The talk of the town in recent months here in Saratoga Springs has been the completion of the LDS (Mormon or Latter-day Saints) temple. Since former LDS President Thomas S. Monson announced in 2017 that a temple would be built in Saratoga Springs, Utah, there have been mixed responses from our friends and neighbors.
Because nearly 90 percent of the Utah County population considers themselves LDS, the most noticeable emotions were excitement and anticipation. However, for the growing number of people who have left the LDS faith, we noticed ill feelings of frustration or annoyance. Somewhere in the middle was a sense of curiosity among those new to the area.
While temples are normally only accessible to worthy LDS members, there is a three-month period when the general public can tour a temple before it’s officially dedicated. Much to our surprise, our church staff received a VIP invitation from the mayor to tour the temple with city officials and busines owners—a perk of being the only non-LDS “clergy” in town. One of our good friends was in charge of organizing 38,000 members to be ushers and tour guides during this period, and he was thrilled to walk with us through the temple. This made our experience full of fun and meaningful dialogue.
So, what was it like? On one hand, it’s a beautiful building filled with people who are genuinely kind, well-meaning and devoted to their faith. On the other hand, the tour clearly revealed many of the religious steps one has to climb to achieve “exaltation.”
The LDS understanding of exaltation is eternal progression to the highest degree of glory, the celestial kingdom. Church founder and prophet Joseph Smith described it this way: “When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation.”
Only by “climbing this ladder” do Mormons experience Heavenly Father’s presence, receive godhood and live with their earthly family forever. These “steps” include temple recommend cards to prove worthiness, white garments to signify purity, ordinances, endowments, proxy baptisms for the dead, marriage sealings, proxy marriage sealings, veiled handshakes to enter the celestial room (most holy place) and more.
As the laws and ordinances begin to stack up, the big question that emerges for me is: Didn’t Jesus come to free us from the law? Paul reminds us in Galatians 5:1, “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law” (NLT). Paul continues in verse four, “For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ. You have fallen away from God’s grace.”
We mourn the reality that LDS doctrine proclaims Christ as Savior yet functionally places heavy burdens on people to attain exaltation through morality, good works and obedience to church ordinances. Doesn’t this tie people in slavery to the law?
Yet, Jesus is doing a great work in Utah! By God’s grace, many are discovering that true freedom comes through relationship rather than religion. We continue to pray the words of Jesus from John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (NLT). Thank you, Jesus, for offering us this freedom.
Drew Pankratz is associate/youth pastor at Greenhouse Community Church in Saratoga Springs, Utah.