One fascinating aspect of my old church is its claim to be “God’s Kingdom,” the one little flock of true believers that exists anywhere on earth. Almighty God, who wants everybody saved, has for some reason stashed his keys of reconciliation in a place where almost nobody would know to look.1 But, the story goes, he is going to damn almost everybody for not finding them.
The (Finnish) True Church
You see, after getting Christianity spread across the planet over the course of two thousand years, God has chosen those 100,000 or so Finns and descendants of Finns who were lucky enough to have been “born into a Christian home,” plus maybe another thousand converts, as his “grace children.” They comprise about 0.002% of the world’s population. Everybody else–other kinds of Laestadians (there are several), other kinds of Lutherans, all those generic Christians in their innumerable “dead faiths”–God is unwilling or unable to help.2
It’s quite a story, breathtaking in its audacity. Yet it’s so deeply ingrained into Conservative Laestadian doctrine that it’s hardly ever spelled out in sermons.3 When a preacher laments the loved ones who have given up this precious gift of living faith or forsaken the fellowship of God’s Children or left the Kingdom, everybody knows what he’s talking about. Those poor misguided saps are no longer members of the Laestadian Lutheran Church, and they’d better not die in that condition. It doesn’t matter if they still profess the basics of Christianity, perhaps more sincerely then ever, or became (spoken in hushed tones) one of those people who don’t even believe in God. They’re spiritually dead just the same, and headed for hellfire if physical death completes the equation to yield eternal death.
“God’s Kingdom has an address” is one old saying I heard in sermons and discussions from time to time. But the church doesn’t go out of its way to inform the outside world about just how detailed the directions are. “The kingdom of God is to be found on earth according to the teachings of Jesus,” says its How We Believe web page. “It is a kingdom of grace on earth and a kingdom of glory in heaven. The kingdom of God is one-minded in faith, doctrine, and love.” Another page, The Kingdom of Heaven, gives a few hints of something a bit more specific: “In this world God’s kingdom is hidden beneath the flaws and faults of believing people ... What we can offer you is God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ.”
That’s a nice enough offer, but it omits the unpleasant yet absolutely essential detail that no other offer will do, from anyone else and that you will fry in hell forever if you don’t take them up on it. It’s like a doctor knowing that a certain 70-person clinic down a side road somewhere near the Maltby Cafe off Highway 522 has the only batch of experimental chemo in the entire Seattle Metro area that can cure your rare and imminently fatal form of cancer. Imagine her just telling you to head north from Olympia looking for a good oncology center, mentioning some obscure one nobody’s ever heard of that’s a two-hour drive away, and then hanging up.4
Why not just come out with the bracing truth and “call a spade a spade,” as one LLC preacher is fond of saying? If you believe that your clinic has this indispensable medication, that your church is the only way people can avoid the horrors of hellfire, it seems that you would want to convey the absolute urgency of the situation. “Don’t go anywhere else, you hear? This is the place!” I asked an LLC elder about it some years ago: Why wasn’t the church website clearer about who will be saved and who will not? He replied, “Well, we don’t want to scare people off.” 5
Perhaps vagueness is considered desirable for PR purposes, but the exclusivity doctrine is certainly something that members are expected to believe. The LLC’s paper “Unity of Faith and Understanding” makes that very clear, at least to those who know the intended meanings of “house of God” and “saving faith”:
It is no small matter when an individual or group, either secretly or openly, begins to believe that the house of God is not necessarily “the pillar and ground of truth” in all matters of soul and conscience or that there is more than one saving faith.6
So I will provide the public with some clarity about one of my old church’s key doctrines where it declines to do so: All of the billions of mentally competent individuals over the age of accountability who now occupy this planet other than Conservative Laestadians are headed for an eternity of unthinkable torture. “Preciously believing” ones, that is, not those fence-sitting “New Age” believers or party animals with grievous hidden sin on their consciences. And, unless the world finally ends after two thousand years of failed expectations, that same horrible fate will be shared by almost all of the billion or so of the world’s children as they reach the age of accountability without any clue about how to be saved.7
Are you on board with this? Head back to church or visit llchurch.org if you have felt the call of God’s Kingdom. But first you might want to consider the other groups that each claim they are the only true church. Why should just one of them automatically be given the benefit of the doubt, after all?
The (Filipino) True Church
I was in Hawaii on a Sunday morning last month, and visited an Iglesia ni Cristo church I’d spotted while sightseeing the day before. The name means “The Church of Christ” in Tagalog. It was a group I’d written about in An Examination of the Pearl, and I just had to see for myself what its services were like. My wife slept in.
A surprised but polite usher escorted me to a seat near the back of their small sanctuary. The congregation was strictly divided between men and women on opposite sides of a central aisle. I sat down and flipped through the songbook as the congregation halfheartedly accompanied an organ and a choir of white-robed Filipino women.
It was interesting to see how similar the messages in the songs were to what I grew up singing. One of them told of “The kingdom, so glorious and blest,” into which, the singer was to recall aloud, “Motivated by faith, I gladly entered” and where “now I do receive / The care for my once-troubled soul.” It is “Within His kingdom”, the song said, where the “great mercy and grace” of the Father is found, along with “His teachings, great beyond compare.” Another song began, “This lonely land is not my true home,” expressing the same yearning for eternity as a beloved old Song of Zion I heard in warm little sanctuaries for nearly 40 years: My home is not here where I journey, ah, no, it is far, far away.8
Those sanctuaries were and still are filled with Finns whose ancestors (in my case, two Finnish grandparents) had left an earthly homeland on the other side of the Atlantic. And in the rough wooden interior of this little church in Hawaii, I sat amidst people whose ancestral origins lay across a different ocean, the Pacific. I was the only white person in the building, looking at the backs of about 150 dark-haired heads, plus the blond-dyed hair of a guy right in front of me who must have been the local rebel.
Actually, I suspect there were a few more rebels with me in those back rows, young guys who reluctantly dragged themselves to their mandatory Sunday morning church attendance. The one to my left was furiously bouncing his knee and shifting position the whole time. And I’m pretty sure I heard some audible snickering behind me at a few points during the preacher’s fervent oratory.
As an outsider, I certainly found it amusing, though I was far too polite to give any indication of that. Imagine stuff like “We cannot neglect our offering to almighty God!” shouted sing-song fashion over a jabbing pointed finger, by a guy with black helmet hair, a thick Asian accent, and a voice that bordered dangerously close to a squeak. Despite all his efforts, to which some people in the rows ahead of me responded with evident or at least well-acted emotion, I walked out of the place without the slightest pang of fear or interest in hearing more of his preaching.
You would have, too, whether you are religious or not. You simply do not take this group’s claims seriously. You may never even have heard of it before now. But it teaches that you are going to hell, and it has about five million members.
The Iglesia ni Cristo began in the Philippines by the inspiration of one Felix Manalo in 1914, after reaching “a pivotal point in his personal religious odyssey.” He “embarked on a programme of evening evangelism,” which yielded about 100 converts within the first year.9
Fairly early in the group’s history, some members emigrated to America and, with guidance from the leadership back home, established congregations at their new locations.10 As with Laestadianism, though, the American adherents still represent only a fraction of the total worldwide membership. And neither movement has attracted substantial interest outside its original ethnic group; most everybody is a descendant of immigrants from the old country. If what I saw in Hawaii was any indication, God’s chosen people in the U.S. are almost all Filipino.11
Today, Manalo figures prominently in the church’s history, and his grandson Eduardo is now its leader, the “Executive Minister.” But the church considers itself “of God and of Christ,” and says Manalo is only “God’s instrument in preaching the gospel of salvation in these last days.” He was, after all, “the first one to proclaim about the Church of Christ” in the Philippines where most of the church’s members are still found today.12
The story is not too different in structure from Laestadian lore about Lars Levi receiving the Gospel from one member of an obscure group of “Readers” and then unleashing it from his pulpit in Karesuando. And the spiritual successors of Laestadius also disclaim him as any kind of an object of worship, though the ones in the OALC sure devote a lot of their service to reverent mentions of his name and readings of his written sermons.
Naturally, one true church means just one true doctrine: “Unity in the Church is quite significant, because our unity includes God and Christ. It is wrong to destroy this unity.” 13 Again there is a striking familiarity between these words from the Philippines and the ones coming from the LLC. They really want everybody on board with the party line, and there is only one party line.
The Iglesia ni Cristo makes the same exclusivity claim as each schismatic branch of Laestadianism does for itself. (Obviously, only one of them can be correct about it, at most.) If you are not a member of the Church, “you will not be saved on the Day of Judgment.” 14 And what they mean by “the Church” is very specific: “The prevailing belief that all churches belong to God is false. Christ founded only one Church–the church of Christ.” 15 Man receives “redemption and the forgiveness of sins” only through this Church. “In God’s scheme of salvation, Christ and the Church of Christ are inseparable” 16
That quoted material is from Iglesia ni Cristo’s materials, but it could just as well have come from the SRK/LLC, OALC, IALC, or FALC. If they could be persuaded to come out and actually say it publicly, that is.
I have been in contact with people who have left all of those branches of Laestadianism as well as the Church of Christ (Boston Movement), the “Churches of Christ,” “the Truth” aka the 2x2s or “church without a name,” and More Than Conquerors Faith Church of Birmingham, Alabama. Indeed, for most of the seven groups listed besides my own former SRK/LLC Laestadianism, my conversations and correspondence have been with more than ex-member from each group. They all spoke and wrote to me about their experiences in a church where everybody in all the others is considered damned to hell, including the sincere believers I grew up with.17
The nerve of them, I thought about the churches these people had left. Then we smiled together about how firmly that same outrageous and indefensible idea had remained implanted in each of our brains, before that other ex-exclusivist ever had the slightest clue about my old church or I ever did about theirs. And our respective former churches still go on with their self-absorbed preaching, condemning each other and everybody else without knowing or caring to know.
“God our Saviour ... will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4); “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). ↩
If God really wants everybody to be saved, he must be quite unhappy about a world where so few actually are. He seems unable to do anything about the situation, yet he’s supposedly omnipotent, which means nothing can stand in his way (Mark 10:25-27). This show-stopper of a theological problem I discuss in one of my most popular postings, The New Testament Disproving Itself. ↩
The results can be embarrassing for the church when one of its preachers does stray into discussing the awful specifics. In a sermon given at the LLC’s 2010 Winter Services, for example, one of them started talking about the “kind of reaction we sometimes hear today when we speak about God’s Kingdom.” Things got a little too candid when he went on, “‘You really think this is the only place where forgiveness is found? Do you really think that you are the only group that is traveling to heaven, the only group of believers? Do you really believe that?’ And of course, to the rational mind it does seem like an awfully simple way to believe, doesn’t it? When we look around us in this world and we see the people and the churches and the deeds that people do and all of these outward things, certainly we can understand that to the carnal mind our faith is so foolish. That’s what Paul found too, when he preached. He said we preach Jesus Christ and him crucified, and to the Jews it’s a stumbling block, and to the Greeks it’s foolishness.” Paul was talking about Christianity itself, not some group’s sectarian claims of exclusivity; I wonder what he would have thought about his church becoming so absurdly limited in scope as to be practically invisible. ↩
The size of my hypothetical clinic is proportional to the 0.002% figure, given the Seattle metro area’s population of 3.6 million people. And the Seattle Laestadian Lutheran Church is down that road off Highway 522, in case you were wondering. However, instead of 70 people there are about 200-300 “who have been called by the grace of God to be partakers of the hope of eternal life” and “individually have been given grace to believe the forgiveness of our own sins in Jesus’ name and blood.” ↩
This soft-pedaling to outsiders contradicts the idea that God’s holy law, “our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ” as Gal. 3:24 puts it, is being preached in all its harshness to unbelievers to prod us into repentance. See An Examination of the Pearl, §4.5.1. ↩
From “A Song of my Home I am Singing,” Songs and Hymns of Zion No. 576, v. 2. ↩
Robert R. Reed, “The Iglesia ni Cristo, 1914-2000. From obscure Philippine faith to global belief system.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, The Philippines Historical and Social studies. Vol. 157, No. 3, pp. 561-608. ↩
Reed at pp. 583-85. ↩
“Iglesia is not better known, despite its numbers, because the majority of Iglesia’s members are Filipino. Virtually the only exceptions are a few non-Filipinos who have married into Iglesia families” (Catholic Answers, catholic.com/tracts/iglesia-ni-cristo). ↩
Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About unity.” ↩
Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About being registered.” The Iglesia ni Cristo goes so far as to have a “registry on earth” that corresponds to “the registry in heaven (the Book of Life),” which really just makes official what Conservative Laestadianism believes about membership status in its organization. The closest thing it has to an earthly “Book of Life” is the little paperback church phone book that comes out every year. I have to admit I was a bit sad to see an edition of it without my wife and me listed for the first time. ↩
Manual for New Members, Part 4, under “About the true religion.” ↩
Pasugo (the church’s monthly newsletter): January 1997; September 1988. ↩
I have varying degrees of certainty about how much these different groups hold to the belief that they are the only place where salvation may be found. I’ve read quite a bit about the Churches of Christ, for example, and exclusivity has been a commonly made claim among them, even in writing at times. On the other hand, all that I know about the More than Conquerors group making that claim comes from a person who left it. But all of my correspondents from the groups listed seemed sure that the exclusivity idea was commonly understood among their brethren when they were among them. And of course there are other groups not discussed in this essay with the same view, or at least a general belief that nobody else is quite as saved as they are. ↩