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When Latter-day Saints Testify That the LDS Church Is True

by Sharon Lindbloom
25 June 2024

After Jesus told Pilate, “I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth,” Pilate famously responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38). The June 2024 edition of Liahona, the official magazine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, tackles a variation of this question: “What do we mean when we say the church is true?” In his article of the same name, Elder J. Devn Cornish explains what Latter-day Saints ought to mean when they testify of the “only true church,” but first he notes what they shouldn’t mean.

Mr. Cornish tells Latter-day Saints they shouldn’t expect the church to be perfect. “Indeed,” he says, “neither the Church nor its leaders are perfect.” He goes on to quote LDS apostle Dieter Uchtdorf who taught,

“To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” (Quoted in Liahona, June 2024, 18)

Mr. Cornish says that church members sometimes “defend a concept about the way the Lord deals with the leaders and members of His Church that does not serve us well.” He suggests an example of this sort of misguided belief might be to expect the Lord to control everything so “no mistakes of any kind” can be made by church leaders. Mr. Cornish notes,

“It may be better to recognize that the Lord gives guidance to those servants as they prayerfully do their best in their respective charges to direct His work. That is how loving parents teach their children…This pattern of inspired operations at Church headquarters is not substantially different from that used in stakes and wards and homes.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Though acknowledging that God sometimes gives direct revelation to prophets and apostles, Mr. Cornish implies that this is not the way church leadership normally functions. Rather, LDS church leadership functions the way parental leadership does: Imperfect people making thoughtful but imperfect decisions, at times saying, doing, and even teaching things that are “not in harmony with [correct] values, principles, or doctrine.” 

Kindly gentlemen just doing their best.

This is quite a different picture from the historical portrait of LDS prophets, seers, and revelators who, we’ve been told, cannot lead the church astray. And it certainly changes the perception of what it means when Mormons say, “The church is true.”

When Latter-day Saints testify that the LDS church is true, according to Mr. Cornish we are to understand that the church as an institution isn’t perfect. Its members are imperfect. Its leaders make mistakes, even regarding church principles and doctrine. The LDS declaration that the church is true, then, does not mean that what it teaches or stands for is accurate or real. Even so, Mr. Cornish tells Mormons they have a duty to testify “of the truth of the Church as an institution.”

So, if it’s not accurate, in what way is the LDS church reputed to be “true”? Mr. Cornish provides six bullet points to answer this question, only three of which are unique to the LDS church. The noted distinctives focus on the issues of priesthood authority and Mormonism’s “essential ordinances” and covenants. “Following the teachings of the Church works,” Mr. Cornish says — a statement that seems, for Mr. Cornish, to be synonymous with the declaration that “the church is true.”

This definition of true does not suggest that the church “is in accordance with fact or reality” or that it’s “accurate or exact” (definitions of true provided by Oxford Languages). True here does not imply that the church is “not false,” nor does it mean that it is “without error” (definitions of true provided by the Britannica Dictionary). Mr. Cornish has put the kibosh on that sort of thinking. The only dictionary definition that seems to really fit is to say that the LDS church is “rightful, legal, or official.” It’s worth noting that to be true in this sense doesn’t mean that the church is trustworthy. 

Mr. Cornish tells his readers, 

“Of course, we should testify that the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and other fundamentals are true…”

This makes me wonder what is meant by all these declarations. Considering Mr. Cornish’s unexpected definition of the word true as it pertains to testifying of the church, what does it mean when LDS leaders testify that the Book of Mormon is true? I would assume they mean to say that the Book of Mormon is true in that it is “in accordance with fact or reality,” but perhaps not. Perhaps LDS leaders only mean that the Book of Mormon is an “official” religious text for the church. 

What about Joseph Smith? What do church leaders mean when they say Joseph Smith was/is a true prophet? Are they saying Joseph Smith, as a prophet, is “not false”? Maybe not. Maybe they’re not really making a truth claim at all but only saying that Joseph Smith is the “rightful” founder of the LDS church. That would explain how the church can insist on Smith being a true prophet even though he fails the tests of a prophet that God provides in the Bible.

Likewise, what does it mean for the LDS church to say that the restored gospel is true? Considering Mr. Cornish’s treatment of the word true, there is certainly reason to understand that the doctrinal claims of the restored gospel may be imperfect; they may be mistaken — or in other words, Mormonism’s restored gospel may be false, despite church’s claim that it’s true.

Christian pastor and theologian Steven Lawson answers the question Pilate asked Jesus,

“What is truth? It is defined as that which conforms with fact or reality. It is genuineness, veracity, or actuality. In a word, truth is reality. It is how things actually are. Theologically, truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God.” (Ligonier Ministries, “What Is Truth“)

The LDS church is not consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God. In this sense, the LDS church is not true. Likewise, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism’s restored gospel are not true. They do not conform with fact or reality. They are not genuine extensions of God’s truth.

Though Mormonism is completely at odds with God’s revelation of Himself and His truth found in the Bible, God Himself is true (Isaiah 65:16). Jesus Christ is true (John 14:6). The Holy Spirit is true (John 15:26). The word of God is true (2 Timothy 2:15). The sort of “truth” found in the LDS church will not set anyone free, but God’s truth will (John 8:32). May each of us embrace this astonishing truth and be set free through the grace and truth that have come through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

To see Sharon’s other news articles, click here.

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