The following is the entire sentence in which this phrase is found in our scriptures:
The Lord said, “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—for I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven; and he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.” (D&C 1: 30-33)
I have heard many interpretations of what this phrase means. I have heard members assign different definitions to each of the four main words: “only,” “true,” “living” and “church.” Is this scripture really that hard to interpret? Can it really have so many meanings and interpretations? Or is there but one way to interpret this scripture?
Before I joined the church, the Holy Ghost told me that the church was, and I quote, “the ONLY true church!” I didn’t, at the time, fully understand all that that meant, but I knew that it did mean that I must get baptized, which I subsequently did. Over the years, I (lazily) allowed the meaning that others were placing on the phrase to be the actual meaning of the phrase and left it at that. That is, until I looked hard at the above scripture and also at the communicated message of the Holy Ghost to me those many years ago.
Here is my own analysis: There are three adjectives (only, true and living) modifying one noun (church.) So, before the adjectives can be addressed, the noun (church) must be defined. Some of the meanings I had heard from other members of what the word “church” meant in the above scripture were: the inspired organization (of the church), the doctrine (of the church), the GAs and especially the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, the Melchizedek priesthood power (of the church,) etc.
But when I put these meanings into the scriptural sentence, it didn’t work because in the sentence the Lord states,
“speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—for I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance; nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven; and he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man.”
It became apparent that the “church” that the Lord was speaking to was something that could repent, that could be forgiven, that the Spirit could strive with, that could be collective and also individual. The organization of the church did not fit, nor did the doctrine of the church, as these were things or concepts, and not people. Only people can repent. The priesthood power also was not people, but a thing or concept, and thus was incapable of repentance. Finally, the GAs, First Presidency, and Twelve, although they were people, they did not exist at the time of this revelation. Thus, the only definition that fits this scripture is that when the Lord uses the term “church” here, he is talking about his people, the baptized people of the Lord. We, therefore, are the church that the Lord said were true and living. This is in keeping with another scripture:
Peter said, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10)
How, then, are we true? How can a people be true? My own conclusion is that true refers to our ordinance of baptism, which is truly authorized and valid, being performed by actual priesthood of God. It is our valid, true baptism that allows us to become one of the actual (true) people of God. It is not a dead work, because it is authorized and has God’s sanction. This is why we baptize people of other faiths that have already been baptized.
Finally, how are we a living people? Again, the conclusion I came to was that “living” refers to the Holy Ghost, specifically the laying on of the hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. We are alive (living) because of the Spirit. Take away that Spirit and we are spiritually dead. (Joseph Smith, at one time, did say that the difference between this church and other churches was that we had the Holy Ghost, meaning, as I understand him, that we had the gift of the Holy Ghost, whereas others did not.)
When these terms are defined in this way and the scripture is read again, it takes on a new meaning. The church is not something we belong to, or something distant in Salt Lake City, it is us. We are the only true and living church. If we lose the Spirit, we are still the true church, but are spiritually dead, nevertheless, we can repent and receive forgiveness, as the Lord explained in the scripture. But if we don’t repent, we will lose what light we previously received from the Spirit. Viewing the scripture in this way makes the scripture much more personal. It is, I believe, the actual meaning of these verses.
Now, what does this phrase mean to you?