Sunday, October 7, 2012

True and Living Church

Shortly before moving away from North Carolina, I was invited to give a talk in church on any subject I chose. I chose to speak about what it means to me to belong to a true and living church. What I'm posting here is my edited version based on my notes. It isn't exactly what I said, because I didn't edit it until the last couple of weeks. I did my best to capture the messages I gave that day.

We belong to a true and living church. I want to talk to you today about what that means to me. Joseph smith said, "One of the grand principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." (–Joseph Smith, History of the Church 5:498-5) He also said, "Have the Presbyterians any truth? 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.”" (--Joseph Smith, HotC 5:516-18)

We aspire to embrace all truth--Christ's life and love, continuing revelation, science, and truths already known by other good people. This is what it means to me to belong to a true church. We don't have all truth. We are going to learn more truth, and as we learn more truth the church will change. This is what it means to me to belong to a living church. Sometimes we will even discover that we have to give up doctrines we held dear.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is of Peter and Cornelius. Cornelius learned of the Gospel and wanted to be baptized. He was a Gentile, and the Gospel was not being preached to the Gentiles. In the meantime, Peter received a vision. The Lord sent him a cloth filled with unclean animals, and told Peter to eat. Peter said, I have never eaten unclean things! God said, if I call it clean, you shouldn't call it unclean. He sent Peter this vision two more times. Peter had the answer, but he didn't know the question, yet. Then, Cornelius's servant asked for Peter to come and teach Cornelius's household. Peter didn't know the question until Cornelius asked. Then Peter knew the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles. The church had to give up their previously held belief that the Gospel should only go to the Jews. We may not see why this would be so hard, but Peter and the other Christian Jews had grown up in a culture where they were taught it was against God's law to welcome unclean Gentiles into the covenants of Israel. And weren't they following Christ's example in only teaching the Jews? It wasn't trivial for them to give up these beliefs they had accepted as revealed doctrine. It hurts to learn that we have been wrong, and even more to learn that the whole church has been wrong, but it has happened more than once and is a danger of belonging to a living church.

So the church changes, and prophets receive revelation to guide it. I'd like to suggest an exercise--look at Joseph Smith's revelations. How many of them came without someone asking a question first? How many of the questions were asked by people other than the prophet?

I want to share one of my stories about a struggle to understand truth. When I first learned a little about evolution, I thought it was really cool. A little later, for my high school biology class, we were sent home with a note asking our parents if we could be taught evolution. My parents signed, and my mom, who doesn't have that much invested in science, tried to help me see how a person could be an honest Latter-day Saint and believe in evolution. Over the next years, I was taught in seminary that I was a heretic and unfaithful for believing in evolution. This hurt, to have seminary and institute teachers, that I knew to be good men, and an apostle that I believed in, like Elder Packer, tell me that I was either a fool or a heretic. I didn't feel like either. I felt like someone honestly trying to learn all the truth I could, from every source available to me. I had a hard time listening to Elder Packer without getting upset. I didn't give up on listening to Elder Packer, and as a missionary I learned more from his teachings about recognizing the Spirit than perhaps any other single person. It took many years for me to get comfortable with this tension--that a leader could be inspired and also get some things wrong. (Years later, I learned apostles James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe, and President David O. McKay believed in evolution.)

Changes have happened throughout the history of the church. When we are ready, the changes can be wonderful and for the better. Many changes came during the restoration of the Gospel through Joseph Smith. It was a great day when the priesthood was extended to all worthy men. Over the last several years we have seen a relinquishing of control over many decisions from the General Authorities to the stake and ward levels. And we can expect to see changes throughout our lives. Questioning is a wonderful and beautiful part of Mormonism. At a recent Worldwide Leadership Meeting, President Uchtdorf taught: "Brothers and sisters, as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?"

Now the teacher part of me comes out. How do humans learn best? We learn best by constructing our own knowledge and discussing with our peers. Talking with an expert doesn't help us as much. An expert telling us doesn't work. Some of my students hate it when I teach this way. They say "you're not doing your job. You're not teaching us." But have you ever experienced the joy of figuring out a new truth? You really own it and can use it. You are free to do with it what you can, not just what your teacher showed you. This is how God teaches us. We have to prepare and ask the right question at the right time. Then the Spirit gives us beautiful insights. God wants us to become gods, not encyclopedias or automatons. Sometimes we might think God isn't doing his job, but he knows we have to do the work to learn, even though every understanding we gain is truly a gift.

In conclusion, I want to share some of the reasons I love Mormonism. It teaches us to question. It teaches us to embrace ALL truth. It's a living church with living prophets and living revelation. It teaches that the two great commandments are to love God and love my neighbor. I don't have to fear questions. I don't have to fear change, or learning that I believed something wrong. These are a beautiful part of the process of becoming gods. I can embrace those who question and doubt, and those who believe differently from me if they, too, desire to become one in the body of Christ. I hope I can do my part to value every member of this true and living body of Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan, I agree. A church is true only to the extent it is living, and it is living only to the extent it continues to add external truth.