I've pondered a lot on Nephi's meaning when he talks about the 'great and abominable church" in 1 Nephi 13 and 14. But I'm excited by the clarity that bursts into view when Nephi's vision is cross-referenced with D&C 10.
In 1 Nephi 13:4-5, Nephi refers to "the formation of a great church" among the Gentiles which is "most abominable above all other churches." My initial understanding of "church" in this context is to mean "denomination," especially when it's compared to other churches. Bruce R McConkie understood it that way as well and identified the "great and abominable church" as the Catholic Church in his first edition of Mormon Doctrine in 1959. While that book was a runaway best-seller, its harsh and authoritative tone and its numerous doctrinal errors were of such concern to the First Presidency that they disallowed a second edition, even to correct the errors, until 7 years later. When a corrective 2nd edition was eventually permitted, the passages about the Catholic Church were removed and the "great and abominable church" was now identified as "all churches or organizations of whatever name or nature...which are designed to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God." (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966], 760).
Evidently, Nephi's meaning for "church" here is not "denomination." What if I replace the word "church" with "form of worship?"
Now, this passage foretells the arising of a pervasive form of worship that is most abominable above all others. This is still challenging, given the depraved forms of worship already in practice among the nations at the time of Nephi's vision, including sacred prostitution and human sacrifice. So what about this new form makes it the "most abominable" ever?
It "slayeth the saints of God, yea, and tortureth them and bindeth them down, and yoketh them with a yoke of iron, and bringeth them down into captivity" (vs 5). But this also is not new. Jezebel did those things as well. So did the government of Rome, presumably in the name of their gods.
However, according to the chronology of the vision, this abominable new form of worship seems to arise after the destruction of the Nephites, around 400 AD. Could it refer to the corruption of Christian teachings to justify coercion, oppression and exploitation, whatever the denomination of the corruptors? Could it be that what made this form of worship so offensive to God was not just its evil deeds, but that they were done in the name of Jesus Christ, who came to deliver us and to teach us perfect love?
In any case, Nephi's understanding of the "great and abominable church" seems to broaden in 1 Nephi14:10, when an angel tells him "Behold, there are save two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil; wherefore, whoso belongeth not to the church of the Lamb of God belongeth to that great church, which is the mother of abominations, and she is the whore of all the earth."
Again, this teaching is problematic if I understand "church" to mean "denomination" and "the church of the Lamb of God" to mean "the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." But that's where D&C 10 provides beautiful clarification that this is not about denomination.
According to the context notes at the beginning of Section 10, most of this revelation was given "likely around April 1829, though portions may have been received as early as the summer of 1828." Either way, it's at least a full year before the organization of the Church of Jesus of Latter-Day Saints. Yet, the Lord says, "If this generation harden not their hearts, I will establish my church among them. I do not say this to destroy my church, but I say this to build up my church; Therefore, whosever belongeth to my church need not fear, for such shall inherit the kingdom of heaven. But it is they who do not fear me, neither keep my commandments but build up churches unto themselves to get gain...that I will disturb, and cause to tremble and shake to the centre" (D&C 10:53-56).
It seems that in this passage, the Lord acknowledges that he has a church already existing on the face of the earth which is now to be established and built up. It has people already belonging to it, whom the Lord is telling that they have nothing to fear from the restoration of the fulness of the gospel.
Then, perhaps in case there's any doubt, he clarifies even further: "Behold, this is my doctrine -- whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church" (D&C 10: 67-68)
I feel like this means that the Church of the Lamb of God and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not one and the same. The Church of the Lamb of God includes all who sincerely repent and come unto Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ without repentance is not enough. Neither is repentance without coming unto Christ.
I feel like membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is supposed to bring us into the Church of the Lamb of God. But that only happens as we understand and embrace the gospel of repentance through Jesus Christ. The saving ordinances of the gospel are of zero efficacy if they aren't accompanied by sincere and continued repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. And anyone who sincerely repents and comes unto Christ will, in this life or after, ultimately receive those ordinances.
A sobering implication to me is that I can be a member in good standing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, at the same time, of the great and abominable church. Because it comes down to my motivations. Am I seeking the kingdom of God, or my own agenda? Am I repenting daily, or weighing myself against my neighbor and resisting the promptings of the Spirit that invite me to do better?
What are your thoughts? Does this open up possibilities in how we can relate to fellow members of the Church of the Lamb who may not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? What might it mean in terms of priorities when sharing the gospel? Does differentiating between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church of the Lamb allow for a more grounded and unshakeable faith in Christ, especially where prominent members of the former make serious mistakes?