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Splinter Group: The Community of Christ

By Eric Johnson

Summary

(Photo: The Community of Christ temple located in Independence, MO)

The Community of Christ is the largest church following Joseph Smith after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). This is a religion that does not place much emphasis on theology as much as it does on social justice issues, including an emphasis on striving for world peace, feeding the hungry, and abolishing poverty. Because of this, the Community of Christ has more of a feel of a liberal mainstream Protestant denominational church than a relative of the LDS Church. For most of its history, the church has been led by members of the Joseph Smith, Jr. family, beginning with Smith’s son Joseph III, although the past two presidents serving over the past quarter of a century have not been named Smith. For those who prefer a liberal alternative to the LDS Church, many ex-Mormons have found it to be convenient to switch to the Community of Christ.

An Overview

Church Name The Community of Christ (formerly called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ, or RLDS)
Founder Joseph Smith III
Current Leader President Stephen M. Veazey, counselors K. Scott Murphy and Becky L. Savage (the 3 make up the First Presidency), and 12 apostles
Date of Founding April 6, 1860
Membership 250,000 (1,100 congregations in 59 countries)—60% live in North America, with the rest coming from around the world. More than half of all active members speak a primary language other than English.
Headquarters Independence, MO
Temples Kirtland, OH and Independence, MO
Doctrine Non-creedal, religiously liberal, with an emphasis on social justice
Scripture The Bible, the Book of Mormon (church’s own 1966 version) and the Doctrine and Covenants (its own version, which is still being added to–the last time was in 2013)
Salvation Considered to be a personal matter and not subject to doctrine. Which of the three kingdoms of glory a person is destined is related to how good/moral he/she is. All receive some form of salvation.
Church’s Motto “We proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love, and peace.”
“Mormon” Community of Christ members do not like to be called “Mormon,” as there is no official relationship between the LDS Church and the Community of Christ. In earlier days, the two groups did not like each other, but both have made efforts to reach out in a friendly gesture.
Magazine Herald
Website Cofchrist.org

Founding of the Community of Christ

Joseph Smith was killed in a jail battle in June 1844, thus ending his leadership of a religion that began in 1830. While many believe Smith wanted his son to succeed him, Joseph Smith III was only 11 years old when his father was killed, which was considered too young for assuming such an important position. Brigham Young was able to wrest control from several other potential leaders and was named the second president; he took the majority of the members west to Utah beginning in 1846. Today Young’s church–The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–is based in Salt Lake City, UT. A number of splinter groups were developed over the next few decades, including The Church of Jesus Christ, also known as the Bickertonites, that was initially started by early LDS leader Sidney Rigdon.

In June 1852, Emma Smith helped organize the “New Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Joseph Smith’s oldest son, Joseph III (1832-1914), agreed to be the church leader only after he had been elected as the “justice of the peace” in 1857, which was considered unique since the most of the “Gentiles” who lived in the area did not like Joseph Smith or the Mormons. (He was reelected in 1861.) The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints began on April 6, 1860.

Joseph III began a publication called The True Latter Day Saint’s Herald in 1860 (now called the Herald). In 1881, he relocated to Lamoni, IA, as did the church’s administrative offices and printing presses of the church’s Herald Publishing House. Later, many members began to return to Independence, IL, the place where his father had dedicated a plot of land in 1831 for a future temple. In 1888, the church built the “Stone Church.” While legal title to the Kirtland temple was obtained in 1880, the leaders were never able to do the same with the Temple Lot; the church lost the “Temple Lot case” in the court of law in the 1890s.

Joseph III denied many of his father’s later teachings, including baptism for the dead, the Book of Abraham as scripture, eternal progression, and the plurality of gods. He said these were either not true teachings of his father or they were not properly interpreted. As far as polygamy, Joseph III traveled on a number of missions to the western United States and met with women who told him they were married to his father. However, his mother—Emma—had insisted that her husband never married any other woman, so Joseph III adopted her position for most of his life.

At the end of his life, he said he was not “positive nor sure” if his father had practiced polygamy; if the rumors were true, Joseph III had said, then he said his actions were wrong. In later years, church historian Richard P. Howard was commissioned by the First Presidency to investigate the origin of polygamy—Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. Howard wrote a 1983 article titled “The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis” concluding Smith was the originator of plural marriage, thus contradicting the official church position at that time. However, the church heavily edited the report and, Howard said, “watered down” the conclusion.

Joseph III died in 1914 and his son Frederick M. (1874-1946) became the president in 1915. Frederick M. taught a social gospel and emphasized the importance of providing for people’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. In 1926, a building called the Auditorium was commissioned, although it took three decades for it to be finished due to the Great Depression. The Auditorium first hosted a church general conference in October 1958.

In 1946, Joseph Smith III’s son Israel A. (1876-1958) succeeded his brother. During this time, the church remained a mainly North American religion, although a few thousand members did live in the British Isles, Europe, Australia, and the South Pacific. In 1958, W. Wallace Smith (1900-1989)—another son of Joseph III—took over the church presidency. During the 1960s, the church emphasized missionary work, expanding in countries such as Japan, Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, Argentina, the Philippines, and Honduras. W. Wallace retired in 1976 and handed control to his son Wallace B. Smith (1929-    ).

During Wallace’s tenure, reforms were instituted, including the ordination of women to serve in priesthood (ministry roles), making communion available to those in other denominations, and building bridges with other faith communities. In 1984, Wallace claimed he received a revelation to build a spiral-shaped temple as well as allowing women to hold the priesthood, which previously was only available to men. In 1994, the church’s temple was dedicated across the street from Temple Lot in Independence, MO as a place of “worship, learning, and administration.” Officially it was dedicated to “the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit.” There are no “ordinances” for either the living or the dead performed in this temple, unlike what takes place in more than 160 temples built by the LDS Church. In fact, I have had a chance to personally tour both temples in recent years.

In 1996, Wallace—who had three girls but no boys—named W. Grant McMurray (1947-   ) as the president, the first person not from the Joseph Smith family to become to the top leader. This was controversial for many followers who were bothered that a Smith descendant was no longer leading the church. In 1994, a church historian (Richard P. Howard) estimated that 25,000 members of the church had left to join other churches. There was a one-third decline in baptisms in the U.S. and a 50% drop in giving between the mid-1960s and the 1990s. While the church declined in the United States, the mission program added members in a total of 59 nations.

In 2001, the church changed its name to the Community of Christ “to better articulate our mission to proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love and peace.” McMurray resigned in 2004 and was replaced by Stephen M. Veazey in 2005 and remains in this position today. Source

Church’s Mission

According to the church’s web, there are several mission initiatives. There are:

  • Invite People to Christ—Through baptism/confirmation, opening new congregations, and starting churches in other nations
  • Abolish poverty, end suffering—Helping those who are hurt, feeding the hungry, supporting compassionate ministries, and responding in times of crisis
  • Pursue Peace on Earth—Includes a daily afternoon prayer for peace, working with children, seeking justice, and uniting with others to make peace
  • Develop Disciples to Serve
  • Experience Congregations in Mission (Source)

Scripture

On its website, the church describes its scripture:

Scripture is writing inspired by God’s Spirit and accepted by the church as the normative expression of its identity, message, and mission. We affirm the Bible as the foundational scripture for the church. In addition, Community of Christ uses the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants—not to replace the witness of the Bible or improve on it, but because they confirm its message that Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God. When responsibly interpreted and faithfully applied, scripture provides divine guidance and inspired insight for our discipleship.

With scripture, the church lists nine different “affirmations.” In a nutshell, these say:

  1. Jesus is the Living Word of God and to which scripture points.
  2. It is in scripture that the message of God has been entrusted to the church.
  3. Scripture was written in the languages, cultures and conditions during the time it was written.
  4. Scripture is not meant to be used to control or dominate others.
  5. Scripture is not inerrant (“in the sense that every detail is historically or scientifically correct”), but it is trustworthy and “unfailingly reliable”)
  6. “Faith, experience, tradition and scholarship” have valuable contributions to make to scripture.
  7. Through the Holy Spirit the words of scripture can help the reader to grasp the message.
  8. Followers are to study the scripture to better understand how they can follow the way of Christ.
  9. The Bible is the foundational scripture for the church. In addition, the church utilizes the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants.

Concerning that last point, let’s consider the three main scriptures of the church:

  • The Bible. No single Bible translation is used, although a favorite for most members is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The church publishes the Inspired Version of the Bible, also known as the Joseph Smith Translation. This had been completed by Joseph Smith in 1833 and was meant to correct the errors found in the Bible; however, Smith did not have scholarly command of the biblical languages, as he added/subtracted/changed words and sentences with no textual support. The Inspired Version is rarely used by members. For more on the Inspired Version (also known as the Joseph Smith Translation), click here. A literal interpretation of the Bible is not considered to be necessary. “Inerrancy of scripture” is not taught because “Scripture makes no such claim for itself.” A favorite verse for many members is James 1:5, which was used by Joseph Smith to lead him to pray about which of all the churches of his day was true.
  • The Book of Mormon. There are two official versions. The first is the 1837 Second Edition (known as the Kirtland Edition) of the Book of Mormon but with different chapters and verses. In 1966, the church produced a “Revised Authorized Edition” that modernized the language. At the 2007 Community of Christ World Conference, President Steven M. Veazey did not allow a resolution to be brought to the floor “to reaffirm the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired record.” He said that “while the Church “affirms the Book of Mormon as scripture, and makes it available for study and use in various languages, we do not attempt to mandate the degree of belief or use. This position is in keeping with our longstanding tradition that belief in the Book of Mormon is not to be used as a test of fellowship or membership in the church.” The Book of Mormon is not considered a primary scripture for the church and is rarely used. Many members believe in this scripture’s spiritual message but do not necessarily consider it a historical record.
  • The Doctrine and Covenants. Different sections and verses are used than what is found in the LDS version. Not included in the Community of Christ version is D&C 132 concerning celestial (polygamous) marriage, or anything to do with beliefs not accepted by the Community of Christ, including verses supporting baptism for the dead that were taken out in 1970. Three sections (163-165) were supposedly revealed by the current president, Steven Veazey.

The LDS Church’s Pearl of Great Price is rejected by the Community of Christ, although much of what is found in the Book of Moses can be found in Smith’s additions to Genesis in the Inspired Version.

Beliefs (Source)

On its website the church lists a number of basic beliefs. The descriptions are not lengthy, so let’s include each item here (in italics):

God: “We believe in one living God who meets us in the testimony of Israel, is revealed in Jesus Christ, and moves through all creation as the Holy Spirit. We affirm the Trinity—God who is a community of three persons. All things that exist owe their being to God: mystery beyond understanding and love beyond imagination. This God alone is worthy of our worship.”

Jesus Christ: “We believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Word made flesh, the Savior of the world, fully human and fully divine. Through Jesus’ life and ministry, death and resurrection, God reconciles the world and breaks down the walls that divide. Christ is our peace.”

The Holy Spirit: We believe in the Holy Spirit, Giver of Life, holy Wisdom, true God. The Spirit moves through and sustains creation; endows the church for mission; frees the world from sin, injustice, and death; and transforms disciples. Wherever we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control, there the Holy Spirit is working.”

Creation: “As an expression of divine love, God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and called them “good.” Everything belongs to God and should be cherished and used justly according to divine purposes. God sees creation as a whole without separation of spirit and element. God calls people of every generation to join with God as stewards in the loving care of creation.”

Humanity: “Every human being is created in the image of God. In Jesus Christ, God took on the limits of human flesh and culture, and is known through them. We therefore affirm without exception the worth of every human being. We also affirm that God has blessed humankind with the gift of agency: the ability to choose whom or what we will serve within the circumstances of our lives.”

Sin: “God created us to be agents of love and goodness. Yet we misuse our agency individually and collectively. We take the gifts of creation and of self and turn them against God’s purposes with tragic results. Sin is the universal condition of separation and alienation from God and one another. We are in need of divine grace that alone reconciles us with God and one another.”

Salvation: “The gospel is the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ: forgiveness of sin, and healing from separation, brokenness, and the power of violence and death. This healing is for individuals, human societies, and all of creation. This new life is the loving gift of God’s grace that becomes ours through faith and repentance. Baptism is how we initially express our commitment to lifelong discipleship. As we yield our lives to Christ in baptism we enter Christian community (the body of Christ) and have the promise of salvation. We experience salvation through Jesus Christ, but affirm that God’s grace has no bounds, and God’s love is greater than we can know.”

The Church: “God intends Christian faith to be lived in companionship with Jesus Christ and with other disciples in service to the world. The church of Jesus Christ is made of all those who respond to Jesus’ call. Community of Christ is part of the whole body of Christ. We are called to be a prophetic people, proclaiming the peace of Jesus Christ and creating communities where all will be welcomed and brought into renewed relationship with God, and where there will be no poor.”

Revelation: “We affirm the Living God is ever self-revealing. God is revealed to the world in the testimony of Israel, and above all in Jesus Christ. By the Holy Spirit we continue to hear God speaking today. The church is called to listen together for what the Spirit is saying and then faithfully respond.”

Sacraments: Sacraments are special ministries given to the church to convey the grace of Jesus Christ to his followers and all those he yearns to touch with his compassion. Sacraments are baptism, confirmation, the Lord’s Supper, marriage, blessing of children, laying on of hands for the sick, ordination to the priesthood, and the evangelist blessing. In these ministries, God sanctifies common elements of creation to bless human life and to renew and form the church to seek the peaceful kingdom of God.”

Discipleship: “Being a Christian is more than holding a list of right ideas; it is about radical obedience to Jesus in every part of life. God’s boundless love sets us free for lives of responsible stewardship in which we generously offer our lives in service to God’s reign. Discipleship is both an inward and outward journey. Jesus calls us to follow him and to invite others to experience the transforming power of his grace.”

Ministry: “Ministry is humble service offered according to the model of Jesus, who calls every disciple to share in ministry for the world. Some disciples are called by God and ordained to priesthood offices to serve the mission of the church in specialized ways. The Holy Spirit gives complementary gifts and abilities to all disciples to equip the body of Christ for its witness in the world.”

The Reign of God: “The Reign of God is the coming triumph of love, justice, mercy, and peace that one day will embrace all of creation. Jesus’ life and ministry were the living expression of this promise. He taught his disciples to pray for the kingdom’s full coming and sent them out into the world to be living emblems of that new creation. ‘Zion’ expresses our commitment to herald God’s peaceable kingdom on Earth by forming Christ-centered communities in families, congregations, neighborhoods, cities, and throughout the world.”

Peace: “Peace is God’s shalom: justice, righteousness, wholeness, and the well-being of the entire creation. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, came to preach the kingdom and to be our peace through the cross. The Holy Spirit empowers us for the costly pursuit of peace and justice for all people.”

Resurrection and Eternal Life: “Christ is risen! Thus we believe that God is God of life, not of death. By faith we share in eternal life even now. In Christ, God’s love finally will overcome all that demeans and degrades the creation, even death itself. Easter also gives us hope that the tragic suffering and death of victims, throughout history, is not the last word. We believe the Holy Spirit will transform all creation to share in the glory of God.”

Judgment: “The living God whom we serve is a God of justice and mercy. God cares about how we treat our neighbors and enemies and how we make use of creation’s gifts. It matters supremely to God how we welcome the poor, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned, and the rejected. We affirm in scripture’s light that Jesus Christ is advocate and judge of the living and the dead.”

End Time: “We press forward together in service to God, knowing that our labor is not in vain. The future of the creation belongs to the Prince of Peace, not to those who oppress, dominate, or destroy. As we anticipate that future, we devote ourselves to seek Christ’s peace and pursue it. We do not know the day or hour of Christ’s coming but know only that God is faithful. With faith in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, we face the future in hopeful longing, and with the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’”

Summary of Community of Christ Doctrine

Out of all the groups that ultimately follow Joseph Smith, the Community of Christ seems to be the least heretical in its teachings. Here are some issues of promise and concern that I have observed:

Issues of Promise:

  • Joseph Smith’s teachings after 1834 are rejected. (However, they do accept what he taught in the early years.)
  • The rejection of a plurality of Gods, humans becoming Gods, or God having a body of flesh and bones. Also, there is a rejection of Heavenly Mother and the Plan of Salvation, which includes the preexistence.
  • Jesus is considered to be “fully human and fully divine.”
  • Sin seems to be biblically understood, as both original and individual sin are taught. (However, the full implications of sin is not grasped, for if this concept was understood, then no member would think their good words could quality them for the top kingdom of glory.)
  • Forgiveness of sin comes through faith and repentance, but baptism is not a requirement—one sentence in the statement of faith says, “By faith we share in eternal life even now.” (However, faith in this religion is not necessary in order to get one of the three kingdoms of glory.)
  • The Community of Christ doesn’t consider its organization to be the only way to salvation but says believers are all who “respond to Jesus’ call”—this is different than what the leaders taught in earlier years.
  • The Bible is supposed to be accepted as the main scripture—this can be very helpful for a Christian in an evangelism situation who wants to utilize the Word of God.
  • No work on behalf of the dead is done, which is a major emphasis in the temples operated by the LDS Church.
  • The church has two different temples, but no secret ceremonies take place in these buildings. The Kirtland temple is treated as a historic building and the temple in Independence is utilized in much the same way the Mormons use the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, UT.

Issues of Concern:

  • Although it is not its main version of the Bible, the church does publish the Inspired Version, which is the King James Version containing many hundreds of changes/additions/subtractions made by Joseph Smith. He did this with little understanding of the biblical languages; none can be supported by textual evidence, making this version atrocious. No member should ever be tempted to use this version because the church doesn’t endorse it even though it continues to publish it.
  • While the Bible is considered the primary scripture, the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants are also considered scripture; both scriptures are unique versions, and the leaders continue to add new sections to the Doctrine and Covenants–the last time was 2013. Neither book is authoritative to Christians and Joseph Smith is not considered a prophet of God.
  • The church’s statement of faith says that it believes in the Trinity. However, since the church does not emphasize doctrine, many leaders and members typically describe a Modalistic version of the Trinity (the Father is the Son is the Holy Spirit) rather than what the orthodox version. For a description of the problem, click here. For a series of articles on the Trinity, click here.
  • The church believes in continuing revelation and teaches that God continues to reveal himself through the Community of Christ leadership, although there is no support for this claim.
  • A prophet and apostles are needed for authority in this religion. Evangelical Christians do not consider these leaders to be any more authoritative than the LDS general authorities.
  • Pluralism/universalism is emphasized, whereas it is believed that all people will eventually make it to heaven because “God loves each of us equally and unconditionally.” Under the section titled “Resurrection and Eternal Life,” it reads, “We believe the Holy Spirit will transform all creation to share in the glory of God.” There is no official doctrine of hell or eternal separation from God.
  • Heaven is comprised of three kingdoms of glory, just like in Mormonism. The teaching is found in D&C 76 in the Community of Christ version. However, there is no explanation on what is required for each kingdom. There is no exalted “godhood” in the top kingdom.
  • Unlike Protestant churches, the Community of Christ has eight different “sacraments.” Protestants normally emphasize two “ordinances.”
  • Ecumenism is stressed. The church made a policy change and allowed for open communion in 1994; those who call themselves “Christian” are allowed to partake. D&C 164 given in 2010 allows for the baptisms in other churches to be recognized as valid. By making these changes, the church was accepted as a member of the mainstream Protestant organization National Council of Churches in 2010. It doesn’t impress us when a church makes changes in order to become accepted in the eyes of other churches, most of which are just as liberal as the Community of Christ.
  • An overemphasis on world peace. There is no doubt that to know Christ is to know (spiritual) peace, but much of the emphasis in the Community of Christ focuses on a state that won’t be reached until the return of Christ and the Millennium. By emphasizing world peace and other social agendas, the Community of Christ looks more like a liberal Protestant denomination than a Bible-believing Evangelical denomination.
  • Priesthood: About 10% of the members (male or female—females were given the priesthood in 1984) receive a priesthood office, making them unpaid bi-vocational ministers. In Christianity, the priesthood is available to 100% of the believers, both male and female. The priesthood of the believer is not limited to ministers but is provided to every believer.
  • Acceptance of a homosexual lifestyle. The church group Harmony advocates for and assists the church in accommodating homosexual members. Homosexual marriages are performed in the church and some holding the priesthood live in homosexual relationships. This is not considered moral according to the Bible.

For a look at the similarities between the Community of Christ and the LDS Church, click here.

Conclusion

Out of the seven splinter groups in this series, it appears that the Community of Christ is the most “normal” of all of them. In fact, this religion appears to be much closer in its belief system to biblical Christianity than the LDS Church. I’ve talked with several members of the church and they are friendly, even open to discussion. Still, there are many problems in the beliefs and teachings of this church and I believe this church should not be accepted as an Evangelical denomination. Requiring a prophet and apostles, LDS scriptures, and a watered-down version of the Gospel is not becoming salt and light. Galatians 1:8-9 says that a different Gospel is not the true Gospel and should be considered “cursed.”

The church’s insistence to focus on the social justice movement and promoting sinful behavior such as homosexuality makes it easy for a follower to take his or her eyes off the Gospel presented in the Bible. It appears that many ex-Mormons have come to this church because they enjoy its liberal social agenda, with women (at least those called to volunteer ministry) allowed to hold the priesthood. While we like to see people leave the LDS Church, our hope is that they will desire a personal relationship with Jesus and find a church to help them grown in biblically supported ways.

Instead of joining a religion like this where a person has to digest Joseph Smith and some of his teachings, including the Book of Mormon and many portions of the Doctrine and Covenants, I would recommend a person find a truth-minded church that dissolves itself from anything related to Joseph Smith and his religious movement.

Check out an article on how to witness to a member of the Community of Christ by clicking here

To see articles on other splinter groups of Mormonism, click here.

 

 

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