The Purpose of the Church

February 13, 2005 | 18 comments
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Today in Priesthood we studied Lesson 3 in the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay. Rarely have I felt so out of sync with the lesson. Most of the Teachings are fastballs straight down the middle. Nothing fancy. Nothing that challenges my world view. Not this lesson. My first clue that this would not be a normal lesson was this statement, made by Elder McKay in 1941:

The mission of the Church is to prepare the way for the final establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. Its purpose is, first, to develop in men’s lives Christ-like attributes; and, second, to transform society so that the world may be a better and more peaceful place in which to live.

That last part, where I added the emphasis, is the part that startled me. Then this, from the same talk:

The term [kingdom of God] implies divine rule in the hearts and wills of men and in society…. Only such a group looking as one mind to heaven for guidance can eventually transform human society.

And finally this, also from the same talk:

There are those in the world who say that jealousy, enmity, [and] selfishness in men’s hearts will always preclude the establishing of the ideal society known as the Kingdom of God. No matter what doubters and scoffers say, the mission of the Church of Christ is to eliminate sin and wickedness from the hearts of men, and so to transform society that peace and good-will will prevail on this earth.

I love the optimism and hope in this talk, but it made me uncomfortable. Elder McKay’s idealism collided head-on with my worldview, in which the Church is not actively transforming society, but providing a safe haven from evil. As for transforming society, well, that can wait for the Millennium. (NB: I am assuming that Elder McKay was speaking of a transformation that would occur before the Millennium, though the excerpts are not without ambiguity on this point.)

The counsel of modern Church leaders seems to have largely abandoned Elder McKay’s aspiration in favor of a more modest emphasis on personal righteousness. Society is portrayed as inalterably evil, and we are instructed to batton down the hatches. Consider some talks from the most recent General Conference, where Church leaders emphasize personal righteousness in the face of widespread evil (rather than the role of righteousness in changing widespread evil). Elder Dallin H. Oaks in Priesthood Session:

As we look about us, we see many who are practicing deception. We hear of prominent officials who have lied about their secret acts. We learn of honored sports heroes who have lied about gambling on the outcome of their games or using drugs to enhance their performance. We see less well-known persons engaging in evil acts in secret they would never do in public. Perhaps they think no one will ever know. But God always knows. And He has repeatedly warned that the time will come when “[our] iniquities shall be spoken upon the housetops, and [our] secret acts shall be revealed” (D&C 1:3; see also Mormon 5:8; D&C 38:7)…. Fortunately, repentance is possible.

Elder Cecil B. Samuelson, also in Priesthood Session:

Brethren, it is both comforting and potentially worrisome to know that we live in an age and a time that was not only foreseen by the prophets of previous dispensations but was also clearly a focus of their concerns and their aspirations. The Apostle Paul said, “In the last days perilous times shall come” (2 Timothy 3:1), and then he went on to catalog and describe with remarkable accuracy much that we currently see daily in the media, in advertisements for entertainment, and almost everywhere in the world around us. As careful as we might and should be, absolute avoidance of much of the peril which is seemingly enveloping us is at best difficult and often near impossible to avoid.

President Hinckley, also in Priesthood Session:

We are men of the priesthood. This is a most sacred and marvelous gift, worth more than all the dross of the world. But it will be amen to the effectiveness of that priesthood for anyone who engages in the practice of seeking out pornographic material. If there be any within the sound of my voice who are doing so, then may you plead with the Lord out of the depths of your soul that He will remove from you the addiction which enslaves you. And may you have the courage to seek the loving guidance of your bishop and, if necessary, the counsel of caring professionals. Let any who may be in the grip of this vise get upon their knees in the privacy of their closet and plead with the Lord for help to free them from this evil monster. Otherwise, this vicious stain will continue through life and even into eternity.

I could multiply the citations manifold, but you get the idea. Have we as a Church really abandoned Elder McKay’s aspiration to “transform society”? Or at least postponed that aspiration and placed that task on the Savior’s plate?

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18 Responses to The Purpose of the Church

  1. Russell Arben Fox on February 13, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    It’s worth noting that along with certain doctrinal disagreements which emerged in the early 20th-century leadership (over evolution, etc.), there was also an overarching distinction in basic attitudes towards the mission of the church. Was the Mormon church, in any sense, part of or sympathetic to the “social gospel” message, the incremental improvement of the world through good works? Or does it reject that message, embracing the one which Gordon, I think rightly, indicates as having become dominant over the last several decades: that of the church as a refuge for the righteous remnant in a doomed world? Quinn called the former group “McKay men,” and the people called by and associated with David O. McKay (Hugh B. Brown, Marion D. Hanks, arguably Spencer W. Kimball, etc.) were marked by their “idealism” in the sense of having a basically progressive view of things, a conviction that humankind is basically good, and that it is the church’s mission to redeem and expand that goodness. The latter group Quinn called “Clark men,” after J. Reuben Clark, and they had very much the opposite view. These distinctions can be overdrawn, of course, but there’s a real usefulness to such a distinction nonetheless.

    I agree that the church has moved in the direction Gordon describes, which is perhaps not coincidentally where most evangelical Christians place themselves as well. I also think this move has been an inspired one. This is not to say we not under commandment to “transform society.” I believe we are under such a commandment, and that the idealism of McKay is incumbent upon us all. Of course, we’ll fail in our attempts, or else our successes–while good in themselves–will likely have unexpected consequences that are as bad or worse. But our ultimate inability to do what we are commanded to do (that is, transform society) isn’t, I think, an excuse from the commandment itself.

  2. Stephen M (ethesis) on February 13, 2005 at 9:55 pm

    We transform society, one person, one family, one step at a time.

    In priesthood today we discussed the “each one, teach one” program that brought literacy to South Africa in the face of government oppression and the reforesting of large sections of Southern France by a single sheepherder working over a period of about forty years or so. One person at a time, transforming society, peoples, nations.

  3. Clark on February 13, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    I think we are to transform society, but as Stephen says, how we do it differs. Having said that though the church clearly has come out on social issues like gay marriage and gambling which they feel they need a more active role in having a say about what society is.

  4. Gordon Smith on February 13, 2005 at 10:56 pm

    Russell, Thanks for that. Very helpful.

    Stephen, You sound like a McKay man. I like that.

    Clark, This is very different than the way that McKay was speaking. It is the difference between transforming society and resisting its transformation.

  5. Kevin Barney on February 13, 2005 at 11:01 pm

    Just to clarify, the thing about McKay Men and Clark Men (or, later, Lee Men) wasn’t something Quinn came up with; it was an actual usage of the time among the Saints, which Quinn simply reported. The divide in attitude was recognized by those living at the time.

  6. Jeff on February 13, 2005 at 11:06 pm

    I don’t see any reason why the Church can’t be both a force to transform society and a refuge from evil. :) The focus is understandably more on the status as a refuge as we already know that the world will be generally wicked at the time of the Second Coming, but both are important missions of the Church, I think. :)

  7. tyler durden on February 13, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    i loved mckays comment that the church and its organization “are but means to an end, and that end is the happiness and eternal welfare of every child of god.”

    i feel that too many in the church (like the young rich man and pharisees of christ’s time) see and act as though the church was a good in itself. ‘the church’ is seen as an organization, rather than a community. hometeaching, the word of wisdom, commandment keeping, ‘the church’, missionary work, conformity, and all else have become ends in themselves, instead of means to the real ends which mckay said were the happiness of every child of god.

  8. Jon on February 14, 2005 at 1:11 am

    Hello all,

    I have been a long time reader of this site and this is my first post. I appreciate the efforts of those of you who post here to give a voice to those who may find themselves on the Liahona side of the Gospel isle so to speak. Anyhow, this topic of “what’s it all about” has been heavy on my mind for sometime. Here is a little bit that may help all to see that the Church is still about fulfilling the grand vision that Pres McKay laid out:

    The Perpetual Education Fund – President Gordon B. Hinckley (April 2001 Priesthood session)

    “… President Clark used to tell us in these general priesthood meetings that there is nothing that the priesthood cannot accomplish if we will work unitedly together in moving forward a program designed to bless the people (see J. Reuben Clark Jr., in Conference Report, Apr. 1950, 180).

    …With good employment skills, these young men and women can rise out of the poverty they and generations before them have known. They will better provide for their families. They will serve in the Church and grow in leadership and responsibility. … As faithful members of the Church, they will pay their tithes and offerings, and the Church will be much the stronger for their presence in the areas where they live.”

    It is clear that we live in perilous times and that the stakes of Zion have been established to be a refuge from the storm. However, it is also clear that wherever those stakes are placed the idea is to improve the lives of those societies blessed enough to have them.

    Much of the evangelical Christian movement looks forward to a time when a “rapture” will take place and remove all of the Christians prior to the time of the great tribulation. Obviously we see this differently, we view the eschatology as a time when we will live together in harmony and peace one with another. During the Rapture we will rise in the air to meet Christ and then descend with Him back to the Earth. The foundation for this has been laid with the restoration, we are simply continuing to build upon it so that when the Lord appears again the Church, and the whole Earth society, will be ready for Him. In my view Pres McKay’s vision of the Church continues to be fulfilled with programs like the PEF. It is our obligation to continue to prepare the world for the return of the Savior, the best and easiest way I know how is to simply do your home & visting teaching.

  9. Gordon Smith on February 14, 2005 at 1:21 am

    Nice comment, Jon. Thanks for posting that. I am a real sucker for the idealistic stuff, and the PEF had me from the get-go.

    There is no doubt that the Church is not strictly binary — idealistic or realistic — but as Russell observes, there is nevertheless some value in drawing the distinction.

    Note that even the PEF has rather modest aspirations (a fairly targeted group of members can rise out of poverty) compared with McKay’s vision: “to eliminate sin and wickedness from the hearts of men, and so to transform society that peace and good-will will prevail on this earth.” I don’t intend this as a criticism, just an observation.

  10. Jed on February 14, 2005 at 8:35 am

    Gordon’s reaction is very interesting. I think it illustrates some of the tensions inherent in lifting quotations out of historical context into another place and time. The assumptions of Gordon’s world colide with the assumptions of another world.

    President McKay’s “transform society” theme fits within the model Mormon sociologist Armaund Mauss developed in The Angel and the Beehive (UIIlinois, 1994). According to Mauss, Mormonism in the twentieth century can be split into two epochs: assimilationist and retrenched. The assimilationist period, which is characterized by high overlap with American culture, lasted from about 1900 to the 1960s. The retrenchment periiod, which started in the 1960s, reflects a retreat from American culture and a reemphases on pecularity. There is more disconnect between church and culture during the latter period. Since Gordon joined the church during this time, it makes sense that he sees the church more as a refuge than as a transformative agent.

    It is true that the church looked optimistically on American culture in the early twentieth century. We see the signs of the assimilationist mentality in the church’s adoption of Boy Scouts of America in 1913, in the liberalization of MIA to include many of the same activities as YMCA, i.e., arts, dramatics, debating, but also sports. Unlike today’s MIA, which teaches doctrinally-based, insular lessons, the LDS MIA lessons before about 1960 patterened itself on the liberal Protestant model, which highlighted the ethical and political issues of the day and deemphasized doctrinal peculiarity. Before the rise of the correlated manuals in the 1970s, most of the LDS manuals written for LDS auxiliaries are broadly assimiliationist, quoting from classical and British poets, Protestant scholars, and 20th c critics and commentators. President McKay himself was famous for lacing his conference addresses with quotations from literature, something we rarely see in talks today.

    Besides assimilationist/retrenched, the other model overlapping with the transform vs refuge debate is the premillennialist/postmillenialist distinction religious historians make. Although the distinction does not always work, in general premillennialists think of the world as fallen and doomed, the 2nd Coming of Christ to come only after the destruction of worldy institutions. The postmillennialists, on the other hand, think of themselves as agents in bringing out a regeneration of the world from the inside, with no destruction but a gradual enlightening of the world. “Transforming the world” fits squarely within the latter. Early Mormons were obviously premillenialist, as we see from the violent language in some of the revelations, but early 20th c Mormons were much more optimistic about the possibilities of regeneration.

  11. Charles on February 14, 2005 at 10:47 am

    We also had lesson 3 as our Priesthood lesson this week. The same three passages you mentioned were very well recieved, although we did not discuss the concerns you had. Personally, I veiw the transformatin of society akin to the concept of “as a man thinketh” I may not have read the book in its entirety but the concept I am referring to is that thought leads to words which leads to works. Society is similar in that individual righteousness leads to family righteousness which leads to neighborhoods and society as a whole being better places.

    The missionary efforts of the church are to bring others to Christ. As this is accomplished one of the side effects is the elimination of sin. This may not be fully accomplished in this world but certainly may be set forth as a goal with the desire to get as close to the ideal as one can.

    When we think of the “kingdom of God” it should bring about thoughts of Zion itself. There are numerous examples in the Bible and BoM where entire societies were righteous but fell into periods of vanity and pride. Perhaps the best was Enoch.

    Maybe we are now being confronted with so much insidious evil, evil that can so easily be accessed and with an air of anonymity, that even many righteous people are falling prey to it. This raises the need for a clarion call to personal righteousness, but what I liked about this lesson is the need to then keep in mind the greater goal of the church.

    God’s plan is to bring about the eternal life of man. The 3 fold purpose of the church is in harmony with our goal, to bring ourselves and others to Christ, for through Christ, God’s plan can be realized.

    The goal of the church as stated by President McKay are in line with bringing ourselves and others to Christ and establishing Zion on the earth, if possible before the millenium. I also thought of how this parralleled one of the great commandements given by Jesus. Love thy neighbor. If we all lived up to this commandment the transofrmation of society would be achieved much easier even if it didn’t come with a full conversion of society.

  12. Frank McIntyre on February 14, 2005 at 11:12 am

    President Hinckley had a recent Ensign message that was a call to be involved in our communities. I was also struck by the language in that lesson, but not so much that it seemed radically out of place. I suppose that the point of having a modern prophet is to know when to retrench to Zion and when to roam out and try to change the world.

  13. a random John on February 14, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Gordon,

    Thanks for your comments. I had some of the same concerns with the statements you mentioned as contrasted with current practice. I decided not to bring it up in the lesson. I think a really interesting discussion could be had on the topic of the transformation of society and how that interacts with and differs from the missionary effort. Could President Hinckley’s book be an attempt to influence society as a whole? Some of this also ties into the role of the prophet, whether he is a leader for the church, or the mouthpiece of the Lord to the world. Obviously it is both, but there seems to be more emphasis on the internal aspect.

  14. DavidH on February 14, 2005 at 12:35 pm

    My initial reaction to the lesson was “How does President McKay’s understanding square with the current articulation of the mission of the Church as bringing people to Christ, by proclaiming the gospel, strengthening the Saints, and redeeming the dead”? I believe this statement, or restatement of the mission of the Church developed in the 1970s or 1980s.

    I know that after the mission of the Church was restated in this fashion (I may not have the precise articulation correct), many units stopped putting on plays, at least nontheological plays, unless someone could fit the performance of a play into the mission of the Church.

    Where does the Church’s humanitarian fund fit in? Is it an indirect proclamation of the gospel? Is it to perfect the saints who contribute?

    Was the statement or restatement of the mission of the Church in the last half of the 20th century intended to be an implicit repudiation of the social gospel? Or an incorporation of the social gospel somehow into the framework of the threefold mission of the Church?

    I think many of us still subscribe to the social gospel, or try to, in our own lives, at least as part of being anxiously engaged in a good cause. Perhaps things like PEF and the humanitarian fund, as well as the encouragement of participation in community activities, are part of the expansion (or more robust interpretation) of the statement/restatement of the threefold mission of the Church.

    Perhaps including in the lesson manual President McKay’s statements regarding a transform-society mission of the Church also implicitly allows those of us who believe in a social gospel of sorts to continue to do so.

  15. Jon on February 14, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    This is the second part of a three part outline I created a few years back when I found myself asking “What is the Church all about?” I am not sure how the formatting will turn out since this is the first time posting something like this. I apologize in advance if the formatting doesn’t hold. (Does this forum work with HTML?)

    2. The Church is the organization through which its members put into practice the principles and teachings of the gospel. (*)
    a. A Report of My Stewardship: President Spencer W. Kimball (Saturday Morning Session: April 1981)
    My brothers and sisters, as the Brethren of the First presidency and the Twelve have meditated upon and prayed about the great latter-day work the Lord has given us to do, we are impressed that the mission of the Church is threefold:
     To proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people;
    o (Mark 16:15.)
    15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature
     To perfect the Saints by preparing them to receive the ordinances of the gospel and by instruction and discipline to gain exaltation;
    o (Ephesians 4:11-14.)
    11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;
    12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
    13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ:
    14 That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;
     To redeem the dead by performing vicarious ordinances of the gospel for those who have lived on the earth.
    o John A. Widtsoe
    In our pre-existent state, in the day of the great council, we made a certain agreement with the Almighty. The Lord proposed a plan, conceived by him. We accepted it. Since the plan is intended for all men, we become parties to the salvation of every person under the plan. We agreed, right then and there, to be not only saviors for ourselves, but measurably saviors for the whole human family. We went into partnership with the Lord. The working out of the plan became then not merely the Father’s work, and the Savior’s work, but also our work. The least of us, the humblest, is in partnership with the Almighty in achieving the purpose of the eternal plan of salvation. (In Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine, Oct. 1934)
    All three are part of one work—to assist our Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ, in Their grand and glorious mission “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

    b. The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter day Saints is the means by which the ordinances of salvation and exaltation are made available for men and women.
     Baptism and Confirmation
    o (John 3:5.)
    5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
     Aaronic and Melchizedek
    o Priesthood is conferred upon an individual
    a. Aaronic
    i. Deacon, Teacher, Priest
    b. Melchizedek
    i. Elder, High Priest
    o An individual is ordained to offices in the priesthood
    a. A person receives no keys when they are ordained
    o An individual is set apart to a position of presidency or administration
    a. Keys go with setting apart and not with ordination
     Temple Ordinances
    o Washing and Anointing
    a. (Exodus 40:12.)
    12 And thou shalt bring Aaron and his sons unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and wash them with water
    b. (Exodus 30:25, 30)
    25 And thou shalt make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compound after the art of the apothecary: it shall be an holy anointing oil.
    30 And thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office.
    o Endowment
    a. Brigham Young – Discourse of Brigham Young, 416
    Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.
    o Sealing
    a. Eternal Marriage – Husband and wife
    i. (Doctrine and Covenants 132:19.)
    19 And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.
    b. Children to parents
    i. (Malachi 4: 5-6)
    5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
    6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

    (*) (Take n from a Q/A session with Marion G. Romney found in the New Era May 1979, (38))

  16. Jon on February 14, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    What a mess I posted, sorry about that everyone….

  17. John T. on February 15, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    I don’t see the sought-after transformation of society occurring in SLC. Utah leads the nation in Personal Bankruptcy; (financial, that is) The Olympics Scandal blossomed here, and several local City officials have been under investigation for financial mis-dealings. When I point this out to the Ward missionary president, he tosses it off tritely, saying “The Church is perfect, people are not”. I really don’t see this wonderful refuge that David O. McKay espouses, but maybe being able to see things that aren’t there is key to belief.

  18. Barry on February 21, 2005 at 4:54 pm

    It is interesting to me to read through the discussion, and what is missing and lost is the power that the Savior has to transform individuals. The church is the body of Christ, and as an institution has power only through the truth, priesthood, and priesthood keys. Many suffer in the church today due to a focus on programs and not on Christ. The Book of Mormon directs us to Christ as a transformer. We must come unto him, and be sancitfied by the Holy Ghost, today, we are sanctified by adherence to programs and through that adherence we are promised the Holy Ghost. This is not the pattern of scripture, and is not the christianity Nephi taught. Perfection can only come throught Christ, those who put their faith in programs will be unfulfilled, without the Savior, or anything that diminishes the atonement or role of the atonement is apostacy.

    The church is a vehicle to bring salvation to the world, but the power of salvation comes only through the Prince of Peace. It is His church, His Priesthood, and His Law.