Note: This post is primarily targeting members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Please pardon my use of the Mormon jargon.
“I know this church is true.” You might be able to go a week without hearing that string of words in a Mormon congregation, but certainly not a month. Every Fast Sunday that comes along is almost guaranteed to have at least a handful of members proclaiming this as part of their testimony. By itself, however, this phrase has little meaning. What it really is is shorthand for a concept that is not easily put into a sound bite.
“I know the church is true” more explicitly means that the speaker has a conviction that the LDS Church is the one and only church of Jesus Christ in that it is run by His authority through His priesthood with leaders who follow Him to the best of their ability and who receive inspiration and revelation to facilitate that leadership. Moreover, that any errors or imperfections in the church are there because of man, but that Christ will compensate and justify honest mistakes to continue the work of His church. That through the ordinances provided by the church that we are able to make binding covenants with Christ, and through service in the church and to our fellowmen that we show ourselves worthy of His grace. And finally, that through the scriptures and prophets of the church that true doctrines of the Gospel can be most effectively learned.
You may have noticed a few points in that last paragraph where human error might come into play. We also believe in human error – even in leaders of the church. The church may be true, but is not perfect.
Before I get into too much trouble with those statements, let me quote a couple of scriptures. First, Article of Faith 9 says, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (emphasis added) This is not just referring to the concept of continuing revelation for the guiding of the church through modern challenges, but to new and important information (dare I say doctrine?) to add to our understanding of the Kingdom of God. If we are missing important information, how can we consider it perfect?
Second is from Wilford Woodruff in the first Official Declaration, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” Yet we know that the Lord allowed imperfect practices (born of good intentions or ignorance?) in the form of denying the priesthood to blacks. Due to this apparent contradiction, the only way to reconcile this is through the principle of agency. We are expected to do our best and seek guidance from the Lord. Our state as imperfect mortals means that we will not always do the best thing, even if we’re trying our best. Hence the initiation and propagation of imperfections.
So, this is awkward. This is how we end up with situations that give rise to organizations like the Ordain Women movement in the church, for instance. We have conflict between the current practice of the church, which some see as needing correction, and our responsibility as members to sustain the leaders of the church.
So, let’s say you’re someone who believes a practice of the church is wrong or imperfect. Say you feel you even received personal revelation to the effect that the practice would be changed some day — which is something a person may be entitled to receive, depending on their circumstances. What, then, are you obliged to do with that belief? Do you hold it sacred and keep it a secret? Do you use it to help alleviate someone else’s suffering? Do you share it publicly, with the caveat that you intend to follow current practices until it is changed? Do you question whether you were given the personal revelation to help prepare the membership for a coming change? I would argue that all of these are at least forgivable if not reasonable courses of action to this kind of belief.
I would draw the line at publicly questioning the leadership of the church. I don’t think we can intentionally suggest publicly that the General Authorities are not doing what they should be doing without risking our salvation. If we as members feel that the General Authorities are in error, and are willfully ignoring that error, it is our responsibility to either find a way to reconcile our beliefs to the church or leave it. Either this church is true, and the Lord will not allow it to be lead astray, or it is not, in which case, our belief in the church has been the straying. This is a weighty decision to make. To cause others to have to make this decision because of my choices and public statements is not a responsibility I would want to take upon myself.
The Lord uses the agency and transgressions of men for his own purposes. Consider Adam & Eve and the Crucifixion. These terrible events had to take place to allow the greater work of the Plan of Salvation to proceed. Is it that impossible to consider that the Lord uses the imperfections of his prophets to teach His flock and provide for us?
I believe that the leaders of the church are, in fact, lead by Christ. I trust them to follow the Lord. If they are aware of a potential error in the practices of the church, they are being lead in regard to it. A change will come, or it won’t. I will pray for understanding and unity.
Having questions and concerns about the church is normal, and in many ways part of the learning and faith-building process. Discussing concerns and even advocating for change can be a very good thing. However, if we truly believe that the church is lead by Jesus Christ, and is not just some other man-made institution, we need to stop short of criticizing the leaders. We need to have sufficient faith that the Lord will make all things right in His time frame. The imperfections of the church will not prevent our eternal progression unless we choose to dwell on those imperfections.
I love the church. I love my brothers and sisters. I love the discourse among passionate members. I hope we, as a church, can work through this period of turbulence, and find ways to disagree without causing others to lose faith. Dialogue and discourse are extremely healthy, conflict is not.
I know the church is not perfect. Despite that, it is still true.
The word “discipline” has many slightly different meanings, but they all stem from the same concept – that of learning to follow a prescribed path or set of rules. It can refer to the punishment delivered for not following the rules, or the mastery of a field of study, but ultimately the core of the definition, and what I am interested in here, is the building of self-control in order to make ones actions consistent with ones values.
This kind of discipline is central to the purpose of religion, in general. In fact, I would argue that discipline is a defining characteristic of religions, in that the degree to which they embrace or eschew discipline and the object of the discipline provides substantial insight into the nature of nearly any religion. This is certainly true for the LDS Church.
The LDS Church embraces a high ideal when it comes to discipline. There are several scriptures that set this ideal. First, there is the command to be perfect, as stated in Matt. 5:48 and reiterated in 3 Nephi 12:48. On top of that, we believe that we will be judged by our thoughts, words and deeds. (Mosiah 4:30) So, not only should our behavior be perfect, but also our speech and even our thoughts!
Obviously, that’s not technically possible — at least not for an entire lifetime, and for most of us, even a perfect day is far fetched. Nevertheless, I am grateful for that standard. It means that we will always be able to be a little better, constantly improving ourselves. He wants us to be perfect. More importantly, God promises to help us achieve the things he commands us. (See 1 Cor 10:13 and 1 Nephi 3:7) In this pursuit, of utmost importance is the Atonement that makes up for all of the mistakes along the way, and makes true progress possible. Close behind in importance is the guidance, structure and assistance He provides for us to gain that discipline of body and mind.
That’s what perfection is: discipline. It is being entirely consistent with a perfect model: God and Christ.
When we desire to gain discipline in anything, we start by first learning the rules, often selecting a model or teacher to guide your progress. When it comes to Christianity, the model is obvious, but unfortunately, we don’t have the ability to directly observe Christ. So, we must resort to the scriptures and other religious teachers. As most religious teachers gained their knowledge the same way, the words of Christ and his prophets in the scriptures are the best way to learn His will for us. And so, from an early age, young members of the LDS Church are encouraged to read the scriptures daily.
Of course, discipline can’t be said truly to begin until you do something with what you’ve learned. We start out following the rules because they are the rules, in other words, through obedience. We try to follow the rules we’re given and the examples of our models and teachers (remember, I’m talking about those who desire to learn discipline).
As we make a regular practice of following rules, we often gain an appreciation for and an understanding of the rules. We also start to form habits. From an outside perspective, this may achieve a primary goal of the discipline, but there is a danger in stopping here.
Ultimately if we wish to master a disipline, we need to fully understand the reasons for the rules, so that we can extrapolate necessary or desired behavior in situations where the rules may be ambiguous or insufficient. In order to make this extrapolation a clear understanding of both the model and the rules is necessary. With this understanding, we are able to act in a way that effectively aligns us with the model, but where our adherence to the rules happens not because they are rules but because we understand how they help us to obtain the perfection we desire.
As human beings, our capacity for error is literally infinite. We cannot say that even mastery is the end of the road in terms of progression. We must continue to do one thing that we need to do throughout this process — constantly guard against and correct deviations from the model as we discover them or they are pointed out to us. We must both accept correction, and self-correct every step of the way.
When we apply this processes to attain a certain level of discipline within a religion we call it discipleship. Religions generally aim to make all of their followers disciples. This is certainly true in the LDS Church. Many of the teachings and practices recommended by the Church serve to foster such discipline. The teachings are certainly not unique to the LDS Church, and using them in any religion or even outside any religion at all, will also result in increased discipline.
The first is daily prayer. We are encouraged from a young age to pray over all parts of our lives. In the morning, at night, at meals, before and after meetings, even before and after sporting or cultural events. In fact, we are encouraged to pray always. One benefit of prayer, is that it serves to re-focus us on what is important, and provides a time for us to examine our lives and identify where we need to make corrections.
We are also encouraged to study the scriptures daily. We must know Christ in order to use him as our model, and there is no better way to know him than through scripture study and prayer.
Every week at church, we take the sacrament. For us, this is a time to renew our covenants (entered at baptism) to try to live as He taught and to take His name upon us – to be true Christians. We need these weekly opportunities to re-commit ourselves, to move past last weeks failings and focus on the good we can do in the coming week.
The Church has also designated the first Sunday of every month (though it is moved on occasion) as “Fast Sunday,” and encourages us to fast for 24 hours (or as much as we are able), and to give the money we would have spent to the fund the Church uses to provide food, clothing, housing and other critical assistance to members of the Church (and community, at times) in need. Fasting itself is one of the best ways to learn discipline. Through it, we learn that our spirits/minds can be more powerful than our bodies. That is the key to true discipline. If we allow our human impulses and urges to govern our behavior, or worse, believe that we have no power to control those impulses, discipline will always be beyond our grasp.
These tools are the basics for putting us on a path to discipline and discipleship. They allow us to tackle the more advanced, abstract concepts of self-control, integrity and sacrifice — all of which are ways in which we practice discipline.
We know we will always be imperfect. The great thing about discipline is that you CAN be perfect for short periods of time in some things. We are not required to be perfect to attain salvation. We are required to work on becoming more perfect. We call it “eternal progression.” When we are making progress, we are on the path. When we are helping others, we are on the path. When we are learning, we are on the path. If we get off the path, Christ is always there to help us back onto the path.
Discipline is an interesting thing. No matter how disciplined or skilled we are in a discipline, maintaining that level of discipline is a daily effort. Daily effort + daily discipline + eternal progression = perfection.