The Church is true. The church is the true church. I know the church is true. These are expressions I counseled my children not to recite when they gave talks or bore their testimony because they are traps.Testimony traps. Traps that will likely, at some point, make them flinch because the implications of the words simply can’t hold up. I offered my children alternative expressions to use, should they feel inclined: The gospel is true. Or more specifically, the restored gospel is true. Some may wonder what the big deal is, why the difference. The Church is, after all, the vehicle for the gospel. Aren’t I just parsing words?
No. To teach a child that the Church is “true” is to teach an untruth, if “true” is defined as right or correct, accurate or exact. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an earthly organization, run by mortals. It cannot, therefore be always right or correct, accurate or exact. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will, like all things orchestrated by mortal man, be flawed.
Sure, some will argue that, although run by mortals, the LDS Church is headed by God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. I’ll draw a comparison: We often say that the father and mother are the head of a family. A family can have wonderful, obedient children, full of love for their parents … but those wonderful, obedient, loving children will, at some point, do something that is not in keeping with the will of their parents. It’s reality. Again, I’m not speaking of rebellious children, or of children who are testing their limits. Even kids who are trying hard to live up to what their parents want will fall short. Maybe it’s because of a misunderstanding between parent and child. Maybe it’s due to personal weakness. Maybe it’s something else, but we all come up short, to one degree or another, as the well-meaning children of wonderful, Christ-centered parents. To expect our leaders to be infallible actors in the name of God the Father and His son is unfair to them. Of course, the LDS tend to give lip-service to an understanding that our leaders are less than perfect–especially our local leaders–but in action, we excuse ourselves from personal responsibility by elevating obedience to authority above the light of Christ. All because “the church is true.”
It’s unfair to our children to fill their tender minds with the notion that the Church, run by mortals, is and will always be “true.” I’ve been taken to task by some LDS for disagreeing with the popular notion that we are not accountable for sinful or wrong action if and when we are following our leader’s counsel, be that counsel from local leaders or top church authorities. This cultural philosophy is perhaps the most baffling of all the philosophies of men that have eeked into the Mormon sphere. In my view, the primary reason the priesthood and it’s power were restored was not to destroy accountability, nor to assert dominion of a privileged group over other membership. Rather, the Priesthood was restored so that the Gift of the Holy Ghost could be given to all–a gift intended to increase the accountability of the masses, not decrease it. We are to live by faith, according to the Spirit, not by obedience, according to our leaders. Obedience is vital if that obedience is aligned with the teachings of Christ. If we have the light of Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost and ignore them in favor of obedience to leaders because such obedience is easier, we should have no expectation that our action is pleasing to God. No one likes to have the gifts they have given ignored. I suspect that includes God.
I first came across this kind of thinking from a devout Christian, not a Mormon, a girl in her early 20’s. She flabberghasted me when she told me that, if her father (also a devout Christian) asked her to go across the street and steal a neighbor’s car, she would do it because she knew her father was a man of God: If he asked her to commit a crime, it must mean there is a righteous reason underneath it.
Now, I can do mental gymnastics as well as the next person. Maybe there is a scenario where stealing a neighbor’s car could be a righteous thing, damn the eighth commandment! The problem with the young woman’s argument is that, nowhere in it, did she allow for the Holy Spirit or the light of Christ or even her conscience to tell her otherwise. She would act contrary to her conscience, contrary to her accepted canon of scripture (one she held up as inerrant by the way) because she trusted her earthly father. LDS people do the same thing regarding our bishops, stake presidents, and apostles. For a group of people who emphasize the need for the Spirit to lead us, who celebrate modern revelation for not only leaders, but individuals, we seem quick to give that responsibility away to the men or women who are called to serve in leadership rolls.
So, is it wise to say that the Church is true when it is run by fallible beings? I don’t think so. And yet the expression “The Church is true” is about as commonly heard in our meetings as “It’s good to see you.” I was as much amused as enthused when the official LDS Church released Race and the Priesthood in January of 2014. The statement acknowledges a long-standing wrong perpetrated by LDS apostles and prophets, namely that those born with dark skin are cursed and were less valiant in the pre-mortal sphere than their light skinned brothers and sisters. It admits, without saying it directly, that the leaders did, in fact, lead the general membership astray by repeating cultural and social evils. Many LDS people have to let go of the idea that following the prophets and apostles will inerrantly lead them to truth. With the statement, the official church, essentially admitted that it is incorrect to consider the church wholly “true.”
Unfortunately, the expression “the church is true” is a historical and cultural part of the Mormon identity and I doubt it’s going away. It seems unlikely that the membership will relinquish the love of the catch phrase just as it seems unlikely the wider population will abandon its love of baseball because the organization looks the other way over steroid use. Fear not. I have the solution for those who cannot let go of the expression.
Words are wonderfully pliable. We often forget that meanings and common usage can change. We can still say “The Church is true” (but I never will) if we only broaden our use of the word “true.” Or, I should say, relinquish our need for “true” to mean right/correct/factual and all similarly resplendent, but impossible, things. Think of the word “true” the way we use it when we ask our children if they think little Gossipy Gordy is a true friend. A loyal friend. A trustworthy friend.
When I hear the words “true Church,” I choose to interpret the expression as the loyal Church–loyal to Christ, that is. I’m comfortable with the marriage of “true” and “church” in this context. For me, there is more wiggle room for fallibilty–for humaness and humanity–in the definition of “true” which denotes loyalty as opposed to correctness. It seems to me there is a greater opportunity for love in loyalty than in correctness. So if someone is particularly attached to the expression, its still usable, I suppose. I remain, however, more comfortable with the words “the gospel is true.”
I don’t need my leaders to be infallible. Not my bishop. Not the President of the Church. I don’t need my church to be true if true means it must be inerrant. I do need my church to be ever-striving for loyalty to the King of Kings, to my Lord and Savior, and to my Father in Heaven. I need a personal relationship with my Heavenly Father through the Savior, and I need to personally strive for the loyalty I hope for in my Church. I need to be lead by the Holy Spirit, not by men in suits, though I will follow them as they follow–and are loyal to–our Savior and his Holy Spirit.
And that’s the way I presented the whole “true” dichotomy to my children. They are bright, of course, being mine and all, and eventually will see, or have seen, that Mom’s take isn’t like the take of other LDS people they encounter. Their struggle will be to discover if they can make peace with the cultural weaknesses that have blossomed in the shadow of the great Restoration Movement. Alas. I can’t change the culture. But I can give it a swift little kick once in a while.