Sunday School on Apostacy
Twice a month I teach the 13/14 year old Sunday School class in our ward. It’s a difficult calling for me, made much easier recently by my discovering this helpful site. Lesson 24 on avoiding apostasy has been a real struggle for me. The suggestions in the lesson that identify apostasy in the early church involve stories about a cup of cream, a misspelled name, and too few seats at the Kirtland Temple dedication.
While I don’t deny that these stories led to apostasy, I’m bothered that they’re sited at the exclusion some of more serious issues with which the early saints struggled. By no means am I a church history scholar, but I’ve read enough books to know that the early church era was very colorful and that the Mormons went through difficult growing pains. Two examples that came immediately to mind were the Kirtland bank failure, where many saints lost most or all of their money, and polygamy/polyandry practiced by Joseph and hidden from Emma for many years. It seems to me that a lot more apostasy in the early church was caused by these issues (and probably more) than by a cup of cream or a misspelled name.
As I’m preparing the lesson, I cannot bring myself to teach these trivial stories of apostasy when what I want to ask them is, “What would you do if the prophet (or stake president) called your dad tonight and asked him if he could marry you (or your mother)?” Now many people have faith promoting stories surrounding polygamy, and this isn’t really a post about the difficulties surrounding plural marriage. I only want to point out that when people get offended and leave the church it isn’t always about something trivial that we can pat ourselves on the back and say, “I would never have left the church for that.” My attempt to air out some of the early church’s dirty laundry may be an attempt to inoculate my students against future attacks by detractors. Or, perhaps it is my desire to be subversive. Either way, I don’t know if it is my place to explain some of these faith-challenging bits of church history to an age group that is just beginning to form grasp church doctrine and history.
What I want to teach is that the path to apostasy isn’t marked by roadsigns or a map, it actually lies side by side with the path to leading a life in direct connection with God, the kind of life where I seek spiritual confirmation of the commandments that come from church leaders. Perhaps these paths cross over in some places and diverge in others. In the end, my struggle with the lesson on apostasy stems from my concerns in a centralized church structure where our allegiance is not foremost to God, it is foremost to an institution run by men, who like Joseph, were sometimes moved upon by the Spirit. What I’d like to see more focus on is how we can discern between when these men represent God and when they do not.
In this matter, history is a great teacher. Like all of us, Joesph was a fallible human and even though he was called of God, sometimes he made mistakes that hurt people. And if we don’t study those mistakes (alongside the successes) in our history, we may be destined to repeat them.
I wrote this Saturday night while struggling with my lesson. Sunday came and because of small class sizes, our class combined with another class and the other teacher taught them a previous lesson. All in all, an answer to my prayers.