During the first 10 days of November, the Community of Christ made two historic transitions that profoundly alter its relationship with both Mormonism and Protestantism. First, the church issued new guidance entitled “Baptism, Confirmation, and Church Membership”.
Then, a few days later. the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA — usually known simply as the National Council of Churches, or NCC — accepted the application of the Community of Christ to become its 37th denominational member. The NCC is probably the premier echumenical institution of the Christian left in the United States and includes most of the major Protestant denominations, as well as traditional peace churches, orthodox churches, African American churches, and progressive traditions with evangelical roots.
Although the CofChrist has been moving toward membership in the NCC for decades (having passed multiple World Conference Resolutions to that end), the timing of these two events so close together is hardly coincidental. Years ago, opponents of the move published information showing adoption of the new conditions of membership to be a prerequisite for acceptance in the NCC (and, eventually, into the World Council of Churches).
Nevertheless, the guidance was issued by the CofChrist’s Prophet with a strong personal testimony in his cover letter of his comfort with the theology behind the action defining the meaning of baptism and confirmation (and, by implication, priesthood authority) within the Community of Christ:
“While I was prayerfully considering this direction, I sought more confirmation. Like many others, for years I was taught that rebaptism was required to become a church member. On several occasions the Spirit impressed on me that the church should not unnecessarily ‘hinder’ those who had experienced the power of baptism through the grace and authority of Jesus Christ from responding to the Spirit guiding them to membership.
“An experience I had while traveling in Asia reinforced this understanding. I talked with a man who had been baptized secretly in a cave pool years before Community of Christ became accessible to him. He described the suffering and persecution he and others experienced because of their Christian commitment. I sensed the witness of the Spirit that his baptism should ‘be respected’ and that his commitment far exceeded that of some church members who viewed their baptisms in casual terms.”
President Veazey thus places the Conditions of Membership as a continuation of the trend previously seen in opening Communion and ordaining women to the priesthood: personal relationships with and giftedness from Christ are to take precedence over the forms and roles we have used to uphold those relationships in particular times and cultures.
Under the guidance, a person can become a member of the CofChrist in one of three ways:
- Baptism and confirmation by CofChrist priesthood in the traditional manner after the candidates reach the age of accountability.
- Voluntarily chosen rebaptism and confirmation of previously baptized Christians by CofChrist priesthood in the traditional manner after the candidates reach the age of accountability
- Confirmation of previously baptized Christians by CofChrist priesthood following certain procedural steps
The procedural steps include signing an affirmation that their baptism was of water (though immersion is expressly not required); occurred after the age of accountability; represented a personal expression of faith in Jesus Christ; and was performed by a Christian minister, clergyperson, or pastor. In addition, they must normally have been active in their local CofChrist congregation for approximately six months before becoming a candidate (with some exceptions for remote areas). They must also understand and embrace the principles of the church as expressed in church-provided resources. This includes — which is a new requirement for membership — embracing principles of financial contributions to both the World Church and local programs.
At the time I planned this post, I had intended to close with a smiley-face note to Restoration harmony that the Community of Christ was now at least acknowledging that baptisms by LDS priesthood were as valid as those performed by our own priesthood. After all, we trace our priesthoods through the same lines of authority and baptize at the same age and in using the same rite.
Then I read the NCC’s letter explaining their basis for accepting the membership application from the Community of Christ — and now I’m less certain about that interpretation. It seems we made some very important additional theological concessions, actively or by omission, in order to be accepted. The NCC report, published here, makes clear that the NCC is letting the CofChrist join because they believe the CofChrist is sufficiently far from its historical Restoration roots.
Specifically, the report states that the founder of the Community of Christ was Joseph Smith III, not — you know — that other Joseph Smith. This will come as a large surprise to a number of people, including Emma Hale Smith and Joseph Smith III himself, who never would have come to lead the Reorganization if not convinced he was taking up his father’s work. And it does make 100+ sections of our Doctrine and Covenants, including those that authorize the leadership structure itself, somewhat awkward. After all, it’s the other Joseph Smith who wrote those.
Another area of concern to the NCC was the Book of Mormon. Here, their opinion may be disturbingly factual:
“But it is not, in any sense, equivalent to the Bible in the life of their communion. Subscription to its teaching is not required for membership or ordination. While the Book of Mormon is sometimes used for worship, there are parts of the COC that seldom refer to it.”
And that impression was gained after an extensive conversation in October by the NCC membership committee with the Prophet, one of the Twelve in charge of ecumenical relations, and the Dean of the church’s Seminary, until a few months ago, a member of the Presidency of the Quorum of High Priests. So there was plenty of opportunity to correct any mistaken impressions.
As Rich Brown put it in a Saints Herald blog post:
“Clearly there are those who view this moment in the church’s long history as a leap into religious maturity while others see it as damning proof of apostasy.”
So what do you think? Did the Community of Christ just build a bridge between the Restoration and the other elements of Christianity? Or did it just rift the gap open wider? Did it narrow the differences between the LDS/RLDS traditions, or did those differences just grow?