Whoso Shall Offend One of These Little Ones – The Illicit Weaponizing of Scripture

October 16, 2020

by Michael Haehnel

During my first year of high school, not only did I start to attend Latter-day Saint home-study seminary, but I also took an English class from a man who was passionate about grammar and believed that anyone could learn the basics. He devised a method to teach English grammar that was simple, easy to internalize and highly engaging. Little did I know at the time that what I was learning in his class would have an impact on my present-day spiritual outlook…more so perhaps than seminary.

My study of grammar allowed me to recognize patterns that otherwise would not have occurred to me. For instance, I came to understand that like other languages, English also has both singular and plural second-person pronouns. We don’t use the singular second-person pronouns very much anymore: thou, thee, thy and thine. We tend to use the plural whenever we are referring to the person we are talking to: you and your. Occasionally we use “ye” as in “hear ye, hear ye” or “God rest ye merry gentlemen,” which is another plural pronoun referring to the person we are talking to. In the Church we use the singular—thou, thee, thy—in prayer, which our leaders tell us it is the language of respect. Actually, though, those pronouns are simply the singular, which were still in use at the time that the King James Version of the Bible was being translated. (Ironically, though, even at the time of the King James translation, the singular pronouns had begun to fall out of favor because people considered them less respectful than you, ye or your.)

Fast forward a few years, and I heard someone quote this scripture:

Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17

Many of us are familiar with this passage of scripture. It is common fare when anyone is talking about chastity, modesty, grooming, the avoidance of piercings and tattoos, and so on. I had never questioned its use in these contexts. On this particular occasion, however, my understanding of English grammar kicked in, and I noticed something that had eluded me before.

“Ye” is plural. “Temple of God” is singular. To have agreement between both sides of the verb, the sentence should read “Thou art the temple of God,” or “ye are temples of God.” Unless of course that is not what the apostle Paul is getting at. If Paul means that all of you, collectively, comprise one temple, then “Ye are the temple of God” makes sense.

As it turns out from the rest of the chapter, that is exactly what Paul intends. He is emphasizing that the congregation of believers has been assembled—so to speak—through the labors of many people…just as a brick-and-mortar temple is. Furthermore, he is concerned about divisions or dissensions among the believers. To extend the metaphor, divisions in a congregation are like fissures in the wall of the temple. To those who sow discord among congregation members, Paul directs his strongest words: “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy.”

This is not a scripture about modesty, moral cleanliness, tattoos or personal attire. This is a scripture about preserving and protecting unity as a congregation.

When I realized this, I was upset. Really upset. How could Latter-day Saint leaders and teachers use this scripture so grossly out of context? Where was the honesty and integrity in that? Where was the devotion to truth? Surely, I was not the first to notice the misuse of this passage of scripture. What possible justification could there be?

I have a possible answer to that last question, but I warn you: it raises a disturbing possibility. In 1 Corinthians 6:15-20, we find a similar passage to the one above:

Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.

What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.

Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

Here Paul clearly identifies our individual physical bodies as sacred tabernacles and makes the case that extra-marital sexual behavior constitutes desecration of our bodies. So why don’t church leaders and teachers use this scripture instead?

I believe it is because there is no “destroy” clause. Nothing in the 1 Corinthians 6 passage suggests that God will rain down dire consequences on anyone who commits a sexual infraction. 1 Corinthians 6 lacks the scare factor.

I know from personal experience how it is: I am preparing a sacrament-meeting talk and I want to make a point as dramatically and memorably as possible. I seem to remember a scripture that says such and such. I look and look, and I can’t find the exact scripture saying the exact thing I want it to say. It’s very tempting to pretend that such a scripture exists. Or to use another scripture out of context.

Yet to do so is both dishonest and misleading. Do the scriptures actually say anywhere that sexual infractions will incur God’s most destructive wrath? Well, yes, there are the Old Testament capital penalties for all kinds of things, including working on the Sabbath, taking God’s name in vain, and disobeying parents, but the Church doesn’t consider many of those things worthy of excommunication anymore, much less death. The Law of Moses aside, do the scriptures view sexual infractions as seriously as church teachings imply, or are church leaders and teachers deliberately overstating the seriousness of sexual infractions for the purpose of scaring members—particularly youth—into compliance? If so, that smacks of “unrighteous dominion” as described in Doctrine and Covenants 121:37-39.

I can hear some readers say, “Wait—doesn’t the Book of Mormon say that sexual sin is second only to murder?” About that…

The study of English grammar helped me understand how another scriptural passage says something quite different from what most Latter-day Saints think. The grammatical nuances may be subtle, but they are unerring.

Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?

Alma 39:5

Once again, our concern is with pronouns. People commonly believe that the “these things” that the prophet Alma is talking about are sexual sins. Hence the idea that sexual immorality is second only to murder.

Pronouns refer back to something else that has already been said. They are placeholders so that we don’t need to name the entire “something else” over and over again. The problem is that we don’t always know for sure what the “something else” is. Sometimes it takes some sleuthing.

If we go back a few verses, we read

Thou didst do that which was grievous unto me; for thou didst forsake the ministry, and did go over into the land of Siron among the borders of the Lamanites, after the harlot Isabel.

Yea, she did steal away the hearts of many; but this was no excuse for thee, my son. Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.

Alma 39:3-4

Looking at this passage, we see two items of concern: forsaking the ministry and heeding the enticements of a harlot. A careful reading indicates a hierarchy between the two ideas. Alma leads out with “thou didst forsake the ministry” and he ends up with “thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted.” This is clearly his primary concern. Couched in the middle of this passage, Alma mentions a harlot by name, indicating that she was well known—perhaps notorious is the better word—and he gives some credence to her prowess: “She did steal away the hearts of many.” Alma seems to say that it is almost understandable that his son was besotted with her, but then he pulls back: “This was no excuse for thee.” In other words, the motive did not justify the action.

Alma acknowledges the motive, but it is the action that is primary in Alma’s mind: that his son went AWOL on his mission. Motivations are important, but actual behaviors are the most important: behaviors are what have impact on other people and the world around us. Alma goes on to explain that impact, and therein lies the answer as to what “these things” refers to.

Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words.

And now the Spirit of the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction; therefore I command you, my son, in the fear of God, that ye refrain from your iniquities…

Alma 39:11-12

Here Alma’s language becomes its most intense: “great iniquity,” “destruction.” Now we are getting closer to something that Alma would consider nearly as egregious as murder.

In fact, Alma uses that very word earlier when he is talking to another son. He is recounting his own rebellious youth:

I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

Alma 36:3-14 (italics added)

Alma saw the impact of his own behavior—namely, leading other people astray—as analogous to murder. It is clear that the pronoun “these things” refers to any behaviors or actions that undermine the faith, belief, or spiritual receptiveness of others. This passage of scripture is not about sexual conduct; that is merely a pretext for the larger issue. Alma’s deepest concern is that his son is following in Alma’s own footsteps by recklessly inciting the spiritual downfall of other people.

In an earlier discourse, Alma, in response to the legalistic reasoning of a prominent lawyer, said, “Behold, the scriptures are before you; if ye will wrest them it shall be to your own destruction” (Alma 13:20). Wrest means to twist or force. Using scripture out of context or in a way contrary to its author’s intent is an example of wresting scripture. Note that in this passage as well, Alma uses no-nonsense language: “to your own destruction.” It appears that to Alma, misusing scripture is a very serious offense, close to that of leading others astray. Dare we say that either of these offenses are significantly more serious than sexual infractions? I think so.

Jesus said, “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6). This is part of a metaphor in which Jesus brings his disciples’ attention to a young child and expounds on conversion and humility. He is talking about the process of building faith, then concluding with a warning that anyone who interferes with that process would do better to die. This is akin to Alma’s harsh view of any behavior that obstructs others’ belief. In fact, Paul is on the same page when he condemns any behavior that causes division or strife among the believers.

It is reprehensible that the very scriptures that adjure us to be careful about disrupting the faith and spirituality of others are misused—wrested—in a way that adversely affects the little ones among us: those who are vulnerable, those whose faith is in its formative stages. To tell our youth that any sexual activity is tantamount to murder and to threaten them with God’s wrath is not only dishonest: it is destructive. To double down with such criticisms upon those who are LGBTQIA+ is even more destructive. Our youth want to do the right things; they believe their parents and church leaders. Their spirituality—like the emotional, social, intellectual and sexual aspects of their lives—is undergoing rapid and precarious development. This is often a confusing time of life. The confusion is often greater for LGBTQIA+ youth. Adolescence and young adulthood are times for tender guidance, for openness, for encouragement, for honesty. These are not times for unfounded exaggerations and threats of damnation.

Some forty years ago, Elder Marion G. Romney, Second Counselor in the First Presidency repeated and elaborated a quote from earlier Church leaders: “Better dead clean than alive unclean” (Ensign, September 1981). No idea could be more poisonous. This suggests that any sort of sexual behavior outside of marriage—which can be interpreted to include a wide range of thoughts, words and actions—is a capital crime. This has nothing to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ that looks tenderly upon those who smite their breasts and say “be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13). This has nothing to do with the reality that sexual awakening and development is a normal part of human growth which, like walking and talking, will entail some awkwardness and mistakes. This has nothing to do with reality that for most LGBTQIA+ people—especially among Latter-day Saints—the difficulties around sexual awakening and gender identification are likely to be more pronounced. Yet for all its ghastliness, this idea—better dead clean than alive unclean—is the logical and inevitable extension of the ideas promoted through the ongoing misuse of scriptural passages. It is the deadly distillation of those ideas. And it is an idea that still carries weight in the collective consciousness of church members.

Leaders and teachers need to stop using scriptures to suggest dire and punitive consequences related to sexuality and sexual behavior. Leaders and teachers need to teach that as with other matters of human development, gender identification and sexuality are areas that requires understanding, sensitivity, gentle guidance and compassion. Leaders and teachers need to affirm that life and well-being are more important than gender or sexual conformity.

In a 2016 question and answer session, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, First Counselor in the First Presidency, was asked this question: “Less than a year ago, right here in Washington, DC, my friend killed himself. He was Mormon and gay. You’ve gone on record that, ‘the Church does not give apologies’. Does religious freedom absolve you from responsibility in the gay Mormon suicide crisis?”

President Oaks’ answer was a legalistic, irresponsible dodge, worthy of a lawyer perhaps, but not of a disciple of Christ:

I think that’s a question that will be answered on judgment day. I can’t answer that beyond what has already been said. I know that those tragic events happen. And it’s not unique simply to the question of sexual preference. There are other cases where people have taken their own lives and blamed a church–my church–or a government, or somebody else for their taking their own lives, and I think those things have to be judged by a higher authority than exists on this earth, and I am ready to be accountable to that authority, but I think part of what my responsibility extends to, is trying to teach people to be loving, and civil and sensitive to one another so that people will not feel driven, whatever the policy disagreements, whatever the rules of the church, or the practices of a church, or any other organization, if they are administered with kindness, at the highest level or at the level of the congregation or the ward, they won’t drive people to take those extreme measures; that’s part of my responsibility to teach that. And beyond that, I will be accountable to higher authority for that. That’s the way I look on that. Nobody is sadder about a case like that than I am. Maybe that’s a good note to end on.

The Church has wrested scripture to threaten and intimidate, especially when it comes to matters of gender and sexuality. That co-opting of scripture has led to loss of faith, loss of mental and emotional well-being, and loss of life, especially among LGBTQIA+ youth and members. In light of such consequences, Jesus would not have said, “Wait for the judgment day on this one.” Alma would not have said it. Paul would not have said it. The time is now for the Church to accept responsibility for the violence of its teachings, to reverse its practice of intimidation, and to correct its punitive doctrines and policies. This needs to happen openly and explicitly, not through some gradual distancing process. If not so, then in the words of Paul, “[Them] shall God destroy”, in the words of Alma, “The thought of coming into the presence of…God [will] rack [their] soul[s] with inexpressible horror,” or in the words of Christ, “It were better for [them] that a millstone were hanged about [their] neck[s], and that [they] were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

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2 Comments

  1. Chantel on October 18, 2020 at 7:57 PM

    Thank you for this insightful article! I studied several of these passages and many others I found that are often used and quoted in the context of illustrating the seriousness of sexual sin. I did not analyze these using the grammatical tools you did; however, I came to a similar conclusion. Not a single reference was exclusively identifying the sexual transgressions — they all had similar context. Rather the breaking of promises or trust, imposing sex without consent, lying, and so forth seem to be the primary problem in the instances of sexual transgression described. This rings so true to me. Not that sexual sin is not sin. But it isn’t, as has been commonly said, akin to murder. It’s the contextual activities that “murder” the hearts and spirits of others that are so abominable.

    • Michael on October 19, 2020 at 11:19 AM

      Thank you for your thoughts, Chantel. This was something that weighed on me for a long time before I put it into words. Somehow it seemed as though now was the right time. I hope that you and I and others can spread the word so that scripture can be used to promote love and caring, rather than judgment and condemnation.

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