Monday, March 24, 2014

"Behold Here is Wisdom": Church Corporate Structure as a Shield and a Protection for the Church

Every few weeks I come across someone who is a member of the LDS Church and is complaining about the corporate structure of the Church. They complain that the Church is too corporate, too focused on money, too focused on things that have nothing to do with the gospel. Currently these criticisms typically focus on the City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. Despite the fact that the Church has not used tithing funds to build it, and despite all the good it is doing in providing jobs, city beautification, and a healthy living and shopping space, the criticism continues. The critics use the City Creek Center as evidence that the Church has gone out of the way and is no longer focused on salvation and truth but is a corporate entity that has displaced the true Church and now is only interested in self preservation and the accumulation of wealth.

Whenever these complaints are aired those who are make the complaints seem to have at the root of their dissatisfaction the fact that legally the Church is organized as a corporation with the sole owner of the corporation being the president of the Church. Occasionally they express the desire to see a more democratic and distributed structure to the Church so that they do not have to be in the "suffocating corporate structure" that stifles free thought and "the more interesting doctrines of the Church".

 One Church dissident (no I will not provide a link to his blog) asserted a few months ago that the Church had caved to the desires of the world and had lost its special status in 1830 when the Church organized as a legal entity. In his post this particular Church dissident stated that up until 1829 Joseph Smith had the true church, pure and undefiled, but in 1830, under the pressure of those around him he caved and gave obeisance to the god of Mammon and organized it according to the laws of man and money and not according to the laws of God. Since then the Church has been in the wilderness and only the true believers are part of the true church.

Other Church dissident are not as extreme, but others still choose some other point in Church history where the general Church has gone out of the way and lost the imprimatur of the "true church". Some do not choose a point in time but say that there has been a gentle drift into worldliness. Regardless of the time this group of people make the case that the official, legal institution known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the "true church" and that in fact the "true church" is laboring under the weight of corporate bureaucracy that is becoming a suffocating appendage to the group of people they consider to be the "true believers".

So what would happen if these critics got everything they wanted and the entire corporate structure of the Church was done away with? Perhaps if we look at other churches that do not have such restrictions then we can get a sense of what would happen to the Church if we got rid of its corporate structure that they hate so much. There is a blog that I follow called Religion Clause that posts about all the legal cases in the United States that deal with religion in any way. Mostly it is boring legal stuff but occasionally there are interesting cases that illustrate many of the issues facing churches in America today. One issue that came up recently dealt with a court case in Colorado where a dissident group of a church was suing to remove the pastor from his position.

On the one hand the appeals court ruled "that a state trial court judge acted improperly when he issued an order allowing police to remove a pastor from his pulpit." The improper action came about because the lower court "made a decision regarding ecclesiastical internal governance and organization; it determined for the church who represented its interest, a governing decision belonging only to the church." The initial ruling given by the lower court essentially gave the government the power to decide who should be in control of the church, its property, and its organization, but the appeals court said that the courts could not make that determination. As stated in the blog post, "the Court of Appeals said that ownership of the church's property should be determined by the trial court through an examination of deeds, articles of incorporation, bylaws and other documents."

This is to say that the only criteria that the courts can use to determine who owns what when it comes to a dispute over property owned by a church is the documents that clearly set up the structure and organization of the church, including which names appear on the deeds. Thus if a church is to have real property, such as a chapel, or printing press to print scriptures, then they must have someone, or some legal entity, that holds the deeds and controls the bank accounts so that it can do the work of the church.

Without a centralized church structure there are several churches today in America that are running into the problem of what to do with dissident groups (or in some cases church leadership that does not listen to nor care what their congregation wants). These problems have resulted in several court cases over the past few years where different groups are suing for control of church property. There is a full spectrum of cases where entire congregations are leaving a larger church organization and they are losing their place of worship in the process to where larger church organizations are losing significant amounts of property and resources when local groups break away. This creates a great drain on the churches ability to continue their more important calling of proclaiming the gospel. These problems are endemic in almost all of the major churches in America today.

When I read about all of these problems I am reminded of the fact that these problems are (virtually) nonexistent in the LDS Church. The reason why these types of problems never happen in the LDS Church is because of the way the Church is organized. I don't mean how the priesthood and Church leadership is set up (though that also plays a role), but in the way the Church is organized as a legal entity. The fact that all property is held under either the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Corporation of The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints effectively prevents these types of disputes commonly found in other denominations from even becoming a question that must be asked, let alone a problem that must be resolved in court. The Church is not without its own legal challenges, but these are not challenges that arise from within, and it is the way the Church is set up as a legal entity that protects it from the types of problems found in other churches.

To put it very plainly, the very corporate structure that critics, both inside and outside the Church, find so distasteful is the very thing that protects the Church from schism, property disputes and wasteful contention that would prevent the Church from fulfilling its mission. In perhaps a bit of irony that is lost on them, the same critics insist that the Church should only focus on proclaiming the gospel and helping the poor, criticize the Church for being too corporate. Yet the very corporate structure that they are criticizing is the very thing that allows the Church to do what they want it to do.

This brings to mind the instruction given to Sidney Gilbert before he moved to Missouri to establish Zion as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 57:8-10 (emphasis added).
8 And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant Sidney Gilbert plant himself in this place, and establish a store, that he may sell goods without fraud, that he may obtain money to buy lands for the good of the saints, and that he may obtain whatsoever things the disciples may need to plant them in their inheritance.
9 And also let my servant Sidney Gilbert obtain a license—behold here is wisdom, and whoso readeth let him understand—that he may send goods also unto the people, even by whom he will as clerks employed in his service;
10 And thus provide for my saints, that my gospel may be preached unto those who sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death.
There is a purpose to the things that the Lord commands His Church. Previously I wrote on my blog and asked the question "Do we still have the United Order?" and concluded that we still have the United Order, though it is now known by a different name. Regardless of the name the purpose is to provide for the saints (provide jobs, beautify their city and prevent urban decay as in the case of the City Creek Center) so that the "gospel may be preached unto those who sit in darkness and in the region and shadow of death."

I find it interesting that and just a tad ironic that some of the critics of the legal entity that is the Church would also proclaim their great desire to live under the United Order, yet they criticize the current iteration of the United Order and proclaim it to be a manifestation of how the Church has gone out of the way. They proclaim that if they had lived in the days of the United Order they would gladly live under it, but when they are presented with it today, they build and garnish its sepulcher.

The organization and structure of the Church are to be done according to the laws of the country ("obtain a license") and set up in such a way that the work can progress so that all things can be done in wisdom. There is wisdom in how the Church is set up as a legal entity. It protects the Church from the same problems that are tearing apart other churches and is proving their downfall.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Faith and Repentance in the Scriptures

Today in my priesthood meeting the teacher was giving a lesson on faith and repentance and at one point during the lesson he remarked that he liked how the lesson material made the connection between faith and repentance. This started me thinking about how that was a particularly Mormon sentiment. I do not think that if you were in just about any other Christian church you would hear much about the connection between faith and repentance. I know that there are churches, preachers, and groups within Christianity that specifically make the connection between faith and repentance, but there is perhaps a more vocal group within Christianity that ignores the charge that we have been given to repent.

So why is it that the connection between faith and repentance is something that is so uncontroversial among Mormons but in other churches can be controversial at worst or not mentioned at best? I think one way of understanding this question is to look at how frequently faith and repentance appear in the scriptures.

Below I have a breakdown of the number times "faith", or any of its variations (faithful, faithfulness), and the number of times "repent", or any of its variations (repentance), appears in the different parts of scriptures.

Number of References to "Faith*"
Number of References to "Repent*"
Ratio of "Faith*" to "Repent*" Number of times "Faith*" and "Repent*" are mentioned in the same verse
Old Testament
46 1.2 0
New Testament
66 4.6 2
    Four Gospels
    and Acts
39 1.5 1
15 15.5 1
12 1.0 0
Book of Mormon
360 0.84 29
Doctrine and Covenants*
124 1.7 11
Pearl of Great Price
25 0.36 2

*For the Doctrine and Covenants I had to use the number of verses, instead of the number of times each word appeared since I didn't have a good search system to search by number of times instead of verses.

Now there will be some variation depending on which translation of the Bible is used (note on that link I just used, they list "Faith" but not "Repent" as one of the common words in the Bible, and hence they inadvertently demonstrate my point that in some churches repentance doesn't get talked about much). Now to do a proper comparison we must divide the results by the total number of words in each testament to get a sense of how frequently faith and repentance are mentioned, but for our purposes we can leave it as is. What we see from the table above is that if we disregard the group of books known as the "Letters" (everything that is not one of the four Gospels, or Acts or the book of Revelation), then across all the other testaments the ratio of mentions of faith to mentions of repent are roughly equal.

Based on this I can see why many Christians, who only use the Bible and mainly the New Testament, insist on sola fide, or justification by faith only. But also based on this I can see why the connection between faith and repentance is entirely noncontroversial among Mormons. In other areas of Christianity there is a debate that rages about what role repentance plays in salvation, if it has any role at all. But among Mormons we are for the most part unaware that it was a matter of debate or a matter of controversy, and this is because we have the Book of Mormon that makes the connection between faith and repentance very clear. Unfortunately that places us on one side of a bitter debate in Christianity without our realizing that there was a debate to begin with. We just thought it was obvious based on the scriptures and didn't realize that our more balanced view comes from reading the Book of Mormon.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Do we still have the United Order?

A while back I came across a list of some interesting items that the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers thought to share as they were going through some of the papers. One of the items caught my eye. It had to do with the United Order and its basic composition and functions. Below is what the article had to say about the United Order.
"The “United Order” mentioned in sections 78 and 82 of the Doctrine and Covenants actually refers to the “United Firm,” a governing body operating in the church from 1832–1834. The United Firm was a group of nine men set up in April 1832 to govern the Church’s mercantile and publishing efforts. The firm included six men—Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and William W. Phelps—who had been appointed “stewards over the revelations” in November 1831 and who constituted what would become known as the Literary Firm. The United Firm also included the two bishops in the Church, Edward Partridge and Newel K. Whitney, and Sidney Gilbert, who was the Church’s agent and proprietor of the Church store in Independence, Missouri. Frederick G. Williams and John Johnson, who held large parcels of property, were added in 1833. The firm served a governing role in Church affairs for two years until it was disbanded in 1834."
This got me thinking. Typically when we talk about the United Order we do so in the context of it being a social and communal organization that is meant to replace all other forms of commerce and government. In many cases the debate rages about how it is different or distinct from other social systems such as communism or socialism. As a matter of fact several Church leaders have gone to great lengths to differentiate the United Order from communism. I remember this topic coming up with some regularity in seminary and Sunday School as I was growing up, and the issue was never settled to my satisfaction. But when I read the above item it got me thinking about the United Order in a completely different way.

 If we consider the United Order not as a "collectivist program" but as a business firm I think it changes the sense of the intended purpose of the United Order. When I say business firm I do not intend that it was set up with the purpose of being a business, but that as a legal entity in the United States it was a business. At that time in America there were several religious organizations that were experimenting with collectivist or communal living. When the United Order gets mentioned it usually is mention in that context, as an LDS version of a communal society like other religious organizations attempted.

But if we think of the United Order as the United Firm instead, that is, the legal entity that was intended to hold ownership of land, printing presses, copyrights and funds then we can begin to view what was intended by the United Order in a very different way. For anyone who studies early church history you hear stories about members of the church who promised to donate land or money to the church but sometime later they apostatized and refused to honor the commitments they previously made. The only reason this presented a problem was that the person who promised to donate the land kept the deed to property and thus when they left the church they forced the members who lived there to move. This understandably caused problems for the church. But if the property had been transferred to church before this then this problem would not have come up.

Even years later this type of thing was problematic because property, bank accounts and ownership of church businesses was all in the name of various church leaders. Thus when those men died or apostatized it was unclear how the property should be transmitted or even what property or businesses should remain under control of the church and which should remain under the control of widows or families of the church leaders. For example when Brigham Young died there was some confusion as to what he owned because he was the church president and what he owned because he had a large family. This caused some problems between the leaders of the church and the Young family.

Again these problems could have been avoided if what was church property was kept strictly separate and not held under the name of any one individual. That is, if all church property, money, equipment and funds were held in the name of a distinct legal entity that could be controlled by church leadership but was structured in such a way that it kept it separate from their personal property. This, I think, was the intent of the United Order. Typically when we talk about the United Order we always talk about it as an experiment in communal living where everyone was part owner of the communal pot of property and money. But when I reread the sections in the Doctrine and Covenants that dealt with the United Order I could see how it could be viewed differently.

If we think of the United Order as the legal entity that held the property of the church then it is not that big of a leap to realize that the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Corporation of The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints are the modern day equivalents of the United Order. That is, they operate under the same principles and intent of the United Order and they fill the same role, with the same covenants of sacrifice and consecration still operative.

I can't count the number of times I heard someone say, "We don't currently live under the United Order or the law of consecration, but we will when the millennium comes." That always seemed odd to me consider we do actually covenant to live the law of consecration. If we think of the corporations (the legal entities) that make up the church as the continuation of the United Order, and realize that those who are given direct stewardships over church property (General Authorities and other church leaders) do live the law of consecration, then we can realize that we still live under the covenants and laws given in the Doctrine and Covenants. We still have the United Order.

I wrote a guest post

I wrote a guest post for the blog Warfare and the Book of Mormon, which is written by Morgan Deane. My guest post grew out of comments that I made on one of Morgan's posts where he was looking into what arguments Amalickiah may have used to work himself into a position to be king of the Lamanites. I made some comments and then developed them into a post about the social and political situation that the Lamanites were in when Amalickiah showed up and how that allowed him to become king of the Lamanites.

This is part 1 of 2. I'll post again when the second part goes up. Go take a look by following this link.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Noah's Temple

Typically when we talk about Noah we talk about Noah's ark, and the need to be prepared for any potential calamities. Today during Sunday School the teacher presented the subject matter of Noah and flood and then asked the class how they thought the story of Noah applied to all of us. The rest of time in class was taken up by an extended discussion of food storage and emergency preparedness, along with handouts and flyers about 72-hour kits and the like. It was an interesting discussion, and several people had some experiences to share due to the recent snow storms that have lashed the South.

But as I sat there I kept thinking about a presentation given by Jeffrey Bradshaw last year about the first 11 chapters of Genesis, I thought, "There are so many interesting things we can talk about when it comes to Noah! We don't need to talk about food storage and emergency preparedness every time we talk about Noah!" After everyone finished talking about food storage there wasn't enough time for me to share my thoughts about how when I think about Noah, I now typically think about the temple.

As Jeffrey Bradshaw pointed out in his presentation, the case can be made to view Noah's ark, not as a boat, but as a stationary building that acted as a temple that contained symbolism of the fall, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden, the Atonement, and the return to God's presence.
"Not only the Garden of Eden, but also Noah’s Ark seems to have been “designed as a temple,” specifically a prefiguration of the Tabernacle, as argued so well in a recent book by Michael Morales. In fact, a few ancient accounts go so far in promoting the motif of the temple as to describe the Ark not as a floating watercraft but rather as a stationary, land-based place of protection, where Noah and “many other people” from his generation “hid in a bright cloud” of glory.
"The Ark’s three decks suggest both the three divisions of the Tabernacle and the threefold layout of the Garden of Eden. Indeed, each of the decks of Noah’s Ark was exactly “the same height as the Tabernacle and three times the area of the Tabernacle court.” Note that Noah’s Ark is shaped, not as a typical boat, but with a flat bottom like a box or coffer. The ratio of the width to the height of both Noah’s Ark and the Ark of the Covenant is 3:5."
The above quote comes from approximately 20 minutes into the presentation. You can also find his paper with associated notes and references here. In one sense I think it is more interesting to think of Noah and his Temple rather than Noah and his ark.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Internet Comments, Language Out of Context

Many years ago, before Web 2.0 but after the invention of the internet, I would occasionally go to the public library and check out music CDs instead of books. I would do this because the public library was the one place where I could discover new music that radio DJs would never dream of playing on the radio, because it was, you know, actually good music and they can't play that on the radio.

It was on one of these trips to the library that I was perusing the music selection and I happened to come across a CD by Yanni. I had heard of him before and had heard someone play one of his songs on the piano so I was considering checking it out so I could hear his music and see if I liked it (I later bought two of his CDs). While I was standing there looking at the cover, a man who had been browsing the music near by noticed what I was looking at and made some comment about Yanni. I, being the socially awkward person that I am, grunted a non committal grunt.

Undeterred, the man continued on about how he finds Yanni boring (let's face it, after two CDs I agreed), but then he went on and made some comment about Yanni and John Denver (this was shortly after John Denver died in a plane crash). I gave him a quizzical look so he explained that he had heard that John Denver and Yanni were lovers. It was at this point that I decided the conversation was over. It was just a little too awkward for my normal stoicism.

As I look back on this brief interaction I realize that what I experienced was a real life version of an anonymous internet comment. I do not need to belabor the nature of (semi-)anonymous comments on the internet, but I would like to point out some important differences between my real life encounter with an anonymous commenter and internet comments. When that random man at the library made his comments there were some crucial differences between the real life version and the equivalent virtual conversation. What fills the difference is the unspoken nuances of language that are not found in the actual words.

If I had written down verbatim everything the man had said I still would not have captured everything that was conveyed in our brief encounter. The unspoken elements of language that in many cases go beyond what is said, or even how it is said, can be used to judge and evaluate the veracity and usefulness of what is said. For example, the man's speech, while not exactly slurred, was not all that precise in its pronunciation. That is, his pronunciation immediately made me think of him as someone who is not too bright. I do not mean uneducated, I am sure he was sharp enough to graduate from high school, and perhaps go to college, but given the context his pronunciation marked him as someone who would not be making or thinking profound thoughts. Beyond his speech there was his demeanor and grooming that seemed to indicate that he had at least taken a bath before leaving his parent's basement to go to the library (he was probably in his late 20's). In short, if you met this guy on the street you probably would not take seriously anything he said.

While it is true that speech and appearance cannot always be used to judge someone, in that context the unspoken parts of language were the things that allowed me evaluate and ignore what he had said when the actual words that he said could not be proven one way or the other. So it was precisely due to the fact that he was standing there with me in the flesh that I could evaluate his character and decide that what he said, almost no matter what it was, could not be trusted as accurate. But in the realm of the internet all of those unspoken cues of language are stripped away and language is reduced to the bare words.

In this expropriation of words from their linguistic context it is too common to mistake comments that should not be taken seriously for those that should, and mistake those comments that should not be treated lightly for those that we do not give a second thought. This does not mean that this confusion does not exist for language in context, but it is easier to lose sight of which comments to ignore and which ones demand a response when we divest the unspoken cues from the words that we say.