The Community of Christ -formerly known as The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) is the second largest Mormon group with appox. 250,000 members in 60+ countries. World Headquarters: Independence, Missouri. Link to Church website.
They do not like to be called ‘Mormons’ since their theology is considerably different from the larger group in Utah. They changed their name to Community of Christ in 2001 to keep from getting mixed up with the better known Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The original Mormon organization started in 1830. At the assassination of the first leader- Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844, Brigham Young became the 2nd Mormon prophet and led the majority of the LDS church to Utah. But not all LDS accepted his leadership and thousands followed other leaders who did not go west to Utah with the larger body.
The ‘Reorganized’ Church (COC) began in 1852 as a collection of LDS churches that did not go to Utah and did not accept the leadership of Brigham Young. The major issue at the time was polygamy, Brigham Young supported having plural wives and encouraged the leadership to follow his lead. Another issue was succession to church president and prophet. Those who formed the ‘Reorganization’ recounted that Joseph Smith Jr. (the first leader) had designated his son Joseph III as his successor and believed that Brigham Young had usurped his position.
In 1860, Joseph Smith III accepted the leadership position of the ‘Reorganized Church’ and it became a viable alternative organization for LDS who did not accept Youngs leadership. Under Joseph Smith III they ‘reorganized’ the structure and leadership of the church; hence the name: Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints.
The leaders of the Community of Christ have spent the last 40 years trying to change the beliefs of their members and bring their theology as close to traditional Christian teaching as possible. Their website has a statement of belief and a link to a book on their theology that can be downloaded.
It use to be that those who wanted to join the COC had to be re-baptized but that is no longer the case. Baptism from other churches is now recognized. Also they now celebrate ‘open’ Communion for all who have accepted Jesus as Lord and not just members of their church like it had been.
After submitting their current theological statement for review the COC was received within the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) in 2010.
Summary of Major Beliefs in Common with Traditional Christian Teaching:
1. The Trinity: One God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
2. Jesus Christ: Fully God and Fully human. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, lived, died, and was resurrected.
3. The Coming Again of Jesus to Reign on the Earth
4. Humanity: created in the image of God with free agency to choose.
5. Sin: the universal condition of separation and alienation from God and one another. Divine grace is needed to bring reconciliation.
6. Salvation by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
7. Holy Spirit: Believers in Jesus receive the Holy Spirit within them and Gifts of the Spirit.
8. A continuation of all Spiritual Gifts.
9. Church: The church of Jesus Christ is made of all those who respond to Jesus’ call. Community of Christ claims to be a part of the whole body of Christ.
10. Resurrection, Judgment, and Eternal Life.
This is not intended to be comprehensive. It is only a sample of some of their beliefs—see their website for greater clarification.
Theological Deviations and Problems from an Evangelical View:
1. COC has a liberal view that the Bible ‘contains’ the word of God but is not inerrant.
2. COC believes in ‘open canon’ of scripture that includes Book of Mormon along with modern prophecy in the Doctrine and Covenants as scripture.
3. COC believes that modern prophecy can trump and depart from traditional Bible teaching. Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians believe that current prophetic words cannot deviate from sound Bible teaching.
4. Modern COC prophecy (given in 2010) accepted the ordination of Homosexuals in committed same-sex ‘marriages.’
5. COC believes in Salvation by Grace through faith in Jesus Christ and in Eternal Judgement according to their website. But there is no mention of eternal destinations like Heaven or Hell in their current statement of beliefs.
6. The COC leaders have obviously decided to deemphasize their traditional teaching on eternal destinations since soteriology is not really dealt with in their ‘Basic Beliefs’ and theology on their website.
Their teaching in former generations, coming from the prophecies of Joseph Smith in their Doctrine and Covenants (section 85), contends that everyone ends up spending eternity with those who are spiritually very similar to how they are and it is tantamount to being universal salvationist.
The prophecy teaches that there is a variety of ‘kingdom’ destinations (Not just Heaven and Hell) including: Celestial Kingdom living with Father God, and Terrestrial Kingdom living with the Son Jesus, for those who believe in Jesus. Telestial Kingdoms living with the Holy Spirit (as many as the stars in Heaven), for those who never accepted Jesus but are somewhat ‘good.’ And Kingdoms without Glory for the really evil folks. Qualifications are listed in the ‘revelation’ for each kingdom; but no Hell except for the Devil and his cohorts. To be fair, those who spend eternity in ‘Kingdoms without glory,’ according to the Joseph Smith’s teaching, have no presence of God at all which could be considered a Hell.
As a consequence of that ‘variety of Kingdoms’ teaching, there is not the same burden for the lost that one finds in most evangelical churches.
Interestingly, contrary to the revelation of Joseph Smith in the DofC, their Book of Mormon actually mentions only two destinations after death: Heaven and Hell.
Differences between the Community of Christ and the Utah Mormon Church:
1. The Trinity: COC believe in the traditional Christian trinitarian teaching of one God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Utah Mormons believe that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are 3 separate Gods only one in purpose.
2. Creation: COC believe that God is outside of time and creation and created everything out of nothing. the Utah Mormons teach that all elements are eternal. Father God merely took existing eternal material elements and eternal spirits and created what now exists.
3. COC believe that they are part of the Church of Christ. The Utah Church teaches that they are the one and only authorized church of Jesus Christ.
4. COC temples have no secret rites and are open to visitors. Utah Mormon temples conduct a number of secret rites including eternal marriage, Baptism of the Dead, and etc. and are available to members only in good standing.
5. COC believes in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. The Utah Church emphasizes the necessity to continue to work for your eternal ‘Kingdom’ destiny.
6. COC now encourages their members to use modern versions of the Bible –particularly the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). In past generations, the Inspired Version of the Bible by Joseph Smith was their official Bible. The Utah Church uses the King James Version with footnotes from Joseph Smith’s Inspired Version ‘Translation.’
7. The COC does not accept the ‘scriptures’ in the Pearl of Great Price or any prophecies of Joseph Smith Jr. added after his death nor those of the Utah leaders. Utah Mormons do not accept the prophecies added to the Doctrine and Covenants by later COC (RLDS) prophets.
Similar Teachings Between the two churches:
1. Both believe that the LDS church started as a move of God in 1830.
2. Both believe that the original leader- Joseph Smith Jr. was a prophet and their current leaders are also.
3. Both accept the Book of Mormon as part of their canon of scripture (Where ‘Mormon’ nickname came from) and the prophecies of Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants.
4. Both believe in an ‘open canon’ of scripture which can include prophecy from their current leader. Modern Prophecy can replace previous teaching including that in the Bible.
5. Both traditionally believe in a variety of eternal ‘Kingdom’ destinations (Not just the options of Heaven or Hell): Celestial Kingdom with Father God, Terrestrial Kingdom with the Son Jesus, Telestial Kingdoms with the Holy Spirit, and Kingdoms without Glory.
Since the COC does not deal with any soteriology in their ‘Basic Beliefs’ and theology listed on their website, they seem to be backing away from their traditional teaching on eternal destinies.
The Community of Christ (RLDS) is a denomination that is in flux and changing quickly in this generation. The COC is currently far closer to liberal churches like the United Methodist in their theology than the Utah Mormon Church. The change has caused dissension and schism with the loss of over 25,000 members including whole church congregations in the United States. The fact is, members of the COC are far more conservative than the current leaders and there is a real question where the church will end up in a few years with the continuing battles going on among the members and leaders.
In many ways, what is happening in the Community of Christ (RLDS) is similar to what Methodists are experiencing right now. The COC missions overseas are growing and represent a far more conservative segment of the church that is far closer to Evangelical churches theologically than those in the United States and in Canada. In fact, the COC members in missions have very little in common with the Utah Mormons and the beliefs represented in the early history of the movement.
It will be interesting to see where this leads in a few years since the leadership of the denomination is aging and there will soon be a generational change.