Apostasy often begins with attacking Church leaders. This is easy to do, and frankly, there are plenty of targets to go after and many reasons one can find to be offended. It’s not just members on the fringe with weak testimonies who are offended and troubled by the occasional behavior or attitudes of mortal Church leaders. Maybe we can be more sympathetic with their irritation when we see that some very credible, trustworthy, and righteous people stand in the ranks of the offended, chief of whom is … the Lord Himself. No kidding. This is not empty rhetoric. The Lord Himself has been troubled with the behavior of Church leaders, as He plainly explains in LDS scripture, namely, Doctrine and Covenants 64:8:
My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened.
They were chastened and afflicted for the evil in their hearts. This brought them under condemnation and implicitly limited their ability to lead the Church in unity, through revelation. Shame, shame, shame!
The Lord’s offense at some of his early leaders was not first expressed in Joseph Smith’s days, but way back in New Testament times. For example, in what can hardly be taken as a ringing endorsement of the great Chief Apostle, the Lord said (Matthew 16:23):
Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.
Peter would continue to offend the Lord when he cut off a man’s ear as the soldiers came to take Christ away, only to be followed hours later with his tragic triple denial of Christ. Like Joseph Smith and all mortals who seek to serve and follow the Lord, Peter the Chief Apostle was a “rough stone rolling” with plenty of flaws for critics and apostates to reject.
Peter was not the lone fallible sinner among the Apostles. For example, that great Apostle, Paul, described himself not as chief among the godly but as chief among sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Fortunately, he was a penitent sinner on the path of following the Lord. But in his strong-headed contentions with other apostles, he may well have been one of those whom the Lord referred to in the previous quote from Doctrine and Covenants 64.
In our day, the Lord has also expressed his displeasure with the Church and even stated that it is under condemnation for some of its faults. See, for example, Doctrine and Covenants 84:54-58, where we learn that the Lord is offended with how lightly we have taken (and probably continue to take) the miraculous gift of the Book of Mormon:
54 And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—
55 Which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation.
56 And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all.
57 And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—
58 That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion.
This leads us to a critically important question: In a Church founded by the Lord but discovered to have fallible leaders that have been known to offend God with serious gaps in their behavior, in a Church that stands under condemnation for its lack of faith and failure to do some of the things the Lord yearns for, what is the proper response for early and modern Christians? For Saints in the Church of Jesus Christ in both Peter’s day and ours, here are three options that come to mind:
1) Speak out against their leaders, criticizing and condemning them, while trying to remain in the Church in order to correct it;
2) Leave the Church and perhaps even fight against it; or
3) Cope with and even forgive the errors of leaders while recognizing that they are among the authorized servants of the Lord whom we should patiently respect as we work to build up the Church, in spite of human flaws.
I’m for option #3. But that may not be the preferred option for some, especially if they want to force change on their own terms or perhaps gain attention, draw crowds, or sell books. Further, option #3 is a tough one to defend because we mortals tend to expect prophets and apostles to be, well, sort of infallible, right?–even though we ought to know that they aren’t. Those who want to stand out as progressives and intellectuals as they fight against the Church have a much easier time because they can draw upon all the flaws of the past and cast all the barbs that critics have honed with piercing sharpness, leaving the robes of faith rather tattered to those unprepared for the assault.
The mistakes of the Church that Elder Uchtdorf referred to in the October 2013 General Conference need not be limited to those of the present dispensation. Moses angered the Lord and had to be rebuffed several times. Jonah had related issues. In addition to Peter’s personal shortcomings, contention raged among the early apostles, and disunity also occurred among the modern apostles in Joseph’s day and occasionally afterwards. Joseph Smith himself stood condemned before the Lord for serious sin that resulted in losing 116 pages of precious scripture. It was a dark and depressing time, and even his gift of translating the Book of Mormon was taken away during the period. There were other steps he took later in life that may have been too harsh or unfair to others–numerous actions can be criticized and some are difficult to defend. Mistakes. Gaps. Puzzles.
Some of the things that offend us today may be due to limitations in the historical record and our lack of understanding, but some things from modern Church history may be genuine offenses to the Lord as well. But if the Lord did not abandon the Church and give the keys of authority to someone else, then those errors, if real, are for the individual leaders to deal with and are not an excuse for us to condemn and abandon the Church. Condemnation and judgement is the Lord’s role, and He’s got that under control. Accusation, of course, seems to be Satan’s role, and he excels at it. Beware those who steadily point accusing fingers at those whom the Lord has asked to serve. (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:16-19).
Yes, the Church is imperfect and has been far from perfect. It may be under condemnation from the Lord for it’s failures, today as in times of old. We need to do our part to lift that condemnation by paying more attention to the Book of Mormon, by helping the Church move forward, and by raising the level of our own righteousness.
And so, you fans of modern critics of the Church leaders, consider your ways. That includes fans of seemingly sincere and nice Mormons or former Mormons, such as one man who claims to have been visited by Christ and claims to be a supporter of the Church while vocally and publicly condemning its leaders. I don’t buy his story. I don’t buy the idea that publishing an anti-Mormon book can be a sincere effort to help Mormons be stronger in the Church that it condemns. This seems to fall into an old “fundamentalist” pattern of unauthorized people rising up and claiming special revelation and privilege in leading people back to the earlier ways, to the pure ways of Joseph, but ultimately away from the blessings of the Restoration and the blessings of the Temple that some of these apostates mock.
Change happens in Zion and always causes discomfort for some. The old ways of animal sacrifice and the Law of Moses looked like they were supposed to be in force “for all generations,” until Christ came and began changing things. The priesthood was supposed to limited to certain men in the House of Israel only, until Peter received a revelation that changed things dramatically. A revelation in 1978 through Spencer W. Kimball further opened the ranks of the priesthood–and, as with most modern revelation, offended a few who felt the old ways were better. Beware Fundamentalists who claim they are just bringing us back to the pure old ways in their attacks on the modern Church and its leaders.
The Restoration is real and the authority restored by the Lord in these modern days, is real, though the vessels that bear it are flawed in many ways. Even the inspiring and devoutly Christian servant who leads the Church today, Thomas S. Monson, is fallible and can be criticized by anyone out to find reasons to accuse. But those who do so may find that they are actually the ones who are offending the Lord and fighting against His work. A painful and bitter irony.
Update, Oct. 10, 2013: I just read a marvelous essay by Ardis Parshall over at Keepa. In “A Living Faith: What You Know that Harold Bloom Doesn’t,” Ardis reminds us that those who find fault with constant change in the Church misunderstand the basic nature of our religion:
When a people’s religion and faith have as the foundational premise that God continues to speak to prophets, revealing new truth and inspiring guidance for changing times, evolution is inevitable. The surest sign of the death of such a faith would be a static, stubborn refusal to receive new direction. While Bloom – or more properly, someone who believes in continuing revelation – might legitimately debate whether any specific change is the will of God, the expectation of change within such a faith is undebatable: it lies at the heart of the faith. Mormonism2011 wouldn’t be any kind of Mormonism if it were a fossilized Mormonism1830.
What too many observers don’t understand is that they are looking on the outward forms only, generally missing the point of those forms. A man like Bloom looks at polygamy, and gathering, and missionaries traveling without purse or scrip, and the communal life of the United Order, and building the Kingdom — or whatever his particular bugbears are — and sees only abandonment, betrayal of the vision of Joseph Smith, a “dwindling … into just one more Protestant sect.” What we see, though – what you respond to when you read a post on Keepa – is the reason Latter-day Saints of the past lived as they did. That internal motivation carries on in our lives in real ways, even as the outward forms of marriage and missionary work and interactions with our fellow Saints develops under the guidance of leaders we sustain as being as inspired as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and John Taylor, or whoever was leading the Church at whatever date an observer considers to be that vanished perfect past.
Keepa’ninnies [readers of his Keepa blog] – and Mormon readers of Mormon history in other packages – have no trouble in recognizing a common commitment with the Saints of the past, living the commandments, building eternal families, sharing the gospel, caring for our fellow Saints and others – even while the visible manifestations of those commitments change. It’s why you enjoy reading about history: the forms have changed, which attracts our eyes and ears and imaginations; the spirit is the same, which engages our affections and sustains our hopes and resonates in our souls.
Beautifully said. Yes, we are a different Church today in many ways, but the vision, the eternal purposes, the Spirit, and even the spiritual gifts and miracles we experience in living the Gospel, are the same, and unite us with our predecessors among the pioneers and the early Saints of Joseph’s day, not to mention the Saints of New Testament times, the Saints of Enoch’s day, and the Saints throughout history as well as those who will serve God day and night in the Temple during the future Millennium. The forms will differ, but the core is the same, and we are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.