One of the main points of LDS theology is that following the deaths of Jesus’ apostles, an apostasy took place that gradually altered essential doctrines and ordinances and destroyed authority to act in God’s name. This necessitated a restoration of Christ’s original church, which Mormons believe occurred through their first prophet, Joseph Smith.
Other Christian churches understandably take exception with the LDS point of view. Catholics believe that their church is a continuation of Christ’s original church. Protestants also believe that an apostasy from Christ’s original gospel occurred, but unlike Mormons, they see no need for a physical restoration of this gospel. There has been a decreasing concern with authority and ordinances among Protestants and more adherence to the concept that essential authority derives from a call by the Holy Ghost, which one feels internally.
While there certainly has been more willingness on the parts of all of these disparate approaches to Christianity to work together, there will likely be no change or relaxation of these fundamental doctrinal differences in the foreseeable future.
For those that do believe an apostasy occurred, it is interesting (if pathetic) to see major modern models of such playing out before our very eyes. Jim Tonkowich, president of the Institute On Religion and Democracy, writes about “the crack-up of the Episcopal Church” and the divisions in the Presbyterian Church in this Weekly Standard article.
Tonkowich claims that the divisions within these churches are deep, and go to the basic understanding of faith and truth. In other words, this is something deep in the people’s psyche. It’s not simply politics. Tonkowich classes the conflict as being between conservatives and liberals. Being a conservative himself, Tonkowich frames the debate in a way that favors the conservative view and is notably less than flattering toward liberals.
On the conservative side, you have orthodoxy and strict interpretation of the scriptures. On the liberal side you have an understanding of truth that is constantly in flux. Tonkowich would have us believe that the essence of liberal Christian theology is vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Or that if enough people think something is God’s will it is in fact God’s will. I’m not sure that liberal Christians would agree with Tonkowich’s assessment.
At any rate, Tonkowich says, “The traditional Christian understanding is that truth is true even if it is not experienced. It is true objectively and absolutely.” But, he admits, “This is an assertion for which modern people have little patience.”
Most mainstream Mormons probably have no problem with this assertion. However, the Mormon reliance on living prophets that have direct authority from God also lends to the understanding that revelation is needed to grapple with ever changing world conditions. So, many Mormons probably also understand liberal dissatisfaction with having the Bible as the sole source of religious authority.
Watching the squabbles and changing doctrines in the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches gives an interesting view into how Mormons believe apostasy occurred in the original Christian church. But the toll that will be exacted by this process is not pleasant to contemplate. Tonkowich is probably not far off base when he asserts, “The results will be a liberal vestige with lovely buildings and lots of endowment money, but few people.”
Trends seem to indicate that the majority of those that quit supporting disintegrating churches will move, not to another denomination, but to no church at all. They may remain internally religious, but that rarely passes onto the next generation. The result will be a less religious, or specifically, less Christian society. The practicing Christians among us cannot view this as a positive thing.