When I began my faith journey years ago ― asking difficult questions and poking into dark corners with my stick ― I was quite naïve. Each new discovery sent me further into uncharted waters. Sailing on my little raft, I wondered if I was the only one seeing the sharks circling below.
Being a castaway was lonely.
But I came to realize there was nothing unique or special about me or my experiences: I was traveling the same high seas as countless others before me, seeking a promised land for my faith, one that would anchor me as the waves crashed down.
The funny thing is, the path to Christ was not a horizontal straight line from A to B. The swelling waves took me up and brought me low again, over and over. Anyone who has taken this journey knows about spiritual seasickness.
Now the squall has settled and I have begun to get my sea legs; what surprises me now, looking back, is how little I knew (and to be honest, how little I know still). Pretty much, my entire knowledge of the gospel was limited to the scriptures and the Church's interpretation of them. I also knew some church history. Which was a fine start, sure, but I've had to throw overboard a lot of what I started my journey with in order to continue pressing forward. Meaning, I had to give up some of my previously-held beliefs, ideas, and certainties.
Having lived in a bubble (how I loved that bubble!), when it popped, some of the burden I had been carrying fell away. The best part was no longer having to believe anything that was not true, or good, or loving.
Now traveling light, I have discovered an incredible world out there, packed with rich religious traditions, theology, and profound philosophy ― all of which I had steered clear of, thanks to the Church's cautionary tales about "the Great Apostasy." (Am I the only one in whom the Church bred a distrust of other Christian beliefs?)
You know what I'm talking about: the skepticism and suspicion of "other" Christians (those benighted monks) who inherited corrupt creeds, believing the Dark Ages ruined Christianity.
Because, guess what? I came to a sobering realization: the difficult questions and pressing issues facing the LDS Church in 2023 . . . are not new. In fact, they're old news.
That's right; 500 hundred years ago the Reformation and Counter-Reformation dealt with the big issues The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is wrestling with today: indulgences (tithing and temples); authority (prophetic keys); church wealth (Ensign Peak); whether the Pontiff was infallible (prophet will never lead us astray); and soteriology (how we are saved).
Maybe it's a sign our young faith is growing up. I realized it was not just me who had been living in a bubble, but the Church itself, as if we'd missed the memo half-a-millennium ago.
As they say, there's nothing new under the sun. And here we are, rehashing the same arguments in our little bubble ― a microcosm of modern Luthers and Popes in the 21st Century.
What must the Lord think of us?
It's All About Authority
One of the reasons the LDS Church is in such a pickle is because we have made our bed in the salted earth of papal authority (or what we would call the prerogative of the Prophet).
Martin Luther persuasively argued that when One Man possesses ultimate authority (looking at you, Leo X) it makes eunuchs of the remainder of the body of Christ. Having an administrative President-Prophet-Pope-figure castrates our spiritual endowment (pardon my language).
Whenever a Church structures itself around one (inerrant) man, the rest of us are impotent to effect institutional change because, you know, we don't have "keys."
A One Man Church effectively disenfranchises the faith of all others belonging to it.
Martin Luther said:
"Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority to put it out?"
You see, the central issue of the Reformation (and Restoration for that matter) was "Who Has God's Authority?"
And right out of the gate, we jumped on the Sectarian bandwagon with gusto, making the Church's claims to authority ― (John the Baptist! Peter, James and John! Moses and Elias and Elijah!) ― our bread-and-butter.
We dispatched missionaries with a particular message: God speaks from heaven again, but only through Our Guy (trademark pending).
Notice it was angelic ministrants ― not faith and charity ― that made the LDS Church exceptional. We doubled-down on having cornered the market on God's authority instead of becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
And so today, thanks to this legacy of legalism and priesthood-pedigrees, we extoll the Prophet's prerogative and his keys as if they make any difference at all whilst we feast at a banquet of unbelief.
Why else do we spend so much time praising the Prophet and declaring 'the Church-is-True' on fast Sunday, but for the fact we have nothing else to say? It is a sign of our spiritual impoverishment, not stewardship, that we profess our faith in the Prophet and Church like one-trick-ponies.
Our insistence on making sure everyone knows how special the Prophet is is our way of distinguishing ourselves from those poor deluded souls who are just "playing" at Church; those lost sectarians at sea without a rudder in the storm (never mind a rudder does absolutely no good when there is no wind in the sails).
I can hear Laban scolding Lehi, "Where do you get off 'playing' at offering burnt sacrifices to the Lord upon an altar when you aren't a Levite? You have no authority!"
I have come to suspect we care more about having God's authority than we care about God Himself, which shows how little of His authority we have.
Priesthood of All Believers?
After Catholicism, the Protestants went to the other extreme. They rejected the authority of One Man (the Pope) to embrace the authority of All Men (what they call "the priesthood of all believers").
That sounds better, right? A step in the right direction, at least? Well, it didn't work, either. Being a believer is great, sure, but it doesn't bestow God's imprimatur.
After all, there are many sincere Christians who believe things that aren't true; and who also don't believe things that are; so how do we know who is anchored in Christ and His truth (His word)?
Some Protestants attempted to solve this dilemma facilely, arguing God's authority is found in scripture alone ("sola scriptura"). That's a nice sentiment, and utterly useless.
Why? Because we all interpret the various passages of scripture differently; there's enough material to support just about anything you want ― and for someone who is expert at proof-texting, they can make the case for all kinds of nonsense.
Think of it: why are there so many sects in Christendom when they all share the same Bible?
For the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
As Joseph Smith learned as a 14-year-old boy, appealing to the scriptures will not suffice. Not at all.
While the written word found in the scriptures will always inform our faith, it cannot end there. We must appeal to the Father of Lights (James 1:17) and receive instruction from true messengers sent from God.
Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.
The Price of Authority
Question: What happens when a Church makes authority the chief cornerstone of its religion?
1. Boxed Faith
One of the casualties is genuine faith. Read this insightful comment made by Todd:
"I have sat through many a-boring Elders quorums and Sunday School lessons where the discussion is clearly more about confirming what has already been decided [than exploring what is true].... If you begin with a desired conclusion, you must ignore contradictory evidence. 'That is not scholarship; it is propaganda.'
"This threatens meaningful Faith. If my faith is pinned, at every turn, to confirming 'The Church is true', then [I am not going to grow in faith].
"Faith is not clinging to what I know; it’s taking the assurance I have and using it to hurl me towards the unknown. It’s exposure to the mystery of what God is and what I am." (Wheat and Tares, "Reading Scriptures," July 20, 2023).
We've all been there. We've all seen how an environment of authority is oppressive and toxic to honest seekers of truth, when questioning becomes something frowned-upon, a sign of doubt and rebellion ― instead of being, you know, the seed of real faith.
For a Church that started with the question, "Which Church is true?", it is ironic we cannot ask that of our own.
2. Stunted Vision
A principle is given in Proverbs which explains the current state-of-affairs:
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
To "perish in unbelief" (1 Nephi 4:13) is a consequence of being without the gift of prophecy. That may be a bit of a leap, so let me explain how I arrived there. As we learn from the Book of Mormon, it was important the Nephites get the Brass Plates so they wouldn't dwindle in unbelief. But the odd thing is, those Brass Plates did nothing for Laban. No, it took a man like Lehi who, having the Brass Plates, "was filled with the Spirit, and began to prophesy" (1 Nephi 5:17-18).
An authority-culture stifles the gift of prophecy by making it the prerogative of one man. This stunts the people's "vision" as they're told to "stay in their lane." But the reality is, God does not limit Himself to one man, but sends "many prophets" in the land. (How many is many? A lot!)
And there came . . . many prophets [who] prophesied.
And it came to pass . . . there came many prophets [who] prophesied.
And in [those] days . . . there also came many prophets [who] prophesied.
Are we getting the idea? Prophets prophesy; it is sort of a packaged deal. Now, many people may wonder why God sends "many prophets" when we're told He needs just one: the President of the Church (or 15 if we're counting the Q12)?
Visions are a byproduct of faith. The history of God's people shows that God works among His children according to their faith. And what is faith, but to hope for things unseen, but are true; to create a brighter future more aligned to God's will; to seek a more excellent way in following the love of Christ; to build a better world than the one we currently live in (see Ether 12:4)?
When we observe the Church falling back on the refrain, "That's not how we do things in the Church," we should ask, "Why not?"
Seeing the Church looking backwards with its hand to the plough shows a lack of vision. I mean, enshrining the values and cultural sentiments of American white-society of the 1950s in the Family Proclamation was not an act of faith, but the opposite, because it wishes to return to an idealized version of how things were rather than how they should be.
What should alarm us all is that the prophets who authored the Family Proclamation seem to believe that heaven resembles an episode of Leave it to Beaver; a chaste studio set with separate beds, like on I Love Lucy (but without the humor and Cuban music). It makes one wonder how familiar they are with heaven.
When we have no "vision" other than whatever the Prophet's is, have we abdicated an active faith for a passive one? Is faith in Jesus Christ the same as faith in our leaders? Is following the Brethren the same as following Christ?
Thus we see there are no "suggestion boxes" at Church. In their place we find arks displaying the sign, "Do Not Steady."
3. Restricted Love
When authority is paramount, those who do not follow the "authority" become unworthy; or more correctly, the wayward souls become worthy . . . of marginalization, dismissal, belittlement, and shunning.
Let's take a current example: authoritative pronouncements against LGBT people by leadership provide justification for parents to show conditional love to their children who "go astray." This is how a parent can rationalize their poor treatment of a child, and call it "loving" while performing boundary maintenance for the Prophet; but really, the parent is merely demonstrating that their love and allegiance to the authority figure is greater than their love for their offspring.
The effect of an authority-culture on love is terminal. Love requires freedom; authority is about control.
Love creates unity through diversity; authority demands obedience to a scripted narrative and the "othering" of those who do not subscribe to it.
Love is demonstrated by becoming equals who are precious to one another; authority is about hierarchy wherein leaders are esteemed above their brothers and sisters.
So the question we have to ask ourselves is, Why have we choosen an authority-culture over a culture of love?
If the Article of Faith were written today
If the Articles of Faith were written today and based on the Handbook, we'd get a different version, I think.
First Article of Faith (2023 ed.)
"We believe in the President of the Church, the living prophet, and his counselors, the First Presidency, and in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles."
Third Article of Faith (2023 ed.)
"We believe that through the Covenant Path, all members may be saved, by obedience to the laws and counsel of the Brethren."
Seventh Article of Faith (2023 ed.)
"We believe in tithing, the wearing of garments, going to the temple, sustaining our leaders, and so forth."
Eighth Article of Faith (2023 ed.)
"We believe the words of past prophets to be the word of God as far as they do not contradict the living prophet; we also believe General Conference to be the word of God."
. . . and we wonder why our young people today, whose hearts yearn for Christ, are failing to find an anchor for their faith at Church?
Wherefore, by faith was the law of Moses given [this is speaking about the law of the prophets, or the Church in which we now live]. But in the gift of his Son hath God prepared a more excellent way.
Joseph's Last Dream
If we think the Great Apostasy wrecked havoc upon Christianity in general, I have some bad news: we need look no further than what we have done with our LDS faith tradition to witness the same kinds of fruits.
Just before he died, Joseph Smith had a remarkable dream in which he saw the future of the Church he founded. It is recorded in the History of the Church, 6:609-610.
I don't know why we don't discuss this vision more (perhaps because it predicts the apostasy of Joseph's followers?); some of you may have never even heard about it. In my opinion, it is a piece of prophecy as great as any Joseph ever received.
I'll share the dream in full and afterwards, my poetic treatment of it that draws upon imagery from Chernobyl to highlight where the Church is today.
"I was back in Kirtland, Ohio, and thought I would take a walk out by myself, and view my old farm, which I found grown up with weeds and brambles, and altogether bearing evidence of neglect and want of culture.
"I went into the barn which I found without floor or doors, with the weather boarding off, and was altogether in keeping with the farm. While I viewed the desolation around me, and was contemplating how it might be recovered from the curse upon it, there came rushing into the barn a company of furious men, who commenced to pick a quarrel with me.
"The leader of the party ordered me to leave the barn and <the> farm, stating it was none of mine, and that I must give up all hope of ever possessing it. I told him the farm was given me by the Church, and although I had not had any use of it for some time back, still I had not sold it, and according to righteous principles it belonged to me or the Church.
"He then grew furious, and began to rail upon me and threaten me, and said it never did belong to me nor the Church. I then told him that I did not think it worth contending about; that I had no desire to live upon it in its present state, and if he thought he had a better right I would not quarrel with him about it, but leave; but my assurance that I would not trouble him at present did not seem to satisfy him, as he seemed determined to quarrel with me, and threatened me with the destruction of my body.
"While he was thus engaged, pouring out his bitter words upon me, a rabble rushed in and nearly filled the barn, drew out their knives, and began to quarrel among themselves for the premises; and for a moment forgot me, at which time I took the opportunity to walk out of the barn about up to my ankles in mud.
"When I was a little distance from the barn I heard them screeching and screaming in a very distressed manner, as it appeared they had engaged in a general fight with their knives. While they were thus engaged the dream or vision ended."
I was back in Chernobyl to view my old farm which I found grown up with weeds and brambles and neglect. Nearby control rods sought to control fission, splitting atoms asunder that God had joined. Reactors to be acted upon, chain reactions, numbered isotopes: the same but not the same. I went into the barn which was missing a floor wondering how to remove the curse upon it when a company of furious men rushed in to pick a quarrel. After the exodus they enlarged the Exclusion Zone to include this place. During the aftermath we heard ‘the New Safe Confinement will shelter you.’ But it couldn’t contain everyone. Suspicion of contamination spread. No one really knew because they classified the intelligence after the evacuation. I chose to believe it was an accident. Their leader ordered me to leave the barn but I told him the farm was mine. I had not sold what had been given as a gift. How many ions were free radicals—how many lost to the treatment? At one time, like them, I trusted the promise of potassium iodide. But the stockpiles were empty as sickness deepened. I had no desire to dwell in the barn in its present state as their leader threatened me with the destruction of my body. My body? I cared nothing for it, the cancer gone too far. But here they craved forms of energy: power fueled from rubles, radiation. O Chernobyl, Chernobyl, that briefly shone like lightning: darkness leaves you desolate. Suddenly a rabble filled the barn and drew their knives, sharpening their swords for an execution of some kind. I left the barn listening to their screeching cries as grief grew like mud around my ankles.