Apologist vs Apologist: Was there a Great Apostasy?
As a Latter-day Saint I believed Christ’s church fell into apostasy after the deaths of the apostles because there was no one left to hold priesthood keys or receive revelation for the organization. Without their leadership, damnable heresies entered the Church and corrupted it completely.
In my book, I approached this topic by examining the prophecy at the end of the Old Testament. I wrote:
“In Matthew 17 Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the Mount of Transfiguration. At its top they see Moses and Elijah and hear God’s voice, proclaiming Jesus is His Son. On the way down the disciples ask the Master a question, ‘Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?’ Elias is the Greek form of the name Elijah. This question is in reference to the final prophecy of the Old Testament which states:
Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6 KJV)
The Jews were under the mistaken impression that the Messiah would only come once and promptly deliver them from Rome. They were looking for Christ to come, but they also seemed to be looking for Elijah to come first. This is evident in the first chapter of John. When John the Baptist confesses he is not Christ, he is immediately asked, ‘What then, art thou Elias? Art thou that prophet?’ (John 1:21)
In fact, Jews to this day believe Elijah will arrive as a sign of the Messiah’s coming. From a Christian perspective, and with the knowledge we gain in the New Testament, we understand there will be a second coming of the Messiah, which is often referred to as the great and dreadful day of the Lord in scripture. So the prophecy at the end of the Old Testament could safely be translated: Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the [second coming] of the Lord.
Let’s look at the Savior’s answer to his disciples’ inquiry. In Matthew 17:11 he says, ‘Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.’ By speaking in the future tense, Christ clarifies that the prophecy had yet to be fulfilled. He also explains that not only would Elijah come, he would restore all things. At the time Jesus said this, he was on earth, his apostles were called, and the gospel was being preached; so for all things to be restored, all things had to first be lost.”
(Michael Flournoy, “A Biblical Defense of Mormonism”, p.60)
Obviously, there’s a lot here to unpack, but the basic points I made were that John the Baptist wasn’t Elijah and that the prophecy wouldn’t be fulfilled until much later, presumably during the last days.
My first point that the great and dreadful day is a nod to the second coming, is a non-starter. I hoped to persuade my audience that Elijah didn’t show up until the restoration, but you know what else happened before the great and dreadful day of the Lord? Israel became a nation and was conquered. Moses led God’s people out of Egypt, and Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit. Technically, everything in the history of our planet has happened before the second coming. So to that, I say, strike one.
I tried to say that Jesus referred to the prophecy in the future tense, proving that it hadn’t happened. However, let’s bear in mind that he was referencing the prophecy, and not explaining it. I might say, for example, “In Genesis, God says that if Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, they will surely die.” Although I am speaking in future tense, that does not mean the fall hasn’t happened. In fact, Christ’s next sentence, which my LDS self failed to mention, switches immediately to past tense, “Elijah has come already.” This is exactly the kind of pivot someone would make when explaining God’s decree in the Garden of Eden. That’s strike two.
Now let’s look at the rest of Christ’s response:
“He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.”
(Matthew 17:11-13 ESV)
The text of scripture specifically says the prophecy was fulfilled in John the Baptist. This coincides with Luke 1:17 (ESV) where the angel tells Zacharias that John will “go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Not only do we have an angel attributing the same wording to John the Baptist that we find in the Elijah prophecy, we also have Christ reverting to past tense and New Testament scripture indicating that he was speaking of John. So to my intrepid LDS self, I say, strike three.
The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail
For Latter-day Saints to say the church fell into apostasy, they must do so by crawling over or under or around Matthew 16:18 to make that claim. In my Mormon days, I employed various gymnastic feats to weave around this difficult verse. For context, here is the entire passage:
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
(Matthew 16:13-19 ESV)
Latter-day Saints hyper-focus on the rock the church was built on, believing this to be a conditional promise. The gates of hell would not prevail against the church if it remained on the rock. Instead of narrowing the rock down to one thing, Latter-day Saints take bits and parts of all the elements in this passage and build the rock from that.
For instance, flesh and blood not revealing the truth to Peter, but his Father in heaven, must mean that revelation is the rock of the church. The keys to the kingdom of heaven represent priesthood authority. And finally, Peter himself is the rock in the sense that prophets and apostles will always be needed to run things.
Let’s start with prophets and apostles, and why they aren’t the rock Jesus spoke of. In my book I made a case for prophets and apostles by saying:
“Whenever there was a dispute in the Church, the problem was brought to the apostles, and their answers became doctrine. For example, Acts chapter 15 tells us some new Christians began to say circumcision was still essential for salvation, but the matter was brought to the apostles who deemed it unnecessary. The apostles were also largely responsible for writing the New Testament; so clearly they were privileged to know God’s will for the Church and had the authority to implement it.”
(Michael Flournoy, “A Biblical Defense of Mormonism”, p. 63)
Here I was trying to kill two birds with one stone, saying that revelation and apostles went hand in hand. However, it wasn’t as simple as that. In Acts 15, after the debate began, Barnabas and Paul were sent to inquire of the apostles at Jerusalem. But wait, wasn’t Paul an apostle? Why didn’t he evoke revelation right then? Once the matter was brought to the rest of the apostles, they didn’t resort to revelation either. Instead, the text says they argued about it.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,
“Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised.”
(Romans 4:9-10 ESV)
What’s interesting about this, is revelation wasn’t necessary to end the debate. Instead of appealing to revelation from God, Paul appealed to the scriptures. In this way, he fulfilled the same role that pastors do in Christian churches today.
But what about his new scripture, doesn’t that prove his importance as an apostle? Without a doubt, God used Paul to write amazing scripture. But if that is the sign of an apostle today, then the LDS leadership has failed miserably for decades. Not only that, but some of the writers of the New Testament aren’t even apostles. Where is Luke’s call to be an apostle? What about Mark and Jude? The fact is, if these men were not ordained apostles or prophets and yet were able to write scripture, then the whole argument for the leadership of the LDS church falls on its face.
To reinforce the necessity of revelation I wrote,
“Revelation is also a very practical way to lead the Church; Acts chapter 10 is a great example of how the early church functioned. A man named Cornelius, a gentile, was visited by an angel and told to seek out Peter, and informed that Peter would tell him what to do. So Cornelius sent three men to Joppa where Peter was staying. Before Peter could be confronted with the situation, and forced to make a decision based on finite reasoning, he was shown a vision in which a great sheet fell before him, which was inhabited by animals deemed unclean and inedible by the Law of Moses.
A voice spoke to him saying, ‘Rise Peter, kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘Not so Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him again, ‘What the Lord hath cleansed, that call not thou uncommon.’ This vision was given to Peter so he might know not to call any man common or unclean because it was time for the gospel to go to the gentiles. Since Christ personally instructed the apostles to go only to the Jews (Matthew 10:5-6), without indicating an expiration date for the command, it’s impossible to think Peter could have come to this conclusion without revelation.
It’s also quite telling that the Gentile emergence into Christianity happened through Peter. Why didn’t the angel tell Cornelius to start his own Christian denomination? It’s because apostles were a major part of the Church’s foundation!”
(Michael Flournoy, “A Biblical Defense of Mormonism”, p.64)
Let’s start with the easy stuff first. Why didn’t the angel tell Cornelius to start his own denomination? It makes total sense for Cornelius and the other Gentiles to go to Peter, whether he was an apostle or not. He had more experience being a Christian leader than they did. Not to mention, he knew Jesus personally and was well acquainted with the story and doctrine. Even as an Evangelical, I think it would have been foolish for them to set out on their own.
Now onto the tricky part. Was it really impossible for Peter to know to go to the Gentiles? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the words of the Apostle Paul:
‘For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.’
(Romans 15:8-13 ESV)
The vision Peter received may have helped him know God’s will faster, but since the Old Testament said the Gentiles would place their hope in God, it’s a certainty that Peter and the apostles would have realized it even without revelation. In fact, all the revelations given by the apostles had a basis in scripture. This is in sharp contrast to the LDS church where practitioners are admonished to pray for a spiritual witness that their prophets are called of God. According to the New Testament, the Bereans tested what Paul said by scripture to see if his words were true, and because of this they were “more noble than those at Thessalonica.” (Acts 17:11 KJV)
I went on to argue that there was a concerted effort to keep the sanctity of the twelve apostles because when Judas took his life, they chose Matthias as a new apostle. Then, when James was martyred, Paul became an apostle.
First off, this is just two instances, and that’s a far cry from proving anything. Secondly, the LDS Church doesn’t even have twelve apostles. They have 15 prophets, seers, and revelators. If the number 12 is so important, why isn’t Mormonism sticking to it? Might I also hammer in the fact that they chose to ordain a new apostle under the direction of scripture and not revelation? If revelation is the foundation of Mormonism, it’s pretty odd to see the apostles sweeping it under the rug all the time.
I also tried to posit, as all Latter-day Saints do, that modern prophets fit the pattern God established throughout the Old Testament. But things aren’t really that black and white. For example, there were a number of women prophets in the Old Testament including Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Noadiah, who God used to speak to His people.
LDS doctrine does not allow women to be prophets or to receive God’s word, and that presents a shift from the Old Testament pattern. Furthermore, at one point the apostles tell Jesus they saw a man casting out demons in His name, and told him to stop because he wasn’t one of them.
Jesus responds, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:39-40 ESV)
If this man had the authority to cast out demons, despite not being under the apostles’ leadership, what was to stop him from passing out saving ordinances? And if a random man could do all that, what need did there remain for prophets and apostles at all if we presume that LDS hierarchy claims are biblical and true?
Flournoy’s Fatal Flaw
I admitted in my book that Jesus was part of the foundation of the church, constituting the chief cornerstone. When the apostles died, the priesthood keys, revelation, and apostles were lost. Only Jesus remained, but that wasn’t enough to fend off the apostasy of the ancient church.
These days, I take umbrage at the idea that Jesus constitutes ¼ of our foundation. The whole idea that God’s church could fail, is derived from a small, insignificant deity. I wonder if Latter-day Saints would be so quick to call it an apostasy if their precious priesthood had remained. Or revelation through a prophet? Yet somehow, Jesus simply isn’t enough.
Well here’s a newsflash for my LDS readers: If the apostles’ deaths resulted in the Great Apostasy, then Christ stood by and watched as His bride was murdered. He abandoned the wheat to the tares and ignored the wolves that ravaged His flock. He ceased to be the bridegroom and was anything but a good shepherd.
As a Biblical Christian, I proclaim that the opposite is true. The church didn’t collapse because it fell off the rock. The church persevered because the rock it was built upon was Christ, the Son of the Living God. He explains to Peter that “flesh and blood have not revealed this to you…” In other words, Christ’s identity is still the subject at hand and continued to be in the following statement, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
If Jesus makes up the cornerstone, and everything else falls away, then that still leaves a foundation, and that means the apostasy could not have occurred. And since there was no apostasy, there could have been no restoration. And if there was no need for a restoration then as Joseph Smith, himself said so well, there is no need for the LDS Church:
“Nothing less than a complete apostasy from the Christian religion would warrant the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”
(Joseph Smith, “Comprehensive History of the Church” 1:42)