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The True Church: How Can We Tell?

Which is the true Church? Nicene Christians (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and all who agree with the Nicene Creed) and Latter-Day Saints have tended to agree that both churches can’t be true; at least one of them must be false. However, Nicene Christians have tended to de-emphasize the question, while Latter-Day Saints have made it central.

The Scots Confession, an early Protestant creed, states 3 requirements for a true “kirk” in chapter 18: the Word must be rightly preached, the sacraments must be rightly administered, and discipline must be rightly exercised. In the debate between the Nicene Church and the LDS Church, I think we can agree that the true Church: 1. must teach correct apostolic doctrine, and 2. must be correctly organized, to the extent that a standard of correctness can be determined.

In the standard version of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the gauntlet is thrown down. Joseph is told that he must join none of the churches that exist in his day, because “they were all wrong,” and “their creeds were an abomination” in God’s sight (Pearl of Great Price version). In his book The Great Apostasy, Apostle James Talmage chronicles his case for how the true Church ceased to exist after the first century AD, only to be restored in 1830 by Joseph Smith.

The LDS claim is that the original Church was led by a living prophet, that the apostles were intended to be an ongoing part of the top leadership, that there was a Melchizedek Priesthood with thousands of male priests, that the majority of the male members ages 12 and up were elders and deacons, and that the original church taught the system of doctrine taught in the LDS Church today.

It is the above-described church that we find no trace of in the available hard evidence. In the Biblical description of the Melchizedek priesthood (Hebrews 7:24), we are told that Jesus has an un-transferable (a-parabaton) priesthood. Jesus was and is the one and only Melchizedek priest! There is no prophet leading the Church in the first century AD. The apostles are never said to be a perpetual part of the leadership, and do not continue into the second century AD. It was never God’s plan for them to continue any longer than they did.

Local churches were led by teams who were called “elders” (presbyteroi) by the Jews, but were called bishops or literally “overseers” (episkopoi) by the Gentiles. In the second century, the episkopoi became solo leaders resembling what we call “bishops” today, but nowhere at this time do we find “elders” constituting a majority of the active male membership ages 19 and up. Nor do deacons appear to have existed in numbers resembling what we find in the Aaronic priesthood of the LDS church (the Aaronic priesthood being another element found nowhere in the true original Church).

Furthermore, doctrine does not change in the second century. A robust doctrine of the Trinity, culminating in the Nicene Creed of 325 AD, becomes clearer over time, but simply unpacks what was already there in God’s word. Furthermore, there is no LDS doctrine of eternal progression in the early church, a teaching which itself is no logical development, but a stunning innovation from the Trinitarian orthodoxy of the Bible and even the Book of Mormon.

The LDS claim to be the true Church fails to prove itself true. The Nicene Church has all the evidence in its favor.

Chains of apostolic succession through the laying on of hands prove nothing. Being able to trace such a chain back to Peter, James, and John does not prevent church leaders from falling into grave error. The truth that is taught is far more reliable evidence of where the true church exists.

The true Church includes both more and less than the people found on its membership rolls. Not everyone who joins or belongs to the institution has a saving relationship with Christ. And there are likely to be some who never do join the visible Church who do have a saving relationship with Christ. What matters is not whether you belong to the visible Church, but whether you belong to the invisible Church, the one composed of those who truly believe. Only God knows who they are.

The real issue facing today’s Church is not true versus false, but ideal versus real. Yes, there are times when even the true Church hardly resembles the Bride of Christ. But it proves nothing if we hold a contest to see which church is on its best behavior. truth of God’s church does not depend on the goodness of her members. I believe the resurrection of Jesus was true, even if every follower of his proves to be a jerk. (Didn’t Paul say something similar in Romans 3:4?)

“You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16) is not the test of a true church. In the previous verse, Jesus makes it clear that he is talking about prophets, not their followers. Islam, the LDS religion, and any other religion led by a prophet, must be tested by the fruits of their founders. That merits another post someday.