Becoming the Family of God
Understanding the true purpose of the Church
I grew up thinking that families were part of the Church.
The Church was the biggest, the most important, and the most eternal thing; and was the core and the reason of and for all other worthwhile things that existed. It held all truth and no error, and from its Salt Lake center would roll forth out of the mountains and dominate the whole earth.
The family fit nicely into that paradigm. Family was the thing that brought us here to earth and that got us to church. It supported the Church, supplied the raw material for wards, and was the source for bishops and relief societies and deacons quorums.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I had it backwards.
The family is what is eternal—our families as parts of God’s family—and they will make up the Kingdom of Heaven long after the Church and this mortal earth have passed away. The temporary Church is, in President Lee’s words, “the scaffolding with which we build eternal families” and the proper order of things is, in President Nelson’s words “home-centered, church supported.”
Paraphrasing what Christ said about the Sabbath, The Church was made for Families, and not Families for the Church. Getting this backwards can fray testimonies, trivialize familial relationships and suggest a Church that manages rather than ministers.
Means and ends
My 10-year-old granddaughter was practicing the piano one day when I stopped by for a visit. I listened for a minute and said “you are getting good!” I listened for another minute and asked “What is your goal?”
Proudly, she said “To practice for an hour every day.”
Her answer suggested that she, like so many of us, was not clear on the difference between a goal and a plan—between the end and the means. I tried to explain that a goal was a destination—something you want to get to, or complete, or become; and that a plan was what you do to get there. With that simple explanation, she decided that her goal was to be able to play all of piano book 3, and her plan was to practice for an hour every day.
Why does it matter? Because if the plan is thought of as the goal, we can become mechanical—just going through the motions, doing our duty, putting in our time, being “active.”
The clearer our long-range goals are, the better the target they provide for our shorter-range goals and for our plans. If we know the end, we can find the means. The beauty of the Restoration is that it explains, to the degree that we can understand it, our longest-range goal of Exaltation, which then guides our plans and actions. And the beauty of the atonement is that it compensates and makes up for the great gaps between where we want to go and where we can get ourselves.
Piano paradigms are one thing, but when we apply the same separation of ends and means to the big, eternal plane, we begin to see a bright new paradigm. The why questions become cosmic, yet in the light of the Restoration, they are surprisingly simple, and they unfold like the endless series of “why” and “how” that children sometimes loop into:
Why are we here? To exercise agency and become more like God—more like our Heavenly Parents
Why? Because they want us to have what they have
How? By having all the options and choosing and experiencing joy
Why? Because They love us
Why? Because we are literally Their spiritually-begotten children and They want us to grow enough to return to Them and be more like Them
How? Through Christ’s atonement
In this context, Family is the earthly embryo of what we want to be for eternity.
And, eternal family is totally and completely inclusive—here in so many configurations and further-forming in the world beyond—no one left out, none without all opportunity (see the poem Inclusive that concludes this article).
Eternal Family as the end, Christ as the indispensable means, and Church as scaffolding
Not long ago, Faith Matters interviewed a large group of millennials and asked them what they meant when they said “the Church.” In essence, most of them gave what we will call paradigm-one answers: “The institution . . . the Brethren . . . that headquarters in Salt Lake . . . those that tell us what to do and how to live.”
When we shift to paradigm-two, the Church becomes a nurturing and revealing community, the support, the scaffolding—imperfect in its human administration but sweepingly spectacular in its revelation—a helper, a facilitator, a means that helps us to do what is required in order to become who we should be and to reach the family end that God wants for us and that Christ has made possible.
Compare and contrast the two:
The Church as the End (Paradigm One)
In this view, the Church is our measurement and our identity. It judges us (and we often judge it). It is something we have to swallow whole, believing all parts of it totally whether we understand them or not. In this perspective, doubts are weaknesses. Mortality is a test from a sovereign God. And only the true Church competes with false, abominable creeds.
The Church as the Means (Paradigm Two)
In this view, the Church is a support and guide for our families. It provides a culture that can supersede worldly cultures. It is a path of powerful covenants that help us to make good choices and remember who we are. It is a gift from a loving Father, and a series of revealed, restored insights which come to us through imperfect but striving and inspired leaders. It is a beacon that can enlighten, motivate and steer us toward God and God’s goals, and it is a catalyst and combiner of all truth everywhere.
Paradigm-two does not, in any way, lessen the Church or diminish its importance or that of its called leaders. The Church is the Kingdom of God on earth, and it is led by prophets, and it is what we need here, now. As the Doctrine and Covenants says, “…may it go forth, that the Kingdom of Heaven may come.”
This second Paradigm is not only more true, it is more beautiful
Consider how dramatically our perspectives change in Paradigm-Two:
Fault-lines in our history, or imperfections in our ward and stake leaders are not particularly upsetting or faith-challenging, they are just the reality that comes with the human-ness of a people-administered lay Church.
We are not so much trying to conform to the Church—rather to have the Church’s help in finding our own unique foreordinations and destinies. We feel less stressed about how we compare with other Church members and how we conform to the standard sequence of the covenant path. Instead, we feel more joy in our own particular sequence, moving toward a common ultimate end that all can reach over an eternity that includes a millennium and a spirit world prior to our judgement.
We share the Restored Gospel not as the only truth which replaces other truth, but as new revealed truth which adds to and combines with the true beliefs and faith that others have, learning from them as we teach, and receiving from them as we give.
Instead of judging ourselves or feeling judged by others on how “active” we are in attending every meeting and checking every box, we pay attention to how active our minds are in questioning, in thinking, in listening, in learning and in growing; and to how active and engaged our hearts are in serving, seeking, and understanding.
The church is not the Rameumptom tower we climb to get to heaven, but the temporary “scaffolding with which we build eternal families.”
We are, truly, “home-centered and church-supported” and we love rather than resist all that scaffolding which helps us build families that last into eternity.
We understand President Nelson’s couplet “Salvation is an individual matter; Exaltation is a family matter,” and we notice that most of what was lost in the Apostasy and is being restored in the Restoration is about Exaltation.
The concept of Heavenly Parents is not a distraction from Church doctrine that we should not think or talk about, it is the representation of the ultimate goal that we seek. Our end is to be like They are, and our means is to do what They have done, including marriage and parenting either here or in the hereafter.
Problems and challenges begin to feel like benevolent parts of mortal experience, without which we would be underprepared for what is to come.
Within this second paradigm, we can have questions and doubts without walking away from the Church or discarding all that it has given us—which would feel like junking a car because it has one tire with a slow leak, or deciding to swim rather than staying on a boat that is painted a color we don’t like or has an engine that coughs or sputters occasionally.
“But wait,” ask those who are thinking of leaving, “aren’t there other cars, other boats?”
Yes there are, but try to find another church, another means, another boat, that will teach and expand you through doctrines like:
Our Heavenly Parents—our parental God
The premortal life and the agency that comes with mortality
Christ’s all-encompassing roles of Creator, Jehovah, Savior, and judge
Restoration of priesthood and ordinances
Eternal marriage and families
Temple covenants for us and our ancestors
An equalizing spirit world and an eternal-progression heaven
Three additional books of holy scripture
The clarified goals of joy, exaltation and eternal lives
That is a lot to leave.
That is a means that is hard to replace.
Postscript Poem (to any who felt left out or un-included as they viewed the words and pictures above).
inclusive is another word for unity the antonym of division and the correct interpretation of God and restoration the onlooking world gets it backwards (and often so do we) temples are exclusive God saves the few most are wicked and disqualified sheep are in goats are out some have families and some don’t these are errors of mortal shortsighted pseudo-division prophet oaks said our theology begins with Heavenly Parents in that light who would interpret gathering zion as separating the good kids from bad or covenant path as singular or tiny celestial as walled off from everyone else or exaltation as slipping in before the door closes all accuse god of being small and partial the direct opposite of what God is oh God please excuse the absurdity of our petty time-bound judgements “don’t talk of marriage or family because you’re leaving out singles and lgbtq” no no no no no one is left out thinking otherwise disrespects God as a Father parents do not leave out some of their children just because we do not know the way does not mean there is no way zion is everyone—we are just presently gathering the first part covenant paths is plural because the same gates may come in different sequences for each with even earth and spirit worlds interchangeable so look up and let your spirit expand beyond our simpleness all are in all are Theirs all can have all in a place and a span where there is so much time that there is none the how has been calculated all we must do is receive and accept and act and we have the incalculable forever to do so we do what we can now not for future admission but for present joy none can exclude but themselves and that is easier to understand than we might think after all who would you deny among your spiritual siblings
With degrees from Utah State, BYU, and Harvard, Richard Eyre is a former London Mission President and candidate for Utah Governor. His writing career has produced more than 50 published books and made him a N. Y. Times #1 bestselling author, a global speaker, and a frequent guest on national media. Contact him here.