The Body of Christ

“Is the church true?”

This question is, I think, poorly posed. It seems ill-suited to the kind of existential burn that might compel me to ask it. It seems like a bad fit for what I’m after in a white-knuckled prayer.

It’s not that the question is “wrong” or that it couldn’t be answered affirmatively.

No, the problem is that it’s too thin. It’s not a load-bearing question. It’s too narrow a thing to support the weight of the lives I’d be staking on it.

Framed like this, it’s an institutional question. It’s a question fit for answering certain kinds of (inevitable) institutional needs. It smells like bureaucracy. Like correlation in general, it filters the gospel through an institutional lens and then systematically highlights what seems best for maintaining and reproducing that institution. (Which, often, can be a good thing if, like me, you care about maintaining and reproducing the institution.)

But, more, it also feels like an Amway-esque question. It feels like the kind of question that’s meant to set an enormous apparatus of decisive inferences in motion — a deductive pyramid scheme where if X is true, then A, B, C, D, and E must also be necessarily affirmed — that will, with one fell swoop, reduce the scope of life to the span of just that one question and, thus, answer everything all at once and once and for all.

In this respect, it doesn’t have the feel of a question that’s meant to be used as a question. It feels, instead, like the kind of question you’re meant to ask when you already know the answer. It feels inherently rhetorical. It feels like the kind of question a missionary is supposed to ask Mr. Brown, a Boolean question meant to force a binary response.

The problem with these vast institutional machines of deduction and inference is that they tend to be super fragile. One cog comes loose, the whole thing groans and grinds to a halt. The wagered “all” of its “all or nothing!” risks, without further consideration, simply returning “nothing.”

It’s in this sense especially that the question seems to me to be much too thin to dependably accomplish real religious work.

The question has just two foci: church and truth. That is, it’s a religious question that, when prioritized, implicitly assumes (1) that the religious question is fundamentally institutional in character (which church?), and (2) that the religious question is also fundamentally epistemological and veridical in character (which X is correct?).

When prioritized, it implicitly assumes that the decisive question in a religious life takes just this form: the verification of institutional bona fides.

This aims too much at an office building. And it aims too exclusively at the head.

Now, I’m not arguing that verification isn’t important and I’m certainly not arguing that the institutional church shouldn’t be sustained.

But I am arguing that making the whole thing turn on our evaluation of “the truthfulness of the church” is not the best way to approach a religious life or to sustain the institution. To do so is to ask the institution to bear a spiritual weight that it cannot – and was not designed to – bear.

Only Christ can bear the weight of any question that deserves to occupy the center of a religious life. If you want to get the right kind of answer about the church, don’t ask about the church. Ask about Christ.

If your life itself depends on the question, then ask a question that is rich enough to cover the whole rich span of that (messy, unfinished, broken, vulnerable) life.

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.

This is a question that is big enough to not only address issues of veridicality, but the whole of the head and the whole of the heart. And not just these, but the arms, legs, feet, fingers, toes, spleen, bowels, and loins. The body of Christ includes them all. It includes the beautiful and the ugly, the public and the private, the desirable and the foul, the lost and the found.

Inquire into the body of Christ itself.

And then say:

“Though I may not even know what it means to ask if the church is true, I’d stake my life (and the lives of my children) on the fact that Christ’s body is manifest here and that we are its members.”

39 comments for “The Body of Christ

  1. Did Joseph, then, receive the right answer (the visitation of the body of Christ) to the wrong question (“which church is true?”) in the Sacred Grove? Sounds plausible.

  2. Good grief. You sound like Linus discussing the existential qualities of Peter Rabbit. The Church is true, Adam. Don’t fear the orthodoxy.

  3. Wonderful post. But some pushback:

    If we are talking about the body of Christ as comprised of individual followers of Christ, that question (“Is this the body of Christ?”) seems inadequate, too, for the white-knuckled prayer of, say, the Catholic investigator deciding whether to leave his group and throw his lot in with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


  4. But the question “is the church true?” can be asked thickly and much of what your thick questions point toward are already implied in the meaning of the phrase (for many) is the church true. As LW says, the meaning of a word (or phrase) is in it’s use. “Is this the body of Christ?” can be asked thinly. Either way (and I agree with the spirit of the post) the questions ought to have a depth in one’s life (existence communication is what SK called Christianity–so we ask existence questions.)

    Agreed that we turn to and ask about Christ fundamentally. And then the question also includes whether this church is his church, whether he would have me follow him through it, and whether some aspects of who Christ is and what he offers are only found through and in the church.

  5. I imagine there are very many people whom this would help. It is thoughtful. It is wise. It is also, for very many of us, dead wrong. Prayers ‘is the church true’ or ‘is the Book of Mormon true’ get answered all the time, and sustain lifelong testimony and discipleship. This isn’t really a criticism, someone has to be the apostle to the overthinkers.

  6. Michael, the early accounts of the First Vision indicate that Joseph’s primary question was not “which church is true”, but rather what it would take for Joseph to be saved, to have his sins forgiven. Indeed the earlier account indicates that Joseph already had concluded that none of the churches were true. I think Joseph was, in fact, asking Adam’s thick question–what did Joseph need to do to be right with God. For whatever reason, when the 1838 account was written (likely with the help of others), the question about being saved and being forgiven was removed or de-emphasized, and his inquiry about joining a church was emphasized. Interesting that God did not reply to Joseph’s question about being saved or forgiven by telling Joseph to join a church.

  7. Beautiful. I’m continually impressed with the taste of truth I feel when reading Adam’s writing. Even when he words things in a way that my mind wants to reject as unorthodox, or foreign.

    I’m with Hunter and Keith that the substitute question can be just a thin as the original. With thinness and thickness (As I understand them from a Narrative Theory perspective) a single question is not going to be thick enough. I see a need for multiple questions specific to the situation. For example, I don’t think Joseph’s real question was which Church was “true” in the epistemological sense, but “Which church I should join.”

    The way this question of “is the church true” became a stumbling block for me was that, just as Adam points out, I had forced that question to carry ALL of my beliefs. Everything that could possibly be tied to religion was resting on the basic “the Church is True.” Global Flood, Homosexuality as Chosen, Young Earth “Science,” Polygamy, Book of Mormon People as only ancestors of American Indians, Teachings on Race, Radical Free Will. If I knew the “Church is True” I had to believe everything else, right? But then I learn that homosexual attractions aren’t chosen and don’t go away even when you serve a mission and get married. And that the Church now condemns teachings that race is tied to pre-mortal behavior. Worse, I ask God about one of my concerns and He answers contrary to what my Young Men’s leaders all told me?

    If all those questions are resting on the assertion that the Church is True, I’m going to end up assuming that I was mistaken when I believed that God had answered “Yes the Church is True.” I throw the baby out with the bathwater. But when I can break that up into more basic questions: Is the Book of Mormon scripture? Does God exist? Does he care about me? Can I trust Jesus Christ to cleanse me from sin and grant me Grace? Does God want me to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? What does Heavenly Father want me to learn from this address by this Apostle, this Prophet? Then I get the kind of testimony that can hold the weight of my life, and grow and increase continually.

  8. This sounds nice, and I can definitely see many members feeling inspired by your words. But the LDS church has historically exerted a considerable amount of effort in distinguishing itself from other Christian denominations, many of which it openly proclaimed to be wrong and deceitful. The LDS leaders have long posed the question of the church being true. They have long claimed that the LDS church is the only church that has divine authority. The question of the LDS church being true, both in the sense of its core claims about the physical world and history corresponding with reality and it being the only the institution that the resurrected Jesus Christ would recognize as properly representing his doctrine and having authority to perform ordinances to save people from a massive predicament that will inevitably occur in the afterlife without them, IS a load-bearing question. If that really isn’t the case, then what is the whole point of the LDS church? As to whether the LDS church is the body of Christ, that seems to be encompassed within the question, “is the church true?” Is this the proper body of Christ as opposed to all of the other impostor churches who claim to be bodies of Christ.

    Another comment I have is about binary questions. They exist, they are valid, and they are constantly posed by the LDS leadership, and for good reason. To bring people into the LDS church, or reactivate them, or excommunicate them, we have to ask binary questions. The temple recommend interview is fraught with binary questions. While the LDS church tries to be welcoming to all, it has its boundaries. Binary questions must be posed to establish these. The kumbaya, ‘it’s all good and true’ sort of attitude certainly feels nicer, but it is an ineffective way to run an institution.

  9. DavidH, you are right that Joseph’s primary question was if his sins were forgiven, f he was saved. But even in the earliest account of the First Vision right after Jesus tells Joseph his sins are forgiven He follows it up with ” (behold) the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not (my) commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth” which seems to be the same message that none of the church’s are true because none of them follow after His commandments. The message in all teh accounts are fundamentally the same.

  10. It’s not the one and only in my opinion, however, it does have good people and myth can greatly help in raising children. Nevertheless, the child must become an adult and the parent church seems to have a hard time letting the child grow beyond a certain point. I think this is shown by the dumbing down of the doctrine and correlation. However, it seems to be the body of Christ, whatever that is, or man attempting to approach God like other churches do.

  11. I prefer the question, “Is this God’s church? Is this God’s work?” I consider that question load-bearing, but an affirmative answer to that question carries far fewer assumptions than the simpler, “Is the church true?”

    What does it mean for a church, a massive institution and bureaucracy, to be _true_? Not much. But believe that this is “God’s church” still allows a fair amount of error, sin, and imperfection that are apparent, along with the beauty, grace, and truth which are also apparent.

    I hate it when I hear the phrase, “The people in the church aren’t perfect, but the church _is_ perfect.” No, it isn’t. If it were, there would never be the need for future revelation, which there is. If it were, we’d never change the organization, policies, etc.

    The church isn’t “true.” It’s “God’s church.” And hopefully we’re working to make God’s church truer and truer every day.

  12. Only Christ can bear the weight of any question that deserves to occupy the center of a religious life.

    I thought the thing designed to bear the weight was the “keystone” … or the Book of Mormon for us. And since the BoM is a testimony of Christ, it serves to answer both questions, no?

  13. Thanks for these thoughts Adam. What a good way to inspire depth in prayer. It really makes me consider the words and thoughts in my prayers.

  14. I loved this, Adam! Thank you! Your words always inspire me to try again with different questions and different assumptions rather than giving up.

  15. My only concern about saying “The Church Is True” is that it may easily miscommunicate to some of the people I am addressing. “The only true church upon the face of the earth” we know IS true in the main sense we wish, however it can sound pompous & “us vs them” to an outsider. I think of who I am speaking with and what I mean to say. . .”See if this is where you belong. . .” or “We believe there are some essentials which were lost in history & restored to bless your life. . .” so that’s just personal style on my part. I suppose another concern is “The Church is True” has been used in front of me to put down someone who had specific concerns–especially about unrighteous dominion by a local leader who was supposed to be “inspired” and therefore virtually error-free. More than being conce rned about what is “True” in my life it has been someone else applying a Truth in an improper way. Inspiration and Insanity can co-exist in the same situation. The person enjoying the Inspiration can be charitable and avoid assigning an “attitude” to the person perplexed by the Insanity.

  16. Adam, Very good thoughts. In particular I liked:
    “In this respect, it doesn’t have the feel of a question that’s meant to be used as a question. It feels, instead, like the kind of question you’re meant to ask when you already know the answer. It feels inherently rhetorical. It feels like the kind of question a missionary is supposed to ask Mr. Brown, a Boolean question meant to force a binary response.

    The problem with these vast institutional machines of deduction and inference is that they tend to be super fragile. One cog comes loose, the whole thing groans and grinds to a halt. The wagered “all” of its “all or nothing!” risks, without further consideration, simply returning “nothing.”

    Culturally, the only testimony considered valid is “the church is true.” Personally, I don’t like the “vain repetition” of “I know the church is true” every testimony meeting. My own testimony tends more to “this may be the *true* church of God, but the church isn’t *true.*–in the sense that the institutional church (historically and currently) often teaches or makes decisions I think (I hope) God disagrees with…in other words not *true*.

  17. The phrase “the Church is true” can be a loaded phrase. What, in particular, is true? Using this phrase as one’s sole guiding star can lead to error, and it has. The are so many nuances to the church; such as doctrine, folk doctrine, culture, policies, practices, humans, language, etc. Is it all true in that all aspects are good, or God-breathed, inspired, or correct? Because like Adam said, when all of these are lumped together, if one domino falls, then they will all fall unless a line is drawn somewhere.

    I think the phrase is a good starter phrase, but really should be something that a person grows out of as their testimony matures. Because eventually you gain testimonies of individual principles and a closeness to the Spirit, and of things eternal, and the focus on verifying the “true-ness” of the institution fades into the background.

  18. Maybe I’m too apostate for this discussion, but I don’t know what it means practically for the church to be the body of Christ. i mean, if I read this post correctly, then I basically get the gist is pretty similar to Dan Wotherspoon’s frequent admonition in Mormon Matters podcasts to get out of one’s head and work more on “living into” Mormonism.

    But it seems to me that these “thick” questions are also fragile, like the question of “is the church true”. Except, instead of dealing with the fragility of intellectual claims, one is dealing with the fragility of whether the church and its leaders are worthy of one’s trust and loyalty.

    Adam writes about staking his life (and children’s lives) on the fact that Christ’s body is manifest in the church. But what struck me about this sentiment is how many people’s comments I’ve read (and I’m not saying they are necessarily representative of anything statistical) whose faith crises are precisely in the fact that they think of their daughters (or future daughters) and think, “How can I raise a daughter in the church?”. Or they think of a son or daughter who may be LGBT, and think, “How can I raise an LGBT child in the church?”

  19. Givens has good suggestions on how to reply to “Is the church true?” I believe he talks about that in his interview w/John Dehlin. As well, good answer in Bednar’s talk in Conference.

  20. Your meatier questions assume an existing testimony of Christ. If you didn’t believe in Christ, what good does asking “Is Christ’s body here?” do? But if I wanted to know what was true asking “Which church has/the most truth?” can lead to a testimony of Christ.

  21. What is “the church”? If you were to ask the Savior—actually, someone apparently already did—this is what He probably would say: “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.” D&C 10:67-68.

    How can a group of sinners who repent and come unto Christ be “true”? How can I have a testimony about a collection of individuals? And given the breadth of this definition, I can say, categorically, that the particular corporate church of which I happen to be a member is “true” and “yours” is not?

  22. Well, Jesus also said “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” (D&C 1:30), so perhaps looking at those words together is fruitful.

    True may be less accurate than ‘truest’ as we believe many have slightly smaller portions of the truth, But ‘living’ is quite a distinction, and they seem to go hand in hand from the Lord’s point of view. The Lord seems to be simultaneously universally inclusive yet exclusive about certain things, depending on context.

  23. This is excellently written, thank you Adam, this expresses in much more eloquent terms than I ever could, my current position with the church. I love it! Thank you

  24. Isn’t this just a question of semantics? Adam’s point, I take it, is that we should really be asking about whether Christ lives, whether His Atonement has meaning and purpose in our lives, and whether the Church is God’s authorized means for accessing those blessings. Apparently, someone asking if the “Church is true?” isn’t deep enough linguistically for him to convey those desires.

    But that is EXACTLY what millions of members and converts are asking when they utter those words. So while the questions, “Is this the body of Christ?” Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does it bleed?” certainly seem more poetic, I’m not sure they really are any different. For my simple mind, in fact, Adam’s proposed questions actually are worse, because I have no idea why I would care if the Church “bleeds” or not.

  25. How about this question: Can I find the body of Christ in the LDS institutional framework more than any other? Could I find another institution that exhibits more healthy attitudes towards gays and women and also the body of Christ?

  26. Matt D.

    I don’t think the issue is one of semantics. I can understand that many people do ask all of those more detailed questions when they speak the words “Is this Church true?” An affirmative answer transcends the language of the question for them. And I didn’t take the OP to be an indictment of those people.

    I read the OP to be a vindication of a person who likely received that affirmative answer, whether years ago or last night, yet still struggles with issues in their own life. Someone who believes that the Book of Mormon is true, That God the Father did appear to Joseph Smith, but can’t understand how their Bishop could blame them for the abuse they suffered. Someone who wishes with all their heart that their life would turn out as neatly as their neighbors, but despite keeping the commandments, they still face unemployment, foreclosure, and sit through a Sunday School testimony of how paying tithing made it possible to buy the new boat Brother Jones always wanted as long as he promised not to use it on Sunday.

    Sometimes the lived experience of believing members simply doesn’t fit with the stories and testimonies they hear at Church. When this happens, it becomes all to easy to question whether the Church really is true. At these times, I would much rather have a brother or sister learn to ask the deeper questions, one by one, if need be than have them abandon hope and separate themselves from the Body of Christ with some members expressing confusion of how someone “like that” could just lose their testimony.

    Maybe most importantly, I’m grateful that when I was facing that tension between my lived experience and my testimony of “the Church” that I learned to ask the deeper questions which allowed me to draw closer to the Savior THROUGH His Church.

  27. Porter: why would you ask God a loaded question? Asking if there is another church that accepts gay sex more is letting your social and political agenda get ahead of finding out if Christ’s gospel and ordinances are found in the LDS church.

    I say that bluntly because you are using your own definition of “healthy attitude,” rather than a scriptrural one, and the church has stated that gay sex is sinful while being homosexual is not. Loaded question, and the answer already is yes: by your secular standards, there are lots of other organizations that embrace homosexuality. If that is the standard by which truth and gospel must pass through for you, then I suggest your goal is not aligned with the goal of the OP.

  28. As a convert, I used to hate the Mormon habit of testifying to everything as “true.” It seemed like sloppy language to me; what does it really mean, for example, to say that the Book of Mormon is “true” ? That it actually exists? That it is historical in every detail? That it was written by prophets? That Joseph’s story of its origin is accurate? The same problem held for statements like “The Church is true.” However, as a convert from Catholicism, I understood the concept of The One True Church. I came, either through fatigue or socialization, to tolerate “the Church is true” although I myself still, 30 years later, tend to use phrases like “the Book of Mormon is the word of God,” or “the Church is led by the Savior.”

    I recognize “the Church is true” as a sort of verbal shorthand for “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.” I can live with that, and it fits with the very strong spiritual experience (the “testimony,” another word it took me a long time to get comfy with) that precipitated my conversion. So my answer to your initial question would be an unequivocal “Yes.”

    That does not mean that I regard the Church as infallible, perfect, or always right, nor comprised of perfect people. Simply that other churches cannot claim to be the Church of Jesus Christ, but are (for the most part) good but imperfect organizations of human origin and guidance.

    The LDS Church is a good, imperfect organization of divine origin and human and divine guidance.

  29. Too many Adams. To Adam the author of this post: I agree the question “Is this The True Church” seems a little off-key these days. Yes, it does smell like bureaucracy. Perhaps the 1838 account is an early form of Correlation. The 1838 account does seem to be infected with institutionalism. Maybe we need less of the Institutional Joseph and more of the Young Questing Joseph.

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