Apostasy Because of Sin [UPDATED]

Over the last few years in both public and private discussions about apostasy from the church, I have encountered an increasingly frequent complaint. It goes something like this:

“Practicing Mormons incorrectly attribute all apostasy to sin. There are many, many sinners in the church who do not leave. People leave the church for a variety of reasons, but it is not because they are sinners.”

In their own minds, they leave the church because they have discovered apparent incongruities that lead them to believe the Church is not true.

Of course everyone within and without the church sins. But when members say that people “leave the church because of sin” it is an idiomatic shorthand. What they mean is that people leave the church because they are unrepentant for their sin. We are all sinners, but we are not all penitent. Justification of sin eventually leads the unrepentant to leave the church.

The notion that those who reject the Gospel do so because of sin is not a just a cultural invention, it comes from the scriptures. In a revelation given in September of 1832 to the prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord expounds the “Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood”:

For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken, and the magnifying their calling, are sanctified by the Spirit unto the renewing of their bodies. They become the sons of Moses and of Aaron and the seed of Abraham, and the church and kingdom, and the elect of God.

And also all they who receive this priesthood receive me, saith the Lord; For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.

And this is according to the oath and covenant which belongeth to the priesthood.

Doctrine and Covenants 84: 33 – 39

Then a few verses later in the same revelation, the lord establishes the foundation for attributing apostasy to the sin of the impenitent:

And the whole world lieth in sin, and groaneth under darkness and under the bondage of sin. And by this you may know they are under the bondage of sin, because they come not unto me. For whoso cometh not unto me is under the bondage of sin. And whoso receiveth not my voice is not acquainted with my voice, and is not of me. And by this you may know the righteous from the wicked, and that the whole world groaneth under sin and darkness even now.

Doctrine and Covenants 84: 49 – 53
(emphasis mine)

The doctrine taught here says that we receive the Father through Christ, and that in turn we receive Christ through His authorized servants. And building upon that doctrine, we may distinguish the wicked from the righteous because those who are under the bondage of sin do not come to Him or receive his voice.

Based on this teaching, members take the rejection of the Church as sufficient evidence that those who leave the Church are not acquainted with the voice of the Christ because they receive not his authorized servants and therefore must be under the bondage of sin.

The idea may also be extrapolated from the New Testament, where Jesus says that those who will do the will of the father will know whether the Doctrine is of God.” (St. John 7:17) Conversely, one can take that princple to imply that he who does not know that the doctrine is of God, must not be doing his will.

My Sheep hear my voice declared the Savior. Those who do not believe do not so because they are not His sheep and do not hear His voice. This teaching is so foreign to a mind overcome of the world that they reject it as foolishness.

And so, the declaration that they have left the church because of sin annoys apostates to no end because they consider it an easy excuse to simply dismiss their reasons for rejecting the church as merely a justification for some supposed secret sin.

Perhaps it is. But that doesn’t mean that it is also not true to an extent. They may not have some grievous hidden transgression, but they are assuredly under the bondage of sin because they receive not the voice of Christ.

UPDATE 03/07/2008:

I am a little frustrated with my inability to articulate my thoughts here in a way that communicates my meaning to those reading.

The near universal response to this post, both in the comments and in private email, has been either 1. that it is circular or 2. that all I am saying is that apostasy itself is a sin, so apostates are by definition sinners.

I don’t feel that either of these formulations represent what I am trying to say.

In the simplest terms, what I mean is that apostasy is, in fact, the result of unseen sin, despite their remonstrations to the contrary. The sin deadens the sensitivity to those things that are spiritually perceived and the sinner can no longer hear the “voice” of the Lord in the words of the prophets.

What I am responding to is the increasingly common argument that because not everyone who sins leaves the church, sin is not the cause of apostasy. I disagree.

In the common “leaving the church” narrative told by apostates (which has developed into a literary genre of its own, complete with its own standard conceits and clichés), they often assert their religious piety and devotion, citing their zealous adherence to daily scripture study and prayer and often enumerating the various callings in which they had served in the church to establish the authenticity of their narrative. “I was a model member, but then I discovered these terrible secrets that proved the church is not true,” they say.

If someone responds with an assertion that they more likely left the church because of secret sin, how do they respond?

They deny any gross sin, like adultery. Logically, all apostates must deny gross sin, unless it is widely known, whether it is true or not, because admitting to gross sin invalidates their narrative. So when it comes to unknown gross sin, the answer will always be denial or evasion. Since this is the only response to gross sin, the believer cannot be expected to take such denials at face value.

Of course, the apostate has sinned because all people sin and I am sure each one might enumerate a host of more pedestrian ways in which they chose wrong instead of right, as might all of us. But not wanting to allow any room for the contention that their apostasy may have resulted, even in part, from those sins, they point out that everyone sins and that there are many sinners who remain in the church, with the implication that therefore sin is not the cause of their apostasy.

This argument is itself simply an admission to sin but a denial that the sin played a role in their apostasy.

So ultimately their argument that everyone in the church sins is really just a way to deny that their sins played a role in their apostasy.

Of course, their apostasy narrative relies on this denial to be effective. So just as all apostates must deny gross hidden sin, regardless of the truth, in order to uphold their narrative, they must also all deny that any sins that they do admit to played any role in their leaving the church.

So we can expect apostates to deny gross sin, and we can always expect them to deny that the sins they do admit to contributed to their apostasy. And mere denial does not equate to a compelling argument that apostasy is not a result of, or at a minimum influenced by, sin.

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13 Responses to Apostasy Because of Sin [UPDATED]

  1. Jeff G

    This kind of reasoning quickly leads to a never-ending regress.

    1. They receive not the word of Christ.


    2. Because they don’t believe it’s actually the word of Christ.


    3. Because they receive not the word of Christ.


    4. Because they don’t believe it’s the word of Christ.

    And so on.

  2. Jeff,

    Yes, you can easily reconstruct it in an apparently paradoxical way. But paradox does not automatically equate to untruth.

    More importantly, your reconstruction equates the voice of Christ with the “word of Christ,” which is a term that neither I or the scripture cited uses, but was introduced by you to construct your syllogism . And ultimately, you leave out the matter of sin entirely, which is the point of this post.

    Why do they receive not the word of Christ? Because they hear not his voice. And why do they not hear it? Because their hearts are set too much upon the things of the world and they are under the bondage of sin.

  3. Stephanie

    This is an excellent post.

  4. Especially after reading a number of Arbringer books, I’m convinced that most people fail to see themselves as they really act. The whole world lies in bondage to sin some times.

  5. I agree with what I think is the fundamental point you make (Faith is a commandment; not having faith is a sin; so if you leave because you don’t believe, you’re leaving because of sin. I think that’s functionally roughly similar to your argument.)

    However, this sidesteps what I think many apostates are getting at. In this context, when they speak of sin, I think they are referring to particular kinds of sin, things like violations of the law of chastity or the word of wisdom. I suspect they are offended that people would assume that they must not be living these external laws just because they don’t believe.

    That may be a false distinction: the internal righteousness of faith is as important (more? I don’t know) as the external righteousness of not fornicating. But I think I can understand the viewpoint of an ex-member not wanting you to conflate his or her lack of faith with an inability to control her libido, since many who don’t believe in the doctrine still subscribe to many of the behavioral prescriptions.

  6. So, you don’t think that anyone can come unto Christ without an affiliation with the institutional Church?

  7. Thanks for your input, Dave. I’m afraid that I am failing to communicate my meaning here and your comment has helped me think about how to communicate it better. I have amended some additional explanation to the post above to hopefully clarify.

  8. Bored,

    Though I believe that God inspires and lifts people in and out of the church. Ultimately, the answer is yes. We only truly come to Christ through covenant. Unless those covenants are enacted by the authority to bind on earth and in heaven, they do not bring us fully to Christ. The institutional church is the program that God has set up and authorized to that end.

    Otherwise, priesthood is relatively meaningless and baptism for the dead is unnecessary.

  9. I read your addendum and believe I understand what you are saying now, but I’m still not 100% comfortable with it. First, it’s important to distinguish between leaving-the-church narrative apostates vs people who just leave the church (i assume you count them as apostates as well). i know many people who left the church but make no effort to convince anyone of the rightness (or wrongness) of their choice. i know at least one who admits relatively openly to not living the norms of the gospel, although i suspect you’re right that this person wouldn’t agree that this contributed to the apostasy.

    two points: one is that people may themselves not be aware of a narrative fallacy they incur. when we sin, we lose the spirit, and when we lose the spirit, we are more susceptible to losing our testimony about challenging (or non-challenging) doctrines. so a person may not be conscious that the sin is a fundamental cause of leaving, since the proximate cause is because of a loss of testimony.

    at the same time, i think we should be careful to beware of the narrative fallacy ourselves, telling ourselves that people must have some hidden sin or they wouldn’t have lost their testimonies. i believe that belief is complex and that some people really were living the commandments as they knew how, “in good faith,” and chose to stop believing (on some level, whether conscious or unconscious). that choice is a sin (which comes back to what I thought you were saying before), so sin is still the cause of leaving, but it’s different (at least at some level) than the kind of secret sin I think you’re actually talking about. I think it’s important to be very careful about judging other people’s stories with imperfect information, based on our models of how the gospel works: i.e., if you’re living the gospel, you’ll have the Spirit, so you won’t apostatize; so if you apostatized, you must have had some secret sin.

    On a purely practical level, I suspect most conversations of that nature would be unproductive (with some exceptions, as dictated by the Spirit). But that said, I’ve never been an instrument for bringing someone back from apostasy, so I don’t have any “best practices” evidence.

  10. The other way in which I am sympathetic to the desire of the apostate to minimize the role of sin is that – I can imagine – it might be tempting for some members to use the presence of whatever sin as the overriding influence, playing down what the apostate sees as legitimate problems with the Church’s doctrines or history. Nobody wants to bring up a concern they feel strongly about and have someone say, Well, It’s really your smoking problem.

    (You understand that I’m defining apostate as anyone who leaves the Church, not restricting to those people who bear ill will. In fact the vast majority of people I know – a non-representative but non-trivial sample – who have left the Church bear the organization no ill will and make no conscious effort to tear it down.)

    I’m also not defending apostasy; but I think understanding where a person is coming from maximizes the chances of helping her or him.

  11. Dave,

    As always, your observations are astute and helpful. I agree with a great deal of what you have said in you comments.

    Your warnings about the dangers of narrative fallacies to the faithful as much as those who apostatize are very appropriate.

    You advise care and hesitancy when attempting to judge other people’s stories with imperfect information by applying our own meta-narrative to their specific circumstances. Your hesitancy appears to be motivated mostly by an honest concern for how the individual will react to having their story reinterpreted through our meta-tale and how that reaction will influence our chances of helping them overcome their concerns and return to the church.

    While approaching the views as narrative frameworks is attractive, I do fear that by doing so we move the debate into the realm of competing stories with no basis in truth or reality, and therefore equal validity. How post-modern. 🙂

    But, if their apostasy is in reality a matter of sin, and based on my personal experience with a good number of friends and family who have apostatized as well as with what the scriptures teach, I truly believe it is a matter of sin, then giving such deference to their own story of its source might do more to perpetuate their self-delusion than not. If sin is truly the root of their apostasy, then treating the symptoms of their apostasy by focusing on their stated concerns about the church, rather than the disease that is its true cause will only produce a superficial and likely a temporary remedy, if it has any effect at all.

    Of course, we still need to be concerned about relieving their symptoms as we may, and so your approach is certainly helpful. But ultimately the sin must be recognized and confronted if they are ever to be whole.

    People must ultimately be brought into, or back into, the church through repentance and the reception of the Holy Spirit. While relieving symptomatic concerns about the church may help remove some barriers, we do our loved apostate brothers and sisters no favors by refusing to openly identify their disease and its remedy.

  12. Good points as always. In this area (and hopefully in most), I am an empiricist. While I am sympathetic to your argument of perpetuating self-delusion, I know few stories of apostates who have returned to the Church (either through answering intellectual symptoms or through calls to repentance), so I cannot judge what strategy is in fact most effective. I do believe (and I think we agree on this) that it makes sense to answer reasonable intellectual doubts while encouraging people to explore their faith in the context of righteous living.

    I think the danger of the call to repentance is when we cannot identify the source of the sin and when we are not in a position with authority to make that call.

    In my own observation, while I find the relationship between righteous living and testimony to be positively correlated, I have seen enough apparent exceptions to question my ability to judge in these scenarios, hence the need to rely on the Spirit to know how to approach rather than on a broad rule. (I don’t mean that as a cop-out: I have seen the Spirit clearly and specifically guide on these issues to great effect.)

  13. I will add – per your comment – that while I am not a post-modernist, I am very much a non-linearist (my word, obviously). I think the links between sin and consequences and between blessings and consequences are sometimes very apparently clear and often not (and sometimes when they seem clear, they may not be in fact). Hence my hesitation to jump to any conclusions about specific causes and effects based on doctrines: the scriptures say that apostasy stems from sin, perhaps, but not that it’s hidden sin necessarily or that it need be any sin other than a lack of faith.

    (Obviously you’ve got me thinking…)

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