The Truth of Relationship

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Hymn number 272 in the LDS hymn book poses one of the most important questions around: “Oh say, what is truth?” Interestingly, the song never answers the question it poses—it describes truth (a gem, a prize, the first and last) but never offers a definition for the term. The Doctrine and Covenants calls truth the “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93:24), which (if I’m honest) isn’t much help either given our limited understanding of the past and the future (and, really, of the present).  And since I’m not a philosopher by training, I’m not well equipped to survey the thousands of years of thinking on the subject (though Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers a fabulous starting point).[1]

All that to say, the phrase “I know the church is true”—which is ubiquitous in most LDS Wards and Stakes and is common fare in General Conference addresses—is phrase I’ve always struggled to understand. You see, common usage of the term “truth” seems to be tied to claims/statements. Generally speaking, what most people seem to mean when they say a thing is “true” is that a given claim/statement aligns with facts on the ground (or in heaven!).  Yet “the church” is not a claim/statement; church is a social group. How can a social group be “true”?

One way to square this is to say that the phrase “the church” is a verbal shortcut that reallymeans “doctrinal claims/statements of LDS leaders/scriptures” (thus “I know that [doctrinal claims/statements of LDS leaders/scriptures] are true”). But that approach begs the question: does the word “church” used in this way only refer doctrinal claims/statements of LDS leaders/scriptures?  I think, clearly, the answer is no since common usage by LDS folks seems to also include things like ordinances, actions of the auxiliary organizations, etc. So, there must be something else at play.

Another approach to decoding this phrase is to follow the lead that Eugene England marks out in his pivotal essay “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel” (you should read it if you haven’t already).[2] I’m not a Eugene England expert so I try to won’t summarize the essay or explain how it fits into his overall approach to this topic, but one point he makes in this essay that resonates with me is the idea that “the church is true” because the social unit we call “church” is well-positioned to help us each grapple with the opposition life throws at all of us.[3] Using this notion as a jumping off point, it seems, then, that at least one way to understand the “truth” of the church is the relationality that it fosters.  Said differently, it seems to me that we can understand truth as relationships.

I know this sounds a little odd.  The idea of “truth as relationships” runs contrary to the common usage of truth (e.g., as associated with claims/statements). And yet this notion has scriptural precedent. Consider that in Jesus’s Intercessory Prayer rather than a concern that his followers would understand specific doctrinal claims/statements, Jesus’s prays for deep covenantal relationship. And why? Because covenant relationality is the cornerstone of Jesus’s atoning work. Jesus expresses His desire that all of us “may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us… I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:21, 23). Jesus teaches that relationship with Him and with each other is what it means to be exalted. Jesus says this directly, in fact, when he notes that that eternal life is “to know…the only true God, and Jesus Christ” (John 17:3). In other words, the “truth” that leads to eternal life is identical to relationality with Jesus and each other.

There are many other scriptural examples which reinforce the idea that relationality is at the core of Gospel “truth.” While space does not allow exploring this in-depth, consider these ideas as a start:

  • Jesus notes that loving God and loving our neighbor (i.e., relationships) are the centerpiece of the “law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:34-40)  
  • The parable of the good Samaritan prioritizes care for each other (i.e., relationship) over institutional affiliation (Luke 10:25-37)
  • Jesus’s sermon about the goats and the sheep suggests serving the weak and weary (i.e., relationship) is the essence of the Christian vocation (Matthew 25:31-45, see also Mosiah 2:17)
  • Alma teaches that practicing communal care (i.e., relationship) is what it looks like to be God’s people (Mosiah 18:8-10)
  • Gospel ordinances are expressly intended to bind people (i.e., create relationships) to each other and to God (D&C 128:9, 18; Galatians 3:29; Ephesians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 12:13-27)

All of these examples drive to the same point: relationality is the epicenter of God’s work. And thus “I know this church is true” can legitimately be understood to mean something like “I know that [relationality among each of us and with God] is true.” And that phrase should probably be extended to include something like: “And that this relationality is eternal life.”

What happens when we start to see “truth as relationships”? For one thing, defending (or arguing for) specific doctrinal claims/statements takes a back seat to learning to love those with whom we interact. Additionally, spreading “truth” starts to look a lot more like service than it does like proselyting. Championing “truth” becomes standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves rather than protecting institutional positions. And God’s work becomes one of healing rather than one of convincing. This isn’t to say that doctrinal claims/statements don’t matter, only that they may not matter as much as the actions that foster relationality: justice, mercy, and faith (Matthew 23:23). And, if that is the case, then I really do believe the church is true.


[1] Glanzberg, Michael, “Truth”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2021/entries/truth/.

[2] Eugene England, “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel,” in Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel. (1986) Bookcraft, Orem UT: 1986. Pgs. 1-15.

[3] Ibid, Pg. 3

Comments

  1. Stephen Hardy says:

    This post makes me more optimistic about the church, about society, and mostly about myself.

  2. Good post, I hadn’t thought about this exactly as presented. There’s definitely something to it since the community of the church members is arguably as important as the gospel teachings themselves. We refer to wards as ward families after all. On the other hand we’ve all attended unpleasant, dysfunctional units with leaders that we’d never want to associate long term. I’d estimate the ratio of positive to negative church relationships / units in my life is approximately 50/50.

    Interestingly, over at wheat and tares there’s a post asserting that church communities are largely superficial, usually not reaching the level of true friendship.

    I guess I’d say there are two components to finding value in the church 1) doctrine 2) community. If you have only one you can probably last for a while but I’d assert it’s unsustainable in the long run since they are deeply intertwined.

  3. Or you can have a little fun with the phrase and start referring to yourself as a member of the true ward or the true stake. Reactions are always amusing because most people never put any real thought into what for many is a catch phrase, tossed out because it has always been used. Hearing it out of context gives people a start as the cliché is misused. I doubt, however, that it makes anyone more thinking of its usage in the future or of any deeper meaning. I know this as a member of the true shift at the Billings Temple.

  4. Left Field says:

    I’ve never really understood the objection to the expression that the church is true. The second definition of “true” as an adjective (dictionary.com) is “real; genuine; authentic.”

    If one says that Charles III is the true king of England, it means that Charles is the genuine, authentic monarch, and not an impostor or fraudster. If one says that the church is true or authentic, in context it clearly means that the person believes it to be the authentic church of Jesus Christ, as opposed to an apostate or divinely unauthorized church.

    The usage seems to me well within the common meaning of the word “true.”

  5. Thanks for this post.

    Left Field’s comment that “true” can simply mean “real, genuine, or authentic” is fine as far as it goes, but it begs the question of what makes something authentic. Is the church true because God said so? Or is it true because of something we do in collaboration with God to make it so?

    I think David is correct that truth is best understood as being seated in our relationships. Truth is something we do, not something we receive passively. And the things we do only really matter because of how they affect our relationships. As David points out, what is eternal life if not an eternity of loving relationships?

    An authentic relationship is one that nurtures the love that ties us to God and, by extension, ties us to each other. When we achieve this type of relationship, we live truthfully with each other; we have truth.

    This is a crucial idea for the church. I don’t think that everyone needs to be able to articulate the philosophical point that we’re talking about, but I do think that we need to live our understanding of it. I fear that as the church’s sense of community erodes in many ways, we have a tendency to speak of “truth” as merely a proposition rather than a way of acting. If a set of ideas is all that the “truth” of the church turns out to be, then the church will wither. On the other hand, if we keep our focus on loving each other, both we, as individuals, and the church will probably turn out okay.

  6. I love Laurel Ulrich’s formulation from “Lusterware”: The Church is millions of men and women calling each other “brother” and “sister” and trying to make it true.

  7. (OP) M David says:

    Toad—I think it’s probably a fair assessment that many relationships in a given ward or stake are pretty thin. That’s part of what we seem to be called to fix (which resonates with Kristine’s comment)—not just within our worship communities but in the world… and I’d even go so far as to say with nature.

    Once we catch the vision that “relationship” is the be all and end all of this whole enterprise, everything changes.

  8. amphvivian says:

    I once heard that biblical writers use “true” to mean something that brings us closer to God rather than to mean real, genuine or authentic. I can’t remember the source, but it was a biblical scholar. It made everything click into focus for me; no need to verify or debate about truth if all they mean is that it brings them closer to God.

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