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Apostasia/Individual versus organizacional
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:
- He must join no existing church
- They were "all" wrong
- "All" their creeds were an abomination
- The churches' professors were corrupt.
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.
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.
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.