Anyone bothering to spend twenty minutes on here should be readily able to grasp the gist of what drives me: I'm a devout believer in the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through Joseph Smith. But since my religion relies for its claims to legitimacy upon divine revelation and nothing else, I am also skeptical of the many false doctrines that have accreted over the years like stubborn barnacles on a ship's hull.
Mormonism consists of a lot of wonderful teachings that come to us directly from God. But many of us have also come to embrace an assortment of "foolish traditions and vain assertions" that, over time and through constant repetition, have mingled with the divine until often we can't tell the true from the false. These traditions are like urban legends that refuse to die. I like to get in there and scrape those barnacles off so I can see the shiny surface underneath. That's kind of become my thing.
I would think it would be the desire of all good latter-day Saints to be on guard against the faith being diluted, but based on some of the feedback I sometimes get, perhaps not. In the comment section of my most recent piece, someone wrote, "you sound like a pure Mormon-Hater," and an angry woman who engaged me on Facebook recently insisted my blog is "driving people out of the church."
That latter accusation is news to me. I have yet to hear from one of these people who has been driven out of the church by something I've written.
On the other hand, I have received quite a few communications from members who have admitted they were considering abandoning the faith until something they read here persuaded them to stay. One particular email I treasure came from a young man from my old ward whom I knew since he was a child. Now a teenager, he had had his fill of the Mormon church and decided that atheism suited him better. But after following my blog for several months, he was persuaded that there were some things about the religion of his youth that still rang true for him, and he credited me with persuading him to let God have another chance at him.
Anyone giving my work here even a bit of a look would clearly see that I love the gospel of the Restoration, the Book of Mormon, the teachings of Joseph Smith, and the revelations God provided through him. Me? an apostate? You would have to redefine the word.
I have engaged in many fruitless discussions with these types who accuse me of being "out of harmony with the Church." They would never see it this way, but by my way of thinking, those guys are the real apostates.
Since the word "apostasy" has developed such a nasty stigma within the church, let's look at that word as it was understood at the time of the founding of our faith. According to Noah Webster's original 1828 dictionary, apostasy "in its original sense, applied to one who has abandoned his religion."
Well, that isn't me. I haven't abandoned my religion. I embrace it. I spend more time immersed in my religion now than at any time since my mission. I love the history, I love the theology; I love it all. I'm all in.
Apparently my dedication to the gospel isn't the issue with some people. Through my conversations with those who accuse me of apostasy, the thing that seems to frustrate them more than anything is that I don't appear to show what one commenter called "proper loyalty to the Church."
Well, he's got me there. I don't profess "loyalty to the Church." And for one very good reason: I don't really know what the heck "the Church" is anymore.
As LDS cultural anthropologist Damon Smith recently demonstrated, I am not alone in my confusion. This term "the Church," in modern Mormon parlance, has become virtually undefinable. Get a group of latter-day saints in a room together discussing the Church, and it's possible every one of them using that term will have in mind a vastly different meaning. One person may be referring to the local congregation, while another uses it to refer to Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Another may have in mind the First Presidency and the quorum of the Twelve, and still another, when referencing "the Church," is actually thinking about the LDS religion as a whole with all its facets, tenets, teachings, and doctrines. Another may simply be thinking of Utah culture. Clearly we could use a better definition.
Well, it turns out we have one.
Almost never these days will you find a modern latter-day Saint using the term as it was originally defined by the Lord himself in D&C 10: 67. In that section He defined "my church" as simply all those who repent and come unto Him. That's right. The true church is little more than a group of people with shared religious values. Nothing much more complicated than that.
I love the church of Jesus Christ. Our paths through life are strewn with obstacles along the way, and the Lord in his wisdom knows the walk will be much more bearable when we are able to make the journey with others who share our values and beliefs. That's why "the church," this group of equals, this community of fellow believers, is such a blessing in my life. Having like-minded people share the journey with me has been an assurance during those times when God seemed distant, a reminder that I was not alone. The church exists so we can share each other's burdens.
But sadly, the Lord's definition of the Church is not what my critics usually have in mind when they use the term. They are usually referring to the entire mish-mash, especially the General Authorities headquartered in Salt Lake City. To them, "the Church" embodies the group of men who manage and administer the daily temporal affairs of the Church. And these critics usually demand -and I mean demand- that I cease my questioning and fall prostrate at the feet of these mortals.
Sorry, no can do, because I've read the rest of D&C 10. It turns out that just after Jesus defines the true meaning of his church -in the very next verse- He denounces those who would define his church or his gospel in the way some of my challengers have. Here it is:
Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church."If I'm reading this correctly, anyone who defines "the church" in any way other than the simple definition Jesus just gave it is, as He puts it, "against me."
You know, an apostate.
Don't Worry, There's Still Hope
In truth, we are all apostatizing. All the time. After all, we're only human.
Usually, being in apostasy simply means we've diverted slightly from our intended goal. That's why repentance is a daily process; it doesn't always have to be performed in sack cloth and ashes. If our foot inadvertently slips off the curb, it's usually no big problem to step back on the sidewalk and continue on our way We simply resolve to learn from our mistakes, make a slight course correction, and we're back on visual. Repentance doesn't always have to be that big a deal. It's often just a series of minor course corrections.
Lucky for us, the Book of Mormon provides a guide to help us recognize when we're headed into apostasy: the dream of Lehi. We all know the story, but some have misinterpreted a pertinent part of it: that part about the iron rod.
The short version goes like this: In his dream, Lehi saw a vast field. In the center of the field was a beautiful tree bearing some incredibly good tasting fruit. We learn that this fruit represents the love of God, and it tastes spectacular. It's like nothing else in the universe. Lehi sees other people in his dream walking toward that tree. That's where everyone was headed, to get a taste of some of that amazing fruit.
(I have heard some members assume the tree and its fruit represented heaven, or the celestial kingdom, or the reward at the end of our lives. But that does not appear to be the proper interpretation. The fruit represents the love of God, something within reach of all of us at any time while we're here, and which we can partake of daily if we want. We can take a break from life, be nourished and refreshed, then continue on. That tree is always there; all we have to do to experience that love is reach out and accept it. Neither is the tree described as being a great distance away. When Lehi saw it, he just went over and partook of the fruit. I take it that wherever we are or whatever we're doing, if we want to, we can take a moment and bask in the love of God at any time.)
To get to that tree, you have to stay on the path that leads to it, otherwise you could wander off, get lost, or simply overshoot the tree in the dark. Running parallel to the path, Lehi noticed a rod made of iron
-a handrail, if you will. Mists of darkness rose up around the people on the path, causing many to wander off, most not even realizing they were no longer even heading in the right direction. But those who clung to the rod were able to make it over to the tree and enjoy the sweet, delicious fruit.
Now, there is a lot more to that dream, but this much will suffice. We learn that the handrail, the rod of iron, has only one interpretation. Nephi tells us it stands for "the word of God." In order for us to experience the love of God, the safest way of reaching it is by grabbing hold and clinging to the word of God.
Note that the iron rod does not represent "the Church" (whatever meaning one might give to that term), nor Church leaders, general authorities, or any man or group of men. The only safe guide is the word of God.
Anyone letting go of that handrail and clinging instead to another person in hopes of being guided through the darkness is likely to end up in a ditch. The blind leading the blind, and all that.
Despite what any of us have been told, there is no place in the word of God that teaches there is safety in "following the leaders." Indeed, the scriptures specifically warn against depending upon what the Lord calls "the arm of flesh." God did not send you down here then assign leaders to be in charge of you. We must "work out our own salvation" by relying only on Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. This popular idea that the only true path to safety is in "following the Brethren" simply cannot be found anywhere in the revealed word of God.
For a group of people who claim a religion based solely on direct revelation, we Mormons sure seem ready to adopt a whole set of beliefs that can't be traced to any scripture or revelation. In my discussions with critics who insist I am in apostasy because my understanding of the gospel is not in alignment with their own, I find them often asserting the following points as if they were actual, revealed doctrines:
It is impossible for the president of the Church to ever lead the church astray.I can find no place in scripture to support any of these contentions; indeed, the standard works are replete with passages that would clearly refute them. Moroni lamented that we in the latter days would pollute the holy church of God, and Jesus himself assures us that the church in the latter days was indeed capable of failing.
This Church can never fall into apostasy.
The only sure safety is in following the leaders of the Church.
Whatever the Brethren speak over the pulpit at conference is the same as if it came from the mouth of God.
Whenever I ask to be provided a citation from the standard works that might support statements like those above, I am given instead endless quotes from general authorities; quotes that don't purport to be direct revelations from God, but are accepted by these people as such merely on the basis of their having been uttered by men with high callings and titles. Unless God said it, or the speaker claims to be relaying a direct revelation, such utterances do not constitute the word of God himself, no matter how much you may want to believe they do.
Joseph Smith taught that we need not heed the opinion of any professor of religion that contradicts scripture or previous revelation.
I have been asked by some of these challengers if I believe "the Church" is capable of apostasy. Allow me to defer here to a succinct reply given by my friend Mike Ellis to that same question. His feelings on the topic mirror my own, and he puts it better than I could have:
"I do not believe in a black and white apostasy as some do. I believe that there are varying degrees of apostasy and that all of us to some degree or another are in apostasy. That is the nature of the fallen man. I believe that the L-DS Sect of the church which was restored by Joseph Smith has rejected many of the principles restored by Joseph Smith. And in many cases prefers to live according to corporate policies and traditions rather than the previously given revelations. I do not believe that all light and truth is gone from the L-DS sect.
"I believe that the One Mighty and Strong will come to set in order the house of God and arrange by lot the inheritances of the Saints, as prophesied by Joseph Smith. In order for this to occur it necessitates that the church must be out of order and we can clearly see that the 1844 secession crisis was a major cause of this.It's clear to me that Brother Ellis has not apostatized from his religion. He has not turned away from it. On the contrary, he desires more than anything to see his fellow believers return to those fundamental teachings that were evident in the church at the time of its founding and which appear to be missing today.
"I do not believe that God has withdrawn his previous revelations and that he still wants us (or me at least, since I cannot speak for others) to obey them. I believe we must cast off the past hundred or so years of traditions, dogma, and creeds, and return to the basic, simple, pure teachings of the restoration. After we do that, then we can move forward again and receive those things God has in store for this people, including the establishment of Zion."
In his view -and in mine- the real apostates in the church are those who have supplanted the foundational religion with a different one; a religion that insists that obedience to earthly authority is the greatest measure of one's faithfulness to God. That is what apostasy looks like to me: a turning away from the accepted word of God in favor of clinging to the arm of flesh.
Brother Ellis happens to be the proprietor of the blog Zomarah, where he recently posted a side-by-side comparison chart showing the similarities of the Great Apostasy of the early Christian church with the direction the modern LDS Church seems to be heading today. He is not alone. In recent weeks the bloggernacle has come alive with essays lamenting the onset of the Next Great Apostasy, and proving how the scriptures have been warning us of that probability.
In the movie V For Vendetta, the title character addresses the people of Great Britain, saying, "And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?" Something very similar could be said about the LDS Church, as growing numbers of members are awakening to a sense that something just doesn't feel kosher anymore in The Lord's True Church.
The internet is now overflowing with articles not only proving a modern apostasy is taking place right under our noses, but that our scriptures and teachings foretold it and warned us about it. You can see examples of this ongoing discussion here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And that is only a small sampling I gleaned off the top of my head. There are many, many more. Clearly, there is a growing sense of unease in the church, a feeling that all is not going so well in Zion after all.
You will note that these bloggers rarely concern themselves with those among us who, for various reasons, have simply decided to leave the church. Although they certainly fit the dictionary definition of apostasy, they are not a threat to those who remain. In my opinion, their departure is symptomatic of blowback; of the unintended consequences resulting from the institutional Church having drifted from its core fundamentals.
The real apostates, the ones who pose an immediate danger to the community, are those who are undermining the church from within by advocating positions that are doctrinally indefensible. They simply cannot be supported anywhere in scripture. These are the "True Believers;" they who have set themselves up as defenders of the faith, yet exert themselves not in defending Christ, but in angrily attacking those whose focus is on Christ. Rather than being watchmen on the wall, they prefer to expend their energies rebuking the watchmen.
"The church," which was widely understood in Joseph Smith's day to mean nothing more than a group of people with shared religious values, today represents, in the minds of many, something entirely separate from that body. Indeed, these days members of the Lord's "church" (lower case "c" as defined in D&C 10; i.e. the members) are now by and large considered subservient to "the Church" (which I differentiate here with a capital "C" in order to avoid confusing the two). The "church" and the "Church(TM)" have now separated into two separate classes, the leaders and the followers. As someone once explained the roles of this dichotomy (a leader -no surprise), "leaders lead, and followers are expected to follow."
The once egalitarian LDS Church is today manifested by a top-down hierarchy consisting of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, numerous Assistants to the Twelve, the First Quorum of the Seventy and the Second Quorum of the Seventy along with their armies of staff and assistants, all housed in a 28 story skyscraper that is also home to teams of corporate lawyers, scribes, and public relations experts. It is my detached indifference to this institutional, corporate body that for some reason most annoys my critics.
This idea that the Church's "leaders" exist to hold our hands and guide our every step is contrary to the purposes to which God ordained them, and unsuitable to a people whose doctrine teaches that within every one of us lies the potential for personal godhood. These Church officers are ordained to very specific purposes, none of which is to give you your marching orders or to embody "safety from the storm." That role is reserved to Christ alone. The Brethren, though often inspired, are not what Nephi was referring to when he told us the interpretation of the rod of iron. The Brethren are human, just like you and me, and just as fallible. As Joseph Smith declared, "a prophet is a prophet only when he speaks as a prophet."
Sadly, many members of the church today believe the prophet is a prophet every time he opens his mouth, and often even when he doesn't. This has led to a disconcerting cult of personality within the church that is equaled only by some Catholics with their pope, as typified by FollowTheProphet.net, whose webmaster encourages members to write in and report every time they happen to get a glimpse of President Monson in public. Typical of the kind of embarrassing idolatry presented on that website is this entry that breathlessly announced, "A family had the chance to go to the airport on Saturday to see President Monson’s jet fly in to Arizona."
The purpose of the institutional Church in our lives is similar to that of the role of our parents. It provides a certain kind of sustenance for us when we are in our spiritual infancy. But the idea is to quickly get to the point in our spiritual growth where we no longer need someone holding our hand when we cross the street.
In his famous conference talk "The Gospel and the Church" (the original, inspired version, not the one that was later changed and redacted), Elder Poelman reminds us that "as individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered."
The mantra we hear so often today to "follow the prophet-don't go astray" is a 20th century invention that was completely unknown in Joseph Smith's day. It would not have entered Brother Joseph's mind to have anyone "follow" him for their own safety, and none of his counselors ever took to the stand at conference and taught that principle. The very idea would have appalled the Saints who looked to Jesus Christ alone for their salvation.
In his new new book, The Most Dangerous Superstition, Larken Rose reminds us that one way to tell whether you are a child or an adult is to examine your dependency on authority figures:
"Though many imagine teaching obedience to "authority" to be synonymous with teaching right and wrong, the two are actually opposites...In fact, teaching obedience drastically hinders the social and mental development of children. After having grown up in a situation where they were controlled by others, rewarded for obedience and punished for disobedience, if they ever escape that situation they will have little or no training, and little or no experience or practice, in how to think or act from morals or principles.Certainly we should be willing to pay heed to the prophet of God when he is relaying a message directly from God. That is, after all, what a prophet is for. But when was the last time you remember that ever taking place? Where are the revelations?
"If their upbringings have been molded mainly by controlling "authority" figures, people become existentially lost if that control vanishes. In short, people trained to obey "authority" do not know how to be independent, sovereign, responsible human beings, because all their lives they have been intentionally and specifically trained to not use their own judgment.
"In a world without the "authority" myth, on the other hand, children could be taught to be moral instead of merely obedient."
How Long Will This House Remain Unoccupied?
Almost thirty years ago President Benson reminded us that early on in this church, the Lord placed the entire church under condemnation, and he told us why He did. President Benson further announced that this condemnation has not been lifted, nor will it be until we properly repent.
What exactly does it mean to be under condemnation? Well, what does it mean when a house is condemned? It means the house is not fit for the owner to live in.
We like to claim that Jesus Christ is the head of this Church, and that the Church is continually guided by Him through direct revelation. But is this still true? Where is the owner of this house, and why doesn't he seem to inhabit it anymore?
I would submit that Jesus loves what he calls "my house," but because of our collective sins he has been forced to become an absentee owner.
Certainly God still reveals himself to us as individuals. But isn't it curious that the very persons we are encouraged by our vain traditions to look to for collective guidance from the Lord never seem to offer any new communications from Him? Wouldn't the absence of continuous, regular institutional revelation be a clue that something is terribly wrong in the Church today? Shouldn't the very fact that the Lord has told us the Church as a whole is under condemnation be enough to give us pause and a reason to re-examine our collective assumptions?
And shouldn't it occur to us that perhaps, just maybe, one of the things God has told us to repent of when he said we are not taking seriously "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," might actually be to rely on Him rather than on our "leaders"?
We Mormons are very keen on saying we should rely on the word of God for inspiration and on saying we believe in seeking guidance from the spirit. But do we regularly "do according to what [God] has written"?
No. More often we take the easy way out and trust our leaders to tell us what we need to do. Rarely do we go home and take their words before the Lord, asking for confirmation through the Holy Ghost whether everything we just heard is true and valid for us. Instead we just trust them. They are the leaders, after all, while we are just the simple rank and file members.
Most of the time the counsel we receive from these men is sound, but sometimes it is not. Regardless, the word of God commands us to seek confirmation from the Holy Ghost regarding everything preached from the pulpit. If, however, we have been conditioned to believe that the "authorities" are always inspired and have got it all covered, why should we even bother checking in with heaven?
I believe this over-reliance on Church leaders has stunted our ability to be guided by the spirit. Nephi taught us that it is the role of the Holy Ghost to show us all that we should do. He didn't say it was the role of the prophet, or of his counselors, or the apostles, the seventies, or anyone else. Only the Holy Ghost.
I take my orders from the word of God, then seek confirmation through the Holy Ghost. That is how one maneuvers through the mists of darkness.
The Apostasy Trick
Of course, this kind of talk is blasphemy to the "Follow the Prophet" crowd. "How dare you," they demand, "ignore the Lord's anointed?"
Well, I don't ignore them. I simply take their pronouncements with a grain of salt until I have it confirmed whether those promulgations were sent forth from the mouth of God. If not, I may still find their opinions and teachings beneficial and worth considering, but so are many of the pronouncements of other religious leaders such as Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Alfred Edersham. I may abide by the suggestions of any of these men, but I'm not necessarily going to set my watch by them.
In short, I don't worship idols. Demi-gods may have their place in Greek literature, but they don't belong in the church of Jesus Christ.
Here is LDS theologian Denver Snuffer on the reason why Satan is able to successfully keep us from recognizing when we are slipping into apostasy:
"The trick to successfully pulling off an apostasy is to distract people into thinking there hasn't been one. The "believers" need to think everything remains intact.So, Is the Church In Apostasy?
"So the issue of "apostasy" becomes a discussion about individuals and individual conformity to the expectations of the group. The subject can then be a topic that polite, fellow-believers can discuss without ever searching into the overall condition of a fallen people.
"The Jews mocked efforts to tell them they were apostate. They thought it was humorous when Lehi preached the idea. (1 Ne. 1: 19.) Because they were so very religious, so devout, so unassailably active in following God, the idea was absolutely laughable that they were apostate.
"The Apostle Paul said the problem would begin at the top with the shepherds, who would teach them falsehoods as truth. (Acts 20: 29-30.) These new leaders would have only a form of godliness, without any real power to save. (2 Tim. 3: 5.)
"The Christian world adopted another, false replacement of the original church. It became so universal it was hailed as the Universal, or Catholic Church. It ruled from the rivers to the ends of the earth as the only official form of the faith established by Christ.
"To pull this off Satan must be concerned with the "macro" institutional failure, not just individuals falling away. It is the small, minor spirits who follow Lucifer who engage in petty tempting of individuals to sin. Success for the Adversary is not accomplished in petty enterprises. He wants failure for the whole, so none can be saved. For that, apostasy must be universal.
"He has never succeeded by admitting there has been a failure. The trick is always to have the apostasy come unnoticed, unacknowledged and from within. (See 3 Ne. 16: 10.)
"The topic is worth studying. When apostasy is noticed, acknowledged and exposed, then it is possible to repent and return. Until then, it progresses apace, discarding and rejecting what might have been given. All the while being happily ignored by "believers" whose devotion will not save.
"Since Christ predicted that at some point the latter-day gentiles would reject the fullness (Ibid.), we probably should consider what the Book of Mormon has to say about the subject.
"To finish the thought about the "trick to apostasy" the D&C has a remarkable statement. Lucifer succeeds when he manages to get us NOT to reject ordinances, but to change them. As soon as they are changed, they are broken. (D&C 1: 15.) That is an important step. Because then religious people can continue to claim they follow a true religion, while practicing one that has been broken. These practitioners become like the ancient Jews, who mocked Lehi because they knew they were still righteous. They knew Lehi was foolish, even fraudulent. They still had the truth, the ordinances, the temple, and the priesthood. Lehi was just a mistaken crank."
A better question to ask might be are you in apostasy, since you are the church. Are you seeking after the gifts of the spirit, or passively trusting in the arm of flesh? Have you sought the baptism of fire, that wonderful, glorious, ineffable experience that hits you like a rush and permeates you and surrounds you and infuses you with love and light and power?
Or have you bought into the modern fallacy that what the scriptures mean by "baptism of fire" is really nothing more than "a still, small voice" experienced over time?
If fleeting, whispering, tiny, occasional glimpses of the spirit are all you ever expect, that's all you'll ever get.
Seeing as how our scriptures warn us repeatedly that the church will indeed experience a falling away both individually and collectively, we would be foolish not to be checking ourselves on a daily basis and making those necessary corrections that keep us on course.
If Satan's trick is always to have the apostasy come unnoticed, perhaps we should put ourselves on notice to be ever watchful against it. The signs that we are well on the way seem pretty clear to me, but I also think the simple corrective is to first stop denying the possibility, and then repent and get back on track. In the words of The Spektator, proprietor of the website Just and True:
The scriptures warn us against being complacent; we should not be at ease in Zion. The scriptures warn us that we are under condemnation; we should individually and collectively seek to remove this burden. The scriptures warn us that, because of our pride and practices, we are to lose the fulness of the gospel and its covenant. If we are to regain that which is lost, we must take these warnings to heart, repent, and seek the Lord.If you love the church like I do, why not get serious and grab hold of that handrail? I return to that tree and taste of that fruit often, and believe me, it is amazing. You want some of this.
We must all cast off our sleepy rituals and awaken to the duty that must be ours. We must seek in the scriptures the true meaning of the fulness of the gospel. We must each be willing to approach the Father for the knowledge and confirmation of our path. We must, collectively, be willing to make the same covenants as did the people of King Benjamin. We must prepare ourselves to be a Zion people, individually then collectively.