Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Talking to Mormons beyond the Zion Curtain

We have seen that, despite the inflated ambitions of early Mormonism, the Mormon kingdom is confined to the American Mid-West. We have found that many of the issues, historical, social and political that are bound to preoccupy those ministering “behind the Zion curtain” needn’t concern those meeting and witnessing to Mormons in the wider world.

What should concern us? What should be our priorities? What are some good basic guidelines for witnessing to Mormons? What is the Mormon attitude to Scripture? How can the Bible help us in witnessing?

Often an encounter with a Mormon can be all-too-brief and a testimony and/or a brief explanation of “what you believe” is all you can reasonably leave them with. However, there are those times when an in depth discussion is possible. Perhaps they will be prepared to make a series of visits to your home, or have you in their home, in which case it is important to be ready with a basic strategy.

You might begin by suggesting that, to establish truth, it is important to have some mutually agreed guidelines so that discussion actually goes somewhere. The following are reasonable and non-threatening and difficult to disagree over:

  1. The only common ground you share is the Bible. Insist that you stick to the Bible in your discussion. They use the KJV but will usually acknowledge other versions.
  2. You need to address no more than 1 or 2 issues at a time otherwise you can end up talking about everything and nothing in particular and “majoring on the minors.”
  3. Agree that it isn’t a contest but about finding God’s truth from Scripture.
  4. You must both agree to admit it when you don’t know or are wrong on an issue.

Establishing ground rules is important and it helps them as well as you. As far as possible subjects are concerned, always stick to fundamentals and avoid those enticing but eventually fruitless discussions about Joseph Smith’s wives etc. These would include:

The nature of God (not a man)

The Person of Jesus (not a second god)

The nature of man (not a potential god)

The fall (a disaster not a blessing)

The Cross (central to the faith)

Salvation (by grace, through faith in Christ)

The authority of Scripture (beyond challenge)

This last is important because, although they say they trust the Bible, they really don’t know what that means. Although they use the words they have no concept of what it is to sit under the authority of God’s Word. Indeed, they don’t even have a truly submissive attitude to their own scripture, as we will see. Having someone they regard as a ‘living prophet’ makes it very easy for them to defend a shift in position by saying ‘that was then this is now’. Submitting to God’s Word, as a Christian might understand the idea, is simply not something they know so you need to model that to them.

A friend of mine has a way of challenging Mormon missionaries by saying, “I have heard that you don’t fully trust the Bible. I am a Christian and wouldn’t be happy with that position so tell me, do you trust the Bible?” If they say that they do then they cannot later appeal to the oft-repeated Mormon claim that it is incorrectly translated or transmitted (they don’t know how we got our Bible so if you can confidently explain this, perhaps have a Bible with a preface that explains that translators go to the earliest reliable documents, that will come as a revelation to them).

When it comes to applying specific texts to particular issues it helps if you read the verses together and then ask, “What do we learn from these verses about...?” This helps focus the discussion on the text and avoid opinion-based discussion. A good example is Romans 6:23. “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life”. What do we learn from this verse about eternal life? Is it earned? What do we learn about death? Have we earned it?

Finally, always try and take the shortest route to the Cross. In the end this is what it is about and they must come to a place where a) the living Word of God judges them (Heb.4:12) and b) the Cross is there when they see how hopeless are their efforts to be ‘worthy’ (Gal.3:24).


  1. I appreciate the change in tone, here, Mike. It's actually taking a constructive approach--one I can appreciate.

    As to the last point on trusting the Bible, I'm curious if you believe it is necessary to believe that the Bible is inerrant in order to be trusted.

  2. Great some ground rules. As I see it the purpose of this blog is to inform those interested in religion that your opinion of the LDS church is that it teaches a false doctrine. Fine. I enjoy seeing how people come to their conclusions. I think that it is acceptible for those whose faith is under scrutiny to be allowed to state their case for the true GOD without having posts discarded (as long as they are clean). This is all I expect.

    Down to business then. More truths that need to be established. Yes, we use the KJV of the Bible. It is well respected translation that was commissioned by the king, a man. It must be acknowledged that the original writings of teh prophets are sadly not with us anymore. However, all major points of doctrine are found in Bible that are worth discussing as you pointed out.

    Let's start off with your list (remember you want to keep it simple):

    The nature of God (not a man): First define what man is. Man is mortal. God is not. God is perfect. Man is not. God has unlimited power. Man does not. We agree. I don't think scripture reference is necessary on that one, but I will expound if needed.

    The Person of Jesus (not a second god) Jesus is diety. As in the beginning of John we read that the Word (Christ) is God. Certainly! However Jesus is not God the Father. They are separate beings. Otherwise how could Christ claim "not my will, but thine be done" More references can be provided. God and Jesus are not the same being and traditional trinitarian doctrine suggests.So if he is a God and God the Father is a God, then there is a second God. Not too hard to piecemeal out.

    The nature of man (not a potential god)

    The fall (a disaster not a blessing) What is your knowledge of the Fall. Yes it brought mortality and the ability to sin, but without it, would you or I be here? Mortality has been overcome by the resurrection as "all will be made alive."

    The Cross (central to the faith) We have no problem with the cross. For many it is a symbol of Christ, as it is for us. No where does it say in the Bible you have to wear a cross of put one on your Church. The cross is a symbol of His death, but it is His life and resurrection that are most important.

    Salvation (by grace, through faith in Christ) Great the we are in accordance. It is by grace that we are saved, through faith in Christ. Faith without works is dead, so we have to do our part, right?

    The authority of Scripture (beyond challenge) The scriptures are true. We both agree. If there is any further need for discussion, please elucidate the issues.

  3. Clean Cut, I admire your optimism but perhaps you should withhold your judgement until we get further into this series of posts. I know the fond dream of any thinking Mormon is to be accepted on equal terms but that is not what these rules signify.

    I am not "investigating" Mormonism. The investigation is over and I am now inviting discussion of what I have found to be the truth. I simpy want to encourage constructive and purposeful discussion instead of the bashing that passes for witnessing in some quarters.

    I don't think inerrancy comes into it at this stage except inasmuch as your question reinforces my point. Why ask about inerrancy if you trust the Bible? Implicit in the question is doubt.

    We can look at inerrancy, accuracy, reliability but the question is, do we trust the Word of God? Do we trust it to be "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16)

    John Stott, in his excellent book, Evangelical Truth, gives five reasons for avoliding he word inerrancy:

    1. God's word can't be reduced to a set of propositions that we declare true of false.

    2. "Inerrancy" is a double-negative

    3. It develops the wrong attitude in making us detectives for scriptural clues instead of disciples of scripural truth.

    4. It is an error to make it a shibboleth to test orthodoxy. Evangelicalism is not subscription but submission, which is the point I am addressing.

    5. It is impossible to prove the Bible contains no errors but many apparent "errors" have been resolved by patience and submission to Scripture so it makes no sense to jump to judgement.

    This last is important in this context because Mormons are all-too-ready to see error where a text doesn't suit them and all-too-quick to jump to judgement. Whichever way you couch it, whether by direct challenge, like the notion of "missing books", or a more sophisticated approach like arguning the finer points of inerrancy, perspecuity and sufficiency, Mormons don't know what it is to sit under the authority of Scripture.

  4. Erik, where do I start? I understand why you should read the purpose of this blog as you do but its purpose is not as nebulous as you suggest. Its purpose is to

    a) sound a warning to those talking to Mormons about those things Mormons won’t readily tell them, perhaps won’t even know or understand about Mormonism,

    b) to educate and equip Christians for those happy moments when they meet Mormons, and

    c) give Mormons an opportunity to compare Mormonism with biblical Christianity, something the Mormon Church doesn’t do honestly.

    The aim of the post is not to open discussion on all those huge areas I listed but to make people aware of the list and of the importance of majoring on the majors. Each of these will be dealt with in greater detail as I put up more posts. To address some of your points briefly:

    I don’t see the point in your observation that the KJV was commissioned by a man.

    The way you address the first question, the nature of God and man, is woefully insufficient. I am sure this is what you believe since it is what you say you believe but I address my comments to what the Mormon Church and its leaders have taught.

    In this respect, the Mormon god is an exalted man while man, being literally offspring of God, is a potential god. You know this and if you don’t you know now that you have something to look into further. I will be expanding on this subject in a later post.

    The Trinity is a huge subject and will be covered later but there is one biblical tenet that is adhered to by Christian and Jew alike. There is one God. Jesus Christ shows himself to be God yet is clearly not God the Father. That is the starting point from which discussion of the nature of God begins and to dismiss the Trinity on the basis that it seems incomprehensible.

    The fall has no bearing on whether we would be here. That is an idea peculiar to Mormonism. Nothing in your observations reflects the clear teaching Christian Scripture. The fall brought not the ability to sin but sin and death.

    The Cross is not a symbol of Jesus’ death, it is central to the Atonement. Mormons, who lay such great store on Gethsemane, haven’t the first idea what was achieved on the Cross.

    Faith and works: “We have to do our part...” in what exactly Erik?

    On Scripture, see my answer to Clean Cut above.

    As I have pointed out, these issued will be covered in more detail so I should think it good to wait until each one arises for more in-depth discussion. This is not to stifle discussion but to enter it with some degree of order, the thrust of my post as I remember.

  5. "Why ask about inerrancy if you trust the Bible? Implicit in the question is doubt."

    Actually, it's evangelicals who bring up inerrancy the most in my experience. Apparently there are many who were raised with unrealistic expectations about biblical inerrancy who have now completely lost trust in the Bible, as well as faith in God. That's unfortunate.

    I come across all kinds of ideas about the Bible, even within my own faith's tradition. And frankly, there is a wide variety of Mormon thought on each and every single enumerated point you bring up in this post.

    And here's where I can sympathize with outsiders trying to understand Mormonism today. Because it's quite a challenge to figure out what Mormons believe on these issues simply because there is (for better or for worse) such a wide diversity of thought on each of these key points within the Mormon tradition.

  6. I do see your point. You are out there to "educate" those who are lacking knowledge. Then any question of learning should be shown by direct evidence from scripture. Since we have a common ground, I will stick to it. There are several points that we both know that I cannot argue without acknowledging that God continues to call prophets and reveal things to us. That there is more truth than what is contained in the Bible (this on no way lessens the Bible). But I have firm testimony that I do not need to delve into those topics as the clarity to which the LDS teaches in reference to the standard questions about true Christianity go far enough as spiritual evidence that we are not crazy, but rather in line with Christ's teachings and plan.

    To respond to your taking points:
    a) I admit that I don't know everything, but will be forthcoming with what I do know. It is important that you know that not all information you get for the Tanner's and others is even remotely credible.

    b) discussion is great when hearts and minds are open to the spirit

    c)this is a great opportunity for "orthodox Christians" to learn about biblical Christianity, sometimes called mormonism, something few have investigated.

    I agree that too many topics are available to discussion and we should start with one. I'll let you choose the first.


  7. Clean Cut, I am not addressing what Mormons believe but what the Mormon Church teaches. Thankfully, the concept of inerrancy doesn't influence me for the reasons I gave and I would be more interested in pursuing the question of why you raise the subject.

    As to the great diversity of Mormon thought I appreciate your attempt to make this an issue-based discussion but I work on the basis that Mormonism is matrix-based and it is the matrix I am examining not where an individual Mormon thinks he or she fits in the matrix. I always think it is helpful to ask, not what this or that Mormon believes, but what the Mormon Church tells the world about itself - and fails to tell the world.

    What is your feeling about the Bible in light of my own remarks?

  8. I think those are 5 great points by John Stott. I agree with them. And, like you, I trust the Bible to be "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16).

    A word of caution, however. Please be careful to not paint with such a wide brush when you imply that all "Mormons [are] all-too-ready to see error where a text doesn't suit them and all-too-quick to jump to judgement" or that no Mormons "know what it is to sit under the authority of scripture". Stereotypes really aren't helpful in trying to understand quite nuanced traditions. I'm surprised you do this, actually, coming now from a rich and nuanced evangelical perspective.

    I still think it's more fruitful to dialogue with individuals than with a "Church" or a "tradition". It's very hard to definitively define "what the Mormon church teaches" anyway, when traditions change and some teachings gain more emphasis over time and others fade away. Even if one were to watch a recent apostles address about the miracle of the Bible, I don't know how well one can say that that is what "the Church" teaches, as if there is some separate institution with a mind of its own. ie:

    While certain voices are more persuasive and authoritative, you'll be hard pressed to find one definitively captures what "the Mormon Church teaches", because the Church is made up of all kinds of unique individuals. The position that "I've talked with enough of your kind of people that I know what you think" (or in your case "I used to be a Mormon so I know all the answers") is a position one can take, but if this is the case, then there really isn't any point in dialogue.

    Or as a friend of mine involved in interfaith dialogue once wrote to me:

    "One of the unfortunate things I see in interfaith dialogue is that people aren't actually speaking with an individual, they are speaking with some composite of a person constructed out of all the conversations they have had with other people. In other words, they basically "continue" a discussion they have had with other people but with a brand new person as if the person they are speaking with is completely interchangeable with any other person. This isn't a very effective, because it fails to accept this person as an individual and in an extreme sense it is dehumanizing. True communication cannot advance unless people meet each other as individuals."

  9. Clean Cut, It seems ironic that you should caution me against painting with a broad brush when your first comment did just that in raising the issue of inerrancy on the basis that "most Evangelicals" bring up the subject. But I haven't mentioned inerrancy so why the broad brush strokes? It seems to me that you are the one "continuing a previous conversation."

    I am talking here about Mormonism. I am not talking to you as though you are Mormonism. What would be the point in that? It is not your private interpretation of Mormonism that people meet on their doorsteps, in the adverts, at open houses and firesides etc.

    It is good, as you suggest, to talk to individuals but what is achieved when the discussion revolves around, "This is the way I like to think about it?"

    We could address ourselves to one of the different "traditions" of Mormonism you refer to (a novel idea, traditions in Mormonism) but if I were to talk about polygamist Mormons for instance there would be bound to be objections that "polygamists aren't really Mormons." By what standard? By that of official Mormonism as taught by the Mormon Church in SLC. And that is what this blog is about.

    I aim to talk about objective, biblical truth, what I have found to be true on my journey about Christianity and Mormonism. You seem to be suggesting it is all opinion and there is no such thing as official Mormonism. If this is the case what are Mormon missionaries taking around the doors? If there is no single Mormon Church what exactly are people being invited to join?

    Finally, isn't it interesting that almost every discussion about Mormonism in this context will, sooner rather than later, end up with the Mormon lecturing the Christian on how the discussion should proceed? With the Mormon correcting the myriad misconceptions he is certain is informing, or misinforming the Christian.

  10. You just can't manage to stop sounding condescending, can you? :) Especially with that that last paragraph of yours, it seems to me that you'd rather burn your bridges faster than you build 'em.

    Mike, I brought up inerrancy because you made a generalization about Mormons trusting the Bible. I raised the genuine question of you only because that would inform the conversation.

    Also, I resent the fact that you accuse me of painting with the wide brush about evangelicals. I made it very clear, after you lectured me for using the word "inerrant", that I was only sharing own experience--not stereotyping an entire faith.

  11. Condescending? Oh, I’m sorry CC, I was hoping to convey something more like frustration. Just goes to show how we can misunderstand one another when we can’t see one another, read body language, facial expressions and hear tone of voice. But you see my point surely? Here we are going through the usual interrogation of each other’s motives and intentions, which is what my last paragraph, to which you took such exception, is about. If you have the time, look in on some of the comments from Erik and Murdock to see the kind of thing I mean.

    I quite understand your position, interfaith and all that, but I am not addressing myself to you and your personal views, interesting though they may be, but to Mormonism as it is officially taught and as it has been taught down the years.

    The post is part of a series addressed in the first instance to Christians. It is intended to clear away the issues that so beset Christians behind the Zion curtain and that are extraneous beyond the Zion curtain, identify those key issues Christians should be addressing and reassure them that the Mormon Church is not anywhere near the force it portrays itself as being, especially outside the Mormon kingdom, where it is almost invisible beyond its own publicity.

    Of course, Mormon comments are welcome but I am conscious of the fact that it is official Mormon missionaries people will meet on the doorstep and not Clean Cut. You write that it is more fruitful to dialogue with individuals and I don’t disagree but I am aware that, when a Christian attempts to witness to a Mormon, s/he will often be met with the words, “That’s just his opinion and not official doctrine.” So, really, how far is such a discussion going to get?

    I am often accused of misrepresenting Mormonism, of addressing only the Mormonism of my generation, or of a certain limited number of Mormons whose opinions don’t count. I therefore address myself to what I know is official Mormonism, what has been taught in Mormon books, manuals etc. down the years. I am sure even then I lay myself open to the charge of misunderstanding, misinterpreting and misrepresenting your faith but at least if we stick to what the much vaunted apostles and prophets of Mormonism have said we have something to discuss.

    What I do find is that, when I stick strictly to a clear representation of what Mormon apostles and prophets have said and do say (and I know they say very little these days) a Mormon will interpret that church leader for me as though the man in the pew speaks with more authority than the man in the pulpit. But when I then hold that Mormon to account he will be anxious to insist that, of course, he doesn’t in any way “represent the church” and is only sharing his opinion and points me to the man in the pulpit for “official doctrine.”

    All this seems to support my contention that Mormons don’t know what it is to sit under the authority of Scripture. One minute Mormons are boasting that their church is “led by apostles and prophets”, the next they as easily dismiss those apostles and prophets in such a way as to make one wonder if they trust these men at all. I know if my church leaders – and they are simple pastors and elders – were as capricious and changeable as Mormon leaders seem to be in the affections of ordinary Mormons I would seriously be looking for another church.

    In such circumstances as I describe, born of long experience, you can perhaps understand my frustration.

  12. I confess, I haven't read the other commenters nor some of your recent posts, but I appreciate your follow-up comment here and indeed, I do feel I'm understanding you better.

    I didn't sense you were frustrated, but I will say that some of the frustrations you express are also shared by myself. I too can point to several examples of manuals which contain teachings passed down over time that I myself disagree with. What gives me hope is that my Church is an evolving Church.

    You've also hit on a tension within Mormonism--that of the claim of being “led by apostles and prophets” and inspiration, yet also the recognition that those apostles and prophets are not infallible. Those are conversations I too enjoy having, but it does become frustrating when my own people seem either unprepared or unwilling to have an honest and courageous conversation. But at least I get the frustration. Many Mormons will make bold claims that I personally feel uncomfortable with, and that can be embarrassing.

    This reminds me of a post I wrote a few months ago: "Triumphalism is for the birds"