2009: Most Improbable Dialogue: Mormon Tabernacle revival service is latest sign of openness to evangelicals / Richard N. Ostling, Christianity Today

Thank you, Christianity Today, for the excellent article.

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Steve St.Clair
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Most Improbable Dialogue
Mormon Tabernacle revival service is latest sign of openness to evangelicals.

Robert Millet would do things differently if he were carefully strategizing how fellow Mormons could best pursue interfaith contacts.

“I probably wouldn’t have started with evangelicals,” said the Brigham Young University (BYU) professor, considering the antagonism between the two groups since Mormonism’s beginnings. “If we can have more civil and respectful relations with evangelicals, we can do it with anyone.”

Not many years ago, evangelicals would have deemed substantive contact with Mormonism equally improbable. Yet since 2000, small scholarly teams of Mormons led by Millet and evangelical teams led by Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw have managed to hold 17 intense, closed-door dialogue sessions. The latest, held in mid-October at Wheaton College, centered on proselytism, a topic on which the two sides are intense rivals.

Millet said this is the only ongoing doctrinal dialogue with any outside religious group that occurs with the knowledge—though not yet public authorization, much less participation—of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (LDS) top leaders, whom Millet advises on ecumenical strategy.

The talks are not the only breakthrough. LDS president Thomas S. Monson and his two counselors permitted Standing Together, an alliance of 90 Utah evangelical churches, to use the historic Salt Lake City Tabernacle for a September 13 revival meeting. Throngs of evangelicals and Mormons enjoyed gospel songs and prayed together.

The emcee, Standing Together president Gregory Johnson, called the event “historic.” Evangelist Nick Vujicic said it was “one of the most memorable nights” in a ministry that has taken him to 25 nations, and warmly thanked the LDS leaders.

Mormon leaders specified that his message would need to be “generic and nondenominational.” But Vujicic challenged LDS orthodoxy by insisting that “every human being is born with an evil nature,” and by emphasizing that salvation cannot depend on a person’s goodness because “you can’t even forgive yourself.”

More than 100 people stood in response to his appeal for personal commitments to Jesus Christ, then filed to the rostrum to register decisions and hug Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs.

Public and private talks

Adding to the unusual aspects of the emotional encounter, Johnson is a Conservative Baptist minister who forsook Mormonism at age 14. He has become a crucial bridge builder through evolving friendships, first with Millet and eventually with Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Mormon leaders are not trained in academic theology, but Holland—the hierarchy’s point man with evangelicals and former BYU president—is one of the few apostles to earn a liberal arts Ph.D. (in American studies, from Yale). At 68, he is younger than many colleagues and thus could head his church someday. (The longest-serving apostle automatically becomes “President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”)

In another new step, Johnson and Millet have met in 58 public dialogues across North America. They also help broker meetings between evangelical and Mormon college students and initiate the scholarly dialogues involving such evangelical stalwarts as Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff, Biola University apologetics professor Craig Hazen, and Denver Seminary New Testament professor Craig Blomberg.

Two dialogue books from evangelical publishers were pivotal. Blomberg laid early groundwork for closer relations in 1997 when he co-wrote How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press) with BYU’s Stephen Robinson. In 2005, Mouw contributed a friendly foreword and afterword to Millet’s A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans).

Vujicic’s appearance was preceded in 2004 by LDS officialdom’s remarkable go-ahead for an address in the Tabernacle by well-known apologist Ravi Zacharias. His theologically orthodox presentation of Christianity, which some Mormons attended, was overshadowed by Mouw’s introduction. He declared that “we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented” Mormon beliefs and practices. “We have sinned against you,” he said.

This offended many evangelicals, particularly those in ministries dedicated to opposing LDS doctrine and seeking converts. For instance, Bill McKeever, veteran director of the Utah-based Mormonism Research Ministry, attended the Zacharias address and issued a lengthy rebuttal to Mouw. McKeever says while he doesn’t oppose dialogues as such, they must be “brutally honest” in addressing historical and theological problems.

Mouw explains that individual Mormons may have “genuine faith in Christ” but that he “could never give endorsement to Mormonism as a Christian theology” due to its “significant departures from the Christian tradition and Christian orthodoxy, by its own testimony.” Likewise, Johnson is “open to the possibility” that individual Mormons “have a relationship with Christ,” but said, “Mormonism does not legitimately receive the label Christian.”

A Heterodox History

Difficulties with acceptance date to Mormonism’s origins in the 1820s. According to the LDS scriptures, God the Father directly commanded the prophet Joseph Smith Jr. to shun existing Christian churches because “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” and their “professors were all corrupt.” God subsequently commissioned Smith to re-establish “the only true and living church.”

Smith not only claimed unique God-given authority for his “latter-day” institution but also added the Book of Mormon and other texts to the Bible and issued increasingly heterodox doctrines. For example, the LDS God is married and has “a body of flesh and bones,” one reason the Vatican ruled in 2001 that converts from Mormonism must be re-baptized. The LDS Christ is the Old Testament’s divine Jehovah, but not God the Son within the eternal Trinity.

The LDS scriptures teach a plurality of gods (in the Book of Abraham, though Mormons reject the label polytheistic) and the millennial prospect that human saints will be “made equal with” God.

Smith asserted other radical beliefs in an 1844 discourse shortly before he was assassinated while running for U.S. President. He revealed “the great secret” that God the Father “was once as we are now, and is an exalted Man,” and that humans will progress to “become Gods … the same as all Gods have done before you.” His discourse was transcribed by four aides, published by the church, later included in its compilation of his teachings, and officially reaffirmed thereafter.

Mouw believes such thinking “has no functioning place in present-day Mormon doctrine,” based on statements from Millet and church leaders. He also noted that in How Wide the Divide?, Robinson said these controversial beliefs are not official doctrine and were never incorporated into Mormon scriptures. But LDS officialdom has never repudiated Smith’s tenets.

To McKeever, all of this typifies problems with the friendship efforts. “If Mouw really believes that, it shows he’s not qualified to be in these discussions,” he said. “That is still a major teaching in LDS theology.” He also rebuts Mormon assertions that the church’s ban on full membership and priesthood for blacks—which was abolished by a 1978 revelation—was never an official doctrine. “That’s just utter nonsense,” he said; if it weren’t doctrine, no revelation would have been needed.

Evangelical optimists note that Mormonism has in fact changed, not only by allowing black members and priests but also, most famously, by suspending Smith’s scriptural commandment of polygamy in 1890 under federal government pressure, much to evangelicals’ satisfaction. The Worldwide Church of God’s wholesale shift to orthodoxy following the death of founder Herbert W. Armstrong also heartened optimists.

Mouw is not alone in perceiving that Millet and other “neo-orthodox” thinkers at BYU have been migrating closer to belief in salvation by grace alone apart from human works. However, McKeever contends that Millet and other BYU professors may “want to sound evangelical” but that they carry no doctrinal authority, and that traditional LDS beliefs still emanate from headquarters.

What next? Hush-hush chats occurred between ranking LDS authorities and nationally prominent evangelicals in 2004, 2007, and earlier in 2009, though those familiar with the meetings won’t name names. Participants hope for a publicly known conference between leaders, perhaps as early as next year. Another prospect is a series of formal statements on agreements and differences along the lines of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, though that will require LDS officialdom’s sanction.

No Rivals in Foxholes

One undoubted factor in the search for better relations is that evangelicals and Mormons today unite on various moral issues and feel on the defensive, especially in shared opposition to same-sex marriage. Whatever differences they may have about the nature of God, “when you’ve been in the trenches together, it often generates new respect,” said evangelical attorney David French, who leads the Alliance Defense Fund’s (ADF) campus religious freedom project. “The LDS commitment to core values is one that betters our country, without question.”

Apart from his ADF work, French privately ran an “Evangelicals for Mitt” campaign to aid Romney’s bid for the presidency. Millet said Romney’s race unearthed widespread hostility toward Mormonism, which “was a very cold slap in the face” and underscored that Mormons remain misunderstood. Millet depicted a lack of understanding as the main motive for pursuing evangelical contacts well before the race, though he knows that many evangelicals fear the real purpose was “tacit legitimization of Mormonism as a Christian group.”

As for evangelicals’ goals, Standing Together’s Johnson says that of course he would like Mormon individuals to share his beliefs and for the Mormon church to someday embrace Christian orthodoxy. After all, he said, “God is in the transformation business.” In the short run, friends may tell him that “the Mormon church is trying to use you,” said Johnson. “[But] maybe God is using me in their lives.”

Richard N. Ostling, a former religion writer with the Associated Press and Time magazine, co-authored Mormon America (HarperOne, revised edition 2007).

Are Mormons Christian? How Christian groups answer the question?
All Americans

No 31%
Don’t know 17%
Yes 52%

Evangelical Protestants

No 45%
Don’t know 15%
Yes 40%

Mainline Protestants

No 23%
Don’t know 15%
Yes 62%

Black Protestants

No 30%
Don’t know 27%
Yes 43%

Catholics

No 29%
Don’t know 19%
Yes 52%


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