The Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: A Look at Change in the Church
Change. It permeates our lives, constantly flavoring our existence. Sometimes it comes gently, freshening our daily routine with dewy sweetness. Other times its pungent sorrow steals our breath and leaves us gasping. Though we know to expect it, change often catches us off guard, leaving us unsettled and insecure. Times of transition are often the times we most rely on God, who promises that He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is our Rock, our Anchor, the Constant we cling to in the shifting sands of life. God is absolute truth, the guiding North Star in a world of glittery imitations.
And yet the manifestations of God—His Kingdom among His children, His word from His prophets—bear the marks of change over time. One does not need to travel far in history to see differences in the Church. Changes in the temple ceremony, missionary program, and the reorganization of area authorities have all occurred just in the past few years. Looking back further, we see major policy shifts reflected by documents like Official Declaration No. 2 and the Manifesto. One may begin to wonder how truth can exist in so many variant forms. I think of those I know who have faltered—a brother, a neighbor, a friend—and how change has become one of the props supporting each platform of disbelief. I listen, watch, grieve, and feel myself looking through the glass darkly at times. I search for answers whenever possible, and for peace if questions linger, as I contemplate the issue of change in the Church.
The concept of change is actually an integral part of a primary tenet of our faith—continuing revelation. It is impossible to embrace revelation and eschew change. The very fact that revelation exists implies that changes are needed over time—otherwise, we would need no more Bible. New revelations, however, do not exclusively contain new information. The Restoration was just that—a restoration of an ancient religion that existed from before the foundation of the world. When Moroni visited Joseph Smith and quoted the ancient prophets, the words were nearly identical to those that had been read for generations. However, the new teachings and insights given by the angelic visitation radically changed the implications and expected fulfillment of the Biblical text. The Gospel does not and has not changed; but our understanding of it, as well as its application to us, may change as the Lord reveals His will through the prophets.
The temple exemplifies change throughout history. From the Bible Dictionary we learn that “building and properly using a temple is one of the marks of the true Church in any dispensation. . . .Whenever the Lord has had a people on the earth who will obey his word, they have been commanded to build temples in which the ordinances of the gospel and other spiritual manifestations that pertain to exaltation and eternal life may be administered.” The Lord has revealed specific instructions for both the buildings themselves and the ordinances administered therein. All ancient and modern temples incorporate sacred aspects of space and time as well as architectural and ceremonial symbolism. Ancient symbols weave through our temples like a thread, tying the dispensations together in worship. The differences between then and now, however, are as striking as the similarities.
Consider the ancient Israelite and Nephite temples. The ceremony centered on a crackling, consuming fire and a bleating, bleeding offering. What a contrast from our modern pristine buildings and small gray envelopes! Yet the same Priesthood that presided over those sacrifices now accepts our offerings. On our altars lie the sacrifice and hearkening described by Samuel (1 Sam. 15:22). The principles of sacrifice, obedience, and the pivotal role of the Atonement in the plan of salvation have remained the same, though the method of administering and teaching these eternal truths has drastically changed. Some changes over time are tied to faith and obedience. In each dispensation the Lord has given His people as much knowledge as they could possibly tolerate, promising further light to individuals who faithfully seek it (D&C 42:61). If the people are not ready, the Lord will withhold. One example of this is in Exodus 34. The Joseph Smith Translation offers additional insight into what the Israelites lost through their rebelliousness: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Hew thee two other tables of stone, like unto the first, and I will write upon them also, the words of the law, according as they were written at the first on the tables which thou brakest; but it shall not be according to the first, for I will take away the priesthood out of their midst; therefore my holy order, and the ordinances thereof, shall not go before them; for my presence shall not go up in their midst, lest I destroy them.” (JST Exodus 34:1, italics in original text). The Lord changed the content of the tables for the sake of the people, knowing the additional knowledge would contribute to their condemnation. They had shown their lack of faith. The change was both a chastening and a blessing as it enabled them to learn from the lesser law but restricted the blessings of the Priesthood. In this light, differences throughout time may be seen not as a measure of God's constancy, but of our own.
Nephi understood the difference between eternal truths and the mortal administration of them when he wrote about the Law of Moses being dead to his people (2 Nephi 25: 24-25). They were alive in Christ and understood perfectly the end for which the law was given. Yet, this law still had legitimate, binding power as the revealed method of worship, even for those who understood its deadness. Their understanding did not exempt them from obedience. Though he upheld the law, Nephi also foresaw the danger of becoming attached to the performances themselves and substituting the types of God for God himself. He warned the people that they should not harden their hearts when the law ought to be done away (v. 27). It must be understood that God is separate from the ceremonies and religious programs that teach about and symbolize Him.
When the meridian of time did come and the Vine brought new wine that would crack the old vessel, many still clung to the familiar clay pots. Jehovah, the Lawgiver who had fashioned the Mosaic vessel, had come to establish the higher law. This change in worship became a sifting process as those who felt His love came to value Him above the outward performances designed to proclaim faithfulness. Jesus taught the necessity of cleansing the inner vessel. The outward rites had no saving power of their own, but it was still difficult for some to abandon the habit of worship and adopt the feeling of it. Change often presents the opportunity of reconnecting with the Author of the change as revelation is accepted, both individual and prophetic.
Many of the other structural and administrative changes in the Church are simply a product of growth. The Church has evolved along with its increasing numbers. While prophets may receive insight into the future, they still function within their own time and stewardship and reveal only what is needed. President John Taylor said, “Adam's revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah's revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves.” Likewise, Joseph Smith did not need to reveal what later prophets would receive from the Lord. Each prophet has revealed the necessary changes for his time, including the creation of the various auxiliaries and programs. Pres. Spencer W. Kimball said, “This kingdom of God . . . is a continuous program and will grow instead of diminish. Its doctrines are well established, but because of growth and expansion, improved ways are afforded to teach the gospel all over the world. Additional servants are called to the increasing work for a bigger world.”
Change is not only a natural part of the growing process—it is essential for progression. C.S. Lewis wrote: “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird. It would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.” Though it may be difficult to tell from looking at the shell, we are all involved in the process of hatching or going bad. The process occurs within the all-important inner vessel. Changes in the programs of the Church are designed to facilitate the collective transformation of its members from carnal creatures to beings that can spiritually fly.
As prophets make changes that reflect growth, a problem lies in assuming that these imply incorrectness in the past. There are times when a new truth shatters the old (the concept of a flat earth comes to mind) and the former idea is labeled as false. However, this is not always the case. As a simple analogy, think of a woman's hair throughout her life. It may begin light as a child, darken as an adult, and gray as she ages. The color changes accurately reflect her maturity, but the present color does not negate the past one. In similar fashion, teachings and programs may change with time and the maturity of the Church and its people. These changes do not imply any falsehood in previous practices because each practice was right for its particular time.
It may be difficult, however, to understand why certain practices were right when we do not possess a full knowledge of God's purposes. Even Church leaders, in their more human moments, can misunderstand why the Lord has directed a particular action. Prior to 1978, Elder Bruce R. McConkie made statements regarding the Priesthood that were shown to be erroneous with the release of Official Declaration No. 2. When asked to account for his misinterpretations he said: “Forget everything that I have said, . . . or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. . . . We get our truth and light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.” We may not understand why the Lord gives certain directions. His ways are not our ways, and faith will be tried. Still, the loving Father who does not give a stone for a fish will bless those who wait upon Him. His love and mercy transcend His mystery, and we are safe in following His prophets.
Because of the potential difficulties in understanding the reasons for change, it is an easy target for those who criticize the Church. They often imply that revelations altering Church policy are a result of political or social pressure rather than inspiration. Though these arguments can be persuasive, they reveal a serious misunderstanding of the faith that underscores revelation. For a prophet with a firm testimony of revealed principles, it would take far more courage to change the administration of those principles than to defy any type of outside pressure. As Pres. James E. Faust said, “This ongoing revelation will not and cannot be forced by outside pressure from people and events. It is not the so-called 'revelation of social progress.' It comes from God.” The hand of God may shape events in the world that will further His purposes and draw us to Him. Worldly circumstances have prompted the pleading for divine guidance many times (the religious furor of early nineteenth-century New York leading a fourteen-year-old boy to ask of God is a prime example). Yet these events are not the source of revelation or Church policy. Revelation is connected to the world we live in, but it is not a product of it. Only under Divine direction, and with the unanimous support of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, would change come to a Church policy that was previously accepted as the Lord's will.
Pres. Wilford Woodruff described his own intense struggle with the Manifesto at a conference shortly before his death: “I want to say to all Israel that the step which I have taken in issuing this manifesto has not been done without earnest prayer before the Lord. I am about to go into the spirit world, like other men of my age. I expect to meet the face of my heavenly Father—the Father of my spirit; I expect to meet the face of Joseph Smith, of Brigham Young, of John Taylor, and of the apostles, and for me to have taken a stand in anything which is not pleasing in the sight of God, or before the heavens, I would rather have gone out and been shot.” Likewise, Pres. Kimball received the revelation on the Priesthood only after “extended meditation and prayer in the sacred rooms of the holy temple.” Prophets understand the eternal significance of their position and trust the timing of the Lord; they are not swayed by mortal tempests. Church members are invited to strengthen their own trust in the Lord by obtaining a witness of their leaders' inspiration. Pres. Brigham Young said, “Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
As this stone cut out of the mountain continues to fill the earth, we know there will be more revelation and change. It is vital to our progress. As I stretch and press, give and receive in this Kingdom of Saints, I experience the many emotions of change. I am apprehensive, grateful, and hopeful. I contemplate change, seeing it not as evidence of error, but as proof of God's love and mercy—His willingness to meet us in our strength and weakness. It is possible to recognize truth while acknowledging we do not possess the whole of it. I struggle, pray, receive, believe, then stumble again in the shifting sands. Each new circumstance offers the opportunity to emerge a little more from the confines of my own limited understanding—to effect a mighty change within myself, through grace. Change invites me to reach for God, and to grasp more firmly the Rock that has remained the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Melissa is a member of Segullah's editorial board.
 See Joseph Smith—History 1: 37-39 for notated variations from the King James text.
 Bible Dictionary, “Temple.”
 See Matthew B. Brown, Paul Thomas Smith, Symbols in Stone, (Covenant Communications, Inc., 1997) for additional information on ancient and modern temple symbolism.
 Millennial Star, 1 Nov. 1847, 323.
 Spencer W. Kimball, Ensign, February 1971, 20.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Scribner, 1997), 154-155.
 Priesthood, (Deseret Book Co., 1981), p. 126-137
 James E. Faust, Ensign, August 1996, 2.
 Church History in the Fulness of Times, (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000), 441-442.
 Discourses of Brigham Young, compiled by John A. Widtsoe (Deseret Book, 1954), 135.