Church Correlation: Miracle and Stumbling-Block

The Miracle

From the beginning of our recorded relationship with God we have struggled with the idea of doctrine.  Ideally, we would all be able to pray to God with enough faith that his truths would be revealed to us as we journey through life.  However, since a basic tenet of life is our weakness, the Lord has provided other guides to supplement our own personal revelation.  There are at least three of these supplementary guides:    prophets who have been given authority, known as keys, to reveal doctrine and assist us in interpreting doctrine; scriptures that are the writings, or stories, about/of prophets and their experiences with God and interpretations of doctrine; and finally, personal histories written by individuals that contain their experiences with God and their interpretations on doctrine.

When utilizing these guides as supplements to our own personal experiences and revelations, most of us will order and rely on them differently, sometimes very differently, in terms of importance, or which should be trusted more.  These differences cause significant changes to occur in the way doctrine is interpreted and taught as time passes, and as the society is spread out geographically.  Because of this, every single dispensation of time follows a similar pattern.

  1. A restoration prophet is given the doctrine and inspired to teach the people about God and give them instructions.
  2. Over time missionary prophets do everything possible to interpret the restoration prophet’s doctrine and apply it to the changing culture and situation at hand.  The missionary prophets are also receiving inspiration and doctrine, many times different than the restoration prophet’s (things change: God helps by inspiring new prophets), and ultimately the people cannot remain in agreement on the doctrine and rebel against it in favor of the simpler, easier or natural man way of things.
  3. Now come the warning prophets, who come to call the people to repentance and point out all of the problems with their behavior in relationship to the doctrine and sometimes the people listen for a time, but ultimately they dig into their comfortable ways and reject the prophet and apostasy reigns.

This pattern repeats itself for literally our entire history on earth.  In my opinion, the period of time at the root of each apostasy is the time of the missionary prophets.  They have always had the most challenges in keeping the people together.  Just from a logistical standpoint it is unbelievably difficult.  The culture, social structures, morals, technology, and communication methods change over time and the doctrine was originally brought about and written down for a particular society at a particular time.  Even though some of the principles and doctrines are unchanging through any cultural change, the additional challenge of communicating the doctrine, interpreting the doctrine, and authorizing other leaders to teach the doctrine as the people spread out geographically made keeping things harmonious almost impossible.  We see the evidence of this in nearly every scriptural story of people who become disconnected from the main body of believers (Children of Israel in Egypt, Zeniff’s people in the Book of Mormon, the different cities that Alma preaches to, and all of the churches established in the New Testament). There are many scriptures that highlight this problem, but this one from Paul to Timothy is particularly revealing (NIV):

1 Timothy 1:3-4 – I am repeating in this letter the advice I gave you just before I went to Macedonia (… presumably after his release from prison in Rome) and urged you to stay at Ephesus. I wanted you to do this so that you could order certain persons to stop inventing new doctrines and leave hoary old myths and interminable genealogies alone. They only raise queries in men’s minds without leading them to faith in God.

The prophecy about this final dispensation is that the problem of keeping the doctrine together while the church grows around the world will need to be resolved.  Of course most members of the church know the stories of the divided church when Joseph was in Kirtland and other leaders in Missouri and how difficult that time period was, but what many members fail to realize is that prior to the Manifesto on Polygamy (outlawing the practice within the church) almost every church unit had the authority to structure the ward activities, teach lessons and doctrine they felt necessary, administer the gospel ordinances, and guide the church in their area with very little needed authority or interaction from the general church leaders.  This included endowments and sealings.  That all changed when President Woodruff received the revelation from God to end polygamy.

The federal government’s attack on the plural marriage left church leaders and the Mormon community scrambling for identity.  Sealing power that had been decentralized was now consolidated into the First Presidency’s office; they couldn’t risk allowing some rogue sealer to continue the practice. As with sealing practices, individual units  had traditionally run their own affairs and used their own materials, only relying on top leaders during major disciplinary disputes.  Source Link

Right off the bat they realized how difficult this was going to be with the polygamy enforcement. The fact that the church was not correlated and structured as one living entity made the enforcement of the polygamy ban nearly impossible for a time.  It took decades to remove the practice completely. As the final people who were part of the restoration prophet (Joseph Smith) period were gone, the missionary prophets were battling the difficulties of attempting to anchor the iron rod of doctrine to a constantly changing physical landscape.  After consolidating power to the First Presidency’s office there were about 50 years worth of correlation efforts to bind the church together.  Rather than rehash the entire history here are some bullet points (Sources: Chapter 43 Church History Student ManualEncyclopedia of MormonismBYU Studies):

  • First Attempt 1908-1922 David O McKay (first manuals on procedures and leadership are produced, many ideas talked about)
  • Joseph Fielding Smith Church Historian 1921-1970
  • First Curriculum Attempt 1928-1938  David O McKay (no real product)
  • Multiple Attempts 1940-1947  (multiple changes to manuals and publications)
  • Post World War 2 growth in the church forced the attempts to become more earnest and their concerns became more urgent as the Church membership doubled in just a decade and a half and passed the two million mark in 1963.  (David O. McKay is President of Church)
  • A thorough correlation effort began in 1960 when the First Presidency directed Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to announce the formation of an all-Church coordinating council consisting of certain General Authorities and executives of various Church organizations.
  • A key step in priesthood correlation at the local level was the inauguration of home teaching in 1964. Called Priesthood Correlation Program at first (From Joseph Smiths time called teachers, ward teachers, block teachers, and eventually home teachers.)
  • Family Home Evening August 1964 once a week on Monday  (Previously Family Night began as once a month in 1915 General Conference but with no materials).
  • A new Melchizedek Priesthood handbook published in 1964 affirmed that the Church had three major objectives:

“1. Perfect the Saints—To keep the members of the Church in the way of their full duty and to help them to walk uprightly before the Lord.  (Home Teaching, and Welfare)

“2. Missionary Work—To teach the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it or accepted it. (missionary program)

“3. Temple Work—To have every member worthy to go to the temple for his own endowments and have his family sealed to him. Also to perform genealogical research and vicarious temple ordinances so that the worthy dead may participate in the blessings of the gospel.”  (Genealogy and Temple Programs)

  •  In 1973 the General Welfare Program, Health Services, and Social Services were brought together to form the new Welfare Services department under the supervision of the Presiding Bishopric.
  • In 1979 the Church published its own edition of the Bible in English, using the text of the King James Version. New editions of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price were published in 1981 (Footnotes, Topical Guide, Bible Dictionary, etc.).

That is enough to bring us to my lifetime.  I was born in 1980 at the tail end of the incredible efforts by these missionary prophets to solve the problem that had never been solved before by prophets.  The immediate benefits were amazing.  The church was able to grow at an incredible rate as the message was consistent throughout the world.  The training methods, the organizational structure, the manuals for children, teenagers, and adults were consistent and repetitive through their life so they could learn the doctrine.  Individual ward units had effective ways of helping each other, their communities, and providing welfare assistance.  The worldwide missionary effort was organized and structured so young kids could go around the world and not only survive but build the kingdom, and temples began to spread to the world so the work for the dead could be accomplished.  It really is quite miraculous when you think about it.

The benefits of a consistent message and the resolution to the problem that has plagued God’s people for its entire history are numerous and amazing.  However, just like all things in life there is opposition in all things and we have new lessons to learn.  In the past 10 years, it has become clear that correlation has become a stumbling block for many within the church.

The Stumbling-Block

In Ancient Israel the most common stumbling block of the people was idolatry.  In fact there were many instances in which wicked kings would place idols on the path to the temple in order to distract the people from coming to God.  Idols, in a loose definition, can be anything that distracts us from a relationship with God.  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  The Law of Moses became a stumbling block for the Jews that isolated them from the world and entrenched them into a way of life that prevented many of them from seeing Christ for who he was.  The Law of Moses came from God and was the “Law” it was the ancient version of our modern correlation effort.

The current correlation of the church has caused a few unintended consequences, not dissimilar to those of the Law of Moses,  that have become stumbling blocks for us.  The main stumbling block that has occurred is apathy, both institutionally (church as a whole) and more egregious, individually.  This apathy then leads to culture traditions replacing personal revelation and doctrine as the core basis for many believers actions.

Institutional apathy shouldn’t be described as a matter of laziness, but rather a matter of priority.  The brethren had to make decisions as to what was most important at the time, but due to those decisions there were apathetic attitudes toward scholarship and church history.  In the timeline above there were two bullet points about the church historian position of the church.  For the entirety of the church’s history until 1972 the position of church historian was held by a General Authority and most of the time a member of the Q12 with Joseph Fielding Smith holding the position for close to 50 years!!  Of course their main responsibilities as GA’s was to oversee the church growth, administer the gospel, and solve current problems.  It is understandable that because of this the historian nature of their duties were not the top priority, and so those efforts were focused on keeping track of the current happenings of the church and recording them, not what the church historian does now.

As the correlation efforts of the church progressed the brethren must have felt it important to have a scholarly effort in compiling, studying, and publishing the complete history of the church because they called Leonard Arrington to the position of Church Historian even though he was not a General Authority.  He was a scholar from BYU and with the aid of numerous other scholars, he embarked on this effort and for the large part of his time they accomplished a great many things.  However, there was an unfortunate bi-product to this effort because the church archives were opened to all serious scholars.  Many critics of the church were able to take information without the benefit of context or authenticity and use it to create the base material for most of what we know as anti-Mormon literature today.  The purpose of correlation was to create a faith promoting curriculum in the brethren’s mind, and so due to the increase in the anti-Mormon literature and an incomplete understanding of the volumes of church history that hadn’t been studied for decades the brethren eventually stopped the efforts of Arrington. The brethren decided to include the previously incomplete version of church history in the curriculum.  This apathy at the institutional level created decades of lost opportunity to compile, study, and publish the church archives and created a stumbling block in our current generation because a limited amount of information was released and pushed by critics and enemies of the church and now that the complete version of the church’s history is finally being put together some people feel the church was hiding something.

The most unfortunate part of this stumbling block, in my opinion, is not that critics of the church are focusing on the few incomplete portions of the correlated version of church history as if the church were hiding its history on purpose, although that is the basic stumbling block for most people.  The worst part for me is that there are so many more miraculous and inspiring events of the church’s history that we have never been taught.  We are blessed now, however, to have the Joseph Smith Papers Project and all the wonderful scholarly work that is bringing these awesome events to light, and also allowing the criticisms of the church’s history to be addressed and confronted.  Institutional apathy will always exist in some form since we are all imperfect and that is the nature of imperfect organizations.  Sometimes it is our expectations that cause the problem more than the apathy and I hope to touch more on that as we get into Individual Apathy.

The worst kind of apathy is individual apathy.  Just like the Jews and the Law of Moses, members of the church over time have become over-reliant on the manuals, books and quotes by general authorities, and church materials for the answers to their questions.  Since we have been taught the stories in the scriptures over and over again, we have a highly developed knowledge of the stories, but an extremely under developed commitment to learning the doctrine and finding answers for ourselves.

“More thinking is required, and we should all exercise our God-given right to think and be unafraid to express our opinions, with proper respect for those to whom we talk and proper acknowledgment of our own shortcomings. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it. The church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts. One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation.”  Hugh B. Brown (Quorum of the Twelve Apostles)

Here is a look at specific results of individual apathy:

  • The incorrect belief that Prophets and Apostles (and therefore the Church) are infallible (only Christ was perfect).

One of the quotes that are used to defend this position:  “Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the “prophets, seers, and revelators” of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy…. Lucifer … wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to “do their own thinking… When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy.”  Improvement Era 1945

Response to this Quotation from President George Albert Smith: “I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.”

  •  Closed minds and Hearts regarding new and different ideas within the gospel construct which makes it harder for new revelation to be received by leaders (even though we believe that many great and important things will yet be revealed pertaining to the kingdom of God).

“I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions..” Joseph Smith

  •  Fighting among the members of the church about differing viewpoints, especially political fighting using Church Correlation as their weapon (we can defend the faith without causing wars within our own ranks).

“And thus, in this eighth year of the reign of the judges, there began to be great contentions among the people of the church; yea, there were envyings, and strife, and malice, and persecutions, and pride, even to exceed the pride of those who did not belong to the church of God.  And thus ended the eighth year of the reign of the judges; and the wickedness of the church was a great stumbling-block to those who did not belong to the church; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.” Alma 4:9-10

  • Members of the church over-emphasizing traditions or programs and therefore creating stumbling blocks to those within and without of the church.  Here is a short and by no means conclusive list:
    • Infiltration of the polarized politics of America and the idea that someone must be of our own political thought to truly be in harmony with the church (Alienates many people who could and would be valuable members of the church who are of different political opinions, also over-emphasizing an American slant on the gospel, where the gospel message is going all over the world and needs to fit into many political environments.)
    • Grooming and dress standards becoming the way we judge and determine the righteousness of another. (Modesty, multiple ear piercings, tattoos, white shirts instead of colored shirts, no beards, etc.)  These are again standards that we teach our youth to help them from correlated materials, but become the “law of Moses” of our time that we use to judge another and exclude people from the beauty of the gospel message.
    • The culturally ideal version of a Mormon being the gauge for someone’s inclusion into the church fold.  (Singles, divorcees, working moms, liberals, etc. do not fit into the cultural phenomenons and many time feel like they do not belong).

“For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?  But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.  Now ye are the body of Christ…” 1 Corinthians 12:14-27

    • A narrow correlated message of how to receive revelation (burning in your bosom) rather than a deep personal search to find how God will speak to you (there are literally hundreds of ways God speaks to people just in the scriptures, and probably millions of ways in reality) leading to this false idea that God hasn’t spoken to us because we haven’t felt a certain way.
    • Even Church Leaders are not immune to the over-emphasis of programs and there have been multiple conference talks about how programs do not save people but merely assist in the efforts of the gospel.

“Sometimes I think we see programs instead of individuals.”  Cheiko Ozaki

In my current ward council it is noticeable when the conversation veers away from the people we are trying to help to the programs and scheduling problems that bog us down.  Thankfully the good people in that council are usually quick to notice and we spend the vast majority of our time talking about how we can help those individuals or families in our ward.  I believe our ward benefits tremendously from those good people who genuinely want to help people be close to the savior, whether they fit into every program or not.  I think there are some lessons we can all learn to help us be more patient with institutional apathy and turn from our own individual apathy.

 Weak Things Become Strong

First and foremost, I would like to point out that I believe that the General Authorities are inspired and led by God to bring to pass His work on the earth.  I would also add that those leaders all have different ideas on how to accomplish this and because the Church is big, it’s hard to turn, not only because the decision to turn takes time, various viewpoints for discussion, and effort, but because it’s hard to get that decision out to millions of members and have them embrace it.  Our turn from individual apathy can make it easier.  The Word of Wisdom alone took close to 100 years for the saints to truly adopt into their lives.  The single greatest thing about our church is that it is living.  As President Uchtdorf said in his recent conference address, “The restoration is ongoing.”  I want to point out some evidences of the Institutional turn from apathy just in the past few years:

So what are some actionable things we can do to increase our personal efforts for revelation and also increase our ability to utilize the awesome guideposts we have been given to assist us on our journey?

  1. Balance
  2. Focus on the core doctrines
  3. Strength comes from Weakness

Achieving Balance

At least four times in the Book of Mormon and in the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord warns us that when we are teaching “more or less than” faith in Jesus Christ and Repentance, “it is a sandy foundation” or “the spirit of the wicked one”.  These extreme and harsh descriptions highlight the absolute importance of keeping the majority of our focus and learning of doctrine focused around faith in Jesus Christ and improving ourselves through the atonement.  Joseph Smith called all other things pertaining to our religion outside of those things “appendages”.  When it comes to appendages there are always going to be different viewpoints and different explanations.  We all think our explanations are better, at least I do, but in the end I believe it is wise to keep an open mind and look for the truth in all differing ideas related to the appendages of doctrine within the church.

Having an open mind and examining things without the extreme passion or defensiveness that seems to accompany many doctrinal disagreements, would surely make us not only more likely to feel the spirit of truth (contention is of the devil), but it would also make use more trustworthy and reliable to those around us when having discussions.  In my experience, most of the people who have left the church over differing opinions or beliefs in doctrine would have been a lot more likely to stick around and find their balance if they had someone who they trusted and would not attack or condemn them, but would listen and counsel and search with them.  It takes a decision to have balance, but it is a decision that will remove the stumbling block for ourselves and others.

Core Doctrines

As you can see, the focus on core doctrines is tied to balance in our lives.  I wanted to make a list of the core doctrines of the church in my opinion:

  1. The Plan of Salvation – We are children of God, we were sent here to learn, our destiny is to return to God, our test would introduce sin and death, Jesus Christ would complete the Atonement, and we would all be saved in various degrees of happiness based on the principles of the Gospel.
  2. Faith in Jesus Christ, Repentance, Baptism, receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost
  3. Priesthood Keys – Authority to govern the ordinances of salvation and charge to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.
  4. Revelation – Apostles, Prophets, and individuals can receive revelation and God speaks to us now in our day in order to help us have faith in Jesus Christ.

I am sure there will be quibbling with me on this list, but I contend that everything else is an appendage to those doctrines.  I would suggest that all of us make devoted and rigorous attempt to focus our learning, study, and personal revelations toward the core doctrines and when studying the appendages always with the context and focus of Jesus Christ in our minds.  This not only helps us find balance, but it also helps us adapt as the appendage doctrines and practices change over time.  These changes are the charge of missionary prophets and being in tune with the core doctrines, and not overly reliant on appendage doctrines and practices help us in not only accepting change, but facilitating it in our ever changing world.

Weak things become Strong

The church is ran by humans and they make mistakes and that is ok because God still inspires people who make mistakes.  In our journey through life we need these guideposts, and correlation, but we need more active relationship with God and part of that is realizing we as imperfect people can be inspired by God and that is confirmed by our imperfect leaders who are inspired to guide us.  When we realize that changes are necessary and that we all (leaders, the church, all of us) are fallible, that realization of weakness will make us stronger.  The reason it makes us stronger, is because it is the truth and it allows us to have real faith in Jesus Christ (he really can talk to me even though I suck.), faith in the church and our leaders (we don’t get overwhelmed when we hear of their mistakes, because we can see their fruit is good, which is how we were asked by Jesus to judge them.), and faith in ourselves (even though perfection is not going to happen).

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”  Ether 12:27

We have set up an “idol” in the “perfect, ideal Mormon” and although we always have Christ’s example as the standard, and the demand for us to keep the commandments is real, we also know that when we offend the law in one point we are guilty of all.  This idea is meant to always be funneling us to our knees and seeking Christ in a personal way.  We cannot exclude or make others who don’t look the ideal (Since we all fall short of the ideal) feel excluded using the ideal as the reason.   Doctrine is, and always will be personal.  We are so blessed to have guideposts along the way, but we must take the initiative to seek the Lord and figure out how we each learn from Him and to help others remain on the path to find Him.  These two final quotes are important to me and applicable.  I hope that reading this long post was worth the read and I do believe we can all benefit from understanding why correlation is such a miracle and what we can do to over come some of the stumbling blocks it has put in our way.

“I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.”  Joseph Smith Jr.

“There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit. Their faith never goes below the surface soil of authority. I plead with everyone I meet that they may drive their faith down through that soil and get hold of the solid truth, that they may be able to withstand the winds and storm of indecision and of doubt, of opposition and persecution. Then, and only then, will we be able to defend our religion successfully. When I speak of defending our religion, I do not mean such defense as an army makes on the battlefield but the defense of a clean and upright and virtuous life lived in harmony with an intelligent belief and understanding of the gospel. As Mormons, we should do with religion as we do with music, not defend it but simply render it. It needs no defense. The living of religion is, after all, the greatest sermon, and if all of us would live it, we would create a symphony which would be appreciated by all.” Hugh B. Brown (Quorum of Twelve Apostles)

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