One of the core doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that ancient Christianity suffered a “great apostasy” in which priesthood authority was lost and important doctrines and covenants either lost or corrupted. Absent such an apostasy, no restoration would have been necessary.
Given the conditions of the ancient world, however, was a massive apostasy even avoidable? Conceivably yes, but the odds were powerfully against it. Consider the situation:
The ancient church had no “handbooks” for local leaders. True, it had the scriptures. But, while we today take inexpensive printed editions of the standard works for granted, such things didn’t exist in the ancient world. A handwritten copy of the Bible would have been enormously expensive; few congregations, let alone individuals, could have afforded even a single biblical book.
Moreover, the New Testament was still being written until nearly the end of the first century, and it wouldn’t be gathered together for generations more. In the first century, all that was available to most Christians, even potentially, was the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.
And those earliest leaders, in most cases, had only the most rudimentary exposure to Christian teaching. An apostle or other missionary passed through a town, told the story of Jesus and his resurrection, gained a few converts and passed on to another field after appointing a local overseer (the literal meaning of “episkopos” or “bishop”). Newly converted leaders were then responsible to maintain the purity of teaching in their areas, based on whatever they remembered.
But couldn’t they refer especially difficult problems to the church’s general leaders? In theory, yes. But the apostles had no settled headquarters or location. Constantly in motion, they were also very soon under intense pressure from persecution. Furthermore, ancient travel and communications were slow and often dangerous.
According to 2 Corinthians 11:25, Paul had been shipwrecked three times on his missionary journeys. But thereafter, as Acts 27 describes, he was shipwrecked yet again near the island of Malta. And there were pirates on the seas and highwaymen along the roads, as well as frequent political instability.
Even when travel was uneventful, however, moving between major cities of the Roman Empire required weeks. By the time news of a difficulty requiring counsel managed to reach an ever-moving apostle, the problem would already be weeks old. And then, when a decision had been made (which might itself require considerable time), that decision wouldn’t reach a beleaguered congregation for additional weeks.
And who would enforce it? And how? The apostles were far away and barely known. If somebody came through a town claiming to be an apostle, how could anybody verify his status? No ancient church magazine featured the photographs of church leaders. (Unsurprisingly, Paul complains in 2 Corinthians 11:13 and elsewhere about “false apostles” who were able to deceive the Saints.)
Arguably, our dispensation is the first in which a worldwide church can be kept both intact and faithful. Scriptures and handbooks are easily accessible (nowadays, even online) and inexpensive. A stream of magazines, letters, and other publications keep headquarters in touch with even the most far-flung congregations. In fact, church leaders today can be in almost instant contact with any local leader or congregation — via telephone or email or, if need be, jet travel.
Additionally, church members around the world are familiar with their leaders by means of photographs, audio recordings, videos, and global broadcasts. Accordingly, today, the principle enshrined in Doctrine and Covenants 42:11can actually be followed: “It shall not be given to anyone to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by someone who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.”
This weekend’s general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ powerfully illustrates how modern conditions differ from those in antiquity. Leaders and members of the church will gather from around the world to sit at the feet of its presiding authorities. Even more than that, individuals and congregations still sitting far away from Salt Lake City will be able to watch the proceedings and to listen to what is taught, in their own languages and very often instantaneously.
The dispensation of the fullness of times requires a truly global and truly faithful church. Only recently has that become a realistic possibility.
Lead image by Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.