What is the future of the Community of Christ in a North American post-RLDS perspective?

Update (11/19/10):  I am grateful for a note from a friend who reminded me of the problems of the term “North American.”  North America refers to not only the U.S., but also Canada, Mexico, Central American and the Caribbean.  By using this term in my blog post, I risk a long-standing imperial practice of defining “North America” under largely U.S. history and experience.  I appreciate this sensitivity to language.  Community of Christ/RLDS practice is certainly not innocent of this tendency.  To clarify, when I use the term “North American church” I am inclusively referring to the U.S. and Canada, those areas of the church in which I have my religious experience and heritage.

I’ve given this question attention since as early as I can remember, or at least since I started learning and doing theology.  It seems to me that Community of Christ, when considered from the vantage point of our RLDS memories and experiences, faces decisive identity questions as it moves into the future.  These are inescapable theological problems that are deeply related to our past.

On one hand, identity issues emerge because the Community of Christ has become an international church with a diverse membership across many cultures.  Many North American church members have no direct access to the true diversity of worship practices and beliefs that make up the Community of Christ today.  Instead, we in North America are more deeply rooted in our RLDS upbringing.  This RLDS upbringing shapes our sense of solidarity with one another, holds memories of defending or explaining ourselves to others…but without ever the satisfaction of that deep connection within the church.  This experience structures our deep sense of intimate community.

On the other hand, I also believe the North American church struggles with theological issues and dissension regarding basic issues of Community of Christ identity, message, and beliefs because too few of us truly grasp how the internal logic of RLDS identity has reached its logical limits.  The identity structure that held the RLDS message, identity, and experience together for much of the 20th century came to a kind of impasse.   To blame changes in RLDSism on apostate church leaders or ecumenical conversations that lured the church down the path of destructive liberalism to generic Christianity, as some conservatives and Restorationists believe, is intellectually short-sighted and reactionary.  Scapegoating does not stand up to a more faithful exploration and there are better explanations.

The Community of Christ does not emerge as a global Christian church because church leaders didn’t do enough to protect RLDS dogma and tradition.   In fact, the RLDS dogma and tradition that many cling to today belongs to the early and mid-20th century, while emerging Community of Christ identity flows from deeper currents in our North American Restoration heritage.  The post-RLDS nature or feel of Community of Christ identity comes from the internal structure of RLDS identity, which over the last 100 years has reached interminable and decisive contradictions.  The Community of Christ has responded not by diluting, but prophetically embracing the positive (verses negative) aspects of RLDS identity and heritage.  We still need to hone and clarify these positive aspects of our Restoration heritage today.

Identifying the decisive identity issues in the North American Community of Christ today is, itself, a difficult task.  But, I think its essential if the North American church is going to understand and fully embrace the transformation of the RLDS to global Community of Christ identity.  By limiting the scope of our perspective to a North American perspective, it helps provide some focus on the problems we face finding unity (let alone consensus) around theological and ethical issues that involve basic identity questions.  Some of the identity issues we struggle with emerge directly from within our North American post-RLDS context.

Taking a look at the church’s current identity issues, there are some things that become apparent.  First, the Community of Christ emerges out of its roots in early American Christianity.  Still claiming our Restoration heritage, the Community of Christ has distinct roots in American Christianity.  The same early American mythos and post-Enlightenment ideas that shaped America’s sense of promise, exceptionalism, and manifest destiny also shapes Community of Christ faith and history.  Liberal democratic principles, economic freedom, communitarianism, and our expectation that God’s promises and authority remain in human reach all shape RLDSism and the post-RLDS Community of Christ identity.  These are the legacy of our 19th century Restorationism.   Simply, the American belief in a promised land predestined for liberty and expansion only needs to be radicalized a bit to become the Restoration belief that the restoration of God’s authority, people, and promised is at hand for Christian Americans.  The RLDS focus on a Kingdom-building faith, reshaped today by critical theology and lessons from the past, remains deeply ingrained in this history.  Christ’s Kingdom as the cause of Zion remains a key witness of Community of Christ message and identity.  But, this vision is tempered by the church’s also classically held liberal beliefs: the worth of persons, personal faith formation, and non-credal tradition.  These things come together to create some of the basic challenges and tensions of Community of Christ identity today.

The second thing that becomes apparent is that RLDSism is defined by its inability to transcend its particular position within Mormon history.  I’m convinced that the reason the RLDS church is undergoing its transformation toward a new identity as Community of Christ is because RLDSism’s position between Utah Mormonism, on one hand, and American Protestantism, on the other, has reached its limits.  The liberalism that clearly sets the RLDS church apart from its Mormon cousins pushes RLDSism away from its historical sectarianism.  For the RLDS, this liberalism is expressed and felt in the RLDS emphasis on individual spirituality and internal dissent from spiritual authority, which makes the RLDS more Protestant than Mormon.    This is what has made critical scholarship (theological and historical), theological evolution, critique of authoritarian leadership, and critique of the authority of tradition possible.   Those who who reject this liberalism adhere to RLDSism’s sectarian strands, which continues to unfold in conservative RLDSism.  In the Community of Christ, however, the historical tendency toward sectarian belief and identity (i.e. the righteous remnant) is overcome by the universalizing logic embedded deep within liberal Christianity, as well as in biblical Christianity through Paul.   The theological significance of this inclusive and universal vision for Christ and Christ’s Kingdom has moved late RLDSism, its sense of community, and mission toward a more universal and inclusive center of identity.  Against the negativity of a RLDS sectarian identity structure, the Community of Christ finds its mission, message, and future in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  In this way, the church is becoming “more Protestant,” but only because the roots of the Restoration movement are in the universalizing vision of biblical theology and American Christianity, which shares in the universal spirit of modern Protestantism.  In this sense, the Community of Christ is not a break with RLDSism, only RLDS sectarianism and its negatively-structured identity.  It is, in fact, historically the fulfillment (cf. D&C 164:9a) of its essentially Christian Restoration vision and heritage in American Christianity.

However, the universalism of the Community of Christ’s essential Christ-centered Restoration identity bumps up against these limits when Community of Christ leaders and members, remembering their RLDS heritage, ask themselves, “What is particular about the Community of Christ?”, or ” What sets the Community of Christ apart from American Protestantism?  What about our distinctives?”  Another way to ask these questions is, “What endures of RLDSism amidst Community of Christ’s relationship to American Protestantism?”   The problem with these questions is they are reminiscent of RLDS identity in its essentially negative structure, which fueled its sectarianism and structured itself negatively between Mormonism and American Protestantism.  So, the question is better stated, “What endures of RLDS tradition, theology, and identity in the Community of Christ?  What endures positively?  In light of our roots in American Restorationism (Mormons, Disciples of Christ, congregationalism, etc.), what remains of our RLDS heritage and testimony in the Community of Christ – if RLDSism is essentially neither wholly Mormon nor Protestant.  This is what is being asked when North American church members ask, “What is distinctive about the Community of Christ?”

Here we reach the current impasse.  The problem with RLDS identity is that it has historically always been negatively defined between Mormonism and American Protestantism.   Furthermore, I believe this negativity – especially for the early and middle 20th century of the RLDS church – has been the most important and influential aspect of RLDS identity.  Identifying our distinctive place is what has kept the church alive in the 20th century as it vied for denominational legitimacy amidst American Christianity.  The negativity of RLDS identity has been reinforced by both Mormon’s and Protestants.  Historically, both have rejected core RLDS positions with regard to fundamental identifiers of Mormonism and American Christianity:  what defines scripture,  what and who defines religious authority, who are God’s elect, and perspectives on salvation and salvation history.  It is our deep emotional attachment to this negative identity and its sectarian-esque feel that leads some to schism and others to question our basic identity.

There were clearly divisive controversies with regard to each of these defining aspects of RLDS theology and identity in the decision to accept women in the priesthood in 1984.   In 1984, the issue of scriptural authority and forms of church  religious authority split the church, which separated along more sectarian and liberal lines.  More conservative RLDSers rejected the leadership of both the 1984 Conference (the church’s liberal-democratic side) and the defining leaders of the church (the church’s theocratic side) in order to preserve the traditional forms of RLDS sectarian authority:  the belief in the one true church, in the sole election of the RLDS church as righteous remnant of God’s Restoration, belief in salvation through the church and an RLDS Zion.   This dissension, tragically, culminated in the divisive question of the church’s ultimate form of spiritual authority, women or men.   More sectarian RLDSers separated from the more liberal RLDS who accepted the change in form of authority, the shifts toward ecumenism in the church, and the move toward a more inclusive sense of religious identity and salvation history.

Here, I think, we see the negative structure of RLDS identity in the relationship between the more conservative, theocratic, and sectarian tendencies of RLDSism (that resembles Mormonism) in contrast with the more liberal, democratic, and ecumenically Protestant tendencies of RLDSism which, against Mormonism, resembles American Christianity.  Against those who would claim otherwise, I’m arguing both are essential aspects of RLDS identity.

After the split of the conservative Restorationists from the more liberal-democratic RLDS, I think the negative identity structure of RLDSism has reached its culmination and its limits.    Positively, instead of refocusing the future of the RLDS church on redefining RLDS identity negatively against the schismatic Restorationists, against the Mormons, and against Protestant Christianity, the emerging post-RLDS church prophetically moves toward a positive identity.  It is symbolized powerful in the name change to Community of Christ.   Emerging out of its essentially negative position against Mormons, congregationalists, and Protestantism, the Community of Christ is now a global church that seeks a positive relationship (not merger) with American Protestantism equipped with a positive identity that is Christ-centered, community focused, and aspiring for peace and justice missionally.  (This is how the powerful counter-narrative of the Temple unfolds against the schismatic tendencies of RLDS sectarianism in light of D&C 156.)

The problem that haunts the Community of Christ internally, however, is the ghost of its negative identity.   Historically, the negative relationship of RLDSism to both Mormonism and American Protestantism is what structured RLDS sectarianism with a cherished sense of community and essentially negative identity.  The Community of Christ’s sense of community cannot be separated from its lived historical experience as a marginalized movement negatively positioned in obscurity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  The challenge, therefore, is to shape the negative aspect of this marginalized experience of community in a positive identity position.  I believe, consciously or not, this process has already been taking place in the church for a few decades.   As we face the future, however, I want to suggest a few places where, I hope, the positivity of RLDS identity can emerge with both historical and theological integrity.

1.  Community of Christ proclaims Jesus Christ and community as it is lived, experienced, and understood among those who are marginalized.   Moreover, the agents of Christ’s salvation community are common folk, ordinary sojourners in search of salvation with one another in their walk with Christ. The RLDS church emerged out of the American wilderness among many poor and dispossessed.  Its early communitarian experiments emerged out of concern for the poor.  The spiritual experiences of Joseph Smith, Jr and the early church testify of the Holy Spirit’s activity and testimony of Jesus Christ amidst such communities.  The Community of Christ has its roots among farmers, frontiersmen and women, and immigrants who saw God’s community brought forth by and for common women and men.

2.  Community of Christ is not a church unto itself.  Community of Christ identity does not stand alone, but is always expressed positively in relation to other Christian denominations and movements.  It would be an error for the Community of Christ to revision or reimagine its identity in a sectarian manor, negatively defined and independent of American Protestantism or global Christianity.  In truth, RLDS identity has always been defined in relationship to other Christian denominations and movements, especially when defined negatively.  The RLDS legacy has been its search, from generation to generation, for a positive expression of God’s Christianity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity.  What is emergent and unique in Community of Christ identity today is that this identity is now positively positioned in relation to other forms of Christianity.  Identity in Christ is understood in a Pauline way, in relationship to Christ’s body as it is understood internationally and denominationally, to break down barriers of the flesh that separate God’s people into righteous and unrighteous, saint and sinner, oppressor and oppressed.  In this way, Community of Christ seeks to understand itself globally as both a Christ-centered people amidst other Christians, but also unique in its history and testimony of community.

3.  Community of Christ understands salvation in light of God’s Restoration.  The cause of Zion – temporally and spiritually – is the call to discipleship in light of God’s Kingdom among us, both heavenly and earthly. RLDSism’s emphasis on the cause of Zion and its experience of community shapes both its understanding of scripture and salvation history.   Scripture is more than revelation.  It is community forming.  The millennialism and Christian primitivism that shapes Community of Christ heritage among America’s early 19th century great awakening focuses Community of Christ understanding of church and faith on living the reign of God.  This reign is wherever Christian discipleship and faith in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is made real in the relationships of sacred community.  In this sense, the Community of Christ shares a realized eschatology, which is the experience of Zion that is available to human experience when faith and mission in both church and world.  The mission of the church to proclaim Jesus Christ and establish the cause of Zion flow from this understanding of Gospel-Acts.  That is the active presence of the Holy Spirit through the ministry of Christ’s church, its sacraments, and priesthood.

There is certainly much more that should be addressed, here.  There are many questions about RLDS particularity (or distinctives) that could and should be explored.  What is important, however, is to first sketch out what  are the foremost aspects of emerging Community of Christ identity as they emerge out of North American RLDSism.  It is my contention that it is not only possible, but its necessary for RLDSism to be fulfilled in order to realize the coming of the Community of Christ.  The Temple, I believe, marks that transformation.  RLDSism is attempting to move beyond its 175 year legacy of negative identity between Mormonism and American Protestant Christianity to a positive identity among the world’s 2000 year old Christianities.  In this global community, the Community of Christ reflects a unique and prophetic sense of American Christianity.   In terms of Community of Christ identity, theology, and mission, I believe what I have identified here flows from the Spirit and prophetic message of our most recent sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, 161-164.  Certainly, by the grace of God, each generation is “poised to fulfill God’s ultimate vision for the church.”  (D&C Section 164:9a)  This sense of expectation and spiritual anticipation, matched with uncommon devotion, is the character of Restoration Christianity today.

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