Community of Christ and the Liberal Mormon

With the announcement that the National Conference of the Community of Christ has recommended expanding marriage to include gay and lesbian couples, I have spent the last day reflecting on something that I have thought a lot about for the the last few years:

What does the Community of Christ mean to somebody like me, a Mormon who is politically, theologically, and philosophically liberal?

In this case, by Mormon I mean a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the restoration branch headquartered in Salt Lake City, UT.

Mormons, in general, are dismissive of the Community of Christ. The Community of Christ was not too long ago known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons tend to view the Community of Christ as a fallen branch of the restoration movement which started with Joseph Smith in Upstate New York. Of course, as the culturally most dominant branch of the Latter-day Saint movement, Mormons are able to rather easily ignore the much much smaller Community of Christ, let alone the even smaller other branches.

The Community of Christ has been a more theologically liberal and mainstream church than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Saints. This goes back to early days of the Reorganized Church in the 1860s. This is sometimes dismissed by Mormons as attempts by the RLDS, and now the Community of Christ, to bend to the ways of the world rather than sticking to the truth.

I view the Community of Christ in a much more friendly way. We share much in common. From Joseph Smith to Book of Mormon. Do they have different interpretations? Sure, but what religious tradition does not have such variations.

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The Community of Christ has been friendly towards women’s rights, gay rights, and liberal theology for decades now. Yesterday, I asked my friend John Hamer via Facebook whether the National Conference announcement was a surprise.

"The recommendations of the US National Conference of Community of Christ (following on the heels of last year’s Australian and Canadian National Conferences) have been anticipated since the canonization of D&C 164 in April of 2010. Although the outcome wasn’t a surprise, the effect of the US National Conference will be a blessing for members who had been marginalized under the previous policy," said Hamer, a historian and member of the Community of Christ.

Hamer presents this change not as cowering to the ways of the world, but instead as a bold theological move.

"The move is consistent with Community of Christ’s trajectory over the past half century, which has been to focus on building Christ-centered communities. Jesus preached the gospel of inclusion and of love," Hamer said. "He opposed the worship of senseless rules as hypocritical and ‘pharisaical,’ and yet ironically soon after Jesus’ death Christians began to fixate on their own senseless rules, using them to marginalize others."

As always, John Hamer is one of the most intelligent and articulate advocates for the Community of Christ. Hamer ties these changes to the very idea of a restoration of Christianity.

"In taking this action, Community of Christ strikes one of these rules down, affirming the church’s commitment to continually restore the real intent of Jesus’ gospel," said Hamer.

For me, the Community of Christ is an example of the vibrancy of the Restoration movement that started with Joseph Smith. They are my brothers and sisters in the Restoration.

Since living in Wyoming, I have found that many of my friends and allies have been Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ clergy, as well as clergy and members at other mainline Protestant denominations. My association with them has bolstered my faith in Christ and my faith in humanity. I am glad to see that there is a similar line of thinking alive and well within the Restoration tradition.

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About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Ryan Love

    As a former member of the LDS church and a convert to Community of Christ I can tell you that the minute i learned of the egalitarian changes in Community of Christ the little church went from being “a mere splinter group” in my mind to becoming a serious option. I joined in 2007 and am very happy with my membership.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Ryan, thanks for stopping by Approaching Justice. How did you come in contact with the Community of Christ?

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  • John Nichols

    as a member of the community of Christ I thank you for this post.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Thanks, John. I appreciate the note.

  • Micah S.

    I grew up RLDS/COC and although have not retained membership, have stayed connected. Some things I would add to the article:
    * COC people do not see themselves as Mormon and do not appreciate the association.
    * The earliest RLDS movement was much more a hybrid of Protestantism and LDS tradition. They do not use the Book of Mormon as a primary scripture the way the LDS Church does. They use the Bible, the way Protestants do. While the denomination formally accepts three books of scripture (Bible, BoM, and Doctrine & Covenants), some people do not use the Book of Mormon nor uphold it as scripturally authoritative at all.
    * COC leadership, in the reverse of the LDS leadership, tends to be more liberal than the membership base.
    * Yes, the COC-USA decision regarding same-sex marriage and ordination was a surprise. The progressive, pro-side hoped desperately for the outcome, but did not expect the affirming vote to pass by such wide margins. The vote had to pass by a 2/3rds majority (67%). Marriage where legal passed by 74%. Commit ceremony where not yet legal passed by 79% Ordination of GLBT members passed by 81% We are all in shock. John is perhaps less shocked than others because he’s Canadian, where marriage has been legal 8-10 years, depending on your province.

    • Krista

      As a CoC member, in a similar position to Micah (in that I haven’t actively attended a congregation in years, though I have been active online), I have give a slightly different perspective.

      IMO, the church does not use the bible as “protestant” churches do. There are plenty of protestant churches that hold the bible as infallible, and Community of Christ has never done so. There are some converts who still have that mindset, though, I’ll admit.

      A lot of members still hold the BoM as as important as the bible or D&C, but because of the legitimate questions that are raised about how it came to be, it is true that a lot of members don’t consider belief in it to be crucial. I know I don’t believe in it being a real historical document, however, as it’s not required for membership (that belief) that is fine.

      As to people being in shock about the decision… absolutely not. Though I think that the fact that it passed with such a majority shows that the preparation and educational efforts leading up to this were successful. Anyone who has been keeping an eye on church activities, even from a distance, would know that the church has been heading this way for a long time.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

        Krista,

        Thanks for chiming in. The way in which you frame the Community of Christ approach to the Book of Mormon is how I had understand it. I am sure that others might view it more in the way that Micah does. There are a range of views about how to view the Book of Mormon even amongst Mormon scholars.

        • http://saintsherald.com/ John Hamer

          Hi, Micah — Maybe it’s because I’m in Canada, but my congregation reads from the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants in our Sunday service and Sunday School quite regularly just as we read from the Old and New Testaments. I agree with Krista that we don’t do this “like Protestants” because Protestants tend to view scripture as “Authoritative” with a capital “A.” I prefer the Community of Christ’s statement on scripture that scripture is “authoritative” only as a servant — i.e., “If Jesus came to serve, how much more should the books that point to him be treated as a servant of the saving purposes of God?”

          I regularly teach courses on Community of Christ scripture (Book of Mormon, D&C, Inspired Version) at intense weekend-long discipleship retreats at different mission centers with the idea of encouraging more use alongside responsible interpretation of these scriptures in our worship as a church.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Micah,

      Thanks for the comments.

      “COC people do not see themselves as Mormon and do not appreciate the association.”

      I only use the term Mormon to refer to the Church in Salt Lake City.

      “COC leadership, in the reverse of the LDS leadership, tends to be more liberal than the membership base.”

      I tend to find that Mormons are more likely, in general, to be more extreme in their religious and political views than the leadership.

      “John is perhaps less shocked than others because he’s Canadian, where marriage has been legal 8-10 years, depending on your province.”

      He has lived in Canada for less than a year, if I recall the details correctly. I think it more has to do with John being a rather keen observing of developments with the Community of Christ as a leading historian of the Community.

  • DavidH

    It was a bold (and risky) move by the CofC, and one day may be seen as prophetic by many more people than who see it that way today. (I see it as a positive change.) My understanding is that the change only affects the USA, and that the conference(s) in other countries may address the issue differently. Different positions on same-sex relationship have caused stresses and near rupture among parts of the Anglican communion in different parts of the world. Is there any sense about whether the same inter-country stresses are present among the parts of the CofC in other parts of the world as to this issue?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Hey, David:

      Thanks for stopping by Approaching Justice.

      From what John Hamer told me, the national conferences in Australia and Canada have taken similar steps. The next step will be a response from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve of Apostles of the Community of Christ, who from what I understand are in line with what the national conference recommended recently.

      I do not know how the Community of Christ in other areas will respond, nor am I sure how large the Community of Christ is outside of Canada and the United States. I cannot imagine that their would be the type of divide that took place within the Anglican Church over related issues.

  • Jim Essex

    My faith path has taken a different turn than that of Ryan Love in that I grew up RLDS/COC and converted to the LDS church at the beginning of my second half-century of life. From that perspective, I am not at all surprised to see the church move in the direction it has nor do I see it as a bold or risky move. In fact, I’m surprised that it took this long. The church in which I grew to manhood and for which I still hold a deep affection has been moving in this direction for many years. As early as the 1960s, the church began to move away from the conservative “one true church” orientation of the early years of the Restoration. During that time, many changes which were hotly debated on the conference floor have become policy with no appreciable negative effect on the body as a whole. This change is a logical progression in the theological trend which has defined the church for the past few decades. The actual risk to the church would have been to turn against that tide by not supporting the change. Such an approach would have marked a basic departure from the established trend and may have caused a case of organizational whip-lash.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Jim,

      Thanks for your comment.

      During my time teaching at BYU and BYU-Idaho, I met a number of people who had originally had a RLDS or Community of Christ background.

      My interaction with the Community of Christ has largely been through academic presentations that I have done at either Sunstone or Restoration Studies with a visit to the Graceland University Campus in Independence.

  • http://www.restlessnoun.com Dean

    Thank you for mentioning the United Church of Christ in your blog. I resigned from the LDS Church last year. A few months later I started dating a UCC member. The people of his church have been very welcoming to me and are glad to see how happy we are together. Meanwhile, my active Mormon friends have been mostly silent.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/approachingjustice/ Chris Henrichsen

      Dean,

      Two of my favorite people in Wyoming are United Church of Christ pastors. They have not only been political allies, but they have also offered pastoral support as my life has gone through great changes. I am honored to have them as friends. They are also my heroes.

      Thanks for sharing your comment.

  • http://saintsherald.com/ John Hamer

    I really appreciate this post, Chris. I’ve long felt that liberal Mormons and members of Community of Christ have much to share. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Robert L. Logan

    … have just returned as a delegate from both Community of Christ World Conference and USA National Conference. The ‘new’ approach to achieving common consent entered into at the USA National Conference was very impressive. To arrive at consensus on the three proposals at the Sunday morning session there were: Yes/No Questions, Surveys of Support, and Level of Support Questions placed before the delegates by the USA Team of Apostles on Friday and Saturday. There were periods of Spiritual Formation, Meditation, and Moments of Blessing by the entire conference (c. 1,500-2,000 delegates) interspersed in the sessions between consideration of each proposal. It was a very impressive experience of ‘community’ compared to our previous win/lose Robert’s Rules of Order legislative sessions! Electronic polling devices were used for the first time at this conference with instantaneous results by percentage and number of votes projected in the front of the conference chamber on three large screens. There was no ‘waiting’ to see how your field apostle voted, or how your friends voted before casting your vote. There was also a ‘Principles of Faithful Disagreement’ document presented by the USA Team of Apostles which guided the conference for response for those who may disagree with the outcome. I believe the final outcome indicates the true feeling of the ‘church’.
    At the end of this process we were not so much committed to ‘issues’; rather we were committed to what matters most! Christ’s mission is our mission and our focus is to reflect the true NATURE and CHARACTER of God as lived-out in Jesus’ earthly ministry. Labels are out: we are all members of the body of Christ. …and for EVERYONE – a place at the table!

    In response to the comments about the Community of Christ and the Book of Mormon: it is important to remember that Community of Christ is not a ‘creedal’ church. Belief in the Book of Mormon, or particular interpretations is not a test of fellowship. There is a wide range of beliefs about it in the church. Some congregations use it extensively while other ‘not’.

    A new 2013 book published by Community of Christ Seminary Press is “Millions Call It Scripture: the Book of Mormon in the 21st century”, by Alan D. Tyree (retired member of the First Presidency), ISBN 9780830915651 [an aside: Layout and cover design by John Hamer, who posts in these threads] which helps in understanding the position of Community of Christ.

    Chris, this is my first and very enjoyable visit to your blog. Thank you!

    …shalom, the peace of Jesus Christ in all of its many meanings and blessings to you as we continue to journey on the path of the disciple together.

  • Pingback: A Word on a “Liberal” Vs a “Conservative” Understanding of Scripture | Heavenly Ascents


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