Response to Barry R. Bickmore
Rejoinder by Sharon Lindbloom
In order to make this review easier to read, all original quotes from the Mormonism 201 rebuttal are boldfaced and italicized to separate these from the rest of the rejoinder.
Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, said,
I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet. (History of the Church 6:408-409)
Such boasting may cause discomfort among twenty-first century readers; nevertheless, Joseph Smith has here summed up the core LDS doctrine of a complete apostasy of the early Christian church. In Mormon thought, the true church was obliterated shortly after the deaths of the original apostles, necessitating a full restoration. In Mormonism 101, Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson examine various elements of Mormon teachings on this subject. With Bible in hand, they logically and systematically deal with each one. It has become the task of LDS apologist Barry R. Bickmore to defend the Mormon doctrine of complete apostasy against the arguments set forth by McKeever and Johnson. My purpose in this paper is to evaluate the objections and counter-arguments presented by Mr. Bickmore in Mormonism 201.
Mr. Bickmore begins by asking the question,
What is a “Complete Apostasy?”
…McKeever and Johnson provide a somewhat twisted version of the LDS apostasy doctrine, and attempt to refute it—a classic straw man approach to polemics. Even if they did refute such a thing, it would have no bearing on the status of the real LDS apostasy doctrine.
In Mormonism 101, McKeever and Johnson present teachings of recognized LDS authorities in order to define the “real LDS apostasy doctrine” (79-80). Mr. Bickmore agrees that the quotes they use “are actually quite good, and fairly representative…” He summarizes the main points:
- Rebellion within and persecution from without finally overcame the Church.
- The Apostles were killed, and the perfect organization of the Church no longer existed on the Earth.
- The priesthood—the authority to act in God’s name—was lost from the earth.
- Various errors crept into Christian doctrine.
- Creeds were formulated, which set in stone many of the errors that had crept in. Such mixing of human error with scripture is an “abomination” to God.
Beyond this, however, there is a difference of opinion between Mr. Bickmore and McKeever and Johnson regarding the finer points of the LDS apostasy doctrine. McKeever and Johnson argue that “complete apostasy” means the apostasy was actually complete, universal and total; that, as stated by LDS apostles,
The people were left in darkness, and gross darkness covered their minds, and we had acomplete apostasy from the truth. (Mark E. Petersen, Conference Report, April 1945, 43, GospeLink 2001; also quoted in Mormonism 101, 80; emphasis mine)
For hundreds of years, following the universal apostasy, the inhabitants of the earth walked in spiritual darkness. They became divided and sub-divided. Satan had obtained such power over their thinking that the fundamental principles of the gospel ceased to exist among them.(Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5:xi, GospeLink 2001; emphasis mine)
There is to be absolute, total, complete apostasy after John’s day and before the angelic ministrations commence. The falling away shall be complete, the apostasy universal. Gross darkness shall be everywhere. The gospel shall not be found in any nation, among any kindred; no tongue shall teach its truth… (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3: 529, GospeLink 2001; emphasis mine)
It is clearly reasonable to conclude from these authoritative sources that the LDS doctrine of apostasy includes the idea that neither spiritual truths nor true believers remained on the earth. In essence, the true church ceased to exist. In the LDS belief system, this would also mean that there were no priesthood holders, no apostles, and no prophets. This is the sort of “complete apostasy” that McKeever and Johnson discuss in chapter six of Mormonism 101; it is the doctrine as historically taught by LDS leaders.
But Mr. Bickmore argues for a more limited view. A concise statement summing up his definition is this:
…when Latter-day Saints say there was a “complete” apostasy, we do not mean that every single Christian personally rebelled against God. Rather, the rebellion, along with outside persecution, was extensive enough that the earthly Church organization was in a shambles, and was taken over by hostile forces. God allowed this because the culture was not prepared to allow the pure Gospel message to flourish in its midst, so God allowed a somewhat watered-down version to be substituted.
Rather than a loss of truth, Mr. Bickmore argues for a lesser amount of truth. He believes there were “true Christians” on the earth during a time when, according to LDS leaders:
- the people’s minds were covered in gross darkness
- Satan had power over their thinking
- the gospel could not be found in any nation or among any kindred
- no tongue taught gospel truths
In addition, Mr. Bickmore writes:
…the doctrine of the apostasy does not imply that everyone outside the Church of Jesus Christ is going to hell. It does not preclude the many beliefs and values we hold in common with other Christians.
…there has always been wheat among the tares.
Thus, Mr. Bickmore scoffs at a suggestion made by McKeever and Johnson: that if there were four righteous priesthood-holding men on earth during the apostasy (the Apostle John and the Three Nephites 1), the LDS doctrine of “a complete apostasy becomes a problem in light of the fact that these men were promised success in making converts.” (Mormonism 101, 84) Mr. Bickmore maintains,
This section of the chapter [in Mormonism 101], more than any other, exhibits the poor reading comprehension skills of McKeever and Johnson. Has there ever been a Latter-day Saint who claimed that John and the Three Nephites did not and will not make any converts during their long ministries? And even if they had been promised that they would “bring souls unto Christ” every single day they lived, Latter-day Saints have no trouble believing that these four men brought “souls unto Christ” without baptizing them into the earthly Church, as has already been explained.
Mr. Bickmore would like us to believe that these four righteous priesthood holders brought souls unto Christ yet did not baptize any of them. 2 This is his opinion, but he is at odds with the teachings of LDS leadership. For example, Apostle James E. Talmage wrote,
Though [the Three Nephites] lived and labored as men among their fellows, preaching,baptizing, and conferring the Holy Ghost upon all who gave heed to their words, the enemies to the truth were powerless to do them injury. (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 739; emphasis mine)
Furthermore, President Joseph Fielding Smith, in answer to a question about whether the Nephites had a church organization before Alma’s time, wrote,
If [the Nephites] were baptized and had the gift of the Holy Ghost in the days of Lehi, then they had a church organization, which endured all through the Nephite history, notwithstanding the constant apostasies that occurred among them. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions, 155)
The logical syllogism resulting from these authoritative LDS teachings is this:
- If baptized people possessing the gift of the Holy Ghost equaled a church organization (as stated by President Smith)
- And if the Three Nephites baptized and conferred the Holy Ghost on people during the apostasy (as stated by Apostle Talmage)
- Then the church organization existed on the earth during the apostasy
- Therefore there was no complete apostasy of the church as taught by LDS leaders
McKeever and Johnson have done an admirable job interacting with and refuting authoritative LDS teachings regarding the apostasy. Mr. Bickmore rejects these arguments because he rejects the historical complete apostasy doctrine in favor of a limited apostasy. Nevertheless, it is clear that Mr. Bickmore, Mr. McKeever, and Mr. Johnson all agree on one thing: that the LDS doctrine of apostasy includes a hostile takeover of the church Jesus established, resulting in the loss of spiritual authority among men. Mr. Bickmore confirms this:
Christians apparently rebelled in large enough numbers (and many who did not rebel were martyred) that God thought it wise to remove His priesthood authority, and leave the world with a lesser amount of truth…
Having established this common definition of the LDS doctrine, we shall move on to Mr. Bickmore’s next question in Mormonism 201, which concerns what the Bible says about apostasy.
Does the Bible Predict a “Complete” Apostasy?
In Mormonism 101 McKeever and Johnson acknowledge, “While some apostasies were certainly predicted [in the Bible], a complete apostasy where God’s authority fully left the earth was never predicted or implied.” (81) Mr. Bickmore believes McKeever and Johnson are using a straw man argument, maintaining,
…when Latter-day Saints say there was a “complete” apostasy, we do not mean that every single Christian personally rebelled against God.
Whichever definition one wants to attach to complete apostasy, the conclusion is the same: the Bible neither predicts nor implies either view. However, Mr. Bickmore believes the Bible supports his idea of limited apostasy and presents his case. He cites numerous biblical passages, but these say nothing more than those cited by McKeever and Johnson. In a nutshell, the verses highlighted by Mr. Bickmore state:
- wolves would enter into the fold to draw away disciples (Acts 20:29-30)
- Galatian believers were being deceived and turning to another gospel (Galatians 1:6-8)
- believers must be careful of false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13)
- certain men denied the Lord Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4; 17-18)
- “all” in Asia had been disloyal to Paul (2 Timothy 1:15) 3
Nowhere in these verses—or in those cited by McKeever and Johnson—is there basis for the assertion that God’s authority had been (or would be) taken from the earth. In fact, taken as a whole, the apostolic writings are not about failure, but about Christ’s victory as He builds His church.
For example, consider Jude. He begins his epistle exhorting believers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” They are to stand firm for the truth—the truth whose preservation is proclaimed (“once for all”)—in the face of those who would pervert the Gospel and draw people into sin. “But you,” Jude says to the church, “remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles.…” “But you,” he says, “keep yourselves in the love of God.” In the end, Jude offers us an inspired doxology expressing the truth of God’s power to preserve His people to the end:
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling,
And to present you faultless
Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy… 4
The exhortations and warnings of the apostles—and of Jesus, for that matter (e.g., Matthew 7:15; 24:24)—never declare that the church would be taken over by hostile forces and God’s authority would be taken away. To reach that conclusion, one must add substantially to scripture. The sin or defection of individuals is not proof or even support of a complete apostasy. Nevertheless, if it were, Mormons themselves would be forced to conclude that the LDS Church is completely apostate.
Documented history confirms that there were many instances of members and leaders in the early days of the LDS Church who not only left the fold but spoke out against the Prophet, attempting to draw Latter-day Saints away after themselves. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of break-off groups—many with people claiming the main body of the LDS Church lost its authority, which now can be found only within their churches. 5 Would it be fair or accurate to insist that these circumstances prove the true LDS Church ceased to exist? We would be hard-pressed to find many Mormons willing to reach that conclusion; though there are, no doubt, many “apostates” who would heartily agree.
Considering the schisms that have troubled the LDS Church in its short history, it is bewildering that Mormon apologists continually turn to this argument. Despite a history of persecution, individual apostasy, schisms, etc., the LDS Church maintains it is not only capable of surviving, but is guaranteed to do so. Logical consistency demands either an abandonment of the tired appeal to defectors in the early Christian church or an admission that the LDS Church was also taken over by hostile forces and inevitably ceased to exist.
Continuing in the quest for biblical support, Mr. Bickmore cites 1 John 2:18:
Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
Mr. Bickmore asks, “Could it be that the flooding of antichrists into Christianity signaled the end of the Church of that age?”
The answer is no. Mr. Bickmore has set up a false scenario. John says there is an Antichrist coming, but even now there are many antichrists troubling the church. John identifies who the current antichrists are in verse 22: anyone who denies the Father and the Son. Because there are “many” who deny the Father and the Son (then and now), must we conclude that the church is flooded and overcome by these people? John tells us in verse 19 that “they went out from us” and no longer continued with the true believers. Their going out, according to John, made it evident to all that they were not part of the church. In other words, they left the church; they did not corrupt or overcome it. They themselves had been rejected by the faithful.
In conjunction with 1 John 2:18, Mr. Bickmore cites 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 and 7-12, quoted here in part:
Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. (vv. 3-4)
About this Mr. Bickmore writes:
Most commentators link Paul’s “son of perdition” with the antichrist. There is ample reason, from Paul’s own use of the Temple as a symbol of the Church organization, that this prophecy predicted the takeover of the earthly Church organization by enemies. 6
It is a rather bold assumption to think that Paul is predicting a hostile takeover of the Church organization. The evidence that this passage is not talking about the demise of Christ’s church is found in the greater context of Paul’s letter. Instead of telling his readers that the days of the church are numbered—that she is soon to fall to her enemies—Paul encourages the Thessalonians and reminds them of God’s faithfulness. In chapter 3, Paul promises them that God will guard them from the evil one and expresses confidence that, because of God’s faithfulness, they will continue in the faith. (3:3-4)
Mr. Bickmore’s appeal to the opinion of “most commentators” may leave the reader with a false impression. True, many scholars link “sons of perdition” with the Antichrist, but those outside the LDS Church do not find support for the LDS view of apostasy in 2 Thessalonians—or anywhere else in the Bible, for that matter. Though there may be questions regarding some of the finer points of Paul’s prophecy, it is understood that Paul is warning the Thessalonians of a future rebellion against God in which many people will choose to follow a false god. The scope and intensity of this rebellion sets it apart from the general opposition to God which was already at work (2:7), but, like the other Bible passages mentioned above, this prediction gives no indication that God will allow His church to be overrun and will remove His authority from the earth.
Did the Gates of Hell Prevail Against the Church?
After demonstrating the absence of an explicit biblical prediction of complete apostasy—that is, a hostile takeover of the church and complete loss of spiritual authority—McKeever and Johnson continue,
One passage that goes against the complete apostasy theory is Matthew 16:18. It reads, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (82)
Consequently, in Mormonism 201, Mr. Bickmore writes,
The stock argument against the LDS case for a complete apostasy appeals to a single verse in Matthew…McKeever and Johnson assert, “Because the literal meaning would eliminate the ‘loss of keys’ for the primitive Christian church, many Mormons choose to spiritualize this otherwise straightforward verse…”
The problem with McKeever and Johnson’s analysis of LDS exegesis of this passage is that they are the ones spiritualizing the meaning of the passage, and the LDS are taking it quite literally.
When McKeever and Johnson draw a comparison between the non-LDS “literal” understanding of Matthew 16:18 and the LDS “spiritualized” interpretation, I believe they intend to distinguish between the plain or obvious meaning of Christ’s words as opposed to the more esoteric sense in which many Mormons read and apply the passage. McKeever and Johnson provide several examples of LDS interpretations, quoting President Harold B. Lee and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism to illustrate and support their observation.
In Mormonism 201, Mr. Bickmore includes the Encyclopedia of Mormonism quote:
The Savior’s reference to the “gates of hell” (Hades, or the spirit world; Matt. 16:18) indicates, among other things, that God’s priesthood power will penetrate hell and redeem the repentant spirits there. Many have been, and many more will yet be, delivered from hell through hearing, repenting, and obeying the gospel of Jesus Christ in the spirit world after the death of the body.(“Hell,” volume 2, 586)
In agreement with the Encyclopedia of Mormonism—at least to a point—Mr. Bickmore examines the meaning of the word “Hades.” He maintains:
So “Hades” was not the place of final punishment, the domain of Satan. It corresponds to what Latter-day Saints call the Spirit World—a place where the spirits of both the righteous and wicked dead are kept until the Resurrection.
In an effort to discern the meaning of the phrase “gates of hell,” Mr. Bickmore presents his readers with some ancient poetic descriptions of Christ’s visit to Hades between His death and resurrection. He then concludes:
Therefore, according to the early Christians, the “gates of Hades” kept everyone, including the Church, inside Hades until Jesus would come and release them into a glorious resurrection. So when Latter-day Saints apply Matthew 16:18 to the release of Spirits from the Spirit World rather than to the survival of the earthly Church, they are taking the passage quite literally.
Mr. Bickmore is missing the forest for the trees. As Matthew records the words Jesus spoke to His apostles in the region of Caesarea Philippi, it is clear that He was not teaching them about Hades or the doctrine of resurrection. Jesus was teaching them about the church:
…I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
The plain meaning of Christ’s words is this: Jesus Christ promised to build His church and, employing a figure of speech, declared that nothing could or would stop it or overcome it. There has been no confusion over Christ’s statement throughout the entire history of the Christian church. However, when one redefines His idiomatic expression, the clarity of Jesus’ message becomes obscured.
Mr. Bickmore’s release-of-spirits-from-the-spirit-world interpretation of “the gates of hell shall not prevail” does not fit with LDS scripture either. For example, in Doctrine and Covenants 17:8, the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon are told,
And if you do these last commandments of mine, which I have given you, the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; for my grace is sufficient for you, and you shall be lifted up at the last day.
Or 3 Nephi 11:39 from the Book of Mormon:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, that this is my doctrine, and whoso buildeth upon this buildeth upon my rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against them.
These verses communicate the idea of “spiritual safety, security and stability.” 7 In these examples and elsewhere, LDS scripture uses “gates of hell” in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ use of the phrase in Matthew 16:18. 8
Several Mormon leaders also disagree with Mr. Bickmore’s hypothesis. These leaders understand Matthew 16:18 to be referring to the preservation of the LDS Church:
God knows everything connected with this work, from the beginning to the end. The troubles that we are now going through are all known to the Lord. He knew them before they took place. He knew the position we would be in. He knew how we would act. He knew it by His foreknowledge, which is infinite. He knows how these persecutions will terminate. He knows that salvation will come. He knows that Zion has been founded, never to be overthrown. He has told us this will be the case. The gates of hell will never prevail against the Zion of God. No matter what we may go through, no matter what we may have to endure, this is the infallible promise of the Lord Eternal which is made to us. (President George Q. Cannon [First Counselor], April 27, 1890, Collected Discourses, volume 2, page 76, GospeLink 2001)
Jesus said unto him, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The Church of Christ today is built upon this same principle, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. They did not prevail against us in our infancy; they did not in our boyhood; they did not in our early manhood; and I will assure you they will not now that we are seventy years old. (President Lorenzo Snow, Conference Report, April 1900, 2-3, GospeLink 2001)
“But whom say ye that I am?” The reply came from Peter with equal directness: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ approved that answer and declared that the basis of the knowledge implicit in it was the rock upon which he [sic] would build His Church. He said more than that. He said that being so foundationed the gates of hell should not prevail against it. That is a very important assurance. It promises solidity and perpetuity. That is the essence of the message which His disciples bore to the world. (Apostle Albert E. Bowen, Conference Report, April 1942, 59, GospeLink 2001)
Discussing the identity of the “rock” in Matthew 16:18, McKeever and Johnson provide a biblically consistent exegesis of the passage:
…Christ is the rock on which the church is built. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul states that Christ Himself is the cornerstone, a rock or stone placed in the corner of a proposed building on which all the other stones must align. The “apostles and prophets” do not necessarily mean offices, as the LDS Church implies; rather this phrase encompasses the teachings of the prophets (Old Testament) and the apostles (New Testament).
In 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, Paul says that the wise masterbuilder builds on the foundation of Christ Himself. In saying this, He warned others who also build on this foundation to “take heed” how they did so. This conclusion (that Christ is the rock) seems to more adequately explain what Peter said in answer to Christ’s question in Matthew 16:15. Peter declared that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Because the true church is based on Christ, His sovereign protection would never allow its death; hence, the expression, “the gates of Hell [or Hades] would not prevail against it.” (82-83)
Mr. Bickmore claims Matthew 16:18 is “the stock argument against the LDS case for a complete apostasy,” but rather than address McKeever and Johnson’s detailed analysis, he virtually ignores it. The truth of the matter is that this is an extremely problematic verse for the LDS Church because its claims of the early church being overcome by evil directly contradict the words of Jesus Christ.
Apostles in the New Testament Church
Continuing with his examination of McKeever and Johnson’s major points relating to the apostasy, Mr. Bickmore discusses apostles in the New Testament church. He begins,
McKeever and Johnson proffer a series of arguments against the LDS belief that Apostles are a necessity in the Lord’s Church, but surprisingly never mention the Bible passage most often quoted by Latter-day Saints in this regard. [Ephesians 4:11-14]
Mr. Bickmore misrepresents or misunderstands McKeever and Johnson. The arguments to which he refers are not general discussions of apostles in the New Testament church, but rather an examination of the LDS doctrine of “apostolic chain of command.” (Mormonism 101, 86) McKeever and Johnson focus their remarks on this specific aspect of LDS apostleship because it relates directly to the Mormon claim of complete apostasy. McKeever and Johnson reason:
If, as LDS leaders proclaim, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reflects the practices and beliefs of the “primitive” church, it must be assumed that the early church had a chain of command similar to that found today in Salt Lake City. If this is true, then the apostles must have had a set of checks and balances to ensure that a successor would always be available.
If an apostle was killed or died of natural causes, a godly replacement to carry on the goal of his predecessor would have been picked, much like the system set up today in modern Mormonism. However, if the primitive church did not have this system in place, then the LDS Church leaders have no right to claim they represent the same church as that led by Christ and the biblical apostles. (86)
McKeever and Johnson affirm that there are those beyond the twelve who are called apostles in the New Testament. In fact, on this point they agree with the LDS Bible Dictionary which says,
The title [apostle] was also applied to others who, though not of the number of the original twelve, yet were called to serve as special witnesses of the Lord. (Bible Dictionary, Apostle, appendix in LDS edition of the King James Version, 612. See Mormonism 101, 87, for McKeever and Johnson’s agreement)
Please note, the particular issue at hand is the LDS doctrine of apostolic chain of command. LDS Church leaders believe that their system in place for replacing apostles (as it becomes necessary) preserves and protects the Church. After describing the keys and authority of the LDS Church’s twelve (modern-day) apostles, Bruce R. McConkie states,
…and through this system of apostolic succession, the Lord has made provision for the continuation and preservation of his kingdom on earth. (Mormon Doctrine, Apostolic Succession, 49)
What McKeever and Johnson (and others) question is how could a complete apostasy (in which God’s authority was completely removed from the earth) happen in the early church with such provision in place? 9 Mr. Bickmore answers,
…many of the prophecies coming from the apostles in New Testament times were about the impending apostasy. They knew a rebellion was in the works. So if God told them not to ordain new apostles because of the rebellion that was underway, that is what would have happened. The apostasy was not an accident. It was a purposeful rebellion on the part of many Christians, tearing the Church apart. When this rebellion was combined with massive persecutions that wiped out a large number of faithful Christian leaders, God undoubtedly thought it wise to remove His priesthood.
Mr. Bickmore allows for potential error in his theory. By choosing to say “if God told them…”, he truthfully confesses he does not know the answer to the question or how to solve the problem this poses for the doctrine of complete apostasy.
More often than not, LDS leaders do not attempt to explain why the remaining apostles did not ordain replacements; they merely acknowledge that the apostolic office disappeared. For example, Apostle Ezra Taft Benson said,
As the restored Church, we affirm that with the passing of the apostolic age, the Church drifted into a condition of apostasy, that succession in the priesthood was broken, and that the Church, as an earthly organization operating under divine direction and having authority to officiate in spiritual ordinances, ceased to exist. (Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, October 1949, 26, GospeLink 2001)
In this same vein, Sterling W. Sill, Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said,
Jesus had built his Church upon the foundation of apostles and prophets. When the foundation was destroyed, the building crumbled. In time what had once been a divine organization became merely a human institution. (Sterling W. Sill, Conference Report, April 1963, 41-42, GospeLink 2001)
In the absence of an official LDS Church declaration, popular notions have developed among Mormons to explain the disappearance of the biblical apostles. Some say that, due to persecution, the apostles were not able to gather together and form a quorum to ordain replacements. Others suggest that the apostles were killed off so quickly that choosing new apostles became impossible. These theories, like the one proposed by Mr. Bickmore, are inadequate. Speaking at a General Conference, Apostle George Q. Cannon taught,
If every man of the Twelve but one were slain, the remaining one would have the right to organize a First Presidency of the Church, to choose Twelve Apostles and to organize the Church in its fulness and power and to preside over it. And his acts would be accepted of the Lord and binding upon the people. This is the authority of the Apostleship. (Gospel Truth, Two Volumes in One, 208)
So not only could one apostle—John, for instance—have organized a First Presidency, which would in turn choose Twelve Apostles, it was his right and responsibility to do so. Apostle Cannon attributed John’s failure to act in this manner to a lack of “faith and men” remaining on the earth at that time. But in order for this to be a tenable explanation, Mr. Bickmore’s limited apostasy doctrine must go and he must concede that the scope of the apostasy was much greater than he has previously argued.
The most incredible point regarding Mr. Bickmore’s theory—that God commanded church authorities to stop ordaining new apostles—is that he expects us to believe God, knowing a rebellion was in the works, chose to remove the very thing He had put in place to protect His church against apostasy: prophets and apostles. In Mormonism 201, Mr. Bickmore writes about the purpose of prophets and apostles in the church,
…one need only look to the reasons Paul gave for God’s establishment of these offices in the Church, which include “That we [henceforth] be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, [and] cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive….”
On this point Mr. Bickmore is in agreement with LDS leaders. Apostle Mark E. Petersen wrote,
These apostles and prophets, the revelators of God, were to act as a protection for the people against false prophets and false teachings. …If you want to know what the word of God is, go to the Council of the Twelve or the First Presidency. They are the foundation of the Church; they will keep you on the right track so that you will not need to worry. (Quoted in Teachings of the Living Prophets, Student Manual Religion 333, 30)
Consider also this Deseret News report from the LDS Church’s October 2004 General Conference:
Jesus Christ has called prophets, seers and revelators to direct his church in ancient and modern times, said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.
“Thus the apostolic and prophetic foundation of the church was to bless in all times but especially in times of adversity or danger, in times when we might feel like children, confused or disoriented, perhaps a little fearful, times in which the devious hand of men or the maliciousness of the devil would attempt to unsettle or mislead.” (LDS are praised and warned, Dennis Romboy, Deseret Morning News, A01, 10/3/04)
It is unreasonable to think Christ established apostles in His infant church in order to protect it but then removed them at the first sign of trouble. Mr. Bickmore’s theories notwithstanding, McKeever and Johnson have raised a valid question: “If the early church had a prophet like the modern LDS prophet guiding it, how could it ever fall into a state of apostasy?” (87) We have yet to see a credible answer.
The “Priesthood of All Believers”
Following the discussion of apostles, Mr. Bickmore challenges the biblical doctrine of a priesthood of all believers. He begins,
As has been discussed, Latter-day Saints believe that because of the apostasy, priesthood authority was lost, and therefore had to be restored. McKeever and Johnson, on the other hand, counter with the standard Protestant argument for a “priesthood of all believers.”
Mr. Bickmore is correct on one point: McKeever and Johnson do discuss the issue of the believers’ priesthood; however, their argument against Mormonism’s priesthood doctrine goes much deeper. In Mormonism 101 McKeever and Johnson write,
The Aaronic priesthood was for the priests of the temple, as defined in the books of Moses known as the Pentateuch. The New Testament shows no need for such a priesthood for Christian believers. (89)
To which Mr. Bickmore responds,
McKeever and Johnson give no evidence that the Aaronic priesthood was not to be perpetuated in the New Testament Church, but we need not defend such a proposition. …In any case, we see the Aaronic priesthood as a subset of the Melchizedek priesthood…
Mr. Bickmore is in error; the LDS position must be defended in light of Hebrews 7:18, which tells us that the Aaronic priesthood was annulled because it was weak and unprofitable. That is, it was unable to permanently accomplish the reconciliation of sinful human beings to their Holy God. The fact that the LDS Church claims a continuation of this priesthood, whether under the umbrella of the Melchizedek priesthood or not, does need to be explained when the Bible tells us this priesthood was set aside in favor of a better hope.
McKeever and Johnson further comment on the Melchizedek priesthood,
Hebrews 6:20 says Jesus is the “high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.” Hebrews 7:24 says that because Jesus lives forever, He holds His priesthood permanently. (89)
Mr. Bickmore writes,
As for the Melchizedek priesthood, nobody disputes the fact that Jesus holds His priesthood permanently, so it is difficult to discern McKeever and Johnson’s reason for pointing this out.
The reason is rooted in the Bible: The Old Covenant required many mediators—priests—to be continually engaged in the never-ending work of offering sacrifices on behalf of themselves and the people in an effort to eliminate their guilt before God. But with the change in the law and the priesthood, “there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.”(Hebrews 7:12, 19) As the book of Hebrews so clearly shows, the New Covenant is far superior to the old, requiring only one Mediator and only one Priest. Jesus Christ is that Priest and Mediator, and He lives forever as Priest and King. (Hebrews 7:23-28) Therefore, if one priest is enough to mediate the New Covenant, and that Priest “continues forever,” any others claiming to hold a priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek” are fraudulent. 10
Despite contrary scriptural evidence, Mr. Bickmore suggests there are a number of points to support the proposition that others can hold the Melchizedek priesthood. He asks,
First, what kind of priesthood did Melchizedek hold? Was his priesthood “after the order of Melchizedek?” If so, then obviously people other than Christ can belong to this order.
This is clearly answered in the New Testament. After telling his readers Jesus has “become High Priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” the author of Hebrews explains what this designation means. Melchizedek was
- priest of the Most High God
- superior to Abraham
- king of righteousness
- king of peace
- without father or mother
- without ancestry in regard to priesthood
- without beginning or end of life
- a priest continually (Hebrews 7:1-3)
The point being made is that Christ, who does not have a legal claim to the Aaronic priesthood because He is not of the proper Israelite tribe, is nevertheless the Great High Priest. The author of Hebrews is developing a typology between Melchizedek and Christ. Melchizedek foreshadowed Christ; his position as a priest foreshadowed Christ’s position as Priest.
Mr. Bickmore argues that if Melchizedek’s priesthood was “after the order of Melchizedek,” then “people other than Christ can belong to this order.” However, it appears he is misunderstanding scripture. When the Bible speaks of the “order of Melchizedek,” it is not talking about a group of people constituting an ecclesiastical fraternity to which people belong (e.g., an elder’s quorum). Within scripture there is no such thing as the Melchizedek priesthood (that is, a priesthood group that operated like the Aaronic priesthood that encompasses multiple participants). There is but a man, Melchizedek, who was a priest of an order or type that foreshadowed the eternal and perfect High Priest, Jesus Christ. (Hebrews 7:28)
The reason for discussing priesthood in this context rests on the issue of authority. McKeever and Johnson are not denying the practice of specific people being called and set apart to particular offices within the church (e.g., pastors, elders, deacons, etc.); nor do they deny the necessity of a High Priest. The church has a High Priest—an ordained priesthood, if you will—who ministers daily in the heavenly temple. McKeever and Johnson are specifically dealing with whether or not spiritual authority from God was fully removed from the earth for a period of 1700 years. For if it was not, the LDS doctrine of apostasy is proven untrue.
Scripture does not support the sort of priesthood assumed by the LDS Church for New Testament believers. However, the Bible does speak of a different priesthood authority—spiritual authority given by God to His people. This is the topic McKeever and Johnson discuss in Mormonism 101. They write,
As for the authority of the Christian, 1 Peter 2:9 says he or she is part of “a chosen generation” and “a royal priesthood.” The believer is given the right to be called a child of God [John 1:12]. Indeed, when speaking of believers, 1 John 3:2 says that “now are we the sons of God.” First John 5:5 adds that only those who believe “that Jesus is the Son of God” have overcome the world. They, then, are the ones who have been given divine authority. (89)
Mr. Bickmore wrongly asserts, “McKeever and Johnson’s claims about a ‘priesthood of all believers’ essentially rest on a single verse in the Bible.” Clearly, McKeever and Johnson have provided much more than one verse to support their claim. Indeed, even more can be offered, including passages from Revelation (1:6 and 5:10) and Peter’s amazing words to those “chosen by God and precious”:
…you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)
Mr. Bickmore believes the 1 Peter 2:9 reference employed by McKeever and Johnson is without merit as they argue for a priesthood of all believers—or the authority of all believers. He writes,
…it is easy to see that Peter was here paraphrasing a passage from the Old Testament spoken by the Lord to Israel through Moses [Exodus 19:6]. …Although Israel is referred to as a “kingdom of priests,” in some sense, obviously there was still an ordained priesthood in Old Testament times, which did not include every Israelite.
In Exodus 19 God is declaring His intentions to His people: He will make them a kingdom of priests. Being sinful, the Israelites did not obey God and were unable to obtain the promises under the Old Covenant. The Levitical or Aaronic priesthood, while it served in a limited function of mediation between God and man, was unable to permanently eliminate sin. This priesthood was simply a picture of the reality which was to come. Now, under the New Covenant, things have changed.
As the New Testament explains, through God’s New Covenant He has given His people the outpouring of His Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that anointed Jesus Christ has also anointed the people of God. 11 Jesus offered the final physical sacrifice for sin, thereby fulfilling the Aaronic priesthood. 12 God’s people, being filled with the Holy Spirit, have the authority and obligation to offer spiritual sacrifices to God. 13 Furthermore, this Holy Spirit, designated as “the Spirit of truth,” is promised to “abide with [them] forever.” 14 Christ, as the head of the body (the church), works through His people, using them to spread the Good News of the Gospel and thereby build His church. 15 As Dr. Richard E. Averbeck of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School writes:
…we are responsible to carry out the ministry of proclaiming to the world “the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9b). (Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, “Priest, Priesthood,” 637)
For its doctrine of priesthood authority, the LDS Church must begin with several assumptions, one being that the New Testament church embraced an ordained priesthood. The burden is on the LDS Church to show the operation of such a priesthood—patterned after the Old Testament—functioning in the New Testament. Instead, the biblical evidence frustrates the LDS priesthood assertion. In the New Testament we find the Old Testament priesthood “annulled,” the necessary atonement for sin perfectly completed, and the restricting veil of the temple ripped asunder. 16We find God freely pouring His Spirit into His people, empowering and equipping them for the tasks to which He calls them, using each one as a conduit for His grace. God has made a NewCovenant with His people, establishing them as a kingdom of priests who continually offer spiritual sacrifices to the Lord who redeemed them.
Mr. Bickmore’s limited apostasy doctrine claims true Christians were on the earth even during the darkest days of apostasy—a premise McKeever and Johnson would affirm. But Mr. Bickmore does not seem to recognize the implications of holding such a position. Scripture tells us true believers, by right of adoption into God’s family, have the authority of God as sons and daughters of God to do the work of God. 17 Through them, He builds His church. So once again the doctrine of complete apostasy is undermined by the truth of God’s Word. Whether we use Mr. Bickmore’s definition or the LDS Church’s historical definition, the verdict is the same: God’s truth and authority did not disappear, nor was it diluted. A complete apostasy of the church Jesus founded never occurred.
Mr. Bickmore does not acknowledge the intrinsic problems in his supposition of a limited apostasy. He believes McKeever and Johnson’s chapter on apostasy is “well nigh useless” in that the authors “provide a somewhat twisted version of the LDS apostasy doctrine, and attempt to refute it—a classic straw man approach to polemics.”
As we have seen, McKeever and Johnson come by their “version” of the LDS apostasy doctrine honestly, via the teachings of LDS authorities. Their arguments are directed at the LDS Church’s historical view of an actual complete apostasy, but even considering Mr. Bickmore’s own spin on the doctrine—his suggestion of a mere limited apostasy—McKeever and Johnson successfully refute these claims as well. They persuasively demonstrate that there is no biblical evidence for a complete apostasy of the early Christian church. Therefore, as LDS Seventy B. H. Roberts would be forced to concede, there is no possible excuse to warrant the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 18
Sharon Lindbloom is the founder of Word for the Weary, http://www.answeringlds.org, a non-profit Evangelical Christian organization formed for the primary purpose of sharing the truth of Jesus Christ with those questioning the validity of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Serving as director of this ministry since 1989, Sharon has authored numerous articles and tracts contrasting biblical Christianity with Mormonism. She serves prayerfully as a full-time volunteer lay-apologist and makes her home, with her husband, in Minnesota.
- LDS Scriptures, Doctrine and Covenants section 7 and Book of Mormon 3 Nephi 28:1-9, teach that John the Apostle and 3 Nephites, members of the “true church,” did not die, but remain alive on earth to this day.
- This is a necessary condition for Mr. Bickmore’s position because baptism signifies entrance into the Church—a church Mr. Bickmore insists did not exist.
- Paul’s use of the word “all” in this passage is clearly hyperbolic as evidenced by the fact that Timothy himself was then in Asia. Furthermore, Timothy was instructed to pass the Gospel on to “faithful men,” who would in turn teach others, indicating that faithful men remained. (2:2)
- Quotes from Jude 3, 17, 20-21, and 24 respectively. See also John 16:33; Romans 8:35-39; 1 Corinthians 1:8-9; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; 2 Timothy 1:12; 1 Peter 1:3-5
- Examples include Church of Christ (Temple Lot) and Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. For more, see Steven L. Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration.
- Paul’s varied use of the word “temple” calls into question Mr. Bickmore’s interpretation of this passage. Paul used the word translated “temple” as a metaphor for the local church—on two occasions (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16, first time). On two occasions he used the same word to describe the earthly body of individual followers of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16, second time). Once he used the word “temple” in describing an actual building (1 Corinthians 8:10) and once he used the word in describing the mystical body of Christ (Ephesians 2:21). Paul used the word only one other time, in 2 Thessalonians 2:4, the verse currently under discussion.
- Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet, Doctrinal Commentary on the Book of Mormon, volume 4:61, GospeLink 2001. McConkie and Millet use these words specifically regarding 3 Nephi 11:39-40.
- For additional examples of LDS scripture’s use of “gates of hell” see 3 Nephi 18:13; Doctrine and Covenants 10:69; 18:5; 21:6
- Mormon doctrine teaches the “primitive” church understood the need for and exercised apostolic succession. See George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, Two Volumes in One, 196; James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, 198
- See Hebrews 10:1-23 for more information.
- See Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4
- Hebrews 9:11-15
- Romans 12:1; 1 Peter 2:5, 9
- John 14:16-17. See also 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, 5:5
- Colossians 1:18
- The significance of the temple veil being ripped apart is explained: “The veil of the temple was the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the rest of the sanctuary. It symbolized the unapproachability of God (Heb. 9:8). Jesus’ death was His sacrifice at the heavenly altar (Heb. 9:12, 24, 25), which opened the way to God (Heb. 10:19, 20), removing the veil. Heaven had been opened through the royal priesthood of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9).” New Geneva Study Bible, note on Matthew 27:51
- See Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 28:18-20
- See Introduction, History of the Church, 1:XL; also quoted in Mormonism 101, 79.