Question: If the scriptures say the end-time church has apostatized, why should we continue to be members of it?
Answer: Although there exist many prophecies that speak of a general apostasy of God’s end-time people—and of the judgments of God that come upon all nations as a consequence—a prophecy of the church’s ceasing to exist or lacking divine authority isn’t one of them. On the contrary, as Nephi saw in his vision of the end of the world, “There are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations; and she is the whore of all the earth” (1 Nephi 14:10).
Although “its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw” (1 Nephi 14:12). Notably, it is the “saints” or “sanctified ones” of God (Hebrew qedoshim) who are defined as “the church of the Lamb,” not those who are saints in name only.
As evil increases in the earth, Nephi sees the great and abominable church finally gather together “multitudes upon the face of all the earth, among all the nations of the Gentiles, to fight against the Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 14:13). Yet, the church of the Lamb of God endures so that in the end Nephi saw “the power of the Lamb of God, that it descended upon the saints of the church of the Lamb, and upon the covenant people of the Lord, who were scattered upon all the face of the earth; and they were armed with righteousness and with the power of God in great glory” (1 Nephi 14:14)—an event still future.
Without the church’s enduring to the end, in fact, the many prophecies of the house of Israel’s end-time restoration could not be fulfilled: “I have read these things that ye might know concerning the covenants of the Lord that he has covenanted with all the house of Israel—That he has spoken unto the Jews, by the mouth of his holy prophets, even from the beginning down, from generation to generation, until the time comes that they shall be restored to the true church and fold of God; when they shall be gathered home to the lands of their inheritance, and shall be established in all their lands of promise” (2 Nephi 9:1–2).
Although the definition of “the true church” as distinct from “the church” hints at possible controversy at the time these events are fulfilled, that doesn’t mean a new church arises. As in Book of Mormon times, there will be those who “profess to belong to the church of God” who are “lifted up in pride, even to the persecution of many of their brethren” (Helaman 3:33–34). We find evidence of this in a number of prophecies, including Isaiah’s: “Hear the word of the Lord, you who are vigilant for his word: Your brethren who abhor you, and exclude you because of my name, say, Let the Lord manifest his glory, that we may see cause for your joy! But it is they who shall suffer shame. Hark, a tumult from the city, a noise from the temple! It is the voice of the Lord paying his enemies what is due them” (Isaiah 66:5–6). In that day, the humble followers of the Lord are most prone to persecution by “enemies” within their institution until the Lord sets it in order.
According to the prophecies of Isaiah, Nephi, and Jacob, those who restore the house of Israel—the Jews, Ten Tribes, and Lamanites—to the true church and fold of God are the spiritual kings and queens of the Gentiles: “When the day cometh that they shall believe in me, that I am Christ, then have I covenanted with their fathers that they shall be restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance. And it shall come to pass that they shall be gathered in from their long dispersion, from the isles of the sea, and from the four parts of the earth; and the nations of the Gentiles shall be great in the eyes of me, saith God, in carrying them forth to the lands of their inheritance. Yea, the kings of the Gentiles shall be nursing fathers unto them, and their queens shall become nursing mothers” (2 Nephi 10:7–9; cf. Isaiah 49:22–23).
Evidently, these kings and queens of the Gentiles themselves arise out of the end-time church, they being those same “saints of the church of the Lamb” who are “armed with righteousness” on whom descends “the power of God in great glory” in order that they might restore “the covenant people of the Lord” in God’s Day of Judgment upon the nations (1 Nephi 14:14).
That is not to say that many members of the church in general won’t come under condemnation for any number of offenses. As Mormon saw, “Ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted. O ye pollutions, ye hypocrites, ye teachers, who sell yourselves for that which will canker, why have ye polluted the holy church of God? Why are ye ashamed to take upon you the name of Christ? Why do ye not think that greater is the value of an endless happiness than that misery which never dies—because of the praise of the world?” (Mormon 8:37–38).
And as Nephi saw, “Because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms, they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men. O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts, and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms, and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!” (2 Nephi 28:14–15).
The Lord further warned the church through the prophet Joseph Smith: “Your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation. And this condemnation resteth upon the children of Zion, even all. And they shall remain under this condemnation until they repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon and the former commandments which I have given them, not only to say, but to do according to that which I have written—That they may bring forth fruit meet for their Father’s kingdom; otherwise there remaineth a scourge and judgment to be poured out upon the children of Zion” (Doctrine & Covenants 84:54–58).
Isaiah prophesied that a scourge and judgment would indeed be poured out upon the children of Zion. This would occur at the time Ephraim’s leaders make a “Covenant with Death” by trusting in human counsels and schemes: “These too have indulged in wine and are giddy with strong drink: priests and prophets have gone astray through liquor. They are intoxicated with wine and stagger because of strong drink; they err as seers, they blunder in their decisions. . . .
“You have supposed, by taking refuge in deception and hiding behind falsehoods, to have covenanted with Death, or reached an understanding with Sheol, that, should a flooding scourge sweep through [the earth], it shall not reach you. . . . Your Covenant with Death shall prove void, your understanding with Sheol have no effect: when the flooding scourge sweeps through, you shall be overrun by it. As often as it sweeps through, you shall be seized by it: morning after morning it shall sweep through, by day and by night [it shall seize you]; it shall cause terror merely to hear word of it” (Isaiah 28:7, 15, 18–19).
In spite of the many troubles that are prophesied would mar the end-time church—including the judgments of God that follow—the church itself endures, though its inner vessel is cleansed: “I, the Lord, have made my church in these last days like unto a judge sitting on a hill, or in a high place, to judge the nations. For it shall come to pass that the inhabitants of Zion shall judge all things pertaining to Zion. And liars and hypocrites shall be proved by them, and they who are not apostles and prophets shall be known. And even the bishop, who is a judge, and his counselors, if they are not faithful in their stewardships shall be condemned, and others shall be planted in their stead” (Doctrine & Covenants 64:37–40).
We then observe how the church gives way to the formation of Zion, a higher spiritual category of God’s people that transcends the church and ushers in the earth’s millennial age: “For, behold, I say unto you that Zion shall flourish, and the glory of the Lord shall be upon her; And she shall be an ensign unto the people, and there shall come unto her out of every nation under heaven. And the day shall come when the nations of the earth shall tremble because of her, and shall fear because of her terrible ones. The Lord hath spoken it. Amen” (Doctrine & Covenants 64:41–43).