Off the top of my head, I think that in the Church we generally mean one of three things when we use the word “apostasy”:
1. A loss of priesthood authority, and especially the apostolic keys, following the death of the apostles (ca. 100 CE in the Old World, 400 CE in the New); this also connects with the loss of the one true church. If we want to be specific, we could call this â€œecclesiastical apostasy.â€?
2. A fragmentation or loss of doctrinal truth after the death of the apostles. We can refer to this as â€œdoctrinal apostasy.â€?
3. An individual person turning away from the true gospel after having once received it, usually referring to someone who actively rejects rather than someone who becomes lukewarm or passively indifferent. This is â€œpersonal apostasy.â€?
Apostasy is a big problem. Perhaps not quite as big a problem as the Fall, but big enough to have an entire historical period (in LDS history/cosmology) named after it, labeled â€œGreatâ€? (as in â€œgreat and abominable,â€? not â€œgee whiz, this milkshake is greatâ€?), and often given a capital-A.
When we talk about solving the problem of apostasy, we also think of it based on the three forms above. From an LDS point of view, ecclesiastical hierarchy isnâ€™t a problem anymore â€“ John the Baptist, then Peter, James, and John, took care of that in 1829 (thereâ€™s some debate about whether the apostleship was restored in 1830 or thereafter, following the organization of the church, but we definitely have it now). Doctrinal apostasy, on a large scale, was solved with the restoration of true doctrine through revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith and other modern-day seers and revelators. As per Article of Faith 9, we think thereâ€™s more to come, but we certainly believe that since 1844 we have had the essential doctrines of salvation and exaltation restored to us. Of course, most people in the world still live individually under the cloud of doctrinal apostasy, so we go about solving that with missionary work, bringing truth to all who will listen. (I suppose ordinances then solve the problem of individual ecclesiastical apostasy.) Individual or personal apostasy, in which someone has rejected the truth once accepted, is often difficult to overcome, but it also basically entails individual and communal ministering to the strayed sheep (or kicking goat, as the case may be).
While I think these three definitions of apostasy, and the ways we approach them, are fully accurate, acceptable, and real, I think Joseph Smith thought of apostasy in one more way that we often ignore. I call it â€œstructural apostasy.â€?
We often quote D&C 121 and 122, two excerpts of the letter from Liberty Jail, penned by Joseph (some or all of it given by revelation) in execrable conditions in March 1839 and then sent to the church. We pay considerably less attention to D&C 123, also from the same letter. To get a flavor, let me quote vv. 7-8 in full:
â€œIt is an imperative duty that we owe to God, to angels, with whom we shall be brought to stand, and also to ourselves, to our wives and children, who have been made to bow down with grief, sorrow, and care, under the most damning hand of murder, tyranny, and oppression, supported and urged on and upheld by the influence of that spirit which hath so strongly riveted the creeds of the fathers, who have inherited lies, upon the hearts of the children, and filled the world with confusion, and has been growing stronger and stronger, and is now the very mainspring of all corruption, and the whole earth groans under the weight of its iniquity. It is an iron yoke, it is a strong band; they are the very handcuffs, and chains, and shackles, and fetters of hell.â€?
This passage best represents what I call â€œstructural apostasy.â€? Joseph, who suffered his share of â€œmurder, tyranny, and oppression,â€? asserts that these conditions which he and the Saints found themselves in, and indeed â€œall corruptionâ€? in the earth, owe to â€œthe creeds of the fathers,â€? which were based on â€œlies.â€? For Joseph, apostasy was not only about false belief or false authority. It also entailed murder, tyranny, oppression, and corruption, which refer not to the ecclesiastical order but to the political, social, and economic order. All the structures of society which pit people against one another in anything less than the bonds of charity flow from the â€œmainspringâ€? of apostasy. Apostasy is essentially the inverse of Zion. If a Zion society, as we get glimpses of in 4 Nephi and Moses 7, has structures based on love, peace, equality, and all things in common, then an apostate society is based on hatred, warfare, inequality, and disparity. Just as Zion is not just a group of people who believe the right things and have the right priesthood authorityâ€”although it certainly includes, and is based on, just thatâ€”so apostasy is not just people who believe wrong or donâ€™t have priesthood (although it certainly includes that).
After thus describing apostasy, Joseph tells the Saints that it is their â€œimperative dutyâ€? to â€œwaste and wear out our livesâ€? in countering apostasy and its effects (vv. 11, 13). Hereâ€™s my punchline: Missionary work, home/visiting teaching, obeying the Word of Wisdom, going to church on Sunday, and stockpiling wheat in our basement are not the only ways to fight apostasy in the world today. They are important, even essential ways, but not the only ways. Those who seek to counter structural apostasy in all its formsâ€”poverty, warfare, sexism, racism, imperialism, colonialism, illiteracy, domestic abuse, drug dependency, political corruption, corporate corruption, environmental degradation, police abuse, to name a fewâ€”are also doing the work that Joseph (and I believe the Lord) called us to do.
We are not Protestant dispensational premillennialists. We do not believe, as did 19th-c. evangelist Dwight Moody, that the world is a sinking ship and that God has given us a lifeboat and told us to rescue as many souls as we can, essentially abandoning the ship altogether. We often slip into talking this way, especially because it has become the predominant mode of Christian millenarian discourse since World War II, and we cite scriptures which seem to resonate with such an interpretation. But we are stewards of the world and all our brothers and sisters in it. Humanitarianism is neither a waste of time nor simply a PR stunt to grease the wheels for our missionaries. It is part of Godâ€™s work in the world.
I am not saying we should spend less time fighting the more apparently spiritual aspects of apostasyâ€”if anything, we should step up, not slow down, our evangelism. But if we ignore the â€œiron yokeâ€? of structural apostasy and its devastating effects in our communities and throughout the world, we are not living up the grand vision of transforming society that Joseph bequeathed us, and which I believe God would have us do in building Zion in all the world.