There are many in my circle of communications who criticize the LDS Church, its leaders at all levels, its policies, even its doctrine. I begin my essay with this statement because it has created a bit of a crisis for me. I do not intend to discuss their criticisms or the merits of those criticisms specifically – that’s not the point of this post. The point is rather to share some of the thoughts that have come to me as I have struggled to reconcile their claims with what my heart is telling me. You see, my heart has followed the spirit, and I have followed my heart, through a series of life-altering transitions and discoveries over the past 20 years. The result of following my heart has been beyond joyous, and I am loath to abandon the course that has brought me so much joy, love, peace and happiness. My heart is telling me that these criticisms are misplaced, hasty, and perhaps even dangerous to the individual, and my crisis has been in my attempt to reconcile the feelings of my heart with the logic behind many of their criticisms.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to play a set of guitar music at the Escalante Canyons Art Festival in Escalante, UT. My set was pretty well received, but the results could easily have been different. If someone had introduced me as a world-renowned guitarist and singer-songwriter, my audience would probably have been disappointed. But because many in the audience didn’t even know of this side of me, had never seen me perform, and had few expectations, they were pleasantly surprised. I received $15 in tips and numerous compliments after my 45 minute set – a result most definitely enhanced by the fact that Diana joined me for the last 3 songs.
I think it is important to remember the concept behind this story when we consider the church itself. Sometime in the last 20-30 years, the testimony “I know the church is true” has become a common declaration among Mormons. What does this mean? I frankly think we do the church, its leaders, and ourselves a disservice with this particular declaration. I think it is demeaning and reduces the church to a cliché – a caricature of itself. I think in doing so we are setting the church up as a standard that it cannot meet. By minimizing the complexity of our history, our strengths and weaknesses, our struggles and our triumphs, and by distilling it all into this one phrase, we set ourselves up for disappointment when we learn the truth. This has been part of my personal struggle.
The prophet Joseph established a church and taught them the principles of the restored gospel as they were revealed to him. He led the poverty-stricken saints in building the first temple in Kirtland, and in building the temple in Nauvoo, although it was not complete at his death (Re: D&C 124). He taught principles as fast as, maybe even faster than, they could be learned. The time quickly arrived when the church couldn’t keep up with what the prophet had revealed, and with what had been given them. In Section 84:54-56, the Lord declared:
And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—
Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.
And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.
In section 105:1-13, the Lord makes it clear that the saints had not met the requirements for establishing Zion:
Verily I say unto you who have assembled yourselves together that you may learn my will concerning the redemption of mine afflicted people—
Behold, I say unto you, were it not for the transgressions of my people, speaking concerning the church and not individuals, they might have been redeemed even now.
But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;
And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom;
And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.
And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer.
I speak not concerning those who are appointed to lead my people, who are the first elders of my church, for they are not all under this condemnation;
But I speak concerning my churches abroad—there are many who will say: Where is their God? Behold, he will deliver them in time of trouble, otherwise we will not go up unto Zion, and will keep our moneys.
Therefore, in consequence of the transgressions of my people, it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait for a little season for the redemption of Zion—
That they themselves may be prepared, and that my people may be taught more perfectly, and have experience, and know more perfectly concerning their duty, and the things which I require at their hands.
And this cannot be brought to pass until mine elders are endowed with power from on high.
For behold, I have prepared a great endowment and blessing to be poured out upon them, inasmuch as they are faithful and continue in humility before me.
Therefore it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait for a little season, for the redemption of Zion.
These are just two examples of the Lord chastening the church – once in 1832, and the other in 1834. There were others. Yet, I do not criticize. In fact, the more I learn of our history, the more I recognize that I most likely would have fallen short myself. I most likely am falling short today. No, I am not calling the church to repentance. It is most certainly not my place to do so. I am making the following points, however:
- The Lord set the bar high for the early saints. They apparently failed to reach it.
- The bar is still there – waiting for someone (us?) to reach it. Until we do, we must remain, as a church, under condemnation.
- The Lord did not blame the leaders of the church for this failure (verse 7 – I speak not concerning those who are appointed to lead my people, who are the first elders of my church, for they are not all under this condemnation)
- The temple points the way to the bar – to Zion. The last 3 verses make that very clear.
It has been my observation that far too many of us expect the church to save us. We seem to believe that if we remain active, if we’ve been to the temple, and if we “endure to the end” we are guaranteed a place in the Celestial Kingdom. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it works that way. I believe we must strive for perfection as commanded by the Lord himself in Matthew 5:48 and in 3 Nephi 12: 48. That perfection is the perfection of Christ Himself.
We also seem to expect the church, as well as its leaders, to be perfect. It is not, and it will not be until the day when the Enochian-style Zion, the New Jerusalem, is established. That does not mean, however, that this is not the Lord’s church, or that it is not fulfilling the Lord’s purpose. On the contrary, today’s church, in keeping with its 4-fold mission is:
- Building and maintaining temples, where we learn the lessons necessary to build Zion and approach the Savior.
- Spreading the preparatory gospel of baptism and repentance unto all the world. Is this the fullness of the gospel? No, but it’s the right place to start.
- Publishing and distributing the current canon of scripture and making them available to all the world.
- Administering aid to the poor and needy throughout the world.
- Maintaining and constantly enhancing a database for genealogy work that is unrivaled in the world.
I was given an allegory recently that I think explains the role which the Church and its leaders, represented by President Monson, are playing in the salvation of the world – one soul at a time. It goes something like this:
Have you ever climbed a very tall mountain such as Mt. Timpanogos? If you have, you may remember that you experience multiple horizons. You climb and climb toward the first horizon, only to find, when you reach it, that it is not the top, but that there is another horizon beyond that, and perhaps even beyond that. In this allegory, the prophet of the church stands at the first horizon saying, “Follow me”. The path up the mountain is clearly marked, even at night, as it is maintained thus by the church. When we reach that first horizon, we can see the prophet more clearly, and we can see that he is pointing beyond – toward the summit. Beyond this point, the path is marked by the temple ordinances – the true meaning of which is only accessible to us through the light of personal revelation – and which lead us ultimately to Christ at the summit. The prophet cannot direct us beyond this point – that is the role of the Holy Ghost – and we must move beyond through our own desire, hope, faith and action until we gain further light and knowledge. The prophet’s job is testify of what awaits us at the summit (of Christ), to act as a shepherd, leading and not pushing, for those who are climbing to the first horizon. There may be many additional horizons that we must scale before we reach the glorious summit – the promised meeting where we may “see my face and know that I am”. (D&C 93:1) Nevertheless, that glorious day (D&C 50:24) is promised is we will endure to the end.
Obviously, in this scenario, if we expect the church and the prophet to do more than their job, we will be disappointed. Likewise, if we do not take ownership for our own ascension beyond the first horizon; if we do not look beyond the guidance of the church and the prophet, toward the scriptures and personal revelation, we will never reach the intended goal.
I have read and learned things over the past two years that contradict the common narrative of our history and the culture that has become so much a part of the church. I could allow these things to undermine my testimony of the church and, worse, my testimony of the gospel. Of course, the two are not the same. However, rather than undermining my love for the church, these things serve to increase it. I have learned that the church is not magic. It is not guided perfectly by revelation at every step. It is very much subject to the mistakes by its leaders and its members, some of them downright evil at times; our history makes this clear. To think otherwise will eventually lead to disappointment for the honest seeker of truth and revelation. Yet, the church is still marvelous. It has struggled and largely prevailed. It continues to move forward, a mighty force for good despite its imperfections, prejudices and weaknesses. I have spoken before of what it means to live in this telestial existence. The church exists in this same telestial existence, and it is subject to the same challenges as a church that we all are as individuals – multiplied by 15 million times. The Lord has a purpose for the church, for the prophet, and for us. That purpose will be fulfilled. I, for one, intend to be part of that fulfillment.
In summary, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its leaders are not perfect. They never were and they never will be. To expect them to be so sets a thoughtless, lazy, and dangerous precedent. The church shines nevertheless. It stands high as a beacon pointing to Christ. No other church comes even close to teaching the gospel of the restoration, to pointing the way for us to follow that we might become one with Him (John 17:20-23). No other church supports a standing army of 85,000 people preaching, serving, and inviting the world to come to Christ. No other church builds and maintains temples, and provides the ordinances of exaltation that are conducted therein. It is without a doubt the most perfect church on the earth today. I pray that the Lord will continue to bless and sustain it, and I do so in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.