I was asked in several ways how I reconcile some modern trends in the Church. One question was phrased this way:
“Hearkening back to Elder Poleman’s talk on the differences between the Church and the Gospel. It’s often stated (overstated?) that the church is the Kingdom of God in various meetings and most members conflate the Church with the Gospel (i.e. they are synonymous terms these days). Could you discuss the original differences (as intended in the scriptures) between “church” and “gospel”? Is church, as we currently know it (big meetinghouses, 3 hour blocks, weekly attendance, etc.), the same thing as “church” in the times of the Old and New Testaments?”
Here’s how I reconcile it all: I don’t. What I do is reflect upon history. Here are a few of my ruminations:
Christianity became diverse quite early on. Almost immediately after the closing of the New Testament, the diversity began to metastasize.
There were those who viewed Christ as a normal man, who had been “adopted” by the Father at the time of His baptism. These were called “Adoptionists.”
There were those who believed that Christ was just a normal man, but that He had a divine spirit inhabit Him temporarily from the time of His baptism until the time of His crucifixion, at which time the divine spirit left. It was incomprehensible to them that God would suffer and die. Therefore, they developed a theory in which He did not.
There were those who believed that Christ was a transcendent spirit, and never corporeal as other men were. They believed that He manifested Himself as if he were a mortal, but never truly was mortal. They did not believe it possible for God to become incarnate.
There were those who believed that Christ taught a secret Gospel to His insiders, and that the public teachings were misleading. It was the private “gnosis” that would save you.
There were those who believed that Christ was a separate and distinct being from God the Father, and that the result was that there were two gods and not one.
There were those who argued that if they were separate then it violated the idea of “monotheism” and therefore, God the Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost had to be one, single person. However incomprehensible that may be, there was only one being, manifesting itself in three forms.
There were those who believed priesthood authority was immutable, and once conferred it could not be lost no matter what the conduct of the person ordained. That is, authority was not dependent at all upon righteous behavior, and even a thoroughly wicked man, once ordained, held priesthood authority no matter what he did.
There were those who believed that priesthood authority was entirely dependent upon faithful living, and that a failure to live according to God’s will terminated the authority of that man. This movement was named after a North African priest named Arius who remained devoted during the persecutions and was blinded and crippled by those who were seeking to destroy the Christian faith.
Well, by 324 AD the whole thing had become riddled with controversies and sects. Therefore, when King Constantine, who had battled his way into sole ownership of the Roman Emperor’s seat, determined to adopt a state religion (he chose Christianity as that state religion) he presumed he was taking a harmonious, consistent faith. Upon learning that there were strong internal Christian disputes, some of which led to violence between professors of the various beliefs, he decided that he needed to put down the disputations.
In a fit of practicality, King Constantine convened the great council at Nicea, and summoned all the Bishops of Christianity to a single gathering. At the gathering he demanded they come to an agreement on what the Christian faith believed. He could not tolerate disputes leading to violence in the newly adopted Roman state religion.
This council at Nicea was the first attempt at correlation. The result had little to do with the truth. It had to do with peace for the Roman state. Constantine himself did not believe in the doctrine. He believed in the effectiveness of the faith as a basis for political power, domestic security and ease of ruling a diverse population scattered about on three continents. When the results were achieved, he then exiled the handful of dissenters and ‘voila, Historic Christianity began. That Historic Christianity remained correlated and of a singular view until the split between Constantinople and Rome at about 1000 AD. It became further uncorrelated in the 1500’s with Martin Luther.
Once you start letting doctrinal disputes develop you wind up with a split empire, and internal loss of government. The original effort was imposed at the tip of a sword. When there were dissenters, they were exiled, or eventually made “heretic.” When the final step was taken, and the intellectual buttress supplied by Bishop Ambrose’s arguments, it at last became possible for “heresy” or “heretics” to be snubbed out by murder. The persecuted became the persecutors. They were justified by the change, having a correlated promise that the faith ratified the reasons that allowed you to persecute, torture and kill those who strayed from the “one true, Catholic faith.” After all, if you could reclaim them merely by torture of the body, how much better than allowing them to lapse into eternal torment by being consigned to hell. An endless “Hell” also being an invention of the Historic Christian faith. So it was really good to do that burning, racking, thumb-dislocating, flaying, stuff after all. All in a day’s work to convert the wayward soul back to Christ.
Elder Lee, while still a member of the Twelve, began the correlation process in the LDS Church. It was his crowning achievement when he became President. Now everything is in harmony. That harmony has come at the price of developing the internal idea of “apostasy” based upon the doctrine we believe in. A test which was altogether alien to Joseph Smith. Joseph said, when a brother Brown was being threatened with excommunication for his error in doctrine:
“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”
The price we have paid to date for correlation is a fraction of what will ultimately be paid, if history informs us of anything. It is now possible to be a “Mormon heretic” for believing doctrine which someone else has determined should be discarded — a thing which was unimaginable at the time of Joseph Smith, even as a result of an actual error in doctrine. For Joseph, the way to reclaim some errant Saint was, well, confined to the means permitted by revelation: “only by persuasion, by long–suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.” (D&C 121: 41-42.) Today that has been expanded to excommunication for doctrinal errors. When such a thing takes place, years go by before such a person is re-welcomed into the church, and then only after receiving permission from the First Presidency. So the correlation of doctrine has slipped already into a coercive use of authority within the church. Instead of persuading using better doctrine to correct an error, we punish and silence them through a method that was alien to the original pattern.
History is an interesting thing to study. Particularly at the beginnings of any religious movement. It always progresses from movement to institution. Once it becomes an institution, as King Constantine realized, the institution itself must protect itself against disorder. That protection comes, as history shows, at the price of contradicting the original premise upon which the movement began.
The ironies of this are always astonishing. But somehow those who live through it never realize the irony while it is happening. Only later, as it has taken its full bloom in torture, killing, flaying, racking and destroying the lives of people does the original, root moments in which the errors began to creep in get recognized. Those making the errors in the first place are celebrated for centuries as “Saints” and “Popes.”
The history of religion, generally, is a transition between the movement stage, where there is always a charismatic or gifted core from which it springs, to the institution stage. Unfortunately for the institution, gifted folks aren’t usually good businessmen. (Joseph Smith, for example, had a pending petition for bankruptcy when he was killed.) Once the movement gets underway, it gets co-opted by businessmen, managers and captains of industry. Folks like Emperor Constantine, who if nothing else was a consummate manager.
Managers crave order. They dislike the chaos of the Spirit, which is always unstable, unpredictable, and uncorrelateable. (John 3: 8.) As a result, they change a movement into an institution. Institutions require order. The nature of an institution requires managers, bankers, businessmen and generals. They consider their “product” to be religion, and they manage and sell their product as if they were General Motors, or the Roman Empire. The kind of freedom that gave birth to the movement must be disciplined, marshaled and controlled.
Our faith is in a complete internal opposition at the moment. To become a Mormon, if you aren’t born one, you must go through a conversion process which is grounded in the bedrock of revelation. You must pray and ask God if the Book of Mormon is true, and then you are to get an answer from God. We expect you to have a revelatory experience to join. But, once you have joined, then the scope of your revelatory experience is strictly limited. You must NOT question any leader, nor ever expect God to tell you something about any subject over which you do not preside, nor to ever realize through the inspiration of the Spirit that there are foolish, vain and wrong notions circulating about. You must NOT notice that Deseret Book has become a repository of false and foolish books parading sentimentality as if it were salvific. You should never consider God’s revelations to you as something to be honored apart from what the institution says, does, does not do, or does poorly. Indeed, the voice of God will come to you solely and exclusively through the institution. If you need to know something, then the institution will tell you. Unless you hear your orders from it, then stay as you are.
We are at a cross-roads. At the moment the movement is ending. The institution is at its pinnacle of complete triumph. When the process concludes, it will not welcome converts who will challenge the basic assumptions that they, having received revelation to come on-board in the first place, must now quash the Spirit which raises so many questions about how things are proceeding. Then to be Mormon will mean to be correlated. Correlated body and soul. An institutional man. No longer distinct, unique, or creative. Disciplined, orderly, subservient, and under control. Then the institution will become a remarkably appealing tool for not only the captains of industry, but also the heads of state. It will become an almost irresistible tool to be employed as part of governing the world. And so history repeats itself.
Well, these direful lessons are ones which can be either relived or avoided. But to avoid them people who are inside the process must step outside their own times and context and to view everything within a larger picture. I don’t think bankers, businessmen and lawyers do that often. Indeed, the well educated who lack inspiration are not qualified. Only the meek. Only the humble. As Nephi described us: “they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.” (2 Ne. 28: 14.) That was the group to whom I dedicated my book The Second Comforter.
Then I pull myself back into the present reality, and let it all wash over me like a wave. I take a deep breath and I realize how grateful I am for any bit of goodness I can find anywhere. And in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I can find a lot of good. And I count my blessings and rise determined to remain a true, faithful, active Latter-day Saint throughout my life; and to die as an active and contributing fellow member. But reconciling everything, well, I’m told that’s not my calling to do anyway. And I’m grateful to sustain other men to grapple with the management of this historic trend, fraught as it is with the damnation or exaltation of the souls of men. Particularly when they claim to speak in the Lord’s name. For them there is only an “on/off” button. They can’t have it any other way. Either they speak truthfully in the name of the Lord and with His authorization, or they use His name in vain. I certainly wouldn’t want to be put into that spot. So I gratefully sustain those who rush to fill the offices when asked to do so. As one who is simply unfit to serve in such a call, I thank God for my disqualification.