In my ward we have a well liked brother. He is a friendly, smiling guy that makes you feel good to be around. He will readily admit his own faults and weaknesses and he often couples these admissions with, “Well, the Church is true.” It has become sort of a catch phrase in the ward. Whenever something goes wrong, i.e., a leader makes a mistake with the announcements, mispronounces a member’s name, forgets an appointment or whatever, it will often be accompanied by a “the Church is true”.
More often it is heard along with a dismissal to class, usually accompanied with a smirk and a small chuckle.
“We’ll now break for our quorum meetings. The Church is true.”
Now, I get that it’s sort of a casual, silly comment. It’s meant as a reminder that, hey, we’re all a bunch of morons but we’re part of something bigger. And, well, that is awesome. Or “true”, or whatever. And that’s fine. I don’t mind being reminded that I’m an imperfect moron and in need of repentance. But it got me to thinking, what in the heck does “the Church is true” mean anyway?
We use this phase from childhood, proclaiming it while bearing our testimonies. We hear it weekly in our church meetings. We talk about the true church. It’s part of being a bonafide Latter-day Saint. But what do we actually mean by it? I think the scriptures give it one meaning and our culture another. So, in typical Mormon fashion I busted out the Webster’s and tried to break it down. (I know, but stay with me for a bit, yeah?) But I don’t bust out just any ol’ Webster’s, I get all pretentious and used the 1828 version. I like to see in what context scripture and historical were taken in when written rather than through my modern lens.
First, lets start with “church”. You can click the links if you’re an avid dictionarian.
Ok, so there are a bunch of ’em. I’ll summarize the 3 I think we use most often in LDS Mormonism.
- The building where you go on Sunday and occasionally during the midweek depending on your age and/or calling.
- The institution (in our case, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints™)
- The body of leaders, collectively. Like when we say, “What’s the official Church position on X?”, we are usually talking about what the leaders have set forth as policy.
There are other meanings as well, but let’s move on “TRUE”.
“True” can have loads of meanings. If you feel so inclined, take a look at the definitions and see how you might use the word. Because it can go so many ways this is where the meaning of the phrase “the church is true” gets a little murkier. Lets throw some stuff together.
- The group of men who lead the Church are firm in allegiance.
- The Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and it’s subsidiary corporations are, in fact, not pretend.
- The building I congregate at on the Sabbath is built in a such a way that all of its measures are straight and true.
I think I’ll use that.
“This building has some very square footings.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, the church is true.”
Culturally, I think most of us mean, “The institution set up by Joseph Smith and that is run by the current leaders is the genuine, or only institution approved of Christ.”
That’s a legitimate way to phrase it, but let’s see if it can be looked at it in a different way. D&C 10:67 tells us how the Lord defines “church”:
Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
The word “church” is the old English translation of the Greek ecclesia, which means “assembly”, or a group or body of people. To use D&C 10:67 this way, the group of people Christ lays claim upon, or church, are those who repent and come unto Him. A building can’t repent, nor can an institution be redeemed. This is about a group of people with certain qualities, namely ones who have repented and come unto Christ.
We probably get the phrase “the church is true” from D&C 1:30 where it says:
And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually-
Let’s read this as the original meaning of church inserted in the text:
And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this [assembly], and to bring [these people] forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living [group] upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the [people] collectively and not individually-
See how it alters the meaning? People were living in darkness and obscurity, God set about to bring anyone who would hear the message into the light. He speaks of the people in this group as a type, not necessarily as an organization.
To illustrate the point that it is probably NOT talking about an official incorporated Church, but rather a group of people, we can look at the legal structure of the LDS Church. There is actually no legal entity known as “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”. It is not a legal Church. Say what?! Well, the name “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” is a trademark owned by Intellectual Reserve Inc. (IRI), a subsidiary corporation to the “Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”. This latter corporation is a type of corporation known as a corporation sole only has one member, the president. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” as a trademark is just used for branding, to stamp on things and hang on buildings. The actual memberships are held by IRI. So legally when you join the LDS Church you are joining the corporation IRI, not the TCOJCOLDS.
It may not matter to your eternal well-being how corporate structure of the Church works but I bring it up to make a point. Because when you get baptized and confirmed you do join a church, just not in the way that most people think of it. You join a group of people who have repented and come unto Christ, a group that the Lord calls “true and living”. This group of people may not be limited, or exclusive, to the incorporated entity known as the LDS Church.
So, back to this church being “true”. What does the Lord mean when he calls a group of people true and living? And are we living up to that label?
I think it’s most useful to look at “true” meaning aimed at the mark, like an arrow, without missing. The mark being Christ. He is the example we should be striving to be like. “Living” obviously means more than to “be alive”. To be alive in Christ is having a spiritual rebirth and change of heart. Our lives become not our own but His.
The Lord was proclaiming the people to be true because they were focused on Christ and living because they had been spiritually reborn.
Alma 5:14 – And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
Given all of this, does the saying “the church is true” really mean anything? I worry that not only does it not make sense when I break it down, but the meaning we give to it might be putting the box before the pearl.
Ask yourself what it means, why you say it. Or as Adam Miller so eloquently puts it:
“Don’t ask the thin question: “Is the Church true?”
Ask the thick question: “Is this the body of Christ?” Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does it bleed?
This is a load-bearing question. This is a question properly fitted, by Christ himself, to address the existential burn that compels its asking.”