D. Todd Christofferson made a passionate appeal during October General Conference on the need for churches, and specifically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His message has been bantered around the Internet recently as a plea to those who are leaving the Church. Others are choosing to do home church, or practice Mormonism on their own. He feels to dissuade from such things, offering a positive and encouraging discussion on why it’s important to stay. While the sentiment is nice, I felt it helpful to dissect his message for those considering such paths, which I find are just as adequate.
First, let’s dissect his historical analysis.
“Beginning with Adam, the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached, and the essential ordinances of salvation, such as baptism, were administered through a family-based priesthood order. As societies grew more complex than simply extended families, God also called other prophets, messengers, and teachers. In Moses’s time, we read of a more formal structure, including elders, priests, and judges. In Book of Mormon history, Alma established a church with priests and teachers.
Then, in the meridian of time, Jesus organized His work in such a way that the gospel could be established simultaneously in multiple nations and among diverse peoples. That organization, the Church of Jesus Christ, was founded on “apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” It included additional officers, such as seventies, elders, bishops, priests, teachers, and deacons. Jesus similarly established the Church in the Western Hemisphere after His Resurrection.
Following the apostasy and disintegration of the Church He had organized while on the earth, the Lord reestablished the Church of Jesus Christ once again through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The ancient purpose remains: that is, to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and administer the ordinances of salvation—in other words, to bring people to Christ.”
It’s well to point out that the beginning structure was in a family-based Priesthood order. That was the condition of things during the time of Enoch. I’m not sure, however, he is accurate in characterizing the transition to a “more formal structure” as being necessitated by a more complex society. The first instance of a more organized structure we find in Exodus when the Lord came to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai and they chose not to go up unto the Lord to know Him themselves, but instead, wanted Moses to do it for them. Thus, it predicated a structure of priests and judges that would rule Israel and make intercession between them and God. It was part of a lower law, not an evolved structure of better gospel service.
During the time of the New Testament church, offices and hierarchy did indeed persist to some degree. How well it worked, or how structured it was we don’t really know. This has been the argument over the centuries as various churches have tried to replicate the structure found in the Bible. One good guess, however, was that the churches were independent of each other, and operated as independent entities. We know this because some of them were more closely aligned to Peter and kept Jewish tradition, and others were of Paul, and were primarily Gentiles. The Catholic Church would argue that Peter led the Church, and that through him, they have Priesthood and authority to operate and run all business related to the works of Christ and His gospel. But we know that wasn’t the case early on, otherwise there wouldn’t have flowered such a diaspora of different Christian beliefs and sects in the centuries following Christ. The Catholic consolidation of power didn’t culminate until the 6th Century BC under Pope Gregory and Emperor Justinian, and it was mighty bloody. The simple explanation given by Elder Christofferson is incomplete. The strong central system favored by the Catholics seems an aberration of the Biblical system that contributed to and finalized the Great Apostasy.
A system, it seems, that has also been replicated by modern Mormonism.
In the primitive days of the Church, there was no hierarchy. Callings and visions were dependent on a charismatic experience rather than a function of an office or ordinance. That all seems very similar to situations described in the New Testament. The verse in Ephesians 8: 11-13 that Christofferson quotes comes to mind:
“And [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
“… For the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
“Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.”
This verse, among others, were patterns used to establish structure, as did the early Mormon church. Revelations were given in the D&C to establish these as offices in a new church, whose name had changed from the Church of Christ to the Church of the Latter-day Saints in 1834; offices then came in 1835. One must ask? Why was the name changed? Why the offices? Was Joseph Smith trying to say something by the name being changed, perhaps that the church was now a church of men and not of Christ?
Could it be that since the Church had been condemned in 1832, condemned for not claiming the blessings of Zion and the gospel as outlined in the Book of Mormon, but instead wanted leadership, iniquity, and vanity, that the Lord gave it to the Saints begrudgingly after they failed to create Zion? The narrative Mormons have been told their entire lives is that the Church kept building upon a foundation, growing it’s offices, revelations, policies, and procedures in order to perfect it to the fine-tuned machine that it is today. Could it be that the revelations and offices given were a replication and repetition of the what God gave to the Children of Israel that refused to see God and follow His word? Is this another way that the “last shall be first and the first shall be last?” Could Joseph Smith be seen as a type for Moses in this way, providing a schooling system instead of the fullness because a Gentile didn’t want the fullness? These are all interesting questions that should be asked, and we shouldn’t necessarily assume that with each brick laid, it was necessarily to our betterment.
Another thing to point out is that restoration is often said to “restore all things.” This has been interpreted to be implementing religious practices by God’s people back through time. It’s curious to note its backward chronological order, the New Testament system being a primary focus during the Kirtland and Missouri eras, and and Old Testament system being established at Nauvoo and running through the early 20th Century. And both systems didn’t work; they didn’t bring Zion, and they both ended in apostasy. At some point, one would hope to see the Enochian system appear, with no church structure, but consisting merely of families and believers with connection to God, the one system that did bring Zion. But now, it seems, the Church is content to be a better and more perfect version of Babylon. Perhaps it must also restore apostasy before the end draws nigh.
So while the Church paints a picture of continual improvement and evolution to a more perfect system, perhaps it’s best to see the Church as the embodiment of the cycle of restoration and apostasy, as we see both in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the Church is more like a Gentile version of the rabbinical Jews in the time of Jesus. Perhaps it is more Catholic than we would like to let on. Perhaps the Brethren are often more Popes than prophets.
Understanding all of this possible context in history is critical to understand how to fellowship and why as I will show later.
Elder Christofferson next embarks on the discussion of church service. No doubt the benefits of attending church as Latter-day Saints can immensely contribute to acts of charity needed to sanctify the soul and to bring Zion. For that, church participation can provide great spiritual dividends.
This religion is not concerned only with self; rather, we are all called to serve. We are the eyes, hands, head, feet, and other members of the body of Christ, and even “those members … which seem to be more feeble, are necessary.”We need these callings, and we need to serve.
The key phrase here is “calling.” What is a calling and who does it? Culturally, we see this as what the Bishop asks us to do when he calls us into his office. But I believe it is deeper than this. Let’s look at Ephesians again but expand further. I’ll expand the quote one verse including 14 to give us another interpretation:
11 And he (Jesus Christ) gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
The first thing we should note is that he . . . Christ . . . does the calling. Now we think that this is accomplished through a mortal servant with special Priesthood keys. I would submit that scriptures give us examples of people being called both by Jesus Himself and other angelic messengers as well as mortal servants. And if we are only called by mortal servants, we must still importune the heavens for our heavenly endowment, or we may as well be empty vessels. We can all be “called” to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, not as offices, but as spiritual duties. The differences relate to the Gifts of the Spirit, and those differences can come together in harmony as people not only get called, but also qualify to be chosen to receive the blessings associated with their calling, ” . . . for many are called, but few are chosen.” These gifts work together in harmony, independent of one another, to form a check and balance upon men who would use authority to get gain, to create policies and procedures that form every wind of doctrine, to conduct business in the dark and then publish it by the sleight of hand, thereby lying in wait to deceive. Sadly, our own history has shown such fruits.
The Lord knows better. He knows that people can do good works independent of an organization, and if there is an organization, the structure is looser and more dependent on the righteousness of independent leaders and their connection to heaven, than hierarchy, policies, and procedures. People can be called and directed by Him to serve the poor, help the sick, do good to others, and bring forth Zion. He does not need an established religion to do it. He did it very successfully with families and patriarchal structures during the time of Enoch. The examples we have in scripture of established systems usually do not end as well. They often get hijacked and turned into something different, worshiping the shell of the gospel instead of practicing the very roots thereof. Even the scriptures Elder Christofferson gives to support the church-service model give us a different picture than intended when seen in context.
4 Nephi 1:12 “And they did not walk any more after the performances and ordinances of the law of Moses; but they did walk after the commandments which they had received from their Lord and their God, continuing in fasting and prayer, and in meeting together oft both to pray and to hear the word of the Lord.
2 Nephi 27:7 “Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.”
Moroni 6:5 “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.”
Ephesians 4:13 “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:”
Jeremiah 31:34 “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
None of these things take extensive management to do. Extensive management seems to do just the opposite over time, whether Israelite Jew or American Gentile. In fact, as Jeremiah suggests, during Zion, people aren’t going around as teachers trying to get people to have a testimony of Christ, for they all will have a testimony of Christ, and they will get their directions from Him. No rabbis or General Conference talks are needed. Now I am not Polyannish. I understand that there may be a reason we aren’t there yet, and like the Children of Israel, we probably need some schooling. But I pray we do not elevate what was meant to be a crutch into the object of worship itself. The scriptures call that in the Book of Mormon, the Gentile stumbling block.
And not all leadership and guidance is prohibited. Established ordinances must be given. Offenders must be cut off. There is Priesthood guiding such endeavors. The right question is . . . how much? The scriptures seems to make this much simpler than we have made them since Joseph Smith’s early days. It is said one must have Priesthood authority, and that is well and good, but no authority can be had in the hands of wicked men. The Priesthood is therefore two-fold, a system that ties the ordinance-giver back to the person that restored such a Priesthood, generally for the purposes of order and instruction, but then that person must obtain his errand from heaven. The first without the last is without power, but can perpetuate up and unto a point even with some wickedness. The Old Testament offers such examples. On the other hand, the last without the first can be given through heavenly messengers and revelation, as in the case of Alma, who first baptized in the Book of Mormon into a new order of things. It was not his priestly ordinance that gave him power, it was His errand from the Lord.
Finally, Elder Christofferson offers us fruits of the Church, and laments what would happen if such an organization did not exist. In addition to ordinance, he offers up temples, missionary efforts, and the spreading of the Book of Mormon as examples of such fruit. I would say that one could make an adequate comparison to another church . . . the Catholic Church . . . in its missionary efforts to spread the Bible and Christianity. Those efforts were and are good efforts, but the organization can still be judged to be in error and apostasy. If it weren’t for Catholicism, it’s doubtful we would have the Bible, or Christianity. We can honor their efforts without agreeing with all of their beliefs, structures, or systems. We have the ability, and agency, to do better if we can. We ought to do the same with the LDS Church or any other religious institution.
We can pray, serve, give tithes, heal the sick, help the poor and afflicted, support the fatherless and the widows, without any formal organization to belong to. We can seek baptism or get ordinances from a duly-authorized servant of the Lord, and the servant’s righteousness is the only requirement, not his rights and keys. A church is any gathering of believers. It doesn’t necessitate an organization or a formalized structure. Those are the keys . . . revelation. And revelation comes because of righteousness, not office. When understanding what keys really are, which is REVEALED KNOWLEDGE, consider the following statement Elder Christofferson makes.
With the keys of the kingdom, the Lord’s servants can identify both truth and falsehood and once again authoritatively state, “Thus saith the Lord.” Regrettably, some resent the Church because they want to define their own truth, but in reality it is a surpassing blessing to receive a “knowledge of things as they [truly] are, and as they were, and as they are to come” insofar as the Lord wills to reveal it. The Church safeguards and publishes God’s revelations—the canon of scripture.
It is revealed knowledge that identifies truth and falsehood, allows any called servant to say “thus saith the Lord.” In the LDS Church, regrettably, they do not. They utter policies made from committees and assume we understand it is the word of the Lord. The resentment isn’t in wanting to define our own truth, it’s that the Church isn’t living up their own standards they have set forth in defining truth. And often, their new truths and policies do not yield to earlier truths revealed in both ancient and modern scripture where we have a definitive “thus saith the Lord” statement.
The bottom line is that we do not need a Church . . . even as we can use a church. The difference is in the case of the word, “church,” and what that means. We have the right and ability to gather as believers, to obtain our errand from the Lord, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to learn truth, to repent, to come into the presence of the Lord, not simply in a temple-play. And then we have the right to be “called” and sealed up unto Him, to serve the Lord and his children. We can do this as members of a card-carrying organization, or as wanderers in the wilderness. The Lord does not care, save we are on His errand.
I supposed Elder Christofferson understands this at a core level as he states (but I will take some liberties with the case of the word, “Church” for added emphasis, so as to change it to a simple body of believers):
In this discussion of the church as the body of Christ, we must always bear in mind two things. One, we do not strive for conversion to the church but to Christ and His gospel, a conversion that is facilitated by the church. The Book of Mormon expresses it best when it says that the people “were converted unto the Lord, and were united unto the church of Christ. ” Two, we must remember that in the beginning, the church was the family, and even today as separate institutions, the family and the church serve and strengthen one another. Neither supplants the other, and certainly the church, even at its best, cannot substitute for parents. The point of gospel teaching and priesthood ordinances administered by the church is that families may qualify for eternal life.
I couldn’t have said it better myself.