Summary: As Christians we talk about following “the strait and narrow road” because it is said that this is what Jesus taught. By this it is generally believed that the path that leads to salvation is straight, and narrow meaning there is no deviation nor any latitude to wander from the strict commandments of God. However, the words “strait” and “straight” don’t mean the same thing, and the word “narrow” doesn’t mean there is no latitude. This article looks at what Jesus actually said and its proper interpretation.
Jesus told his disciples, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which going in there at: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:13,14).
Most people read the word “strait” and automatically assume it means “straight,” but this is not correct. The word “strait” means a narrow passageway, such as the strait of Gibraltar, or the strait of Hormuz. It is usually used to indicate a tight, confining, or restrictive area for someone to pass through. Jesus illustrated this word when he said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).
The gate through which a person must pass in order to get into heaven is not just narrow but it is strait, meaning it is very narrow. The implication here is that there is little to no wiggle room, which indicates that in order for someone to pass through the gate of heaven they must do so in a very specific manner. In this sense, the word “strait” can be interpreted as meaning strict, exact, or precise. In other words, to pass through the gate that leads to eternal life there are strict or precise requirements that must be met with little to no deviation, while to pass through the gate that leads to destruction, the requirements are much less stringent, very flexible, and easy to meet.
For example, Christians believe that only by believing in Jesus Christ can someone be saved. This is a very precise requirement that doesn’t allow for any other option if someone wants to gain eternal life. On the other hand, someone can believe in just about anyone or anything if they’re headed for destruction
Jesus told Nicodemus that unless a man is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God (John 3:5). That is a very strict and precise requirement that leaves no other option for getting into heaven, and indeed, throughout the history of Christianity we find that the church of Christ always understood this statement by Jesus to mean that a person must be baptized in order to be saved. And the apostle Paul taught that there is only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), meaning that there is only one way to be baptized. Since these are exact requirements, it can be said that the gate of heaven is very “strait” and unless someone fully accepts Christ as their Savior and is baptized in the right way by the right authority, it is impossible for them to receive eternal life
But after someone passes through either one of these two gates, Jesus said there is a “way” or road or path that leads either to eternal life or to destruction. However, when describing the road that leads to eternal life, Jesus didn’t use the word “strait.” Instead, he used the word “narrow,” which is defined as “less wide.”
The word “narrow” is what is known as a comparative word. That is, something is narrow only in comparison to something else. For example, a four-lane road is less wide, or narrower, than a six-lane freeway, but it is wider than a single lane road. In his illustration, Jesus points out that in comparison to the road that leads to destruction, the road that leads to eternal life is less wide, or stated in reverse, the road that leads to eternal life is narrow compared to the road that leads to destruction.
What that tells us is that the road that leads to eternal life doesn’t need to be followed as strictly as is required to pass through the gate. In that case, the road that leads to eternal life is wider than the gate of heaven because it does allow for more leeway in doing things. For example, although we are commanded to pray to the Father, there is no precise formula that needs to be followed, therefore, the requirement to pray does allow for various ways to do this.
Yet, even so, there are certain things that must be included when saying a prayer, therefore, there are conditions attached to how to pray. The Lord has explained that “unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions” (D&C 88:38). To illustrate this principle, all roads have their bounds or boundaries, and as long as we don’t go beyond those boundaries we are still on the road. Also, all roads have certain conditions that need to be met and an example of this are speed limits.
While traveling on a limited access freeway, the speed at which a person is allowed to drive is faster than that of a four-lane highway, which is faster than a two-lane road in a residential area. A road may have one speed limit while traveling straight but may have a lower speed limit when going through a sharp curve. Therefore, even though someone is traveling on the right road, if they exceed the limits imposed on that road, they are going beyond the allowable conditions and are therefore breaking the law.
Although the road that leads to eternal life is narrow, it is wide enough to allow for doing things differently, but that doesn’t mean someone can do whatever they want. There are bounds, limitations, and conditions to what is acceptable. For example, when we pray, one of the bounds is that our prayers must be addressed to our Father in heaven and must end in the name of Christ, and one of the conditions is that the more faith we have in God the greater the chance is that our prayers will be answered, while insincere or frivolous prayers have little to no effect. But as long as our prayers stay within those boundaries, we can pray in whatever manner we choose.
This same principle applies to the church organization. There are some things that are “strait” and there are other things that are “narrow.” For example, the way ordinances are performed must be done in a very precise manner without any deviation. The words that are said while performing a baptism, giving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the blessing on the sacramental bread and water must be said the same exact way each and every time. The same is true when confirming and ordaining someone to the priesthood, giving a child a name and a blessing, and anointing the sick. All these ordinances must follow a prescribe pattern, although this pattern does allow for individuals to offer their own words at a certain place in the ordinance.
On the other hand, even though the sacramental prayer must be said word perfect, the passing of the sacrament allows for more latitude. Normally it is the deacons who pass the sacrament, but any other priesthood holder can also perform this same duty. Some wards require their deacons to wear a white shirt, tie, and suit jacket, while other wards may only require that the deacons be dressed appropriately. Some wards have the deacons stand while the sacrament is being blessed while other wards have them sit. All of these variations are acceptable because there is no one right way to pass the sacrament, yet, at the same time, there are unacceptable ways to pass it. Therefore, as long as the passing of the sacrament by the deacons is done within certain bounds and conditions, there can be different ways of doing it.
Another example concerns the reading of scriptures. We are encouraged to do so every day, but not everyone does this the same way. Some people will read one chapter a day, while someone else may read for a certain length of time, while someone else may look up verses of scripture based on a particular subject, while someone else may only read one verse of scripture but then spend time pondering its meaning. There are those who read their scriptures at the beginning of the day while others read them just before going to bed. All of these various ways are acceptable because they fit within the bounds set for us to read the scriptures every day.
This principle also applies to the teachings of the prophets. Many people are under the mistaken opinion that whatever a prophet says is never wrong, therefore, if someone who claims to be a prophet says something that is later thought to be in error, there are those who are quick to say that such a man cannot be a true prophet of God. There are also those who mistakenly believe that t the role of the prophet is to tell us what is going to happen in the future, therefore, when a prophet is surprised when a future event happens, there are some who are quick to say that such s man is a false prophet.
Take the example of Joseph Smith and the banking venture he initiated in 1836. The saints were living in Kirtland, Ohio at the time when Joseph started the Kirtland Safety Society bank which eventually went bankrupt, leaving many of the saints in great financial difficulties. Part of the reason for this bankruptcy was due to the panic of 1837 where banks all across America were going bankrupt. However, there are those who say that if Joseph was a true prophet of God that he should have known the panic was coming and not have started such a venture.
The question that needs to be asked is, when do the words of a prophet reflect the precise will of God and when are his words the result of his own thoughts and feelings? The answer is that there are times when a prophet’s words are “strait” and allows for no deviation, while there are other times his words are his own but are within the bounds and conditions set forth by the Lord.
An example of this is the practice of doing missionary work. In the early part of the church, adult men, who were often married, were sent out to preach the gospel with no more than a general area of where they were to preach. They were given no instructions, no supplies, and no advice on how to convert people. They paid their own way and found their own means of getting to the place they had been told to go.
However, over time, this changed when the church leaders began sending single men as young as nineteen years of age on missions, but this time they were sent with missionary supplies, such as books of Mormon and pamphlets to hand out, along with instruction to talk about the restoration of the gospel as the way to convert people. Later, the missionaries were given a structured set of lessons to teach and a script of what to say that they were to memorize. Later still, this approach was abandoned and the missionaries were given a general guideline of what to talk about and told that they should not use a memorized script but to rely on the Holy Ghost to know what to say and how to teach. They were then told to stress the Book of Mormon as a means of converting people, rather than stressing the restoration of the gospel. Eventually, this method was replaced by the “Peach My Gospel” handbook.
In the minds of some people, if the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were truly inspired by God then there should be no change in how missionary work is done because God would have revealed the perfect way to do it. The fact that the way missionary work is done is constantly changing seems to indicate to some people that the church leaders keep trying different approaches to converting people because they don’t know which way works best.
However, there is no one right way to do missionary work and as times change, so do people’s attitudes. What works best at one point in time doesn’t mean it will work as well at another times. God’s commandment is to preach the gospel to all nations, but there are many different ways to do it as long as those efforts are within the bounds and conditions the Lord has set.
Many members of Christ’s church feel that whatever the prophets say is inspired of God, especially when spoken in general conference or when acting in an official capacity, and if that is so then it is natural to assume that these men are infallible in whatever they tell us. This assumption is further reinforced when told that God will not permit the president of the church to lead his people astray, and that if he were to take a course that would lead to that happening, the Lord would remove them from their position.
But how can that be if church leaders keep changing their minds about what we should do? Wouldn’t that seem to indicate that at least some of the decisions they make are not inspired by God? For example, one of the main programs of the church was called “home teaching”. For over one hundred years it was stressed how important it was for priesthood holders to visit their assigned families at least once a month.
Then, in 2018 this program was done away with and was preplaced by one that no longer required priesthood holders to visit their assigned families on a regular basis. The church leaders said that they had prayed about this change and felt inspired that is was the right thing to do, but did God initiate this change or was this merely the result of human reasoning? The answer is that it doesn’t matter as long as the changes are within the bounds and conditions that God has established.
In the Doctrine and Covenants God explained the duties of those holding the priesthood saying that their role was “to teach, expound, exhort, baptize, and watch over the church” (D&C 20:42). The Home Teaching program was a way to help priesthood holders fulfill that commandment, but that’s not the only way it can be done.
In the 2018 April general conference President Russel M. Nelson explained, “… we constantly seek direction from the Lord on how we can help our members keep the commandments of God, especially those two great commandments to love God and our neighbors. For months we have been seeking a better way to minister to the spiritual and temporal needs of our people in the Savior’s way. We have made the decision to retire home teaching and visiting teaching as we have known them. Instead, we will implement a newer, holier approach to caring for and ministering to others. We will refer to these efforts simply as ministering.”
According to President Nelson, the leaders of the church had been discussing for months how to help the members better live the two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor. That is the road we should be following, therefore it doesn’t matter if God inspired this change or if he merely approved of it because it was within the acceptable bounds and conditions of the path we should be traveling.
Can church leaders implement a policy or program that doesn’t work as well as they had intended? The answer is yes, because they are fallible men, but their mistakes will not lead us off the path that we should be following. In other words, their mistakes are within the prescribed bounds and conditions of the road that leads to eternal life. On the other hand, should they decide to have us follow a course of action that was unacceptable to God, he would personally intervene to prevent that action from going into effect within his church.
Take for example the issue of black members of the church not being permitted to hold the priesthood. There has been much discussion as to why this policy was instituted, and because this restriction has never been explained, there are those who say that this policy was the result of human prejudice rather than because of divine decree. However, for whatever reason, the Lord did not see fit to intervene in this decision, therefore it is obvious that he deliberately allowed this policy to stay in place when he could have easily changed it. .
More than this, when the leaders of the church saw how many black members faithfully accepted this restriction, for decades they fervently prayed for the day when men of African descent could hold the priesthood. The Lord finally answered that prayer in 1978 and all the church leaders rejoiced in that revelation.
We don’t know why the Lord waited until them to reverse this police because he has not revealed why he allowed such a policy to exist in the first place, but what we do know is that despite this restriction, all who are baptized into the church, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, and endure to the end in faithfully serving God, are still heirs of salvation whether they hold the priesthood or not. Therefore, members of the church who were of African descent have lost nothing when it comes to the salvation of their souls by being denied the priesthood.
Sometimes God gives his servants very precise and exact instructions that we are required to follow without any deviation, but there are other times when God allows us to use our own innate ability to think and act for ourselves rather than dictating each and every decision we should make. Sometimes God allows us to make mistakes because that’s how we learn, but rather than being concerned about whether every word uttered by our church leaders is divinely inspired, we need to realize that there’s nothing wrong in following the path they tell us to take, as long as that path is staying within God’s bounds and conditions.
Related articles can be found at the Nature of Heaven