The doctrine of apostasy has come on hard times. In the past, railing against the degraded state of Christendom was a staple of Mormon evangelism, but of late it seems to me that we have softened this teaching. Not only is McConkie-esque speculation about the sectarian identity of the “Great and Abominable Church” (blessedly) on the wane, but in many ways Mormonism has taken on a more ecumenical flavor. One cannot imagine President Hinckley going on Larry King and bluntly declaring that all of the Christian sects are an abomination before God, having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof. In short, the whole doctrine of the apostasy has a set of narrow, sectarian connotations that in many ways Mormons now seek to avoid.
In a pseudo-ecumenical Mormonism, does the doctrine of Christian apostasy have any meaning or power beyond carefully qualified and theologically technical claims about priesthood authority? Generally speaking, when I have talked about this issue with Mormon kibitzers they have had one of two responses. The first has been that the doctrine of apostasy is a bit of sectarian embarrassment. Far better to let it die a PR-induced death. The second response has been to argue that the retreat from apostasy has had unfortunate effects, watering down the message of the Restoration, down playing the uniqueness of Mormonism, and hence reducing its potential appeal.
It seems to me, that there is at least one other way of thinking about the apostasy. Essentially this is a doctrine that criticizes religion. Now in a secular world, I think that there is a tendency for believers of whatever faith to circle the wagons and stand-up for religion against its critics. On this rather defensive view, religion becomes a prima facie term of approbation and harsh criticisms of religion are seen as offering aid and comfort to secular critics. Yet there is much in religion to criticize. Pat Robertson’s rhetorical excesses come to mind. Less spectacular — but in my view much more important — are the failings of those complacent believers who see religion as yet another trapping of middle-class respectability, but for whom it fails to call forth affirmative effort to serve their fellow men. And so on.
Brigham Young was fond of teaching that prayer for the poor was good but that hot food was better. In doing this, he was drawing a distinction between true religion and apostate religion. It was not, however, a distinction drawn in sectarian terms. It seems to me that this is a useful function for the doctrine of apostasy today. My point is not that we should abandon Mormonism’s claims to unique authority, but rather that we should understand that the doctrine of apostasy goes much deeper than the issue of a choice between differing denominations. Rather, it can also be seen as a choice between “pure religion” (of whatever sect or denomination) and that which has “form of godliness but denies the power thereof.”