Restoring the church

The story has been told and retold. An earnest young man, intent on escaping the confusion of the world around him, seeks a secluded place to pray, hoping to receive divine guidance. And while praying, he receives a remarkable revelation from God– a commission, really, to restore the church.

I’m referring, of course, to Francis of Assisi. Sensing the futility of the world of businessmen (like his father), of troubadours (whom he had admired), and of soldiers (he had been one), Francis retired to the old church at San Damiano to pray. As he was praying, he heard a voice emanating from the crucifix that said, three times,“Francis, go and repair my church, which as you see is all in ruins.”

Francis understood this instruction to refer to the crumbling building in which he was praying, and so in the ensuing days he worked to physically repair that structure. But he gradually was led to understand that the commission was a more expansive one. And thus he came to organize the Franciscan order of friars that, accompanied by numerous miracles and heavenly visitations, spread throughout the world, preaching the Gospel and setting an example of sanctity, simplicity, and humility. And of praise: “All creatures of our God and King/ Lift up your voice . . . .”

Some elements of the St. Francis story as it has been passed down clearly have a legendary feel to them. (The famous story of the wolf of Gubbio, for example.) And skeptics would of course scoff at all of the reports of heavenly visitations. But for those who believe in the possibility of such visitations, it would seem arbitrary just to dismiss all of these accounts out of hand. Wouldn’t it? Why couldn’t the Lord and other celestial visitors appear to a humble, dedicated young man who was intent on doing God’s will?

And if we believe this story, or at least its essentials (and parts of it– the stigmata, for example– are hard to dismiss even as a matter of ordinary history), then wouldn’t it be an apt description to say that Francis was called of God to . . . restore the church?

To restore what church? What is “the church”? Francis initially thought the term referred to one particular building. Through reflection and further visions, he came to realize that the term– and his vocation– encompassed much more than this. So then would we say that “the church” referred to the Roman Catholic Church? Catholics might naturally understand the story in that way. But might this not still be too narrow an interpretation?

Suppose that instead of understanding “church” to refer to some particular physical structure (like the Church at San Damiano), or even to some particular corporate or institutional structure (like the Roman Catholic Church), we were to understand “church” to refer to the body of believers who have dedicated themselves to trying to follow Christ. To what Paul sometimes describes as “the body of Christ.” Sometimes those believers– two or three or more– meet together in a particular building, remembering His promise that where two or three would gather together in His name He would be there in the midst of them. Sometimes they are led to organize themselves into one or another institutional structure. But the body of Christ, we might say, is not confined to such physical or institutional structures. And in various forms it has spread through every land and to every people, as the scriptures prophesied. That is at least one way to think of “the church.”

And sometimes the church has needed restoring. “Restore” in this sense would carry the meaning it often does in ordinary speech– not rebuild from scratch, or from the ground up, but rather renovate or repair or rescue from decline or deterioration. We “restore” a great painting by cleaning off the dust and grime that has accumulated over the years. We “restore” a historic mansion or cathedral– or we perform a “restoration” on it– by fixing its sagging roof or its collapsing walls or its broken-out windows.

This sort of restoration is done even though the painting or the building itself has been there all along and may even have been in continuous use. It never disappeared or ceased to function, but it does sometimes need restoring. Restoration in this sense is not a one-time or once-and-for-all thing, but rather something that has to happen periodically– or even constantly (as some ancient cathedrals seem to be in a constant process of restoration).

If we were to understand “church” and “restore” in these senses, then we might say that “restoration” is something that happens to “the church” from time to time, as the body of Christ suffers from one or another ailment. For example, we might regard the events described in John 21 as perhaps the first such “restoration” of “the church.” Jesus was no longer with the church in person, or with the body of believers, and Peter and his associates seem not to have understood their calling, and so they determined just to return to their former fishing business. The church looked to be lapsing into inactivity. So the Lord appeared to teach and remind the body that they were to serve each other, spread the Gospel, carry on the work. The “church” was thus “restored.”

This restoration was just the first of many. Another restoration occurred, we might think, in the eleventh century with the Gregorian reforms, as reformist popes struggled (with only partial success) to eliminate corrupting and pernicious practices that had crept into the church– simony, sexual licentiousness among clergy, an intermixing of priesthood and secular power. Francis’s would be another such restoring. Martin Luther’s attack on indulgences perhaps another. John Wesley’s bringing of the Christian message to the people in the streets and fields perhaps still another. And so forth. Like a venerable cathedral, the church has needed– and received– constant quiet restorations and occasional more dramatic and drastic restorations.

“Restoration” and “church” are of course crucial concepts for followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have not typically thought of those concepts in the ways I have suggested here. By “restoration,” we have in mind the work initiated by Joseph Smith– another earnest young man who sought divine guidance. By “church” we have thought of the Church. Still, we live in a time in which Heaven knows the church is desperately in need of some restoration work. And surely both the church and the Church are facing some fundamental, even epochal challenges. Moreover, the Church seems to be in the process of adjusting its stance toward the church, or toward the body of believers who constitute Christianity. So perhaps some rethinking of restoration and church may be in order.

16 comments for “Restoring the church

  1. Yes, I have my doubts about Luther too. Still, all reformers and restorers, like all human beings, have been imperfect. They might have done some necessary restoring even though they also made some serious mistakes.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Of course, in Mormonism the word “restoration” is understood to mean bringing forth something that existed at an earlier time and place but had been lost. For instance, the restoration of the priesthood, which we understood to have been taken from the earth and therefore needed to be “restored.” But our use of this term has gotten completely out of control. Recently, we were told that the new youth program was part of the ongoing “restoration.” We keep “restoring” lots of things that never existed in the early church. Of course, the early church is the first thing Joseph “restored” that didn’t exist in the New Testament. There were individual congregations or gatherings of the followers of Jesus, but there was no overarching hierarchical organization with an array of ranked authority figures. Your allusion to Peter and the others going fishing, assuming that their ministry was over, shows that there was no organization they felt compelled to staff and keep running. And priesthood itself, as a form of authority that could be “restored,” is completely anachronistic, a modern concept that evolved over the first several years after the organization of the Church in 1830.

  3. The Church was Restored to restore the church. If the Lord determines that the Church needs restoration, He will ordain men to perform that work. Our duty is to restore ourselves through repentance and discipleship. We should encourage those over whom we have authority or influence to do the same.

  4. Allow me to correct myself: Our duty is to allow the Lord to restore us through repentance and discipleship.

  5. Steven Smith:

    Great post.

    You say, “The Church seems to be in the process of adjusting its stance toward the Church, or toward the body of believers who constitute Christianity.”

    I have my own views on this, but would be very interested for you to elaborate on this intriguing statement.

    Thank you.

  6. Taiwan Missionary: Thanks for the question (and for your other interesting and generous comments on some of my posts over the last couple of weeks).

    I’m just one observer, and not an especially attentive one; but it seems manifest that while at one time the Church’s stance with respect to other Christian churches was a pretty oppositional one, in recent years and decades that stance has become much more respectful and cordial. As someone mentioned in a comment on the “True church” post from last week, the 1838 version of the First Vision describes the other churches in harshly condemning terms: their ministers are “all corrupt” and their creeds are an “abomination.” Generally adversarial relations seem to have been typical through the 19th century and some of the 20th. For some years now, though, our leaders seem to have been much more respectful toward other Christian churches, emphasizing the good that they do and the large amount of truth that they have. And particularly in recent years, we hear of various attempts at cooperation– in disaster relief, for example. President Nelson’s recent cordial meeting with Pope Francis is just one dramatic instance: a half-century ago, I think, that just wouldn’t have happened.

    In my view, these are very welcome developments. Let me try to put my overall view in a nutshell: Taking a sort of panoramic view of history (and whether we’re thinking of political and social history or the history of salvation), I believe that Christianity has been a monumental achievement. (Albeit very much a mixed achievement, with lots of failures, some of them quite horrific.) However, Christianity is also embattled around the world today, in various different senses. So greater Christian solidarity is very much to be desired, I believe. I’m not generally in favor of the kind of ecumenism that aims at institutional mergers. But I think that dissolving the barriers that separate our own Church from the rest of Christianity is good for us, potentially good for Christianity, and potentially good for a world that seems to be in a sort of downward spiritual and cultural spiral. So that’s a concern that you may discern in most of these posts I’ve been putting up.

  7. Steven Smith:

    Thank you for elaborating. I think your analysis is pretty spot-on. A few random thoughts and memories of my own:

    I joined the Church in 1974 while in the Air Force, and found that there was a lot of Evangelical hostility in the Air Force against the Mormon Church, both in the Chaplain Corps and among regular Airmen (there is no such thing as an Airwoman; both male and female are referred to as Airmen.) That hostility was defensively returned by Mormons against the Evangelicals. I once had someone scream at me, “Mormon! 666!” To which I replied, “Then you are an apostate purveyor of priest craft!” All very helpful in building bridges…..

    According to Gregory Prince’s book on Leonard Arrington, Joseph Fielding Smith point-blank refused to travel to Illinois to attend some (academic or inter-faith) meeting that he had been invited to as a member of the Q12, that dealt with the Church. Arrington pressed him to go, but he said, “They (meaning the state of Illinois) murdered my Grandfather.” In the 1960s/1970s, JFS wouldn’t step inside Illinois because his grandfather had been murdered there in 1844.

    Wallace Stegner also commented that the Mormons had The world’s worst hair-trigger martyr’s complex. Memories of injustices suffered take a long time to ease.
    I think we as a Church and as a people have begun to move past our preoccupation with past persecutions.

    Not uniformly, though. A good, intelligent member of my Ward rails often against the SL Tribune because of its coverage of the Church. I am not a fan of the Tribune, because its views are IMO very liberal, and it is not above taking the occasional cheap shot at the Church. But much of its coverage on the Church is good and balanced, and it provides information that is hard to find elsewhere.

    But I agree with you that there is now much less of an us-against-the-world mentality in the Church.

    In my personal opinion, the negative reaction to BRM’s assertion that the Catholic Church was the church of the a Devil, in the 1st edition of MD, was key in helping us move past such attitudes. It made people realize how awful such beliefs were.

    I think it is possible and desirable that we get along with other Churches. We can do this w/o sacrificing the unique things that we have and treasure.

    Thank you.

  8. My sense through recent personal studies is that a la Alma 42, restoration brings us back to a state that existed before–and that goal isn’t necessarily any church organizational structures, but a unity with God. So ultimately, we are about a restoration that unites believers with each other and heaven–a return to the garden, to Enoch’s city, to Zion, to the millennial future.

  9. The restoration of the “church,” and the restoration of the “gospel” are not the same. Just like church and gospel are not the same. Some people have a testimony of the church (I-know-this-church-is-true), and some people have a testimony of the gospel (I-know-these-things-are-true).

    Do we appreciate the difference between faith in the gospel and faith in the church?

  10. Travis’ point is well-taken. While I have love and affection for the Church, and I believe that it contains the ordinances of salvation and eternal sealing temple ordinances, I have spent 45 years in the trenches as a member, holding a variety of local leadership positions at the Ward and Stake level. Many wonderful, uplifting spiritual and testimony-enhancing experiences. Also many telestial experiences that forced me to recalibrate the framework and foundations of my testimony, because I wanted to stay in the Church. Interestingly, in a life of many wonderful spiritual experiences, the one that has stood out as truly amazing was non-denominational in nature, and focused solely on the love and forgiving grace of Christ. I have faith in both the Gospel and the Church, but the Gospel trumps the Church, always. I am a Christian, first, and after that, I decided (and continue to decide) that the Mormon Church has things from God that no other church does—but I also have a lively, and sometimes painful, awareness of the human limitations of our Church.

  11. Wally, whether there was an organization above the level of individual congregations in the early church is not nearly as clear cut as you say, but that’s not my wheelhouse. Your other assertion, though, that the concept of “priesthood” as something that could be restored developed only after 1830, is simply wrong. You can find a similar discourse about authority to conduct ordinances – and its loss and restoration – in 16th century Reformation writings. The usage may be outside the Reformation mainstream, but it’s very much present.

  12. Jonathan: I don’t want to put words in Wally’s mouth, but he may be referring to circumstances around when Peter, James and John appeared to Joseph Smith, as discussed in Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling (p.75, 157-59), and other places.

  13. The idea of a general body of Christ that encompasses the whole of Christianity (what some have called “the church without walls” or the “invisible church”) is one that fascinates me. Towards the end of his life, Joseph Smith talked about the idea a little bit as well. In July 1843, he said the following:

    “‘Wherein do you differ from other in your religious views?’ In reality & essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love One the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.—we belive in the great Eloheim. who sits enthroned in yonder heavens.—so do the presbyterians. If as a skillful mechanic In taking a welding heat I use a borax & allum &c. an succeed in welding you all together shall I not have attained a good object. … Christians should cultivate the friendship with others & will do it.”

    It’s significant that he used the term “drink into one” in this setting. It seems to be a passing reference to 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, where Paul talks about Christians being baptized “into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” Given that he continued to advocate exclusive claims to authority for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, however, it seems that Joseph Smith was approaching the idea of uniting Christianity in mutual love without requiring institutional merging.

  14. Note also that the D&C describes the “church” as all those who repent and come unto christ. Also, Nephi states that there are two churches only–the church of the lamb and the G&A church, which strongly implies a broader concept of church than merely the church formally organized by JS.

  15. Another perspective and/or understanding of “restoration” may be gained by comparing/considering the attitude of Israel (pre apostasy) toward the non-covenant peoples vs the Saviour’s attitude to the Samaritan woman at the well and the later inclusion of the gentiles into the Church….. Things do change; To everything there is time and a purpose under heaven.

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