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If the LDS Church is not true, which one is?

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

The following is from chapter 7 in Answering Mormons’ Questions (Kregel, 2013). To get additional help in answering LDS questions, we recommend purchasing the book. Click here to see more.

In a fall 2011 general conference address, Tad R. Callister, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, said, “Have you ever wondered why there are so many Christian churches in the world today when they obtain their doctrines from essentially the same Bible? It is because they interpret the Bible differently. If they interpreted it the same, they would be the same church.”[1]

This typical assumption misunderstands the role of Christian denominations. There is no denying that Christianity has had its share of mixed messages and that Christian history is replete with unsavory characters who have attached to themselves the Christian label. However, to conclude that the Christian faith is wrong because of the rise of various denominations is flawed thinking.

When Mormonism began in the 1830s, there was already a serious movement in the United States to steer the Christian church back to its “primitive” roots. Probably the best-known leader of this movement was Thomas Campbell, an Irish Presbyterian who came to America when Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith was barely a toddler. Long before Smith’s First Vision account, Campbell insisted that Christianity had collected too much traditional baggage over the centuries. He insisted that the faith needed to be restored to its original purity. Thomas Campbell left the Presbyterian Church and, together with his son Alexander, formed a new church that would eventually move to Zanesville, Ohio, in 1814.

New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg lists the unique positions held by the Campbellites, as they were often called; they include belief in the

apostasy of the early church, the necessity of being baptized for salvation, preaching against “faith only” salvation, and rejection of a paid clergy.[2] To those familiar with Mormonism, this list will sound very similar to emphases in Joseph Smith’s new movement. If nothing else, this shows that Smith was not original when it came to his views of a needed “restoration.”

Though some may argue that Campbell was well intentioned in his desire to unify and “restore” Christianity, his efforts actually resulted in adding three more denominational movements: Independent Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. Over the years there have been more than two hundred splinter groups that have claimed to be the true followers of Joseph Smith.[3] Aside from the LDS Church, the largest of these groups is the Community of Christ, based in Independence, Missouri, and formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In addition, there are dozens of churches following Smith and practicing polygamy. (Click here to see more about the six largest splinter groups.)

One Church Under Smith?

A month prior to his death, Smith proclaimed,

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.[4]

Smith’s bravado becomes especially suspect when it is understood that there were plenty of dissenters at this time. If Mormons wish to point to division within Christianity as proof of apostasy, then consistency would demand an acknowledgment that apostasy has also tainted Smith’s newer movement.

While honest enough to admit that other groups exist, the LDS Church is quick to brush aside competing claims of authenticity, readily dismissing other restoration churches that claim to more closely represent the church that Smith had in mind. If contradictory teaching and bad behavior among adherents negate the entire faith, then doesn’t Mormonism’s claim to truth also become spurious? What makes the Utah LDS Church’s claim to be the one true church any more believable than the same claim made by dozens of other groups still active today who claim Smith as their leader and insist that the Utah-based church is apostate?

Mormon history is full of division, cover-ups, contradictory doctrines, and abhorrent behavior among prominent members. Standing alone, does this mean Mormonism is false? Christianity also has had its share of controversy, and at times it is difficult to wade through some of the confusing things done in the name of “Christ.” Yet when there are a billion people in the world claiming to be Christian, it should come as no surprise that questionable behavior and teachings will arise. And, without doubt, one of the biggest problems with Christianity is that fallen members, as well as outright imposters, have infiltrated the ranks.

Throughout history, Christians have struggled to properly understand what God is instructing them in the Bible. Because Christians are not omniscient, they must acknowledge that at times they can miss what God intends for them to believe and do. As a result, Christians will always have their disagreements over the peripheral issues of faith—such things as the mode of baptism or details of the end times. Generally, they are willing to agree to disagree on such issues.[5]

Still, there are core beliefs Christians have long shared that cannot be compromised. It is in these core beliefs—for example, that the Bible is the supreme rule of faith, that there is one true God, and that salvation comes by grace through faith and not by works—where Mormonism goes astray. In true Christianity, there is great unity in diversity; the gospel message remains the same, even though there are other differences among the various denominations and churches.


[1] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 125.

[2] Tad R. Callister, “The Book of Mormon—A Book from God,” Ensign, November 2011, 75. Callister’s conclusion seems to ignore the fact that there are numerous splinter groups of Latter-day Saints who all use the Book of Mormon.

[3] Craig L. Blomberg, “Is Mormonism Christian?” in Beckwith et al., The New Mormon Challenge, 322–23. 4. For a detailed study, see Shields, Divergent Paths of the Restoration. The third edition, published in 1982, includes references to certain movements that were only rumored to be in existence. In addition, he certainly couldn’t cover the many splinter groups formed after 1982.

[4] History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6:408–9.

[5] For an example of this freedom, see how Paul explains the issue of meat offered to idols in 1 Cor. 8:1–13; 10:23–33.

 

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