Chapter 21: Inequality in the Church

Within a few years of the church being established in the land of Zarahemla, members became prosperous through their diligence and industry. But this prosperity harbored a pernicious hazard. Soon after Alma the Younger’s appointment as the first chief judge, and his consecration as high priest of the church, he and those whom he had ordained teachers, priests, and elders lamented that “the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another, and that they began to persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure” (Alma 4:8).

Alma was pained by “the great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted . . . while others were abasing themselves, succoring those who stood in need of their succor, such as imparting their substance to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, and suffering all manner of afflictions” (Alma 4:12–13).

In our generation, modern prophets have pointed to the Book of Mormon as a type of our day, especially of the time shortly before the second coming of Christ. The lessons we glean from Nephite history are therefore immediately applicable to us today, particularly as we see a growing disparity between rich and poor in our own society, even within the Church. Economically, things are not as they were just a few years ago. Many people, perhaps our own neighbors, are struggling with extreme financial difficulties, while on the other hand others are building mansions to exceed even King Solomon in all his glory.

Considering that our brief tenure on the earth determines our eternal destiny, is it realistic of us to so ingratiate ourselves into this mortality’s “virtual reality” that we lose sight of the higher reality of an endless immortality? When we build up an earthly paradise for ourselves, aren’t we, by that very act, forfeiting the heavenly paradise we were intended to inherit? The Hebrew word for “worship” (‘abad) is the also the word for “work.” In other words, in the language of the ancient prophets whatever we work at, devote our energies and resources on, that is what we worship.

What Alma describes as happening among the Nephites is a displacement of one set of values by another, which is the nature of all idolatry. Supplanting God with something else at the center of our lives inevitably alters our belief system so that we begin to see God as a different being from the real God. We water down our religion to justify the way we live until it becomes mere religiosity. We “change the truth of God into a lie, and worship and serve the creature [ourselves] more than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). We thus conform God more and more to our own image of him, until, like the Nephites, we “persecute those that did not believe according to their own will and pleasure” (Alma 4:8) and “trample the God of Israel under your feet” (Alma 5:53).

Under these circumstances, Alma “began to be very sorrowful; nevertheless the Spirit of the Lord did not fail him” (Alma 4:15)—implying that the Spirit failed others who were offended by the persecutions within the church.

And yet, only a few years earlier the Nephites as a whole had handled their wealth very differently: “In their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need” (Alma 1:30).

At that time, a great equality had prevailed in the church, “the priest, not esteeming himself above his hearers, for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal, and they did all labor, every man according to his strength. And they did impart of their substance, every man according to that which he had, to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely” (Alma 1:26–27).

Alma’s answer to the new situation among his people was “bearing down in pure testimony against them” (Alma 4:19). He reminded them of their fathers’ captivity and the Lord’s long-suffering towards them in delivering their souls from hell (Alma 5:6): “ Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them” (Alma 5:7).

Alma asked his people whether on judgment day “ye can lie unto the Lord . . . and say—Lord, our works have been righteous works upon the face of the earth—and that he will save you?” (Alma 5:17). If they had once “experienced a change of heart” in their lives and “felt to sing the song of redeeming love,” could they do so now? (Alma 5:26). “For behold, the time is at hand that whosoever bringeth forth not good fruit, or whosoever doeth not the works of righteousness, the same [will] have cause to wail and mourn” (Alma 5:36).

In our day, the Lord has said, “I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low” (D&C 104:16). And “Wo unto you rich men, that will not give your substance to the poor, for your riches will canker your souls; and this shall be your lamentation in the day of visitation, and of judgment, and of indignation: The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and my soul is not saved!” (D&C 56:16).

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught, “It is vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him” (Lecture Sixth, Lectures on Faith).