What does it mean that the church is true?

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.

Sometimes, we hear stories of people leaving the church and saying something to the effect that “I found out the church isn’t true.” I want to explore that a little further toward the end of this post.

But first, 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, with links to supporting resources:

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? Are there special witnesses among Joseph Smith’s successors in the current 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? When people study the Book of Mormon, do they come to know God?

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 Executive 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? Revelation? 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 when someone on their way out of the church says “I found out the church isn’t true,” I would suggest asking some reframing questions:

  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that your mental models of the church and the gospel could use some development and revision?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that people can make rational arguments against the restored gospel? Are you aware that it’s possible to make rational arguments against things that are true?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that there is more of a human dimension to revelation and scripture than you understood before?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that when people are determined, they can use accusation to poison our perceptions of other people, even good people?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that spiritual truth requires discernment?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that it’s full of human beings who sometimes make mistakes, sometimes have lapses in judgment, and sometimes even act against church teachings?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that most principles have a dimension of complexity?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that the gospel is experienced differently by different people, and some aspects of your and others’ experiences may not have been optimal?
  • Did you find out the church isn’t true, or did you find out that discipleship and gospel learning require more work and personal responsibility than you may have believed before?

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.

Related resources:

Latter-day Saint Epistemology

Cognitive Ground Rules

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