Even with a new direction, LDS Church still has its own distinctive beliefs and concepts.
In the Salt Lake Tribune on February 6, Stuart Reid claimed that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints erred in the 1990s by emphasizing the Christian nature of the Church. He claimed such a move was just a public relations strategy that led to a loss of the church’s distinctive character and lukewarm membership.
Reid is correct that the church made a fundamental change at this time. This was seen in moves such as the church logo displaying the name of Jesus Christ more prominently, a new subtitle for the Book of Mormon, and more Christ-focused mission discussions. The change was so dramatic that I remember an older church member asking in a church class when we turned our attention from Joseph Smith and to Jesus Christ.
However, the change was more than a public relations strategy. I believe it was the product of revelation to cause church members to believe and rely on Jesus Christ as each member’s personal redeemer. It was an effort to help members understand the role of grace in their lives and to find peace in sometimes troubled times.
Perhaps even more than that, it was designed to emphasize what was central to church members rather than simply what was distinctive. It is true that Latter-day Saints have distinct doctrines and practices from mainstream Christianity. But these are not central to the beliefs of the church. It is the Atonement of Jesus Christ—His role in helping all of God’s children eventually return to God—that is fundamental to faith.
This cardinal principle of Latter-day Saint beliefs had been somewhat overlooked in the past. I remember sitting in a Sunday school class many years ago when the teacher talked about the pillars of the church with Christ being only one of the pillars, not the main cornerstone. And I had attended many testimony meetings where the only mention of Christ occurred when the testimony was closed. The mission, teachings, and atonement of Christ were too rarely discussed, contemplated, and applied.
In the 1990s, church leaders began to help members better understand what was most important in the faith. Increasingly, church members began to understand that accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior, seeking to become his disciples, and desiring to live a Christlike life are primary mission goals of a Latter-day Saint in life.
Reid suggests that members who have been drawn to the church, or who have remained faithful, because of this focus on Jesus Christ, are somehow less devoted. However, he provides no evidence that this is the case. It is true that the growth rate of baptisms of new converts has slowed considerably over the past two decades. But this phenomenon has generally been true for Christian churches of all persuasions.
Moreover, even with the focus on Jesus Christ, the church is still distinctive and will remain so. Concepts like premortal existence, covenants, and modern revelation separate the church from mainstream Christianity. Not to mention the use of the Book of Mormon, the non-recognition of unfaithful baptisms, and celestial marriage. There is no danger that the church will lose its unique identity.
Changes at Brigham Young University, such as requiring temple recommends or codifying campus demonstration rules, are not issues of Christian identity versus traditional church distinctive practices . They have more to do with ensuring that denominational schools do not become secularized as many religiously sponsored institutions have become. Catholic and Protestant schools have experienced these same tensions and they are part of mainstream Christianity.
The church can be Christ-centered and distinct at the same time. Indeed, it is now and it will remain so. Church leaders have adopted this theme because it will help members face their trials in the future. They will no longer believe that they must work, work, work to earn their salvation, but rather they will commit their lives to a loving God who, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, will forgive them when they repent and will enable them to become disciples. There is no more important and reassuring message for Latter-day Saints in the 21st century.
Richard DavisOrem, is the author of “The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics.”