To whom does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints belong? To us, or to the Lord?
That seems like an easy question, but it isn’t. Because to answer it requires a great deal of understanding of both history and doctrine. The Lord told the Nephites a church had to bear His name or it wasn’t His. (3 Ne. 27: 8.) At the beginning our church was originally called “The Church of Christ.” By a vote of a conference on May 3, 1834 the name was changed to “The Church of the Latter-day Saints.” (DHC 2: 62-63.) By 1838 the Lord put His name back into the title by revelation, but approved adding our names when the name changed to “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (D&C 115: 4.) So our name is in the title. The Lord told the Nephites that if named after someone, then it is their church. His name is in our title, but so is ours.
If the church belongs to us, then we can do as we like. Our sustaining votes are all that are required to implement any changes we choose to make.
If, on the other hand, the church belongs to the Lord, then we have no right to make any change to it. We conform to what He tells us. We cannot make a change, and must keep what He chooses to give us intact, awaiting His instruction before altering anything.
One of the most remarkable differences between Joseph’s era, or the first phase of Mormonism, is the direction we received from the Lord. The outpouring of revelation established not only three new volumes of scripture, but control was in the Lord’s hand, not Joseph’s nor the church’s. Direction came, and we conformed.
The absence of that Divine control since Joseph’s passing has been covered over by insistence that keys were given from Joseph to successors, and with those keys the right to direct everything remains intact. So much so that we can vote new “prophets, seers and revelators” and their decisions are God’s. God’s will is obtained by proxy, decided by councils, and accepted as if it were His.
If this is our church, proxies work fine. We are supposed to carry things on in the absence of Divine direction. Sentiments and feelings that we are going in the right direction is all we need. When good men acting in good faith make a unanimous decision prayerfully, we should feel good about it. Is that enough? If it is our church, I think it is.
What if the church is the Lord’s, though? I mean what if it is only His, and we have no right to implement any alteration? What if it is our obligation to listen, then conform, and only to obey? Do our good faith, honest desires, prayerful discussions, hopeful changes, and best feelings then matter? Do we get the right to change anything if the Lord alone owns the exclusive right?
If someone is His, what does that mean? What does it mean to be “His people?” Can “His people” act independently of Him? Does independent action constitute rebellion or rejection of Him? After all, didn’t He tell us it wasn’t necessary to command us in all things? (D&C 58: 26.) How far does that commandment extend? Because He also warned us to give heed to everything revealed to Joseph Smith (D&C 21: 4; 50: 35.)
What if a church president spends many long hours in the upper room of the temple praying for an answer, and can’t get one? The Lord won’t even give a “yes” or a “no” despite repeated prayers, for months, even years; what then? Can a decision be made because frustrated church leaders all feel good about going forward? Is “feeling good” about going forward a “revelation” from God?
What does it mean to “take the Lord’s name in vain?” Clearly we sustain leaders, follow them, trust them to do what is right, and all have testimonies this is the Lord’s great work. How much latitude do we possess?
Who then owns the church? Him or us?