Thursday, 23 October 2014

General Conference October 2014, Saturday Morning Session

General Conference image

Welcome to conference

A Christian friend once spent some time with Mormons in New Zealand researching a paper. He visited with Christian friends there and asked them how they felt being surrounded by so many Mormons. His question mystified them. The Mormon community was so small, they insisted, as to be negligible. He realised that spending time surrounded by Mormons, listening to their self-aggrandising conversation, had put in his mind a completely false picture of the strength of the Mormon Church in that community.

Werlcome to ConferenceThe same is true, multiplied a hundredfold, listening to Thomas Monson welcome the faithful and the habitual to conference. It’s “a great world conference” he insists. People are gathered, “in locations around the world to listen to and learn from the brethren and sisters whom we have sustained as General Authorities and general officers of the Church.”

We are told this is the 90th anniversary of conference broadcasts, the 65th of television transmission. Modern media and technology are being harnessed and he lists them; “television, radio, cable, satellite transmission, and the Internet, including on mobile devices.” “The church” is busy, busy, busy…but, like my friend, we mustn’t be fooled.

The Mormon church has no more temples to announce for now and they don’t have the population of “worthy” members to fully utilize the ones they have. They have had to lower the age at which they call missionaries to achieve the 88,000 he boasts of because numbers were falling at an alarming rate just a few short years ago. And the 15 million membership is largely numbers, names on record, and mainly in the United States. In conference Mormonism seems ubiquitous; out here we see the real scale of things.

Sacrament

If I were to pick one talk in this session to take away with me it would be Cheryl Esplin’s on the power of the sacrament. Mormons, of course, don’t understand that there is more than one sacrament in Christ’s church but she is to be forgiven for following the Mormon convention of calling what we know as communion the sacrament.

She speaks of the power of the sacrament to bring healing and wholeness to the sinner, the importance of renewing covenants at the table (Christians are a covenant people), and the strength we get from the Saviour to help us walk in his ways. Cheryl Esplin is the 2nd counsellor in the primary general presidency.  There is much to commend this talk and if I were a Mormon I would want this woman teaching my grandchildren.

That said, the glow quickly comes off these sessions for me and I want to demonstrate how with a talk about loyalty, another about agency.

Loyalty

Loyalty is an abiding theme for Mormons and Lynn Robbins’ talk is much of a kind as he challenges people not to give in to peer pressure. His is a worthy message as he warns us not to reverse the first and second great commandments given by Jesus to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”…and to, “love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt.22:37-39)

Another context might have lent it greater authority and, certainly, the basic theme would be worthy of any Christian pulpit. This context, however, makes it political as much as theological.

He offers a robust challenge to defy the world and make the commandments our priority. I confess my heart leapt at it, and I cheered him on as, quoting Proverbs 29:25, he warns of the snare that waits those who fear men more than God. His examples are good as he warns us against those temptations that appeal to our compassionate side, eliciting sympathy and drawing us in to condoning sin. He quotes CS Lewis, one of my favourite Christian apologists and fast becoming popular with Mormons:

“Courage is … the form of every virtue at the testing point. … Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters)

Mormon leaders owe a great debt of gratitude to Christian thinkers down the years, though, given the way they talk about us behind our backs, you wouldn’t think it.

But then certain words and sentences began to stand out for me as carrying the greatest significance in the context of a Mormon conference at the beginning of the 21st century:

“Prophets through the ages have always come under attack by the finger of scorn…”

“The scornful often accuse prophets of not living in the 21st century or of being bigoted. They attempt to persuade or even pressure the Church into lowering God’s standards to the level of their own inappropriate behavior (sic)…Lowering the Lord’s standards to the level of a society’s inappropriate behavior (sic) is—apostasy…”

“Some members don’t realize they are falling into the same snare when they lobby for acceptance of local or ethnic “tradition[s] of their fathers” (D&C 93:39) that are not in harmony with the gospel culture. Still others, self-deceived and in self-denial, plead or demand that bishops lower the standard on temple recommends, school endorsements, or missionary applications…”

“When others demand approval in defiance of God’s commandments, may we always remember whose disciples we are, and which way we face...”

It became very pointed and I thought of Kate Kelly, founder of the Ordain Women movement, who was excommunicated for little more than having a view of Mormon priesthood. You can read about it here. Then there is the on-going struggle within Mormonism to hold onto their perfect “families are forever” message while addressing the question of gay relationships. You can read a New York Times report on Dallin H Oaks’ words on the subject at this conference.

This was the church using a low-ranking General Authority to send a shot across the bows of any who might be wavering. This was Mormonism struggling to hold the line against the rising tide. We might sympathise, except our loyalty as Christians is not to an institution, nor to its leaders. It is certainly not bought by intimidation, but by the love of Christ that compels us (2 Cor.5:14-15).

Mormons struggle with the tension between agency and authority. The Mormon Church relieves that tension periodically by making gestures, such as the website dedicated to gay issues, even by changing doctrine, such as allowing Black men to hold the priesthood and take their families through the temple. But make no mistake, the price is unquestioning loyalty to the church and, where it can, it demands such loyalty.

Agency

Countless thousands of hymns, songs, and choruses have been produced over the centuries. Some have become household favourites, church-wide anthems, others have been forgotten, some regrettably, some deservedly. The hymn I want to bring is wonderful!

I bring it because of something that was shared in this session by D. Todd Christenson of the quorum of the twelve. You can read him hear. Speaking of agency, he presented the classic Mormon doctrine of salvation, demonstrating that in the essentials Mormon teaching is just as wrong and dangerous as ever it was.

Mormon “salvation” is of the greasy pole variety. It is driven by vain ambition for godhood, it reflects the classic can-do attitude of the culture from which it sprung, chains people to a system that will never deliver what it promises, and it offers no real help for poor sinners who realise the impossible task set before them. The hymn words I bring hold out that hope, absent from Mormon teaching, and I want to explain why.

Christenson’s theme runs, “It is God’s will that we be free men and women enabled to rise to our full potential both temporally and spiritually.” He declares:

God intends that His children should act according to the moral agency He has given them, “that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” It is His plan and His will that we have the principal decision-making role in our own life’s drama.

This is a version of the fifth century heresy of Pelagianism, which insists that mortal man is capable of justifying himself by good works without justifying and enabling grace. Pelagius wrote:

"It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative...he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too. He could not claim to possess the good of his own volition, unless he was the kind of creature that could also have possessed evil. Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do either but actually to do only one, that is, good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do His will by exercising our own. That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good – good, I say, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself."

The similarity is striking! But both Pelagius and Christenson deny the Bible’s teaching on original sin.

“…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” (Ro.5:12)

When did all men sin? When they chose that path and began sinning in this life? No!  All men sinned when Adam sinned. Death and sin are not natural to man in his original state; sin brought death. Sin is our inheritance because we are “in Adam.” This is why Paul wrote that, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…None is righteous, no not one…” (Rom.3:9-10)

Paul is very clear in stating that, “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.” (Ro.5:19) and that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor.15:22)

Note this is not universalism since it clearly states that all “in Adam,” or of the line of Adam, will die because “in Adam” many were made sinners, and sin brings death. By the same token, all “in Christ,” or born-again into the line/family of Christ will live because in Christ they are made alive. That is why Christ is called “our ever living head” in the Christian hymn “I Know That my Redeemer Lives” found in the LDS hymnbook (136). They sing it but hardly could they be accused of believing it.

This is as fundamental as it gets for Christians. Read the first eight chapters of Romans and I defy you to get a different message. Nothing else could explain how we are “justified by faith [and] have peace with God” (5:1); this is how Paul can write confidently, “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Eph.2:8); this is how we can know no condemnation – because we are “in Christ Jesus” (8:1)

How does a person transfer their heritage from Adam to Christ? “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.” (Eph.2:8-9)

Mormonism teaches a form of universalism that is reiterated in this talk.

We are forever grateful that the Savior’s (sic) Atonement overcame original sin so that we can be born into this world yet not be punished for Adam’s transgression. Having been thus redeemed from the Fall, we begin life innocent before God and “become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon.” We can choose to become the kind of person that we will, and with God’s help, that can be even as He is.

In the Mormon scheme this universalism is what they call “salvation.” But the Bible clearly states that salvation is a) by faith and not universally distributed and b) faith puts the believer “in Christ,” and salvation by grace through faith thus means life eternal. It is clear that the Mormon scheme has Christ deal with Adam’s sin for everyone, faithful and faithless, clearing the way for us to “rise to our full potential.”

If there were any doubt read his words further:

So God does not save us “just as we are,” first, because “just as we are” we are unclean, and “no unclean thing can dwell … in his presence…And second, God will not act to make us something we do not choose by our actions to become. Truly He loves us, and because He loves us, He neither compels nor abandons us. Rather He helps and guides us. Indeed, the real manifestation of God’s love is His commandments.

What an appalling state of affairs! Where the Bible states that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, Mormonism teaches that all are saved whether they believe or not, and only those who follow the Mormon plan can truly know God, indeed, reach their full potential in becoming gods. Consider those words, “So God does not save us “just as we are,” first…” This is the antithesis of Jesus’ message:

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

Paul wrote:

“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Ro.10:9-10)

The Mormon will now have rattling around in his head the familiar trope “faith without works is dead,” (James 2:20) and would be quite right. The apparent conflict between Paul and James is not a conflict of ideas however but a difference of ministry. Paul is writing, indeed Jesus is speaking to a people who need salvation. It is a missionary work. James is writing to a saved people and firmly reminding them that we are saved by grace alone but that grace does not come alone. God does save us “just as we are,” but he does not leave us as we are. You can read more about this on The Mormon Chapbook.

But now consider the hymn I started talking about. It is entitled Just As I Am. Here is the plea of the sinner, here the answer to Paul’s question, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” May the Lord reveal its wonderful truth.

Just As I Am

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt;
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
sight, riches, healing of the mind,
yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, thy love unknown
has broken every barrier down;
now to be thine, yea, thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, of that free love
the breadth, length, depth, and height to prove,
here for a season, then above:
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.


Words: Charlotte Elliott, 1841

Music: Woodworth, Saffron Walden, St. Crispin, Misericordia

This post first appeared as a guest post on the Mormonism Investigated blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment