David French at Patheos Press recently wrote a blog post titled, “Every Evangelical/Mormon Argument Goes Something Like This . . .” It is short and I encourage you to read it before you read the rest of my post. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
I’m glad you are back. While there is some truth to what French has to say, and I realize that much of this is sarcasm, I have to say that this is not how every argument goes with a Mormon. Actually, let me address one thing right away. If you find yourself in an argument with a Mormon instead of presenting one, chances are, you’ve already lost the battle. This is not how we teach people to engage anyone in religious discussion and this is not how we do it either. Obviously things can get heated from time to time, but for the most part this is not how our conversations go. With that being said, there are some things I like and do not like about this post. First, the things I dislike.
I believe that this is an unfair characterization of Christians which places us in our worst light and Mormons in their best light. French portrays Christians as committing the straw man fallacy and the Mormon as the innocent victim. To say that every conversation goes like this and then to portray a Christian as misrepresenting Mormonism gives Mormons who read French’s post the license to accuse all Christians of misrepresenting Mormonism regardless of how careful the Christian is in that presentation.
The fact of the matter is that many Mormons do understand what Mormonism actually teaches. It is wrong for a Christian to tell a Mormon what he or she believes, but it is appropriate to declare what Mormon actually teaches. Whether or not a Mormon believes what the LDS Church teaches is an entirely different issue, however, it is not helpful for Christians who are actively witnessing to Mormons to be accused of misrepresenting Mormonism when they are not. French’s blog post effectually gives Mormons the permission to do so.
Another French indictment against Christians is that we accuse Mormonism of teaching, “something about planets” to which the Mormon claims to have never heard about. Again, just because a Mormon may not know about this doctrine (or own up to it) does not mean that the Mormon Church does not officially teach it.
One of the Mormon Church’s official manuals used in teaching youth and young adults is titled, “Presidents of the Church Student Manual – Religion 345.” In chapter five, Lorenzo Snow, Fifth President of the Church, there is a very interesting story under the heading; “They Shall Organize Worlds and Rule Over Them.” It teaches;
“Only a short time before his death, President Snow visited the Brigham Young University [then Brigham Young Academy], at Provo. President Brimhall escorted the party through one of the buildings; he wanted to reach the assembly room as soon as possible, as the students had already gathered. They were going through one of the kindergarten rooms; President Brimhall had reached the door and was about to open it and go on when President Snow said: ‘Wait a moment, President Brimhall, I want to see these children at work; what are they doing?’ Brother Brimhall replied that they were making clay spheres. ‘That is very interesting,’ the President said. ‘I want to watch them.’ He quietly watched the children for several minutes and then lifted a little girl, perhaps six years of age, and stood her on a table. He then took the clay sphere from her hand, and, turning to Brother Brimhall, said:
“‘President Brimhall, these children are now at play, making mud worlds, the time will come when some of these boys, through their faithfulness to the gospel, will progress and develop in knowledge, intelligence and power, in future eternities, until they shall be able to go out into space where there is unorganized matter and call together the necessary elements, and through their knowledge of and control over the laws and powers of nature, to organize matter into worlds on which their posterity may dwell, and over which they shall rule as gods.’”
While Christians claiming that Mormons hope to become Gods one day, populating their own planets with their spirit children, may seem to be an extraordinary, wild claim, this is in fact official Mormon doctrine. Note that this is an Institute teaching manual which is designed, “to help youth and young adults understand and rely on the teachings and Atonement of Jesus Christ.”
If Mormon teenagers are paying attention in their Institute classes, then even they know about this doctrine. To accuse a Christian of setting up straw men regarding “something about planets,” is purely irresponsible and betrays an ignorance of understanding basic Mormon theology.
The last item of disagreement that I would like to discuss is the Mormon red herring that French has bought into. Namely, that quotations from old Mormon literature is somehow outdated and not to be used in the case against Mormonism. This is patently false. Mormons will often present a straw man of their own and claim that just as we don’t agree with everything a Christian reformer or early Church father has taught, so they are not bound by seemingly “outdated opinions” of their 19th century Mormon prophets. Here is the difference. Christians do not believe that Calvin, Luther or Origen were prophets of God in the same sense that Mormons believe of their prophets. Mormons are taught that their prophets are actually more important that the written Word of God and that their words are to be treated as if they are the words of God Himself.
While it is within the right of a Mormon to claim continuing revelation, this does not mean that a Christian should concede the point. We should not allow a Mormon to claim that God revealed “truth” to a 19th century Mormon prophet, only to have it reversed, disavowed or ignored some time later. If Brigham Young taught that Adam was God in General conference and said that this doctrine will prove for either salvation or damnation, then we need to hold Mormons accountable for that declaration. To allow a Mormon this diversion is to allow them to escape out of a doctrinal trap set by their own prophets. You can read Brigham Young’s Adam God sermon here.
Now, for the things I do like about French’s blog post. I like elements of each of his principles for discussing religious differences. I frequently tell Christians not to tell Mormons what they believe. I also tell Mormons the same thing. I am the world’s foremost authority on what Keith Walker believes so don’t tell me what I believe. It’s rude. I’ve even had one Mormon tell me that he knew better than I did what the message meant on a T-shirt I designed for Mormon evangelism. Ridiculous, I know.
While I agree that we should not dictate who is or is not a member of good standing in their own faith, I do think it is appropriate to point out that there may be disagreement between what individual Mormons believe and what Mormonism actually teaches. If there is a difference there, ask the Mormons why they claim to sustain their general authorities if they disagree with them on certain points of doctrine. If God leads the Mormon Church through prophets, then why should Mormons disagree with them?
While it is important to allow your counterpart to describe their own beliefs, it is important to ask them to define their terms. This is VERY important. Words like, God, Jesus, Salvation, Repentance and Atonement mean completely different things in Mormonism than they do in Christianity. If certain terms are giving you trouble in understanding what each other are saying, then pick new terms. The important thing is that you understand each other.
When it comes to quoting past leaders or what Mormonism teaches, do not allow the Mormon to snare you into the “not official” trap. One of the favorite tactics that Mormons like to use is to indiscriminately discount any quote presented to them as unofficial. It is a quick and easy response which is oftentimes used dishonestly to claim that the Christian presenting the quote is misrepresenting Mormonism’s real doctrines by using unauthorized literature. I made a short YouTube video which humorously describes the frustration I have had with the “Not Official” argument. I purposefully chose specific books in this video because I have had each one of them called “not official” by a Mormon.
An easy way to avoid this trap is to quote official Mormon Church teaching manuals. Many of the quotes that a Mormon will not accept in its original source can be found in official teaching manuals. This gives the quote more authority and is binding to all Mormons. One Mormon Church manual says, “Explain that Church publications, such as lesson manuals and Church magazines, are produced to help members learn and live the gospel of Jesus Christ. The correlation process helps ensure that these materials are scripture-based, doctrinally accurate, and appropriate for the intended audience. All Church publications are planned, prepared, reviewed, and implemented under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.” (Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual p.245)
Lastly and most importantly, I am glad that David French wrote this blog post. What I mean by that is that I am glad that a Christian is concerned about honest, effective dialogue with Mormons and cares enough about both parties that he is willing to address what he believe to be deficiencies in the approach of his brethren.
I have noticed that in certain “Us vs. Them” discussions, i.e. abortion vs. pro-life, same sex marriage vs. traditional family, etc., the side which calls for fairness first is usually the side which is more concerned about real communication and resolution. I am pleased that David French made this call first and not a Mormon.
Speaking of which, has a Mormon ever made a call to other Mormons asking for tolerance, truth and transparency with Evangelicals? I’ve been involved in this type of ministry for years and cannot think of one instance where a Mormon has publicly taken his brethren to task over offenses made by Mormons in discussions with Evangelicals. Both Mormons and Christians will acknowledge that there is guilt on both sides, but where is the Mormon counter-part to David French? Why aren’t Mormons being called to task by their own? Are Mormons content to play the victim card and allow other people to come to their rescue all the while continuing in their dishonesty, purposeful miscommunication and misrepresentation of their own beliefs? I certainly hope not.
I started to write what I believe should be Mormon principles for discussing religious differences with Evangelicals, but then thought it might be a good idea to wait and see if a Mormon would be willing to write their own. I would be interested to see what honest Mormons believe are the short-comings of their brethren who are engaged in discussions with Evangelicals. I’ll wait about a month or so and see if someone does it. If not, I will write my own list. Are there any Mormons out there willing to step up to the plate?