Apostasy/Not complete

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Complete apostasy after Christ

Summary: Do other Christian denominations believe that no other church on earth is complete, or is this an arrogant belief assumed only by the "Mormons"?

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Question: Did Christ establish a Church while on the earth?

Introduction to Criticism

Protestant critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some others allege that Jesus Christ did not establish a formal Church while on the earth. For protestants this is related to their belief in the Invisible Church which is the belief that the elect of God are only known to him. This contrasts with the notion of a Visible Church (espoused by faiths like Catholicism as well as that of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) which is the belief in a formal organization established to administer sacraments and which has authority to preach the Gospel.

This article will weigh in on this debate with sources that support belief in a Visible Church as well as reconcile passages that may support Invisible Church within the larger context of Latter-day Saint theology. It will be seen that the concept of a formal organization is known to the primitive Church while also believing that believers form a larger cosmic family, a concept that is eerily similar to the concept of Zion elucidated by texts translated/revealed early in Latter-day Saint history by founder Joseph Smith. Thus they pose no problem for an orthodox Latter-day Saint's worldview.

Response to Criticism

A Formal Church Existed

The concept of a visible Church can be supported by several texts in the New Testament.

The Gospel According to Matthew

Matthew 16:18 is a classic passage that supports belief in a formal Church established by Christ:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (NIV)

The reference to "my church" (μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν) may signify that Jesus wanted to build up a singular Church. In subsequent verses Jesus clearly wished to establish a formal authority for declaring doctrine. He told Peter in the next verse (Matthew 19:19):

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (NIV)

On the language of "binding" and "loosing," two protestant scholars wrote:

19. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Cf. Isa 22.22; 1.18 and 3.7 (Jesus has the keys of Death and Hades as well as the key of David); 3 Bar. 11.2 (the angel Michael is the ‘holder of the keys of the kingdom of Heaven’); 3 En. 18.18 (‘Anapi’el YHH the prince keeps the keys of the palaces of the heaven of Arabot); 48 C 3 (Metatron has the keys to the treasure chamber of heaven). Heaven was conceived of as having gates or doors . . . . and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. C. 18.18 and Jn 20.23. Peter is the authoritative teacher without peer. He has the power to declare what is permitted and what is not permitted. Cf. 23.13: ‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut people out of the kingdom. For you do not go in nor allow those who want to go in to do so’. Here, as the context proves, the scribes shut the door to the kingdom by issuing false doctrine. The image is closely related to 16.19, and the inference lies near to hand that just as the kingdom itself is taken from the Jewish leaders and given to the church (21.43), so are the keys of the kingdom taken from the scribes and Pharisees and given to Peter. Supportive of this is the broader context of Peter’s confession. In the immediately preceding 16.5-12 Jesus warns: ‘Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.’ Matthew takes this to be about the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. It would make good sense for the evangelist, in the very next paragraph, to tell a story in which Jesus replaces the Jewish academy with his own ‘chief rabbi’.[1]

Another protestant scholar, Oscar Cullmann, wrote:

What do the expressions “bind” and “loose” signify? According to Rabbinical usage two explanations are equally possible: “prohibit” and “permit,” that is, “establish rules” or “put under the ban” and “acquit.”[2]

Jesus, then, is establishing that Peter is being given a formal authority to declare and establish doctrine.

Craig S. Keener, one of the foremost Protestant scholars of the New Testament wrote:

That authority is exercised in binding and losing, which were technical terms for the pronouncement of rabbis on what was and was not permitted (to bind was to forbid, to loose to permit). This verse therefore probably refers primarily to a legislative authority in the church.[3]

This same language of "binding" and "loosing" is used in reference to all twelve Apostles in Matthew 18:17-18. We can soundly infer that the same logic is being applied to them as it was to Peter—that they had a particular, institutional, ecclesiastical authority to declare doctrine on behalf of the entire body of Saints.

This teaching authority is confirmed in the fact that one of the the fundamental crieteria for how early Christians formed the New Testament canon was apostolicity (having origin from one of the Apostles).[4] These apostles set a formal doctrine for the Church which early disciples followed (Acts 2:42). Other than this, the apostles were also given power ("δύναμις") and authority ("ἐξουσία") over all devils, to cast them out (Matthew 10:1) and to cure diseases (Luke 9:1). As the late Latter-day Saint religious educator and author Gilbert W. Scharffs wrote, "Christ had followers, leaders, and rules. That certainly constitutes an organization."[5] This becomes clearer as we look at other passages from the NT.

Lothar Coenen expresses doubt in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology that the passages from Matthew 16 and 18 can be used to support the notion that Christ intended the visible Church to come into being. They indeed remain the only times in all the Gospels that the word most often translated as Church in the NT (ekklesía, "ἐκκλησία") is used. "In all probability[,]" he writes, "Jesus himself called together the Twelve, but did not found the ekklesia as such in his own lifetime, not even through the institution of the Lord's Supper." Though "[t]his by itself would not settle the question whether he intended the church to come into being."[6] Though this skepticism may be unwarranted as we continue to look at other passages from the NT.

Acts of the Apostles

Acts gives a couple of passages that might suggest that an institutional Church was formed.

Acts 2: 37-47 reads

37 Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?
38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
40 And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation.
41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
43 And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.
44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
46 And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,
47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Several things of interest emerge from this passage

  • There are a group of believers who are both saved in Christ and admitted into the church by ordinance of baptism.
  • These believers are united by common belief in the Apostles' doctrine

Officers with authority, followers, common belief and practice. The pattern continues throughout the NT.

Pauline Writings

In both disputed and undisputed Pauline writings we get the same pattern of officers with authority and followers united by common belief in practice. Ernest Best notes how "[m]inistry in the church is described both in general terms (1 Thess. 5:12; Heb 13:7) and with a variety of more specific titles (e.g. deacons, 1 Tim. 3:8-13; bishops, 3:1-7; elders, 4:17-20...pastors, Eph. 4:11; and prophets, 1 Cor. 12:4-11) and their ministry was a gift from God (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:7-11)."[7]

Lothar Coenen explains Paul's usage of Church in more detail:

It is not only the church's origin which lies with God. The ekklesia can only be understood in relation to the Lord, as the ekklesia tou theou, the congregation of God (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:16, 22; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4). Only Gal. 1:22 and Rom. 16:16 have the qualifying en Christo, in Christ, or tou Christou, of Christ. The adj. "Christian" is as yet unknown, and would in any case proclaim a sense of ownership which is onoly present in the experience of being received (b) The fact that ekklesia has the nature of an event does not, however, exclude the factor of continuity. However little this happening can be commandedby men, it nevertheless expresses itself in permanent forms and institutions. Where the ekklesia is an event, the institution of ekklesia comes into being and will continue to do so in the expectation that Lord will continue to make his presence real. Coming together (synago as in the LXX) must be reckoned an essential element in ekklesia (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18). Hence the ekklesia can be thought of in purely concrete terms, and any spiritualizing in the dogmatic sense of an invisible church (eccelsia insivibilus) is still unthinkable for Paul.[6]:299

Coenen cites how the church for Paul has geographical location. 33 different geographical locations and local churches associated with those locations are mentioned in the New Testament:

  1. Antioch, Pisidia: Acts 13:14; Gal 1:2
  2. Antioch, Syria: Acts 11:26
  3. Athens: Acts 17:34
  4. Babylon: 1 Peter 5:13; Acts 2:9
  5. Berea: Acts 17:11
  6. Caesarea: Acts 10:1,48
  7. Cenchrea: Rom 16:1
  8. Colossae: Col 1:2
  9. Corinth: Acts 18:1
  10. Crete: Titus 1:5
  11. Cyrene: Acts 11:20
  12. Damascus: Acts 9:19
  13. Derbe: Acts 14:20; Gal 1:2
  14. Ephesus: Acts 18:19
  15. Hierapolis Col 4:13
  16. Iconium: Acts 14:1; Gal 1:2
  17. Jerusalem: Acts 2:5
  18. Joppa: Acts 9:36, 38
  19. Laodicea: Rev 1:11, Col 4:15
  20. Lydda: Acts 9:32
  21. Lystra: Acts 14:6; Gal 1:2
  22. Pergamum: Rev 1:11
  23. Philadelphia: Rev 1:11
  24. Philippi: Acts 16:12
  25. Puteoli, Italy: Acts 28:13-14
  26. Rome: Rom 1:7
  27. Sardis: Rev 1:11
  28. Sharon: Acts 9:35
  29. Smyrna: Rev 1:11
  30. Tarsus: Acts 9:30
  31. Thessalonica: Acts 17:1
  32. Thyatira: Rev 1:11; Acts 16:14
  33. Troas: Acts 20:6-7

There are 6 "regions" of churches:

  1. Region of Phoencia: Acts 11:19
  2. Region of Samaria: Acts 8:14, 25
  3. Churches of Judea: Gal 1:22
  4. Churches of Galatia: Gal 1:2
  5. Churches of Asia: 1 Cor 16:19
  6. Churches of Macedonia: 2 Cor 8:1

Letters to some of these Churches from Paul, for example, were meant to correct false doctrines and disputes that had arisen among them. The New Testament frequently warns against false teachings, prophets, and teachers.

This is perhaps as close as anyone could get exegetically to supporting the concept of Visible Church.

Latter-day Saints Don't Need to Rely on Biblical Scholarship Exclusively to Support This View

It should be noted that Latter-day Saints don't need to support this view from biblical scholarship exclusively. Too many critics make the mistake of assuming that we do. Latter-day Saints have the advantage of believing in continuing prophetic revelation and of having additional scriptures that they can turn to to support different things about the Bible. Oftentimes historical documents can't tell us about what happened one way or the other and we need new sources to turn to to confirm different things. The Book of Mormon acts as a second witness to the Bible. The fact that we can support the view from the Bible and scholarship of it is perhaps tangential to the fact that the Book of Mormon and other modern revelation confirm that Christ wanted to build up the Church (3 Nephi 21:22; 3 Nephi 27: 7, 8, 9, 10, 21; Doctrine and Covenants 10: 53-56). Revelation gives us the new sources of knowledge and information we can turn to to confirm our belief. The only ones who would not allow Latter-day Saints to take modern revelation as a valid source of knowledge and information are those that have already taken it as a presupposition that Joseph Smith is not a true prophet and the Book of Mormon is not true scripture.

Passages that Might Support Invisible Church Support Latter-day Saint Conceptions of Zion

There are indeed many other passages in the New Testament that describe the Church in spiritual vocabulary. The Church is referred to as the Church of God (1 Cor. 1:2; 11:16, 22; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4), the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12, 27; Rom. 12:4-5; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16; Col. 1:18; 2:19), a metaphorical building where Christ is the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20), the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:22-23), branches of a vine (John 15:1-11), and so forth.

Many Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints will be interested to know that similar language is employed in Latter-day Saint scripture including the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants to refer to true followers of Christ that don't belong to a formal institution.

In a vision of the apostasy given to the prophet Nephi, he saw that people in the last days during the Great Apostasy had all gone astray except for a few:

they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. (2 Nephi 28:14)

Early revelations given to Joseph Smith recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants also refer to Christ's church in spiritual terms. Part of a revelation given as early as the summer of 1828 but most likely in April 1829 reads:

52 And now, behold, according to their faith in their prayers will I bring this part of my gospel to the knowledge of my people. Behold, I do not bring it to destroy that which they have received, but to build it up.

53 And for this cause have I said: If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them.

54 Now I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church.

Again, this revelation is given in April 1829 and as early as the summer of 1828, a full 1-2 years before the formal organization of the Church on April 6, 1830.[8] This clearly refers to believers that exist outside of a formal institution. The Savior in this revelation refers to "my church" as "whosoever repenteth and cometh unto [him][.]" (10:67).

This language reflects the Old Testament usage of things like "my people" and "Zion" to refer to the covenant group of people that actually had their hearts turned towards God in love that motivates people to be obedient to God and love other people as themselves. "Zion" becomes a major theme across Joseph Smith's revelations. Zion are those that are "of one heart and one mind" (Moses 7:18), those that are pure in heart (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21), etc.

Subsequent to the organization of the institutional church on April 6, 1830, the Lord refers to the Church as the "only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth[.]"(Doctrine and Covenants 1:30). This clearly refers to a formal institution.

Thus for Latter-day Saints, "church" can be defined both as the formal institution with officers, followers, and common beliefs and practices and those that have been truly been converted to Christ and who wish to become part of the larger fellowship of Zion--the cosmic family of totally altruistic people, turned outwards to care for the needs of another, thus become a people "of one heart and one mind," those that have their hearts purified and become like God by obedience to his commandments and their agapic love for one another. These are those that have been totally converted to Christ and receive all that he has.


Latter-day Saints can gather both concepts of an "invisible church" and "visible church" into a larger, holistic theological concept. Both New Testament exegesis and modern revelation confirm that the Lord wishes to build up a church--both an institutional, concrete entity that exists apart from other institutions of the world and a people who are totally converted to him that can become like God. Thus these disputes for Latter-day Saints ultimately become meaningless as they would see that their theology supports the perfect collapse of both concepts.

Question: Was the apostasy after Christ complete?

For millenia, a variety of observers and religious thinkers have argued that the Church organized by Christ did not persist to their day

Some Christians charge that although the apostasy is predicted in scripture, that this would not be a universal apostasy. They insist that a band of faithful Christian believers who kept the "true faith" were always present on the earth. The presence of these believers means, for the critic, that there was no need of a Restoration as taught by Joseph Smith. From the Evangelical perspective, Mormons "were the ones to initially separate their church from, in their view, apostate Christendom."

For millenia, a variety of observers and religious thinkers have argued that the Church organized by Christ did not persist to their day. The Latter-day Saints are not unique in this belief, nor can they be excluded from "Christianity" for teaching this doctrine.

Indeed, much of Christian history has revolved around the belief that no true expression of Christ's Church was on the earth, which resulted in efforts to establish just such a church.

The idea that no Christian church has continuity with the church established by Jesus is not unique to Mormons

The realization that no Christian church has continuity with the church established by Jesus in divine authority or doctrine is not an idea that originated with the LDS Christians. Many Protestant clergymen and others have long realized that if the Catholic Church's claims to be the proper continuation of Christ's church are false, then a universal apostasy must have occurred.

Indeed, were it not for a belief in the complete apostasy of all current churches, there would have been no motivation for the founders of various denominations to start their own churches—they would have simply joined the denomination which they believed had continuity with the original church of Jesus and the apostles. This is, of course, why churches which separated from Catholicism are called Protestant churches. Therefore, it defies reason for a non-Catholic to claim that Mormons were the "first" to separate themselves from what they considered "apostate" Christianity.

Question: What is the Catholic view of the apostasy?

The Catholics claim unbroken apostolic authority and teachings down to the present day

The Catholic Church takes a slightly different tack on this issue. Rather than arguing that an apostasy of other churches occurred (necessitating the formation of a new denomination), the Catholics claim unbroken apostolic authority and teachings down to the present day.

Catholics and non-Christians

About non-Christian belief systems, the Roman Church said:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these [non-Christian] religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men”...

As a remedy for [a] relativistic mentality, which is becoming ever more common, it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ...

[T]he theory of the limited, incomplete, or imperfect character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, which would be complementary to that found in other religions, is contrary to the Church's faith...

[T]heological faith (the acceptance of the truth revealed by the One and Triune God) is often identified with belief in other religions, which is [in fact merely] religious experience still in search of the absolute truth and still lacking assent to God who reveals himself...

Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors'”...[9]

Catholics and non-Catholics

Protestants would likely not quarrel with much of the above. But, the Catholic Church is crystal clear on how they view all other Christian denominations (italics present in the original):

The Lord Jesus, the only Saviour, did not only establish a simple community of disciples, but constituted the Church as a salvific mystery: he himself is in the Church and the Church is in him...

Therefore, in connection with the unicity and universality of the salvific mediation of Jesus Christ, the unicity of the Church founded by him must be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith. Just as there is one Christ, so there exists a single body of Christ, a single Bride of Christ: “a single Catholic and apostolic Church”...

The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity—rooted in the apostolic succession—between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church...

“outside of her [i.e., the Catholic Church's] structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth”, that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”...The Churches which, while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches...

On the other hand, the ecclesial communities [i.e., other denomination "churches," though the Catholics do not so designate them, as will be seen] which have not preserved the valid Episcopate [succession of bishops] and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church.

“The Christian faithful are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection — divided, yet in some way one — of Churches and ecclesial communities; nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach”...

Therefore, these separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church”...

If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation...[10]

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in 2007

Pope Benedict XVI approved the release of another statement which cited the above document (which he helped prepare in 2000) making clear the Catholic Church's attitude toward non-Catholic Christians:

"Fifth Question: Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century [i.e., "Protestants"]?

Response: According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense.[11]

Question: What is the reformation view of the apostasy?

Muntzer: "the Christian church lost its virginity and became an adulteress soon after the death of the disciples of the apostles because of corrupt leadership"

Early Anabaptist Thomas Muntzer believed that

the Christian church lost its virginity and became an adulteress soon after the death of the disciples of the apostles because of corrupt leadership, manifested in the predominance of a clergy who cared more for the amassing of property and power than for the acquiring of spiritual virtues.[12]

Reformer Sebastian Franck believed that the

outward church of Christ was wasted immediately after the apostles because the early Fathers, whom he calls ‘wolves’ and ‘anti-christs’, justified war, power of magistracy, tithes, the priesthood, etc.[13] [That they are wolves] is “proved by their works, especially [those] of Clement [of Alexandria], Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, Hilary, Cyril, Origen, and others which are merely child’s play and quite unlike the spirit of the apostles, that is, filled with commandments, laws, sacramental elements and all kinds of human inventions.”[14]

Wesley: "It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries"

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lamented that the Christian had apostatized from the gospel that Christ and the apostles had taught, had lost the spiritual gifts that they once enjoyed, and had returned to heathenism, having on a dead form remaining:

It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the emperor Constantine called himself a Christian, and from a vain imagination of promoting the Christian cause thereby, heaped riches and power and honor upon Christians in general, but in particular upon the Christian clergy. From this time they almost totally ceased; very few instances of the kind were found. The cause of this was not as has been supposed because there was no more occasion for them because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause of it was the love of many, almost all Christians, so called, was waxed cold. The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other heathens. The Son of Man, when he came to examine His Church, could hardly find faith upon the earth. This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church because the Christians were turned heathens again, and only had earth a dead form left.[15]

Church of England: Officially affirmed that the so-called Church and the whole religious world had been utterly apostate for eight centuries or more

In the Church of England Homily Against Peril of Idolatry we read:

So that laity and clergy, learned and unlearned, all ages, sects, and degrees of men, women, and children of whole Christendom—an horrible and most dreadful thing to think—have been at once drowned in abominable idolatry; of all other vices most detested by God, and most damnable to man; and that by the space of eight hundred years and more.[16]

The Book of Homilies dates from about the middle of the sixteenth century; and in it is thus officially affirmed that the so-called Church and the whole religious world had been utterly apostate for eight centuries or more prior to the establishment of the Church of England.

American Protestants: "we must not expect to see the Church of Holy Scripture actually existing in its perfection on the earth"

In a work prepared by seventy-three noted theologians and Bible students, we read:

...we must not expect to see the Church of Holy Scripture actually existing in its perfection on the earth. It is not to be found, thus perfect, either in the collected fragments of Christendom, or still less in any one of these fragments....[17]

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, prominent American Baptist clergyman and author, described the condition of the Christian churches of the first half of the twentieth century in these words:

A religious reformation is afoot, and at heart it is the endeavor to recover for our modern life the religion of Jesus as against the vast, intricate, largely inadequate and often positively false religion about Jesus. Christianity today has largely left the religion which he preached, taught and lived, and has substituted another kind of religion altogether. If Jesus should come back to now, hear the mythologies built up around him, see the creedalism, denominationalism, sacramentalism, carried on in his name, he would certainly say, 'If this is Christianity, I am not a Christian.'[18]

Question: Do Latter-day Saints believe that no genuine Christians exist outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Some claim that Joseph Smith's First Vision commits the Latter-day Saints to the view that no genuine Christians existed or exist outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Critics of the Church point out that Joseph Smith's First Vision told him:

  1. He must join no existing church
  2. They were "all" wrong
  3. "All" their creeds were an abomination
  4. The churches' professors were corrupt.[19]

They argue that this commits the Latter-day Saints to the view that no genuine Christians existed or exist outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [20]

Latter-day Saints believe that as a result of that institutional apostasy, present-day Christians are the victims, not perpetrators of it

Latter-day Saints believe in a universal institutional apostasy. As a result of that institutional apostasy, present-day Christians are the victims, not perpetrators of it. They or their churches are not responsible for the loss or corruption of doctrines and authority to which they never had access.

Non-LDS Christians are perfectly capable of being "humble followers of Christ," whose remaining errors persist only because they have not yet had the benefit of on-going revelation by authorized servants. They have much that is true and valuable, and if they heed the Holy Ghost, will be guided to an even fuller acceptance of the truth of Christ which can only be known by revelation.

In the Latter-day Saint view, the loss of the apostles and the apostolic authority virtually assured the onset of the apostasy

The Latter-day Saint understanding of "apostasy" is heavily weighted toward the concept of divine authority. In the LDS view, the loss of the apostles and the apostolic authority virtually assured the onset of the apostasy. There is clear biblical evidence that challenges to the apostles' teachings and authority occurred even while they were alive. With the death of the apostles, such efforts would have gone unchecked.

With the loss of authority, error will inevitably creep into religious belief and practice, since only revelation can reveal God's will. Even well-intentioned human reason and study of the scripture has not produced a consensus, but thousands of competing beliefs and denominations.

The Latter-day Saints do not, however, believe that being "wrong" or "corrupt" in some aspects of belief and practice mean that people are not devout or sincere Christians. Likewise, those who may suffer from some false beliefs still have many true and valuable beliefs. Apostasy results in a partial corruption of belief and teaching, not a wholesale loss of all truth.

The Church therefore sees the matter of apostasy as complete organizational apostasy (no denomination retained the authority to act in God's name and definitively establish doctrine) and partial individual apostasy (some individuals fell away from truths they had previously had; others merely inherited a set of beliefs, some of which were true and some false).

The Book of Mormon's description of the last days makes this matter clear:

they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. (2 Nephi 28:14)

Thus, while corruption is widespread in the pre-Restoration era, there remain a number of "humble followers of Christ"

Yet, even these humble followers still have some error mixed with their truth, because they do not have the benefit of on-going revelation to authorized prophets and apostles.

Scholarly quotes on the historical evidence for apostasy

Scholarly quotes on the historical evidence for apostasy

This broad selection of quotations provides clear support for the idea that the doctrines and practice of the Early Church of the apostles had been altered dramatically within a few centuries at most:

  • Will Durant, "Christianity did not destroy paganism; it adopted it. The Greek mind, dying, came to a transmigrated [new] life in the theology and liturgy of the Church."[21]
  • Stuart Hall: “Fourth century orthodoxy is not the same as what Peter and Paul believed, any more than modern Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism is..."[22]
  • Thomas Jefferson, though surely not a cleric, was a great student of Christianity. Even he acknowledged the loss of the original gospel and said that he looked forward to "the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity. I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologies of the middle and modern ages"[23]
  • Philip Smith: "The sad truth is that as soon as Christianity was generally diffused, it began to absorb corruptions from all the lands in which it was planted, and to reflect the complexion of all their systems of religion and philosophy."[24]
  • J.W.C. Wand (former Anglican Bishop of London) “[t]he new Christian church was frankly national. The people were converted en bloc; the temples were turned into churches and the priests were ordained into the Christian ministry.”[25]
  • Robert Wilken, professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia, wrote “only a few enterprising intellectuals, and only after more than one hundred years of Christian history, had begun to take the risk of expressing Christian beliefs within the philosophical ideas current in the Greco Roman world. Most Christians were against to such attempts. As late as the third century, after the apologetic movement had introduced Greek ideas into Christian thinking, Christian preachers complained that the rank and file opposed such ideas.”[26]

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. W.D. Davis and Dale C. Allison, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 270–71, emphasis in original. Quoted in Robert S. Boylan, After the Order of the Son of God: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Latter-day Saint Theology of the Priesthood (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2018), 121–22.
  2. Oscar Cullmann, Peter: Disciple, Apostle, Martyr (London: SCM Press, 1953), 204–5. Quoted in Boylan, After the Order, 122.
  3. Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downers’ Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 90. Quoted in Boylan, After the Order, 122.
  4. Krister Stehndahl, "Biblical Literature - New Testament canon, texts, and versions - The process of canonization," <https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/The-process-of-canonization> (27 August 2020).
  5. Gilbert Scharffs, Missionary's Little Book of Answers (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2002), 185.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lothar Coenen, "Church," The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 298.
  7. Ernest Best, "church," Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. Mark Allan Powell (New York City: HarperCollins, 1989), 135.
  8. Doyle L. Green, "April 6, 1830: The Day the Church was Organized," Ensign 2 (January 1971).
  9. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration Dominus Ieusus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," (2000-II), Section I. off-site
  10. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration Dominus Ieusus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church," (2000-II), Section IV, italics in original. off-site
  11. William Cardinal Levada, Angelo Amato, S.D.B.; ratified and confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church (29 June 2007). off-site
  12. Muntzer, “Sermon before the Princes” (Allstedt, 13 July 1524), in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G.H. Williams (Philadelphia, Westminster Press 1957): 51 (103-4).
  13. Franck, Letter to Campanus, in Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. G.H. Williams, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press 1957), 51:151-152.
  14. Frank cited in Daniel H. Williams, “The Corruption of the Church and its Tradition”, in Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999): 148–149 (103-104).
  15. John Wesley, cited in Wesley's Works, Vol. 7, 89:26, 27.
  16. Church of England, Homily Against Peril of Idolatry (Date). off-site
  17. Dr. William Smith, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896).
    Note: Dr. Smith is not connected with Joseph Smith or the Church.
  18. Fosdick cited in Daniel H. Williams, “The Corruption of the Church and its Tradition”, in Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999): 101–131.
  19. See JS-H 1:19.
  20. Richard Abanes, Becoming Gods: A Closer Look at 21st-Century Mormonism (Harvest House Publishers: 2005). 26. ( Index of claims );Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 6. ( Index of claims ); Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor (Page 1); La Roy Sunderland, “Mormonism,” Zion’s Watchman (New York) 3, no. 2 (13 January 1838): 6.
  21. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Volume 3: Caesar and Christ, (1944), 595.
  22. Stuart Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; New edition, 2005), 36. ISBN 0281055092. ISBN 978-0281055098.
  23. Thomas Jefferson, cited in Norman Cousins, In God We Trust (Harper & Brothers, 1958), 162.
  24. Phillip Smith, History of the Christian Church during the first ten centuries (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007[1886]), 1:49.
  25. .W.C. Wand, A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500 (Methuen & Co Ltd, 1945), 244.
  26. Robert Louis Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yale University Press, 2003), 79. ISBN 0300098391. ISBN 978-0300098396.