What is it that unites the Church of Jesus Christ? Wherein lies our unity? In a recent discussion of baptism on lds-phil, amiable Protestant Joel Wilhelm asked some rather specific questions about the LDS understanding of baptism, and a very involved discussion ensued. After about a week, Joel remarked, ‘thus far what I have seen here seems to be a mirror image of debates within Protestantism or Catholicism about the sacraments, salvation without baptism or outside the church, etc. I am a bit more confused about “what Mormons think” and will try to sort it out more as I have time.’ Mormons thus appear to be a microcosm of the larger Christian world, a community that recreates in miniature the diversity of the larger community. This is sort of, but not quite, right.
In response, Mark Butler observed, ‘The normative doctrine of the Church is broad enough to encompass dozens of traditional sects. The authority of the priesthood is the miracle that makes this latitude possible. e.g. “In essentials let there be unity, in non-essentials harmony, and in everything charity”.’
Here are some of my thoughts on the unity of the Church that have been brewing for the past few weeks in response to Joel’s and Mark’s observations.
Some people think of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as one of many Christian sects or denominations (I use the words interchangeably), and so naturally expect us to be distinguished by our beliefs. Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Calvinists have a certain specific conception of how grace works. So one might expect the CJCLDS to be distinguished by a set of distinctive beliefs (e.g. in the Book of Mormon, eternal marriage, etc.) which differentiate it from other sects and unify it as its own sect.
But it is not a sect, to be defined alongside other sects. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one Church of Jesus Christ, restored in these latter days. Thus rather than being analogous to, say, the Calvinists, or the Eastern Rite Catholics, the CJCLDS is analogous to the entire range of non-Restoration groups (Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, all lumped together) who trace their history to the first establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ. We certainly should expect more unity! “If ye are not one, ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27) But this is not a unity primarily in specifics of belief. Rather, it is a unity of fellowship, love, and discipleship, structured by the priesthood ordinances and organization Christ re-established through Joseph Smith. So far as beliefs go, we are unified primarily by our belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the Restoration and its prophets (think of the temple recommend questions).
The size of the Church has made it easy to view it as a sect alongside others. It is also natural to talk about it this way in mixed company because that avoids dispute. The small size of the Church and its being centered primarily in the Western U.S. until quite recently have also limited the extent of diversity to be observed within it. The relative lack, or at least inconspicuousness, of schools of thought on doctrinal matters, especially in the 20th Century, also makes it easy to suppose our unity is more about unity of belief than it really is. Works on our doctrine arranged in encyclopedic fashion also indirectly reinforce the idea that our unity is based on an extensive set of particular beliefs. I suggest that while there are many key truths on which we will remain unified because we are all listening to the same source of truth, it is equally true that we will distinguish ourselves from other sects by remaining unified despite greater differences in some matters of secondary and tertiary belief than are seen among other sects (the realization of this incautious prediction, should it be realized, is largely yet to come, as the Church grows and becomes more fully a world Church). Christ taught that there must be no disputations among us (3 Nephi 11:28), as he established the proper manner of baptism, and proceeded to establish the essentials of his doctrine: faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. We are to be unified on essentials, and we are not to allow ourselves to be divided (as 3 Nephi 11:29-30 informs us the devil would have us be) over differences in non-essentials. Christ’s emphasis in 3 Nephi 11 is sobering, as he repeats again and again what his doctrine is, but (lest we get hung up on words) uses a different phrasing every time!
As I think Clark is trying to say, here, here, and here, what matters is that we are striving for eternal life, which is to “know . . . the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [he has] sent” (John 17:3), and, I dare add, to “be made perfect in one”, “even as [Christ and the Father] are one” (John 17: 23, 22). At any given point along the path of our return to them, the specifics of our beliefs are secondary. Most of what we believe about God and his ways will be superseded, as only partly true, by fuller knowledge if we continue to progress as God intends. “But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away . . . For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13: 10, 12)