The apostasy of the church established by Jesus's apostles (the "Primitive Church") is hinted at in the Bible, but there is no passage (that I know of) that says that the entire church (or all believers) would apostatize, only that there would be a "falling away" before Christ comes, and that many who believed will no longer believe, due to unrighteousness and sin. (2 Thess 2:3; for more LDS scriptural references, see Topical Guide and The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "Apostasy")
Mormons, however, believe that there was a complete apostasy of the Primitive Church The idea of a complete apostasy is not confined to Mormons. The Protestant Reformation was based on the idea that the original church had fallen into corruption and doctrinal error. In the late 18th and early 19th century there was a widespread movement that claimed to see such great apostasy from the church led by the original apostles that the original church would have to be "restored." These were the Restorationists, and included the Millerites, the Adventists, the Campbellites, and other smaller sects. Since Sidney Rigdon was steeped in Campbellite doctrine, much of it was adopted through him into Mormonism. The Adventist prophetess Ellen G. White wrote a large book, still revered by Adventists, called The Great Apostasy. Mormon apostle James E. Talmage wrote a similar book with the same title, and it is still in print.
One difference between Mormon teaching and other Restorationist teaching is the idea of authority. Mormons believe that ordinances are only valid if performed by one who has authority given to him directly from God or through God's authorized representatives. (See The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "Authority".)
But the idea of apostasy is a double-edged sword for Mormons. They claim that over the decades after the original apostles had died the church lost its authority because of the changes in doctrines and the corruption and sinfulness of the church leaders (they can't tell you exactly when that was; they view it as gradual). This idea of loss of authority through sin and corruption is also stated in Mormon scripture.
Doctrine & Covenants (D&C)121:36-37 says that the priesthood must be "...handled only upon the principles of righteousness. ...[W]hen we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man!" The Encyclopedia of Mormonism: "Authority".)
Those are very problematic verses for the church. They say that any priesthood holder who attempts to use his priesthood to exert "dominion" over others "in any degree of unrighteousness" loses his priesthood and his authority: "the heavens withdraw."
Now, the problem for Mormons is this: How does one know that a priesthood holder has not sinned or abused his authority sufficiently to have lost his authority? Elder X baptizes Convert Y, and Y thinks he has been validly baptized. But Elder X has been secretly seducing the young women in his branch, telling them he has the "authority" to bed them down. Has he lost his priesthood authority because of that (according to D&C 121:37)? Surely those acts should qualify as an "exercise of unrighteous dominion." If so, Y is NOT baptized, according to Mormon doctrine, because it was done by someone who no longer had the authority to do so. Think about it: if a bishop has used his priesthood authority in any degree of unrighteousness, to "exercise dominion," his priesthood is no longer valid. Any deacon or priest or elder he ordains is not really ordained.
This calls into question every ordinance performed by Mormon priesthood holders, it would seem. Unless you can check out every Mormon priesthood-holder who is performing an ordinance (ordination, baptism, baby blessing, anointing the sick, sealing a marriage, ordaining another man to the priesthood), you cannot be sure that the man performing the ordinance REALLY has the authority, that he has not lost it due to some abuse of it. Remember: if he has lost his priesthood, the ordinances he performs are not valid. And, more devastating: Mormon priesthood holders sometimes are proud of being able to trace their "priesthood lineage" through the man who ordained them, and the men who ordained them, and each man in the "chain of priesthood authority" back to Joseph Smith. If ANY man in that chain had been guilty of "unrighteous dominion" then no man in the chain subsequent to him holds a valid priesthood, since they were ordained by someone who had lost authority.
Actually, the whole idea of the "restoration" being necessary is based on the principle that the early Christian church leaders lost their priesthood through unrighteousness. Why should it be any different in modern times?
Did Brigham or Joseph ever exercise "unrighteous dominion" while asserting their priesthood authority? ("They were only human" is not a valid excuse!) If they did, they lost their authority, and any man who derives his priesthood from them is holding a non-existent authority, according to their own scriptures!
The Mormons to whom I have raised this issue generally reply that the validity of the ordinance does not depend entirely on the character of the man performing the ordinance, but also on the faith and belief of the one receiving it: if the person receiving the ordinance faithfully believes that the ordinance is valid, then God will accord validity to it.
But that idea destroys the entire basis for the claim that the original church lost its authority, or that the rituals of non-Mormon churches are not valid, since surely a young Baptist, being baptized by the Baptist minister, believes that she is being baptized by someone with authority to do it, doesn't she? And all the recipients of ordinances during the centuries when Mormons claim that the church was in apostasy and without authority, surely they also faithfully believed the ordinances were valid, did they not?
Another similar approach by which Mormons try to wiggle out of the problem is to assert (contrary to D&C 121) that priesthood authority is like a driver's license or a contractor's license. Having obtained it (been ordained to the priesthood), its authority is valid until taken away by some official action. But this approach, too, destroys the entire idea of the Great Apostasy, since nobody officially deprived all the Christian priests and bishops of their ordinations during those long centuries after the death of the apostles.
Another problem for Mormons with the idea of the Great Apostasy is that they fail to see how their accusations of corruption and changing doctrine in the history of the Christian churches must also apply to their own church and their own leaders. Actually, the basis for almost all of the many offshoots from Mormonism - from the Reorganized LDS (now "Community of Christ") on the one end to the Fundamentalist LDS on the other end is precisely that claim: that the original LDS church fell into apostasy by changing fundamental doctrines established by the Prophet Joseph Smith and by the subsequent corruption of the church's leaders. (For many Mormons who eventually leave the church, it is often the realization of that more modern apostasy that is the first eye-opening moment.)
The typical Mormon response to this is that Mormons believe in "continuing revelation": that is, the leaders receive inspiration from God to add to or to change doctrines and practices. God reveals his doctrine "line upon line, precept upon precept." However, not all fundamental changes are contained in published revelations. The 1890 rejection of plural marriage (polygamy) was done without publishing the actual revelation from God. Nor was the 1978 change allowing blacks to hold the priesthood. The leaders claimed that it was through revelation, but, unlike Joseph Smith, they could not come up with the Lord's exact words. The many changes in the temple endowment ritual were not even claimed to be by direct revelation. And remember that Joseph Smith said that one of the marks of a false revelation is that it contradicts a previous revelation. (History of the Church 4:581)
Now, if those changes do not indicate apostasy from the 1830 church, then how can the Mormons claim that the changes made in the first centuries of the Christian church were not made because of similar divine instructions?
So Mormons are faced with difficult questions:
There are no possible answers to those questions that do not come back and slap the Mormon.
- Does an individual priesthood holder's authority disappear automatically when he abuses his authority unrighteously?
- If NO, then D&C 121 is false doctrine, and there was no apostasy from the church of the Apostles.
- If YES, then no Mormon can be certain that the ordinances performed are valid.
- Is a church in apostasy when it changes fundamental doctrines?
- If NO, then the Primitive church and its successors cannot be considered in apostasy for doing so.
- If YES, then the present church is in apostasy for changing the fundamental doctrines established in the 1830 church.
- Is a church in apostasy when its leaders act unrighteously exercising "dominion"?
- If NO, then there is no justification for giving that as a major reason for the "Great Apostasy."
- If YES, then one must ask whether leaders of the LDS church have not, through their unrighteous exercise of dominion, led the church into apostasy.