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Latter-day Saints and the “Great Apostasy”

Catholics and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Mormons, can agree on one very important principle. Both Catholics and the LDS believe in an authoritative, hierarchical church that speaks with the authority of Christ. The problem with the Mormon attempt to claim apostolic authority is the obvious fact that there was no such Mormon church until less than 200 years ago. The informed Catholic need only ask the question: “Why would I leave the Catholic Church which was, as a matter of history, founded by Jesus Christ and received apostolic authority directly from Christ and the apostles, to join the LDS? The bishops in union with the pope are the true successors of the apostles and possess apostolic authority.”

The (Nonexistent) Great Apostasy

The Mormon response is to claim that the Church fell into total and complete apostasy after the death of the last apostle. Moreover, Mormons maintain that biblical texts like Amos 8:11-14 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4 (which we will examine below), among others, positively teach this to be so. Thus, the LDS contends that the true church of Christ did not exist at all for some 1,800 years and then was re-established through another testament given to Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A great place to begin a discussion is with the biblical texts used by Mormons in an attempt to demonstrate their position. The prophet Amos prophesied in Israel ca. 785 B.C. Among other things, he warned of the coming destruction that did, in fact, occur in 721 B.C. because of Israel’s idolatry (see chapters 6 and 7). Amos 8:11-14 reads:

“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.”

This text speaks of an apostasy in ancient Israel, not after the death of the last apostle in the New Testament. But even this apostasy was not total; it does not qualify as the apostasy Mormons claim. In chapter 9, Amos makes this very clear.

“Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground; except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,” says the Lord. “For lo, I will command, and shake the house of Israel among all the nations as one shakes with a sieve, but no pebble shall fall to the ground. All the sinners of my people shall die by the sword, who say, ‘Evil shall not overtake or meet us.’” (Amos 9:8-10)

Old Testament salvation history records many times when priests and prophets were corrupt (cf. Lam. 4:13, Ez. 22:22-26, Zeph. 1:4, Mic. 3:5), when prophets had no vision from the Lord or prophesied falsely (cf. Lam. 2:14, Jer. 23:26-31), or when there were no prophets at all (cf. Ps. 74:9). Apostasies were frequent in the Old Testament, but never total. There was always a faithful remnant.

God Remains Faithful

When we examine the entire Old Testament, we can see that in the midst of good times and bad—times of faithlessness and faithfulness—there was one constant: the existence of the high priesthood and a God-ordained hierarchy as detailed in Exodus 28 and Deuteronomy 17. God himself established and gave authority to this hierarchy in order to guide the children of Israel. The high priest, or those to whom he delegated authority, had the power to deliver the oracle of God to his people. Deuteronomy 17:8-12 is an example of this historical fact:

If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case . . . which is too difficult for you, then you shall . . . go up to . . . the Levitical priests, and to the judge who is in office in those days, you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision. Then you shall do according to what they declare . . . you shall be careful to do according to all that they direct you . . . The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge . . . shall die.

According to Exodus 28:30, the high priest had what was called the “Urim and the Thummim” on the breastplate of his vestments, whereby he would bear the sins of the people of Israel when he went before the Lord in the temple. Through this gift of God the high priest would also hear the word of God and proclaim divine oracles from God.

Even during such a corrupt time as we find in the book of Judges, we see this gift in operation in Israel. This was a time characterized by these words from Judges 17:6: ” . . . every man did what was right in his own eyes.” It was a time of rebellion and disobedience; yet, even then the ministry of the high priest and the gift of “the Urim and the Thummim” was alive and functioning.

In fact, Christ himself acknowledged the existence of this hierarchy and its authority during his earthly sojourn. In Matthew 23:2-3, Jesus commanded his apostles: “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice.” Even the apostles had to obey the scribes and Pharisees, who spoke in an official capacity as God’s authority in Israel. Moreover, St. John acknowledged the authority of the high priest to be valid and effective even if the person occupying the office at the time was personally corrupt (see John 11:47-52).

A New Covenant Apostasy?

A sharp Mormon missionary may contend that even if the Old Testament people of God didn’t completely apostatize, Paul prophesied that the New Covenant people of God would in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition.

Paul used the Greek word apostasia in verse three—translated as “the rebellion”—to describe it. He declared this apostasy must first come before Jesus would come again. And after all, did not the Jews themselves reject the Messiah and apostatize? Does this not demonstrate that such an apostasy is at least possible?

First of all, not all of Israel apostatized. The apostles, Mary, and the earliest disciples were mostly Jews, so obviously not all in Israel fell away from God. And 2 Thessalonians never says, nor is there one shred of biblical evidence elsewhere to say, that a total apostasy would ever happen. Apostasy, yes, but total apostasy, no. But even more importantly, a total apostasy as taught by the LDS is not only never mentioned in Scripture, but it is impossible according to Scripture for at least three reasons.

1. Old Testament prophecies concerning the New Covenant and the then-future coming of the kingdom of God, the Church, describe it as perpetual and indefectible. For example, Daniel 7:13-14: “. . . behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man (Jesus), and he and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (see also Is. 9:6-7 and Dan. 2:44).

2. The New Testament describes the Church as indefectible as well.

  • And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me . . . and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
  • . . . and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:33).
  • And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).

The LDS claim these texts merely speak of the ultimate triumph of the Church but that they do not mean there could not be a total apostasy in the centuries between the time of the apostles and that final triumph through the LDS. This contention leads us to our third and perhaps most definitive reason to say a total apostasy is impossible:

3. Paul uses explicit terms that eliminate the possibility of a total apostasy in his letter to the Ephesians. In Ephesians 1:23, he describes the Church as “[Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This Church, he goes on, is “built upon the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Indeed, Paul describes the Church as being the instrument God has chosen so that “through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10). Paul then reminds us, as we have already seen, this Church must have apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists, and teachers (cf. Eph. 4:11). And why? “For the equipment of the saints . . . for building up the body of Christ . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine . . .” (Eph. 4:12-14).

According to St. Paul, God gave us the Church so that we may know with certainty the truths of the faith. This is by no means the only reason for the existence of the Church, but it is a central reason. But most importantly, consider Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

This Church that Paul is describing in Ephesians will be here to all generations (pasas tas geneas, “all the generations”) forever and ever. This biblical text eliminates the possibility of a total apostasy for even one generation, much less 1,800 years.

An Unthinkable Possibility

According to Matthew 18:15-18, Jesus gave us a definitive commandment. He said:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you . . . If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Mormons and Catholics agree that Christ was directing the faithful to obey the Church that he established and that we can be confident about doing so because the true Church to which Jesus was leading us would never steer us away from God. The question is: To what Church is he referring? Mormons say it is the LDS “church.” Catholics say it is the Catholic Church. How do we know which is true?

One way to know is to ask another simple question: What if you were living in, let’s say, 1785, and you were to read this very passage from Matthew. You know that Jesus would never lead you to a “church” with no one who could speak for him. In obedience to Jesus, where would you go? The LDS did not exist yet. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He would never lead us astray or command us to follow error. If the true church did not exist on this earth for 1,800 years, then Jesus misguided millions into obeying error-filled churches with no apostolic authority. That would be unthinkable.

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