Doctrine and Covenants Section 10 is interesting in its discussion of the Lord’s church because it seems to use the term in two different ways. One definition is the institution that we’re most likely to think of when we hear the term—the one we call Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The second is what has been loosely termed the “church without walls” or the “invisible church”—the collective group of people who are in tune with the Holy Spirit and do God’s work in the world. Both definitions are important to understand and think about in our relationship to the world today.
The first definition to be brought up is the institutional Church of Christ that would be established in April 1830. The revelation paraphrases an earlier revelation in stating that the Lord had said: “If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them.” This seems to alluding to either an unknown revelation that we don’t have today or a revelation given to Martin Harris in March 1829 about the Three Witnesses, which proclaimed that they would receive their testimony “in this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” and that “their testimony shall also go forth unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden their hearts against them.” Whatever the case, together, these two revelations (the March 1829 one that is now Section 5 and the spring 1829 that is now Section 10) are the earliest indication that we have that the a church would be founded, approximately a year before it officially happened.
It is worth noting that the word choice found in the earlier revelation is interesting. It alludes to both the Song of Solomon—which describes the author’s love as “she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners”—and the Revelation of St John the Divine, which speaks of seeing “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” who “fled into the wilderness” after “she brought forth a man child” and was persecuted by the dragon. Those same texts were brought together and used by the Scottish minister Alexander Frasier in 1795 in his popular work, Key to the Prophecies. Frasier interpreted the women in Revelation to be “the Church of Christ, considered as a community or collective body,” and her fleeing into the wilderness as representing a time when “the visible church declined from the doctrines and precepts of Christianity, the true Church of Christ gradually retired from the view of men, till at length, … the true church of Christ, considered as a community, wholly disappeared.” While the church of God lost the outward ties of “government, doctrine and ordinances,” an invisible church, or the church in the wilderness, still existed among those who were tied together by “the Spirit of God, which animates the great Head of the church, and every real member of his mystical body.” This church, he wrote, is “visible in that state as a community, only to the eyes of … God.” Frasier believed that this invisible or universal church would eventually be brought back into a visible church community when the time of the prophesied years of exile ended. At that time, “the universal church shall again become visible as a community, extended over the whole earth, ‘clear as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners.’” While I’m not sure whether or not Joseph Smith was familiar with Frasier’s work, it seems possible that he drew on its language to communicate that the Restoration would accomplish the work of re-establishing the visible Church of God again, with the proper government, doctrine, and ordinances.
In any case, Frasier’s invisible church or church in the wilderness seems to be a useful way of understanding the other church mentioned in Section 10. In the revelation, the Lord says that he will not be establishing His church “to destroy my church, but … to build up my church; therefore whosoever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.” The church referenced in this quote seems to be separate from the church that is going to be established, since the soon-to-be established institutional church is spoken of in terms of a relationship to this other church, building it up rather than destroying this second, already-existing church. Later on in the section, the Lord defines the church as “whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me.” This can be understood as both broadening and constricting the membership of the Lord’s church to include individuals outside of the institutional church who repent and come unto Him and to also exclude members of the institutional church who do not. Thus, the second church referenced in Section 10 seems to be more similar to Frasier’s invisible church than an institutional Church of Christ.
As a contrast to this invisible church of the Lord, there are also those “that do wickedly and build up the kingdom of the devil.” It is this group that the Lord intends to “disturb, and cause to tremble and shake to the center,” rather than His church. Included in this group are “they who do not fear me, neither keep my commandments but build up churches unto themselves to get gain.” It is this group that a later revelation to Oliver Cowdery seems to refer to in telling him to “contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil.” Rather than being a specific institution, this kingdom or church of the devil seems to be the evil counterpart to the invisible church of God.
Now, I discussed Elder B. H. Roberts’s views about the Church of the Lamb and the Church of the Devil last year when talking about Nephi’s apocalyptic vision, but they are relevant to bring up in this discussion as well. In a 1906 general conference address, he stated that the church of the devil is “no particular church, no particular division of Christendom, but … the whole empire of Satan; and perhaps the thought of the passage would be more neatly expressed if we use the term ‘the kingdom of evil’ as constituting the church of the devil.” Hence, he understood:
The injunction to Oliver Cowdery to ‘contend against no church, save it be the church of the devil,’ to mean that he shall contend against evil, against untruth, against all combinations of wicked men. They constitute the church of the devil, the kingdom of evil, a federation of unrighteousness; and the servants of God have a right to contend against that which is evil, let it appear where it will, in Catholic or in Protestant Christendom, among the philosophical societies of deists and atheists, and even within the Church of Christ, if, unhappily, it should make its appearance there. 
This church of the devil, as understood by Elder Roberts, corresponds to those people mentioned in Section 10 “that do wickedly and build up the kingdom of the devil.”
Likewise, Elder Roberts envisioned a Church of the Lamb of God as embracing a larger group than a single institution. He taught that: “All that makes for truth, for righteousness, is of God; it constitutes the kingdom of righteousness—the empire of Jehovah; and, in a certain sense at least, constitutes the Church of Christ.” As such, the Church of the Lamb of God is larger than just the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and includes all who “are seeking to know God and to keep His commandments.” With this understanding in mind, Elder Roberts encouraged his audience to “seek to enlarge this kingdom of righteousness both by recognizing such truths as it possesses and seeking the friendship and co-operation of the righteous men and women who constitute its membership.” He also added, as such, that “it would be poor policy for us to contend against [other religions] without discrimination.” Elder B. H. Roberts felt that God-fearing individuals throughout the world were a part of the Church of the Lamb of God—regardless of whether or not they are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and this “empire of Jehovah,” as he termed it, seems to correspond to the Lord’s church that the Lord intended to “build up” by establishing the Church of Christ, as stated in Section 10.
This is a useful way of looking at things as we consider interfaith cooperation and interactions in general, but we need to remember there is also value in the institution of the Church. In the talk referenced above, Elder Roberts referred to the First Vision and noted that: “I rejoice in the plainness and emphasis of this revelation, because from it I am made to realize that there is a very important reason for the existence of the work with which we are identified. … The Gospel had been corrupted; its ordinances had been changed; its laws transgressed, its truths so far lost to the children of men that it rendered this new dispensation of the Gospel of Christ—miscalled ‘Mormonism’—necessary.” In a more recent general conference address, Elder D. Todd Christofferson tried to answer the question: “How does [God’s] Church accomplish the Lord’s purposes?” He gives several answers, including “to create a community of Saints that will sustain one another,” that uniting with the Church is “an important part of taking His [Jesus Christ’s] name upon us,” and that “as the body of Christ, the members of the Church minister to one another in the reality of day-to-day life” in a “hands-on” way that tests and shapes us. He also points out that working together as an organization, we can “achieve needful things that cannot be accomplished by individuals or smaller groups,” such as the humanitarian efforts of the Church or the construction and operation of temples. In these ways, the institution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is able to, as the Lord says, “build up my church.”
Thus, when the early revelations of Joseph Smith speak of the church of the Lord in different ways, there does seem to be an effort to found what we now call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in order to support a broader group that can also be termed the Church of Christ. The former is able to offer much in doctrine, ordinances, and governing a community of believers while the latter is comprised of those who are united through the Spirit of God and repent and come unto the Lord. Together, both play an important role in the work of God.
- Chad Nielsen, “The Church of the Devil and the Church of the Lamb of God,” Times and Seasons 13 January 2020
- Terryl Givens, “‘We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking Mormon Restoration”, Apostasy and Restoration Conference, Brigham Young University, 3 March 2012
- Kent Larson, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 10-11,” Times and Seasons, 31 January 2021
- Book of Mormon Central, “Come Follow Me 2021: Doctrine and Covenants 10-11
 D&C 10:53.
 D&C 3:14, 18.
 Song of Solomon 6:10.
 See Revelation 12.
 Alexander Fraser, Key to the Prophecies of the Old and New Testaments, which are not yet accomplished (Philadelphia: John Bioren, 1802 ), 156-164. https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Key_to_the_Prophecies_of_the_Old_New_T/6700AAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
 D&C 10:54-55.
 D&C 10:68.
 D&C 10:56.
 D&C 10:56.
 D&C 18:20.
 B. H. Roberts, CR, April 1906, 14-15. See https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2014/02/26/b-h-roberts-the-church-of-the-lamb-and-the-church-of-the-devil/ or The Essential B.H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 175-182 for other locations to access the full text of the talk.
 Roberts, CR, April 1906, 15-16.
 Roberts, CR, April 1906, 13-14.
 D&C 10:54.