Is the church “true?” I believe so, and that question matters a great deal to me. Why? Well, for starters, I pay 10% of my income to this institution, and devote a lot of time and energy to it. I have no interest in doing all of that just for the sake of belonging to a community (I can join or form any number of communities) or out of a sense of heritage, or any fear-based reasons, like “how else would I raise my kids?!!” There are a number of belief communities that I have belonged to throughout my life that I no longer belong to, because I no longer hold the beliefs that stand at the center of each of those communities’ existence.
But how does one even go about deciding whether the church is true? There are a number of questions that inform our views of whether “the church is true” or not, and below are the questions I personally use for arriving at my answer. If you haven’t gone through the exercise of writing down a list like this, I highly recommend it as a way of bringing clarity to your seeking. My list:
1) Is there a God?
2) Does Jesus Christ possess the divinity and power that the scriptures and modern witnesses claim for Him?
3) Does God utilize prophets and prophetesses to communicate His will and intentions for humanity?
4) Was Joseph Smith a prophet? Did God ever communicate specific things to him about God’s intentions for humanity? Did God ever really give Joseph direction in the establishment of the church?
5) Was God involved in the production of the Book of Mormon? Did the witnesses actually see an angel and plates, and was there divine inspiration in its production?
6) Does God approve of and operate with the current system of prophet/presidents of the church? Is Russell M. Nelson receiving divine direction in his calling? Does God approve of the deliberative decision making processes used by the Q15 and auxiliary presidencies and councils, and honor their best efforts to convey His will?
7) Our missionary work involves bringing people out of their current belief systems into the restored church. Is God involved in that work?
8) Our temple work involves bringing people to the restored church as their final spiritual institutional destination, regardless of what their belief systems were in mortality. Is God involved in that work?
9) Are the gifts of the spirit evident in the church? Prophecy? Tongues? Healings? Visions? Other miraculous manifestations of God’s power?
10) Do the experiments (see Alma 32) we undertake in our service and devotional activities demonstrate the desired results? When we live the gospel as taught by the current leadership of the church, do we become better people? Closer to God? Do we receive revelation? When we are living the basic principles of the restored gospel, are we a beacon on a hill to the rest of humanity?
Each of these questions has terms that need to be defined well. Each has its own forms of evidence and its own modes of inquiry, and the more mature our epistemic framework, the more likely we are to arrive at answers that we can trust. For me, questions #2 and #8 are like a lamp that illuminates all of the other questions.
Sure, there are questions of prophetic fallibility, church culture, the nature of scripture, church history, and any number of other issues that are worth exploring so that we can develop mature and reasonable expectations for our engagement with the church and its teachings. And we each have to undertake the task of deciding what information actually sheds light on these questions, and what things are tangential side issues or just irrelevant intellectual noise.
But I would suggest that among the members of a typical stake, we have vast resources in terms of life experience, witness testimony, and many kinds of evidence to answer every one of the above questions in the affirmative. That does not give us license to be arrogant or use our testimonies as a hammer against other people’s views; on the contrary, “…hold Christ as holy in your hearts, always being prepared to offer a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, but do so with meekness and fear…” (1 Peter 3:15-16). I’m not exactly sure what the author had in mind with “meekness and fear,” and this is an instance where consulting multiple translations has not helped me. But my best guess is that it is the opposite of being mean-spirited or overbearing.
Anyway, let me reiterate- if you are unsure of whether the church is “true,” then I would encourage you to do the exercise of writing down what that means, and present the list to God. Thoughtful people can help you think through how you define terms and what are some good ways of approaching your questions, but among those of us who feel some confidence that the church is what it claims to be, most of us feel that way because we have actually done the long, difficult work of wrestling with God for answers. With all my soul, I recommend it.