Over the last year, I have come across a few bloggers who are members of the Community of Christ (formerly known as RLDS). I have always been curious about the Community of Christ, and have often wondered the differences in worship between their services, and LDS services. I wanted to share some of the stuff I’ve learned. (This is a shorter version of my post which can be found here.)
This is a compilation of questions and answers from my blog, as well as a post from Mormon Matters by John Hamer, LDS Myths about Reorganized Latter Day Saints. The following answers come from John Hamer, Margie Miller, and FireTag, who are all Community of Christ members. I’ve corrected spelling, and changed the formatting to make this appear to be in an interview format, but it is just an ongoing conversation. Many people on Mormon Matters and my blog asked these questions.
Do Community of Christ members like to be called Mormons, or some other nickname?
Community of Christ members use the term “Latter Day Saints” to refer to themselves, but they only rarely use the term “Mormon” to refer to themselves. Generally speaking, only LDS members, fundamentalist Mormons and Strangite Mormons use the term “Mormon” to refer to themselves. The reason for it is that members of the early church used almost always put quotes around the term and said “so-called Mormons” or emphasized that it was outsiders that called the Saints “Mormons.” Then, during the late 19th century, LDS Mormons were reviled nationally because of polygamy. RLDS people who were violently anti-polygamy wanted no share of that opprobrium, so they tended to say things like “we believe in the Book of Mormon but we’re not the Mormons.”
When/Why did the RLDS church change it’s name to the Community of Christ?
Charles D. Neff, who was one of the more important RLDS apostles in the later 20th century, was actually a convert. He told the story that when he first heard the name of the church, “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” his reaction was, “that is a terrible name for a church.” And he was right. Frankly, the LDS church has a terrible name too.
The church was established in 1830 as the “Church of Christ.” That name was indistinct and was often confused with other churches of the same name, especially the Campbellite Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ). So, in 1834, the name of the church was changed to “Church of the Latter Day Saints.” That change upset members who had come to believe the Campbellite doctrine that God’s true church must have Christ’s name in it, so in 1838 the name was changed to “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” (The spelling “Latter-day Saints” was used occasionally in the early church, but LDS church only formalized that spelling in Utah.) “Reorganized” was legally added to the name in the late 19th century in order to protect church property from the Federal anti-polygamy legislation.
The change in 2001 to “Community of Christ” was meant to evoke the church’s heritage (by returning close to the original name), while emphasizing one of the core values that Reorganized Latter Day Saints have always drawn from their organization: the special sense of community.
I wonder if I walked into a Community of Christ meeting, how similar or different would it be from an LDS meeting? I’ve heard you only do communion/sacrament once/month instead of weekly, but I’m wondering what other things are similar/different?
There is a lot of local control, so meeting styles vary at the congregation level. Talks I’ve listened to seem just as likely to quote the Book of Mormon as any other scripture. Possibly they have the most emphasis on the New Testament, followed by the D&C, with the Book of Mormon and Old Testament taking up the rearguard.
The services I’ve attended are somewhat like an LDS service: there is congregation business, hymns, musical numbers and prayers and there’s a main talk. They do sacrament/communion once a month and they use the same prayer that other Latter Day Saints use, so that’s familiar. Their offeratory is not familiar to LDS service. They can have a little bit of litergy, which is definitely unfamiliar to LDS ears.
FireTag,[We] do serve open communion…
Worship practices vary widely throughout the church, not only from country to country but from congregation to congregation. Most of our congregations are very small; I haven’t had an actual home church that wasn’t in a converted home or a school since I came to the East Coast 35 years ago. That certainly affects the form of worship; since there are often not enough priesthood (because priesthood calls were in no sense fairly automatic), we’ve long extended worship leadership to non-priesthood.
You will also notice a much greater emphasis on the most recent D&C sections (we’re up to 163 now) and the New Testament than on any works of Joseph Smith. We are certainly Christ-centered in all of our teaching.
There is absolutely no emphasis on the afterlife …The Book of Abraham is not regarded as Scriptural, so there is no doctrine of exaltation or sealing for eternity. There are no special Temple ordinances at all, and we, in fact, encourage the use of our Temple for interdenominational gatherings whenever possible.
Are local CoC leaders “professional” clergy (i.e., trained, paid ministers) or are they laypersons, as is the case in local LDS wards?
The Community of Christ has the same general priesthood offices as the LDS church without the Utah-era practice of title inflation. It’s quite normal for adult men and women to be teachers or deacons. Bishops are financial officers at the Stake (“Misson Center”) level, rather than “ward” leaders. They have “Pastors” – a title that was also used in the early church – which is effectively “Branch President” or “Presiding Elder” of a congregation. Most Pastors are volunteer lay ministers. They do have some paid pastors in large congregations. Church headquarters has full-time paid employees like the LDS headquarters. The leadership includes the First Presidency, the Council of the Twelve, the Presiding Bishopric, the Presiding Evangelist (patriarch), the Presidents of the Seventies, the presiding Quorum of High Priests and the Standing (presiding) High Council.
The First Presidency and the Apostles are generally all in their 50s or 60s because they serve for a number of years and then they retire.
Do CoC members observe the Word of Wisdom?
Some do some don’t; it’s not a test of fellowship. My friend Ron Romig (who is church archivist) doesn’t smoke, drink or drink coffee. However, other Community of Christ friends of mine do drink and drink coffee. (I don’t know any who smoke.) A famous story Jan Shipps tells is that when she met Bob Flanders (a leading RLDS historian) in the 60s, he sat down with her at lunch, bringing a full mug of coffee. She had never seen such a thing among Latter Day Saints, and she was apparently staring. He told her, jokingly, “You’ll observe that I let it cool before drinking it.”
What is your position on the Plan of Salvation/Three Degrees of Glory?
The various glories exist in our belief system, but I actually haven’t heard anyone teach anything about them since I was a teenager.
I know you technically believe in baptism for the dead, but (as I understand it) only do it for family members, and it is downplayed much more than in the LDS church. Is this correct?
The Community of Christ does not practice baptism for the dead, although it was not opposed as a practice with the same kind of vehemence as polygamy. The sections of the D&C on baptism for the dead were only removed in the 1970s.
We, in principle “allow” baptism of the dead in response to direct revelation by the prophet, but no such revelation has been received or expected in 150 years… We see no need to baptize the dead.
What happens to rejected revelations? How does the conference decide what is authentic revelation and what is not?
The D&C sections on Baptism for the Dead were voted by a World Conference resolution which moved them to a “Historical Appendix.” Then a later Conference resolution removed the appendix.
Another example is the doctrine which was called “Supreme Directional Control” – a controversial effort by Prophet/President Frederick M. Smith to centralize authority under the First Presidency. Although the membership approved the doctrine (causing a certain amount of schism), within a decade the policy had effectively been abandoned as the stresses of the Great Depression saw the return of financial power to the Presiding Bishopric.
How do you view temple ordinances?
The Community of Christ believes in the concept of endowment, but does not associate the concept with a particular ceremony. Indeed, the flow of the Spirit through the ordinances of the church is more “organic” than it seems to be in LDS.
Does the Community of Christ view the Book of Mormon as historical?
I do think people who view the Book of Mormon as a literal history book are in the minority in the Community of Christ. However, these same believers have a generally more sophisticated view of scripture in general. Much of the events of the Bible are not literal histories, from Adam and Noah to the Judean kings. There doesn’t have to have been a real person named Job to make the scripture inspired.
Does the Community of Christ believe they are the “one true church”?
What the Community of Christ has scrapped is the exclusivist claim to be “the one and only true church.” The church now understands that while its own heritage has been inspired by God, other churches and individuals have also been inspired and are valid.
I’ve always heard that the CoC wants to act more protestant, and every time I’ve heard that by LDS members, it is always meant in disdain (and makes me cringe.) What do you make of such a comment-is it true that the CoC wants to appear more protestant?
I’ve said elsewhere that it’s an academic argument whether the LDS church is a Protestant Christian denomination, whether it is part of a new branch of Christianity, or whether it is part of a new world religion altogether. However, because the RLDS church never embraced the King Follet discourse theology, it seems hard to argue that it ever strayed far enough away from the fold to have been anything other than Christian (and frankly Protestant). That’s not a recent change; that dates back to the 1860s.
The church has moved strongly into the “peace and justice” wing of progressive Christianity under the last two prophets. You’ll notice that everywhere.
The church also now sponsors an intern to work with the largest Quaker lobbying group in the country and is trying to actively promote political alliances with progressive denominations and interest groups on legislative agendas within the federal government.
Could you explain a little on how the RLDS church approaches the issue of GLBT persons in comparison to the LDS SLC church?
I have in my hands the proof copy of a new book, Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience, edited by William D. Russell with a preface by D. Michael Quinn. You may be interested in getting it: http://www.johnwhitmerbooks.com/books/details_HS.asp
This is a book of 26 personal essays about the lives of gay, lesbian and transgendered RLDS members and their friends, relatives and allies. It also has a detailed historical overview of the evolution of RLDS thinking and practice on the issue.
The back cover has an endorsement from retired Prophet/President Grant McMurray:
What is the CoC position on polygamy? Is it still the case that RLDS/CoC members tend to deny that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy?
In terms of who started polygamy: all of the Community of Christ leaders I know are aware that Joseph Smith Jr. is the originator of polygamy and that’s true for most of the membership I’ve talked to. However, there is a whole segment of members (especially the older generation) who don’t believe the evidence is there.
The Community of Christ position was and remains that Joseph was NOT inspired regarding a practice that was among the key reasons the RLDS, from whom we are descended, would not unite with the LDS who embraced it (whether they did so resentfully or willingly). The change in the CoC position is now to acknowledge that Joseph did indeed wholeheartedly participate in a practice that we continue to condemn.
We hope, for Joseph’s sake, that he DID recognize that he had been deceived before the end of his life and was trying to rid the church of the doctrine.
The Community of Christ asserts, as I’ve said previously, that “monogamy is the basic principle on which Christian married life is built”. The second prophet of the CofC, Joseph Smith III, stated his belief that his father had never been involved in polygamy, but that if evidence ever showed otherwise, he would continue to regard the doctrine as abhorrent while not discounting the truths his father had taught before becoming entangled in the error. That has more-or-less been the official default position until recently…
Is it true that the Community of Christ allowed polygamist members to join in the 1970s?
MH: Missionary work commenced in India, where polygamy is legal. FireTag tells that a revelation allowing polygamist Indians to be baptized.
The revelation brought to the church and confirmed by the general conference established for us the principle that “monogamy is the basic principle on which Christian married life is built” and authorized the First Presidency and the Quorum of 12 (Apostles) in their field jurisdictions to interpret that principle as directed by the Spirit.
The implementation ultimately meant that newly baptized polygamous people were allowed to remain in those marriages for the rest of their lives, but were not allowed to take additional marital partners into the marriage. The latter act would be treated as adultery or fornication under church law (I forget which).
This ruling became a schismatic issue for a number of people.
Margie Miller discussed this amazing development on my blog. In her words,
Community of Christ had a valid reason for allowing that practice to continue in 1970. I was one of the people who took exception to it at the time and made a special trip to Independence to visit with President Shehee about it. I was appalled! He had [asked] me to read a couple of books about the culture beforehand and then gave me an appointment the week before World Conference. I went up determined that I was right.
He told me about the cultural situation. In that culture, if the church had insisted that all but the first wife be put aside, those woman and their children would be ostracized in their culture and would never be able to find another man to marry them.
The Indian men considered virginity to be very important.
That was not long after the war between India and Pakistan. Many women were roaming the countryside after being raped by soldiers. No man would marry them. Many of them had children from these terrible circumstances and the women traveled in groups begging for food for their children and themselves. The UN was trying their best to find men who would marry these women and give their children a home. It was very difficult.
We had gone into their villages with a horticulturist to help them to find a better strain of wheat to grow in hopes of alleviating their poverty. That was very successful and then they were more wealthy then their neighbors. The church wanted them to share their technology with the other villages and had to teach them the principles of sharing in love before that would happen. It was very successful!
A few went back to adding more wives but then the village elders excommunicated them for that. That was the agreement. The church has been very successful in a mission there in East India.
Due to many theological changes in the Community of Christ over the last 30 years, there have been splinter groups, and even a new group calling itself the RLDS. Can you talk about that?
We have proportionally as many splinter RLDS groups as you have splinter LDS groups. (I know – from where you stand, we’re the largest surviving splinter!) Those who splinter to the cultural right do so over many issues – some of them going back to the original 1844 successor to Joseph Smith, others over Scriptural literalism, others over allowance of polygamous converts on the Indian sub-continent in the 1970’s, others over open communion, the movement to select a prophet who was not a lineal descendent of Joseph Smith, etc.
We have at least a few more equally traumatic issues coming down the road over the next year or two, so we’ll continue to replace cultural conservatives with cultural progressives among our membership within North America.
Is the Community of Christ trying to distance itself from Joseph Smith?
There does seem to be movement away from tracing our roots to Joseph Smith, and recasting our founding with Joseph III. Expect tremendous controversy in the CoC over the next 18 months as this plays out in the context of official guidance from the current Prophet of which the April 5, 2009 Sermon on CommunityofChrist.org is only the first preparatory word.
Is there anything to the rumors of the CoC having financial difficulties? Haven’t many of the paid jobs (i.e. in the historical department) been eliminated due to lack of money? If so, do you see this as a temporary setback or a sign of things to come?
I’m confident the Community of Christ will remain viable for the foreseeable future.
There is some basis for rumors of RLDS money troubles. The truth is that the RLDS church has always had more ambition and vision than they have had resources. The Auditorium is an enormous structure for them to have attempted in the 1920s and the onset of the Great Depression was very untimely for their finances.
RLDS doctrine of tithing (10% of increase) has always been significantly less lucrative than the post-Lorenzo Snow LDS church’s practice. The Community of Christ initiated an ambitious plan to have more paid ministerial support in the late 1990s called “transformation 2000.” This increased expenses, but revenues did not increase to cover the costs. The result in the last few years has been a budget deficit, which resulted in downsizing a fair number of jobs at church headquarters. However, the church historian, the director of historic sites, the church archivist and most of the other heritage team positions were not affected. The restructuring had the long-term in mind. The fact is that a single Community of Christ donor gave the church $50 million just a couple years ago.
And finally, on a lighter note, is Bruce Jenner Graceland College’s most famous graduate? Was he ever interested in the RLDS church?
As far as Bruce Jenner goes, I don’t think he was ever tempted to convert. I think the most famous non-LDS Mormon is Alice Cooper – who was born and raised Bickertonite. 🙂
So, do you have any other questions/answers?