This blog is part of my ZionBound series. The full series can be read in post order here.
Also, this blog is sort of a sequel to my prior blog “Can God Change?” which you may want to read first.
When I look at my own willingness to accept changes in the church, I find examples of occasions when I was reluctant to do so. I’m particularly resistant to changes that can be construed as doctrinal in nature. I tend to have conservative or foundationalist perspectives regarding church doctrine. I cherish the grove experience, the need for a restoration, the Book of Mormon, the Inspired Version, the sacredness of our revelations, etc.
Consequently, changes in the church have not always been easy for me to accept; and I know that I am not alone. There are numerous church members who struggle with church changes because, just like me, the traditional teachings of the church strongly resonate with them.
I know that there are some people who are really annoyed that the church has scheduled it’s next World Conference for June instead of April. I’ve conversed with a couple of people about this, and I was surprised how annoyed they are over this latest change. For myself, the dates of World Conference don’t really mean a great deal aside from personal preference. The dates are not reflective of church doctrine. They do not concern church theology. They are purely administrative.
However, I came to realize that for those people who were bothered by the change of month, that the real issue was the fact that the church was, yet again, making another change.
Tampering, once more, with tradition. It is very true that the church has seen a lot of changes back-to-back in what is, actually, a short period of time. We might think its been over a long period of time, but when we consider the entire history of the church, it really has been a lot of changes, often dramatic, in a condensed period of time.
Consequently, some people ask “why does the church have to change?” or “what was so wrong with the way things were?”
The ironic thing is, the more conservative a person is (in a church context), the more they ought to realize that the church has always experienced change. We just aren’t really conscious of it, because we only see and experience the church, in a direct sense, through the filter of our own personal association with the church.
In other words, we can only directly experience the church in the context of our own lifetime. I don’t truly know what church was like when my parents were kids, because I myself was not yet alive. Young adults living right now cannot truly understand what church was like when I was a kid because at that point, they were not alive.
However, a large number of us have fond memories of church as we experienced it in our youth. Perhaps it is simply in our nature to yearn for the days when church was like it was when we were teenagers. Yet, the reality is, the church has never been the same, it has never been static. The “way” church was when I was a teenager was not the same as it was for my parents. However, the church as it was when they were teenagers would have not been the same as the church existed when my grandparents were teenagers.
The church is always in flux, and a foundationalist approach to our history reveals that this has always been the case.
You see, the revelations contained in our Standard of Authority (not just the Doctrine & Covenants, but also those found within the Book of Mormon and the Inspired Version – both of which are also revelations), reveal to us that the church has existed in multiple iterations.
We tend to regard the church as having been first established in Palestine, directly by Jesus Christ (or at least, by the original twelve apostles under Christ’s direction).
While Christ did establish the church in Palestine, it was not the first time that the church was established. Our Restoration scripture reveals that prior iterations of the church existed.
The first such iteration was in the era of Adam. We are told in Genesis Chapter 6 (Inspired Version):
52 And he called upon our father Adam, by his own voice, saying, I am God; I made the world, and men before they were in the flesh.
53 And he also said unto him, If thou wilt, turn unto me and hearken unto my voice, and believe, and repent of all thy transgressions, and be baptized, even in water, in the name of mine Only Begotten Son, who is full of grace and truth, which is Jesus Christ, the only name which shall be given under heaven, whereby salvation shall come unto the children of men; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost, asking all things in his name, and whatsoever ye shall ask it shall be given you.
Further down the chapter, we read the following:
67 And it came to pass, when the Lord had spoken with Adam our father, that Adam cried unto the Lord, and he was caught away by the Spirit of the Lord, and was carried down into the water, and was laid under the water, and was brought forth out of the water; and thus he was baptized.
68 And the Spirit of God descended upon him, and thus he was born of the Spirit, and became quickened in the inner man.
69 And he heard a voice out of heaven, saying, Thou art baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost; this is the record of the Father and the Son, from henceforth and forever;
Based on the above, we see that the church existed among humanity in the earliest generation of our sacred history.
When did this iteration come to an end? We don’t know for sure. The above verses were referenced by the prophet Enoch, so presumably the church existed in Enoch’s lifetime. Though we can only speculate, it seems that the first iteration did not exist beyond the flood.
The second iteration of the church came into existence quite sometime after the first iteration became dormant (I estimate around 16 centuries later). The second iteration was established by God through his servant Alma, in the New World. We know this from what is recorded in the Book of Mormon, 9th chapter of Mosiah (RLDS 1908):
46 And again, Alma took another, and went forth a second time into the water, and baptized him according to the first, only he did not bury himself again in the water.
47 And after this manner he did baptize every one that went forth to the place of Mormon: and they were in number about two hundred and four souls;
48 Yea, and they were baptized in the waters of Mormon, and were filled with the grace of God:
49 And they were called the church of God, or the church of Christ, from that time forward.
The third iteration of the church was what we usually regard as the foundation of the church: Christ’s work as recorded in the New Testament.
The fourth iteration takes us back to the Nephites. Here, in the Third Book of Nephi, Christ, after appearing to the Nephites, seems to re-establish the church amongst the Nephites. Its not quite as explicitly explained as previously, but it seems that the church had “broken up” prior to Christ’s manifestation, resulting in the need for it to be organized once again.
Finally, we come to the fifth, and current iteration of the church, established, as always, by our Lord, but this time, through Joseph Smith Jr. This iteration is now over 180 years old, which is still comparatively young compared to the prior iterations.
What do we learn from all of this? Well, the key question that we need to ask is this: “Do we truly believe that these various iterations of the church were identical to each other?”
The answer is clearly “no”. Let us consider again the various iterations that have existed:
1st – Established by the Lord through Adam (Old Testament church)
2nd – Established by the Lord through Alma (1st Nephite church)
3rd – Established directly by the Lord (New Testament church)
4th – Established directly by the Lord (2nd Nephite church)
5th – Established by the Lord through Joseph Smith Jr. (modern church)
As we consider these various iterations, it becomes clear that many distinctions exist. It is difficult to say just how many there are, but for the purposes of this discussion, we really don’t need an exhaustive list. The following suffice:
1) The very purpose of the first iteration seems distinct from all others. It does not seem to have operated in the open, to publicly proclaim Christ. This logistically makes sense, as doing such prior to the birth of Christ on the same landmass on which he would eventually be born would likely be problematic.
So, what then was the purpose of the 1st iteration? We can speculate all we want, but it does not really matter. The key point here is that the latter iterations were more open and public about proclaiming Jesus Christ than the 1st iteration apparently was.
2) The first iteration lacked an Aaronic priesthood. While some might argue that it may not have been needed in that very early era of human history, the fact remains, all future iterations are different from the first iteration of the church for at least this one reason. When the Aaronic priesthood was implemented in future iterations, that represented a transformation from the oldest example of the church. Enoch might have said “Hmmm…there was no need for a second priesthood when I was a kid…why do we need one now?”
3) The Aaronic priesthood as it existed in the 3rd and 4th iterations of the church, which for a time existed simultaneously, were not structurally the same. In the New Testament church, there were deacons, priests and bishops. It is not precisely clear if teachers were regarded as an actual office of priesthood.
In the 2nd Nephite church, there were priests, but no deacons, and no bishops. Also, there were indeed ordained teachers. So, different offices operating in the Aaronic priesthood, at the same time, depending in which part of the world you were.
4) According to the Doctrine & Covenants, bishops are properly part of the Aaronic priesthood, not the Melchisidec priesthood. Also, they are to be literal descendants of Aaron. However, as proving such heritage is problematic, the Lord has provided us, in our modern revelations, an escape clause: high priests can function in all other offices, therefore, a high priest can be ordained and serve in the office of bishop.
The key point here though is that bishops are of the Aaronic priesthood. Yet, when we review the New Testament, it seems clear that bishops were very senior members of the church, presiding just below the apostles. Why would members of the Aaronic priesthood be senior to high priests and elders?
Clearly, bishops were operating in the New Testament church with an authority and responsibility distinct from other iterations of the church. Clearly, they were called by God to serve as the needs of the people required at the time.
5) Looking at the priesthood as a whole, the New Testament seems to have had the following offices and roles:
apostles, bishops, deacons, elders, evangelists, high priests, pastors, priests, seventies & teachers (pastors, and possibly teachers, being a role vs. an office).
The Nephite church seems to have had the following offices:
Elders, priests & teachers (high priests seem absent from the 2nd Nephite church, which fact is itself a distinction from the 1st Nephite church).
An additional role is found in the existence of 12 elders set apart to provide something approximating apostolic ministry without being true apostles. This seems to have been a one shot arrangement.
When we compare the two versions of the priesthood (in iterations 3 and 4), including pastors and teachers, we see a total of 12 forms of ministerial leadership in the New Testament church, but only four (including the 12 apostolic elders) in the 2nd Nephite church.
6) When we look at the modern church, we continue to see evolutions:
00000a. Seven (and then ten) quorums of seventy instead of just one.
00000b. Prophets as an office of priesthood*
00000c. Presidents as an office of priesthood**
00000d. Patriarchs as an office of priesthood***
00000e. A First Presidency.
00000f. Apostles no longer form the senior administrate & spiritual body.
00000g. A presiding evangelist.
00000h. A new office, in the form of high councillor****
00000i. A Standing High Council
00000j. Bishops function as financial leaders instead of presiding over the church.
*While there have always been prophets, they were not previously an office of priesthood. This is therefore a new office that exists only in the modern church.
**Prior to the modern church, presidents, as an office of priesthood, did not exist. This is therefore a new priesthood office.
***There is no priesthood office of patriarch in ancient scripture. Patriarchs did exist in the Old Testament, but they were not an office of priesthood. Therefore, it is a new office of priesthood existing only in the modern church. It was also combined with the office of evangelist. There can be little doubt that Old Testament patriarchs and New Testament evangelists, if told that one day their roles would be merged into one office would have found that to be a rather strange change. I suspect many would deem it a very unlikely, implausible and awkward change.
****While the church does not tend to currently use the term high councilor, and inducts people to the standing high council via setting apart instead of ordination, it’s status as an office is based on Doctrine and Covenants 129:7b.
What do we learn from all of these examples of how the various iterations of the church were different from some or all of the other iterations? Well, quite simply, we learn that the church has never existed in one static form. The church has always experienced divinely guided change.
As we have seen here (and especially in my prior blog Can God Change?) such alterations are not limited to just new additions to the church, but, as we have seen, sometimes something already established by God is changed by God in the future, or changed by God in another part of the world (divinely implemented regional distinctions).
So, can we, especially those of us with foundational church beliefs, truly claim that the church cannot or should not change, given that, based on our three books of scripture, it is clear that the church has always changed?
In fact, it would seem that if we don’t experience change, that would be inconsistent with our own history.
Change is not our enemy. Change is not counter to God`s will. However, perpetuating a delusion or clinging to such a falsehood (that the church cannot be changed by God) is clearly in alignment with the designs of the adversary, and in opposition to God`s revelations.
Questions to Ponder
1. Why do we sometimes fear change?
2. What do we learn from comparing the Aaronic priesthood in the Bible with the same priesthood in the Book of Mormon?
3. What positive changes have you witnessed in the church?
Related blog: Can God Change?