Editor’s Note: This is the eighth article in a 12-part Tuesday/Thursday Meridian Series that explores some of the most remarkable and exciting doctrines of the Restoration. Read the two-part introduction to this series here, and here, and read article 1 here, and article 2 here, and article 3 here, and article 4 here, and article 5 here. and article 6 here. To read article seven, CLICK HERE.
This series poses fundamental and intentionally provocative questions about the doctrines of the Restoration, and in many cases includes the author’s own interpretation of certain Gospel beliefs and principles that do not pretend to be official doctrine of the Church and that are necessarily endorsed by Meridian Magazine. The intent is to stimulate thought and questions that will lead each of us to our own conclusions.
It is important to begin this article with the underlying theme and premise of this whole series: That the Restoration gives us the remarkable gift of additional gospel truth and spiritual insight which, on so many levels, “completes the picture” and corrects many of the fallacies that crept into Christianity during the dark ages and the Apostacy. I am deeply grateful for the Restoration and am writing this series in an effort to increase our appreciation for and our focus on the glorious doctrines of the Restoration, and with the belief that deep thought and study on these revealed truths builds faith and testimony.
But if the additional truths of the Restoration fork toward pride and superiority instead of toward humility and gratitude, we separate ourselves from the vast majority of our spiritual siblings and become insular rather than open and disconnected rather than connected to the rest of the world.
We are a Church of less than 20 million in a world of more than 7 billion. If we count only our “active” members—those who attend church regularly—we are approximately one one-thousandth of the world’s current population (7 million of 7 billion).
Are we an exclusive Church? Do we believe that we are God’s favored children, that our path is the only path, that our Church and its leaders are perfect, that the Celestial Kingdom is reserved only for us, that the only hope for the rest of the world is to convert to our faith while they are here on this earth?
And if not—if we don’t harbor these exclusive mindsets, how do some of these ideas creep into our culture, and sometimes into the minds of our youth?
For the early part (actually about the first half) of our history, we separated ourselves. Both because of persecution and because of our desire to live in a different way in a different place, we created enclaves, both physically and spiritually, where we could live with each other and by ourselves. We sent out missionaries, but their intent was to convert and then to “gather” to our exclusive places.
As that changed, and as we began to recognize ourselves as members of the Church which God had restored to the whole earth, we covered the globe with our missionaries who encouraged converts to stay “in their own Zion” and to incorporate Restored truths into the beauty of their own cultures. Our message, in its best sense, became “You have much truth and beauty, and we have much in common; let us share additional truth that we believe can give you a more complete picture of God and of His purposes.” This is essentially the concept President Hinckley often voiced— “added upon.”
Inclusive, and Guarding against Exclusive
In terms of its doctrine, this Church, and this Restored Gospel is the most inclusive theology ever known to man. We are all children of the same God; we are literal spiritual brothers and sisters with every other soul on the planet; we want to share Restored truths and the added eternal insights that have been revealed, but also to learn from what others have and can share with us.
Even our Temples, often thought of as the prime example of our exclusivity, are actually the most inclusive institutions imaginable, with life-expanding teachings and covenants that are offered to everyone, even those who are dead.
So why has a more exclusive separation-mentality become so intrenched in parts of our culture? Why do we feel that we have to juxtaposition our truth with the “false” of other faiths? Why are we sometimes defensive and susceptible to an “us against the world” mentality?
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit it, but as much as I love to hear young, sweet children get up and bear their testimonies on Fast Sunday, I am concerned with the standard, sing-songy phrase that so often is the beginning of what they say, “I’d like to bear my testimony, and I know the Church is true.”
Do they know? Is it the Church that is true or the Gospel? Does it feed into the narrative that they are right and their friends of other faiths are wrong? Does it create a cultural sense of exclusivity in their minds? And is it so general that they don’t get to how they feel about Jesus, or what they believe about the plan of salvation?
I would be surprised if there is any one verse in our scripture that has aroused as much animosity among those of other faiths, and as much cultural exclusivity among our members as D&C 1:30 and the words “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”
Must we interpret those words as the Church’s rightness and everyone else’s wrongness?
A careful reading of that verse reveals that the Lord is speaking in the future tense—(“they…shall have power to bring it forth”). Could it be that the bringing forth of that true and living Church also involved finding and gathering truth from different sources?
One need only study the teaching and the life-approach of Joseph Smith to understand how committed he was to finding truth wherever it existed, and to embracing truth from any and all sources as guided by the Spirit. Yes, we believe that the Priesthood, the very power to act in God’s name, was lost from the earth and restored through the Prophet; and if it is the Priesthood that gives power and life to our faith then, in that sense, the Lord’s Restored Church is the only true and living Church. But to interpret that verse to suggest that there is no truth in other faiths, or in the hearts of God-seeking people in any and every corner of the globe, is to make a grave mistake.
When Joseph writes, in his history, “They were all wrong” or “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” was he saying that other faiths contained no truth, not even about the Christ they worshiped or about His atonement in which they believed? Of course not. But they had fundamental errors stemming from the Apostacy and thus were “wrong” or “not true” in the sense of not being the authentic and Priesthood-guided Church that Jesus had established in “former-days” and was now restoring in “latter-days.”
It was the “creeds” of the various Churches that Joseph came in contact with that the Lord called “wrong” and “abominations,” because they reflected the erroneous conclusions and results of the Apostacy.
We must never interpret “only true church” as “only church containing truth.”
Gratitude and Openness
Our belief that truths from the Church of Jesus Christ of Former-Day Saints were lost and restored to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints should inspire in us a deep sense of gratitude for a more complete theology, not a sense of exclusive “rightness” contrasted with the “wrongness” of other faiths.
There is so much truth to admire and insight to be gained from other Christian faiths (I’m thinking of the deep sense of Grace and the laser-focus on Christ and the jubilation of worship that I love in some of our Christian friends of other faiths). And we all know of members of other Churches who are often better “Christians” in the behavioral sense than we are.
And there is also so much light and insight available from and in Eastern religions (I’m thinking of the meditative calm, and the interconnectedness of all, that I learn from friends of non-Christian faiths.)
Yes, these truths are on a different level than the eternal and soul-saving principles of the Restored Gospel, but we, like Joseph, should seek truth wherever it can be found, with the confidence that all truth fits into one great whole and that embracing the Spirit-guided truths of other cultures and faiths will not dilute but expand what we already have.
Some of our own children, who have shared concerns about friends who are experiencing “faith crisis” have suggested that part of the problem is that they were raised in homes that emphasized the “exclusive paradigm” of the “only true church” and the perfection of its leaders. As those with this mind-set get out into the world they find people of other faiths, or of no faith, that seem happy and good; sometimes “better” than the members they know; and they experience or hear of Church leaders who reflect their own problems and prejudices and are far from perfect—and they begin to healthily question the learned-premise that we have a monopoly on truth and happiness and that our leaders never make mistakes—and with those realizations, they begin to doubt the Church and the Gospel. Indeed, Jana Riess, in her book The Next Mormons, points out that whenyoung people are asked why they left the Church, the second most frequent answer was. “(because) I stopped believing there was one true church.” How tragic that the misinterpreted and mistaken notion that only one Church has the truth would cause people to leave that very Church.
Linda and I certainly made a lot of mistakes in our parenting (me more than her) but hopefully one thing that we got right was to emphasize the “inclusive paradigm” of seeking and finding (and admiring) truth from all people and places and feeling gratitude rather than pride in the unique, restored truths that we have. We tried to teach them not only to be tolerant of other beliefs and other faiths, but to try to learn and grow from them. As missionaries, we hope our children, even as they shared these unique truths, were able to learn from the truths of others.
Thinking in this inclusive paradigm not only makes young people more immune to an easily undermined and faith-threatening “perfection mentality” but also helps them to be more interested in and grateful for the diversity and endless new perspectives available to them in the world. And they can learn from others and gain new insights with the discernment of the Spirit and within the clarity of the framework of the Living Church will help them screen out error and recognize truth.
A Personal Conclusion
Let me share a personal story that makes the point far better than I ever could. During my mission presidency in London, Elder Hinckley, before he was President Hinckley, came to visit and speak to our missionaries and members. Late one night, after meetings in a remote Stake, the two of us were driving along the dark motorway, and he was kind enough to complement the mission on its recent baptismal results. I thanked him but mentioned my frustration that there were more than ten million people in our mission boundaries and we were reaching such a small fraction of them—a “drop in the bucket.”
I was driving, and couldn’t see his face in the dark car, but I heard his soft, delightful chuckle, and then he said something that taught me a lesson that I hope I will never forget. He said, “Well, President Eyre, don’t ever think that the LDS Church is the only tool the Lord has.”
As we talked, I realized that what he was saying was that God loves all of His children, and that He does not only work through His Restored Church—that all people have the Light of Christ, and that all who seek will find. Over the years, I have come to believe in that more and more, and to know that, even as we share what President Hinckley called our “added upon” truth, we can also learn from the truth and perspective of others.
Within this inclusive context, we should all be grateful for the Restored insight of a long and equalizing eternity that encompasses the Spirit World and the Millennium and promises the time (or the absence of time) that will allow all of God’s children access to the truths that His Church already gives to those of us fortunate enough to belong to it—giving all the opportunity to bow the knee to Jesus Christ, to be baptized by Priesthood Authority and to make the covenants of eternity. And, in the meantime, may we all—even as we try to share what we have—recognize, appreciate, and learn from what others have and understand and glory in the fact that we all can be led by the Light of Christ.
One of my friends who reviewed a draft of this article added the following thoughts:
“As humans we do love to oversimplify the narrative of a “monopoly on truth” and we may get the idea that a person of tremendous faith or charity should be regarded as belonging to a spiritually inferior caste because their faith does not yet encompass the restored Gospel….Part of what ultimately draws us to the Restored Gospel is this idea of finding truth in its undiluted purity. Viewed in this regard, the purer the truth, the more power it has to connect us to our Creator, in effect enabling us to understand more deeply and draw closer more quickly than we would without them. But simply having them doesn’t make that much of a difference. There is no spiritual superiority simply by right of the possession of truth. There is spiritual growth only by reception and acting upon truths received…And having the “fullness” of the Gospel does not mean we have received all and need no more. How many times do we read in the Book of Mormon, ‘I was about to write more, but was forbidden’…So yes we are supremely blessed to have what we have of Christ’s gospel and doctrines… Yet ultimately, knowing what we know, the real challenge remains to learn, yearn for, receive, discern, live and act upon truth wherever we can find it.”
Another reviewer-friend said:
“I completely agree that we set our young people up for a faith crisis by making God too small in the world. It starts with the language we teach them to use around “one true church”… Brigham Young said “Our religion… embraces all truth, wherever found, in all the works of God and man… (Journal of Discourses, vol.10:50). Embrace means much more than simply acknowledge. We are to bring it into our hearts, minds and lives…The Lord told us in 2Ne 29: Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth? In my mind, in important part of Restoration is bringing all of these truths together into one great whole. You can’t do that if you start by thinking you have all truth to begin with. If you do that, as the Lord points out in 2 Nephi 29, you’re no better than those who say “A Bible, a Bible….”…Gathering is not just gathering people to Israel, but gathering all the gifts those people have to offer. God manifests and works in diverse ways across cultures. Remember Ephesians 1:10: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him.”
Keep this feedback and dialogue going by clicking COMMENT and sharing your thoughts and/or questions.
And of course, the simple answer to the title question of this article is that the Lord’s Gospel as well as His Church is, has always been, and must always be thought of as being as inclusive as He is.
Join me again here on Tuesday when the question will be, What is the significance of our definition of Charity as the Pure love of Christ?
Richard Eyre is a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author who served as Mission President in London. He and his wife Linda are frequent Meridian contributors.