At what point does a church lose “authority,” per se? Authority as recognized by heaven, and not man. Though the “message” is what carries the ultimate authority, nevertheless we’re told that the LDS Church maintains authority to administer the ordinances. We’re told that because the ordinances are there, that it was at one point established, restored, etc., that because it was so at one point it will remain so indefinitely into the future. This entry was partially inspired by this blog post, though I have been in no small number of discussions on this very topic.
However, for the sake of discussion, at what point do the teachings and authority become so degenerate that it’s no longer recognized in heaven. Is that even possible? Or, are we assured of never apostatizing? Are we assured of “never be[ing] led astray?” The link in that “never be[ing] led astray” is by far the best write-up I have seen on the topic and would highly recommend it to anybody looking into the idea the topic.
For example, there’s a compelling story in Mosiah between Zeniff, King Noah, Alma, and Alma the Younger. Clearly, the story is much longer than I could relate here, but I will attempt to make it brief. I attempted to discuss this at length once, and would encourage anyone interested to read that write-up as well.
Suffice it to say, and I’d be interested in your thoughts, Zeniff was a “prophet” (especially in today’s terms), leading the then “true” Church. Indeed, the Lord had referred to them as “my people” when calling on Abinadi to go and preach to them. Though he was a great, righteous leader, Zeniff yet lacked one thing, it would seem. That one thing would appear to be discernment. Discernment because of his dealings with the Lamanites, but most importantly with his selection of King Noah as his replacement. Of all the people he could have called to fill his position as the presiding High Priest, he calls Noah (now King Noah), who is merely labeled as “one of his sons,” but who turns out to be one of the most wicked people in the BoM. Noah then replaces his father’s priests with his buddies, calling his friends to the key church callings. By doing this, he knew he’d have the support to do what he wanted to. The church under Noah’s reign transitions from one of spiritual guidance and growth to one of physical growth; physical manifestations to blind the eyes of the members as to the veracity and prosperity of the church. Temples were built, flat taxes/tithings were levied, and Noah and his priests lived lavishly on the proceeds. As Denver Snuffer mentioned in one of his books, the high priests convinced Noah that all was well, that things were good because they were “prospering.” (See Mosiah 12:15.) To them, physical prosperity was a sign that they were the “authorized” spiritual body of the “true” church. Have we seen this today, or are we immune to “natural man” tendencies of equating physical structures with spiritual prosperity?
Certainly, it’s something we should ever be mindful and watchful of. From home teaching reports, to sacrament meeting attendance, to population counts, baptismal counts and on and on. Denver Snuffer opined, along these same lines:
“How easy it is for those who handle tithes and property to lose sight of the Lord and His house, and come to value only the property. Measurable things – numbers, growth charts, revenues collected, statistics on attendance, numbers of buildings built – everything which could evidence prosperity, overwhelms those who think succeeding in their stewardship depends on increasing that which can be measured. Nephi warned that we would also succumb to this number-crunching mentality. And as we do, we will conclude, just like the scribes and Pharisees, that all is well (see 2 Nephi 28:21). Magnifying a calling has never been statistics-driven.” (Come, Let Us Adore Him. Page 205.)
Continuing with the story of Noah and Alma, eventually Abinadi appears on the scene. There he preaches and the people try to capture him (no one likes being told to repent). He escapes and stays away for 2 years, only to return once again in disguise (imagine that, a prophet “in disguise“), but no one notices him. By this point Alma had become convinced of what Abinadi had said, and “knew concerning the iniquity” of the people. Alma’s conscience gets the better of him and he’s forced to flee and establishes his own church, knowing how far the “official” religion had strayed from the original teachings and the truth.
The majority of the people at this time fully believed that Noah’s leadership and organization was the “true” church, convinced of their “chosen” status. It had the established hierarchy, history, and faithful stories from the past. It had the structure, the high priests, the temples, buildings, and all the physical proof of the “true” church. The people, and the leadership, had both become blinded by prosperity and temporal proof as a replacement for spiritual manifestations, though clearly angels no longer visited this “true” church.
Though the people, and the official hierarchy of the formerly “true” church maintained their belief in their chosen status, the Lord nevertheless had a different idea of whose church was His. They were once “[his] people,” but had somewhere along the lines lost that status. The people were following Noah’s lead, assuming the church he was leading was the Lord’s church, but the Lord sends an astounding statement in Mosiah 27:13. At this point Alma the Younger was railing against his father’s upstart church, the renegade “apostate” religion which was an offshoot of the official, “recognized” church. Alma the Younger was risking his own personal salvation doing his personal preachings, but likely did so because he, too, was convinced that Noah’s church was the “true” one and his father’s an “apostate.” This verse reads:
“Nevertheless [the angel] cried again, saying: Alma, arise … for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people.”
So, very long story cut very short, Alma the Younger learns his father’s upstart religion was Christ’s church, the “church of God.” It had the recognized, by heaven, authority. Though we have no official declaration of when it happened, this angel confirms what we already knew in reading the account in Mosiah. What we typically gloss over, though, is that somehow Noah’s church had lost that authority years before. We’re not told when, how, or what the straw was that broke the back of the spiritually thirsty camel, but this account makes it official. The renegade, offshoot, “apostate” religion was the “church of God,” while the church that everyone viewed as the “official,” recognized hierarchy was merely a shell, an impostor.
So my question is: at what point does the authority become lost? At what point is it removed? At what point does another church, likely viewed as an “apostate” religion by the main body of the formerly “true” church, receive that authority to be “Christ’s”? Though we, today, have that recognized status from decades previous when the authority was present, here we have a stark example in the scriptures of a “true” church losing its status and authority to administer. Where there is a lack of a connection with heaven, the power to administer the ordinances thereof is missing. It was this renegade, apostate religion of Alma the Elder’s which had that power, while the official, recognized institution lacked it.
Perhaps, though, I’m wrong in the above assessments. If that’s the case, I welcome the correction and would implore it, given the nature of the discussion.