A lad lived around the corner from me when I was a boy name of Sidney. I never knew him, I never knew his friends, or if he had any friends and he certainly wasn’t part of our crowd, didn’t attend my school or frequent my usual haunts. He was a mystery to me, still is, but with my simplistic, little boy mind I tried to fill the great gaps in my knowledge with what I thought I did know.
His life was probably no more interesting than my own but he was an unknown quantity so I leapt to the conclusion that there must be something worth knowing about him, something romantic and mysterious. His name was Sidney, the only Sydney I knew at the time was a city in Australia and so I decided he must be Australian. This satisfied me (I was just a little boy), it wasn’t that important and so I went on my way without giving it another thought.
School trips were confined mainly to visits to Bristol Zoo, my parents not being in any position to pay for a trip abroad. The train journey was exciting enough - a steam engine of course – and took us under the Severn Tunnel. Of course we didn’t know it was spelled “Severn” and spent ages speculating about why it was called the “Seven Tunnel.”
Was it because it was seven miles long? Was it because it took seven minutes to travel through it? We would sit and count from the moment we entered the tunnel until daylight suddenly flooded our carriage again but never seemed to make the journey match the expected time. Of course, it is called the Severn Tunnel because it runs under the River Severn; everybody knows that – eventually.
People, even grown-ups, are good at filling the gaps in their knowledge and understanding with suppositions and guesswork, often making mistaken connections like Sidney and Sydney, Seven and Severn. It becomes dangerous when we guess about things that are too important to risk getting wrong, make connections that leave us misinformed. What is worse is when we allow the speculations of others to lead us to their wrong conclusions without properly testing what they want us to think.
Today people are being visited by Mormon missionaries who want to share the story of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. Two things will stand out in their story. The first is that the Christian Church is hopelessly unreliable in helping people find God, the second that the Mormon Church is the only trustworthy guide to God.
Most people are ill-prepared to judge whether these things are true so they will depend on the Mormons knowing for them that a proliferation of churches is a sign of apostasy; that a closed canon signifies closed heavens; that the Bible is unreliable; that the Book of Mormon is foretold in the Bible; that Ephesians 4:11-14 describes church offices; that men and women had a pre-mortal existence, and that the Mormon story is as wonderful as it is said to be.
The task of the ministry is to equip people to make informed and intelligent decisions about the most important issues of life in the face of such remarkable claims. To provide the tools needed to discern truth from error, to stand in the gap between their ignorance and the knowledge of the truth that can be theirs. To bring light and understanding by suggesting another way of looking at things, different, more reliable connections.
To ask whether, just as “Severn” has nothing to do with time or distance, but all to do with place, so a proliferation of churches does not necessarily signify apostasy but reflects the fallen nature of man as he grapples with truth. That a closed canon may have nothing to do with closed heavens and all to do with the heavens being opened to all Christians by the power of the Spirit making the established, written Word alive to us.
To show that the Book of Mormon is nowhere foretold in the Bible by a careful exposition of Bible verses twisted out of shape to “verify” Mormon claims. To suggest that Ephesians 4 describes not offices but gifts, not a demonstration of form and structure for church government but of the power of God in the gifts described. To show that men and women are created beings who had a beginning in this life and to reveal that the Mormon story is carefully crafted to look good but anyone who hears the full story, unvarnished, will recognise readily the flaws in the claims of Mormonism.
We may be satisfied with thinking that Sidney comes from Sydney and no harm done but eternal matters demand a much higher standard of inquiry. It is the task of the Christian witness to model that standard and help others attain it in inquiring after truth. To help people make the right connections and find the right path.