? Or was I just a smart ass kid that liked to wear his hair long?
Every private organization can set the rules for who can participate, with the church being no exception. They have every right to decide who can enter their temples, bless the sacrament, or speak in their meetings. Similarly, the state of California where I can live has the right to decide who can drive a car, and the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) can decide who can fly an airplane. The FAA won’t let me fly an airplane, not because I’m not worthy, but because I am not qualified. I have not passed their test that checks my qualifications. I did pass the test and am qualified to drive a car.
What if the church used the word “qualify” for the temple? Would that work? That way when non-member parents of the bride are sitting outside waiting for their daughter to emerge through the grand doors with hew new husband, they are not fraudulent, untrustworthy, or immoral, they are simply not qualified to enter the temple.
What are your thoughts on the word worthy as used by the church? Are there places where it applies? Do we as a church misuse it?
I’m not sure I’d say the term worthy is misused as much as I’d say it’s used differently. Language changes, it just does. Words meanings often grow differently within different groups. It gets to the point, for example, that Latter-day Saints can have a conversation with other Christians, using the same words but meaning notably different things. It’s usually confusing. To the degree that we observe this and understand it, we can mitigate it. For the reasons you’ve pointed out, I have to agree that lds use of the term worthy is problematic and confusing. It would be well worth retiring, and your suggested replacement “qualified” would fit well, as President Nelson already likes that word and uses it a lot.
Bad theology mingled with bad practice. Here’s a question that might help clarify the flaw in Mormon thinking: What are all these institutional determinations of “unworthiness” protecting? The temple? The sacrament? The membership, from being led by an “unworthy” bishop? The membership, from partaking of the sacrament when blessed by an “unworthy” teen priest? Or passed by an “unworthy” pre-teen deacon?
The bad theology is the idea that priesthood activity performed by an “unworthy” priesthood holder is somehow invalid. No, it’s not. Keep in mind that the Church, for example, does not require ordinances be redone if it is later discovered a priesthood holder was living a life mired in sin (whether regularly drinking coffee or committing larger sins or crimes). It just doesn’t. Properly formatted ordinances are deemed valid, are accepted as valid, regardless of the contemporaneous state of affairs or later ex post determinations about officiator or priesthood holder “worthiness.” This “worthiness as a clerical requirement” thinking was encountered early on by the Christian Church, and rejected. It was the Donatist movement and controversy. Too often, the LDS Church embraces Christian heresies because the Church and its leadership have no training or familiarity with Christian theology and history.
Bad practice amplifies the problem. Institutionally, many offenders against worthiness get a free pass or clean bill of health through “repentance.” But the institutional determination about who has sufficiently repented or not is by the same local leaders who make the “unworthiness” determinations in the first place. Being an acknowledged violator is no problem if one subsequently becomes an acknowledged repentor. The closer you look, the more it just looks like hand-waving to exercise and reinforce institutional power. And, of course, the “worthiness” determination to “qualify” to get in the temple has a lot to do with signing those tithing checks. Does money buy worthiness? More bad theology and bad practice.
I personally hate how that word is used at church. Especially as it applies to people being either worthy or unworthy to partake of the sacrament. I saw this on reddit from a pastor of another religion.l named Benjamin Perry. It speaks volumes.
“Do not deny anyone communion. Ever.
Communion is not a reward. It is not a privilege for the righteous. It is an invitation to step towards God’s table where everyone has enough and everyone a place.
Remember: Jesus fed Judas.”
In this light everyone is worthy.
The only antonym in the list that makes sense to me in this context is “unworthy”. It is also the only one Bishop Bill reports being used in his teenage experience. Some of the others may apply in some other cases.
The church’s use of “worthy” and “worthiness” is nevertheless problematic. I would suggest “prepared”. The church already uses that word, often in addition to “worthy” and as if it were something more that included “worthy”, but sometimes without use of “worthy” — in recent years in connection with adjustments to youth interview standards and changes to temple recommend questions. Per President Nelson, e.g., “the blessings of the temple are available to any and all people who will prepare themselves.”
Perhaps the notion that “the “worthiness” determination to “qualify” to get in the temple has a lot to do with signing those tithing checks” is more cynical than it needs to be. It may be a matter of protecting people from making covenants that they do not and will not keep. Unless we’re ready to either modify definitions of tithe-paying or to acknowledge that the consecration covenant doesn’t mean what it says literally, it would seem that one cannot be “prepared” for an “endowment” if one is not a tithe-payer.
Of course, the whole picture would change if the Church elided its ellipses and reverted to Lorenzo Snow’s plea “in the name of the Lord, and I pray that every man, woman and child who has means shall pay one tenth of their income as a tithing…” Conference Report Oct 1899 Of course, this would work best if the definition of and determination of having “means” were left to the individual tithepayer, just as whether tithing is to be paid on gross or net (however those terms are defined) is currently supposed to be left to the individual tithepayer.
I would also applaud changing the consecration covenant to bring it more into line with current institutional and other reality rather than a 19th century effort to build an insular “theocracy” — an effort the Church has already long since given up.
Hmm. Now that you mention it, I really do think I’ve heard the word “qualify” used more and more often when it comes to recommends. I do think a lot of this has to do with attitude and culture though, and think they have a bigger impact on how we perceive a word than we sometimes think. If we start applying another word for those unworthy or unqualified for the recommend, how long before those who view the recommend as creating an unnecessary dichotomy of members start to emphasize the most negative aspects of the word, and the discussion starts again?
Alright this is another cynical type comment, but I think the church uses “worthy” instead of “qualify” because of all those nasty shaming meaning of not being worthy. The word “unworthy” is more shaming than “unqualified”. The church operates on the idea that shaming people motivates them to do better. And it usually does, unless it gets used to excess. But the church over uses it and it begins to make people feel hopeless and not good enough, as in, “I will never be good enough, so why try?”
I think the church needs to back off all the shame because, because the surveys taken over the past few years show the number one reason women leave the church is feeling judged. Too much shame, not enough credit for all the things they do for the church, and too many picky little things they are judged on.
Hate the use of the word. Suggests that our worth rises and falls depending on our degree of sinfulness. The worth of souls is great in the sight of God – no matter what. Our worth is great because we are God’s children – no matter what. Labeling people as “unworthy” suggests otherwise, and in common usage I most frequently hear worth as relating to “deserving of love” so – no matter the intent behind the LDS use – unworthy sounds like undeserving of love. I get that we could *say* worthy means something different in this context but at some point that gets a little ridiculous. Words have meaning.
I like “prepared”. “Qualified” is better than “worthy” but still a bit silly like we become competent or qualified based on righteousness.
Then again I think we should completely abolish “worthiness” interviews even if we renamed them “preparation checks” if they contain the same content. If they truly were preparation checks (seeing if someone is prepared to take on responsibilities of temple, priesthood, whatever) without questions about moral cleanliness or what underwear you wear, that would be better. Of course we would have to tell people what to actually expect in the temple. See earlier post re temple symbolism …
I think I’ve seen examples among members and leaders in the Church of the concerns Anna and Elisa describe. But I’ve also seen other members and leaders who do not seem to use “worthiness” as a shaming tactic. I wonder if the Church’s continuing general use of the term may not so much represent an institutional intent to shame (as opposed to the result of leadership and ward roulette) as it does a habitual vocabulary thoroughly grounded in New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants * usage without, in my view, sufficient emphasis on the fact that in those uses “worthy” does not mean “deserving of love.” Maybe general usage has changed enough since the King James translation, the Book of Mormon, and the 19th century Doctrine & Covenants that a vocabulary shift in current Church usage is overdue, just as placing even the D&C in historical context may be overdue. After all, the Church does selectively ignore even some of the D&C. See the recent “’None of these offices is he to do’: priests and the administration of the sacrament ” post and discussion at BCC.
“And now I speak concerning baptism. Behold, elders, priests, and teachers were baptized; and they were not baptized save they brought forth fruit meet that they were worthy of it.” Moroni 6:1
King Noah to Abinadi: “And he said unto him: Abinadi, we have found an accusation against thee, and thou art worthy of death.” Mosiah 17:7
“Verily I say unto you, it shall come to pass that all those who gather unto the land of Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties, and shall observe this law, or they shall not be found worthy to abide among you.” D&C 119:5.
Consider this too – I haven’t changed anything about how I conduct my life. I think I’m a person with high ethical standards and do my best to live a good life and be kind, helpful etc. The only thing that has changed about me as a person is that I can no longer answer enough of those temple recommend questions such as 3, 4 and 10 in a way that would ‘qualify’ me to enter the temple. I’d find the church a more inviting community if we could be more comfortable with coming as we are rather than this two-tiered situation, or maybe it’s 3 tiered when you add in patriarchy LGBTQ+ issues. There isn’t equality in this church.
Here’s the list in case anyone is interested in a recap –
@Wondering I don’t think there is usually an intent to shame. I just think the word “unworthy” is inherently shaming. Whatever we intend it to mean, it’s just not the right concept / word. Rather than spending time explaining to people why our “unworthy” doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, we should just use a new word that means what we want it to mean. (I don’t think you are disagreeing – just clarifying I don’t think there’s an express intent by most people to shame but intent is irrelevant if the impact is bad).
I think the central theological issue here is whether anyone is worthy before God. The correct answer to that question is that we are not worthy, and we cannot be worthy on our own merits. All of us are sinners. All of us need to be redeemed through the love of Jesus Christ. None of us reach a point where we can stand independent of Jesus.
We Latter-day Saints didn’t always fully believe the doctrine of atonement. Our use of the word “worthiness” comes from a time, earlier in the Restoration, when we were a bit less enlightened. That was a time when most of us believed (as many still believe) that working out our salvation boils down, in the end, to the merits of our own works. Now we are more willing to explore the doctrines of grace, love, and atonement. We are more able to recognize the corrosive effects of perfectionism. So the problem with talking about worthiness becomes apparent.
It would be better to find another word for our devotion and submission in covenant-making. In a theological sense, only Christ is worthy. We ought to leave that word for him and his transforming power.
I’m going to go out on a limb here: only the Lord knows who is and who is not worthy. The determinations we (fellow humans) make are at best judgmental and more likely Pharisee-like.
Just want to know if any of you have received revelations on the subject? Maybe you should seek an audience with the prophet to instruct him in the error of his ways.
I echo what Loursat and Elisa have said. Even if the intent isn’t to shame, that’s often what such language does. I’d really like to see numbers on how many struggling members got enthusiastic about staying around when they were told they weren’t worthy to enter the temple vs. struggling members who just left and didn’t come back. Also, to Loursat’s point, we’re all unworthy before God and some of the church’s distinctions seem rather arbitrary. I mean, I totally get (and support) barring people from the temple if they’re abusers or felons, but a lot of the ways we use the concept and word of worthiness just seems counterproductive. Also, I think it’s absolutely insane to require people to pay essentially a flat tax (10 percent) to enter the temple without acknowledging that a flat 10 percent actually disproportionately impacts the poor. I don’t see how Christ, especially given his earthly ministry, would be okay with us making determinations of worthiness based on exacting a proportionately larger price for admission to the temple from the people who can least afford it. So because you have fewer resources to feed your family, pay your bills and just survive, you’re less worthy than other folks who have more resources to spend on basic needs than you do? That’s simply unsupportable, unconscionable and incompatible with any reasonable interpretation of Christ’s teachings.
Over the summer I read Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation.” Here’s what he had to say about “worthiness”:
“In the true Christian vision of God’s love, the idea of worthiness loses its significance. Revelation of the mercy of God makes the whole problem of worthiness something almost laughable: the discovery that worthiness is of no special consequence (since no one could ever, by himself, be strictly worthy to be loved with such a love) is a true liberation of the spirit. And until this discovery is made, until this liberation has been brought about by the divine mercy, man is imprisoned in hate.”
By declaring someone “worthy” based on correct answers to questions in a Temple Recommend interview, I think we as a Church have inadvertently cut off many members from the glory and power of Christ’s mercy. How many members, declared “worthy” based on an interview, continue to be burdened by feelings of inadequacy and shame? How many feel that they cannot qualify for Christ’s love, even when they have that active recommend in their wallet or purse? I’ve seen too many members who feel that way and who express those feelings in those very “worthiness” interviews. I’ve seen others who have turned their correct answers into permission to withhold mercy from their brothers and sisters in the gospel through harsh judgement.
I appreciate that some Church leaders, like Elder Uchtdorf and Elder Runland are more frequently preaching Christ’s mercy from the pulpit, but I must agree with Bro. Merton. Our misguided and theologically false focus on “worthiness” has imprisoned many of our members in self hate and doubt and is preventing many among us from a true encounter with Christ’s love and His mercy.
Dr. Rieux, I heartily agree with you about “worthiness” as preached by many in our church as being something antithetical to Christ’s gospel and his atonement. To me it smacks of Calvinism in its very most dire and unmerciful form as was practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries in the US and countries that were part of the then British Empire. Thankfully we don’t believe as they did that we are born sinful and are wholly unregenerate because of original sin. However, ours is a religion that places a great deal of emphasis on the outward performance of all aspects of LDS life and there are constant reminders of what is expected even down to appropriate clothing and hairstyles (even shirt color for men) which is no different than the same kind of rules that the Puritans and Separatists had for their congregations. Infractions of the rules , no matter how tiny or inconsequential, were met with outsize shaming and punishment. What neither those Calvinist congregations or our church spent/spend much time teaching is that because we are imperfect we NEED the Savior first and foremost in our lives and we can’t do that by ourselves or by checking off items on a checklist. In reading the New Testament we see that the Savior gives hope and help to ALL those who struggle who come to him, and he spends almost all of his time with them. Have you ever noticed how much time he spends with the tax collectors, the the drunks, prostitutes, the mentally ill, the diseased and disabled people, women, widows, orphans and the poor? At the time Jesus lived these different groups were considered to be outcasts, the dregs of humanity and definitely “unworthy” of a religious teacher’s attention. These people are far from “worthy, but Jesus gives them love, encouragement and a good example for them to follow. However, he never makes them into “projects” that he can show off to the apostles and his other followers so that they can see how wonderful he is or so that he or they can brag to others about how many new people are joining his happy throng. When Jesus does get angry it is almost always with the religious experts who think that they are the righteous ones who can’t wait to demonstrate to everyone how perfectly they are following the nitpicky rules they’ve substituted for the two great commandments-to love God with our hearts, minds and strength and to truly love and care for others as we love and care for ourselves. I worry that today a church member could check every thing on the LDS “Perfect Member” checklist and still have no qualm about attending something like what happened on Wednesday and still be able to justify it in their mind. After reading various blogs and letters to the editors of newspapers along the “Mormon Corridor” I don’t think that I exaggerate. Is that what a REAL follower of Jesus Christ does? Blessed are the meek (not showing superiority, humble, easily taught). Jesus was humble and shows us how to be humble to. To me humility and “worthiness” are the opposites of each other. I’ll choose humility every time.
This year, during the TR interview, when asked if I thought I was worthy to enter the temple I nearly said, ” Yes ,I knew not to vote for Trump both times.”
I echo many comments. I especially feel the culture of worthiness is toxic when it can take an individual and ask questions about personal belief, and if those questions are not answered in the correct way, then a stamp of “unworthy” is applied and the individual is not allowed to fully participate in mormonism. Simply because of personal internal belief. That part of mormon culture needs to go.
I also go a step further in that I don’t understand from a theological perspective how it helps to consider us unworthy to stand before God without the intervention of Jesus. Is it really a useful construct to think of a God that can’t bear to have his own children be in his presence without first sacrificing another son first?
I understand the usefulness of the Savior construct (even though I am not a literal believer in this), and how there are many religious systems, Christian and otherwise, that invoke giving ones burdens over to a higher power, and how that process can be incredibly cathartic in dealing with the challenges of life.
But is it really helpful to one’s mental health and emotional well being to think of oneself as unworthy to be in the presence of a God who is also supposed to be the prime example of love? Can we imagine not allowing our own children to be in our presence until they accept that another has intervened on their behalf? I don’t understand how this aspect of the Savior construct is supposed to be helpful and I also see it as a potentially harmful part of Christian unworthiness culture.
These comments have me thinking about how our views on this really come down to theology.
I think the church essentially teaches that works get you into heaven. Church leaders may disagree but fundamentally that’s what they teach, in which case the concept of “worthiness” is consistent with that theology. I disagree with that theology, but it’s internally consistent.
On the other hand, @Loursat thinks that grace saves you. So for Loursat, we are all unworthy and having a man judge us to be worthy based on our own actions is incorrect theology. (Sorry Loursat if I am mischaracterizing or oversimplifying – not my intent.)
I have a different theology than either the Church or Loursat. I don’t like the “humans are terrible and can’t be in the presence of God without Jesus having redeemed us from our terribleness.” That’s not a God that resonates with me or a view of humanity that is very inspiring. So I guess I have a more restitutionary / healing view of the atonement where we are all loved and worthy and Christ heals us from the natural consequences of our mistakes & others’ mistakes.
Anyway, my point is just that we have various competing views of what the atonement means and that has a lot to do with how we understand worthiness and what we think the right approach is. So it’s going to be hard to see eye to eye with church leaders on this until they fully own or come to terms with their position on grace vs works vs whatever.
Elisa, Yes. But the theological differences are not just on atonement and what gets you into “heaven.”
Church leaders and members are also significantly inconsistent in usage of words like “heaven”, “salvation”, “exaltation”, “sanctification”, “justification,” etc. The result is confusion, though largely because the inconsistent usages are not discussed and explored.
We also have what seems to be a fixation on “saving ordinances,” almost as if participation in/receipt of those ordinances were sufficient and not merely [allegedly] necessary conditions for whatever we mean by “salvation.”
Personally, I think the salvation by grace vs works discussions are often overblown and fail to recognize the scriptural and practical relationships between faith and acceptance of grace, between love of God and keeping his commandments (even apart from varying views on what those commandments are), between works that grow out of faith and love on the one hand and works to be seen of men or women on the other, and between works to “qualify” or be “worthy” of a reward on the one hand and, on the other, works or habits of action that define who and what one is and in what kind of “heaven” one could be happy or find joy.
I suppose I also have “a more … healing view of the atonement where we are all loved … and Christ heals us from the natural consequences of our mistakes & others’ mistakes.” I think I’d leave “worthy” out of that formulation because it carries too much inconsistent baggage for me to be confident of its meaning.
Thanks for your thoughts.
Elisa, it sounds like what you are saying is that we keep using that word, and we do not think it means what you think it means.
@DoubtingTom loved your comment.
I appreciate the thoughtful reactions to my comment. I’ll say a little bit more about what I believe.
I think the quote from Merton that Dr. Rieux shared is correct. Experiencing God’s love can make the notion of worthiness seem irrelevant. And it doesn’t just seem irrelevant, it can often be actually irrelevant to the way we live. When we live in the assurance of God’s love we are empowered, knowing that God will not abandon us. We cease being motivated by the fear of exclusion when we know God’s love.
But the doctrine of redemption is still necessary. Theologically, the concept that we are made worthy by the love of Christ is important because it addresses the problem of evil. The stain of sin is real. Whether we think in terms of original sin or in terms of the Fall, as Mormon scripture does, we must grapple with the way that sin and evil seem to be a fundamental part of the world. Our nature as human beings is both divine and mundane. Because we are mundane, we are sinful. The love of Jesus Christ is the path toward transcending innate mundane sin.
Does the concept of redemption have more than theoretical value? Is it ever practically meaningful to speak in terms of worthiness? I think so. In our fallen state, we need each other. Life is mostly a process of groping toward better ways of helping each other. We need each other’s care and encouragement and faith. Without each other we cannot find our way through the mist of sin that’s always part of the world and always part of us. Sometimes we break through the mist. When that happens we feel united to each other and to God in bonds of perfect strength and tenderness. I think it’s accurate to describe the experience of transcending sin as being made worthy, because that’s what it can feel like to catch a glimpse of pure, divine friendship.
Loursat, I appreciate the beauty you find in redemption theology, and your vision of individuals bathing in God’s love and experiencing divine friendship is one that certainly has the power to heal broken hearts and empower downtrodden souls.
And yet, I can’t go as far as you take it to see it as absolutely essential for everyone. As a construct, I can absolutely see its power, but it is merely one construct of many, and there are many throughout mankinds vast history that have found different tools that also have the capability of being balm for the soul.
You say “the stain of sin is real.” It is surely real for you because you believe it whole heartedly, but it is not real in the same way that touching a table is real. It is a construct of the mind, and personally, one that I don’t find helpful even if the construct of a Savior who can bear our burdens is.
I mean no disrespect, but I shy away anytime I hear someone speaking as if their paradigm is more real than another’s, simply because they believe it sincerely and have felt the power of it in their lives. I live in a world where I can grant Elisa’s theology to be just as valid and therapeutic for her as yours is for you. And neither of you are unworthy in my world for not believing wholeheartedly the other’s, nor is anyone unworthy by nature of being fallen or for any other reason.
I simply find unworthiness theologies to have more potential for harm than good, and I don’t see the need to accept a universal stain of sin for someone to enjoy the fruits of redemption. We are all worthy, and that is the universal starting point in my paradigm.
The comments have been so thoughtful and articulate. I really appreciate everyone’s input on this post.
All I can add is from my own experience. It’s been about three and a half years since I decided to stop participating in church. It’s been a rough transition and it’s taken a while to shake off the feeling of constant shame and anxiety that surrounds “worthiness”. I really am not conducting my life any differently now in terms of my relationships with my fellow humans or the nature of my relationship to the divine. The difference is in not having the nearly constant companionship of feeling like I am not enough.
I still have the same foibles. Now I just take a breath, think about what I might do differently next time, what I should do to make amends (if applicable), and just move on. SImple. Clean. Peaceful.