I am home sick today with a cold/flu, and I can only handle so many Matlock and Diagnosis Murder reruns (bless Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke), so I pulled myself out of bed and decided to tackle the thorniest and most challenging of issues, priesthood succession and Church authority claims.
I've avoided addressing these topics head-on because they require historical and doctrinal context; and even though I graduated in History, fools jump in where angels fear to tread.
I am no angel ― so I guess that makes me a fool. Here we go: jumping into the deep end.
When I talk with family and friends about the Church, the most common refrain I hear is:
"Tim, the only thing that matters is whether The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the only divinely-sanctioned authority on earth today. If I believe they do, then that's it."
I call this the "trump card" of the Restoration.
When a person plays the "church's-got-the-only-authority card," it effectively ends the conversation and closes the box (and we all know what it's like inside a box, don't we? "It's dark in here! Let us out!").
The Epistemological Trap
When someone plays the Trump Card, I ask them, "What reasons do we have to believe the Church has the only divine authority on earth today?"
I can sort the answers into two categories:
(1) Historical Narrative. People in the LDS tradition who inherited Brigham Young's legacy like me will say something like, "Joseph Smith passed his priesthood keys to the Twelve Apostles to govern the Church after his death. Brigham Young was the legal successor of Joseph Smith, and the Presidents after him."
(2) Spiritual Confirmation. Here we find people who have received positive, spiritual affirmations regarding the Brethren and feel a strong testimony of their divine appointment.
I am not here to question or challenge other people's spiritual experiences, so I'll leave No. 2 between them and the Lord.
But as for No. 1, okay, that's flat-out false.
"So Long, and Thanks for All the [Plain and Precious Parts]"
What can we do when we're up against generations of cultural conditioning? Against an imperfect and incomplete historical record?
And what's worse, against men who consciously altered and changed many of the teachings and events in our history?
(1) Brigham Young Having a Heyday with our History
"I notice the interpolations because having been employed in the Historian’s office at Nauvoo by Doctor Richards, and employed, too, in 1845, in compiling this very autobiography, I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was “doctored” to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards."
(Inez Smith, “Biography of Charles Wesley Wandell,” Journal of History 3 (Jan. 1910): pp. 455-63)
I mean, something as important as the Lord appearing in the Kirtland Temple to Joseph and Oliver has not withstood the test of time. It was recorded in Joseph's Journal (suspiciously at the very end of the notebook) in 3rd Person by Warren Cowdery, with long quotations which the Church Historian's Office admits "must have relied upon a source no longer extant."
(4) D&C 132
Or take the magnum opus on Plural Marriage, D&C 132. The original was destroyed and only a copy in the handwriting of Joseph Kingsbury survives as a copy of something else. That's right: a copy of a copy from a guy nobody's ever heard of, which was concealed and privately held by Brigham Young and only published in 1852 (decades later) after the Saints had jumped on the polygamy bandwagon.
What's going on? Well, the same thing that has been going on since the beginning of time: the victors write the history.
I point these things out as a small sampling of the historical issues we have with our own Church History.
An Example of Recent Mischief
The angel warned us, he really did. Well, to be technical, he warned Nephi about the mischief that would ensue after the records were messed up.
As a consequence of the plain and precious parts being removed,
The Gentiles do stumble exceedingly.
(1 Nephi 13:34)
I encountered, first hand, an example of "stumbling" a couple weeks ago in Sacrament Meeting when a sister quoted Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge (a member of the Seventy).
The quote was shocking. I was aghast, and now these things were being trumpeted to the impressionable youth in the ward.
Elder Corbridge introduced his topic on deception in the latter-days (too ironic to be believed, I know), saying:
"The kingdom of God is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It will 'stand for ever' (Dan. 2:44). The question is, Will you and I stand? Will you stand forever, or will you go away? And if you go, where will you go?"
Each and every part of that quote is misleading, manipulative and regrettable.
(1) The kingdom of God is NOT the same thing as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
While I can forgive a layperson for conflating the Church and the Kingdom of God, as a member of the Seventy Elder Corbridge knows better. This is religious malpractice.
Joseph Smith taught:
There is a distinction between the Church of God and kingdom of God. The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct and separate government. The church is a spiritual matter and a spiritual kingdom.
The literal kingdom of God and the church of God are two distinct things.
(Joseph Smith, Administrative Records, The Joseph Smith Papers, Church Historian Press, 2016, p. 128)
(2) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will NOT "stand forever."
Neither is the Church the same thing as the Kingdom of Heaven. And it goes without saying the Church is not Zion.
So what is the Church? Well, it is a body corporate that began on a specific date (April 6, 1830, to be exact); and as Joseph Smith taught, it is good logic that anything that has a beginning must have an end.
Where do we find The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Celestial Kingdom? Or even in the Terrestrial?
Nope, you've got to go all the way down to the telestial kingdom (that we currently inhabit) to find the Church.
But in the heavens we find the Church of the Firstborn; also called the Church of the Lamb; but nowhere do we find The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Church is an airplane that must make a connecting flight; it does not offer service to our desired destination.
(3) There's no question about whether you and I will stand; we're immortal.
"The mind of man is as immortal as God himself," Joseph taught. Elder Corbridge was saying that we can only stand if we remain in-step with the Church, which is to say, the Brethren, which is to say (in his mind, I suppose), the Lord.
Anyone who equates the Church with the Lord makes a mockery of God, and insults him, as if he bore the faults of our imperfect organization.
(4) There's no question about where we'll go: wherever Christ is!
Elder Corbridge is apparently alluding to this passage in the New Testament:
Then Jesus said: Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
Does the Church have the words of eternal life? Does the Church save us?
When will we learn that the Fold of God is here to help us "bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; and mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God" (Mosiah 18:8-9)?
That is the purpose of the Church; we don't need all the bells and whistles about body piercings and tithing and don't-say-'Mormon'; we don't need to boss each other around.
No one needs the religious equivalent of North Korea!