Dealing with History

I was asked on another blog:

In your experience, in the Evangelical community, how has Protestantism dealt with it’s past? From my understanding, Catholicism and Protestanism hasn’t had a clean slate either. While historically, facts are given, how does that affect membership, say of someone who questions whether an organization with such problems be from God, and how does Protestantism reconcile those instances in history?

No doubt there have been many historical scars in the past of mainstream Christianity. Be it the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials and numerous tele-evangelist scandals there is a lot of ugliness in our past. My own church, which is only 10 years old, is not without its blemishes. Our founding pastor admitted to having an affair with a married woman and was released from ministry about 5 years ago.

So, why are Protestants resilient in their faith despite all of these nasty things? I think there are a number of reasons. The first is that we place our faith in Jesus not our organizations. We attend our churches just as a way of worshiping Jesus. If we discovered that our church or denomination was corrupt, we would go on worshiping Jesus, we would just do it somewhere else. We view the church as a means to Jesus, but not Jesus’ means to us. We grant our churches with some authority, but believe in a more personal and individual authority that comes directly from Christ.

We expect to occasionally encounter sinful men in our churches. It really doesn’t affect me personally if Martin Luther hated Jews. My life and my faith have been profoundly impacted by his (and others) actions, but they are not centered around him. My life is centered around Jesus. So where I find Luther preaching truth about Jesus, I embrace him. Where I find him teaching falsehood, I reject him.

Another reason is that we don’t grow up believing a whitewashed version of events. We don’t control the information. When we learn about the Crusades, we learn both the good and the bad about them at the same time. All of the facts are there and we don’t (and can’t) pretend to believe in a “faith promoting” version. So we never have to wrestle with the difference between what we’ve been taught and what the facts actually are.

When contemporary scandals happen, we air them out. We expose them to light and go out of our way to make sure people know what happened and how. When a pastor has a moral failing it for sure can be devastating to a congregation. But the disappointment they feel is directed at their pastor, not at God. Evangelicals are guilty of putting people on pedestals, but when they fall off we recognize that it wasn’t God who put them up there.

I think this is a chief cultural difference between Evangelicals and LDS. We are not under the notion that God is directing the everyday operation of our churches. We for sure want to be following God’s will and seek after it, but we also know that there are many decisions that are made in our churches which are just people using their best judgment. LDS to some extent MUST believe that their leaders are specifically appointed by Jesus. In varying degrees LDS hold that every direction and appointment is coming via the direct authority of God. So when men fail (as they always will) the disappointment follows the chain back up to God.

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25 thoughts on “Dealing with History

  1. “We view the church as a means to Jesus, but not Jesus’ means to us.”

    Very interesting. I think you are generally right in your comparison and how it can create difficulty for Mormons (though I think you are a bit too absolute—I’ve met plenty of Evangelicals who had what you would call a Mormon outlook).

    “We for sure want to be following God’s will and seek after it, but we also know that there are many decisions that are made in our churches which are just people using their best judgment.”

    Funny, because I’ve said the same thing—almost word for word—many times, only in reference to my (the LDS) church.

    Don’t get me wrong: I agree that some of the doctrine in the LDS Church (as opposed to Evangelical churches) makes it easier for its members to mistakenly believe that all leaders’ decisions come directly from God.

  2. “So when men fail (as they always will) the disappointment follows the chain back up to God.”

    Of course, the stock answer to that is that we have to have faith, and that some people are put into positions so that they can grow. And we can learn lessons from it.

    Good post, Tim. 🙂

  3. Dealing with history? What you’ve outlined is a convenient defense for why Protestants *don’t* have to deal with their history. “We expect to occasionally encounter sinful men in our churches.” That’s just special pleading so you can lay any Protestant or Evangelical wrongs at the feet of man’s inherent sinfulness or a specific individual’s bad acts. But then you turn around and attribute Catholic or Mormon historical events to those institutions — including the contemporary Catholic and Mormon churches — and to all living Catholics or Mormons, rather than dismiss it on the same grounds you use to excuse yourself from every Protestant mistake.

    Tim, I know you think you’re being generous and reasonable, but it just sounds like typical Evangelical hypocrisy to me. You’d have more credibility if you left open the possibility that you might, just might, at some point, actually accept responsibility for something.

  4. Dave I recognize that I might be blind to my own errors, can you give me some specific examples?

    The point of this post was to answer, why difficult moments in history don’t bother Evangelicals like they do Mormons. I wasn’t suggesting at all there is no wrong doing or sin in the Protestant movement.

    I think I only hold institutions accountable for how they mishandle/excuse/dismiss sin in its ranks. If a wing of Protestants began hunting down homosexuals and torturing them I would be aghast if the larger Protestant population did not speak out and oppose such actions.

  5. Yeah, Dave, I’m not sure that’s what Tim is saying at all.

    Especially since these days the Orthodox and Catholic Churches are doing a much better job of owning up to their historic mistakes, etc.

    The difference is that even the Catholic church believes it is God’s church, left in the hands of humans. Therefore when bad stuff happens, which it invariably does, no reconciling even needs to be done. Humans make mistakes. Even Popes.

    On the other hand, Mormons believe their Church is actively led by God at all times. That’s trickier to reconcile.

  6. Today, the LDS Church took a monumental step forward in “doing a much better job of owning up to their historic mistakes.”

    Elder Henry B. Eyring read a statement on behalf of the First Presidency and Church at the gathering at Mountain Meadows, remembering the massacre there 150 years ago today. For the first time ever, the Church apologized for the Church’s involvement in the massacre. The full text of Eyring’s statement can be read here: http://www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=54efa6cf971f4110VgnVCM100000176f620aRCRD&vgnextchannel=9ae411154963d010VgnVCM1000004e94610aRCRD

  7. Christopher, thanks for the link.

    I’m not sure it’s going to satisfy many readers though. The speech only references to the actions of LOCAL leaders. In fact, the world “local” is carefully emphasized.

    Some historians and critics of the LDS Church point out that inflammatory rhetoric from top ranking LDS leadership exacerbated the hatreds and paranoia that lead to the massacre. Some also believe Brigham Young to have directly ordered the massacre, and then covered up his involvement in it.

    Such people will never be satisfied until the LDS Church flat-out holds Brigham Young primarily responsible for the massacre. Which is misguided in my mind, since Brigham Young’s involvement simply has not been proven.

    But I think it is fair to say that the LDS Church ought to own-up to the violent rhetoric of its top leadership at the time. This rhetoric contributed to the tragedy, and there probably ought to be an apology for it. Elder Eyring’s speech falls short in this respect.

    Be that as it may, I think we, as a church, are making good progress on this issue.

  8. Tim, thanks for responding to my inquiry. I was expecting a completely different answer.

    I agree with you, though. Jesus absolutely should be the foundation on which faith is established. From an LDS perspective, I think the Church is simply a means to an end, which is to build the Kingdom of God.

    I have two major beefs with the content of your post-

    First, I simply don’t believe this version of dealing with history that you set forth is accurate. I think you are painting more of a picture of how you hope that most evangelicals are dealing with it based on your own personal experiences. In my limited internet social circle, on blogs and similar, I have found individuals who no longer believe in Christianity. There are many ex-Christians out there. Their reasons are many and varied. The crazy thing is they cite some of the same reasons that the Mormon Church is accused of- deception, abuse, brainwashing, violence in the name of God/Christ, inconsistency & fallability of scriptures, fallable leaders, heretical & inconsistent doctrines and practices, etc.

    It just seems that the apparant problems in the LDS church are mirrored in mainstream Christianity, but nobody bothers to look at those other fingers pointing back when accusations are flung at the LDS Church.

    My Second Beef is with your comments:

    “We grant our churches with some authority, but believe in a more personal and individual authority that comes directly from Christ.”

    “Evangelicals are guilty of putting people on pedestals, but when they fall off we recognize that it wasn’t God who put them up there.”

    “We are not under the notion that God is directing the everyday operation of our churches. We for sure want to be following God’s will and seek after it, but we also know that there are many decisions that are made in our churches which are just people using their best judgment. LDS to some extent MUST believe that their leaders are specifically appointed by Jesus. In varying degrees LDS hold that every direction and appointment is coming via the direct authority of God. So when men fail (as they always will) the disappointment follows the chain back up to God.”

    … and Kullervo’s comment-

    “On the other hand, Mormons believe their Church is actively led by God at all times. That’s trickier to reconcile.”

    This seems to be the recurring argument: The Mormon Church claims to be the One True Church with the One True Way to be saved, with the One True Authority from God, through the One True Infallible Prophet, so let’s hold them to this higher standard while we get off scott free.

    The argument can be made that:
    A) Since mainstream Christianity claims to have the only way to be saved, claims that if one does not believe as they do, then he/she is not a true Christian, and if he/she is not a true Christian, then he/she will not be saved. Therefore mainstream Christianity is the “Only True Church.”

    and

    B) Theology schools are established. Men/Women feel & heed a “call” to become a minister for Christ. They become an “ordained” minister/pastor and become the spiritual shepherds of Christ’s flocks, with all the added benefits and responsibilities of authority to lead, establish and clarify doctrines, dispute heresies, baptize, administer and minister in all things spiritual, collect and oversee the Lord’s money, receive spiritual guidance on behalf of their congregation, etc. Therefore, these men and women ARE granted more than just “some authority”, and God DID put them there (on a pedestal of sorts), and God IS directing the every day operation of their churches.

    So with my attempted establishment of these two points- 1. That mainstream Christianity claims to be the Only True Church and 2. That the ordained Ministers in mainstream Christianity are the Only True representatives of Christ, then I think Dave’s comment about hypocrisy fits here. Evangelicals need to hold themselves on the same playing field that they hold Mormons.

  9. Therefore mainstream Christianity is the “Only True Church.”

    Claiming to be the one true religion is a substantively different claim from claiming to be the one true organization.

  10. Austin, I like what you have to say, and agree. Although I am not an ex-Christian, I consider myself an ex-Evangelical, for some of the reasons which you describe in your first “beef.”

  11. “Claiming to be the one true religion is a substantively different claim from claiming to be the one true organization.”

    Perhaps. But I don’t really think that applies unless you were comparing religions, but since both LDS and non-LDS Christians claim to be Christians the only real thing to compare and contrast, in this instance, is organizations. And both sides definitely are organizations, or house/contain/have organizations- which move IT’S purposes along.

    Just look at the National Association of Evangelicals. With nearly 360 members representing many denominations, organizations, and academic institutions, how can anyone believe mainstream Christianity is NOT an organization?

    It wasn’t until after the death of its founder, Herbert Armstrong, that the heretical teachings found within the Worldwide Church of God were slowly evaluated and purged. Once it came into line with mainstream Christianity’s dogma, it was accepted as a Christian organization and became a member of the NAE in 1997.

    Some may think I’m stretching it a bit, but I don’t think I am.

  12. Austin, I’m more sold on your point about Tim comparing the “ideal Evangelical response” to the “worst Mormon response” than I am on your point about the LDS organization being comparable to the Evangelical organization. We LDS use the word “prophet,” and Evangelicals do not—surely we must be held to a higher standard. Isn’t that, in fact, what we want as a church? to have people look to us and say, “I have it good in my current church, but I could have it better.” In other words, a higher standard.

  13. Hey Austin,

    I have no doubt that you’ve met angry and embittered ex-Christians who attack their former faith the way ex-Mormons do. But my experience encountering them is no where close to the frequency in which LDS find them.

    I don’t at all disagree that there is a lot of spiritual abuse in some sectors of the Christian world.

    Go to http://www.mormonmatters.org and listen to the conversations about “inoculating the saints”. This is not a conversation we feel is necessary in Protestantism. We do think we should equip people with answers to difficult questions, but we don’t think that there is a great deal about our past that people don’t know.

    As far as ministers being “called” by God. First, we believe that we are all ministers, it’s just that some get paid to do it. We’re all called. We also recognize that people can still mess up after being called. In another post, I believe Seth said “in Mormonism we believe the prophet is fallible, but nobody believes it”. This is a cultural difference that I believe creates problems for Mormons. We know our pastors are fallible and we believe it.

    Don’t get too excited about that 360 members of the NAE. 95% of them don’t know that they are members. I’m not even sure if I’m a member or not. It’s an umbrella group for a number of organizations. They don’t direct any activity in churches.

    I’m interested to know what you thought my response was going to be.

    I accept the critique that I may be comparing my best to your worst. That could be true.

  14. Yep, Austin, I’m with brianj on this one. The Church is held to a higher standard because it claims a higher standard. The LDS Church claims that Jesus Christ is at the head of the church, personally directing the affairs going on in the church.

    If not, then why a prophet?

  15. lisa said:
    Austin, I like what you have to say, and agree. Although I am not an ex-Christian, I consider myself an ex-Evangelical, for some of the reasons which you describe in your first “beef.”

    Lisa, I think we should all be clear, you didn’t leave Evangelicalism because you thought we were hiding something about our history. You left because you thought there was false teaching which led to mistreatment, correct? (and I agree with your complaint)

  16. I’m not sure how it follows that since Mormons believe we are being actively led by God, that we believe our members are perfect and will never mess up. I just can’t even reconcile that in my mind. Men are imperfect and always have been. How does it follow that if a member makes a mistake then the chain of responsibility leads back to God when I’m pretty sure =) that God did not tell him to make that mistake.

  17. Because some of the mistakes are things the fallen man said came from God. Just as a brief example. Brigham Young claimed that Adam and God were one in the same person. He also said that all of his sermons should be considered scripture. LDS accepted Young’s testimony that these things came from God.

    Are you saying that if GB Hinckley said something that turned out to be blatantly false, that wouldn’t shake your faith in Mormonism somewhat?

  18. “Yep, Austin, I’m with brianj on this one. The Church is held to a higher standard because it claims a higher standard. The LDS Church claims that Jesus Christ is at the head of the church, personally directing the affairs going on in the church.

    If not, then why a prophet?”

    This is exactly the issue in my opinion. If you qualify Mormonism so much, it becomes pointless. If Mormonism’s prophets are just as likely to teach false doctrine as anyone else, and if their “revelations” amount to just inspiration, the same as everyone else, then why have them? All Mormonism is left with is a claim on authority, which is problematic for at least two reasons:

    1. That’s not the bill of goods that Mormonism has been selling for the last century and a half.

    2. The claim on authority is actually really weak- it depends first on a specific understanding of authority that isn’t scripturally self-evident, and it is grounded in unsubstantated and practically unsubstantiatable supernatural events.

  19. The authority claim, to me, is also rather pointless if it’s not combined with revelation. “We have the authority to act in God’s name—now, if only he would tell us what to do.”

  20. The LDS are eating poison, and you’re all arguing about the place settings. Unbelievable.

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