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.
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
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.
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.