During the April 2010 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (Second Counselor in the First Presidency) talked about Mormons being the “hands” of Christ. Mr. Uchtdorf provided lots of good ideas on how people can (and should) emulate Christ by embracing, comforting, serving and loving one another. But in two parts of the talk, Mr. Uchtdorf chose odd passages of scripture as support for his instructions. As the talk is transcribed in the May 2010 Ensign magazine, Mr. Uchtdorf said,
“We can spend our days obsessing about the finest details of life, the law, and long lists of things to do; but should we neglect the great commandments [love God and love your neighbor, Matthew 22:36-40], we are missing the point and we are clouds without water, drifting in the winds, and trees without fruit. [Followed by a footnote referencing Jude 1:12]”
The Bible passage Mr. Uchtdorf referenced speaks of waterless clouds swept along by the wind, and fruitless trees, but it’s not talking about love.
Earlier in his talk, Mr. Uchtdorf said,
“True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long…but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but ‘sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.’ [Followed by a footnote referencing 1 Corinthians 13:1]”
Again, the Bible passage Mr. Uchtdorf referenced speaks of noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, but it’s not talking about love without action.
I have no complaint regarding the ideas Mr. Uchtdorf was endeavoring to communicate; we should demonstrate our love through active service and we should give high priority to the greatest commandments. Indeed, in keeping those two commandments all others are naturally kept as well. What caught my attention was Mr. Uchtdorf’s misapplication of biblical scripture.
As I understand Mr. Uchtdorf’s words in which he referenced 1 Corinthians 13:1, he was saying that all our talk of love is just so much noise (sounding brass, etc.) if we do not demonstrate that love by our actions. But in 1 Corinthians Paul is saying that regardless of what we do (our actions), if we are not motivated by love it is all worthless. Paul says even if he does excellent things (i.e., prophesies, gives away all of his worldly goods, even sacrifices his very life), without love it is nothing. Do you see the difference between Mr. Uchtdorf’s use of the passage and what the passage actually means?
John Calvin wrote of 1 Corinthians 13,
“It is not then to be wondered, if all our deeds are estimated by this test–their appearing to proceed from love. It is also not to be wondered, if gifts, otherwise excellent, come to have their true value only when they are made subservient to love.” (Calvin’s Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 419)
A few paragraphs later in his talk, Mr. Uchtdorf referenced Jude 1:12. As I understand it, he was suggesting that Latter-day Saints who focus on the details of living while failing to give proper attention to the two great commandments on love are “missing the point” and are “clouds without water…and trees without fruit.” But when Jude writes about waterless clouds he has something entirely different in mind. He writes,
“For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God … These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.” (Jude 1:4, 12-13)
The bulk of Jude’s epistle is a judgment against false teachers. John Calvin explained,
“[Jude] only shows that they [the false teachers] were vessels of wrath appointed to destruction, and that they could not escape the hand of God, but that he would some time or another make them examples of his vengeance. For his design was to terrify the godly to whom he was writing, lest they should entangle themselves in their society.” (Calvin’s Commentaries on the Epistle of Jude, [Calvin's Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, p. 437])
It seems that Mr. Uchtdorf, in applying Jude’s frightening words to people who miss the point, was himself “missing the point.” Nevertheless, later in his talk Mr. Uchtdorf went on to ask rhetorically, “What good is [service in the Church] without love?” This is where he could have rightly appealed to 1 Corinthians 13:1 for the biblical answer. And perhaps he could have also pointed out that the remainder of 1 Corinthians 13 describes love as–first and foremost–about being (e.g., patient, kind, hopeful, etc.), not about doing. Love is the “more excellent way,” Paul says. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”