In his April 5th Address, “A Defining Moment,” President Steve Veazey tackled several pressing issues facing Community of Christ. Most anticipated were his remarks regarding rebaptism and conditions of church membership. A recent article in the Herald by Church Historian Mark Scherer indicates that this is not a new issue for Community of Christ, the church at certain times and under certain conditions recognizing the baptisms of another Restoration church. These instanced included, under Joseph Smith III, recognizing the baptisms of those who had followed Brigham Young west if they had been baptized before the 1844 schism, and members of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) from 1918 to 1926. A recurring issue, Community of Christ is now engaging it in new ways and with new eyes, considering whether baptisms of other Christian faiths are acceptable for new members entering into our community.
Of the nineteenth-century context, where the church’s position was one of exclusivity, Scherer states that “launching a new religion in the volatile American era was a daunting task. No guarantee existed that Latter Day Saintism could compete with other denominations” (Herald April 22). He then quotes Nathan O. Hatch, a historian of American religion, who “described the times as ‘a wildly diverse religious culture [that] made both denominational identity and authority fragile creations.’ Most churches, including ours, believed that theirs was ‘the only true church’” (ibid).
Drawing from the Catholic lexicon and experience, we find another example of ‘the only true church’ in a Latin phrase chanted by monks for centuries: extra ecclesia nulla salus, or “outside of the Church there is no salvation.” While Community of Christ might have equated the Kingdom of God with their institution alone for more than a century, today we are seeking to be a true and living church, no longer denying the extra-ecclesia experience of other followers of Christ outside of the Restoration or even our body of believers. And there seems to be some justification for this in the early Doctrine & Covenants, where Sidney Rigdon was told that, while a Campbellite minister, he had “baptize[d others] by water unto repentance” (See D&C 34:2, LDS D&C 35:3-5). As a mission-oriented church, it is not surprising that we are considering accepting other Christian baptisms when so many potential converts insist that getting rebaptized invalidates their previous commitment to and walk with Christ. Many of these persons are already in our congregations, but are unable to take part in the full life of the church and its sacraments because they are unwilling to be rebaptized.
For a missionary church that is looking to develop a bigger net to cast, however, there is a danger in making the holes in the net too large—for both those we are seeking to draw in, and those already within. Hatch’s statement regarding “denominational identity and authority” being “fragile creations” is most interesting when coupled with comments by Armand Mauss, a sociologist of Mormonism. Mauss argues in his book, The Angel and the Beehive, that Mormonism has oscillated between retrenchment from and acceptance towards mainstream society, necessarily remaining in tension in order to maintain its identity and value among followers. In this same vein, regarding Community of Christ, he states:
It seems to me that the issue is one of maintaining boundaries (at the institutional level) and identity (at the psychological level)…. For [Community of Christ] (or any other liberal denomination) it is not enough that the message or the truth-claims be clear, coherent, and well articulated. They must also make demands on adherents, demands for money, for time, for commitment, and for a certain number of at least mildly stigmatizing “peculiarities” (like no abortions, no birth control, no divorce, and no meat on Friday for pre-Vatican II Catholics; no wine, no non-marital sex, strange temple rites and underwear, big families, commitment to angels and golden bibles, etc., for Mormons). Whether [Community of Christ] or other denominations, the ones that are growing and thriving are those that make these kinds of demands on their adherents as a way of drawing and maintaining boundaries. It is not only the [Community of Christ] but virtually all denominations whose boundaries have eroded that are in trouble…. Coherent gospels and truth-claims are also important but are secondary (after all, believers tend to stylize formal dogmas to meet their own needs). To avoid losing its identity altogether, [Community of Christ], like other liberal (or liberalizing) denominations, will have to “turn up the tension” (with the rest of the surrounding culture and surrounding religious market) by increasing the ideological and life-style demands made on the membership, thereby [re]drawing boundaries by emphasizing peculiarities. (Quoted in Lawrence Foster’s “Beyond Black Muslims and Reorganized Mormons,” JWHA Journal Vol. 28, page 57)
Reading Mauss within Hatch’s nineteenth-century assessment, authority and identity are still fragile, but where it was once so because of its newness, it is now so after being codified and becoming rigid. Not because of being green, but from being brittle, the church is in danger of schism when it attempts to change identities, boundaries, and conceptions of authority.
There is significant sociological data that the churches that have liberalized and become more inclusive, since the nineteenth-century to the present day, have tended to lose members. And many sociologists, like Mauss, have concluded that in accepting too many and too much, their identity as a unique group is watered down until it no longer matters. For this group of researchers, less is more, for their data shows that longtime members break off or simply quit coming—or, more likely, their children see no reason to continue with the tradition of the parents—and new members become nonexistent. It was the exceptionalism of RLDS identity, of a separate people from the rest of Christianity and the rest of Mormonism, that gave it staying power and steam across generations. It mattered because they were a peculiar people—unique and special among all others.
Exceptionalism, however, has a dark underbelly. Many wars and acts of violence and oppression have been waged and perpetrated by countries and peoples who felt that they had a God-ordained role that made them exceptional, and in some ways, unaccountable to their neighbor. While not entirely disagreeing with Mauss’s assessment, I am wary of those peculiarities that posit identity in opposition to another. “Turning up the tension,” as he puts it, is an act of negative identity formation that pits a community against the world, and creates an inward looking group that does not need to value strangers except as potential proselytes (NB that both of Mauss’s examples consider[ed] themselves to be the one true church).
Community of Christ ought to embrace the rest of the Restoration, of Christianity, and all of religion as, to varying degrees, God founded, God led, and God pleasing; recognizing the worth of all religions, however, does not mean that we ought to honor the acts of violence perpetuated by some on the basis of ecumenical relativity and relations. As a prophetic people, a recent revelation calls us to “courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace” (D&C 163:3b). This prophetic call involves challenging all enemies to the peace of God, foreign and domestic. Here, I think, is our peculiarity, among a few other oddities.
As a unique people among many, instead of the exceptional people without peers, we have boundaries that need not apology but celebration: additional scriptures, a current prophet, and an open canon—along with a very colorful and inspiring history. Further, Community of Christ offers a distinctive, meaningful, and worthwhile message as it champions the worth of all persons and establishment of zionic communities of Christ’s peace throughout the world. The church’s current challenge is to continue to develop its identity, as a people of reconciliation and Christ’s peace, while maintaining boundaries necessary for cohesion. Patience is important, for persons on both sides of the issue.
The realization of our identity as Restoration Christians will take time to develop and gel. Earlier efforts of negative-identity formation, against the Mormons and against other Christians, will not do if our message and mission involves restoring holiness to all of creation, which in total was pronounced “good” by the Creator. We are not to shun the world, but embrace its potential embodied in Zion, or the world at its best. So, in acknowledging the good out there beyond our own little institution, it is fitting that we consider the value in other ministries, and value in others’ sacraments such as baptism.
There is, however, the question of timing. Community of Christ identity is in a Vatican II-esque, post-RLDS phase that will require time to gel; consequently, moving too quickly in changing our most basic concept of identity found in baptism and membership may further dilute our sense of “us.” If we leave the 99 to go after the 1, we may find only 89 or less when we return. This is acceptable, for me, if it is a human rights issue. Rebaptism, however, seems to lack that urgency. We are cautioned that “there are many issues that could easily consume the time and energy of the church. However, the challenge before a prophetic people is to discern and pursue what matters most for the journey ahead” (D&C 163:11b). We would do well to focus on those things that bring us together, that give us a unique and special and meaningful place in the world, and allow us to move forward in proclaiming Jesus Christ, and promoting communities of joy, hope, love, and peace.
Community of Christ’s celebration of unity ought to be a celebration of “unity in diversity” (one of the church’s Enduring Principles). While rebaptism is an important issue, it pales in comparison to the second-class status of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in terms of the sacrament of ordination. We can be unique—or “peculiar” to use Mauss’s terminology—in regards to our commitment to the marginalized, oppressed, poor, and hated. Our current mission, in fact, demands this sort of requirement of our people. While I am hopeful that we will rise to the call already articulated, it seems than another exodus will occur when and if we become more inclusive towards either sacrament, ordination or baptism—as occurred when women were ordained to the priesthood in the early 1980s.
Consider that identity and boundaries tell believers who they are and where they stand, individually and collectively. When identity and boundaries are coupled with beliefs and a message and a mission, a church transforms into more than an institution, but a worldview for and meaning and purpose in life. Baptism is emblem to identity, boundary, beliefs, message, and mission—and for many, they have staked their entire world and sense of self on it. If they leave over this issue, it is because the current direction of the church is no longer in accord with their views of the universe and with themselves: with the way things are, were, and ought to be. For many, literally everything of lasting importance is riding on this debate, and so I urge caution. There needs to be time to percolate; and similar to the development of the name of the church, which John Hamer posted previously to SaintsHerald, over time and with patience God’s will will be made manifest.
If there is to be a high cost in church membership, then our stand ought to be on principles of human rights. And if tension with society is necessary for church-identity cohesion, it is telling that very few outside of the Restoration will care if we open up baptism, but the next World Conference will have twice the protestors if we honor the worth of all persons in the ministry of the priesthood, regardless of sexual orientation as we have done with gender (and race, since the beginning of the Reorganization). It will be a requirement on the community that will strengthen boundaries and identity, mission and message—and a worthy cause if some feel they can no longer worship alongside us. This, to me, is “what matters most for the journey ahead.”