The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times

I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’

The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:

Revelation

I’ve talked about revelation before, and despite my own difficulties in this area, it makes a lot of sense to me that God would be talking in some way to the people who are leading the church.

The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.

Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.

Authority from God

My last two posts dealt with priesthood in greater detail. Any organization needs leadership, and as I said before, the ‘House of Order’ idea seems obviously true.

But the manual tells us,

That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.

I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.

Church organization

The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.

Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.

First principles and ordinances

I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.

Ordinances performed for the dead

I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.

I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.

Spiritual Gifts

This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.

Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.

So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?

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About Brad

I am a rather typical — or perhaps just not atypical — example of a 21st century, “uncorrelated” Mormon. My “Mormon Story” is (I have learned) rather cliche. I was raised by goodly parents, we went to church, followed the letter of the word of wisdom, abstained from the baser elements of the culture, etc. I served an honorable mission, enrolled at BYU, got married in the temple, and never seriously doubted until beginning a PhD program far beyond the Mormon corridor.

One response to “The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times”

  1. Cliff says :

    Brad, you nailed it right at the start. In the Second Great Awakening, there were a LOT of restorationist people and churches that wanted to see a modern church with prophets, apostles and more. Joseph and his family was in that group.

    I don’t really see confusion, just changing public views over time. And while there still are a few Christian churches that have living apostles (a co-worker of mine on the east coast is one), today it’s just not that big an issue. Probably because so many ministers these days have studied Higher Criticism in Seminary and therefore realize the futility of trying to model the primitive church.

    Regarding your comments on the Gifts of the Spirit. The Church reformed itself in the 1890 – 1920 time frame and made a conscious decision to remove any Pentecostalism from the Church. This was because the Black pentecostal churches were really looked down on in mainstream and popular US society, and certain LDS leaders felt we could make better progress in our missionary efforts if we had no speaking in tongues, etc. in Church. This really makes me grieve, for I am a very pentecostal type Latter-day Saint.

    I was baptized by fire as a child, but no one in the Church wanted to hear about it. This is what initially led me to study religion, especially outside of the Church. In the end, I should be grateful for what I have come to learn and understand but I feel sad for those in the Church who have major spiritual experiences and want to discuss it or contextualize it from within the Church. They have no chance for institutional support. And it’s contrary to the teachings of the Book of Mormon.

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