Monday, September 8, 2008

Mormons should think twice when calling Jesus their "Elder Brother"

Mormons sometimes refer to Jesus as their "Elder Brother." This phrase is troubling to many onlookers from traditional Christianity as they see it as lowering the status of Jesus from God and King or putting us as practitioners on the same level as Jesus. It is a phrase that fuels their claims that we worship 'another Jesus' or the ridiculous smear tactic of saying Jesus and Satan are brothers, which was even used by Mike Huckabee in the presidential race, putting the issue in national papers.

Now, I understand why Mormons use this phrase and I'll summarize the doctrine later in this post, and I know the intentions of Mormons are not as the onlookers surmise, but in this case I am going to side with our critics and challenge Mormons to examine the words they casually use in their testimonies and prayers to see if this cultural pattern aligns with our doctrine.

This phrase, "Elder Brother" is not found in scriptures, neither Bible nor other LDS scripture. The principle of it is in the Bible, a combination of Jesus being the "Firstborn" and "Son of God" and all mankind being referred to as the "children of God". The reason the concept has gained prominence in Mormonism is due to unique LDS doctrines about what took place before the creation of the earth particularly as taught in the book of Abraham and the 93rd section of the D&C. Abraham 3 paints a scene in which God the Father is standing in the midst of spirits and among the crowd is the future Abraham and presumably other prophets as part of the "noble and great ones" and it is open to interpretation how far that net is cast. --In passing I will point out that it implies that there were some 'not-so-noble and not-so-great ones', I might have been in that category :) -- Then the spirit person who would come to earth and whom we know as Jesus is described as being "one among them" but with the adjective of being "like unto God." D&C 93 talks about Jesus receiving "not of the fullness at first" but that he became 'like unto God', "grace by grace". So there are some referrences in LDS scriptures that put Jesus "among" the wider family of humanity in the pre-earth realm and suggest development and growing into the role of Savior, but Christ is never lowered from his role or status, the added understanding is that mankind has divine heritage and potential and that only testifies to the power of Christ in His role.

I suspected the phrase may have had origins in the LDS hymnal but that search revealed that although there are some hymns that emphasize Jesus' role as friend and comforter, the phrase "Elder Brother" is never used and the vast majority of LDS hymns actually have the opposite emphasis, i.e. praising of Christ in his role as God, Savior, and King. My limited search on, along with the help of some friends, shows that the phrase first surfaces with Brigham Young and then can be found in discourses by most of the LDS prophets since then but always in passing, usually in reference to Christ's leadership role in the pre-earth realm.

I think the phrase is most common at the local level of discourse and vernacular in the Church, and just gradually became a common phrase members use in prayers and testimonies. I don't think it is used all that much, it is definitely used more by critics of the church than it is actually used by members. I listened for it in the last fast & testimony meeting in my ward and never heard it.

Again, I understand the doctrine and believe the phrase is accurate, I understand Mormons' excitement for this additional understanding of Jesus in the pre-mortal realm, and I believe that Mormons use it with reverent intimacy, but...

If we look at all the titles used to describe Jesus and their relative frequency in scripture, including how prophets refer to Him, how He refers to Himself and how God the Father addresses Him, we should be using this phrase "Elder Brother" rarely or not at all in following that established pattern. Additionally, I think there is always a tendency to become too casual in our reference to Deity and this phrase lends itself moreso to casualness. I think there are other ways of expressing the beautiful doctrine of Christ's role as the Firstborn and preordained Savior of mankind as well as the intimate friendship he provides.

Changing our language would put us in greater alignment with the language of our scriptures and save us a lot of misunderstanding when communicating with the greater Christian community.


David Stoker said...

I found one more thing I wanted to reference and that is this quote from Elder Ballard in a talk entitled "Building Bridges of Understanding":

"We occasionally hear some members refer to Jesus as our Elder Brother, which is a true concept based on our understanding of the premortal life with our Father in Heaven. But like many points of gospel doctrine, that simple truth doesn't go far enough in terms of describing the Savior's role in our present lives and His great position as a member of the Godhead. Thus, some non-LDS Christians are uncomfortable with what they perceive as a secondary role for Christ in our theology. They feel that we view Jesus as a spiritual peer. They believe that we view Christ as an implementor for God, if you will, but that we don't view Him as God to us and to all mankind, which, of course, is counter to biblical testimony about Christ's divinity…

Now we can understand why some Latter-day Saints have tended to focus on Christ's Sonship as opposed to His Godhood. As members of earthly families, we can relate to Him as a child, as a Son, and as a Brother because we know how that feels. We can personalize that relationship because we ourselves are children, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters. For some it may be more difficult to relate to Him as a God. And so in an attempt to draw closer to Christ and to cultivate warm and personal feelings toward Him, some tend to humanize Him, sometimes at the expense of acknowledging His Divinity. So let us be very clear on this point: it is true that Jesus was our Elder Brother in the premortal life, but we believe that in this life it is crucial that we become "born again" as His sons and daughters in the gospel covenant."

Grant said...

Your reference to Elder Ballard is a good addition to your thoughts. Conference talks by the Twelve and First Presidency refer to Him as "Elder Brother" repeatedly (though of course not as often as they refer to Him as Savior, Lord and/or King, etc), but Elder Ballard helps bring it all into perspective.