If you search for the word “church” in the Book of Mormon (where it appears 194 times), you notice that the word is never used to identify a group of leaders. It always refers to the common people gathered around Christ. (The word for “church” in Greek, ἐκκλησία, is used of an assembly, gathering, or community.) This is also the understanding of “church” the Book of Mormon, whether in the plural or in the singular: (1) “Therefore they did assemble themselves together in different bodies, being called churches” (Mosiah 25:21). (2) The faithful converts who were baptized in the Waters of Mormon “were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward” (Mosiah 18:17).
Many Latter-day Saints are in the habit of saying “the Church says” or “the Church teaches,” but to me that oversimplifies an important gospel truth, the truth that we are the church. When many people say “church” they only mean leaders or publications associated with the church. However, the church is not a building in Salt Lake City. We should be cautious not to imagine it that way. We have never taught that human prophets are infallible or inerrant. No one is mistake-free except Jesus Christ, the real head of His church.
Remember, Jesus declares: “And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel” (3 Nephi 27:8). Thankfully, my church is not called “The Church of Thomas S. Monson.” In fact, there are only two identities mentioned in the official name of our church: (1) “Jesus Christ,” our infallible Lord, and (2) “Latter-day Saints,” which is us, all the faithful of this dispensation. (That’s why I don’t ever say “I disagree with the Church.” We don’t disagree with the church, we are the church!)
Certain relative clauses throughout the text of Book of Mormon define the church to be the people: “I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth” (1 Nephi 14:12). Also, “I would speak unto you that are of the church, that are the peaceable followers of Christ, and that have obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven.” (Moroni 7:3). From the first book of the Book of Mormon to the last, this is its constant teaching.
This is also the only way that I make sense of the “great and abominable church” of 1 Nephi 13, which cannot be identified with any tangible institution. Rather, the great and abominable church is an attitude, a direction, and a destination.
This realization leads to a mature and profound understanding of what we mean when we say, “the Church is true”: the truth of the Church is its orientation, not its accomplishment. “The Church is true” symbolizes that we seek after truth, even though we don’t have it all. The reality that we don’t have all truth is taught firmly in the Ninth Article of Faith: “we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” The restoration of truth is not a past event. It’s ongoing: “Behold, ye are little children and ye cannot bear all things now; ye must grow in grace and in the knowledge of the truth.” (D&C 50:40, see also John 16:12).
So, because the truth of the Church is our orientation, not our accomplishment, we realize that we do not have a correct knowledge of all things. But we seek after these precious verities, wherever they come from, and then strive plant them back in Zion. Mark well the humble and sincere witness of two of our prophets:
“We are willing to receive all truth, from whatever source it may come; for truth will stand, truth will endure.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 1).
“It is our duty and calling, as ministers of the same salvation and Gospel, to gather every item of truth and reject every error. Whether a truth be found with professed infidels, or with the Universalists, or the Church of Rome, or the Methodists, the Church of England, the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Shakers, or any other of the various and numerous different sects and parties, all of whom have more or less truth, it is the business of the Elders of this Church (Jesus, their Elder Brother, being at their head) to gather up all the truths in the world pertaining to life and salvation, to the Gospel we preach, … to the sciences, and to philosophy, wherever it may be found in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and bring it to Zion” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 248).
This eclectic and curious attitude is why we pursue truth, not a church. You may be surprised to learn that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have any converts! We are not converted to “the Church.” We are converted to Christ, and we simply walk with the church. Elder D. Todd Christofferson recently explained: “We do not strive for conversion to the Church but to Christ and His gospel, a conversion that is facilitated by the Church. The Book of Mormon expresses it best when it says that the people ‘were converted unto the Lord, and were united unto the church of Christ.’ [3 Nephi 28:23]” (“Why the Church,” October 2015 Conference. See also Helaman 3:26).
I have chosen to follow Christ and walk with the Church. Together, we will seek after truth, no matter where we may find it, and no matter who had it first. The “Church” is not a building in Salt Lake City; the church is the smiling faces of all the gentle people of my ward, who love one another and walk with me along our journey toward Christ, history’s only perfect prophet. And he is not only a prophet, but more than a prophet: the incarnate Son of God, fully divine, who is our Prophet, Priest, and King.
6 thoughts on “Who is the Church: What does the Book of Mormon teach?”
See also one perspective here, which may be addressed by further work on this topic. http://bycommonconsent.com/2015/01/21/i-know-the-church-is-true/
See also one perspective here, which may be addressed by further work on this topic.
I like how you applied the concept of the church being the people to the great and abominable church. That’s the best explanation of “it doesn’t mean the Catholic Church” I’ve ever heard.
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I really like this. It’s such a helpful perspective for me, as I really struggle with the idea of the infallible church. I do have one small issue though. I think it’s problematic to say that Jesus never made a mistake when you mean that he never sinned. I believe that there is a vast difference between sin and mistake. Jesus grew up as human, I’m sure he spilled milk, made mistakes as an apprentice carpenter, and learned through trial and error as the rest of us. What he didn’t do was knowingly and willfully act in a way that broke the laws of God. Because we come from a religious culture where people make themselves spiritually, emotionally, and physically sick seeking perfection, I think it’s an important distinction to make.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments and making me aware of this concern. I would have to say that there are two senses of the word “mistake,” and you and I may be using different ones. When people debate whether the church leaders have made “mistakes,” no one cares whether they spilled milk or forgot an appointment. These types of things innocently happen to everyone, and does not call into question their leadership. I wouldn’t call the the little things “mistakes” in my sense of the word, which involves the kind of mistakes that would challenge their authority, such as the debates over whether the priesthood ban, or the refusal to ordain all genders, were mistakes, meaning they got something wrong. So, given that there are two senses of the word mistake, I’ll concede that Jesus made the first kind of mistake, but he didn’t “get anything wrong” like mistakenly advocating one policy when the opposite was right. You do have a valid point, and I’m glad you prompted me to clarify that.
The “Church” is defined in more than one way in the scriptures. The “Church” is certainly it’s people. It can be a building where the followers of Jesus Christ meet. It is also a household of God and His Kingdom on earth. We read in Ephesians.
“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;” (Ephesians 2:19-20)
This foundation of Apostles and Prophets is a distinguishing characteristic of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and was restored in our day through the scriptural principle of continuing revelation.
In Matthew 16:18-19 Jesus told Peter, ” And I say also 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.
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The “rock” is the rock of revelation. The keys of the kingdom are the priesthood keys that have the power to bind and loose on earth and in heaven and to direct the affairs and administer the saving ordinances of the Church of Jesus Christ which is his kingdom on earth.
Revelation is the essence of the truth of the Church and the foundation of all the accomplishments of the Restoration which are the basis of Christ’s orientation or direction of His Church.
The ninth Article of Faith states. “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”
God has always revealed the great and important things pertaining to His Church and KIngdom to his children through His chosen servants, the prophets.
“Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)
Of course the church does not belong to any of his servants or prophets any more that it belongs to one of it’s members. It is His Church and Kingdom which he stands at the head of and directs through the servants he has chosen.
“Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain…” (John15:16)
“That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;” (Ephesians 4:14)
Jesus Christ uses His servants to reveal His truth to protect us from false doctrines teachings of the world. He tells us that these truths and prophecies from the scriptures given to us by His servants are not for private interpretation because they come through the Holy Ghost and not the will or mind of man.
“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter1:20-21)
From all the forgoing and it would seem reasonable to conclude that the quotes from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young which speak of accepting truth from whatever source it may come, that although we as Latter Day Saints should seek out and be willing to accept truth from any source, the complete truths which pertain to the doctrines of salvation and exaltation and the immortality and eternal life of man will always come through God’s chosen prophets.
The following sobering words from Jesus Christ concerning His work and purposes in the latter days should give all disciples of Christ great reason to be watchful and sure that the path we are choosing in life will lead us to be counted among the 5 wise and not the 5 foolish virgins to whom the door to Christ’s Celestial kingdom will be shut.
17 Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments;
18 And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all this that it might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets—
19 The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of flesh—
23 That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.
29 And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.
30 And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—
31 For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;
32 Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven;
33 And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.
37 Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.
38 What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. (D&C Section 39)
Could there be anything more plain to all disciples of Christ who have a testimony of the Restoration that the the truths that matters most for our eternal good and welfare should be pursued, and will be found, in His restored Church directed by His living Prophet and Apostles?