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Monday, March 3, 2014

Guest Post: The Problem with Comparing the LDS Church to the Church in Christ's Time

I just read a recent CES devotional by Elder Callister of the Presidency of the Seventy. It bothered me. His thesis was that many New Testament verses prove that out of all the Christian churches out there today, the LDS Church is the only one that is a carbon copy of Christ’s church. That, in turn, means that it’s the one true church. He cites many New Testament scriptures that back up the various aspects and elements of the church that we as Latter-Day Saints are familiar with: baptism by immersion, apostles, elders, the three degrees of glory, baptism for the dead, etc. The idea is that the LDS Church is the only church that exactly matches the blueprint of the church of old because hey look, we’re the only church that practices baptism for the dead and believes in the three degrees of glory as mentioned here in the scriptures.

The problem is that when you use Bible verses to back up your claims, you open up the door for people to draw verses from the Biblical well that could contradict or refute your claims. It turns into Bible bashing. For every Bible verse that Elder Callister reads that purportedly backs up our modern practices of baptism for the dead or the three degrees of glory, I can find a couple Bible verses that talk about things that we don’t do in the church today. We Mormons are willing to point to the verses about the seventy [Luke 10:1,17] but rightly or wrongly ignore the verses about how women shouldn’t speak during church [1 Cor. 14:34-35], how there were female prophetesses [Luke 2:36], and how divorce shouldn’t be allowed [Matt. 19:3-9]. And sure, apostles are mentioned in the New Testament, but the idea of a first presidency as a unit separate from and additional to the twelve apostles is not. We’re just cherry picking the verses that are most tasteful to us and conveniently ignoring everything else.

I clearly remember sitting in the church building on my mission while waiting for an investigator to show up for a scheduled lesson. While we were waiting, someone came in off the street and asked if our church allowed divorce. I said that while divorce is discouraged, yes, we allow divorce. The man said that he was looking for a church that didn’t allow divorce, since the New Testament is so clear on the issue. In his mind, any church that allowed for divorce was clearly not the church of Christ. He walked out of the church and we never saw him again. I think that’s how a lot of people would feel if they looked at our church solely through the lens of the Biblical church.

I had a goal to read the New Testament through from beginning to end during the month of January, and I succeeded. My scripture study is usually done on a more micro level, but I figured that the start of the new year was a great time to take a step back and examine things from a broader macro level by covering more scriptural ground. While seeing things from that macro level, I was actually surprised most by just how different our church is today from the church of Jesus’s time. The elders mentioned in the New Testament sure do seem to be actual old people, not eighteen-year-olds [1 Peter 5:1-5]. Christ sure does place a lot more emphasis on helping the poor and giving up possessions than we do in the Mormon church. Speaking in tongues in the New Testament [Acts 2:4] doesn’t much look like the speaking in tongues that we often talk about in terms of missionary work.

The gospel is one-size-fits-all in that it is for every single person in the world, but there is no one-size-fits-all way to join the Church. Every person who comes to a realization of the truth of the Book of Mormon and God’s restored truth does so in his or her own way. Some people read the Book of Mormon and instantly know that it’s true. Others spend weeks, months, and even years studying and praying before gaining their testimonies. Still others spend weeks, months, and years studying and praying and never end up joining the Church. Believing that this is God’s church is not as easy as comparing a list of bullet points of attributes of Christ’s primitive church and our church today, though Elder Callister’s tone suggests that to be the case.

The point of coming to this earth is to be tried and tested, to gain bodies and experience, to learn and to grow. If gaining a testimony were as easy as reading a devotional, we would be deprived of the very valuable experiences that we came here to receive. Moreover, our missionaries would be trained as Biblical scholars, and we know that this is far from the case.

After writing the bulk of this blog post, I did a Google search for Elder Callister’s talk, and I ran across a discussion of it at the forums. Here are a handful of the points that people made that resonated with me:
“What I think needs to stop is this traditional claim we have constructed about the church being identical to the primitive church ([Elder Callister] emphasized how exact the similarities were more than once). The organization is not identical ... and the NT is not a manual in how to organize a church, if it was churches would look much more alike.”

“As the old saying says, ‘When my church changes: continuing revelation; when your church changes: apostasy.’ I don't think we can have it both ways: either we believe in continuing revelation, or we don't. If we don't want anyone else to make too much of the differences between the church described in the New Testament and the Restored Church of Jesus Christ, we ought not make too much of the similarities.”

"[It’s as if we say,] ‘The LDS Church is true because we are exactly the same as the Church Jesus set up in the New Testament, except for all the stuff we've changed.’"

“I'm sorry to see Elder Callister thinks so little of the college-age LDS that he assumes they wouldn't figure out the problems with his argument. I guess as long as they don't actually read their Bibles, and just stick to proof-texting, he'll be okay.

“Most of all, everybody else being wrong doesn't make us right. And it just insults the other guy. Our beliefs can stand on their own.”
Frankly, I don’t care if the LDS Church is the same as the church that existed in Christ’s time, because I don’t live in Christ’s time. I want to be part of a church that is optimized for today, not for two thousand years ago. That’s what the LDS Church touts and gives in the form of modern, continuing revelation, so why focus so much on the similarities between the modern church and the church of old, especially when there are so many things that are so glaringly dissimilar? Pick any Christian church that is around today and you’ll find that each and every one of them can and does use the Bible to try to justify its existence and prove its legitimacy, just as Elder Callister has attempted to do. Well-studied Catholics or Jehovah’s Witnesses are equally able and adept at proving that their own brands of Christianity are the one true brand.

How, then, do we convince people that our church is Christ’s church? Easy. Through personal revelation via the Spirit. It goes back to why our missionaries aren’t Bible scholars but inexperienced teenagers—the goal has always been for the Spirit to do the teaching and converting. Keller at the Millennial Star sums up the whole issue best with the following:
“[I]t should be understood the primary evidence of the apostasy is modern revelation. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed to have received visits from heavenly messengers and investigators are challenged to prayerfully seek after their own spiritual witness of claims regarding authority. An examination of ancient history can at best demonstrate plausibility and not proof of the apostasy.”
In my mind, the “our church today is 100% the same as Christ’s church 2,000 years ago” argument is detrimental in the same way that the old “the Church is perfect, but the people in it aren’t” argument was. It leaves no room for error. The result of the latter argument has played heavily into many people’s disillusionment with the Church over years, and I’m worried that any attempt to justify the Church’s existence through the former argument does the same.

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PGH is a late twenty-something who grew up in the Church and served a mission in Eastern Europe. He blogs about Mormon stuff at Mormono. He can't stand seafood.
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