I’ve touched on the issues of freedom of thought and excommunication in prior posts, but recent developments in the news suggest that a short discussion on the concept of “apostasy” is in order. (I posted on my Muttering Mormon blog earlier today a statement on apostasy by a former General Authority of the Church, which you can find here).
First a word or two on terminology. “Apostasy” has two meanings for Mormons. One of those meanings is collective: An apostasy occurs when there is a general falling away from the truth of the gospel. For example, when the Israelites rejected Jehovah in favor of a golden calf, one might properly say that the people were in a state of apostasy. Most often this meaning of the word occurs in reference to the “Great Apostasy,” which Mormons believe was a period of time following the death of Christ’s apostles during which the priesthood authority was taken from the earth. The Great Apostasy ended, we believe, with the “Restoration,” which is when God re-established his priesthood authority among mankind. That, we believe, began with Joseph Smith.
The second usage of the word is more personal: A person engages in apostasy when he or she openly rebels against God’s established word. That can take place in any number of forms. If someone decides that Joseph Smith was a fraud and leaves the Church because of it, we might say that such a person has “apostatized.” (I had to look up the spelling on that one and realized I have been pronouncing it wrong. But only for all of my life). Similarly, if someone leads other people to rebel against priesthood authority or reject fundamental doctrines of the Church, such a person is in a state of apostasy.
Apostasy does not include mere disagreement over doctrinal issues or policy. There are certain aspects of the doctrine of the Church that you need to accept in order to participate in some of the ordinances of the Church, such as attending the temple, but I don’t know that anyone really cares if you think they should offer Pepsi in the temple vending machines. And no one has called my mustache into a disciplinary council. The way I think of apostasy is an open challenge to the authority of the priesthood or correctness of the doctrines of the Church. That is the issue that lies at the heart of the “controversial” excommunications that are now splashed all over the headlines. (For what it is worth, such excommunications are generally private matters and are treated confidentially by the Church, which limits the Church’s ability and inclination to discuss them publicly). The question becomes whether a person is entertaining private doubts or disagreements, or if they are rallying people to a certain point of view in order to challenge the Church. The former is no big deal. The latter is a problem.
But why does the Church care? That’s a fair question given how very differently such matters are handled in many other Christian denominations. The rise of non-denominational churches suggests that many people care very little about doctrine and have a more amorphous view of what the worship of God means or requires. Other churches simply subdivide in the face of doctrinal disputes, with adherents gravitating towards whichever version of the church most appeals to them.
For Mormons it is not such a simple matter, because at the core of our doctrine is the notion of priesthood authority. We believe in Paul’s expression of “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” We assert that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only church which carries with it God’s actual priesthood authority. If we are truly led by God, then widely divergent doctrinal teachings cannot be justified. Either one is doing it the Lord’s way or some other way. The result is that while two members of different Baptist churches might properly and comfortably consider each other “Baptist,” despite differences in the doctrinal details, that doesn’t happen with the LDS Church. The few breakaway factions of any note are decidedly not “Mormon.”
For example, the largest group to break away from the Church was known for over 100 years as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But if you go into their services (which I have done), there is almost nothing there that a member of the LDS Church would recognize. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the RLDS church renamed itself the “Community of Christ.” Similarly, the so-called “fundamentalist” Mormons, or FLDS, are viewed by mainstream Mormons as little else than a cult. We keep as much distance between us and them as possible. All of those bonnets make us nervous.
Doctrine is important to the LDS Church, and we believe that such doctrine is established from the top down. To the extent that there are changes (and there have been), we believe that such changes are the result of revelation given through priesthood authority. We do not protest and demand doctrinal changes. We don’t campaign for church positions. We don’t hold synods and vote on what our doctrine will be. Because of that, when someone who is not in authority insists that doctrine changes upon their say so, or calls into question basic doctrines of the Church or challenges the authority of the priesthood leadership, we take action to ensure that there is doctrinal consistency in the Church.
Curiously, those engaged in apostasy frequently are vocal about their devotion to the Church. Perhaps they actually see things that way. But their devotion generally is to a version of the Church modified in their own minds to reflect their personal viewpoints. They feel they are right, the Church leaders are wrong, and the Church can only be rescued through acceptance of their personal takes on doctrine or authority. What they fail to realize is that they insist on killing the patient in order to save it. If the LDS Church were to reject the ideas of revelation and priesthood authority and to embrace doctrinal change upon popular demand, then it would lose any sense of what it means to be Mormon. It would become just another of the myriad branches of Christianity, advancing a general moral ethos and rejecting the fundamental notion of the restoration of the priesthood of God. What apostates demand is not a modification of the Church, but the establishment of an altogether different institution.