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.