There are certain subjects in Christian theology that tend to attract a lot of attention among evangelical Christians. We love to discuss controversial questions concerning soteriology, the doctrine of salvation (e.g., the perennial debates among Calvinists, Lutherans, and Arminians regarding predestination and election). Of course, discussions about eschatology (the Millennium, the Rapture, 666, etc.) seem to be never-ending. Among those who are interested in apologetics, we have some interest in such essential theological subjects as the nature of God and the deity of Jesus Christ. But ecclesiology–the study of the doctrine of the church–tends to evoke yawns.
C. S. Lewis once wrote that “good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949; New York: Collier, 1980], 50). As with other doctrinal matters, ecclesiology may not seem very important–until you encounter bad ecclesiology. Then the need for good ecclesiology becomes a felt need and not just an abstraction. I first discovered this fact when working through the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim to be the only true religion on the earth today. Despite their confident assertions that everything about their religion is Bible-based, the bureaucratic structure of the religion, led by a “governing body” that runs “Jehovah’s organization on earth,” does not fit at all with what we find in the New Testament. Studying Watchtower ecclesiology forced me to think through that the Bible teaches about ecclesiology. One gains a different perspective on ecclesiology when one is confronting a heretical religion than when one is caught up in skirmishes among evangelicals over, for example, congregational polity versus presbyterian (elder-based) polity.
The same principle applies when dealing with the ecclesiology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons confidently claim that the LDS Church is the only true church on the earth today, and one reason they give in support of this claim is that their religion is supposedly organized in the same way as the New Testament church. Superficially, Mormons can make a plausible-sounding case for this claim: the New Testament church had apostles, and the LDS Church has apostles. Hey, my church doesn’t have apostles! Maybe we’re missing something. The LDS Church has other offices that sound biblical but that your congregation or denomination probably doesn’t have: patriarchs, for instance, or high priests. Do Mormons really have a “restored” church that corresponds in its organization and offices to the church of the New Testament era? I discuss this question in a new article on the website of the Institute for Religious Research. That article, entitled “Church Organization and Apostasy,” is a response to chapter 16 of Gospel Principles, a doctrinal manual that Mormons around the world are studying throughout 2010 and 2011. The thesis of that article will surprise some people: my contention is that the apostles did not have an “organization” to run Christianity in the first century. That is, there was no hierarchical institution that directed the activities of Christian missionaries, evangelists, and other church leaders throughout the world, or that dictated doctrine and policy from the top down. I also show that the offices of the LDS Church have little or no connection to the ministries of Christian leaders in the first century. The article also offers a response to the LDS claim that early Christianity became so corrupt that the church ceased to exist for some seventeen centuries (what they call the Great Apostasy) until Joseph Smith came along. Understanding where these claims go astray biblically will not only help us be prepared to confront the errors in the LDS religion, but they will help us have a better appreciation for what the Lord Jesus Christ intended when he founded his church.