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.