Because of an e-mail I received about my articles on Beth Moore, I was looking over the comments posted on the articles and came across one in which the author questioned why, in my response to another commenter, I called the Community of Christ a “cult.” I started wondering how many people think they are a Christian church and do not know they are actually a spin-off Mormon denomination.
In the April 2001 the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially changed their name to Community of Christ. The purpose of the new name was to eliminate confusion with the Utah church, but it also makes them appear as more orthodox in their teachings. Their cars will have the Christian fish logo, their churches will have crosses and their services will use mainline Christian songs and choruses. And they tend to refer to the Bible more than the Book of Mormon. But are they Christian?
I’m going to give a short (somewhat) history of the Community of Christ so you can see where they come from. Quotations in this article will be from Reorganized Latter Day Saint Church: Is It Christian? by Carol Hansen. Much of this history is also available on the church’s web site.
Joseph III was only 11 1/2 when his father, Joseph Smith, Jr., was killed, but he had already been appointed by his father as his successor. Brigham Young told Smith’s wife, Emma, that if it were known that Joseph III was to succeed, then his life would be in danger, so Young eventually took over control of the church through his presidency of the apostles.
During the split of 1844-45 numerous factions spread across the U.S., many of which rejected the polygamy doctrine. When the main body left for Utah in 1846, Emma stayed behind and remarried a “gentile.” She claimed that polygamy was brought in by Brigham Young and that Joseph had nothing to do with it, hence she taught her son Joseph III this lie.
“Beginning in late 1851 some leaders in these independent congregations began receiving spiritual messages indicating that…Joseph III would eventually become leader of the church.” The many groups held a conference in Beloit, WI to organize into a single body, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS). Over the next few years they kept asking Joseph III to lead them, but he always refused. During this time he also received requests from the Utah church to join them, but he refused them because of polygamy.
In 1859 Joseph III began receiving spiritual manifestations telling him to take over the new body, so he went to their conference in April 1860 in Amboy, IL and accepted the presidency. Emma then joined the new organization.
Significantly, Emma and her new husband had the manuscript of Joseph, Jr’s translation of the Bible, which is still published as the Inspired Version. This version is not a translation, rather it is Joseph’s additions and “corrections” as he saw fit.
In 1866 the church headquartered in Plano, IL and then moved in 1881 to Lamoni, IA. Under Joseph III the RLDS established Graceland College in Lamoni.
The RLDS maintained for years that Joseph, Jr. had nothing to do with the polygamy revelation, blaming it instead on Brigham Young and John C. Bennet, but the evidence for Smith’s authorship is overwhelming. Joseph III spent much of his time trying to clear his father’s name of the polygamy revelation. (Only recently has the RLDS come to admit Joseph may have had some input.) The RLDS also disowned much of what happened in the Nauvoo period, including baptism for the dead, eternal progression, celestial marriage and other secret temple ceremonies. They claim that Joseph became a fallen prophet during this period.
As one of their tenets, the RLDS required prophet succession from Joseph III; Joseph III’s son, Frederick Madison Smith, took over the reigns of the presidency in 1915 when his father died. Frederick experimented with peyote, believing that “chemical ecstasy might play a role in reaching… heights of power and insight.” “He believed that the peyote experience first released, then enhanced the human mind toward creative expansion, and he encouraged others to use the drug.” Frederick urged the church to endorse its use and then wrote a book called The Higher Powers of Man, advocating peyote use even in the educational system. His book also expounded the use of hypnotism and occultic practices such as deep meditation and trances. His lead eventually brought the RLDS into many New Age practices that are currently in the church. In fact, in 1995 New Age author M. Scott Peck received the peace award in the RLDS temple in Independence.
Frederick was very dictatorial and not well liked. Tithing decreased and more than a third of the membership left active participation until he was dead. Under his leadership the headquarters was moved to Independence, MO, because that’s where Joseph, Jr said Zion would be.
In 1946 Joseph III’s son Israel became president of the RLDS at the age of 70. He brought the church back together and sent missionaries around the world, but he also laid groundwork to bring liberal teaching into the RLDS. Israel was killed in a car crash in 1958 and his brother W. Wallace Smith became president for 20 years until his retirement in 1978.
Under Wallace’s leadership a “reformation” took place. “Many in the RLDS hierarchy began attending St. Paul’s School of Theology, a Methodist seminary that opened in Kansas City, Missouri in 1959. This accelerated the church’s shift away from Joseph Smith’s restoration theology to a more liberal Protestant one.”
Wallace had some revelations to support his changes, of course. The first revelation “gave him the right to reinterpret previous revelations in order to make them relevant today.” “The second revelation was given in order to promote a ‘social gospel’ more in line with liberal Protestant churches. It reads, ‘You who are my disciples must be found continuing in the forefront of those organizations and movements which are recognizing the worth of persons.’… This revelation has been interpreted by the leadership to promote the social acceptance of questionable behaviors such as homosexuality.”
Wallace’s ambition was to expand RLDS into a global church, and he worked toward that end with missions and changes in the church teachings.
Wallace B. Smith took over his father’s position in 1978. Under him the building of the temple in Independence was started. He continued his father’s lead in removing some of the original restoration beliefs and became more liberal, which caused many factions. In 1984 the continued departure from original teachings led to Smith’s revelation of the acceptance of women into the priesthood. This caused a split in the church, with about 25,000 “Restorationists” breaking off, calling themselves RLDS in name but no longer attached to the mother church. The Restorationists are looking forward to a new prophet to lead them.
Meanwhile, the RLDS in 1996 made their first departure from a direct descendant of Joseph Smith leading the church when they ordained Grant McMurray as president when Wallace retired. McMurray calls himself a Restorationist and claims they have the one true church, however he also continues to promote the liberal drift. Under his leadership women have become apostles, religious pluralism is promoted, and they now have an official organization for homosexuals called “Gays and Lesbian Acceptance” (GALA).
In November of 2004 McMurray stepped down, citing personal and family issues as affecting his ability to function. In 2005 his successor, Stephen M. Veazey, was ordained as their 8th president-prophet.
The RLDS owns the Kirtland Temple in Ohio and much property in Nauvoo, all to the consternation of the LDS. Membership is about 250,000 compared to over 10 million LDS members. They have their own publisher for their books: Herald Publishing House in Independence, MO.
Now that you’ve had a wee bit of history, let’s look at their doctrine. All RLDS/Community of Christ doctrine is based on the assumption that God’s revelation to Joseph Smith, saying that all other churches were wrong, made the original LDS the only true church before the falling away of Joseph Smith. “The only valid church on earth in 1860 was the ‘New Organization,’ a collection of remnant groups from the original church established in 1830.” This is the claim of the current church. They also claim an “open canon” where their latest prophet may add scripture to the Doctrine & Covenants.
The following doctrines of the LDS are also claimed by the RLDS:
a. New Testament church went into apostasy shortly after the apostles died and then disappeared from the earth until 1830 when it was re-established by Joseph Smith.
b. Many “plain and precious parts” were removed from the Bible by the apostate church and were restored by Joseph Smith.
c. The Doctrine & Covenants are God’s continuing revelations (although RLDS has a slightly different version).
d. The authority of the priesthood began with Adam, was lost in the apostasy and was restored by Joseph Smith.
e. Zion, the Kingdom of God, must be established in Independence, MO before Jesus can return.
f. All mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of Joseph Smith’s restored gospel.
g. That heaven consists of three kingdoms, and only worthy LDS go to the highest but all people are saved from Hell.
h. Those who don’t hear Smith’s gospel in this life have a chance after death.
i. All churches existing in 1820 were wrong, with creeds abominable to God, and all their adherents are corrupt.
Other doctrinal issues:
a. They equivocate on the deity of Christ. Although they claim to accept a Trinitarian view, their teachings often become modalistic.
b. The Holy Spirit is “the living presence of both the Father and the Son.” He is their shared “mind” and the power emanating from them.
c. Children have no sin nature and only sin as they mature.
d. Salvation is a progression, beginning with baptism into the church and confirmation by the priesthood.
e. Those who refuse to believe Joseph Smith’s gospel are damned.
f. Complex priesthood system. Only RLDS priests have the authority to preach gospel and administer ordinances.
g. Eight ordinances: Blessing of babies, baptism, laying on of hands, Lord’s supper, marriage, administration for the sick, ordination, and evangelist's blessing.
h. Baptism is necessary for salvation.
So now we are back to the original question: is the Community of Christ a Christian Church? The answer has to be a resounding “NO.” Christians know that Christ and the Holy Spirit are both God, while the CofC does not. The Christian gospel is by faith alone in Christ alone, while the CofC includes works for salvation, and that salvation is progressive. They claim to be the only true church, which puts them securely in the “cult” class of churches.
Interestingly, the often subtle error of this church ends up steering people to the true Christ and true Gospel of salvation to the point they can become true Christians in spite of the church’s teachings. I have a friend at church who is a prime example of this anomaly: once he learned the truth he left the RLDS church but much of his family are still members and non-Christians.
Although the RLDS/Community of Christ is not a Christian church, they appear to be similar in many ways to other liberal churches today. Don’t let that fool you - they are still a cult by definition.