What does it mean to have a testimony of the LDS Church?

A very important part of LDS practice is the development and bearing of testimonies.  A testimony is a public statement of faith and belief.  Because having a testimony is considered to be an important, if not essential, part of conversion, the LDS have developed a very nuance way of talking about the matter.   I think there is a lot of confusion about what you must believe in order to have a testimony of the Church, and to believe the Church is true.

In an effort to clear up some of the confusion I propose that for a person to “have a testimony” of the Church is merely to believe that it is God’s will that the person belong and participate in the Church for the good of the Church, its members, and the world.

I like this definition because it allows the freedom of religious belief that Joseph Smith, and many other Latter-Day Saints died for.  It also allows for those who have such a testimony openly accept new (or old) teachings without casting doubt on their loyalty to the cause of Zion that the Church has always stood for.  If Joseph Smith stood for anything in his life, it was the freedom to proclaim and embrace the words God gave him, whether God gave him those words through experience, ancient scripture, or direct revelation.

I think it is a disservice to his memory and legacy to question somebody’s testimony of the church merely because they embrace radically different doctrine.  It is the ability to embrace any and all bodies of truth, which are filled with both wheat and tares, that only sure path for the members to make the Church the true church that they claim it to be.

Beliefs Before Practice

A common characterization of the difference between Mormonism and Evangelicalism is the idea that Evangelicals emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) and Mormons emphasize orthopraxy (right action).  If you ask an Evangelical and a Mormon “what is more important a correct understanding of God or the proper mode for baptism?”  you will most likely get different answers from each.

As much as I appreciate how pragmatic Mormons are, I think it’s impossible to truly put orthopraxy over orthodoxy.  Even Mormons place a higher importance on right belief over right action, they just may not realize that they are doing it.  The “cart” of practice is impossible to put ahead of the “horse” of ideas.  The idea that “the proper mode of baptism is of highest importance” is first an idea before it is a practice.  The belief that “the appropriate priesthood is required” is first a belief before it is a practice. “How you behave matters” is a doctrinal position.  “Right practice” being shaped by “right ideas” is inescapable. Correct ideas matter to Mormons, they simply must or there is no right practice to emphasize.

The Mormon restoration narrative supports this.  If practice is more important than belief, then why did God not simply restore the priesthood to the apostate Christian church?  Why was a correction of Biblical translation and interpretation necessary?  I don’t want to dive too deeply into Catholic apologetics, but they can demonstrate an uninterrupted priesthood lineage.  So unless “abominable creeds” are not an issue I don’t see how the proper priesthood authority was not alive and well in the 19th Century.  Something more than the lack of priesthood must have been driving the restoration.

A further support for this is the Mormon institution’s approach to correlation.  Mormons who have been excommunicated for false teaching have been told that it is fine to believe anything a person wants, the problem arises when you start teaching other people those false ideas.  I’m confident that this April, if a General Conference speaker left their script and encouraged exclusively praying to Heavenly Mother or posited the idea that temple work is no longer necessary, that person would soon find themselves in a disciplinary counsel.  There would not be Ensign articles the following May praising that Elder’s proper use of the laying on of hands despite his heterodox teachings. If orthodoxy were not important there would be no correlated teaching manuals.  Local leaders would be encouraged to teach whatever the Spirit directed them to teach and no one would mind if the church was widely diverse.

Mormons may object that their real issue with “orthodoxy” is how an emphasis on it may exclude people from enjoying God’s presence based on speculative theories and interpretations.  I think this is both hypocritical and a straw man of Evangelical thought.

First off, there is plenty of speculative interpretation involving Mormon orthopraxy.  Do a search of “Mormon ‘hot drinks‘” and you’ll see what I mean.  As long as the “Word of Wisdom” is used in Temple recommend interviews it is a speculative obstacle to freely enjoy God’s presence via temple ordinances.

Second, the Temple recommend interview requires people to express a belief in basic Mormon truth claims.  Failing to acknowledge the LDS church as the real and true restoration of God’s one true church will keep a person from a temple recommend.  If it was merely about the correct priesthood authority and the proper methods for performing ordinances, the LDS church would open its temple doors wide to believers and unbelievers alike.  This would ensure as many people as possible had these important rituals performed in this lifetime.  Scoffing and ridicule during the ceremonies wouldn’t matter as long as the proper priesthood was there and every gesture was performed correctly and every prayer was recited precisely.

This idea that orthodoxy is used as a barrier to God’s presence totally distorts Evangelical thought.  I can not name a single Evangelical who thinks there is a theology exam given out at the pearly gates. No one believes that the ability to precisely describe the doctrine of the Trinity is a requirement for an indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  God always (and exclusively) reveals himself to people with false ideas.  Evangelicals do not believe we hold the keys to who does and does not have God actively living in their lives.   We do not believe that only the doctrinally pure will receive the Kingdom.

We certainly have a strong emphasis on orthodoxy.  As the LDS church does, we recognize it as a way to determine good fruit.  Because beliefs form practice, we evaluate teachers and preachers based on it.  It is useful in evaluating teachings, but it is never used as a barrier to God’s presence.  In Evangelical theology there is no place, behavior or thought that can keep God out of someone’s life. He is an untamed lion that speaks to and moves through anyone he desires.