And the aMessiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may bredeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are credeemed from the fall they have become dfree forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon
2 Nephi 2:26
Do I Have to go to Church?
As I did a little bit of reading, this morning, I was again reminded of a common theme among some LDS members as it relates to church. I preface these comments with the clause that I am not terribly certain that our modern day interpretation of “church” is anywhere near accurate, and certainly has deviated from the scriptural definition in more than a few ways. Church, as it’s referred to today, means little more than a religious body that meets on a weekly basis, with other meetings sprinkled in for good measure. Church, as it’s referred to today, consists of meetings, programs, and hourly blocks of (mostly) scriptural discussions that repeat themselves at least every four years. If you ask a member of the LDS faith what church is, they’ll likely reply that it’s their set of beliefs and more or less synonymous with the term “gospel.”
The 1828 Webster’s dictionary defines church as “a house consecrated to the worship of God,” or “the collective body of Christians, or of those who profess to believe in Christ.” The original Greek word for church is Ekklesia which means “a gathering” who could be “united into one body.” The most likely New Testament definition, from what I’ve been able to gather, is that church was described or defined as any meeting where “two or three [were] gathered together,” and could literally have been a group that small. Any meeting consisting of two or three people which discussed spiritual principles or ideas or speculation, therefore, could have been labeled “church.” The most succinct definition of church as contained in scripture is likely found in D&C 10:67-69, which reads, “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and acometh unto me, the same is my bchurch. Whosoever adeclareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is bagainst me; therefore he is not of my church. And now, behold, whosoever is of my church, and aendureth of my church to the end, him will I establish upon my brock, and the cgates of hell shall not prevail against them.”
The term “gospel,” by contrast, is defined by the same 1828 Webster’s dictionary as “the history of the birth, life, actions, death, resurrection, ascension and doctrines of Jesus Christ,” and “a revelation of the grace of God to fallen man through a mediatory … the whole scheme of salvation, as revealed by Christ.” D&C 39:6 states and defines the gospel as, “repentance and baptism by water, and then cometh the bbaptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, even the Comforter, which showeth all things, and cteacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom.” 3 Nephi 17:21 follows similar lines and states, “aRepent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be bbaptized in my name, that ye may be csanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand dspotless before me at the last day. Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my agospel … .”
The Difference Between the Church and the Gospel – 1984
Though many of you may be familiar with Ronald Poleman’s talk, given in 1984, on the gospel and the church, the differences highlighted therein likely give the best definition of the mainstream view of each, especially when one considers the changes and redactions that occurred to that discourse. The original discourse defined the church as “a divine institution administered by the priesthood of God. The church has authority to teach correctly the principles and doctrines of the gospel and to administer its essential ordinances.” The gospel, as defined in this same talk, is “the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation.”
Following these brief definitions, the church is an institution which is charged with teaching the gospel, or the “plan” that leads us to individual salvation and exaltation. They are, and were, two distinct and different entities. Immediately after the original talk was given in general conference, Poleman was required to re-do the talk and give a similar, though distinctly different version which was then published in the Ensign and elsewhere. In this second version, the church is redefined to be, “the Kingdom of God on Earth” and “divinely commissioned to provide the means and resources to implement this plan [the gospel] in each individual’s life.” The remainder of the talk, as presented throughout changed version continue to highlight, continues to highlight how the church, and only the church, is divinely inspired and commissioned to implement, teach and administer the gospel.
The original talk, which I find to be a fantastic discussion on important and well defined differences, contains this instructive thought:
“Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices and personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage, be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. Occasionally, such traditions, customs and practices may even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. Under such circumstances those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. In fact, the eternal principles of the gospel and the divinely inspired Church do accommodate a broad spectrum of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity.” – Ronald Poleman, October 1984 General Conference (original version)The changed version removes this entire paragraph and replaces it with an entirely different line of thought, “the eternal principles of the gospel implemented through the divinely inspired Church apply to a wide variety of individuals in diverse cultures.” You can be the judge of the similarities and differences of these two statements, juxtaposed against each other. Suffice it to say, the redone version is geared and directed to a mostly hierarchical definition that strengthens and supports an ever increasing bureaucracy. If what Polemen said was true in 1984, how much more true is it today? The traditions – false and otherwise – are even more ingrained and popular than they were then and even more likely to hold sway in any given lesson or discussion. The only way these can be adequately rejected or refuted is by knowing (a) what they are and (b) knowing the true form of the principle behind the tradition. That, I’m afraid, is our task.
Is it any wonder, in retrospect, that this talk was both given, censored, changed and rebranded in 1984?
From Orwell’s 1984, I found a couple of insightful quotes as it pertains to this discussion:
“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.” – Book 1, Chapter 3
“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” – Book 1, Chapter 3
“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.” – Book 1, Chapter 3The Universality of Revelation
So, why this discussion on church, the gospel and whether I have to attend church? Well, one of my pet peeves (but only recently) is the idea of the universality of revelation. My definition of the universality of revelation would be broken down by a rather simple statement: “Since I received a revelation/witness that I need to be doing this or that, that means that you (all of you) should also be doing this or that” In essence, the universality of revelation suggests that all the individual insights we receive are also applicable to everyone else, regardless of their station, their situation and their own individual lives.
Case in point: if I were to believe (tacitly, because we never admit it) in the universality of revelation, then my thoughts on Marijuana and the Word of Wisdom must be followed by everyone. In that discussion, I outlined why I think marijuana is not only kosher with the word of wisdom, but is perhaps one of the things our Heavenly Father has given us to use and enjoy, both for its effects on the conscious and its effects on our overall well-being. Following this universality of revelation premise, my thoughts on Marijuana must thereby be the required protocol not only for me, but also for everyone else. If it’s good for the goose, well, it’s good for the gander as well.
Now, as I stated in that previous paragraph, the belief in universality of revelation is one which is only given tacit approval. Anyone reading the above paragraph will recognize the inherent weaknesses of my argument, not only because it falls on its face under closer inspection, but also because it bypasses the idea of everyone having their God-given right to lead their lives in concordance with the principles of revelation and free agency.
Guilting Me into Going to Church
So, how does this universality of revelation apply to this discussion? Well, there are those around me who continually profess that leaving the church simply isn’t an option. Not that I have any intentions of leaving, but the whole idea that (a) “the Lord is going to hold us all accountable” (to our “support” of church leaders and programs of the church), (b) “those who are sensitive to the troubles which beset the church need to be there, faithfully serving,” (c) Zion and her redemption are the same thing, and same cause, as serving in the church, (d) “withdraw[ing] from the church [will] cut yourself off from necessary ordinances, including the sacrament” and “imperil your capacity to keep the Sabbath day holy” and “limit your capacity to serve others,” and other similar thoughts, all related to the discussion of leaving or staying in the church, leave me beside myself. Probably for good reason. I probably need the reminding, but at the same time, I can’t come to an agreement on any of those items listed above.
If we step back and analyze the state of affairs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some things might come into focus, and rather quickly. The first few things to enter our view would probably be (a) all is not well in Zion, (b) staying in or outside the church is an individual decision, (c) once ordinances are performed, all saints have the ability and right to practice those ordinances in their own homes, especially the Sacrament, no matter what any leader says, (d) leaving church will not imperil anyone from keeping the Sabbath day holy nor limit my (or anyone’s) capacity to serve and (e) the universality of revelation is alive and well in the LDS community.
My biggest bone of contention – and perhaps I’m wrong in this assessment – is that LDS members are so addicted to their own definition of church that they can’t really step outside the box and realize that “church” can be defined as broadly as we want it. It really can be a meeting where you and I discuss spiritual principles. That is church. That is where we’re striving to grow closer to Christ. Instead, for some reason, we define church in the most narrow version we can – a place we go and attend one time per week, with three hour blocks where we’re fed the same regurgitated vomit week in and week out. We maintain incredibly narrow mindsets by thinking that service is to be rendered solely within the church, that we must attend a building 1x per week in order to even hope of keeping the Sabbath day holy, that we must support a system that is predicated on blind obedience to a pile of programs, lectures and leaders, and that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
I am so fed up with “programs” that I can’t even see straight. Literally, the following is the list of “programs” we currently maintain (and I may be missing some):
- Primary program
- Young men’s program
- Young women’s program
- Sunday school program
- Duty to God program
- Personal progress program
- Scouting program
- Missionary program
- Home teaching program
11. Provident living program
12. Welfare program
13. Temple attendance program
14. Temple building program
15. Humanitarian program
16. Distribution center program
17. Seminary program
18. Activity Days program
19. Young Single Adults program
20. Activities program
And, from there, I could probably continue and re-label other organizations programs, because that’s all they really are. The High Priests group is really about a program for old men, because you can only become a High Priest with age and seasoning, nothing to do with revelation. The Elders Quorum is really a program for newly married people who aren’t spiritually sound enough to graduate to a special calling (i.e. their bishopric or the high council). The relief socity is really just a program to keep the sister’s from backbiting and keep them engaged in various activities. Programs, programs, programs. Programs are little more than “a plan of action to accomplish a specified end,” apparently. And that “specified plan?” To raise people who blindly follow leaders? To raise people who pay a “full tithe”? To depersonalize the gospel to such an extent that we think we need checklists, programs, graduations, certificates and prizes to suggest that we’ve arrived as “saints”? Just what is the “specified plan”? Interestingly, the word “program” only existed in the 1800s as a way to define a letter, advertisement or proclamation. It had nothing to do with our “programmatic” learning that we’re now convinced we need.
And yet, in all these programs, our main focus is on three things: (1) the church, (2) the prophet, and (3) the apostles. If programs are the focus of the church, and I submit they are, then the result can best be seen in the beliefs (at least those publicly available to the average listener) of the average member. The best place, it would seem, to hear these beliefs would be at your local “fast & testimony” meeting. And, true to form, the results are rather predictable. The next fast and testimony meeting you attend, take a pad of paper and a pen with you. Make two columns. The first column should have the header “Church / Prophet”, and the second column should have the header “Christ.” Tally up the number of times someone testifies of either. If someone testifies of the Church, or the Prophet, add the marks accordingly. Likewise for Christ. I did this over a several month time frame and the results were typically in favor of the Church / Prophet, at a rate of near 6:1 or 7:1. I remember one meeting, only one person bore testimony of Christ, and that someone was a kid of 7 or 8 years old. Everyone else bore testimony of either the prophet, or the church, or some other tale having little to do with the gospel. That, I am afraid, is the result of the programs. That, I am afraid, is what we have as a result of supporting these programs. And, yet, I’m to believe that God will hold me accountable for not supporting these programs? Well, if that’s the case, then I hope I can find a different God in the afterlife than the one I profess to believe in, because I can’t fathom how my God would expect me to believe in and support programs that run contrary to what I read in the scriptures.
Can one find good in these programs? Of course they can, and probably do. There’s no doubt there is some good, but the vomit that gets included in these programs (whether it’s the teaching of fear to our youth (i.e. “God’s great, you’re bad, try harder”), inculcating our primary aged children with a chant to “Follow the Prophet,” or the predictable “The Prophet cannot lead you astray” comments, or our adherence to a “uniform of the priesthood”) oftentimes more than outweighs the positives I see and witness.
Now, even amidst all this, I’m not saying that we should leave church. Though I staunchly disagree with the comments enumerated above about our obligation to attend church, I am persuaded by some more wise than I that there are still reasons to attend church. In a recent comment here (comment #2 and #4 are both pertinent), the following was added, which persuades me that there may be a better way:
I do believe that one individual can effect a great deal of change in a congregation. If the Lord has only one, inspired agent among every ward/branch, I believe that that is sufficient for Him to turn things upside-down. He could probably do it even with only one agent per stake/district. The masses, in my opinion, are not on as solid a foundation as they claim. I think it is more appearance and wishful thinking than actual fact.I can’t say that I’m as confident as the writer that things will improve “quickly,” but I note the wisdom in trying. The difference between this comment, and the post referring to our “obligation” to stay, as I see it, is one of focus. One chooses to focus on fear (i.e. we may “imperil” our ability to keep the Sabbath day holy, we will be held “accountable” for how we support and uphold “programs,” etc.), while one chooses to focus on hope and love. For that, persuasion works wonders for me.
The current status quo is one of continual unanimity, conformity, etc. A single person acting alone, but under the inspiration of God, can change the entire scene.
For example, if each week there is a single vote against, no longer can the claim to unanimity be made. Even closed-minded people are naturally curious, so although the leadership may discount that one, single vote against, eventually certain members of the congregation will approach the individual and ask why the hand was raised against. That is a teaching opportunity which may lead to two, or more, inspired agents of the Lord in the congregation.
Another example, a fixation on Christ in conversation can prove devastating to one’s idolatrous worship of prophets. Every LDS knows that although Nephi and people talked of Christ and preached of Christ, etc., the LDS do not do this. They talk and preach of prophets and apostles. An inspired agent of the Lord, forcing each conversation with another LDS back to Christ has an unnerving effect on that LDS, because they immediately recognize the scripture being lived and their own non-conformity to the word of God. So, even without preaching repentance, by doing certain things in a non-confrontational way, the population can be quickly brought around.
Returning, finally, to the universality of revelation, we simply can’t assume that everyone must follow the same course of action as we take. While some may find wisdom and inspiration in staying in the church, others will find wisdom and revelation in leaving. That is how it should be. Everyone is on an individual journey and we must allow each individual the opportunity to individualize their journey as they and the Lord counsel together. Sure, many may err in their judgments about what God is doing or not doing in their lives, but so long as they are trying and finding their individual path, I wish them all the luck in the world.
In spite of my misgivings about the way we interpret church in the modern context and how so many of the programs in the church are built around obligation, fear and guilt, I recognize what the commenter noted previously, that we are agents of change charged with acting, and not being acted upon.
In the end, your decision to go to church is your choice. Guilt should never be the primary motivating factor to do anything, and yet it’s one of the most popular methods used to get someone to do something, especially in the context of religion (i.e. if you don’t go to church, you can’t take the Sacrament and you’ll likely be breaking the Sabbath day, etc). The universality of revelation is as false a doctrine or tradition, as Ron Poleman discussed previously, as there is on this earth. Don’t believe it. Do believe, however, in your ability to commune with your God and in your ability to receive divine counsel from on high (pun intended).
So, perhaps it is as Orwell stated, and as Poleman started back in 1984. Perhaps, just perhaps, those of us who haven’t yet even learned to think are storing up inside of us the power that may, one day, overturn the tide of our idolatrous fornications with the “church.”
“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same–everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same–people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 10
 See Matthew 18:20
 See 2 Nephi 2:13-16, 26