Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

The Community of Christ–Sign of Hope for the Church?

I have sometimes been driven close to despair over the state of the Church Universal–and especially over the U.S. churches.  Last year, a Pew study showed that those who attended church in the U.S. twice or more per week were more than twice as likely to approve of the torture of suspected terrorists than the population as a whole! Instead of Christians leading the nation to opposIt’e the immorality of torture, too many were cheerleading for torture!  In contradiction to the clear commands and practices in both Testaments to show hospitality and equal treatment to strangers and resident aliens, far too many U.S. Christians have joined (or even led) the wave of anti-immigrant hatred sweeping the nation.  A church in Florida wants to have a “Let’s Burn a Qu’ran Day.”  Church groups are opposing the building of mosques throughout the nation (especially in Manhattan anywhere near “Ground Zero”) and claiming that religious liberty applies only to Christians, not Muslims!  When I try to share the gospel with college students, the biggest obstacle is their perception that Christians are hatemongers–hating gays and lesbians, hating Muslims, hating feminists, etc., etc.

It’s easy to get discouraged and I often do.  But sometimes there are reasons to hope.  One phenomenon that has renewed my hope for the U.S. churches has been the changes that have happened in the denomination currently known as The Community of Christ.  Never heard of them?  Until about two decades ago, they were known as The Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints. Yes, they are related to the Mormons.  Now, like most mainstream Christians, I consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) to be a cult, a heretical movement, rather than a true branch of Christianity.  Dialogue with mainstream Mormons is like interfaith dialogue (e. g., Christian-Muslim dialogue ) rather than ecumenical Christian conversation.  But the Community of Christ branch of the Latter-Day Saints’ movement has been moving steadily in a more orthodox Christian direction–and becoming a self-declared peace church at the same time!

Some historical background:  As you may know the Latter-Day Saints/Mormons began in 19th C. America when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed that an angel gave him a book of golden plates and a special pair of glasses to translate those plates. (The translation is known today as The Book of Mormon.) The book claims to be the record of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel being led by God to build a ship and travel to the continent we know as North America where they set up a kingdom similar to Israel-Judah.  The claim is made that after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension, he descended from the clouds on this continent and preached the Good News to the people of God here before ascending again to heaven.  (This is VERY quick exposition and I am bypassing the huge number of problems with all these claims.)

 The group that gathered around Smith (who was called a prophet) became the Mormons and, facing persecution, they trekked to the sparsely settled Southwest, especially in what is today Salt Lake City, Utah.  Less well known is that the group split as Smith died. (He was assassinated.)  The majority followed Brigham Young as the new prophet to Utah, but a largish group, including many of Smith’s relatives, refused to acknowledge Young’s leadership or follow after him.  They set-up headquarters in Independence, MO as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have always claimed to be the true followers of Smith–and from the beginning they rejected the polygamy promoted by Brigham Young (until outlawed by the U. S. government)–even claiming (somewhat dubiously) that Smith himself never promoted polygamy.

Well, both the majority Mormons based in Utah and the Reorganized ones based in Missouri had a number of other beliefs that most Christians would consider heretical:  A bizarre view of the Trinity in which both Father and Son have bodies, belief that Christ dwells on another planet, a docetic view of the Incarnation and other heresies.  But, little noticed by most mainstream Christians, the Missouri-based (Reorganized) Latter-Day Saints have slowly-but-surely, been moving in a more orthodox Christian direction–as most evidenced in their official confession of faith.  (The continued use of The Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants  as recognized Scriptures alongside the Holy Bible remains troubling, even though the Bible is given priority.  One could argue, however, that this is not much different from the arguments over the canon between Catholics and Protestants.)  The name change reflects a desire to identify more closely with mainstream Christianity and to stop having their identity focused on fights with the Utah-based Mormons.  The decision to allow all historical records to be examined by all, including historians without membership in the Community of Christ is another such move.

About two (2) decades ago, the Community of Christ highlighted peacemaking and nonviolence as central to the practices of their movement.  They have created an international peacemaking award–awarded to anyone, member or no, that is an alternative to the politically-motivated Nobel Peace Prize.  They promote daily prayers for peace and annual peace colloquies.  They work on teaching conflict resolution in their churches.  They have reached out to Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers to learn more about historic Christian pacifism and, although they still allow members to join the military, work now to discourage military service (especially combatant military service) and to encourage careers which promote peace and justice–quite the reversal from most of their history.

The Community of Christ came out against the death penalty beginning in 1995 and with a stronger statement in 2000.  The Community of Christ allows, but discourages, members from owning firearms.  It has taken a strong stand for compassionate and just immigration reform.  It opposes torture and promotes the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.  It has begun to work on prison ministries that promote restorative justice instead of either retribution or leniency.

The Community of Christ is a small body (approx. 250,000 members globally), but very diverse and found in over 50 nations.

I have no desire to join the Community of Christ, and have enough reservations about their orthodoxy that I would not sponsor them as members of the National or World Councils of Churches–yet.  But I find this massive reform and renewal heartening. It is both doctrinal and ethical reform and renewal–and too many more orthodox bodies have had either one or the other, rather than both.  There is something hopeful about seeing a group (sect?) that surely began as a cult make peace and justice more central to their spirituality and discipleship as they become more Christocentric, more classically Trinitarian, and more orthodox in proclaiming the Good News of salvation by grace.

Can “mainstream” and “evangelical” churches learn from this witness?  May it be so.

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August 19, 2010 - Posted by | Christology, church history, cults, ecclesiology, ethics, interfaith dialogue, peace, reform, salvation, theology, Trinity

7 Comments »

  1. this is fascinating

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | August 20, 2010 | Reply

    • I’d love to see things like this happen elsewhere. What if Oneness Pentecostals moved in a Trinitarian direction while trying to recover the pacifism of early Pentecostals?

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 20, 2010 | Reply

  2. Just a couple of quick observations from a member of the Community of Christ.

    The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (note: no hyphen in our name), now known as Community of Christ, has never believed or taught that Christ (or anyone else) lived on another planet. That teaching is found in the Pearl of Grace Price (specifically in the Book of Abraham), and has always been rejected by us (as have those books).

    Also, while we would claim that Joseph Smith had a profound spiritual experience when he was a teenager, I’m not sure I’d agree that we have ever claimed (as do the Mormons), that God the Father has a body. We most definitely have always rejected the idea that God was once a man.

    Oh, our new name was adopted in 2000 and officially used in 2001, so its only been 9 years since we have had it.

    Also, its not entirely accurate to say that the Book of Mormon is meant to be a record of one of the lost tribes of Israel. It’s a record of a society that descended from a very small number of people, who were themselves of the tribe of Manasseh – so it is a little more accurate to say that the Book of Mormon is a record of a remnant of the tribe of Manasseh.

    But a very nice overview of some of the steps we are taking to be more effective in our discipleship. Thank you!

    Comment by David | August 25, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for the corrections, David. I knew I was painting with a very broad brush (and from memory, with no sources at hand). Thanks for correcting the errors. I’d like to meet members of the CoC–only Mormons are around here.

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 25, 2010 | Reply

  3. Just a couple of quick observations from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    Now Michael, you initially noted that dialogue with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (sic) [the ‘D’ on day is not capitalized] “is like interfaith dialogue (e. g., Christian-Muslim dialogue ) rather than ecumenical Christian conversation.” This I can agree with to a certain extent, but I would disagree with the implication left with some readers of this article that somehow Latter-day Saints (i.e. cultist, heretical Mormons) are as distant from modern Christianity as that of Islam. There have been several very fruitful dialogues between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints over the past decade, a number of which I have been a participant. Evangelicals are invited to hear Latter-day Saints express in their own terms, the depth and brevity of Mormon doctrine in Latter-day Saint life, as well as Latter-day Saints hearing Evangelicals. What we’ve found is that in some areas the gap between us is virtually non-existent. Other areas however, presented divides much wider than we’d initially thought. Still, despite Fundamentalist Christians claiming the Mormons want to be part of the “mainstream” and “orthodox” movements, I think Latter-day Saints have been happily divorced from it for many years and will continue.

    Mormonism didn’t exactly begin with the Angel Moroni’s appearance(s) to Joseph Smith in the 1820’s, giving him “a book of golden plates and a special pair of glasses to translate those plates.” Prior to that time in 1820, was Joseph’s First Vision (what David calls a ‘profound spiritual experience) in which Joseph described the appearance of the Father and the Son. It was nearly four years after Moroni’s first appearance that Joseph received the plates and the Urim and Thummim, what you refer to as a “special pair of glasses.” The Church was not formally organized until April 1830, nearly ten years after Joseph’s First Vision. David covered part of the Book of Mormon narrative correcting the false assertion that the “Book of Mormon is meant to be a record of one of the lost tribes of Israel.” However, the narrative is not exclusively written by those who are a remnant of the descendants of Manasseh. The record of the Jaredites (Ether) predates the Lehite exodus from Jerusalem in 600 B.C. to the time of the Tower of Babel. Though Lehi was a descendant of Manasseh, his group consisted largely of Ephraimites as well. Mulek, the son of Zedekiah, a descendant of Judah, also migrates to the Americas, leaving partial remnants of at least three Israelite tribes in the Americas by 500 B.C. Thus, the Book of Mormon is a record of three major migrations and their histories, namely the Jaredites, the Lehites (Nephites and Lamanites) and the Mulekites. A “very quick exposition” indeed Mr. Westmoreland-White. Perhaps one of the reasons you believe the dialogues between Mormons and Evangelicals have been so “inter-faith” is because you’ve failed to grasp even the most basic tenants of the LDS faith.

    The “split” between some of the members who formed the Reorganization and the main body of Mormons occurred a few months after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. James Strang, a recent convert to LDS Church claimed that Joseph Smith had named him as his prophetic successor and persuaded a substantial number of followers to form colonies in Wisconsin and Michigan. Strang pronounced himself “King” as well as the prophet, introduced his own form of plural marriage, self-described scripture, and a Seventh-Day Sabbath. After Strang’s death, the majority of his followers eventually formed what was formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) in April, 1860 naming Joseph Smith III, who was eleven at the time of his father’s death in 1844, as President of the new organization. Overall, the number of RLDS members who had formerly been members of the original movement remained relatively few.

    While polygamy was in fact “promoted by Brigham Young” as you correctly imply, the practice was taught by Joseph Smith long before his martyrdom as early as 1831 and introduced formally in 1842. For nearly a century, the RLDS Church denied emphatically a number of doctrines that were introduced by Joseph Smith including the doctrine of a plurality of gods, deification (theosis), and plural marriage. During the 1950’s and 60’s, the RLDS Church began sending its clergy to Protestant Seminaries, as well as embracing a more liberal theology. A de-emphasis on the Book of Mormon was put in place, several previously canonized sections of the RLDS edition of the Doctrine and Covenants were removed, and several new sections were added. Women were soon allowed to enter the Priesthood, causing a “split” within the Reorganization itself. Several thousand RLDS soon formed their own organization called the “Restoration Branch” also headquartered in Independence, MO. The Restoration Branch represents the “traditional” RLDS viewpoint and espouses a very conservative approach to scripture and history. Many within the movement are still insistent that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy (he had at least 33 wives). Since renaming itself the “Community of Christ” in 2000, several controversial measures have been brought before the governing body that are reflective of a very “progressive” Protestant organization related to the relationship of practicing homosexuals and the Church. It is expected that practicing homosexuals will be allowed under Church policy to hold and administer in Priesthood leadership positions. On many issues, the Community of Christ is more “Unitarian/Universalist” than in harmony with mainstream Christianity and Mormonism. It is not at all uncommon for those within the CoC clergy to openly deny that Christ was divine, and rather downplay his importance as merely a “moral leader” like Mohammed or Gandhi. In discussions with members of the CoC over the years, this has been my biggest surprise. That is not to say that it is reflective of the majority, but such views are tolerated much more than in most mainstream Christian circles.

    David, as a matter of correction, the Book of Abraham does not teach that Christ “lived on another planet.” As a scholar of the Book of Abraham myself, I found this to be quite a surprise. If you’re referring to Kolob, (Abraham 3:3-16, 5:13) it is regarded as a celestial body “nearest to the throne or residence of God. Kolob in and of itself is derived from the Semitic root “QLB, which has the basic meaning of “heart, center, middle” (Arabic qalb “heart, center”; Hebrew qereb “middle, midst”, qarab “to draw near”; Egyptian m-q3b “in the midst of”). In fact, qalb forms part of the Arabic names of several of the brightest stars in the sky, including Antares, Regulus, and Canopus.” (http://home.comcast.net/~michael.rhodes/JosephSmithHypocephalus.pdf)

    As far as the “God was once a man” notion, through several years of inter-faith dialogue with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists in particular, the main objection comes through the misconception that God was somehow a “sinner” just as all mortals are. However, I think it is important that we understand that Joseph Smith’s teachings in the King Follett Sermon and Lorenzo Snow’s couplet in the manner in which it was intended. Thus, “As man is, Christ once was. As Christ is, man may become.”

    Christ descended below all things and overcame death and hell that we might be redeemed. Theosis as a principle was taught in the New Testament Church, as well as abundantly in scripture. Thus, while I can tolerate others with theological differences who interpret scripture differently, I felt it was important to respond to what I believe was a caricature of my faith. “Painting with a broad brush” is bound to somehow taint others in ways undeserved.

    In light of this post, I’ve found much that I can agree with on this blog. I tend to lean moderately when it comes to politics, so kudos in that regard. Thanks.

    Comment by Tyler Andersen | August 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Tyler, I didn’t mean to leave the impression that Latter-day Saints (standard Mormons) are as far from orthodox, mainstream Christianity as are Muslims. Good correction. I’m also aware of some of the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue since my former teacher, Craig Blomberg, has been one of the major figures in that dialogue.

      http://www.amazon.com/How-Wide-Divide-Evangelical-Conversation/dp/0830819916/ref=sr_1_19?s=STORE&ie=UTF8&qid=1282905681&sr=1-19

      Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 27, 2010 | Reply

      • I’ve come to appreciate Blomberg’s work. I have his published dialogue with Stephen Robinson as well as several dialogues that have been produced since their book was published. Spearheading the effort now is Robert L. Millet, the Dean of Religion at Brigham Young University, with Pastor Greg Johnson (also a former Denver student) of Standing Together Ministries. http://www.standingtogether.org/

        Comment by Tyler Andersen | August 27, 2010


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