I dislike the word “apostasy,” at least as it is applied to individuals (I have special distaste for “apostate”). It seems an unnecesarily harsh way to describe a person who loses faith, for whatever reason, and it seems to have far too much finality. We hope for such persons to return to faith and fellowship. We continue to love and hope for them, mourn their absence while they are gone, and rejoice with them if and when they return.
So, today’s priesthood lesson was both interesting and difficult to hear, because it applied this negative term widely and indiscriminately to members who left the Church at various times in its history and to the concept of those who leave the Church generally. Most of you, like Brother Kirby, had this lesson last week. We were a week behind because of ward conference.
I have a couple of problems with the use of the word “apostasy” in our terminology. The first I have already explained above. The second is that the term, in its most negative connotation at least, is just not accurate in many cases. Apostasy is generally defined as “a total desertion of or departure from one’s religion, principles, party, cause, etc.” In some cases, however, those who fall away from the Church may feel more that the Church has deserted them, rather than the reverse, or they may feel an inability or reluctance (because of a lack of faith or a surfeit of offense or embarrasment or pride or just stubborness) to fellowship and worship with us. To say such people are in a state of “apostasy” seems overly dramatic at least and potentially offensive at worst.
And yet here we are having a lesson where we toss that word around like a beach ball and examine why it happens and how to avoid it. Whatever term we use to describe the situation though, the discussion is worthwhile and some of the quotes from the manual are fascinating:
Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.
This quote is one possible explanation (offered by Joseph Smith) for why those who leave the Church sometimes seem to be compelled to try to tear it down. I’m not going to quibble with the Prophet Joseph here (cause, you know, I don’t want to be accused of apostasy) but it seems to me that accusing those who leave the Church of being servants of the devil is not an ideal way to invite them to come back. And yet some did come back, even then, and of those who did not, it would be hard not to argue that some few of them then (and now) could indeed be described as serving someone other than the Prince of Peace.
For myself, I have found that my friends who have left the Church have had reasons that, to my ears at least, seem honest and not at all like a person who is a servant of evil, but of someone who wants to discover the truth and has been unable to find it. I worry for them, even as I wish them well and continue to love them. Some of them have lectured me for my continued faith, which they seem to find simple minded, insufficiently rational, or just ignorant. I try to be understanding (and forgiving of an attitude that is easy to dismiss as arrogance), but I find myself every time in these discussions returning to one thing: the Holy Spirit. Having felt it testify to me on multiple occasions, I’m not in a position to deny it, but only try to follow it in whatever imperfect way I am able.
Which is why I always ask them whether they have felt the same thing. While their answers vary, it always appears to me that they have not, or that they have not felt it in the same way. My feeling in these conversations is generally one of resignation. God is in charge of his Church and the Holy Spirit. I can only try to hold my friends and family close to me and hope they feel what I feel at some point along the way.