Over the years of being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’ve frequently been chided for the supposed arrogance of the Church’s claim to be the “only true and living Church” of Christ. To be fair, the criticism often is based in how members have explained this principle to their non-LDS friends and associates. We can’t complain too much about being called arrogant if sometimes we sound like we are. But do Mormons really think they’re the only game in town?
There really are two questions here. First, is there one “true” church, or do all (or at least most) roads lead to Heaven? Second, if there is a true church, why do the Mormons think it’s them?
The first question is really a matter of how you view the relationship between God and Man (By which I include “Woman.” But I’ve got arthritis, so I’m trying to avoid keystrokes where I can). In my mind, the question of what God expects of us is an all-or-nothing proposition: Either nothing we do matters, or everything we do matters. If all of God’s children will receive the same reward, then it follows that it doesn’t matter what we believe or what we do, and I can give up blogging about religion and concentrate on catching up with Columbo reruns.
On the other hand, as soon as we acknowledge that something matters (for example, by saying that accepting Christ is a prerequisite to returning to God’s presence), then there has to be some “right” path to follow. If we accept that Christ is the Son of God, then we also have to accept His directive that He is the way, the truth and the life, and that no man can come to the Father except by Him.
Clearly the manner that we follow Christ matters. After the resurrected Christ spent 40 days ministering to and teaching His apostles, what was the first thing that we know that they did? They organized a church. The rest of the New Testament is the record of the establishment of that church, its expansion beyond Judea, and the efforts of the apostles to give direction to the church and put down false doctrines. Paul certainly believed that there should be “One Lord, one faith, one baptism,” and he looked forward to the day when Christians would “come in the unity of the faith.” (Ephesians 4:5, 13).
Most of Christianity, it seems to me, assumes that there is a true church, or at least that some brands of Christianity are preferable to others. That assumption drove the Reformation and all of the arguments (and occasional bloodshed) that accompanied it. The various Protestants felt that the Catholic Church had gone astray and that reforms were necessary in order to restore Christianity to its purity. Notably, there was little agreement about what those reforms should be, which led to the proliferation of Christian sects. (Which continues today: If it weren’t for dry cleaners, donut shops and nondenominational churches, there wouldn’t be a strip mall left in Texas).
So the question then becomes, “Which church is right?” The answer to that demands considerably more discussion than just a post on this blog. But there are some basic principles of Mormon doctrine on this issue that provide at least a working understanding of what we believe.
Mormons believe that Christ did organize a church and gave authority to certain men to administer that church. We believe that even prior to the death of the apostles false doctrines crept into the Church. As the apostles were persecuted, scattered and killed, there was no longer an authoritative voice to put down such doctrines, and therefore the truth of what Christ taught was diluted with man-made philosophies and pagan traditions. Eventually Christianity became fragmented, with various contradictory denominations competing for followers.
We believe that in 1820, in response to a prayer of a young man seeking to know which church was true, Joseph Smith received a divine visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ, who directed him to join none of the churches and promised that the truths of the original church would be restored to the earth again. As part of that process, the Lord provided new scripture, the Book of Mormon, which would serve both as another testament of Christ and a means of clarifying doctrines that had become lost or corrupted. In 1830, Joseph Smith formally organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As part of this process (which Mormons refer to as the “Restoration”), the Lord also restored the authority to act in His name. This Priesthood authority carries with it the ability to receive divine revelation, which is necessary to preserve true doctrine and apply it to the unique challenges of our day. This authority subsequently has been passed down in a continuing line to the current leadership of the Church, modeled after the church organized by Christ, with prophets and apostles at its head.
Mormons believe that all Christian churches have maintained to some degree the true doctrines of Christ. We believe that such churches do a great deal of good in improving the lives of their members and helping them draw closer to Christ. In fact, in recent times Mormons more often are criticized for being too inclusive rather than exclusive, because we believe that virtually everyone who has ever lived will receive some degree of glory (or salvation) in the life to come. However, we believe that the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, along with the authority to speak and act in His name and to perform essential ordinances (such as baptism) rests in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe that by accepting the fullness of the Gospel, performing essential ordinances, and making and keeping sacred covenants, people have the hope of greater blessings after this life.
In the common vernacular of the Mormons, we claim to be the only true and living church. “True,” because we believe that the doctrines Christ taught have been brought back in their fullness and purity. “Living,” because we believe that God directs the Church through continuing revelation, rather than relying just upon revelations of prior ages.
Some believe that this doctrine amounts to an indictment of other Christian churches. My initial response to that is that Mormons spend a lot less time thinking about, talking about, and attacking other Christians than those same Christians do thinking about, talking about, and attacking us. But putting that aside, what we actually believe is that most Christian churches have a great deal of truth and can deliver many of the blessings that they promise. But we believe that Christ has even greater blessing awaiting us, and that He has revealed the path that will lead to those blessings.
And we struggle along that path as best we can.