I showed this to many other Christians at the time they attended tours of the Newport Beach Temple.
Love & Thanks,
Steve St. Clair
The “Only True Church”
Several years ago my colleague Brent Top and I sat with two Protestant ministers for a few hours in what proved to be a delightful and extremely enlightening conversation. Absent was any sense of defensiveness or any effort to argue and debate; we were earnestly trying to understand one another better. Toward the end of the discussion, one of the ministers turned to me and said: “Bob, it bothers you a great deal, doesn’t it, when people suggest that Latter-day Saints are not Christian?” I responded: “It doesn’t just bother me. It hurts me, for I know how deeply as a Latter-day Saint I love the Lord and how completely I trust in him.”
My Protestant friend then made a rather simple observation, one that should have been obvious to me long before that particular moment. He said: “How do you think it makes us feel when we know of your belief in what you call the great apostasy, of the fact that Christ presumably said to the young Joseph Smith that the churches on earth at that time ‘were all wrong,’ that ‘all their creeds [are] an abomination in my sight,’ that ‘those professors were all corrupt’ (Joseph Smith-History 1:19), and that in your Doctrine and Covenants your church is identified as ‘the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth’ (D&C 1:30)?” I can still remember the collage of feelings that washed over me at that moment: it was a quiet epiphany, coupled with feelings of empathy, sudden realization, and a deep sense of love for my friends. For a brief time I found myself, mentally speaking, walking in their moccasins, seeing things through their eyes. It was sobering, and it has affected the way I seek to reach out to men and women of other faiths.
In the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation given to Joseph Smith in November 1831, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in fact referred to as “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:3o). Admittedly, this is strong language; it is hard doctrine, words that are offensive to persons of other faiths. It may be helpful to consider briefly what the phrase “the only true and living church” means and what it does not mean. In what follows, I offer my own views, my own perspective. First, let’s deal with what the phrase does not mean.
1. It does not mean that men and women of other Christian faiths are not sincere believers in truth and genuine followers of the Christ. Latter-day Saints have no difficulty whatsoever accepting one’s personal affirmation that they are Christian, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, their Savior, the Lord and Master of their life. Nor are Latter-day Saints the only ones entitled to personal illumination and divine guidance for their lives.
2. It does not mean that they are worshipping “a different Jesus,” as many in the Christian world often say of the Latter-day Saints. Rather, true Christians worship Jesus of Nazareth, the Promised Messiah.
3. It does not mean we believe that most of the doctrines in Catholic or Protestant Christianity are false or that the leaders of the various branches of Christianity have improper motives. Joseph Smith stated: “The inquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?’ In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to re ceive truth, let it come from whence it may.”8 “Have the Presbyterians any truth?” he asked on another occasion. “Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists, etc., any truth? Yes. . . . We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true ‘Mormons.'”9 In what must have been a tongue-in-cheek effort at toying with various languages to discover meaning, Joseph Smith pointed out that “mormon” means “literally, ‘more good.'”1° President George Albert Smith thus declared to those of other faiths: “We have come not to take away from you the truth and virtue you possess. We have come not to find fault with you nor criticize you. We have not come here to berate you. . . . Keep all the good that you have, and let us bring to you more good.””
4. It does not mean that the Bible has been so corrupted that it cannot be relied upon to teach us sound doctrine and provide an example of how to live. “When I lived in England a few years ago,” said Mark E. Petersen, “I went to the British Museum in London and studied the history of the King James Version of the Bible. I learned that its translators fasted and prayed for inspiration in their work. I am convinced that they received it.”12 Then what of the LDS belief that plain and precious truths and many covenants of the Lord were removed from the Bible before its compilation (1 Nephi 13:20-40; Moses 1:40-41)?13 While we do not subscribe to a doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, we do believe that the hand of God has been over the preservation of the biblical materials such that what we have now is what the Almighty would have us possess. In the words of Bruce R. McConkie, “we cannot avoid the conclusion that a divine providence is directing all things as they should be. This means that the Bible, as it now is, contains that portion of the Lord’s word” that the present world is prepared to receive.14
Indeed, although Latter-day Saints do not believe that the Bible now contains all that it once contained, the Bible is a remarkable book of scripture, one that inspires, motivates, reproves, corrects, and instructs (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the word of God. Our task, according to George Q. Cannon, is to engender faith in the Bible. “As our duty is to create faith in the word of God in the mind of the young student, we scarcely think that object is best attained by making the mistakes of translators [or transmitters] the more prominent part of our teachings. Even children have their doubts, but it is not our business to encourage those doubts. Doubts never convert; negations seldom convince. . . . The clause in the Articles of Faith regarding mistakes in the translation of the Bible was never inserted to encourage us to spend our time in searching out and studying those errors, but to emphasize the idea that it is the truth and the truth only that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accepts, no matter where it is found.”15
The introductory statement published as a part of the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon includes these words: “The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fulness of the everlasting gospel” (emphasis added). In a revelation received in February 1831 that embraces “the law of the Church,” the early Saints were instructed: “And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel” (D&C 42:12, emphasis added). In 1982 Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained to church leaders that “Before we can write the gospel in our own book of life we must learn the gospel as it is written in the books of scripture. The Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price — each of them individually and all of them collectively — contain the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”16
While Latter-day Saints do not believe that one can derive divine authority to perform the saving ordinances from the scriptures, we do say that the Bible contains the fulness of the gospel in the sense that (1) it teaches of groups of people in the past who enjoyed the full blessings of the everlasting gospel; and (2) it teaches (especially the New Testament) the good news or glad tidings of redemption in Christ through the Atonement (3 Nephi 27:13-21; D&C 76:40-42).
5. It does not mean that God disapproves of or rejects all that devoted Christians are teaching or doing, where their heart is, and what they hope to accomplish in the religious world. In April 1843 a Brother Pelatiah Brown sought to silence certain critics of the church by stretching and twisting the meaning of passages from the Book of Revelation to make his point. Brother Brown was disciplined for doing so. Joseph said: “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodists, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”17
“God, the Father of us all,” Ezra Taft Benson said, “uses the men of the earth, especially good men, to accomplish his purposes. It has been true in the past, it is true today, it will be true in the future.” Elder Benson then quoted the following from a conference address delivered by Orson F. Whitney in 1928: “Perhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help it along. They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else.” Now note this particularly poignant message:
“God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people.” Elder Whitney then pointed out that we have no warfare with other churches. “They are our partners in a certain sense.”18
The following remarks by Elder Roberts demonstrate the kind of breadth necessary in reaching out and understanding our brothers and sisters of other faiths: “All that makes for truth, for righteousness, is of God; it constitutes the kingdom of righteousness — the empire of Jehovah; and, in a certain sense at least, constitutes the Church of Christ. All that makes for untruth, for unrighteousness constitutes the kingdom of evil — the church of the devil. With the kingdom of righteousness we have no warfare. On the contrary, both the spirit of the Lord’s commandments to his servants and the dictates of right reason would suggest that we seek to enlarge this kingdom of righteousness both by recognizing such truths as it possesses and seeking the friendship and cooperation of the righteous men and women who constitute its membership. “19
6. It does not mean that God-fearing Christians who are not Latter-day Saints will not go to heaven. Mormons do not in any way minimize or deny the reality of another person’s experience with the Spirit of God, nor should we question the legitimacy of another’s commitment to Jesus Christ. To say that another way, we do not doubt that many who claim to have had a mighty change of heart have in fact been “born again.”2° Christians who are somewhat acquainted with LDS beliefs might well respond at this point: “Yes, but do you believe that persons of other faiths will inherit the celestial kingdom?” Latter-day Saints do believe that baptism by proper authority is necessary for entrance into the highest heaven; the baptismal ordinance is an outward expression of one’s personal inward covenant with Christ and acceptance of his gospel. At the same time, LDS doctrine affirms that each man or woman will receive all of the light, knowledge, divine attributes, powers, and heavenly rewards they desire to receive, either in this life or the next. One who seeks with all their soul to come unto Christ will be welcomed eventually into his presence. One who earnestly yearns to qualify for the highest of glories hereafter will have that opportunity. That means that a man or woman who is true to the light they have here will open themselves to greater light.
7. Our belief that we are “the only true and living church” does not mean that Latter-day Saints desire to “do their own thing” or face social challenges on their own. To be sure, we strive earnestly to work together with men and women of other faiths to stand up and speak out against the rising tide of immorality and ethical relativism that are spreading in our world. With most Christian groups, we are persuaded that the changes to be made in our society can only come about “from the inside out” — through the transforming powers of Jesus Christ.21 Indeed, I am convinced that if we allow doctrinal differences, stereotyping, and demonizing of those who are different to prevent us from joining hands in halting the erosion of time-honored moral and family values, Lucifer will win a major victory.
What, then, does the revelation mean when it states that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”?
I. “The word only,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell has written, “asserts a uniqueness and singularity” about the church “as the exclusive ecclesiastical, authority-bearing agent for our Father in heaven in this dispensation.”22
The word true is derived from the Old English word treowe, meaning honest, upright, virtuous, straightforward, loyal, faithful, steady and steadfast, constant, fitting, proper, consistent with fact, conforming with reality, conforming to a standard or pattern, accurately positioned, germane, correctly balanced or aligned, precise, and secure. It is related closely to such words as trust, truce, and betrothed.23 Thus to refer to the restored church as “the only true church” is to speak of it as being the most steady, sure, and solid institution on earth, the closest to the pattern of the primitive Christian church, in terms of dispensing the mind and will and enjoying the complete approbation of God. It does not suggest that other churches are mostly false or that their teachings are completely corrupt.
“When the Lord used the designation ‘true,”‘ Elder Maxwell pointed out, he implied that the doctrines of the Church and its authority are not just partially true, but true as Measured by divine standards. The Church is not, therefore, conceptually compromised by having been made up from doctrinal debris left over from another age, nor is it comprised of mere fragments of the true faith. It is based upon the fulness of the gospel of him whose name it bears, thus passing the two tests for proving his church that were given by Jesus during his visit to the Nephites (3 Nephi 27:8).
When the word living is used, it carries a divinely deliberate connotation. The Church is neither dead nor dying. Nor is it even wounded. The Church, like the living God who established it, is alive, aware, and functioning. It is not a museum that houses a fossilized faith; rather, it is a kinetic kingdom characterized by living faith in living disciples.24
2. It means that doctrinal finality rests with apostles and prophets, not theologians or scholars. One professor of religion at a Christian institution remarked to me: “You know, Bob, one of the things I love about my way of life as a religious academician is that no one is looking over my shoulder to check my doctrine and analyze the truthfulness of my teachings. Because there is no organizational hierarchy to which I am required to answer, I am free to write and declare whatever I choose.” I nodded kindly and chose not to respond at the time. I have thought since then, however, that what my friend perceives to be a marvelous academic freedom can become license to interpret, intuit, or exegete a scriptural passage in a myriad of ways, resulting in interpretations as diverse as the backgrounds, training, and proclivities of the persons involved. There are simply too many ambiguous sections of scripture to “let the Bible speak for itself.” This was, in fact, young Joseph Smith’s dilemma: “The teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling [his religious questions] by an appeal to the Bible” (Joseph Smith-History 1:12). In many cases, neither linguistic training nor historical background will automatically produce the (divinely) intended meaning or clarification of such matters as those mentioned earlier.
“Some things in scripture are not perfectly clear,” evangelical pastor and teacher John MacArthur has written. “Sometimes we cannot reconstruct the historical context to understand a given passage. One notable example is the mention of ‘baptism for the dead’ in z Corinthians 15:29. There are at least forty different views about what that verse means. We cannot be dogmatic about such things.”25 Earlier in the same work, MacArthur stated that if you were to attend a typical Bible study you would “probably be invited to share your opinion about `what this verse means to me,’ as if the message of Scripture were unique to every individual. Rare is the teacher who is concerned with what Scripture means to God.”26 What is the standard by which we judge and interpret? Who has the right to offer inspired commentary on words delivered by holy men of God who spoke or wrote anciently as they were moved upon by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21)? While each reader of holy writ should seek to be in tune with the Spirit enough to understand what is intended by the scripture, Latter-day Saints believe the final word on prophetic interpretation rests with prophets. As C. S. Lewis wisely remarked, “Unless the measuring rod is independent of the things measured, we can do no measuring.”27
In writing of Sola scriptura as a tenet of the Reformation, Randall Balmer observed that “Luther’s sentiments created a demand for Scriptures in the vernacular, and Protestants ever since have insisted on interpreting the Bible for themselves, forgetting most of the time that they come to the text with their own set of cultural biases and personal agendas.” Balmer continues,
Underlying this insistence on individual interpretation is the assumption .
. . that the plainest, most evident reading of the text is the proper one.
Everyone becomes his or her own theologian. There is no longer any need to
consult Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Martin Luther about their understanding
of various passages when you yourself are the final arbiter of what is the
correct reading. This tendency, together with the absence of any authority
structure within Protestantism, has created a kind of theological free-for-all,
as various individuals or groups insist that their reading of the Bible is
the only possible interpretation.28
Finally, I have had a number of friends and colleagues from either Protestant or Catholic faiths ask how Latter-day Saints can reconcile the idea of an apostasy of the primitive church with Jesus’ commendation of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (“thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”). We recall that the Savior said: “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16-18, emphasis added). Did the Lord not clearly state in this passage that Satan would not prevail over the Christian church? Well, one thing is sure: the church was not to be built upon Peter or any one individual but rather upon the revealed word, the revelation that came to Peter and affirmed the divine Sonship of the Master.29 It was as though Christ were saying: “Peter, you have gained the witness of who I am by revelation from God, and it is by revelation, by the immediate direction from heaven to and through my anointed servants, that I will build my church. And as long as my people live in such a manner as to enjoy that spirit of revelation — individually and institutionally — the power and dominion of the devil will never be allowed to prevail over my kingdom.” 3. It means that while God will bless and strengthen and lead any person who follows the divine light within him or her (John 1:9), each man or woman is responsible to be true to that light which leads unto all truth, to seek and search and weigh and prove all things. A modern revelation attests that “That which is of God is light; and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24), meaning, presumably, the day of resurrection and glorification. A later revelation states that one who is true to the light of conscience, true to what we would know as the Judeo-Christian ethic, will be led to the higher light of the fulness of the gospel, either in this life or the next. “And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit. And every one that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit cometh unto God, even the Father. And the Father teacheth him of the [gospel] covenant which he has renewed and confirmed upon you” (D&C 84:46-48)• There is a vital balance to be struck here. The Book of Mormon clearly points out that “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil”; “wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God” (Moroni 7:16). At the same time, the Father of Lights does not desire his children to coast spiritually, to rest content with the light and truth they have, but rather he expects all to grow in perspective and understanding. As C. S. Lewis observed, that God who “will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty.” Then, quoting his mentor, George MacDonald, Lewis noted that “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.”3° Thus the highest good that men and women can do is to seek tenaciously for the greatest amount of light and knowledge that God will bestow (see D&C 35:10-12; 84:49-50).
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