For some time I have been thinking of how to explain the practical functioning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to people outside of my faith. The scattered, unorganized nature of "Christianity" leaves many scratching their heads at the idea of a structured religion like ours. I have read more than one news article making comparisons to the Catholic church. Since I don't really understand the structure of that church, it usually goes over my head, as I assume it might for anyone who isn't part of that faith.
The best comparison I can come up with is the US Military. Please don't confuse this comparison with the church's purpose. I am not saying that we are some kind of religious army. I am only making a comparison of structures.
The church follows a kind of "Chain of Command" quite similar to the military. In the military, the chain of command might start with the President of the United States (Commander in Chief), along with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the church, the "chain of command" starts with Jesus Christ. We believe He is the head of His church. The President of the church, who we often refer to as the Prophet, is the Lord's spokesman and the only man authorized to speak for the Lord. He has 2 counselors. The three of them make up the First Presidency. This is followed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. These 15 men (The First Presidency and the 12 Apostles) are the body of leaders who have the most authority in the church. All are considered prophets, seers and revelators. Any changes that affect the entire church will come through this body.
Next comes the Quorums of the Seventy. They might compare to the Generals in the military. These men are called to serve and teach throughout the world. They may be called to serve as Area Authorities. An Area has more to do with the number of members rather than square miles, just as a Division encompasses a large number of soldiers.
Within an Area are Stakes. Each Stake is lead by a Stake President and 2 counselors. A stake might compared with a battalion in the military. It is made up of several Wards, just as a Battalion in divided into Companies. A ward is lead by a Bishop, who also has 2 counselors.
The final unit of the church is the family. Each family is ideally lead by a father and mother. It might be a more accurate statement to say that the family is first when it comes to the level of importance. Without a strong family, the other units can't function properly. (See "The Purpose of Church" for more on this.)
The reason I feel the military is a great comparison to the church is because of the unity displayed. There may be people who wear camouflage and carry guns but that doesn't make them part of the US Army. The same applies to the "Mormons". There are plenty of groups who claim some kind of connection to the church. Many people, who don't know the workings of our religion, accept these are part of the church just as they might see Baptist and Methodist and Lutherans as part of the Evangelical Christian church. That assumption would be false.
Another comparison that I find interesting has to do with recognizing official information. In the Church, just as in the military, there are often rumors, ideas, opinions, and misinformation. Military personell and their families are discouraged from spreading rumors and told to seek official information through the chain of command. There is similar councel in the church. That doesn't mean that church members can't study and recieve personal insight and inspiration about a subject. It means that what they experience may be just for them. Official changes to church teachings or practices will come through official channels.
An example of this is in Acts 10 when Cornelius has a vision about the gospel being taught to the Gentiles. Peter is the prophet and inquires of the Lord about this vision. Then he recieves revelation confirming that the time has come to teach the Gentiles. This is the Lord's pattern for revealing His will to His church and it continues today.
When I was growing up I was often told that the Church is a perfect organization run by imperfect people. I know this to be true down to my very soul. God is not the author of chaos. His is a church of order. Any shortcomings are not those of God but of the men and women striving to maintain it. At times I "catch the vision" of what the Lord is trying to do and I realize how frustrating it must be to see us floundering. At the same time, I am humbled and awed by the patience of the Lord in not smiting us for neglecting our Visiting Teaching, ignoring the promptings of the Spirit, and waiting until Sacrement meeting to plan our lessons.
Yes, the church MUST be true. Jesus IS at the helm. Otherwise we would have crashed and burned a long time ago!