Thirty Years of Lessons: Women and Gays in the Community of Christ

Recently I was invited by the moderators of the liberal Mormon blog Wheat & Tares to be a guest contributor on issues related to Community of Christ. This post, published earlier today, is my first contribution for them.

By Rich Brown

Thirty years to the week after approving priesthood ordination for women, the Community of Christ is extending the sacraments of ordination and marriage to gays and lesbians in the United States. A two-year interim period begins on Monday, March 31, after which it will be reviewed and considered for permanent status. This follows similar action resulting from national conferences in Australia and Canada.

Lessons learned from what turned out to be a tumultuous (many might say disastrous) beginning for the 1984 landmark event have been put into place by CofC leaders today. Although a few church members in recent months have either turned in their priesthood cards or left the church, it’s nothing like the major exodus that took place three decades ago.

Aspen-TreesFor starters, this time there was a three-year preparation period leading up to a special USA National Conference held right after World Conference in Independence, Missouri, last April. The 2,000 USA delegates spent several days listening, testifying, and worshiping together before overwhelmingly recommending that the First Presidency and the USA Team of Apostles issue the changes. The official conference report is here.

Here’s the specifics: The marriage sacrament is authorized for individuals in a same-gender relationship wherever such civil marriage is legal. Elsewhere CofC congregations may celebrate a special covenant/blessing worship experience. And ordination can be extended to individuals with same-gender orientation who are either in a committed, long-term relationship or who are celibate. For those wondering, the same rules apply to straight folks.

Thirty years ago World Conference delegates were caught off guard when RLDS President Wallace B. Smith presented an inspired document to priesthood quorums and orders on April 3. Two days later the document was approved by the conference as a whole and it became Section 156 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The document was mostly about a proposed temple to be built in Independence. But the last few paragraphs brought general counsel regarding priesthood, including the following:

I have heard the prayers of many, including my servant the prophet, as they have sought to know my will in regard to the question of who shall be called to share the burdens and responsibilities of priesthood in my church. I say to you now, as I have said in the past, that all are called according to the gifts which have been given them. This applies to priesthood as well as to any other aspects of the work. Therefore, do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. –Doctrine and Covenants 156:9

“Wonder” wasn’t exactly the operative word for traditionalists and conservatives. Already suspicious of what they viewed as dangerous liberalizing tendencies in the church for at least two decades, they were incensed and vowed to fight the move every way possible. Business meetings in congregations, districts, and stakes where priesthood calls for women were presented often turned into angry shouting matches. People made sure every one of their baptized children was on hand to vote yes or no depending on the parents’ direction.

My own stake (Blue Valley, which included a portion of Independence and eastern Jackson County) had its rules of operation suspended because people simply couldn’t get along. It was a sad, ugly, and unfortunate time even while marking a new era of broadened ministry in the church. Today women and men serve alongside one another. If you didn’t know what happened decades ago, you’d probably never suspect there was anything unusual about the way priesthood functions now.

Numerous resolutions on same-gender issues were submitted to the past few World Conferences but were ruled out of order by the First Presidency, mainly because they were considered important to church members in a select few nations rather than as something critical for the international church. The CofC has an official presence in more than 60 nations.

In 2010 inspired counsel to the church called for creation of national conferences, specifically to consider issues related to same-gender orientation. With somewhere around half of all CofC members living outside the Western, industrialized countries in North America, Australia, and Europe, this was believed to be the only way same-gender issues could be dealt with in the church.

Delegates at the USA National Conference engaged in a unique process aimed at reaching “common consent.” This meant that a significant majority (at least 66 percent) would have to make a recommendation for top church leaders to act.

In mid-March of this year, the five apostles responsible for USA mission centers sent a copy of President Stephen Veazey’s “Statement to the Church: National Conference Recommendations and Interim Policies” to priesthood members. It was mailed to all USA pastors and high priests, evangelists (referred to as patriarchs before women were ordained), bishops, and seventy. They presented the president’s statement as “inspired by the Holy Spirit.” A DVD titled “President’s Reflections” will be available in April to church members and include four sections: Let Me Be Clear, What Does the Lord Require of Us, My Personal Testimony, and Room for Everyone.

President Veazey’s statement, which spills over onto a fourth page, is essentially a point-by-point counter to criticisms of the new same-gender policies.

To those who argued that these new policies were in opposition to previous revelation given to the church, President Veazey had this to say:

Doctrine and Covenants 111 provides instruction regarding marriage in the church. It is a statement written in the mid-1830s to counter rumors about adultery and polygamy in the church. Same-gender marriage was not conceivable, much less a question, in early 19th-century thought. To conclude that Doctrine and Covenants 111 definitely resolves the question of same-gender marriage ignores its historical context and stated purpose. Also, although Section 111 was included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its historical preface clearly states it was not a revelation.

To those who have pointed to certain Bible verses used to condemn same-gender orientation and relationships, he offered this:

Let me be clear. Continuing Revelation approved by the World Conference means those particular Bible verses are not the final word on these matters. Such verses now are understood through insights offered in Continuing Revelation approved by the church…. However, the real issue was not just several Bible verses, but how we understand and apply scripture.

He identified Doctrine and Covenants Section 163 as important counsel in these matters:

Scripture is an indispensable witness to the Eternal Source of light and truth, which cannot be fully contained in any finite vessel or language…. Scripture has been written and shaped by human authors through experiences of revelation and ongoing inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the midst of time and culture. Scripture is not to be worshiped or idolized…. It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices. –D. and C. 163:7 (excerpted)

President Veazey concluded that Section 163:7

applies to the verses used to deny persons of same-gender orientation access to all sacraments. It also applies to situations where scripture verses are used by some to dominate, oppress, or exclude others who are different from them. Because the World Conference approved Section 163:7 as an expression of God’s will, the Bible verses most often used to categorically denounce same-gender orientation and relationships no longer should be presented as the final word on these matters.

He said it “is clear that God is maturing us as a `prophetic people’ who discern divine will by responsibly engaging scripture, tradition, Continuing Revelation, knowledge and reason, personal and community experience, and Spirit-led consent…. I believe more-than-sufficient revelation has been received to resolve issues about same-gender relationships in nations where those issues are pressing matters.”

Near the end of his official statement, President Veazey wrote: “As I have continued to seek direction on behalf of the church, the Spirit has brought assurance that questions about same-gender orientation and marriage are primarily related to life on Earth. They do not have necessary bearing on salvation, the divinity of the church and the sacraments, or the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes.”

No doubt people both inside the CofC and outside it will be examining these words and trying to read between the lines. For me, it’s clear that “Continuing Revelation” is the most important consideration for the church as it deals with these and other critical issues.

It reminds me of an essay by theologian David Ford who described religion as God speaking to us from the past. Think of that as the accumulation of scripture, church tradition, and wise people who’ve used reason and intelligence to bring the church to where it is today. Ford identified revelation as God speaking to us from the future.

If God is free to open history from the future then the future need not mirror the past. In the Church this combines with the message of the cross to allow for discontinuities and innovations. –David F. Ford, `Faith in the Cities: Corinth and the Modern City’ in “On Being the Church” (1989)

Ford cited the example of the apostle Paul who claimed authority as an apostle through direct revelation from the risen Christ rather than an institutional authority handed on to him from Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem. To that I would add the experience of Joseph Smith Jr. in the early 19th century, who served as God’s instrument in bringing forth a “great and marvelous” new work.

We are all caught somewhere in between religion and revelation, and every church/denomination finds its own point on the continuum. With this “Statement to the Church” President Stephen Veazey is not only prompting the Community of Christ in an obvious direction but in a curious way he mirrors the examples of Apostle Paul and Joseph Smith in challenging the church to understand more fully what it means to be a prophetic people.

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Reading the Book of Mormon in 2014 with Fresh Eyes

BooksOfMormonIn the new year 2014, I’m going to read the Book of Mormon.

I’ve opined more than once that as a major work of American literature, the Book of Mormon is unfairly ignored by readers outside the Restoration tradition. I believe the book can (and should) be read as an epic of the young American republic in the first generations after the revolution. With a few exceptions like Harold Bloom, most non-Mormons have either followed Mark Twain’s humorous panning of the text (as impenetrably boring)[1] or they’ve disregarded it altogether.

Even within the Restoration tradition, the book has tended to be used in particular ways. For the earliest members in the 1830s, the Book of Mormon was apparently more important as a sign of the end times and prophetic authority than as a source of theological content for preaching.[2] Over the years I suspect that readers within the tradition have tended to read the text as a history book — in keeping with the idea that the religion of Mormonism has history in place of a systematic theology. Recently, for many readers committed to reading the text as a literalistic history of the ancient Americas, this has led (in my opinion) to substantial distortions of its original meaning as the book is reframed through the prism of our ever-expanding knowledge of actual Meso-American history.  (In Community of Christ, it’s been read less and less according to informal feedback from members in my own congregation and around North America, with many people unsure how to approach the book anymore.)

I’m planning to approach the text differently. Instead of reading the book as a sign of Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority or the authority of one of the successor churches of the religious movement he helped found or trying to read into it a history of the ancient Mayans or Olmecs, I’m intending to read the Book of Mormon for its theological and philosophical content. To better understand this content, I’ll attempt to place it within Joseph Smith’s immediate context — the fervent North American Protestant religious revival in early the 19th century known as the “Second Great Awakening.” I’ll try to read the stories for what they are trying to teach as stories, rather than as histories of past events. I hope to track the early development of Joseph Smith’s religious thinking and how it influenced the early Restoration, but I also want to see how I will find meaning in the Book of Mormon’s theology and philosophy for those of us living now in the 21st century.

I think I’m returning to the Book of Mormon with a unique vantage. On the one hand, I’m fairly knowledgeable about the background history of its composition and publication and I think I’m rather familiar with its contents in a general sense. But I haven’t actually read the book cover to cover since I was a young teenager. I’m therefore approaching the text with eyes that are at once informed but also somewhat fresh.

I also come at the text armed with a different understanding of scripture than many other faithful members of Restoration traditions that are more literalistic. My views are largely in keeping with Community of Christ’s statement on scripture. This view includes the idea that scripture is not inerrant scientifically or historically. Rather, scripture is a human response to the Divine and the prophet or evangelist who authored the text was subject to the biases and errors inherent in his or her historical context. Rather than excuse ethical or philosophically bad teachings in scripture, in my view we need to understand them for what they are and use them to help us explore the ethical and philosophical questions we face in our lives today.

My own bias at the outset includes my belief that the Book of Mormon is a work of 19th century scripture, composed orally by Joseph Smith and written down by various scribes (especially Oliver Cowdery). If you believe the text is a translation of an ancient American text, I think you may still derive benefit from reading along with me and examining the text in a different light. However, the resulting discussion will not be a forum for historicity debates; those can be held elsewhere. Similarly, if you aren’t sure about or don’t believe in God or have value for the word or concept of “scripture,” I think you may still benefit from reading along and examining the book’s content in context.

Scope of the Project / How You Can Read Along

The text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today is different from the text as it was composed. Thousands of edits were made in Joseph Smith’s lifetime and the different churches and publishers made subsequent changes. One of the biggest changes was the division of the book into numbered verses, which each church did on its own. The LDS Church also divided the long, original chapters into shorter chapters — thus the chapter and versification between the Community of Christ and LDS versions are entirely different. (I’ll cite both reference systems as I post.) To get at the earliest text, I’m going to do my principal reading from Royal Skousen’s The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (Yale, 2009). I’ll supplement it using Grant Hardy’s The Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Edition (University of Illinois, 2003) for the LDS text along with my copy of the Community of Christ’s “Authorized Edition” of the Book of Mormon (Herald House, 1992).

In order to take in the development of the Book of Mormon’s ideas, I’m going to read it in the order it was composed, rather than in the order of its internal chronology. The earliest part of the text is famously lost: the so-called “116 Pages” given to Martin Harris. When Joseph began to compose again, he started at the point of the narrative where he’d left off with the story of King Benjamin in the Book of Mosiah. He then dictated the text to the end of the Book of Moroni before starting in on I and II Nephi through Words of Mormon. Using that order, I’ve divided the book into reading sections, which I’m posting here for anyone who wants to read along. Each Wednesday I’ll publish a blog post with my reflections on that week’s reading and we can share in discussion here.

My first post will be next Wednesday (on New Year’s Day), where we’ll talk a little bit about the book’s composition process and the original, lost part of the text. Since we don’t have the “116 Pages,” our reading will come from the Doctrine and Covenants (Community of Christ Section 2, which is LDS Section 3).

Next year I’m teaching adult Sunday School in the Toronto congregation who will be reading along with me and discussing the text each Sunday at 10 am.  I’ll be posting posting on Wheat and Tares for the Mormon audience and here for the Community of Christ audience.  Feel free to read along and join us!

ReadingSchedule1

ReadingSchedule2

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[1] Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Twain devotes chapter 16 to a humorous review of the Book of Mormon. Although Twain’s quip that the book “is chloroform in print” is much quoted, the joke no longer translates as people have ceased to remember chloroform as a sleep-inducing anesthetic. I much prefer Twain’s take on the Eight Witnesses, which still holds up: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

[2] In her study of the writings of William McLellin, one of the original Latter Day Saint apostles, Jan Shipps noted that “although the Book of Mormon is always mentioned, at only three points does this extended account of six years for Mormon preaching in the early 1830s [i.e., McLellin’s journals] indicate that this scripture was used as a source for sermon texts.” More important than its content for early members was “the fact of the book” and “its coming forth a the opening event in the dispensation that was serving as the ‘winding-up scene’ before the curtain rose on the eschaton.” See Jan Shipps, “Another Side of Early Mormonism,” in The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836, eds. Jan Shipps and John W. Welch (BYU Studies and University of Illinois Press, 1994), 6.

Balanced Stewardship

“Stewardship is the response of my people to the ministry of my Son…”
-Doctrine and Covenants Section 147:5a (CofC)

This blog is based on a sermon I preached, which you can read here.

A few years ago my congregation decided to identify six ministriebalances that we would focus on. After an extended period of consideration, the team that spearheaded this initiative decided that one of these six ministries had to be stewardship.

However, we recognized that the term stewardship has some baggage in our church, and is also limited in scope. We therefore wanted to rejuvenate and expand the meaning of stewardship.

As a result, we decided to gave this particular ministry, as we envisioned it, the term “balanced stewardship”. The aim of this ministry was defined as follows:

“Focus the careful and responsible management of time, talent, and resources to support the long term plan of the congregation…”

We also attached two primary objectives to this ministry:

1) To be a congregation made up of people who are individually and collectively inspired to joyfully offer their gifts in response to God’s grace.
2) Embracing a whole-life stewardship that is not limited to monetary responses.

However, I felt that it would be a challenge for many of our members, even with the above statements, to get their heads around the concept of stewardship being an aspect of all expressions of their discipleship, not just generosity.

Therefore, in a sermon I preached, I described five *possible* forms of balanced stewardship, which are as follows:

One: Fiscal Stewardship (A Disciple’s Generous Response)

This is the traditional understanding of stewardship. Financial contributions to the church…because as much as we felt that the concept of stewardship needed to be expanded, tithing and offerings, etc., are still critically important.

Fiscal stewardship is of vital importance to the mission of the church, both locally and globally, and it’s reflective of our generous response to the needs of others. Additionally, generosity is an expression of charity, and charity is an expression of love.

Your loving and generous contributions to your congregation, to your mission center, and to World Church, and to various programs such as World Accord, touch the lives of people all around the world, truly having a beneficial impact on those whose ministerial needs outweigh our own.

Our current tithing program is termed “A Disciple’s Generous Response”. This program teaches us that generosity is a spiritual discipline. It also encourages us to respond faithfully, spend responsibly, save wisely, and give generously.

These are all wise words, and we need to embrace them. Yet in a system that promotes balanced stewardship, fiscal stewardship is but one form of our call to be good stewards. And its important to remember that fiscal stewardship is not about guilt. No one is expected to give beyond their means, or to give when they can’t.

Two: Earth Stewardship (Environmental/Conservation issues)

This is perhaps a more recent expression of stewardship, at least, for many of us, but it is an ancient discipline among aboriginal communities. Yet now the rest of the world has finally caught on; and God is encouraging us to embrace our call to be custodians of the whole world.

One of my favourite scriptures is the following :

“The earth, lovingly created as an environment for life to flourish, shudders in distress because creation’s natural and living systems are becoming exhausted from carrying the burden of human greed and conflict. Humankind must awaken from its illusion of independence and unrestrained consumption without lasting consequences.”
–Doctrine and Covenants 163:4b (CofC version).

This passage truly resonates with me, and I am eager to explore ways in which our church, and our congregation can help protect the world on which we live. This planet is a gift from God, as are all things in creation. We can’t take anything, even the world itself, for granted.

Three: Zionic Stewardship (Peace & Justice)

This is the responsibility that we have, beyond our charitable gifts, to help improve the conditions of all people throughout the world. To care for one another.

A very, very, very, long time ago, God asked a rather short and simple question: “where is your brother” and the reply that He received was this: “am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to that question is “yes!” you *are* your brother’s keeper! You are a keeper of all children of God.

We are reminded of this calling, this aspect of our stewardship, by another verse from Section 163:

“God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.” -4a

So you see, God has charged us with the task of helping to improve the lot of others, building a better world, living our mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ, and promoting communities of joy, hope, love, and peace. This is Zionic stewardship.

Four: Ministerial Stewardship (time, energy, resource management)

This is sort of a catchall. This is the stewardship of our own blessings; or, to put it another way, our time, energy, gifts and talents, and how we use them, our willingness to use them, our willingness to risk; to move beyond our comfort zones.

This type of stewardship could also be understood as an expression of our discipleship; and it deals with our willingness to identify those things that we are passionate about, and finding opportunities to give expression to those things in a church context.

Five: Temple Stewardship (physical, emotional & spiritual wellbeing)

The name of this form of stewardship comes from First Corinthians, in which we read the following:

“…do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which you have of God, and you are not your own?” -19 IV (adapted)

This verse reminds us that our bodies are gifts from God. They are temples of the Lord. They are not ours, but His. As such, we would do well to take very good care of them. Therefore, we must always be attentive to our personal health, in all it’s many forms. Our health is multi-dimensional, and therefore, so must be our efforts to take care of our health, our temples of the Lord.

And this also includes our spiritual wellbeing. We must be careful to ensure that we don’t experience burnout. And if we do, then we need to recognize it, and appropriately cope with it. This is also a key aspect of our temple stewardship.

***

A member of my congregation decided to use the five examples of balanced stewardship by creating a “spring cleaning challenge” for our membership, which was as follows:

IT’S TIME FOR SOME SPRING CLEANING!
spring

Free yourself up to connect with God! (via the following five goals)

1. Earth Stewardship
Set a goal to find a way to look after the earth. Achieve the goal!

2. Fiscal Stewardship
Set a goal to manage your money better. Achieve the goal!

3. Ministerial Stewardship
Set a goal to cultivate your blessings. Develop your use of your time, talents, energy, and gifts. Achieve the goal!

4. Temple Stewardship
Set a goal to improve your health and lifestyle. Achieve the goal!

5. Zionic Stewardship
Set a goal to find a way to improve the lives of others. Achieve the goal!

Breathe Clearly Again!

***

I hope, after prayerful consideration, that you will agree that balanced stewardship, however one might define it, is important. There are many reasons. For example, it could be neglectful, or even maladaptive, to focus on only one expression of stewardship.

Plus, we are encouraged to broaden our ministry, to become more diverse in our witness of Jesus Christ. This promotes our own spiritual growth, not to mention the positive impact that may transpire in the lives of those to whom we minister, which may not occur if we are not willing to render new forms of ministry.

The church needs balanced stewardship. From each of us. That need has never been more urgent. Our discipleship and stewardship must be flexible, and relevant. We must be open to change, because the church has changed, and the church has changed because the world has changed, and that is perhaps the most important reason why balanced stewardship is so vitally important.

***

What does stewardship mean to you? Is it appropriate to envision stewardship in a broader manner than previously understood? Do the five examples above resonate with you? How do you envision balanced stewardship?

We’re Still Listening

I’m a believer in the Restoration. I do not subscribe to a conservative story that Joseph Smith Jr. restored an ancient church, but I’m a believer that many blessings, customs, and ordinances of the past were “restored.”

joseph-smith-first-visionI often find myself in dialogue with other believers of the Restoration; I listen intently to what they believe is the most significant blessing of the restoration. (Please feel free to share below what you believe is the most significant blessing) I enjoy the dialogue because to me the Restoration is a journey not an event. The principles of the Restoration are the same, but our understanding of those principles is ever changing.

Following the death of the apostles, there was a movement to canonize the apostolic writings. Many of the writings out there were not apostolic in origin, but drew upon the inspiration of their ministry. For centuries, debate and discussion took place on what should be considered scripture and what shouldn’t.  By the end of the 16th Century, most Christian communities had canonized their scriptures and closed their canons.

Essentially, the Christian world had found their scripture and believed that no further dialogue was needed.

The Restoration changed this thinking. The early church adopted the concept that God has revealed in the past and he has more to reveal. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon was significant. Not just because of the witness that it bore, but because it helped prepare the early saints for the coming of additional scripture.

I have found it to be a delight that the spirit of the Restoration is alive in Community of Christ. God continues to speak to us just as he did in Moses’ time, Christ’s time, and Joseph Smith’s time. Community of Christ has been blessed with the revelation that has been given. Over the last 180+ years the church has seen: Women ordained to the priesthood, two temples built, an open communion policy, an opening of the priesthood and sacrament of marriage to our gay brothers and sisters (this has only been accepted in some counties) and so many other blessings which have resulted from our continual dialogue with God.

President Grant McMurray in Section 161:1b counseled the church to “Be faithful to the spirit of the Restoration, mindful that it is a spirit of adventure, openness, and searching…”

I’m happy to testify that the Community of Christ is continuing to live the spirit of the Restoration. I believe that the biggest blessing from the Restoration is the opening up of the heavens and the continuing dialogue between us and our God. May we all continue to be faithful to the Restoration’s spirit!

Living Scripture and a Vision of the Living Restoration

Note: The following are my thoughts on Living Scripture and the Living Restoration in Community of Christ.  I’m excited to share them, but (as always), you are not obliged to agree with me to be in communion with me.

Vision

The seekers in upstate New York who came together on April 6, 1830, wanted to restore the true church of Christ, which they believed had been lost to the Earth. They called the new church they founded the “Church of Christ” because they believed (based on scripture) that Church of Christ was the original name of the “primitive”* Christian church in 1st century Palestine. In the 19th century seekers’ view, they weren’t “founding” a new church, they were merely “organizing” the old church that had fallen into error and become disorganized. As they moved onward from New York to Ohio and Missouri, and ultimately to Nauvoo, Illinois, they earnestly believed they were literally restoring (and experiencing once again) the church of the 1st century.

And in this belief, they were quite literally wrong.

The restored Church of Christ was not the primitive church reborn again identically from where it had left off. There were no high priests, no patriarchs, no First Presidency or Stake High Councils in the primitive church. There were no Stakes, no wards, no relief societies. There were no Christian temples in the primitive church. The Nauvoo endowment had no precedent whatsoever in antiquity. Rather, the Nauvoo endowment was based directly on the rites of Freemasonry, which likewise (despite Masonic claims) were entirely modern. And, of course, no notion of Joseph Smith’s late theological speculation on eternal progression had ever been imagined among primitive Christians.

The fact that the Restoration was not literal shouldn’t come as any surprise to us. “You can never go home again” is an aphorism, but in history it’s true enough. When Community of Christ re-built Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in Nauvoo on the foundation of the original Red Brick Store, the original Red Brick Store didn’t come back into being. When the LDS Church re-built the Nauvoo Temple, the original temple was not somehow resurrected. Rather, in both cases, new replicas were constructed. Both new buildings have all sorts of differences from the originals — not the least of which being that the original buildings were original, while the new buildings were structures that were deliberately patterned on structures existed in the past. By their very natures, a replica (in the case of a building) or a revival (in the case of an idea or institution) are inherently different from something original.

I don’t point this out to dismiss the latter-day Restoration or the earnest faith of its early adherents. While they got some things very wrong, I believe they also got some things very right.

Among the most important ideas they got right was a rejection of the “Golden Age Myth.” Living, as they were, in the wake of the Enlightenment, they and people all around them had begun to read symbolic stories as though they were merely literal history. This change created new and highly distorted readings of sacred, symbolic stories in the Bible. New literalists couldn’t help but notice that in the Bible, animals occasionally talked, prophets turned sticks into snakes and caused the sun to stand still, and God talked to humans like humans talk to each other. They likewise noted (correctly) that such things did not happen in the present day. From this, many believers understandably concluded that the past era was different from the present era. In the past there had (apparently) been a spiritual or heroic age filled with miraculous, enchanted happenings — a Golden Age — while in the present age, the heavens were closed. The spiritual gifts of the past were no more.

The early members of the Restoration disagreed. “The heavens were not closed!” they declared. The same spiritual gifts that were ever available of old continued to be available. Prophets could yet respond to the Divine in the prophetic voice. When the Restoration’s first historian, John Whitmer, began his history of the latter-day movement, he used the same scriptural language — so identified in English because of the then unchallenged popularity of the King James Bible — that Joseph Smith used in composing the Book of Mormon and the revelations that formed the initial sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. For the early members of the Restoration, scripture was not just consigned to a heroic past or Golden Age — scripture could still be lived today.

This was partially because early members remained in a liminal period — they had one foot in a world of unexplained enchantment and one foot in a more fully understood and explained world. Standing on the threshold, they were not always to discern between the symbolic and the literal. For example, the witnesses who viewed the plates understood that their visions were visionary,† but many who read the testimonies the witnesses signed did not.  The members who saw angels in Kirtland temple understood the difference between the eye of the spirit and the physical eye. But early members who took up arms at the Battle of Crooked River did not understand that the Biblical account of Gideon’s defeat of Midianites (Judges 6-8) was a myth. In imagining God would similarly deliver their enemies, early members of the Restoration came close to precipitating their own actual extermination in the 1838 Missouri War.

As people in the 21st century, we have largely crossed the threshold into a post-enchanted world. And ironically, that means for the bulk of Restoration believers today, the heavens are again closed — there is no new scripture; there are no new revelations.  The early Restoration now represents a Second Golden Age whose sacred stories (in many cases) are once again misunderstood to have been literal. This is a shame because there are miracles (such as the miracles of love, forgiveness, and transcendence), even if there is not (and never was) magic (such as demonic possession or turning water into wine). The latter can still be meaningfully understood symbolically, while the former can be meaningfully experienced literally.

Fortunately, in Community of Christ, the canon continues to be open. The river of revelation is ever flowing and we are renewed with new scripture that speaks to our experience today. And we are all called to feel inspiration and respond as a prophetic people to our own individual encounters with God.  We are living scripture as our scripture continues to be living.

In my view, the Restoration was never meaningful as a set of correct answers that had somehow been forgotten were relearned. Rather, its true value is understanding that the scripture must be continually Restored as human understanding expands, so that gospel is a living thing that can still be lived meaningfully today.

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* In the 19th century, the adjective “primitive” more generally referred to the earliest form of an institution or custom.  The word in our own time has narrowed to refer more specifically to cavemen.

† The plates artifact was handled by multiple witnesses under a cloth and/or lifted while sealed shut in a wooden box; and many people were able to visually inspect transcriptions of the characters.  But there were no direct physical sight eye-witnesses of the plates; all visions of the plates were visionary.

Mapping the Community of Christ Terrain of Identities

Recently, Matt Frizzell posted an article on this blog reflecting on the differing possible identities for the Community of Christ. I have been reflecting on his article for some time now and considering what the dimensions of the Community of Christ identity are. Too often we have simplified the conflicts in the church down to a “Liberal-Conservative Split” which I think misses a lot of nuance. I have come up with a basic typology (ever the political scientist!) based on two dimensions:

1) a “Latter Day Saint/Protestant Axis”, based on a person’s attachment to the RLDS tradition, scripture, doctrine and story as opposed to a more conventional Protestant theology.

2) a “Fideist/Rationalist Axis” based on a person’s trust in reason, science and scholarship versus a sense that faith must come before and above reason (a kind of scholasticism).

This is what I get:

Latter Day Saint Protestant
Fideist Traditional RLDS Evangelical/Pentecostal
Rationalist Post-Modern RLDS Liberal

Continue reading

What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

I just published a long-ish blog post that responds to the question, “What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?” The post focuses on questions of Community of Christ identity in light of its North American heritage.

I share the link here to invite reactions and comments to my observations about the nature and limits of RLDS identity and how I believe Community of Christ logically fulfills essential non-sectarian strands of RLDS heritage in Restrationism and early American Christianity.   I welcome responses from Mormonites, ex-Mormons, Community of Christ members, Restorationists, historians, theologians, and others.

CLICK HERE to go directly to the post, or follow the links above to my blog.

Blessings,  Matt Frizzell