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Seeking Jesus, Class 12: Jesus Christ and Fence Laws
|Title||Seeking Jesus, Class 12: Jesus Christ and Fence Laws|
|Year of Publication||2022|
|Authors||Hilton, III, John|
|Secondary Title||Seeking Jesus|
|Date Published||May 2022|
|Publisher||Book of Mormon Central|
|Place Published||Springville, UT|
|Keywords||Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ, Mortal Ministry of; Pharisees|
For a copy of the PowerPoint slides, as well as for pre-class readings and questions to focus on during the video, click on the link below.
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Jesus Christ and Fence Laws
Let’s begin with an analogy. You wake up one day and there’s a huge hole in your backyard. It’s so dangerous that when the kids are playing in the yard, they could fall into the hole and hurt themselves. To protect your children, you build a fence around the hole.
We can liken sin to the hole in your backyard—when people fall into the hole of sin they’re hurt spiritually. To protect ourselves and others, we build fences around sin to prevent us from spiritual danger. As a concrete example, consider the Word of Wisdom. Drinking alcohol would be falling into the hole of sin, so to protect myself, I might create a fence law of not going to bars. It’s not a sin to go to a bar, but for some people that could be a helpful fence law to help them avoid alcohol.
The Word of Wisdom is what I’ll refer to as a core law—it’s something that’s required to have a temple recommend. Not going to a bar is a fence law—something to protect me from breaking a core law.
This idea of “fence laws” is ancient. Early Jewish leaders used the phrase “make a fence around the law” to describe extra rules put in place to help people avoid breaking the commandments. One group of Jews that had particularly strict fence laws was the Pharisees. The ancient historian Josephus wrote, “The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the law of Moses.” Here’s an example from Matthew 15: “Then came to Jesus…Pharisees…saying, Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?”
The phrase “tradition of the elders,” is referring to fence laws the Pharisees had created. In the time of Christ, the core law was the written law of Moses—things like the Ten Commandments. But there were also numerous fence laws. Many of the Pharisees’ fence laws pertained to the Sabbath Day. Keeping the Sabbath holy is a core law—it’s one of the ten commandments. To keep people from violating this commandment, the Pharisees created fence laws like don’t walk far distances, carry certain objects, or start a fire on the Sabbath. These things don’t necessarily violate the core law, they are fences to stop people from breaking the core laws.
Of course, we do similar things today. Fence laws exist around many commandments and come from a variety of sources, including teachers, families, culture, prophets, and the Holy Ghost. Whether or not we realize it, we frequently interact with fence laws. Consider the following questions:
- Is a specific movie appropriate to watch?
- Should one enforce strict modesty rules on young children?
- What type of swimwear is appropriate?
- Is it okay to go for a scenic drive with my family on Sunday? How about a boat ride on the lake?
Your answers and reactions to these and similar questions will depend on what types of fence laws you have and how deeply you hold to them. For a concrete example of fence laws, consider the law of chastity, an important core law. Because the temptation to be unchaste is strong, a variety of fence laws could be put in place to help us keep this law. For example, a mother might provide a fence law for her children: “You should never go into the bedroom of a member of the opposite sex.” An unmarried college student might prayerfully consider her standards and create a personal fence law, such as not kissing for more than a few seconds. A married couple could determine that it is wise for each of them to avoid being alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex who is not their spouse. Going into somebody’s bedroom, kissing for more than five seconds, or driving with a member of the opposite sex do not violate the law of chastity; rather, these are protections put in place to help prevent people from breaking the core law of chastity.
Today we’re going to talk about six aspects of fence laws—we’ll see how Christ interacted with them, and explore his related teachings. Fences laws have both pros and cons. Let’s start by discussing a benefit of fence laws. They can help us avoid sin. Jesus said, “Why call ye me Lord, Lord and do not the things that I say?” Sometimes we focus on the fact that Jesus loves us—and that’s true! Jesus does love us. He also really wants us to keep his commandments.
Here’s a little story to illustrate why fence laws can be helpful. As a college student, I was driving my date home. I decided to have some fun and about a mile from her apartment I put the car in neutral, put my left foot up on my seat, and declared that I would coast the rest of the way to her house! I have no idea why I thought this was cool, but I did. I pulled into her street going 20 mph. We were going to make it!
I swung into the parking lot, and as I pulled into the parking stall I put my foot on the brake, but nothing happened. I was slamming on the brake but still going. I hopped the curb and smashed into the wall of the apartment, and finally came to a complete stop. I was stunned. What had happened?
It was only then that I realized that because I had put my foot on the seat, I misgauged where the brake pedal was. I had been pushing on the wrong pedal!
I learned an important lesson from this experience. If you had told me at any point in that coasting trip, “You’re out of control!” I would have laughed. Of course I know how to stop a car! But in the critical moment, when I really needed to stop, I blew it. It was a matter of 2 or 3 seconds, but that’s all it took for me to bang up the car.
There is a similar principle with the commandments. We might think, “I can stop any time. If somebody were to say, “Hey, you’re getting too close to the line,” we might think, “It’s okay. I won’t let things get out of hand.” But then, in a critical moment, we make choices that we promised we would never make.
Inspired fence laws can help us avoid such situations. They can be the brakes so to speak, to prevent us from falling into sin. Such fence laws come from the Holy Ghost and from prophets. We might observe somebody’s fence law, and have the Holy Ghost whisper to us, “You should do that.” There are a lot of great fence laws that can help keep us safe. Think for a moment, what fence laws do you have? Let me tell you about one of mine, that I developed as a young adult.
Towards the end of my mission, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came spoke to the missionaries. He gave a message similar to one he gave at BYU, saying:
“Firmly established personal standards. Choose a time of deep spiritual reflection when there’s no pressure on you. You can confirm your decisions by sacred impressions. Decide then what you will do and what you will not do to express feelings. The spirit will guide you, then do not vary from those decisions no matter how right it may seem when temptation comes. The realization of your dreams depends upon your determination to never betray your standards.”
Elder Scott essentially told us to create a personal fence law on the law of chastity. I prayed about it, and set a fence law that the Holy Ghost confirmed in my heart. It was easy for me to live that fence law—while I was on my mission, but then I came home. I had been home for a couple of days, and went on my first post-mission date with a young lady that I’d been on some dates with before my mission.
I was showing her some pictures from my mission and she was showing me pictures from college and then the conversation kind of died down. I looked into her eyes and she looked into my eyes and I realize that I had a chance to break my fence law. So I looked at her and I said, “Did I ever tell you about the standard I set for myself on my mission?”
Now, in retrospect there was a much better way I could have approached the situation, but I was still learning people skills. My date said, “No you’ haven’t told me about it, what was the standard you set for yourself?”
I told her and then she said, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
So when you set a fence law for yourself, there’s no guarantee everyone will support you in it. To be honest, I don’t think that I was in grave danger of breaking the law of chastity that night, but I do believe that my fence law kept me out of some sticky situations over the next two years and I’m grateful for that. When the Holy Ghost or prophets give us fence laws, there’s power and protection that come from living them.
A second aspect of fence laws, is that if we’re not careful, they can become a heavy burden. Imagine there’s a beautiful overlook with an amazing view, but it’s on a cliff. You’re worried someone will to fall off the cliff, so you build a fence to keep people safe. But then you think, “What if they hop that fence?” So you build a taller fence. And a couple more just for good measure. One day someone comes to the overlook to see the view. They say, “I thought this was supposed to be beautiful, but all I can see is the fences.” If we’re not careful, fence laws can become burdens.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “[Keeping the commandments] may present a problem for some because there are so many ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ that merely keeping track of them can be a challenge. Sometimes, well-meaning amplifications of divine principles—many coming from uninspired sources—complicate matters further, diluting the purity of divine truth with man-made addenda. One person’s good idea—something that may work for him or her—takes root and becomes an expectation.”
Here’s an example. A woman feels inspired to read 30 minutes a day from the Book of Mormon. She’s doing it, loving it, and feeling good about it. Then, in Relief Society, the teacher invites everyone to read all the general conference talks over the next month, so she starts working on that. Then her ministering sister visits and says, “You should write a tender mercy down every day.” And then the high counselor comes and talks about the importance of keeping up on the Come Follow Me studies. Pretty soon what should be a blessing of connecting with God through scripture study becomes stressful as she worries she can’t do it all. In this instance, what I’m broadly referring to as fence laws can include good ideas of ways to invite the Spirit into our lives, but that collectively considered can become demoralizing because of the feeling that we cannot do it all.
Part of this stress may be due to the different personality types that each of us have. One friend shared with me the story of how his bishop invited the ward to participate in a series of complicated and time-consuming tasks throughout a year to strengthen their spirituality. In this case, the sin would be falling into spiritual laziness, and the fence law was to complete several challenging activities (designed to build spiritual strength). My friend worked hard to comply with his bishop’s counsel, and often found himself feeling stressed because he was not fully accomplishing the ward goals.
He was astonished when, partway through the year, he heard the bishop say in ward council that even he (the bishop) was not doing all the goals because they were too hard. “Wait a minute,” my friend thought. “I’ve been going crazy trying to keep this goal and you aren’t doing it yourself!” From the bishop’s perspective, it was good to set lofty goals and if you didn’t attain them, that was okay. In contrast, my friend believed that if you set a goal, you must achieve it. The fact that my friend had a different perspective and was not aware of how the bishop perceived the goal led to him being unnecessarily burdened.
This story is a reminder that when you and I are in leadership positions—both in the Church and in our families—we should think carefully about whether fence laws we propose could become a burdensome yoke for some of those we serve. For all of us, it can be helpful to step back and ask, “Are the fence laws I have helping me draw closer to Christ, or have they turned into a barrier that is keeping me from him?
Let’s use this idea to take a different angle on a familiar scripture. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Normally when we read this verse we think about oxen and how we are one ox and Jesus is the other and he’s going to help us carry our burdens.
I’m not saying that’s a bad interpretation, but I want us to consider an additional one. Right after this verse—remember chapter breaks are not part of original text—right after Jesus talks about the heavy yoke, he encounters Pharisees who challenge him about fence laws. There may be a connection between the two passages.
On another occasion in Matthew 23 Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.” In other words, they are giving out a bunch of laws. Jesus then says, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne.” Do you see the connection between “heavy laden,” and “heavy burdens”?
It’s interesting to note that in ancient times, the pharisees’ fence laws were collectively known as “the yoke of the law.” We see something similar in Acts chapter 15. The apostles had gathered to discuss which rules Gentile converts needed to follow. Notice this: “When there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them…Why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” Again we see the idea that a yoke is these extra rules and regulations.
If we put these different pieces together, we see that another way to read Matthew 11 is that Jesus is saying, “Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden with all these extra fence laws that aren’t really part of God’s law. Come unto me. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. My yoke is love God, love your neighbor. You can do this.”
Remember what President Uchtdorf said: “One person’s good idea, something that may work for him or her, takes root and becomes an expectation.” It could be a great idea for that individual, but if a fence law becomes an expectation then it’s a problem.
Another aspect of fence laws is to focus on the mark, not the fence. One day the Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.”
They were not talking about good hygiene; rather, they were talking about an additional fence law the Pharisees had created. Jesus responded, “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” For a moment, Christ changes topics. He said, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’”
The Savior is referring to honoring your parents—one of the Ten Commandments. He said, “But you say that whoever tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ then that person need not honor the father or the mother.”
Apparently, a tradition had developed where people could devote some money to God, so that when their mom comes to them and says, “I need help paying the rent,” They could say, “Oh, sorry mom. I’ve devoted that money to God, I can’t help you.”
Jesus doesn’t like this and said, “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites!”
Then, coming back to the point about eating with unwashed hands, he says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”
Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, you’re missing the mark! You’re focused on traditions about handwashing and reserving money for God, and in the process, you’re missing what God really wants you to do.
On another occasion, Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” Now, just to be clear, under Jewish law you’re not supposed to eat gnats, and you’re not supposed to eat camels. These are both bad, but Jesus is saying, “You’re going to all this effort to strain gnats out of your water to make sure you don’t accidentally drink one, but then you turn around and swallow a whole camel. In other words, “You’re missing the mark.”
What about you and me? Are we focused on the mark or the fence? Here’s a simple but real example. I don’t know what family scripture study looks like in your home. Probably everybody’s reverent, you have special musical numbers and it’s amazing. We have some good family scripture study sessions, but sometimes our kids are arguing or wrestling each other and I’ve lost my patience and said, “Will you all be quiet! We’re trying to read the scriptures and feel the Holy Ghost” What happens after unkind words? The Holy Ghost is gone. If the mark was to help our family feel the Spirit, I’ve completely missed it because I was focused more on “getting scripture study done” than having the Spirit with us.
Jesus almost seemed to look for opportunities to violate pharisaical fence laws.
In John 5, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. After healing him Jesus said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” Carrying your bed on the sabbath was forbidden by a pharisaical fence law.
Jesus could have said “Behold thou art healed, come back tomorrow and get your bed.” Or he could have waited one more day to heal him—after all, the man had already been sick for 38 years. Couldn’t he wait for one more day? But Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath and said “Carry your mat and walk.” Rather than praise God for the miraculous healing, the Pharisees criticized the man saying “it is the Sabbath day. It is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”
On another Sabbath day, Christ encountered a man who had been blind from birth. So to heal the man Jesus spits on some dirt, making clay. He put the clay on the blind man’s eyes and the man is healed. Does Jesus have the power to heal a blind person without clay? He does.
Here’s the problem—spitting on dirt makes clay and that was seen as an act of creation—breaking a fence law. So when the Pharisees heard of this healing, some of them said, “This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day.” In the face of an absolute miracle, they were just focused on the fence. Do we ever do something similar?
Sometimes focusing on the fence happens not just as individuals, but as collective church communities. One Sunday, while serving as a full-time missionary in Colorado, I was sitting on the stand, because I had been assigned to give a talk that day. A new convert I’ll call Bryan was planning to bring his wife and children, who were not church members, to church for the first time. I remember sitting on the stand waiting for Bryan to come; I was nervous because the meeting had started and Bryan hadn’t arrived yet. This ward had a tradition in which they would shut all the doors to the chapel once the sacrament hymn began. Young men were assigned to stand by the door and make sure people did not enter the chapel during the sacrament. We might call this a fence law to protect the sacredness of the sacrament.
As bad luck would have it, Bryan, his wife, and three children came striding into the chapel while the sacrament was being passed. From my vantage point on the stand, I saw Bryan walk into the room—he looked so proud to be there. I knew it had taken a lot of effort for him to persuade his wife and children to come with him to church that day and I could see on his face an exuberant expression: “We made it, we’re here! My family has come to my new church!” Then I watched one of the young men say to him, “You can’t be in here right now. You can’t come in.”
I know that what the young man meant to say was, “I’m very sorry, but could you please wait five more minutes until we’ve finished passing the sacrament,” but what Bryan heard was, “You’re not welcome here.” Bryan turned, along with his wife and children, and walked straight out of the chapel. I should have immediately walked off the stand and find him. However, the power of the cultural fence law was strong—wouldn’t I be disrupting the sacrament if I went after him? Instead, I waited until after the sacrament, hoping he would come back. When Bryan didn’t return, I left the chapel with one of the other missionaries and drove to Bryan’s house. Bryan was humiliated and exclaimed, “I’m never going back to that church.” And he never did.
Is it good to have a reverent atmosphere for the sacrament? Of course. However, in this case, the structure used to create the reverent atmosphere caused a well-intended young man and me—a missionary who should have known better—to focus on a fence, instead of the mark.
When Jesus was asked, “What’s the most important commandment?” he said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart…And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:37–39). That’s a core law—the mark we want to shoot for.
Let’s turn to another aspect of fence laws. As we teach others, we need to be sure we focus on the core laws, not the fence. For example, can you see a parent or teacher saying, “Fence fence fence fence fence,” and the kid says, “I’m not really clear about the commandment but I get the fence.”
Here’s an example from my life. I don’t know what your opinions are on PG-13 movies. I’m not trying to cause controversy, but I think you can agree with me that there are some PG-13 movies are so clean that a ten-year-old can watch them. But some PG-13 movies are so naughty that maybe adults shouldn’t watch them. There’s a wide variety.
When my oldest son was ten years old, he said he wanted to watch a certain PG-13 movie. I did not want to always have arguments with my kids about what movies they could and couldn’t watch. So I made up a fence law by creating a new family rule. I said, “Son in our family we don’t watch PG-13 movies until we are 13.” He’s an obedient guy, so he said, “Okay, great!” For the next three years I saved myself from arguments about movies. I was happy with myself. But can you guess what my son wanted to do on his 13th birthday? Watch three PG-13 movies!
As time went on, I learned a little more about fence laws and some more effective ways of focusing on principles and doctrines. Fast forward a few years, my third child is now 11 years old. She wanted to watch a PG-13 movie with her friends. When she asked me if she could, I said, “Honey why don’t you look up that movie to see why it’s PG-13 and we can discuss it.
She’s said, “What? Dad, I thought in this family we had a rule that you can’t watch PG-13 movies?”
I said, “Why do you think we have that rule?”
She thought for a moment, and said, “I know, it’s so we don’t watch bad stuff until we are older.”
Total parent failure. She really understood the fence. But I hadn’t taught her the connection between media and remembering the Savior and having the Holy Ghost as our constant companion. These principles connect with our baptismal covenant, and we know that inappropriate media will drive away the Holy Ghost. She knew the fence, but not the reason behind it. We actually don’t want to watch bad stuff at any age because it will drive away the Spirit.
In an earlier class we talked about doctrines, principles, and applications. This is a different way of approaching this same idea. As a teacher, I want to focus on doctrines and principles and generally let people make their own applications. Applications often drift into the realm of fence laws.
On one occasion, Jesus said, “Of tenets [which in this context means beliefs or opinions] thou shalt not talk. But thou shalt declare repentance, faith on the Savior, remission of sins by baptism and by fire, even the Holy Ghost.” Or as Elder Bednar said, “Applications, such as…items on the lengthy "to do" lists of many members, tend to receive disproportionate and excessive attention. I…am not suggesting that applications should never be studied, learned, or taught. Appropriate applications are necessary but can never stand alone. What is needed is a balance among doctrines, principles, and applications. And for many conscientious and diligent members, a serious imbalance exists.”
Let’s shift to another aspect of fence laws—judging others. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of judging. Maybe some of you judged me when I told the story of the PG-13 movies! Judging can happen in different ways. For example, one person might say, “How can he have a temple recommend with a fence like that?” This person is judging another because he thinks their fence laws are too lax. On the other hand, another person might say, “I can’t believe how ridiculous her fence is!” This person is judging another because they believe her fence laws are too strict. That’s also a form of passing judgment.
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid judging. Consider the situation. Denise’s daughter Jennifer was asked to prom. The problem was that Jennifer turned 16 four days after prom. Denise told Jennifer that she could decide for herself if she went. After some deliberation, Jennifer decided to go to prom. A few days later the boy who had invited Jennifer to prom asked her, “how old are you?” Jennifer explained that she was 15 but that she would be turning 16 4 days after prom. The young man promptly uninvited her from the dance.
Did you judge anybody in this story? Some people judge Jennifer. They say, “That’s what you get when you don’t follow the prophet.” Maybe some people judge Denise and think, “She should have done a better job teaching her daughter. A lot of people judge the boy and think, “That jerk totally missed the mark.” I talked to one lady and she had a totally different judgment. She said, “I don’t think it was the boy’s fault. He didn’t want to uninvite the girl to the dance, it was the boy’s mother that made him uninvite her. And I would not allow my daughter to have such a judgmental mother-in-law!” She was judging a character who wasn’t in the story!
But here’s what Jesus said: “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you even think of saying to your friend, ‘let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye. Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.
Consider a modern example: A man I’ll call Brad was zealous in his observance of the Sabbath day. He read only Church materials on Sunday and did not consume popular media. He also made sure he stayed in a white shirt and tie throughout the day. For Brad, these fences were an important part of keeping the Sabbath day holy. When Brad lived on the East Coast of the United States, he didn’t notice how other Church members observed the Sabbath because he did not often see them outside of Church meetings. When Brad moved to Utah, he did not approve of the actions of many of his neighbors whose fences were different from his own. He was particularly irritated when he saw a member of the bishopric out delivering goodies to ward members on Sunday wearing shorts and a T-shirt.
Nothing is wrong with any of Brad’s fence laws—in fact, each of them could be very helpful in facilitating feeling the Holy Ghost on the Sabbath. However, Brad missed the mark by using his own fence laws to make judgments of others. This hurt Brad—mental energy he could have expended in drawing closer to Christ was diverted to judging others.
Thankfully, many avoid judging. Karen joined the Church at the age of twenty-two and was promptly called to serve in the Primary. Karen did not know anything about teaching the gospel to children, but she loved kids. She invited her Primary students to come to her home and play some games to build camaraderie. When Karen was growing up, her favorite game to play with her family was poker. She was shocked to learn that none of her Primary students knew how to play, so she taught them. Imagine the surprise of some of the mothers when they found out what their children had been doing at their Primary activity! This could have become a situation in which Karen felt judged and inferior, and harbored negative feelings toward the Church. However, the mothers were sensitive to Karen’s situation and loved her more for her efforts. There was no need to judge, only to love.
Think about your life. Do you and I judge others? We probably do, because this is a problem that has been around a long time. It’s here in the 21st century, it was present in the time of Jesus, and the apostle Paul wrote about it in the generation following Jesus.
In Romans 14, Paul says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”
Now just to be clear, in context Paul is not talking about like vegetarianism. He’s referring to questions about whether it was okay to eat certain types of meat that were forbidden by Jewish law or that had been offered to idols in sacrifice. Paul is going to make it clear that it’s fine to eat whatever kind of meat you want, but still some people think it’s bad. Paul tells us not to judge one another based on these issues, saying, “Those who eat must not despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat, for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead, never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
Sometimes when we talk about judging, it turns into a statement like, “I’m going to do whatever I’m going to do and you shouldn’t judge me,” and it is true that we shouldn’t judge. Paul also teaches another important side of the coin—one we sometimes skip. What if someone is judging you for something that you’re doing, but the thing you’re doing isn’t actually wrong? Should you flaunt it in their face and say, “I can do it anyways?”
For example, consider drinking Coke. Imagine that you grew up in a home where drinking Coke was one step away from Vodka. When you go home for Thanksgiving, is it okay for you to drink Coke in front of your mom and dad? Technically you’re not breaking any laws, but notice what Paul says, “If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” Is it okay for you to drink a Coke? Sure! But why are you hurting others? Paul continues, “Do not let what you eat, or drink, or wear, cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean. It is good not to eat meat or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble.” In other words, in this context, it’s totally fine to eat the meat, but it’s wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat. This is an important principle to include in a discussion about judgment. It’s not just, “I can do whatever I want, don’t judge me,” but also being aware of how our actions could affect others. Sometimes, even if we “can” do something, we will choose not to do it, not because we’re afraid of being judged, but because we love another person, and don’t want to hurt them. The Holy Spirit can give us guidance on the specific situations we face.
The last aspect of fence laws I want to highlight is following the Prophet. One of my concerns about discussing fence laws is that it could lead some of us to say, “Great, I’ll throw out all fence laws and do whatever I want.” I was once leading a tour in Israel, and while we were on the bus driving to our next location, we talked about fence laws. When we arrived at our destination, I heard a mom say to her ten-year-old son, “Make sure you’re with your buddy for safety,” and the ten-year-old said, “Oh mom, that’s just a fence law.”
If we’re not careful, we may discard valuable fence laws. One set of important fence laws are those that are taught by the prophet. I believe that when the Prophet teaches something, that puts it into a different of category from many of the fence laws we’ve been discussing. Speaking about a fence law given by a prophet, a person might say, “I don’t understand why we need this fence,” to which her friend responds, “That’s the point. Seers see things we cannot see.”
We want to follow the prophets, seers and revelators. One of the temple recommend questions is, “Do you sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?” This is a core law. Jesus also taught it, saying, “Thou shalt give heed unto all [the Prophet’s] words and commandments which he giveth unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me. For his word ye shall receive as if from mine own mouth in all patience and faith.”
Let’s take a concrete example. The pamphlet, For the Strength of Youth contains some fence laws. Should we throw it out? No! President Russell M. Nelson said, “For the Strength of Youth should be your standard. It is the standard that the Lord expects all of His youth to uphold.” When the Prophet says, “You should live this,” that takes it to a different realm than a fence law, now it’s following the Prophet. And interestingly, President Uchtdorf said, “Those who are 18 and over, if you don’t have [the For the Strength of Youth] booklet anymore, get one, keep it, use it.”
Sometimes we might hear a prophet’s teaching and think, “That’s good for most people, but I’m an exception.” This is dangerous, because we tend to overestimate our abilities. Did you know that 93% of Americans think that they are above average drivers? You do not need to be a mathematician to realize that 93% of Americans are not above average drivers. But many of us overestimate our driving skills, and sometimes we overestimate our spiritual skills. We might think, “I don’t need this fence law the Prophet is teaching because I’m really strong.” But President Henry B. Eyring taught, “Every time in my life when I’ve chosen to delay following inspired council, or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harms way. Every time that I have listened to the council of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety.”
Today we’ve discussed several aspects of fence laws. Many of us have interacted with fence laws and I hope this video has given you a framework for thinking about them. This is a complicated topic; it’s one of those areas where we have to be very careful in keeping several principles in balance, and making sure our focus is on Jesus Christ.
As we conclude, it’s easy to think, “This was a great discussion. I wish my roommate or sister would listen to this class—she really needs it! But instead, let’s take the frame, “Lord is it I?” What message is there in this video for you personally? The application will be different for each of us.
Maybe some of us are in danger of falling in the hole of sin and need to create some spirit driven fence laws. Perhaps some of us need to prayerfully let go of some fence laws that fall into the category of the “yoke of the Pharisees.” Maybe some of us need to focus more on loving God and loving our neighbor and focus a little less on fence laws. Maybe some of us need to stop judging. Perhaps some of us have been setting aside prophetic teachings and we need to change.
Whatever application you’re thinking of, I hope we can remember the words of the Apostle Peter. He said, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” In other words, Peter says, “Now that Jesus has come, you don’t have to live under all the detailed fence laws, but don’t use your newfound freedom to say, ‘I can do whatever I want.’
As Paul urged, “Live by the spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Letting go of unnecessary fence laws doesn’t mean ignoring the Holy Ghost. We’re going to encounter some sticky situations. When you’re not sure what to do, remember Mormon’s counsel to “Search diligently in the light of Christ.” The Spirit will help us see “things as they really are” (Jacob 4:13), and if we listen carefully, will help us know what we need to do. At times this will be to set stricter (or looser) fence laws; at other times it may be instruction to be less (or more) strict in fence laws with our children or others we have stewardship over. We’ll know how to handle specific situations by searching diligently in the light of Christ.
I pray that the discussion we’ve had today will help us connect more deeply with the Savior and find greater peace and joy in our lives.
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