My Testimony of an Imperfect Church (But the Best One in My Opinion)

So in previous posts, I made it clear I’m unconventional and disagree with some policies. A process I would describe as coming to a testimony of an imperfect church. I’ve expressed a few disagreements, but also wanted to share some of the reasons why I believe very strongly that the church is where I should be, where I should try to help others to stay, and a good place to expend my efforts.

The biggest reason is simply “because God told me so,” or spiritual experiences. As a middle-aged dude, this had been a journey and a process, and “study and faith” (my series on the other blog) has been both enlightening and challenging.

And this has led me to my current views: I see the church as good, great even, where God wants me to be, but differently than our more standard narrative. I’ve come to view the church more like I said in the comment on my first post (at 2:35): a lot more trial and error involved in decisions and leaders capable of error both in the past and currently.

I do not view the things I consider error as egregious to the point that I consider the leaders malicious charlatans who’s church I need to escape. Instead I view them as understandable mistakes akin to the ones I make that are opportunities to learn and grow.

As a result, I do not feel the need to defend all policy decisions as perfect, but I also don’t feel the need to attack things that I have a problem with as abhorrent.

And I believe the church has a culture and doctrine that are truly wonderful. Thus I would say to anyone who might say that my unorthodox take is problematic (that’s fine for people to think that!) and that I ought to leave (disagree!) what Erasmus said to Luther when Luther tried to get Erasmus to leave Catholicism for Lutheranism. Erasmus didn’t like Luther’s doctrine, so told Luther, “I will therefore stick with this church (Catholicism) until I see a better one.”

That in many ways is how I feel about my options as well. I often have a lot of frustrations in the church, but don’t very much like the other options I see (don’t mean to get into a fight here with those choosing other options, just sharing my opinion).

I’ve come to believe, like a number of other social commentators, that our society is facing a huge problem of “atomization,” or individuals and families separating from community and organizations, and sort of being “atoms” to themselves. Atomization, such experts say, is leading to increasing isolation, loneliness, frustration, and anger especially in men. So while heading out the door has occasionally been tempting, I don’t believe that it would be better for me, my family, or society.

I do very much believe that the church community and lifestyle is just about the best there is around. Or maybe actually THE best, but I know that’s not really something one can prove. And yet, I love this quote from John Dehlin a couple of summers ago in his interview with Rick Bennett. (at around 2 hours 19 minutes).

“Is there healing and growth and happiness? [outside of the church] Yes. Is there a system that’s as packaged to provide people with identity, meaning, purpose, spirituality, community, friendships, resolution about the afterlife? Is there a package that you could just drop into, live it, raise your kids in it and have a community and blossom from it? No.”

I agree, so again, this is where I want to be and plan to stay unless God says otherwise.

And in terms of frustration, I do think that voicing them can be okay, and that continual improvement can happen as well. But I loved this line from an Ezra Klein podcast I heard recently (minute 50): “Community can be hard, but I choose the problems of community over the problems of not having community.” So that plays a big role for me as well.

More on this topic forthcoming too.

15 comments for “My Testimony of an Imperfect Church (But the Best One in My Opinion)

  1. This is a very helpful post, I think. I hope views like this can become more accepted within the Church.

    But there are obstacles, and I wonder what you think about them. Let me put it this way: If someone adopted a similar approach to say, being a Catholic or an Episcopalian, there would be fewer tensions to deal with. But the LDS Church (short, of course, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) has mechanisms that seek to ensure full orthodoxy, or to relegate the less-than-orthodox to less than full status and participation in the Church.

    Specifically, the questions that must be answered to qualify for a temple recommend seem calculated to insist on full orthodoxy. You might sincerely think that this is a Christian church and a good community and the best church for you and your family; but if you can’t answer the temple recommend questions correctly, you are excluded from full participation.

    It’s true that in my experience (both in answering and asking the questions) church leaders don’t typically want to police the questions closely. If you feel that you can answer, they are not likely to challenge you. It’s probably also true that lots of members– people who teach at BYU, for example– develop, let’s say, Jesuitical ways of interpreting the questions so that they can give the desired answers. But this can involve a degree of bad faith.

    If your reservations relate only to “policies,” maybe this isn’t a big problem. You might think that coffee should be acceptable, that women should receive the priesthood, that the priesthood ban and even polygamy were mistakes, and still convince yourself that you believe everything that needs to be believed. But there is some strain here. And suppose you don’t really believe the “only true church” idea. You might still think that this is a true church, and one that you want to participate in. But if the recommend questions are conveying the “one true church” idea, that may not be enough.

    So I’m wondering: do you see this as a problem?

  2. Thank you Stephen for the post. This was nearly verbatim what my mission president told me in my final, outgoing interview in 1985. I didn’t understand it at the time. I’ve never forgotten it, though, since it was not what I was expecting to hear.

    My miss prez’s testimony has served me well and it’s become mine. It has given me peace where stress and confusion would’ve been, when faced with odd evidence from SLC. Inside the church and fold has been the best place in the whole world for me to rear my children and keep a good relationship with my spouse. She is of the more literal believing, brethren are basically infallible, mindset, and I’m not saying anything to change her mind.

    Truth claims? I certainly have spiritual evidence of my own that says the church is true. I don’t “know,” but I have faith that it is. Whether or not it’s “true,” I’m not leaving. This community of common belief and the good it does locally and around the world is the best place for me, whether or not it’s the “one true church.” The truth claims are a part of the cohesiveness for many, and I have felt it is true.

  3. I could have stayed if there wasn’t constant pressure and discussion about the church being the one and only “true” church. That and my lgbt kids were miserable and the church investing tithing moneys like a hedge fund as if saving for a rainy day was more important than doing good really shook my faith in the leaders.

    As a community I love the members of the lds church. They are hard working and kind and some of my favorite people anywhere and I am always happy to be among them.

    As a church I think if it were trying to be the “true church” it is a failure. Many of the “restored” doctrines have changed and adapted to modern morality. Mostly for the better. The ordinances have changed. The mistakes of polygamy and doctrinal racism thank goodness have been rejected and hopefully left in the past. The overwhelming message today is obedience and loyalty to leadership.

    I agree with the SDS that your approach and testimony seems like a viable approach until you have to toe the line of orthodoxy. I would have enjoyed your ward I think. Building community is an increasingly important need and I hope you can continue to build that inside the church.

  4. Okay, that’s a huge question, SDS, so I’m going to answer it apart from my other responses.

    As I shared on my previous post, I have some very unorthodox views related to many Mormon beliefs, but did accept the bishop calling. I see many factors coming together to accept the calling like my wife telling me I wasn’t saying no because of my research, the SP saying I was the only option, and feeling like it was God’s will.

    So honestly, if I were to fully elaborate my full answers to the temple questions, they would be pretty out there (I might post that at some point down the line depending on how long this guest stint lasts, but that would be quite a number of posts to cover the topic).

    And while performing interviews in my first few years, I did sometimes think to myself, “I wonder if I could really pass this interview if I fully expressed my answers.” I totally get that confession could come across as duplicitous, but I felt obligated to serve for the reasons I listed above (a member even reported aspects of my unorthodoxy to the SP at one point, but when I asked the SP about it he basically said he didn’t care).

    Simply put, I’m not going to attempt a definitive answer to your question, but instead share a few stories, none of which is THE answer (I don’t know what that would be) but just some additional context to think about.

    1) A couple of summers ago, my brother told me he wouldn’t make it to my son’s sealing, because he was feeling concerned enough about church issues that he did not feel he could give the positive answers to the recommend questions. He told me his bishop was aware of this and had encouraged my brother to just come in for the interview feeling like they could work it out and he could get the recommend (he’s still active, pays his tithing etc). But my brother didn’t feel good about that.

    So bishops can certainly vary.

    2) Your point about the Jesuit answer reminded me of another story. A few years back we had a senior couple move into the ward, the husband of which had a wild conversion story. He’d joined in his 40s after quite an array of following very strong spiritual experiences that absolutely convinced him that God wanted him in the church.

    But he added this caveat. “On the question of this book about this lost civilization that no one else seemed to know about, I wasn’t really sure. And truthfully I wasn’t really sure what I thought about Joseph Smith either.”

    But he said that when he got asked those questions at his baptism interview he felt the Spirit tell him very strongly, “Just say yes.”

    3) I had an interesting experience with a woman in my ward (since moved), who had joined as a child when her mom did, left the church and got divorced as a young adult, but had remarried a non-member and had come back to church. She explained to me that she really wanted to be in the church, loved the lifestyle, but really didn’t know what she thought about Joseph Smith and the church’s truth claims. She said those things weren’t very important to her, but being in the church and raising her kids in it was very important to her.

    She also made it clear she had no interest in a temple recommend. You probably know that as leaders we’re really supposed to work on our “endowed without recommend” list. But she made it quite clear that wasn’t something she was going to be doing, so I dropped it.

    One of my most (positively) emotional experiences I had as bishop was her last day in the ward before she moved (a few months before I was released) when she told me how important I’d been to her as a bishop. She added, “I can imagine how hard it has been to be bishop, but I want to let you know that I really needed you.” (I’m crying as I’m writing this and was crying when she said that to me).

    She added that she was now on a very good path, that I had helped a lot, and that she felt very good about her place in and relationship to the church.

    So, those are some different approaches.

  5. That’s a very interesting thing to be told by one’s mission president, fjr, and it sound like it’s been a lot of help.

    Brian, I certainly understand those frustrations. In our last safe-space meeting, when group members were expressing how to hang in there despite their concerns, I shared something that had been helpful for me. I said, “whenever I’m feeling bothered by what the leaders are doing, I just lower my expectations a little.” Sorry if that sounds cynical, but that works for me! Again, I believe we have good but fallible leaders.

    And like I said in previous posts, we do put our safe-space meeting on Zoom (once a month and held on Sundays not as part of the 2 hour block). People can contact me for more info [email protected]

  6. Very helpful, Stephen. I appreciate hearing your thoughts and conclusions. Good stuff!

  7. Thanks, Hunter!

    And in terms of the “true church,” I understand that a lot of “faith-transitioners” balk at that, and my claims to seeing the church as imperfect would suggests a different view that what we usually mean by “true church.”

    My take on that after studying Joseph Smith was 15 years, is that I would say that was he was TRYING to implement the true church, that he put some thing very good together, and that we all can still be in the quest for attempting to implement that true church (no doubt we may all have different definitions of “true church”). But I see “trying to be the true church” as a holy endeavor that I’m happy to be a part of.

  8. As a holistic farmer, I can look at the field any day of the week, and list innumerable problems—things that need remediation, things that need to be fixed, weeds to be pulled, sometimes whole sections of the field that need to be burned off. It is easy to get caught up with what isn’t right and what needs to be done about it. But when I step back and look at the whole—a few perfectly formed fruit and vegetables, the greenest green grass covering the naked earth, bees busily buzzing around flowers in full radiant bloom, birds overseeing the parameter and protecting the plants from infestation, and when I dig my fingers into the soil that was once dead red clay, now turned black, full of microbial life—living earth—everything comes together in an expression of gratitude. Life is rejoicing in the Creation. The Church is a bit like a field.

  9. Thanks, Stephen, for your very helpful thoughts and related experiences. My own experience has been somewhat similar to yours. I won’t go into detail here, except to say that when, not wanting to be dishonest, I felt compelled to share some of my “jesuitical” interpretations with my Stake President (an intelligent and thoughtful man), he hesitated for a while, then said, “I don’t think the questions mean what you are interpreting them to mean. But I do feel like the Lord wants you to have this calling.” So he sort of gave me a special dispensation, and I’ve been basically trading on that ever since. And yet the question of bad faith continues to bother me a lot. I’m thankful I don’t work at BYU; at least I don’t have to suspect that I’m equivocating just to keep my job. Still, it’s not a comfortable position to be in, but maybe that’s one of the challenges we’re supposed to struggle with in this imperfect and complicated world. Anyway, thanks again.

  10. I think the most recent case that we see “trial and error” at work in the Church was with how the Manti Temple renovations were handled. In less than two months, we saw 3 changes:

    April 2019) Original announcement: President Nelson announced that the “pioneer temples” would undergo extensive renovations. He stressed that the live endowment and murals would remain in the Manti and Salt Lake Temples.

    March 12, 2021) 1st change: The live endowment is discontinued. Gut the Manti Temple, permanently remove the murals, and replace the 4-stage progressive instruction rooms with multiple stationary ones that use film.

    March 24, 2021) 2nd change: Carefully remove Teichert’s mural in the world room and display it for the general public, but continue with the gutting plans.

    May 1, 2021) 3rd change: Build another temple in Ephraim. Keep the Manti Temple fully preserved. Screens and projectors would still be installed for a filmed endowment, but the murals and progressive instruction rooms would remain.

    I’m sure President Nelson had the best of intentions when it came to the 1st change of plans back in early March 2021, but I’m thankful that he responded to people’s concerns by finding a more comprehensive solution that both preserved the Manti Temple and solved capacity issues in Sanpete Valley.

  11. JC, I do get the sense that more alternative views will become increasingly common.

    That’s a beautiful metaphor, T. M. I’ll confess that I’m am often guilty of too much complaining and not focussing as much as I should on the beauty of the big picture. But I also agree that the larger beauty doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to do.

    SDS, my sense is that we’re going to see some transitions of the church that will be uncomfortable but opportunities for growth. And my guess is that BYU will have some of the most discomfort.

    Southern Saint, yes, I think we can point to a number of instances of trial and error (again such a method is normal!) Perhaps what became known of the “exclusion policy” of children of LBGT+ couples not being allowed to be baptized and then overturning that policy is one of the clearest examples. I’m happy that the leaders overturned it, sorry for the pain it caused, but will grant the leaders grace as they work through difficult challenges. I do think our leaders are facing a number of difficult challenges ahead related to the transitions I think are in store for the church. I’m glad we have wise and good leaders, but the challenges will be difficult without any easy solutions.

    I think we’ve become accustomed to the “perfect leader” model that we promote in the church, leading to disillusionment when people see evidence that is not the case. I think abandoning such a model is helpful, but I’ve noticed that many of the disillusioned don’t want to, but instead continue to say things like “If they were perfect, problem X would not exist!” Again, I really like T.M.’s metaphor.

  12. If we can get Jesuitical about the temple recommend questions, why not with D&C 1:30–the source of the “only true church” notion. To me, it is not clear precisely what “with which I, the Lord, am well pleased” on the fifth line refers to. Is it to “this church” in the second line? Or is it “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” in the fourth line? My inner Jesuit prefers the latter interpretation, which implies that there may be multiple “true and living” churches, and that the Lord may be “pleased” with them. But there is only one with which he is “well pleased”. I will spare you for now the meanings of “true”, “living”, and “well” that make that interpretation work. My point is that it requires significantly less effort for me to believe that of multiple true and living churches with which the Lord is pleased that the CoJCoLDS is the only one with which he is well pleased than to believe that the CoJCoLDS is the only true church, period.

    (Before you go looking in the Joseph Smith papers for the original language of verse 30, I will warn you that you will find it helpful only if you are far more Jesuitical than I.)

  13. No doubt that declaration can be a hang up for many, Last Lemming. I stated my own views on that point in the comment above.

  14. I am a non traditional member mostly because of my extensive study of our history. Everything we do now and view as sacred or correct in the church was once completely different in the past and also viewed as sacred and correct. I also have been “different” regarding my views of the church and leaders since my childhood. Lets just say I am weird.

    Regarding being a non traditional active member with a recommend and answering temple rec questions… I dont look at these questions as “worthy” to go to the temple. I look at them as the current leaders list of requirements to attend the temple. In the beginning of temple attendance it was thought as a place for members to go and learn how to be holy or be around and experience holiness. Non-members were allowed to attend the Kirkland Temple dedication for example. Traditional members would freak if we did that today. Leaders over time changed this view of temples and who should get to enter them from this old view to you must be “holy” to get in. Big difference in temple attendance concept. The questions to enter are not from God but from well meaning men/leaders that thought there should be a level of belief or gospel living/dedication to enter the building. Kind of a “pearls before swine” deal. These questions or requirements have changed over the years by different leaders just as the current leader has done today. Now I can hear all the traditionalist members say, this is Jesus telling the leaders to change it. Sure, that is a possibility. I just dont think that is the case based on my research. I am fine standing alone on this. So when a traditionalist is asked if they sustain the pres as prophet, seer and revelator, they answer yes and believe that the president is always acting as the prophet and everything he says or may say is in fact what God/Jesus wants him to say. To them, that is sustaining the pres. Myself, I dont think we have received any new revelations from God/Jesus since JS so when I answer yes to that same question I firmly believe that if God or Jesus wanted to reveal something to members it would in fact go through the current prophet and that prophet would tell us that it was from God/Jesus like JS did 130+ something times when he was alive. Having this view, helps me look at current and past leaders with more grace and understanding as I dont put them on this infallible pedestal of leadership. I am fine being alone on this as well.

    If one, IMO, would take off their mormon colored glasses regarding the temple questions that are drilled into us to answer 100% honestly or the temple will be defiled when you enter, there are several questions that cannot be answered 100% honestly.

    For example;
    Do you understand and live the Word of Wisdom? You mean the section that Jesus says “not by way of commandment” that I am commanded to live? Do you mean the section that says I am not living the WoW because I ate chicken sandwiches and steak all summer long? And way too much of it I might add!

    Are you a full tithe payer? Define full tithe? We cant. How can I answer honestly? How about gross or net? We cant tell you but remember you are obligated to answer these questions honestly!

    Do you keep the Sabbath day holy at home and at church? (big head scratcher for me on the at church part)
    Can you define what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy at home and at church? We cant. So again I am to honestly answer a question to prove my level of worthiness to enter the temple with no idea what I am saying yes to? That is correct.

    Needless to say I just dont get worked up as a non traditional member about some of these temple questions. I dont question God when the brethren change stuff because its the brethren changing stuff. The changes seem to always be when a leader change occurs. That tells me that the new leader is more of less just doing things “his way now” and I am fine with that. Nelson has been the King of that in my lifetime. I dont know how members believe that these policy changes are all God directed. God changes His mind a lot then!

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