In my late 20’s, thinking it may be my last chance for such an adventure, I spent three and a half weeks in New Dehli, India on a volunteer vacation. The organization that provided the trip tried their best to try to leverage my computer and math skills to help the very poor. For me, the trip was my way of experiencing a country and culture as different from my own as I could possibly experience. Even here, however, I was surprised to discover a small Mormon branch and decided to attend. I don’t remember much of that service, but I do remember the branch president pulling out his temple recommend as he testified of the importance of having a current recommend even if actually attending a temple was not viable. Even on the opposite side of the world, in the midst of a country with a culture and history really different from my own, so very far from any then existing temple, I was surprised to hear this type of emphasis on the temple recommend.
Temples for the LDS church are where we perform marriage sealing ordinances for the living and other ordinances, including baptisms, for the dead. We consider these buildings our most sacred places. Our church values temples so much so that Joseph Smith, early in church history, while facing persecution and deep poverty, sacrificed nearly everything to build or attempt to build them everywhere they spent any amount of time in, including Kirtland, Nauvoo, all over Utah and increasingly, now, all over the world, including notably to my story, India.
Temples are not public spaces. On the contrary, even lifelong members of the church have to qualify to enter. To qualify requires sitting through two interviews with ecclesiastical leaders, the first with either the bishop or one of his counselors, the second with one of the stake president’s counselors. The bishop leads the congregation the member attends, the stake president presides over a group of congregations.
Both leaders must ask the exact same set of questions and in order to qualify, the individual must answer all the questions correctly, twice.
The stakes for a temple recommend can be pretty high, most especially because most LDS weddings happen there. When two active, faithful Mormons marry outside the temple, they advertise to everyone that they probably did something serious enough to keep them out, and most people assume that something was sex. In that sense, it can be a big, red scarlet letter. If a family member is unable to secure a temple recommend in time for a temple wedding of someone close to them, they have to wait outside so they can be there for the family pictures traditionally done on temple grounds. It’s another kind of scarlet letter, just not as big. I was married in the temple. Some of the closest people in my life couldn’t participate in what has been the most important event in my life – and I felt that sense of loss, experiencing that important event while loved ones waited outside.
The temple recommend, then, can be a kind of a sorting hat. If you have one, you’re an exclusive insider. If not, you’re outside the club and it’s at weddings where this sorting is made public.
Fortunately, President Nelson softened the blow a bit. Now, if a couple really wants everyone, including all of the non-believers, the fornicators, the smokers, the non tithe payers, and apostates in attendance (more about all of this later), they can have the all-inclusive wedding without having to wait an entire year to eventually seal it in the temple.
Marriage sealings are by far the most important social reasons to carry the temple recommend but there are other obvious benefits as well. Many of the more important positions at all levels of the church require a temple recommend. And the temple really is a sacred, holy place. Participating in the ceremonies, rituals and ordinances, dressed all in white, leaving all of your devices locked away, taking on the name of a deceased person, places that person out of time and into eternity. Every time I’ve experienced the temple, I feel a little more whole.
With all of that as prequel, let’s get into the actual questions. What do the changes to the questions mean for the average member of the church. I think this summary explains the intent of the changes fairly well. This quote in particular indicates the intent for the changes are to clarify rather than modify entrance qualifications.
Temple recommend questions have been periodically clarified or adjusted to meet the needs and circumstances of God’s children. These current updates clarify, but do not change, worthiness requirements to enter the temple.
There are 15 questions but some of the questions have parts. Rather than dealing with each question individually, I’m going to group them by category.
One last thing before I jump in – amazingly, these are binary, yes/no questions. You know, the kind of question you should never ask your teenager. The ultimate goal when entering a temple recommend interview is to determine whether or not the person qualifies to enter. That determination can and should be made ahead of time. The questions are known, the person should prepare ahead and as much as possible wrestle through to answers. These questions can trigger bigger conversations with the leader in the interview and for some people that can be valuable, but the goal will always be to get to either a yes or no. Answering a single question incorrectly can mean not receiving the recommend. Only perfect scores count.
The Have Questions:
Faith in the Godhead: Do you have faith in and a testimony of God, the Eternal Father; His Son, Jesus Christ; and the Holy Ghost?
Testimony of the Atonement: Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and of His role as your Savior and Redeemer?
Testimony of the Restoration: Do you have a testimony of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
I’ve lived with these questions for decades now. I’ve always treated these questions as gimmes. But as I’ve walked deeper into my faith journey, they have opened up in ways that have forced me to really confront their complexity. Depending how I interpret testimony and faith, I could honestly answer both yes and no to all three of these questions. I could write out fully flushed out reasons why for both answers. These are heavy words, testimony and faith, with complex, confusing definitions. We can treat them superficially or we can dig into them.
What does it even mean to possess a faith in God, or God’s son. Given that Christians believe Jesus, an historical figure, was born from a virgin mother, lived a perfect, sinless life, voluntarily allowed himself to be crucified for the sins of the world and in three days rose from the grave, not just a man but a God. Having faith in such unbelievable, unverifiable specifics doesn’t make complete sense to me. What does it mean to have faith in the Holy Ghost, a spirit guide for all who live righteously? What does it mean to have faith in all three?
That last of the faith questions is a little odd if taken too literally. How does one have faith in an historical event, one that either happened or didn’t? I don’t think that’s possible (same is true for a literal, physical resurrection by the way). But if the restoration really is something with possibility and currency in our own lives right now and not something that happened 200 years ago, and if we’re all invited to participate in it, then perhaps having faith in the restoration means being willing to devote our lives to something that requires our participation. Saying yes means being committed to it, or at least not sleeping through it. Same, really with God, grace, and the spirit. The answer relates to their reality now in the ways we choose to experience life.
The interview demands an answer, but these questions carry a lot of weight.
The Sustain Questions:
There are two questions here:
- Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?
- Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local leaders of the Church?
I think they could more practically be asked in this way:
- Do I support the good people running this church? More specifically, will I remain in faithful participation even when I don’t agree with some of the policies and procedures passed down to me through the organization? Will I at least pay attention to what they are trying to teach me? I don’t think sustain means agree with. For the top leaders of the church, I’m not even sure sustain practically means support. There is only so much I can do for them personally hundreds of miles away, part of a global organization with millions of members.
- Do I support my local leaders, most of whom I know personally and am well aware of their weaknesses and mistakes? Am I willing to pray for them and help them succeed sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, despite their own efforts otherwise?
It’s hard to sustain well, but a yes answer to these questions is a commitment to try.
The Strive Questions:
Chastity: Do you strive for moral cleanliness in your thoughts and behavior?
Sabbath Day: Do you strive to keep the Sabbath day holy, both at home and at church; attend your meetings; prepare for and worthily partake of the sacrament; and live your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?
Honesty: Do you strive to be honest in all that you do?
There are now three questions with the word “strive” when previously there was just one. I appreciate the word strive here because that feels like all we can do. No one is perfectly honest or perfectly clean or perfectly keeps the sabbath day holy or perfect in anything.
I don’t believe for any of these questions, perfection is expected. Just strong, fervent attempts – I strive for Sabbath holiness, I strive to keep my thoughts and behaviors filled with a deep love and concern for others.
See my post on the celestial glory for a hint why I word it this way – the short answer is that I think sex is fundamentally a relationally, loving, intimate act and one that should be done only with a committed by covenant partner, anything less than that falls short of the ideal. But having said that, we all have to deal with hormones and at various degrees and at different times of our lives, hormones may be harder to control. Sometimes our thoughts betray our more noble selves. Even Jimmy Carter, famously, admitted as much.
Adam Miller describes it this way in his phenomenal book, Letter’s to a Young Mormon:
Chastity is not a kind of perfection. You may have arrived in this world innocent, but chastity is some-thing more. Chastity is not something you are born with and then break or lose, it is something that is made. It is something that must, with years of patient and compassionate effort, be cultivated and grown and gathered and sealed.
Miller, Adam S.. Letters to a Young Mormon . Neal A. Maxwell Institute. Kindle Edition.
Chastity again: Do you obey the law of chastity?
Tithing: Are you a full-tithe payer?
Word of Wisdom: Do you understand and obey the Word of Wisdom?
Garments: Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple, including wearing the temple garment as instructed in the endowment?
Child Obligations: Do you have any financial or other obligations to a former spouse or to children? If yes, are you current in meeting those obligations?
I think the spirit of these questions is to determine whether the person clears the minimum bar required to enter the temple. The word of wisdom question can be a barrier of entry for someone who chooses to indulge in alcohol, tobacco, or more baffling, coffee or tea. This could be tough for someone mired in an addiction. Especially with coffee and tea, not partaking could be simply a way to signal a personal commitment to the church. Some legitimately argue that keeping someone struggling with addiction out of the temple removes a useful tool that could help them heal. I don’t have data to back this up, but for those who step away from the temple, drinking coffee might be a good way to signal that intention, and then when an out and proud coffee drinker waits outside for a temple wedding, everyone expects it.
The chastity question is even more complicated. First, it covers a huge range of behaviors. Some have argued that sexual sin (without any specificity included) stands next to murder in seriousness and I think that’s right but only at the extreme edges. For conservative churches, any sexual activity outside of marriage is sin, but that includes both the relatively innocent sexual act between a couple weeks before their wedding day as well as violent sexual assault and everything else in between. As it stands now, any and all misdeeds within that range of behavior will keep you out of the temple, the only question, typically, is for how long.
I have some sympathy for the church’s position here. Sexual activity is fraught. My experience with it is limited but the science resonates – sexual experience deepens feelings of love and attachment with a partner. Doing this too casually can be emotionally brutal and can potentially cross lines into criminal behavior. But honestly, religion sucks at sex, and equally as honestly, so does everyone else.
For each of these questions, the person will have to inspect their own lives to determine whether or not they meet the criteria because the standards remain fairly vague. Some church leaders will take a harder-line than others. Everyone has a different interpretation of what it means to pay a full tithe for example. But like all of the questions, they really just want a yes or no. The individual can seek guidance or advice, but that guidance often varies from bishop to bishop and can feel a bit like playing leadership roulette.
I have no idea why the lifestyle questions are limited to these. Murder, physical or emotional abuse, violence of any kind in fact and criminal activity does not even make the list. Perhaps that is why we have the next category.
The Catch-All Questions:
Follow the Teachings of the Church: Do you follow the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ in your private and public behavior with members of your family and others?
Are you a believer: Do you support or promote any teachings, practices, or doctrine contrary to those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Serious sins: Are there serious sins in your life that need to be resolved with priesthood authorities as part of your repentance?
Your own worthiness assessment: Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?
First of all, I’m pretty sure you can’t hold a temple recommend in prison – which kind of sucks for the poor and minority populations who end up in prison at disproportionate rates and therefore we effectively end up piggybacking temple recommends to a not-so-just justice system.
Pushing that to the side, the problem with these questions generally and especially these vague catch-all questions is that they can disproportionately punish the most sensitive and conscientious among us.
In the most recently published podcast by This American Life, entitled Anatomy of Doubt, they describe an incident where a rape victim keeps changing her story to the police, even admitting at certain times, she wasn’t raped at all and had made the whole thing up. But of course she had been raped, the perpetrator was eventually caught and the evidence of the rape corroborated her initial accounts. Trauma is messy. We doubt ourselves as a matter of course. Many of us walk through our lives worried we’re not measuring up. If someone were to ask us if we are worthy, answering no feels like for many the most honest response.
Imagine, for example, a recent victim of rape, sitting in a bishop’s temple recommend interview having to answer the chastity question? But even more broadly, we all deal with our own regrets and we’re typically our own worst critics. Jordan Peterson, in a recent podcast, argued that the constitutional principle of “innocent until proven guilty” protects us not just from false accusations but also from ourselves. He cautions against too quick admissions of guilt when the stakes are high.
In more intimate and trusting relationships, we should admit to guilt quickly and generously because we’re doing dumb stuff all the time. Being quick to apologize and quick to forgive can make these relationships endure through difficult times.
But in high stakes situations, and a temple recommend interview I think counts here, we should error on the side of generosity. If we truly are struggling with something difficult, perhaps we should work it out first with someone professionally trained to help navigate us through difficult internal terrain.
The “are you a believer question” is particular fraught and is a significant change from the older question. Like many of the other questions, it’s broad and subject to interpretation. A person may advocate for a political position that another could claim runs counter to church’s doctrine of love and compassion. LGTBQ activism may be scrutinized. Concern for 1:1 bishop interviews with children could be seen as a violation of this question. Any concern, if publicly expressed could be reasons to answer no. This essay right now may be in violation.
An unintended and unfortunate consequence could be that some may become worried out of thinking for themselves or being afraid to express themselves in public conversation. I hope not.
If we engage sincerely, with authenticity and real concern, without a desire to destroy or tear down, I think we should feel confident in a no answer here.
Most active, lifelong members of the church, organize their lives around these core questions. They get into a habit of expressing fervent testimony of the basic gospel principles in monthly testimony meetings and in other venues. They carefully avoid substances specifically mentioned in the word of wisdom even as they might indulge in unhealthy eating and drinking habits outside of the banned list. They marry young and stay committed in their marriage. They never question and always try to obey. Being careful to stay within bounds, they secure the recommend and enjoy the benefits of being a lifelong temple recommend holder.
Others, though, who for one reason or another struggle with one or more of these questions often can be driven right out of the church. If they can’t participate fully why participate at all?
I’m not sure the exact intention of these questions. I’m not sure they are living up to the purposes they are trying to serve. But I think they have potential. They provide an opportunity for deep self-assessment, shadow work, and further faith exploration. Doing the work these questions invite us into, I believe can provide the framework for inner sanctification and a journey of holy goodness.
Perhaps there are better questions. There’s nothing on the list about love, service or sacrifice, not directly anyway. Perhaps we can add our own questions to the list as we do this inner work. Having to hear these questions out-loud twice in a row from an ecclesiastical leader and responding out loud with either a yes or no can be the motivation for necessary, regular inner work that should continue as we use that recommend to attend the temple regularly.
Ultimately, if we desire to attend the temple, we should be as generous to ourselves as possible. Desire, a willingness to strive, a commitment to participate I think is at the heart of all of these questions. If we are willing, if we desire, we are “called to the work“, and regular temple attendance can be a sanctifying assist in our regular engagement to assist and bless others.