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Re-evaluating LDS Myths about Reorganized Latter Day Saints

December 04th, 2010 by Bruce Nielson

A long time ago, I remember reading this post by John Hamer about the myths LDS people hold about the RLDS (Now the Community of Christ.) At the time, the Bloggernacle hailed this post as groundbreaking. Though I had some limited awareness that the LDS Church didn’t do a very good job of disentangling fact and myth about the RLDS, I also had some misgivings about the veracity of a few of Hamer’s points.

Recently FireTag, who is a Believing member of the Community of Christ, wrote this article on the Community of Christ’s recent choice to join the NCC (National Council of the Churches of Christ) expressing at least some level of concern over their move away from their Joseph Smith Jr. and restorationist roots. Interestingly John Hamer has responded to the post defending the CoC’s move.

The RLDS made a move to try to simultaneously embrace both Conservative and Liberal view points within their Church and here we have two great representatives of both of those view points. This gives us a unique chance to see two perspectives on the same issue — both from within the CoC — and thereby tease out truth, myth, and apologetics. Based on this further information, I am going to reassess Hamer’s original “myths” in light of a fuller knowledge.

The RLDS church only gave women the priesthood because they ran out of male Smiths to lead the church. Status: Myth

This one seems pretty much true to me for pretty much the reasons that John states in his original article. I am familiar enough with the RLDS to know that they did not always pass the presidency on from father to son, contrary to LDS myths. There was one exception where it was passed from brother to brother. The rest were from father to son. But that does mean there was strong precedent that it didn’t have to be father to son, so I believe this one is pretty much pure myth.

The Community of Christ scrapped the Book of Mormon in order to join the World Council of Churches (WCC). Status: Partially True

This claim in particular is interesting because we are seeing an essential replay of it as the CoC joins the NCC. Here is FireTag’s point of view:

Then I read the NCC’s letter explaining their basis for accepting the membership application from the Community of Christ — and now I’m less certain about that interpretation. It seems we made some very important additional theological concessions, actively or by omission, in order to be accepted. The NCC report, published here, makes clear that the NCC is letting the CofChrist join because they believe the CofChrist is sufficiently far from its historical Restoration roots.

Another area of concern to the NCC was the Book of Mormon. Here, their opinion may be disturbingly factual:

“But it is not, in any sense, equivalent to the Bible in the life of their communion. Subscription to its teaching is not required for membership or ordination. While the Book of Mormon is sometimes used for worship, there are parts of the COC that seldom refer to it.”

Here is John Hamer’s point of view:

The Book of Mormon has not been decanonized, and the D&C not only remains canon, new sections of canon continue to be added. The Community of Christ is governed by World Conference Resolutions, not the NCC’s report. What’s happened here is that a group of liberal Christians has recognized that Community of Christ is Christian without requiring the Community of Christ to give up its Restoration scripture. In other words, it’s the mainline Christians who blinked or compromised. That’s the news here that’s remarkable.

You’ll have to read everything both of them wrote to understand their full point of view, but this should give you a taste for the differences. It would appear that the real truth is that the Book of Mormon and D&C are both officially “downgraded” so to speak (having been apparently “unofficially downgraded” prior to this point). So whereas John sees this downgrade as essentially still scripture (and thus the concession is on the part of the NCC) FireTag sees the downgrade as primarily the CoC’s concession.

I should probably note here that some of our Protestant neighbors have been very clear in the past that they have little or no concern with The Book of Mormon so long as we choose to not view it as ‘scripture’ as they understand the term. Consider, for example, Craig Blomberg’s point of view from back in 1997.

Evangelicals would be even more grateful if [Robin’s point of view] led to more modest claims for Joseph’s writings, which did not commend them as of equal or greater authority than the Old and New Testaments. then we might think of them as constituting for the LDS what Luther’s collected works do for Lutherans or what Calvin’s Institutions do for Presbyterian and Reformed thought – important, foundational theological works that nevertheless do not supplant the unique role of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. The Reorganized LDS Church has already adopted this position… (From How Wide the Divide?, p. 54)

It is interesting to note here that Blomberg’s assertion predates this move of the CoC joining the NCC and thus has reference to past changes, including joining the WCC. So it would appear that this ‘myth’ had and has some truth to it and depends largely on how you personally define the word ‘scripture.’

I should also note here that the status of Restorationist scripture in the RLDS prior to becoming the CoC did seem to differ by congregation. Back in the 90s I had already met RLDS members that claimed they did not ever use The Book of Mormon in worship services at all. I do not think this was the ‘norm’ however.

The RLDS church changed its name because it wants to become another Protestant church. Status: Strawman

Based on these articles, I see no reason to believe that the RLDS changed their name because they wanted to become another Protestant Church. However, it is clear that FireTag believes the recent NCC move does essentially move the CoC strongly towards being more of a Protestant Church, at least in some measure.

This is a little like Joshua telling the children of Israel that the purpose of Moses leading their generation into the wilderness was so they’d realize Egypt wasn’t that bad and they were supposed to turn around. The mental gears freeze up.

By comparison, John Hamer sees it like this:

My personal view is that Brigham Young was a usurper. I also don’t think he was a good person. But my personal beliefs aside, when I look at the history in an institutional sense, it must be conceded that one of the things Brigham “usurped” was the bulk of the existing corporate structure of the church that JSJr founded in 1830. That institutional historical analysis has zero bearing on the question of divine mandate, since traditional Restoration theology includes the idea that institutions can fall into Apostasy, i.e., the primary institutional heir of the early Christian church is the Catholic Church, but this hasn’t made Mormons accept the Catholic Church as “the true church.”

The view that the Reorganization was the only true continuation of the original church was also a theological claim, held by early members of the Reorganization. Community of Christ abandoned this claim decades ago when it came to understand that the very act of making the claim to be “the one and only true church,” is a sign that you aren’t it (i.e., because there isn’t just one).

Theologically early Mormons believed that they were the Restoration of the New Testament church in every sense, including recovering all the actual historical practices and institutional authority. This was a faith position that was zealously believed, but which cannot be shown to be possible in an actual historical sense. This is no shame on them; people regularly have these notions — the people of the Renaissance actually believed they had given birth anew to the Classical era. Of course they hadn’t. They created something new, because you can never go home again. Likewise the 1830 organization was something new. And the 1860 reorganization, although possessed of vast continuity of membership, belief, and practice with the 1830 organization, was (in fact) a new foundation in an institutional historical sense.

So while the change of name to Community of Christ may not have had anything to do with a change to become more Protestant, it seems very clear that – whether you see it as good or bad – the CoC has moved to become more liberal Protestant.

The LDS church should not end priesthood discrimination on gender basis (or adopt any other progressive ideal); look at what happened to the RLDS church. Status: Myth Based on Truth

John Hamer came down strongest on this myth:

Whereas the other myths are relatively harmless, I find this one to be pernicious. The problem with this comparison is that it assumes that at some point in the 1970s, the LDS and the RLDS church were in the same place and their different paths almost function like a controlled science experiment. The reality is that the organizations aren’t comparable and never were.

Does the Community of Christ’s experience (for good or ill) presage the results the LDS church can expect to reap when women are eventually ordained and welcomed into the leadership? In the words of the RLDS First Presidency, the true answer is: “ @#!*% , no!”

I admit, I largely agree with John’s assessment in the original post that you can’t compare apples and oranges here. The RLDS and the LDS do not share much institutional history at all. So saying “well, the RLDS gave women the priesthood and they dwindled to obscurity, thus if the LDS Church gives women the priesthood they will too” is a logical non-starter for me because it’s too specific and assumes more shared history than ever actually existed.

On the other hand, it did not surprise me when FireTag said the following:

The second largest demographic bloc in the church consists of relatively aged, relatively conservative members still very committed to the uniqueness of the Restoration and uncomfortable with any suggestion that their sacrifices would have been just as meaningful in another denomination.

Consequently, following the 2007 Conference, the First Presidency was left with an “action item” to address the issue of the “conditions of membership”, and has been directing a formal discernment process intended to lead to the January 17 guidance to the church. This issue is considered sufficiently divisive that the leading quorums had clearly indicated a desire not to deal with other divisive matters until the church has proven it can work through the issue. The schism that resulted in the church in the 1980’s over extension of priesthood to women has clearly instilled caution in the church leadership.

So while I do not find anything strictly untrue about Hamer’s original assessment, I do find it to be a case of ‘spinning.’ The truth is that the RLDS did give women the priesthood and that they directly perceive that move as the source of following schism — a fact Hamer never mentioned in his original article.

However, I mostly agree with John. I do not believe the LDS Church announcing a revelation that women are now to receive the priesthood would have any where near the negative effect it did on the RLDS Church, largely because the LDS Church has a stronger history of accepting revelations through their “magisterium.” [1] However, I do think there is a lesson to the LDS Church from the RLDS Churches failures and I think it might hit closer to this mark that John is admitting to.

I suspect the real lesson of the RLDS for us LDS is not that we should or should not give women the priesthood, nor even we should or shouldn’t <fill in the blank here with progressive ideal.> The real lesson of the RLDS Church for the LDS Church is that trying to simultaneously embrace everyone is not (currently anyhow) a road to long term religious vitality. While I am not prepared to say that religiously liberal beliefs are always a death wish (though often this is the case), there really is no doubt that as of yet no on has ever made a vital and growing religion out of this approach.

Some, however, have been more successful than others. The Church of England has capitalized on their more secular and cultural roots to embrace both religiously conservative and liberal points of view. But they have the added advantage of being a state religion supported by taxes. And I’m still not sure I’d call them a “success” either. In a similar fashion, Liberal Jewish religions have strong ethnic and cultural roots to pull upon.

Likewise, I suspect that three generations from now, there will still be a Believing Mormon community and a “Menu Mormon” community. Yet, I do not think these comparison are all fair. For example, I suspect a huge percent of the future Believing Mormon community will be decedents of Believing Mormons today. By comparison, I suspect that no matter how many generations you flash forward in time that the Menu Mormon community will always still be overwhelmingly first generation. The Menu Mormon community is, and probably always will be, a “Rejectionist Community” in that they theologically share primarily a common rejection of other people’s beliefs. If the LDS Church disappeared tomorrow, the Menu Mormon community would as well.

We should certainly have a strong desire to integrate those who “practice but do not believe” as far as possible into the LDS Church, but not at the expense of the religion itself. To me, this is the real lesson of the RLDS to the LDS. A religion (well, particularly Christian religions) exists to allow those that share a set of beliefs to strengthen each other’s beliefs. When the RLDS (and any liberal Christian sect) made a move towards trying to embrace ‘both sides’ they did so at the risk of no longer being a religion. Yet, I do not blame Religiously Rejectionist communities for wanting to integrate with their more conservative counterparts, for they lack a life of their own. I have not yet even worked out my personal answer to this very real dilemma, but I’m virtually certain the RLDSs approach is at least somewhat causally linked to their current situation.

Comment over at Millennial Star.


[1] I should note here that I do not buy the myth that all the LDS Church needs to do to get their members to change beliefs is to “have a revelation.” The LDS Church, belief in the authority of its own magisterium aside, is still a group of humans with all that that implies. This means that at best the LDS Church can only change conservatively or they risk undermining the logical coherency of their own truth claims and thereby no longer having a set of shared beliefs. (i.e. become a ‘non-religion.’)

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