Discussion on Scripture with the Community of Christ

The Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are sibling churches, both descending from the early Latter Day Saint movement. Since each group went their own way after the death of Joseph Smith in the 1840s, however, they have spent the last 170+ years growing and developing in different ways. In a recent interview over at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Kat Goheen (member of the Community of Christ) and Joshua Sears (Latter-day Saint) discussed how the two groups have developed differently in their approach to scriptures. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

First off, what are the differences in canonized scriptures in each community? Both groups accept the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants in their canon. (The Pearl of Great Price was a later addition to the Latter-day Saint canon, so was never a thing in the Reorganization.) The Doctrine and Covenants is different. As Joshua Sears summarized about the differences between the Doctrine and Covenants: “The obvious difference is that we each include new revelations that the other church does not accept.”

At the time that the two groups split, the Doctrine and Covenants consisted of most of the sections up through Section 107 in the Latter-day Saint version, along with Section 133 and 134. Most of the sections after 107 were added to the Latter-day Saint Doctrine and Covenants by Orson Pratt during the 1870s, drawn primarily from the writings and teachings of Joseph Smith. Since then, as Sears put it: “Our church … has been more conservative in formally canonizing new revelations in recent decades.”

On the other hand, the Community of Christ Doctrine and Covenants has 165 revelations, with the last 51 of those coming from prophet-presidents after the death of Joseph Smith. (I’ll be honest, that’s something I have some holy envy about.) Kat Goheen explained:

I believe that our Enduring Principle of Continuing Revelation prompts us to orient forward, as we have been told to look “beyond the horizon to which you are sent” (D&C 161 1a). As we have grown into our new name, we have learned the importance of spiritual discernment and traveling light, and we use recent revelations in our Doctrine and Covenants as signposts for our future direction.

In discussing the relative emphasis given to different sections of the scriptures, Goheen added that:

We tend to emphasize the epic narratives and Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels and Paul’s letters in the New Testament, and recent revelations in our Doctrine and Covenants.

For the Community of Christ, the more recent revelations are the ones that tend to see the most attention in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Another example of scripture that has received different levels of attention is the Joseph Smith-Translation of the Holy Bible (also known as the Inspired Version). The manuscripts of the Bible revision were held, published, and used by the Community of Christ from the mid-1800s onwards. Because they were from the RLDS church, the LDS church didn’t trust the published version and focused on using the King James Version instead. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were some shifts that happened in the RLDS church that led to them giving access to the original manuscripts while becoming less focused on using Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version. As Goheen wrote:

As a child, my Bible was the Inspired Version and it was what we used for preaching and teaching in my congregation. There are still members who cherish it, but now it is not used widely in public ministry. As a body we are more open to mainstream biblical criticism than we were 40 years ago, including source criticism.

Around the same time, the opening up of the original manuscripts and Bruce R. McConkie’s love of the Inspired Version led Latter-day Saints to become more trusting of Joseph Smith’s revisions and to incorporated them into the English footnotes and appendices of their published version of the Bible. As Sears put it:

Our story is the opposite. When my parents were growing up in the 60s and 70s, Joseph Smith’s new translation was little known and seldom used. But the 1979 Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible quoted from nearly a thousand verses of the Inspired Version, and by the time I grew up in the 80s and 90s it had become an integral component of our Bible study.

If I teach a Sunday School class today and skip a really juicy Joseph Smith revision in the footnotes, the class is sure to chime in and point it out.

Thus, the two organizations have essentially traded off in how much importance they give to the Joseph Smith-Translation.

The two faith communities have also evolved differently in how they weigh the importance of different inputs into interpretation of doctrine. Sears, for his part, quoted from Neil L. Andersen about how there are three elements that consist of the word of God—“first, the scriptures, or the words of the ancient prophets…. The second element of the word of God is the personal revelation and inspiration that comes to us through the Holy Ghost…. [The] third part of the iron rod represents the words of the living prophets.” The relative emphasis given to these different aspects of the word of God has shifted over time, even within living memory. As Joshua Sears wrote:

So we have a sense that we rely on all three of these sources. But as a community we prioritize living prophets, who we understand have the authority both to interpret ancient scripture and to update previous revelation with current revelation. …

Some of the pulls we feel in different directions include weighing the authority of written, canonical scripture against the authority of living prophets. Some general authorities have taught that if a Church leader says something that contradicts the scriptures, then we reject the leader’s statement and go with the scriptures. In recent decades, that position has receded as living apostolic keys have been rhetorically prioritized over the written word.

I felt like that was one of the key insights from what Joshua Sears wrote in the book where the two discussed the topic originally—in recent decades, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has shifted from putting primary emphasis on the scriptures as the word of God towards greater emphasis on the teachings of the living prophets, seers, and revelators.

For all the differences between the two communities, there is still common ground. As Kat Goheen wrote:

I felt in both of our responses a deep respect and appreciation for scripture. Both churches see our scriptures as being a testimony of God’s work in the world through Jesus Christ.

And, as Joshua Sears added:

I agree with Kat: in the scriptures we encounter both Jesus Christ as the Word—and Jesus Christ through His words. And in both communities, the open-ended nature of the Doctrine and Covenants reflects our earnest desire to hear Christ’s living word in our lives today.

The focus on learning about Jesus Christ through the word of God is common to both groups.

For more on the use of scriptures in the Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, head on over to the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk.