COMMENTS: I wrote this as an argumentative essay for my Honors 200 writing class during my first semester at BYU, sometime between February 2001 and April 2001. My teacher loved it; it was the first paper she ever awarded with a 100, and she insisted on reading it to the class as an example of a good argumentative essay. However, I think she’s the only Latter-day Saint I’ve ever met who loved it that much. At the time I could not find a single good LDS counter-argument to some of the passages I used.
I’ve heard better answers from more level-headed Latter-day Saints since then, including admission that the examples I’ve used from Acts must have been exclusive, one-time deals. But still, here it is pretty much as written.
Changes in this version of the paper:
- Numerous grammatical and stylistic re-wordings
- Conversion from icky MLA format to heavenly CMS format including hyperlinked endnotes
- Capitalization of the “T” in the LDS church’s name
- New Testament citations are now from the ESV instead of the KJV
- Hyperlinks to either Crosswalk or the official LDS church scripture web site have been added for all New Testament and Book of Mormon citations
- Edited out the paper’s original “it would seem/I answer” format (it was required for the class) for a much smoother argument
The Gift of the Holy Ghost and Why Non-LDS Christians Have It
Bridget Jack Jeffries
According to Gordon B. Hinckley, the fifteenth prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the gift of the Holy Ghost is “the companionship of the Holy Spirit to guide us, protect us, and bless us, to go, as it were, as a pillar before us and a flame to lead us in paths of righteousness and truth.”1 Both members of the LDS church and members of evangelical Christian denominations can agree with this definition. Both members of the LDS church and members of evangelical Christian denominations claim to have the gift of the Holy Ghost—though it is often referred to as “the indwelling of the Holy Spirit” by evangelicals and as “baptism by fire” or “baptism of the Holy Spirit/Ghost” by both parties.
The LDS church teaches that evangelicals and other Christians claim this in vain, for the “gift of the Holy Ghost is the privilege, given to people who have… been confirmed as members of the [LDS] Church, to receive guidance and inspiration from the Holy Ghost.”2 A non-Mormon may have “the Spirit, or Light of Christ, which is given to every person who is born into the world”3 and which is “a sure source of spiritual power,”4 but “the gift of the Holy Ghost is reserved exclusively for worthy baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”5 However, contrary to the Latter-day Saint claim that only Mormons possess the gift of the Holy Ghost and the authority to give it, the Bible plainly teaches that the gift of the Holy Ghost is available to all those who believe on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Latter-day Saints often appeal to a number of biblical passages to argue that the gift of the Holy Ghost can only be given by the laying on of hands. For example, in the Acts of the Apostles, after Philip preached the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” (8:12), men and women believed and were baptized, yet the Holy Ghost did not fall upon any of them until Peter and John came from Jerusalem and “laid their hands on them” (Acts 8:13-17). In another place the Book of Acts describes a group of believers for whom “when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (19:6). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul tells Timothy not to “neglect the gift [he has], which was given [him] by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on [him].” (1 Timothy 4:14), and the author of Hebrews writes concerning the doctrine of “laying on of hands” (Hebrews 6:2). Latter-day Saints interpret these passages to mean that laying on of hands was necessary in the early church in order to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
LDS prophets and apostles have further taught that ordinances such as baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost can only be performed by men holding the Melchizedek Priesthood. A favorite passage to cite as a proof of this is Hebrews 5:4: “[N]o one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Other examples include Matthew 16:19, wherein the apostle Peter is given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” with the power to bind and loose, and a passage in Acts which describes Paul ordering a group of disciples to be re-baptized presumably because they were not baptized by one having the proper authority (Acts 19:1-5). The LDS church teaches that “a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood may perform baptism by immersion” and “only Melchizedek Priesthood holders may confer the gift of the Holy Ghost,”6 and since the LDS Church is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30)—meaning the only church with the true Melchizedek Priesthood—only members of the LDS church are authorized by God to give and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Unfortunately, Latter-day Saints who cite these passages as proof of their exclusionary Holy Ghost doctrine are not examining all that the Bible has to say on the matter. Elsewhere the Bible teaches that the gift of the Holy Ghost is something available to every person who has put his or her faith in Jesus Christ—baptism into any particular denomination notwithstanding. The Lord promised that “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The author of John explained Jesus was speaking “about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given” (John 7:39)—hence, it is promised that all believers will have the gift of the Holy Ghost. Elsewhere, Jesus taught his disciples: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). If Christ’s words as recorded here are true, it logically follows that a man may ask his heavenly Father for the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Father will give it to him by any means He chooses.
The New Testament does include examples of men receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands as Mormons practice it, but it also contains clear examples of men receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost without the laying on of hands and even before baptism. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples are reassured by Christ that they shall be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (1:5). The second chapter finds the disciples gathered together on the day of Pentecost, waiting for the gift of the Holy Ghost:
And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:2-4)
In spite of the meticulous detail the author has given to this passage, no mention is made of any laying on of hands; indeed, there could be no laying on of hands, for according to Acts 1:5, no one had yet received the gift. A similar event happens in Acts 10:34-48, when the Gentiles are presented with the gospel for the first time. Peter has arrived at the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius and is preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, and “[w]hile Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (Acts 10:44) The Jewish believers “were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45) The fact that Peter was still preaching as this happened indicates that no laying on of hands was involved—the gift of the Holy Ghost simply fell on the Gentiles from heaven just as it fell on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Additionally, Peter adds that the men should be baptized, for they had received the Holy Ghost just as he and the disciples had (Acts 10:47). Not only did the Gentiles receive the gift of the Holy Ghost without the laying on of hands, but they did so before baptism. They were not “worthy baptized members” of any earthly church.
Although evangelical Christians do not accept the Book of Mormon as scripture, it is also worth noting that the Book of Mormon teaches that it is possible for a person to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost without the laying on of hands. 3 Nephi 9:20 presents Jesus Christ as promising the gift of the Holy Ghost to the Nephites:
And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.
If a person was “baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost” and “knew it not,” as the Lamanites were in Helaman 5, it logically follows that no laying on of hands was involved lest that person would have known. Ether 12:14 reaffirms that the Lamanites were baptized “with fire and with the Holy Ghost.”
Finally, the doctrine of ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood as taught by the LDS church is not found in the New Testament7 because, like the gift of the Holy Ghost, priesthood is something that is available to all believers. The New Testament uses the word “priesthood” seven times: four times in reference to the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:5,11,12,14), once in reference to the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 7:24), and twice in reference to the priesthood of all who belong to Christ’s church (1 Peter 2:5,9). None of these are references to anything that resembles the current LDS priesthood. Furthermore, the New Testament contains no accounts of a man being ordained to the priesthood by the laying on of hands. There are accounts of men being ordained to offices in the church such as Stephen (Acts 6:5-6), but this is not the same as being ordained to the priesthood. Hebrews 5:4, the most common proof-text used by Latter-day Saints to support this doctrine, simply means that a person must be called by God, as Aaron was called by God and as all believers are called by God (Romans 8:28,30), not that a person must have hands laid on him. To argue that this passage means that a person must be ordained to the priesthood by the laying on of hands is to make assumptions about the text which are unsupported by the text itself. Similar eisegesis occurs when members of the LDS church try to use Acts 19:1-6 and Matthew 16:19 as support of the current LDS priesthood doctrines. Acts 19:1-6 does not say that the disciples needed to be re-baptized because it had not been done by the proper authority the first time and Matthew 16:19 does not say that Peter was given a legalistic authority which could be transferred from one person to the next by the laying on of hands. Speculations about these texts may fly, but since the texts themselves do not illuminate their meanings, speculations will remain just that: speculations.
This paper has shown that both the Bible and the Book of Mormon teach that the gift of the Holy Ghost may be received without the laying on of hands, and that, if the Bible is to be trusted, a line of priesthood authority has nothing to do with it. Yet one more issue remains to be dealt with: can the Bible be trusted? The Eighth Article of Faith of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly,” meaning that the Bible may have been corrupted in some places and the text we have has diverged from the autographs. Because of this, some members of the LDS church would respond that the texts cited here have been “mistranslated” and that the parts of the New Testament which taught the Melchizedek priesthood have been removed. However, there is not one iota of evidence that these specific passages have been changed in any of the extant manuscripts of the texts which we do have, nor did Joseph Smith make significant changes to them in the Joseph Smith Translation8. If a member of the LDS church wishes to believe the texts cited here are corrupt, she does so on her own authority and not on the authority of the LDS church or evidence from textual criticism.
Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon may very well teach that the gift of the Holy Ghost can be given directly from God without the laying on of hands, and the scriptures are certainly a powerful witness. However, to the non-LDS Christian, the ultimate argument does not lie in any scripture or paper or scholarly journal. It lies in his own heart and in his own life, where every new day he is hearing that still-small voice urging him on, guiding him, directing him, going “as a pillar before [him] and a flame to lead [him] in paths of righteousness and truth,” and all the arguments and proof-texting in the world will never make it otherwise.
1 Gordon Bitner Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 259. At the time of this paper’s writing in 2001, Hinckley was the prophet and head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
7 The initial length limit on this paper was 6 pages, so I only had space to treat uses of the word “priesthood” in the New Testament. Examples of words like “power” and “authority” would also be relevant to the discussion, but I don’t believe the evidence there is any more compelling.