Transcript from a portion of my most recent podcast episode on the First Vision:
This idea of LDS exclusivity and the idea that we are, God’s only true church. Jana Reese in her book, The Next Mormons, a brilliant book. I highly recommend it. It shares a lot of insights into kind of what’s going on in the church right now with people leaving and especially with millennials and why they’re leaving and why many of them are not finding the same meaning in the church that their parents had or that they had when they were younger.
A lot of good insights. And in her research, she found that the number two reason for millennials leaving the church is that they stopped to believing it was the one true church. When I interact with others in this world, I’ve been doing this for 10 years and have interacted with a lot of people that have left the church or struggling with a deep night of the soul faith crisis.
The church says, it’s the one true church. And now I stopped believing that it’s the one true church. Does that mean I need to leave the church? I still think it’s good. I still love the church, but I no longer believe it’s the one true church. Can I stay? That is a real relevant question. I hope the answer to that is yes, you can stay. We want you, and we’re even going to go maybe out of our way, way to make you feel more comfortable. I hope that’s the answer because I see this happening a lot. It’s a real tough question.
I’m not telling the church what to do in this podcast. I hope that we can retain both the people that think it’s the one true church and people that don’t believe that it’s the one true church, but still believe it’s a very good church and the church that they want to belong to.
I really hope that these two groups can coexist. And I really hope at a macro, organizational level that we can do things to help both groups thrive in both groups, coexist in both groups, find meaning and find authenticity within the church.
And you don’t even need to have a faith crisis to wander or start to doubt if this is the one true church. As you age, and as you come to terms with the world and as you interact with other people in other faiths and you see the world better, the idea that we’re the one true church does become a little bit more difficult.
You see that we’re about 15 million members. About 5 million active members. And that’s great. That’s a nice, strong core that we can do a lot with, but you look at where we are in the rest of the world. We’re a very small percentage of the world. In the eighties, we were growing a lot, like 5%.
And we had this idea that by 2030, 2040, 2050, we’d be like 200 million, 300 million church. Well, the, the growth rate really fell off. And now our growth in active members is maybe about 1%, which is less than the world’s growth rate of 1.1%. So every week, the percentage of active LDS in a sacrament meeting as the percentage of total people in the world is actually declining. It’s actually becoming smaller. And that really makes you wonder, if we’re the true church, what’s the point? And you look at what we teach and we have beautiful teachings, but is it so unique that it justifies that belief that we’re the one true church?
These are some of the things that a lot of people grapple with. You don’t even need to have a faith crisis. You don’t even need to wonder about multiple first vision accounts or Book of Mormon historicity, or some of these other faith crisis issues. Just seeing our place in the world and how the world works and that there’s very good people in other religions.
It does make a lot of people wonder. And I think a lot of people move to a place that they don’t really take that hard stance. That we’re the one true church, but they still believe we’re a good church and they love it and they’re continuing to engage in it. It doesn’t bother them. But that really strong rhetoric of “we’re the only true church” really does turn off some people. And that’s the reason a lot of people are leaving the church and some millennials.
And I don’t think we need to stop saying that we’re the one true church, but maybe instead of focusing on we’re the one true church and patting ourselves on the back constantly, because we’re the one true church or we’re trying to prove that we’re the one true church because of this and because of that, Let’s focus on what that means that we’re the one true church. What are we going to do? What is the one true church going to do? What does that actually mean in our lives on a daily, weekly basis? Those are the messages that I think can provide meaning to people after they stop believing that it’s the one true church.
Terryl Givens, Patrick Mason, Richard Bushman, Adam Miller. These scholars are kind of trying to shift how we view exclusivity and what it means to be the one and only true church. And here’s some of the arguments that they’re using. First of all, D&C section one, verse 30 says we are the only “true and living church”.
I’ve heard this kind of logic. The focus back then probably was on the living aspect of that phrase “true and living church”. It wasn’t necessarily understood that all the churches weren’t true, but we were the only living church. So it might’ve been understood as we’re true just like all the other good Christian Protestant churches are true.
There’s a bunch of churches that have pretty true doctrine, but we’re the only living church. That’s a little bit different emphasis. The emphasis is on living, not on true.
Patrick Mason in a recent faith matters podcast. I highly recommend that Faith Matters podcasts, they are interviewing some really good people. Terryl Givens is on there a lot. And it’s always great to hear Terryl Givens.
Patrick Mason says that on exclusivity, the real thing that we have exclusivity on are the ordinances. We believe that the ordinances are special and that they’re required for all humans, but everyone has access to them.
We’re not like some religions where if you’re chosen, if you’re part of this church, you’re going to go to heaven and everybody else is going to burn in hell, no matter what, we don’t have anything like that. We believe that if someone else is living a good life in China or Pakistan and has no idea about the Mormon church and they die, that they’re going to take their goodness into the next life and likely accept the ordinances and be exalted the same as us, or maybe higher than us, if we don’t live as true or as honorable as they do. Even though we believe in exclusivity, we’re not necessarily referring to ourselves, we’re referring to the authority, but that authority is offering these things to everyone.
Richard Bushman has an interesting take on this. He is asked what it means that we’re the only true church and here’s the quote from him.
I think the most fundamental meaning is that God is in this work. And he’s helping us when we try to serve in the church and try to bless our brothers and sisters. That he’s helping the leaders of the church guide the church along and in general we’re on the side of our Heavenly Father when we’re part of the church and what I think it doesn’t mean is that no one else in the world can come to God without the church. I mean we’re really only a fraction of one percent of the world’s population, and I can’t imagine a God who wouldn’t have any interest in other people or that they would be living vain lives until they run into Mormonism. I have evangelical friends who are probably stronger followers of Christ than I am and I would think when they went to heaven God would certainly welcome them and that people all over the world can be uplifted spiritually that God is working with them and answering their prayers, so it isn’t really a matter of salvation, I don’t think. It’s ostensibly that we have God with us in our work. I would add one other thing. When I hear the statement that the church is true we normally put the emphasis on the word true but I would put the emphasis on the word church because I think what we do have is we have particular missions that we can do as a church that may be distinctive or that we may be particularly good at and ours is producing people of good will. People that grow up as Mormons learn to be generous with their time. They learn to sacrifice, they learn to get along with other people, to respect other people’s feelings, to avoid competition in striving to get ahead and I think those are wonderful gifts that come to us through our church experience, and I do think we have a mission to carry out that goodwill into every area of our lives. Into board rooms and playing fields and stages and classrooms wherever we go. We should be the people of good will.
He also gave a presentation where he talks about radiant Mormonism, where we are known as being competent people. We’re disproportionately represented in a lot of high professions, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers.
We’re competent people. And we also are known as being willing to serve. And so you take our competency and are willing to serve, and you have a people who can really get something done if they put their minds together and want to serve mankind. And Richard Bushman’s take kind of reminds me of how the South park episode and the Camara musical made fun of Mormons is kind of portraying us as these squeaky clean people that are just kind of naive, but super nice to everybody.
And that the focus of our teachings and our doctrine is to be super nice to everybody. And I think that’s fine. Let’s own it. We are the people of good will. We’re always going to seem a little bit backwards and we’re focused on family values and we’re focused on being nice to people. And that’s a wonderful thing. Let’s embrace it. Let’s own it. That’s a reputation we can build around.
Adam Miller said
Don’t ask the thing question is the church true? Ask the question, is this the body of Christ? Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does his spirit breathe in these lungs? Does forgiveness flourish here? Is faith strengthened? Is hope alive and his charity practiced? Can I see here the body of Christ?
Don’t obsess about if the church is true, make it true. Don’t worry if the Book of Mormon is true, make it true, make it true lives of anything we’ll talk about today. That is the best message I think, make it true. Let’s make this true. All of this past history doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who said we’re the only true church and when. What matters is, are we going to act like we’re the true church individually and collectively, are we going to act like this is the true church? What are we going to do to prove that this church is true?
I’ve seen some milder restatements of the “One True Church” position from LDS leaders in recent years. “Other churches have some truths, we have the full truth.” Or: “What we have is the priesthood and authority, not a monopoly on truth.”
“God is in the work” is a little weak because it’s not hard to see God at work in everything. If God is in the whirlwind (He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He wiped out cities in the Book of Mormon) then He is certainly in every good thing. But I like your “make it true” line. Or at least make it truer. “Why do you ask so many tough questions in Sunday School?” Reply: “I’m trying to make the Church truer.”
I would agree that the church is “true” in that it has the possibility to help us be better Christians. If you’re saying it’s true in the sense that the BoM and the PoGP are historical and that the “restoration” is truly from God to JS , then I can’t go along with those claims. I’m just not sure that it’s good enough for us to embrace the LDS community and try to be good Christians and just ignore the rest. I tried but..
“O Lord Jesus, thou Divine Head of thy true and living Church…”
– from The Liturgy of the New Church Signified by the New Jerusalem in the Revelation. London: 1828.
“This Christian I conceive to be the true, the exemplary, the honoured member of the Lord’s true and living church on earth.”
– from The New Church Christian’s Pocket Magazine and Sunday School Reporter. Thomas Goyder, Publisher. Strand. London. 1824. Page 330.
The expression “true and living church” was already in circulation when Joseph Smith put those words to paper. Both of these documents are Swedenborgian documents. We already know Joseph Smith was familiar with Swedenborgianism. Apparently so was Elohim, as He decided to include it in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants.
If you’re a “validity Mormon”, you need the Church to be the one true church. Otherwise, the truth claims fall like a house of cards and you want to walk away.
If you’re a “utility Mormon”, the Church might still work for you even if it’s not the one-and-only true.
So I guess it depends on whether you are validity or utility.
Just emphasizing the “living” part is insufficient. Most churches are more “living” than they care to admit. The Puritanism of the Massachusetts Bay colonyis not dead; it lives on in the UCC, one of the most liberal of Protestant churches. Dead churches (think Shakers, Old Order Amish, Hasidic Judaism) don’t undergo that kind of change.
But have no fear. A more enlightening extract of D&C 1:30 is as follows: “…the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased…” (emphasis mine). So not only can there be other true and living churches, the Lord might even be at least mildly pleased with them. But not well pleased. And why is that? The standard answer of “because we have the authority to act in the name of God” is tautological. He is not well pleased with the Church because it has his authority; he gave it his authority because he was well pleased with it. We also cannot attributed it to the fine membership. In fact, the Lord explicitly qualifies his characterization as “speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.” Even if we actually did Christianity better than other Christians, I don’t think that would render him “well pleased.
My own opinion is that the Lord is well pleased with the Church because it is only one actively trying to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (with “eternal life” having its uniquely Mormon meaning). We are trying to accomplish something that no other church is trying to accomplish. That is why he is well pleased. And that is something we can sell, if we are willing to embrace it.
To echo lastlemming, to read this verse properly you must read all three: true, living, and “with which the Lord is well pleased”. I used to believe the LDS church was all three. Then the November exclusion policy happened and I had to ask myself, is the LDS church really “living”? Is the Lord really well pleased with this church, the church doing this emotional violence to His children? That’s when I realized there was a fourth component: timing. It very well may have been that the LDS church was the only true, living church that pleased the Lord in the early 1800’s, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it still is.
The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants was received in Hiram, Ohio on November 1, 1831, as a formal statement of “mine authority, and the authority of my servants.” (v 6). The leading verses describe how people have “strayed from mine ordinances and have broken mine everlasting covenant.” Verse 17 describes the calling of Joseph Smith in response, and verse 18 describes how God also gave commandments to unspecified [Page 133]“others.” Later, God explains that “I the Lord am willing to make these things known unto all flesh; for I am no respecter of persons.” (v 34-35). Truth and revelation here are important for LDS claims, but both are expressly non-exclusive.
My reading of verse 30, regarding the distinction of the church, suggests that the word “only” applies to the phrase “with which I, the Lord am well pleased.” (Consider a sentence about the “only blue and idling car upon the face of the whole parking lot, with which I, the attendant, am well pleased.” That is not just a florid and emphatic way to say “only blue car” but provides a very different thought.) The “well-pleased” designation in D&C 1 applies to the church and is relative to what “true and living” means as descriptive qualities for church. It happens that the Biblical occurrences of true and living cast light on the meaning: “true vine,” “true treasure,” “truth and life,” “tree of life,” “living bread,” “living waters,” “new and living way through the veil” (Hebrews 10:20); and “true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:22). The Bible imagery of “true and living” has to do with the voice of warning (Jeremiah 10:10, and D&C 1:2), priesthood (true vine, John 15:1-5), living bread and living waters (sacrament and baptism, Holy Spirit inspiration, scripture; that is, ordinances and covenants and revelation), and finally, tree of life and “living way through the veil,” which both point to the temple and Christ’s role as the Melchizedek High Priest who enters the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. ((See Margaret Barker, “The Great High Priest” BYU Studies 42/3&4 (2003): 64–84.)) The themes that go with Biblical “true and living” imagery parallel the themes of D&C 1 point for point, verse for verse. Collectively all of these Bible images based on “true and/or living” center on the ongoing revelation and the distinctive priesthood ordinances and covenants, scriptures and temple worship that do, in actual fact and practice, distinguish the LDS from other faiths. But the designation is expressly non-exclusive and incomplete relative to truth, revelation, and human virtue.
Of course, it’s easy to object that many LDS think and behave as though D&C 1 says exactly what it does not say. There happens to be a very good reason for the common misreading that goes beyond repetition and commonplace thinking. The Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth is based on a study of the way students develop during their college years in moving from provincial communities to a diverse university environment. Of nine positions of growth, this is the second:
“Position 2 – Multiplicity Prelegitimate. (Resisting snake)”
“Now the person moves to accept that there is diversity, but they still think there are true authorities who are right, that the others are confused by complexities or are just frauds. They think they are with the true authorities and are right while all others are wrong. They accept that their good authorities present problems so they can learn to reach right answers independently.”
If a person can move along through to Position 6: Commitment Foreseen, they come to this point:
“He starts to see how he must be embracing and transcending of: certainty/doubt, focus/breadth, idealism/realism, tolerance/contempt, stability/flexibility. He senses need for affirmation and incorporation of existential or logical polarities. He senses need to hold polarities in tension in the interest of Truth. ”
Perry’s Position 7: Commitments in Relativism developed, includes this:
“He senses need to be: wholehearted—but tentative, to be able to fight for his own values—yet respect others.”
Perry’s Position 9: Commitments in Relativism further developed, has this:
The person now has a developed sense of irony and can more easily embrace other’s viewpoints. He can accept life as just that “life,” just the way it is! Now he holds the commitments he makes in a condition of Provisional Ultimacy, meaning that for him what he chooses to be truth IS his truth, and he acts as if it is ultimate truth, but there is still a “provision” for change. He has no illusions about having “arrived” permanently on top of some heap, he is ready and knows he will have to retrace his journey over and over, but he has hope that he will do it each time more wisely. He is aware that he is developing his Identity through Commitment. He can affirm the inseparable nature of the knower and the known—meaning he knows he as knower contributes to what he calls known. ((Think of Joseph Smith’s remarkably post-modern statement that “the different teachers of religion understood the same passages so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible” (Joseph Smith–History, 1:12).)) He helps weld a community by sharing realization of aloneness and gains strength and intimacy through this shared vulnerability. He has discarded obedience in favor of his own agency, and he continues to select, judge, and build.
In an Interpreter essay a few years back (Sophic Box and Mantic Vista), I made the case that by precept and example, Joseph Smith tries to lead us on to Position 9. But this a matter of individual development, not institutional fiat. People take time and patience. And seeing clearly begins with self-criticism, removing beams from our own eyes that we might then “see clearly.”
“He helps weld a community by sharing realization of aloneness and gains strength and intimacy through this shared vulnerability. ”
Which is precisely how most cult leaders work.
“…there will also be false teachers among you…many will follow their sensuality…and in their greed they will exploit you with false words…having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin, enticing unstable souls…..”
I think the challenge with this is that even if I can come up with a version of “true and living” that works for me, I know it’s not the same meaning that others attach to it. Similar to how I could interpret temple recommend questions in a really different way than the person asking the questions but if I answer under my interpretation knowing that’s not what they meant … at some point I feel like I don’t have any integrity anymore by acting like I’m going along with things. And it’s exhausting.
What I get from this post is that many if not most here have come to know that we are “a” church and not “the” church. The problem is that the church is so leader driven that until some of the brethren state that publicly, than local leaders such as bishops and stake presidents will continue to operate as if we are the “only true and living church…”
FWIW – The following is an “Open Letter” to my Stake President earlier this year:
I No Longer Need You (In the Kindest Possible Way)
After years of life experience (some bad – and others joyful) combined with extensive, careful reading and study (and yes, combined with prayer and a seeking for the divine) I reached the life changing conclusion that I no longer need you. Now please don’t misunderstand me, I think many of you are good people (and I could most likely enjoy your friendship) but I simply don’t need you – or anyone else like you – telling me what God’s word means to me and how I should live my life.
To put it more concisely, I don’t need (and I certainly do not want) anything further to do with the “corporate church”. I’ve come to abhor the corporate bureaucracy and all of its resulting programs, assignments, meetings and endless busy work. I’ve come to understand that I don’t need any of this nonsense in order to worship Christ; and I do not need any white middle aged men in business suits acting as intermediaries between myself and God. In fact, I find most of modern Mormon cultural and doctrinal “add ons” to the teachings of Christ to be an abject distraction and a monumental waste of time. Mormonism has become a burden – not a help. And, it’s simply getting worse!
You know, I really do (generally) enjoy my neighbors, friends and members of my Ward family. And, I’d like to continue worshiping Christ with them. However, I’m starting to think that there really is no longer a place for people like me in the LDS Church.
Now, before I proceed I’d like to convey the reality that I’ve already completed much of the traditional Mormon “Checklist”.
• Priesthood Ordinations
• Full Time Missionary Service
• Temple Marriage
• Family Born in the Covenant; and all Married in the Temple
• Full Tithe Payer; all of my life
• Historically Accepted All Church Callings
*The irony is – after all of this – I’ve never had what one would describe as a spiritual experience. In fact, I’ve felt “the spirit” more while watching a move like Saving Private Ryan, than I ever have in an LDS Chapel.
At this stage of my life, I only want ONE THING from Mormonism and that is a spiritual, enjoyable and positive Sacrament Service. Period! I want to take the Sacrament, think of the creator and listen to some beautiful music; along with an uplifting, timely message for today. I beg you to please stop the mind numbing repetition of “the same old narrative”. One feels as though we should simply start chanting – and dancing with snakes!
What I no longer want any part of:
Worship of Joseph Smith. Man oh man, have I ever had a belly-full of this.
Worship of General Authorities. They’re people just like everyone else. They are not some kind of “higher beings”, deserving of adulation. The only difference between “us and them” is that they are being paid (quite handsomely) through a stipend and other church provided – lifetime – benefits; which the common lay member will never see.
Either we’re a church of Christ or we’re the Church of Joseph Smith. Personally, I want no part of the latter.
Home Teaching (Now Ministering) – both giving and receiving is a TOTAL WASTE OF TIME. This program is a relic from the past (long gone) and has become just another way to shame and control people. The reporting requirements for Home Teaching alone are just like some used by the most onerous sales organizations in the country!
Meetings, Meetings, Meetings. For the love of Heaven, if this is a mirror image of the Celestial Kingdom – I’d “rather be with the sinner’s than the saints”.
I will never again clean buildings owned by the LDS Corporation. This practice DOES NOT represent service; but servitude. The LDS Corporation has plenty of money and resources to have their buildings professionally cleaned. If necessary, they can certainly pull monies from their Real Estate division. I will simply focus on being a good neighbor and friend!
Any talk, lesson, article or commentary which attempts to cover up, whitewash, sweeten, or obfuscate the remarkably messy (and sometimes ugly and cruel) true Mormon history – I’m walking away from; even if this kind of “pretty little lie” comes from our rock stars in SLC.
The LDS Church is contracting and hundreds of people are walking away every day; you know this, I know it and even Elder Oaks knows it; as per his declaration during the most recent Mission President’s Seminar at the MTC. The dike is breaking and the flow of information and truth is literally blowing the old church away. The tighter LDS Leadership squeeze, shame, preach down too and pound on the members – the smaller and less significant the church will become; as it is already becoming as we speak.
So, I suppose to underscore the point in a closing summary – I really don’t need you or the Corporate Church in my ongoing worship of Christ. As for the “saving ordinances of the Temple….I’ve started to ask myself “Is the great creator of heaven and the earth REALLY going to ask us to use some ancient, “secret” Masonic handshakes in order to be embraced by him?” The thought of this truly “makes reason stare”! (Especially when you find out where these ceremonies really come from.)
So what to do:
Well, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the reality that the organizational LDS Church is not going to change to better meet the needs (emotional and physical) of its’ members; the culture (and benefits to the leadership) are just too ingrained. So, I’ve just decided to “worship according to the dictates of my own heart” and if the local leaders don’t like it – I really don’t much care.
Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts and for reading my narrative. I have, and continue to wish you well from a personal standpoint.
26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.
27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.