Today marks 20 years since Community of Christ began using its current name.
The old name (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or RLDS Church, for short) served well for more than a century and a half. And it remains a legal name for the church, in large part to keep others from using it, along with all those pesky copyright and trademark issues that lawyers love to defend. But it should be fairly obvious to anyone that the institution and faith community that was officially “reorganized” on April 6, 1860, under the leadership of Joseph Smith III has been changing, transforming, and “rebirthing” for quite some time. (Fun fact:, CofC still regards April 6, 1830, as its historical founding date.)
Sure, lots of churches these days are rebranding. Often, it’s a case of a local congregation substituting a new name that downplays its denominational affiliation, be it Baptist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God, or whatever. I get that. The religious landscape in North America is changing in so many ways, and increasing numbers of folks feel less attached to a denominational name or heritage. This is especially true for anyone under the age of 40. Rebranding often makes good marketing sense. Ask Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben.
Some of that was at work with CofC. Like most others in my church, I grew tired of telling people its full name, usually adding “but we’re not the Mormons” at the end. As if the name wasn’t long enough to start with! Just using the initials RLDS was meaningless to most people, as well.
And so, in that sense we were making a change from describing who we were NOT to who we actually are and called to be. The simplicity of the new name gives an opportunity to explain that we are becoming more than an institutional church governed primarily by rules and belief statements. As a community identified with Christ, what we now allow to come to the fore are relationships, principles, service, and mission. Not surprisingly, then, shortly before the new name was implemented, nine Enduring Principles were introduced that could be used and adapted throughout multiple cultures in the worldwide church, which has an official presence in 60 nations. They don’t replace the church’s Basic Beliefs but help guide the church in using them.
- Grace and Generosity
- Sacredness of Creation
- Continuing Revelation
- Worth of All Persons
- All Are Called
- Responsible Choices
- Pursuit of Peace (Shalom)
- Unity in Diversity
- Blessings of Community
The CofC also developed five Mission Initiatives to help it function as a servant community: Invite People to Christ. Abolish Poverty, End Suffering. Pursue Peace on Earth. Develop Disciples to Serve. Experience Congregations in Mission.
The name change was not a “one-off”; it didn’t appear out of nowhere. Starting in the 1960s, church leaders and members began to seriously grapple with questions surrounding the church’s history. This included Joseph Smith Jr.’s First Vision accounts, the historicity and “coming forth” of the Book of Mormon, and what we regard as multiple theological speculations and practices during the Nauvoo era, but which had origins earlier.
Of course, all those struggles, doubts, and questions eventually led to a major split in the 1980s, precipitated by extending priesthood ministry to women in 1984. Tens of thousands of conservative and traditionalist members left, most to so-called independent Restoration branches, others to the LDS church and various Restoration groups, and some simply to parts unknown.
I sympathize with them. There’s some truth, certainly, to their common complaint: “I didn’t leave the church; the church left me,” despite what some RLDS leaders said at the time. I’m glad they’ve found or created a church home. On the other hand, I also believe RLDS Church leaders were honestly and sincerely responding to what they felt were leadings of the Spirit in guiding the church on a journey to new places–theologically, socially, and geographically. All those doubts and struggles eventually led to the dawning of a new day for the church. Yes, doubt and struggle can be good things when they do just that. While we don’t deny or reject our Restoration heritage, we believe where we’re headed takes precedence.
One of those paths led to the building of a temple in Independence, Missouri, its functions patterned after the Kirtland “House of the Lord.” Dedicated to the pursuit of peace, the Temple stands as a symbol of CofC’s movement in the direction of historic peace churches. Although it will never be like the Quakers, Brethren, or Mennonites, the church offers its own unique approach on issues of peace and justice. One of the most remarkable responses to that calling was the production of the church’s newest hymnal, Community of Christ Sings, which has been widely hailed for its selection of hymns on peace, justice, and inclusivity.
From the 1960s on there were sporadic attempts to make chanes to the church’s name. I recall one ill-fated effort in the 1970s to begin using the nickname “Saints’ Church.” It was fairly well accepted within the church; those outside the membership probably couldn’t get away from the popular and Roman Catholic way of understanding “Saints.”
At the 1994 World Conference a committee recommended use of “Church of Jesus Christ,” but no legislative action was taken other than to table it. Six months later the church learned about a retreat in Colorado that June attended by members of the church’s Joint Council (First Presidency, Council of 12 Apostles, Presiding Bishopric, and Presiding Evangelist) at which strong consensus developed around the name “Community of Christ.” The FP presented that name at the 2000 World Conference, which passed overwhelmingly. Thus began a months-long preparation period culminating in the April 2001 implementation. As an editorial specialist at headquarters, I served on the name-change task force. One of my primary tasks was producing an anthology of essays under the title Claimed by a New Name.
Inspired documents presented to the church’s World Conferences the past two decades, and which have been included in the Doctrine and Covenants, deal with the name’s meaning and purpose:
“Community of Christ,” your name, given as a divine blessing, is your identity and calling. If you will discern and embrace its full meaning, you will not only discover your future, you will become a blessing to the whole creation. Do not be afraid to go where it beckons you to go.Doctrine and Covenants Section 163:1
If you truly would be Community of Christ, then embody and live the concerns and passion of Christ. The challenges and opportunities are momentous. Will you remain hesitant in the shadows of your fears, insecurities, and competing loyalties? Or will you move forward in the light of your divinely instilled call and vision? The mission of Jesus Christ is what matters most for the journey ahead.D. and C. 164:9d-f
Beloved Community of Christ, do not just speak and sing of Zion. Live, love, and share as Zion: those who strive to be visibly one in Christ, among whom there are no poor or oppressed. As Christ’s body, lovingly and patiently bear the weight of criticism from those who hesitate to respond to the divine vision of human worth and equality in Christ. This burden and blessing is yours for divine purposes. And, always remember, the way of suffering love that leads to the cross also leads to resurrection and everlasting life in Christ’s eternal community of oneness and peace. Trust in this promise.D. and C. 165:6
As a worldwide faith community, we need to be sensitive to customs, mores, and laws in different countries. A prime example is access to priesthood ordination and the sacrament of marriage to those with same-sex orientation. National conferences in the USA, Canada, UK, Australia, and New Zealand, for example, approved this within the past decade. A consensus model was used at the conferences, rather than the more familiar majority rules.However, for various reasons, these sacramental practices are not currently possible in many other areas throughout the world.
Having said all this, I must also note the serious challenges the Community of Christ faces today. Especially in North America, the membership is aging and the contributor base is shrinking. Time is running out. Small congregations have been forced to close their doors. Headquarters and field ministry staff have repeatedly been downsized (full disclosure: my job as Herald magazine editor was eliminated in 2009, with responsibilities divided up among remaing staffers; I accepted an early retirement offer). Meeting those retirement obligations remains a considerable challenge, although the Bridge of Hope fund-raising program has shown remarkable success so far. Selling certain artifacts, like the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon to the LDS church for $10 million helped. Time will tell.
The 2008 Recession was especially hard on the church’s investment portfolio, which was heavily weighted toward real estate development in Jackson County, Missouri, where the church is headquartered. While that financial crisis has eased somewhat, there is no huge monetary endowment for the church to rely upon. The CofC strongly encourages its members to be generous in their giving (and service), but does not require a specific tithe. This marks a change from the previous practice of requiring a 10 percent tithe on net income.
In a theological sense, the CofC’s path reflects the basic theme of Christianity itself: suffering, sacrifice, possible death, and hoped-for resurrection. Of course, in reality, it’s not quite so simple or clear-cut. In earlier days we reflected a common idea in the Restoration movement: the church would inevitably grow, expand, and spread throughout the world, gaining influence and even “power” wherever it was to be found. We are all-too-painfully realizing that’s not the way it’s working out. But, then, who would willingly choose suffering and death (whether you understand that in theological or organizational terms), even with the hope of resurrection?
I cannot imagine going back to the old name or, even more so, the old ways. The church in which I was baptized in 1959 seems so far removed from the church in which I serve as a high priest in 2021. Not that I don’t have issues with its direction at times. Most days I feel like I’m on the inside edge of its boundary. While that’s a whole other blog post, that’s not a bad place to be, I believe. We still do some things really well: our joy-filled, multicultural World Conferences (held every three years, although Covid has delayed the next one until 2023) being a prime example (check out this video of Conference-goers singing “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning”).
The Community of Christ has weathered much, and its future is far from assured. But I guess that’s the point: A faithful people who grapple and doubt and question are, in that sense, simply following the example of Jesus. It may not make much sense in a Western, consumer-oriented, capitalist society (or in many other places). It’s simply the path we are called to follow.
*Given the distance the Community of Christ has diverged from other latter-day saint churches, how appropriate is it to consider it still part of the Restoration movement?
*How likely is it for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to adopt any of the changes that have transformed the Community of Christ? Where would you start? Which ones are simply impossible to imagine?
*Could the Community of Christ remain the same kind of faith community if it had a similar financial endowment as that attributed to the Utah-based church?
*How surprised are you to learn that Community of Christ regards April 6, 1830, as its founding date?