The Gospel and the Church
The following is a talk given by Elder Ronald E. Poelman in the October 1984 General Conference. There are two versions of this talk. The original version, which was given live at conference, and a second version which was not recorded during conference. This post is a transcript of the original. It is not available on lds.org though the re-recorded version is available here. There have been a few sources which have attempted to highlight the differences between the two versions. I have found them to be inaccurate. This is my attempt to transcribe the original version. My source material comes from two YouTube videos which can be found here and here. There will not be an attempt to highlight the differences. If an individual were to find the effort profitable, the two talks can be compared given the sources provided.
My remarks this morning are directed primarily to those of you who have accepted the gospel and are members of the church and to those of you who may be seriously contemplating such acceptance and membership.
Both the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ are true and divine. However, there is a distinction between them which is significant and it is very important that this distinction be understood.
Of equal importance is understanding the essential relationship between the gospel and the church. Failure to distinguish between the two and to comprehend their proper relationship may lead to confusion and misplaced priorities with unrealistic and therefore failed expectations. This in turn may result in diminished benefits and blessings and, in extreme instances, even disaffection.
As I attempt to describe and comment upon some distinguishing characteristics of the gospel and the Church, noting at the same time their essential relationships, it is my prayer that a perspective may be developed which will enhance the influence of both the gospel and the Church in our individual lives.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a divine and perfect plan. It is composed of eternal, unchanging principles and laws which are universally applicable to every individual regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The principles and laws of the gospel never change.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a divine institution, administered by the priesthood of God. The Church has authority to teach correctly the principles and doctrines of the gospel and to administer its essential ordinances.
The gospel is the substance of the divine plan for personal, individual salvation and exaltation. The Church is the delivery system that provides the means and resources to implement this plan in each individual’s life.
Procedures, programs, and policies are developed within the Church to help us realize gospel blessings according to our individual capacity and circumstances. These policies, programs, and procedures do change from time to time as necessary to fulfill gospel purposes.
Underlying every aspect of Church administration and activity are the revealed eternal principles as contained in the scriptures. As individually and collectively we increase our knowledge, acceptance, and application of gospel principles, we become less dependent on Church programs. Our lives become gospel centered.
Sometimes traditions, customs, social practices and even personal preferences of individual Church members may, through repeated or common usage be misconstrued as Church procedures or policies. Occasionally, such traditions, customs and practices maybe even be regarded by some as eternal gospel principles. Under such circumstances those who do not conform to these cultural standards may mistakenly be regarded as unorthodox or even unworthy. In fact, the eternal principles of the gospel and the divinely inspired Church do accommodate a broad spectrum of individual uniqueness and cultural diversity.
The conformity we require should be according to God’s standards. The orthodoxy upon which we insist must be founded in fundamental principles and eternal law, including free agency and the divine uniqueness of the individual. It is important therefore to know the difference between eternal gospel principles which are unchanging, universally applicable and cultural norms which may vary with time and circumstance.
The source of this perspective is found in the scriptures and may appear to be presented in a rather unorganized and even untidy format. The Lord could have presented the gospel to us in a manual, systematically organized by subject, perhaps using examples and illustrations. However, the eternal principles and divine laws of God are revealed to us through accounts of individual lives in a variety of circumstances and conditions.
Reading the scriptures we learn the gospel as it is taught by various messengers at different times and places. We see the consequences as it is accepted or rejected, as its principles are applied or not by varying degrees and by many different people.
In the scriptures we discover that varying institutional forms, procedures, regulations, and ceremonies are utilized – all divinely designed to implement eternal principles. The practices and procedures change; the principles do not.
Through scripture study we may learn eternal principles and how to distinguish them from and relate them to institutional resources. As we liken the scriptures unto ourselves, we can better utilize the institutional resources of the modern, restored church to learn, live, and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A favorite scriptural source for me is the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It is basically a handbook for Hebrew priests and contains many rules, regulations, rituals, and ceremonies which may seem strange and inapplicable to us. It also contains eternal principles of the gospel which are familiar and very much applicable to everyone.
It is interesting and enlightening to read the nineteenth chapter of Leviticus, noting the principles and the practices and rules.
In the first two verses we read, “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the congregation of the children of Israel.” (Lev. 19:1-2) Here is the principle of revelation. God speaks to his children through prophets. He does so today.
Continuing, the Lord says to Moses, “Say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2) Many years later Jesus in these words, in the Sermon on the Mount, said, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) Here is an eternal principle.
There follow other eternal principles, some from the Ten Commandments. Also included are rules and programs intended to implement these principles among the ancient Hebrews in their particular circumstances.
For example, the divinely directed responsibility to care for the poor is taught. A program is presented, namely, providing food for the poor by leaving the gleanings of the crops and not reaping the corners of the fields. (Lev. 19:9-10) Current programs to care for the poor are much different. The divine law is the same. Yet another principle underlies both programs, ancient and modern: that is, those being assisted are given opportunity to participate in helping themselves to the extent of their capacity.
In verse 13 (Lev. 19:13) the principle of honesty is taught, accompanied by a rule requiring employers to pay employees for their work at the end of each day. Generally, today that rule is not necessary. The eternal principle of honesty is implemented by other rules and practices.
Verse 27 (Lev. 19:27) contains a rule about personal grooming. It is clearly not applicable to us. However, we also have standards of dress and grooming. Neither is an eternal principle; both are intended to help us implement and share gospel principles.
The principle of forgiveness is set forth in the same chapter of Leviticus, verse 18 (Lev. 19:18), concluding with the second great commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” with the added divine imprimatur, “I am the Lord.”
Every Church member has not only the opportunity, right, and privilege to receive a personal witness regarding gospel principles and the Church practices, but the need and obligation to obtain such assurance by exercising his free agency. There by fulfilling one purpose of his mortal probation. Without such assurance one may feel confused and perhaps even burdened by what may appear to be simply institutional requirements of the Church.
Indeed, it is not enough to obey the commandments and counsel of Church leaders. In response to study, prayer, and by the influence of the Holy Spirit we may seek and obtain an individual, personal witness that the principle or counsel is correct and divinely inspired. Then we can give enlightened, enthusiastic obedience, utilizing the Church through which to give allegiance, time, talent and other resources without reluctance or resentment.
Happy, fulfilling participation in the Church results when we relate institutional goals, programs, and policies to gospel principles and to personal eternal goals. When we understand the difference between the gospel and the church and the appropriate function of each in our daily lives, we are much more likely to do the right things for the right reasons. Institutional discipline is replaced by self-discipline. Supervision is replaced by righteous initiative and a sense of divine accountability.
The Church aids us in our effort to use our free agency creatively, not to invent our own values and principles, but to discover and adopt the eternal truths of the gospel. Gospel living is a process of continuous individual renewal and improvement until the person is prepared and qualified to enter comfortably and with confidence into the presence of God.
My brothers and sisters, by inclination, training, and experience most of my life I have sought understanding by the accumulation of facts and the application of reason. I continue to do so. However, that which I know most surely and which has most significantly and positively affected my life I do not know by facts and reason alone, but rather by the comforting, confirming witness of the Holy Spirit.
By that same Spirit I testify that God is our Father, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, and that he is the Savior and Redeemer of all mankind and each of us. Through his atoning sacrifice, redemption and exaltation are offered as a free gift to all who will accept by faith, repentance, and sacred covenants.
May each of us continue to learn and apply the eternal principles of the gospel as they are revealed in the scriptures, utilizing fully and appropriately the resources of the divine, restored Church.
In the words of the Book of Mormon Nephite leader Pahoran to his friend Captain Moroni, “May we rejoice in the great privilege of our church, and in the cause of our Redeemer and our God.” (Alma 61:14) In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.