The True Church
2 July 2020
I’m a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest Mormon denomination. I love and support the Church, its members, and its leaders. But that doesn’t mean that I always agree with all of them, all of the time. Nor, of course, does it mean that other members or leaders always agree with me.
A friend recently read some of my thoughts about a recent General Conference of the Church. He observed, rightly, that “unquestioning veneration of LDS leadership is something that is inconsistent with your personal philosophy.” And he asked me some questions about my relationship with the Church.
Why a Specific Church Matters
First, he wondered “how loyalty to the formal LDS church organization relates to your philosophy.”
As context for my answer to this question, I distinguish between a religion and a church. And, in particular, I distinguish between the Mormon religion and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Religions, such as Mormonism, are more broad and abstract. Churches, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are more narrow and concrete.
From a Platonic perspective, you might consider religion to be the form and church to be the instance. And, by extension, we would expect the form to admit of many possible instances. For example, the Dog form admits of both Lassie and Toto, among others. And the Mormon form admits of both The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ, among others.
Various religions attribute more or less significance to their churches (or whatever term they might use for the formal organizations related to them). Christianity and Buddhism serve as a relatively clear example. Christianity tends to emphasize its formal organizations more than Buddhism does. And this seems to reflect differences in their fundamental philosophies toward this world and embodiment.
Mormonism, more so than any other branch of Christianity that I’m familiar with, emphasizes the value of this world and embodiment. It’s this world that should become heaven. And it’s these bodies that should become immortal. Whether or not some individual Mormons happen to aspire to merely abstract heavens, our authoritative theological tradition clearly and consistently advocates concrete heavens.
Accordingly, in my estimation, Mormonism also has a strong requirement for concrete churches. While it may be enough for a Buddhist to claim the religious identity and practice meditation on her own. Something like that generally wouldn’t be enough for a Mormon – not even close to enough. Mormonism mandates embodied expression on all levels, and even anticipates an increasingly robust expression of that embodiment going into the future.
So, for me, it’s highly important not only that I identify as Mormon but also that I participate actively in a Mormon church. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d be practicing Mormonism as fully as I’m capable of practicing it. I recognize that other people, now and in the past, have or have had different limitations and challenges. So I don’t intend this as universally prescriptive.
But why, then, am I a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular? In part, that’s because I was raised by parents who are members of the Church. But, as I’ve written before, I also feel that this is still the place, for both emotional and rational reasons. Notably, I esteem the Church as the best available, albeit imperfect, embodiment of formal communal advocacy for theosis.
The Utility of Church Practices
Next, my friend asked, “Do you find utility in obedience, orthodoxy, tithing, garment wearing, rigorous sabbath observance, avoiding coffee, tea and wine, and other aspects of the faith that (arguably) don’t have obvious practical benefits?”
I find utility in obedience that is conforming to the image of Christ, as exemplified by Jesus. I don’t find utility in what many recognize as “obedience culture,” which too often manifests as lazy pandering to some excessively opinionated authority figure. The former is the transformative heart of the Gospel of Christ. The latter is what D&C 121 warns us against.
I find utility in qualified patience with thoughtful expressions of perceived orthodoxy. But that’s mostly because I want to be charitable. Dogma should be recognized as the antithesis of Mormonism, which celebrates the necessity of dynamic faith in perpetual revelation and eternal progression. As Joseph Smith put it, “the creeds set up stakes, and say hitherto shalt thou come, and no further, which I cannot subscribe to.”
Tithing is easy, for me, to associate with utility. No formal organization can operate without resources, which tithing provides in our case. And, although I recognize some people don’t like how many resources the Church has amassed, I actually like that it has amassed those resources. I hope that the Church, under the influence of its members and the direction of its leaders, will eventually use those resources to realize some possibilities associated with genealogy that it may be uniquely positioned to realize.
I wish the garment design and manufacturing process were better. Some will consider that vanity. That aside, there’s utility in constantly wearing symbols that remind me of the transformative process in which I wish to be constantly engaged. Church members receive the garment in the temple when we’re literally anointed – literally christened to join in the roles and titles of Christ.
Rigorous sabbath observances are different for different members of the Church. If a particular set of rules and behaviors works for someone (and doesn’t harm anyone else), I’m fine with that. And, by “works,” I mean that I hope it genuinely functions to achieve the purpose of the sabbath as expressed in scripture. Not entirely joking, I sometimes embellish my sense of that purpose by claiming that God is Buddhist on the Sabbath.
I think it’s wise to avoid drinking alcohol. The evidence for health benefits seems to be mostly attributable to the non-alcohol parts of the beverages, which can be consumed in other ways. And the evidence for the social and health detriments is strong – soberingly strong, and I should write more about that sometime.
In contrast, I think the evidence for overall health benefits from coffee and tea is strong. So I avoid them only for symbolic reasons, as an expression of solidarity with members of the Church. And I consume nootropic components of coffee and tea in supplement form on a daily basis.
There are many other aspects of Mormonism that are controversial. In my opinion, some of the controversies are worthy of attention. And others aren’t. I’ve previously written some of my thoughts on the most popular Mormon controversies.
How the Church Is True
Finally, my friend asks, “Do you believe the church’s claim to be the only true church?”
As context for my answer to this question, I’ll share some interpretive thoughts on what I (and probably most Mormons) consider to be the two most important passages of scripture about the “only” true church. The first is in the opening section of The Doctrine and Covenants. Here’s the verse that receives the most attention:
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually –
When reading this verse out of context, a careful reader should ask several questions.
For example, what are “these commandments?” Verses 6 and 17 make clear that the commandments are, at least, the content of a particular book. That book is The Doctrine and Covenants (D&C), which has evolved and continues to evolve in different ways among different Mormon denominations. Joseph Smith either wrote or dictated most of the original content of the book.
Why do I say, “at least?” That’s because verse 18 expands “commandments” to include that which God gave “to others.” And it’s not clear whether we should understand that expansion to be part of “these commandments” when the phrase appears in later verses.
Likewise, what is “this church?” Presumably, it’s at least the church that Joseph Smith organized. But the only reference to “church” outside verse 30, in the entire text, is in the first sentence. And that reference is ambiguous, with God addressing “my church” while the eyes of God are “upon all men.”
The subsequent text makes the reference to “church” even more ambiguous. The second half of the first verse says that God is addressing “people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea.” The second verse says that God is addressing “all men,” echoing the first sentence. Are these additional audiences or additional ways of describing the “church” audience?
So there are at least two ways that someone could read verse 30. It could mean that God gave Joseph Smith the power to found The Church of Christ, which was the original name of the specific organization that evolved into multiple Mormon denominations. Or it could mean that God gave both Joseph and “others” the power to found a church that consists, or perhaps could or should consist, of “all men” – all humanity.
At first, people who’ve long read the text in the first way generally discount the strength of the second reading. But there are reasons to consider the second reading more robust. For sake of time, I’ll point out only one, which I consider the strongest.
The Book of Mormon existed before The Doctrine and Covenants. And the opening section of The Doctrine and Covenants even references The Book of Mormon in verse 29, the verse just before the one in question. So the content of The Book of Mormon is important for contextualizing the meaning of verse 30.
The Book of Mormon also contains the other most important passage of scripture about the “only” true church. That passage of scripture is in 1 Nephi 14:
10 And he said unto me: Behold there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth.
According to this passage of scripture, there are only two churches. One is good. The other is evil. And there are no others.
In other words, if you’re not part of the good church then you’re part of the evil church. There are no exceptions. At least, that’s what the text seems to say. And the next verses elaborate.
11 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the whore of all the earth, and she sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.
12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.
So, although there are only two churches, those churches are both spread across the entire Earth. The evil church is among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. And so is the good church, even if in fewer numbers.
How does this relate to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Are we, as members of the Church, ready to esteem everyone in the Church as good and everyone outside the Church as evil? I’ve observed a few members of the Church who seem ready for that. But most of us, including most leaders, seem to have a different perspective.
Most members of the Church acknowledge that we see good people among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people. And most also acknowledge that we see good people among all religions, even when we have disagreements with them. So we must either discard 1 Nephi 14, or understand the good “church” as something other than an exclusive reference to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in particular.
What is that non-exclusive something else? As 1 Nephi 14 describes it, it’s the “church of the Lamb of God.” I think D&C 1 describes the same thing as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.” And I think Paul describes the same thing in the New Testament as “the Body of Christ.”
I also think John describes the same thing in the New Testament as “the only true God.” Yes. I’m saying that I think the scriptures are intentionally ambiguous between God, Christ, and the only true church. I think God, Christ, and the only true church are ultimately the same thing: a synthesis of sublime persons and places.
Returning to D&C 1, it says that “those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness.” I trust that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an important and unique role to play in bringing the only true church “out of obscurity and out of darkness.” I also trust that other people, including other religions, have different, important, and unique roles to play in that same work. This is an ecumenical approach to Mormonism, which perhaps apostle Orson Whitney described best:
God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.
Does this mean that I think all churches are equally good for everyone? No. I do think we’re each unique, so there’s not one right answer for everyone all the time. But I also think that differences have real practical consequences.
Accordingly, I encourage compassionate missionary work, both by my Church and by other Mormon denominations and by other religions. A Biblical proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” I think we should all work to share our religions and other philosophies to the best of our abilities, with the aim of truly helping each other. I trust such work will tend to improve our understanding of life, our sense of purpose, and our practical ability to realize a better world.
Come to Church
In that ecumenical and missionary spirit, I invite you to come to church.
If you’re a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I encourage you to renew your engagement. If you’re disillusioned, talk about it with people you trust. If you’re happy, kindly share the reasons for your happiness with others while listening to them too. We still have so much work to do, so let’s not “sleep through the restoration,” as apostle Dieter Uchtdorf put it.
If you’re not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this is an invitation to learn more. Don’t expect us to be perfect, because we aren’t. But we have a transformative message and practice that helps many people. Contact me about it, or I can connect you with the missionaries.
If you’re not interested in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, consider this an invitation to friendly competition. Come to church in your own way. And let’s see how our differing choices contribute to making the world a more compassionate, creative, intelligent, and thriving place for everyone.
I trust that, ultimately, all of this contributes to bringing the only true and living church out of obscurity and out of darkness.