Fair Play

Guest post by Seth R.

Over on the Pen and Parchment Blog from Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, pastor C. Michael Patton writes a post on Rethinking Apostolic Succession. The early part of his post notes the lack of doctrinal and Church accountability inherent in the Evangelical decentralized structure. This got me thinking about something that’s been nagging me about Mormon-Evangelical relations for some time. I included these remarks in a comment on that blog and thought I’d reproduce them here. Note that my gripe isn’t really with Tim or what he is doing on this particular blog, but with an ongoing theme that seems to repeatedly emerge in online debates between Mormons and Evangelicals.

A plea to our Evangelical neighbors:

As a Mormon who debates with Evangelicals on a somewhat regular basis, I really don’t mind the lack of organization or accountability for Evangelical teachings and doctrine. Evangelicals have chosen a free form structure based on an analogy to the diverse “body of Christ.” And that’s cool and all…

But what I do wish, is that they would quit attacking religions like the LDS or Catholics who actually attempt to take centralized responsibility for their doctrine.

It seems that repeatedly, I get Evangelicals trying to nail me to the wall for LDS leadership’s past statements about… say… the “Mark of Cain” as a justification for discriminating against black people (or whatever other doctrinal missteps may be in our past). But whenever I try to point out that Mormons actually borrowed the “Mark of Cain” argument from PROTESTANT ministers who were justifying slavery, suddenly there’s a rush of protests.

“Oh no! That’s not me! That was those other guys! It’s just me, my Jesus, and my Bible. And since I shopped around for a pastor I like, I’m in the clear! No skeletons in my closet!”

Seriously, I’m really OK with this idea of diversity in the body of Christ. I obviously don’t agree with the Evangelical lack of centralized authority and accountability as a general Church matter. But I will at least admit that it makes sense and has some credible Biblical support. I will consequently usually try to refrain from criticizing you guys over it.

But I do think it’s pretty tacky when Evangelicals try to take advantage of this lack of accountability to kick Mormons, or Catholics, or Orthodox, without fear of retaliation.

That’s just gutless. If you want to be decentralized, fine. But if you want to criticize the goofs of centralized faith traditions, it’s only fair that you be required to own the goofs of your own traditions. No hiding behind your own personalized interpretation of the Bible allowed.


39 thoughts on “Fair Play

  1. I mean, alternately, it might actually just be exposing a problem inherent to centralized faith traditions. No?

    And Catholics actually repudiate the stupid crap old popes said. Mormons never will come out and actually do that. You’re trying to have it both ways.

  2. Not exactly. On some topics that’s a good point. But on others not so much. For instance, Bruce R. McConkie – one of the most vocal proponents of racially discriminatory doctrines – stood up in General Conference and gave a pretty clear repudiation. Yet it’s still ignored today by opportunistic critics.

    It’s not a subject where things are really black and white. But I find critics of Mormonism often tend to try and paint it that way. For instance, Mormonism has no doctrine of prophetic infallibility. But many of our critics act as if we do.

    You ought to have a look at the Pen and Parchment discussion. They get into the nitty-gritty of what authority means discussing Catholics, Evangelicals, and Anglicans get a mention as well. I think it at least demonstrates that authority is a really complex subject in Christian tradition.

  3. For instance, Mormonism has no doctrine of prophetic infallibility. But many of our critics act as if we do.

    For that matter many Mormons act as if you do as well.

    I’ll share more thoughts on this post later.

  4. Well, as I’ve said before…

    The old joke goes:

    Catholic doctrine says the Pope infallible – but nobody really believes that. Whereas Mormon doctrine says the Prophet is NOT infallible – but nobody really believes that.

  5. In the case of the Orthodox, Catholic and Mormon churches one thing unites them, it takes them a long time to apologize if they do it at all.

    This post would not be written if Mormons had a “method” of making amends and disavowing statements from previous prophets.

    The founder of the Christian university I attended made similar “Mark of Cain” statements only 100 years ago (the college, though Protestant, was both centralized and an institution). When an African-American student recently pointed it out, the university bent over backwards to condemn those past remarks and praise an opposing viewpoint.

    The LDS church has no mechanism to do this without seriously stirring up a hornets nest. The foundation of “the prophet will never lead us astray” will quake. And though that statement is itself not canonized, it is central to LDS belief and practice.

    So even if Evangelicals “play by the same rules” and accept terrible things previously said as part of our history, the repercussions are totally different. Yes, Martin Luther was an anti-Semite. But Martin Luther did not direct anyone to look to him for inspiration or authority. He pointed to Scripture and Christ for both. LDS, Catholics and Orthodox need to understand the inherent danger in pointing to present-day-living sinners as sources of divine inspiration.

    Catholic doctrine says the Pope infallible – but nobody really believes that. Whereas Mormon doctrine says the Prophet is NOT infallible – but nobody really believes that.

    Which belief is more real, the one stated or the one lived?

  6. That’s not the question, Seth. More appropriate would be what do Christ’s followers really believe: what they say, or what they do?

  7. Whatever, though. The point was, it’s not even clear here in the OP that we’re talking about “higher aspiration” there could simply be a mismatch

    The concept of “official doctrine” itself is suspect, and basically manufactured. The “Church” can’t really teach, proclaim, believe, or maintain anything, as it is only a legal fiction. Only people can actually teach things, and only people can actually have beliefs. The idea that the “Church” can itself promulgate anything at all is, like I said, a legal fiction. Handy for society, but not really accurate. The Church is not a being, it cannot write or publish anything at all.

    This is important to remember. Anything “taught by the Church” is actually taught by people claiming to teach on behalf of a fictitious entity.

    That being said, what people claim to believe, and what people actually believe are not necessarily the same thing, and it isn’t even necessarily an ideals/reality disjoinder. It can simply be that people as a matter of practice or habit claim to believe x, when they in fact do not really believe x at all, but believe y instead. How can we know what people really believe? We can’t, of course, since we can’t get into peoples’ heads. But the things people actually say and do may lead us to infer that they believe y, although if we asked them point-blank, they would say they believe x. They might not even actually realize that there’s a discrepancy.

    It’s worth talking about the standards and beliefs that Mormons corporately hold and express, but we need to be cagey about it and realize that reality is often messy, heterogenous, and contradictory.

  8. Protestants distance themselves from post-2nd Century “mistakes” by stating that the Bible is the sole authority. I think they do get some degree of immunity through this approach. Mormons and Catholics are claiming a lot more in some respects, and therefore are justifiably open to a lot more criticism. If I am an average Evangelical in California in 2008, how can you plausibly connect my belief system to knuckleheads in Kansas who protest funerals of fallen soldiers? That would be like holding Jesus responsible for the excesses of Pharisees in his time.

    I think that Mormons and Catholics have more to defend, but I don’t think that makes Evangelicals necessarily more defensible. Most Protestants have gotten around the inconvenient, distasteful, and less popular parts of the bible in much the same way Mormons do with statements of previous church leaders. With enough explaining, Paul was not a misogynist, the Gospels become a fully harmonized account and every old testament anachronism remains part of the infallible truth.

    The beauty of the Protestant position, is that in order to really poke holes in their ultimate authority, you either have to set up and defend a complex theory of authority that demands that they join up, or you have to undermine the Bible itself. Otherwise you are just participating in the endless discussion between “denominations” about what the Bible really means.

  9. In short: Its totally “fair” for Evangelicals to attack strange statements from past Mormon leaders.

    Mormons should have a plausible explanation of why we accept some statements of prophets and reject others. If we don’t, Evangelicals are right to criticize us.

  10. In my mind, one of the major questions is how much the Protestant’s deliberate choice to adhere to a decentralized position with lack of enforcement power over the orthodoxy is directly responsible for the varieties of doctrine and practice that have arisen.

    If the Protestant choice of de-centralization is to be pinpointed as the primary culprit in such variances, then should the ordinary believing Protestant be called to take responsibility for such variances – no matter how personally distasteful they may be?

  11. Good question, but my intuition says no.

    Does someone who belives in free speech have to take responsibility for the website of, say, Stormfront? On one level, kind of, since the pro-free speech person’s beliefs do in a way facilitate Stormfront’s ability to spew hateful and evil garbage. On the other hand, it seems pretty far-fetched to take individual pro-speech people to task for the content of other peoples’ speech, does it not?

  12. I have a quick question for Seth and anyone else: Was Brigham Young (or any other LDS leader) wrong to teach the “Curse of Cain” doctrine?

  13. I think Seth’s point is interesting but tend to agree with Kullervo.

    The freedom of religion and openness of authority is precisely what allows Mormonism to exist and Mormonism completely embraces the concept that all men should be able to worship according to the “dictates of their conscience”. We are just as in favor of the variances as the new convert to a small evangelical Church who disavows all previous idiocies of evangelicals and just wants to worship God according to his understanding of the Bible.

    However, thinking about it more, Evangelicals still have the tall order of explaining why the Bible should be the authority of last resort. Perhaps they have to take responsibility for all of the immoral things that the Bible itself inspires since they don’t have a way of tempering the text with an interpretative authority. I.e. if they believe that God only gave the Bible, they have to be able to explain why God has left humanity so adrift on the whims of its own interpretation of a some very old texts that give us an often confusing picture of God and morality.

  14. My answer would be that in view of what the church considers revelation, that curse of cain explanation, in its extreme form, was unsubstantiated speculation used as a justification for the original doctrine/policy that those of “hametic” descent should not get the priesthood.

    I could be wrong but my understanding is their is no specific revelation that originated the policy of denying the priesthood to those of dark skin of african descent.

    Bruce R. McConkie, who espoused some form of the curse of Cain explanation, I think openly explained that he got it wrong and that current revelation clears things up.

    He states:

    ” There are statements in our literature by the early Brethren which we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and people write me letters and say, “You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?” And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. ”


    McConkie points out in this sermon that the original policy was at odds with the directive to take the Gospel to all of the world, and that disconnect was a primary reason for seeking the revelation.

    I think the entire incident and the history behind the revelation tells quite a bit about the church now, about current prophets and their confidence in their connection to God, and how we should explain how the prophetic system works.

  15. For what it’s worth, I’ve done a lot of research on the Church’s race doctrine, and written a substantial paper on it which I hope to get published sometime next year.

    For what it’s worth, there almost certainly never was a revelation (real or even alleged) pertaining to blacks and the priesthood.

  16. At the same time, the doctrines were treated as if they had been revealed by revelation.

    Not a lot of revelation going on these days, but lots of Mormons sort of assume that whatever the prophet says in his prophetic role (i.e. General Conference, statements on the family, etc.), must have come by revelation.

  17. “For what it’s worth, there almost certainly never was a revelation (real or even alleged) pertaining to blacks and the priesthood”

    Are you saying that Official Declaration 2 is not alleged to have come from revelation. . .or are you talking about the prohibition?

  18. I’m talking about the prohibition and the doctrines that were retrofitted to justify it.

    I think there are serious problems with OD2 as well, but you can definitely make a better case for it being based on revelation.

  19. From what I understand of it, the first declaration regarding blacks from Brigham Young actually came from an address he made to the Territorial Legislature.

    My own personal view is that it had something to do with maneuvering Utah into statehood in the racially charged pre-Civil War political landscape.

    People ran with it from there.

  20. There was some earlier stuff, from Winter Quarters. Apparently in response to this half-black half-Indian guy who claimed prophetdom and drew some of the Mormons away to follow him in the post-JS-death period of unrest.

  21. But Brigham Young was ultimately unequivocal about blacks not getting the priesthood. It wasn;t just some Reconstruction rhetoric that got misunderstood.

    Joseph Smith himself went back and forth on the issue, but never actually said blacks were to be denied the priesthood, unless you believe some extremely suspect accounts of some people decades after the fact, after John Taylor succeeded Young.

    Later prophets explicitly said that the priesthood ban on blacks had been revealed by revelation.

  22. You have come across the story of Elijah Abel, right Kullervo? He was a black man that Joseph Smith personally ordained to the Priesthood.

    If you’re doing research on this, you may want to check out the new documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons.” They haven’t released the documentary for sale yet, but when they do, here’s the link you’ll want:


    So far, they’ve just been doing screenings at college campuses and stuff. I watched one in Wyoming recently and it was pretty good.

    You’ll want to check out Darius Gray too, he was part of the leadership of the Genesis Group that was set up with approval of (a much younger) Hinckley, Monson, and Packer back in the 60s or 70s as an early outreach to the rare blacks who were in the LDS faith despite the obvious obstacles.

    There’s a website devoted to black LDS stuff that has a history synopsis too that you might want to check out if you haven’t already:


    Sorry if I’m just repeating what you already know.

  23. In a biography of David O. McKay, he is portrayed as believing that there was no revelation denying blacks the priesthood, but that it would take a revelation to grant them the priesthood.

  24. The David O McKay situation is not cut and dry, either. There’s some disagreement over a number of things he allegedly said in private to different people.

  25. In my opinion Brigham Young was wrong to teach the curse of Cain doctrine. But without a revelation from God, you couldn’t really say for certain whether this “curse” was some sort of basis for withholding the priesthood from those of dark skinned african descent. Just like its relatively unexplained why the Jews were the only ones who got the priesthood and the truth about God for most of recorded history. I can throw out any number of speculations as plausible as the curse of Cain doctrine and most of them would sound a bit entho-centric, if not racist.

  26. I think he was. But I acknowledge that I could be wrong.

    I think both the ban on blacks holding the Priesthood and the ban on women holding it are instances of where the LDS faith is still living with Brigham Young’s misguided baggage.

    That’s my own opinion.

  27. My paper really only touches on the Genesis Group in a cursory fasion: I acknowledge in the paper that I don’t really cover the inside experience of black Mormons very much at all, because I could never do it justice given the parameters and goals of my paper.

  28. Tim, I’m confused by this statement that you made. “As a Mormon who debates with Evangelicals on a somewhat regular basis, I really don’t mind the lack of organization or accountability for Evangelical teachings and doctrine. Evangelicals have chosen a free form structure based on an analogy to the diverse “body of Christ.”'” I am an Evangelical and don’t believe that this statement is accurate. I am an Evangelical that debates Mormons and oppose your statement on the basis of validity. True Evangelicals have a Biblical view of doctrine formulated by Christ Jesus (His words, not ours) and teach and preach based on that Biblical view. Mormons on the other hand do not have a Biblical view of doctrine, thus teach and talk (Mormons don’t preach) from a non-Biblical point of view that is foreign to the truths revealed in scripture (scripture defined as the Holy Bible). Further, every individual is accountable to the truth whether they believe in the truth, or not. Evangelicals understand the gravity of not being accountable for the true doctrine they teach and preach, because the result is Hell if they lead others astray. Mormons on the other hand have a universal view of salvation, which means everyone is saved in the end. Accountibility in a universalistic environment is made void by its very nature. Finally, there is no such thing as a “free form structure based on an anology to the diverse “body of Christ”. Evangelicals would find your assertion heretical. Christ’s body is just that Christ’s body. There is nothing that can be drawn as an analogy related to Christ’s body. He lived. He died. He was raised from the dead. He sits at the right hand of God the Father and is alive today reigning as Lord, King, and Mediator. I love the opportunity to debate you publically. I think it would be very interesting.

  29. Michael, free-form structure where everyone gets to appeal solely to the Bible, is the only way that Evangelicals justify why they have no Priesthood hierarchy. The “Body of Christ” analogy is very much in full use in arguments as to why a formalized ecclesiarchy is not needed.

    The reality is that the Bible yields multiple interpretations. Which is why there are so many Protestant sects. They only way they justify not needing to go back under a centralized hierarchy like that of the Roman Catholics is by saying that the “Church” is not a single entity with ONE chain of command, but rather that many diverse congregations can loosely affiliate as “Christian” and yet not be within the same authority structure.

    There are natural consequences to this choice of organization.

    Like having an organizationally dysfunctional religion. That’s a big one.

  30. Seth R., I understand what you are trying to say, but what you describe is a fallacy propogated by churches with a centralized hierarchy (Mormons, Catholics and the Church of England are examples of this), so that temporal and ecclesiastical control could be and can be exerted upon people who reside under said hierarchies. Protestant sects exist, because the Catholic Church at one point and the Church of England later, and more specifically, wanted control over local pastors and parishioners of various churches within the Church of England. This control was just like the hierarchal control I decribed above. The result was a “protest” in response to the attempt of the government to take over the administration and practice of the local churches. The pastors and paritioners became known as Protestants and were persecuted, killed, and expelled to various countries that were more tolerant and less prone to have a government controlled “church”. Out of that dispersal came the various Protestant churches we have today. Interpretations of the Bible have little to do with the formation of Protestant religions. To counter what you said about a loose “affiliation” among Christians there is no such thing. Evangelicals, whether they be Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutherans, or any other Bible believing sect if they be true to Christ Jesus and what He taught no matter their “creed” can only come down on one side; Christ’s. For years Mormons have attempted to misrepresent the Protestant point of view by saying that Joseph Smith was told by God that they are all wrong and an abomination to Him. The funny thing is there is no Biblical basis for what Joseph Smith claimed no matter what “interpretation” of the Bible is referred to. I will go one further and state unequivocally that there is no foundation in the Book of Mormon for what Joseph Smith claimed in regard to Protestant churches. Afterall, Mormonism is nothing but Protestantism, Budism, Catholicism, and Isalm tweek and blended into what has been deemed by Mormon men as “truth”. The problem is that these “truths” only suit those who believe that a “structure” based on control is required beyond the truth that Christ describes in the Holy Bible making their “truths” extra-Biblical and therefore false. He has determined what is necessary and required in regard to “church”. For He is the the Great Priest and there is no other. He and He alone is to be followed and the Mormon Church does not follow what He describes as “church”. There is only One that is allowed to control and He does not allow men to interfere with His plans, purposes, and will in regard to His true church no matter what they call themselves. One must be familiar with Protestant history to understand Protestant history. Mormon history does not and cannot explain Protestant history, because Protestant history was fully discounted by Joseph Smith at the outset (depending on which version of “the first vision” you except).

  31. Michael, I didn’t get this stuff from Mormons or Catholics. I got it from Evangelical apologists.

    Your stuff about agreeing with the Bible or whatever Joseph Smith thought about the legitimacy of other faiths is utterly irrelevant to my original post. I’m not sure why you are even talking about it.

  32. Michael said:

    Interpretations of the Bible have little to do with the formation of Protestant religions.

    I don’t see how a statement like that can be supported.

    Not all Protestant groups have been formed by differences in Biblical interpretation, of course. But it’s very easy for me to think of many divisions in Protestantism that have come about simply because of different Biblical interpretations. For example, a key difference between Pentecostals and non-Pentecostals is over how certain gifts of the Spirit are to be manifested. A key difference between Arminian denominations and Calvinist denominations is partly over how to reconcile various somewhat paradoxical statements in the New Testament. A key difference between Baptists and some non-Baptists is over whether baptism can take place before conversion.

    And currently, we’re seeing one of the larger Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church, on the verge of breaking apart because of how to understand what the Bible teaches about sexual behavior (among other things).

    And the list goes on.

    I’m not saying this is inherently a bad thing; it just is. Nor I am agreeing with your intrepretation of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

  33. Hi Michael,

    Hopefully you’ve figured out that the original post was authored by Seth, a Mormon and not by Tim, an Evangelical.

  34. Yeah, Michael, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but your recounting of the Protestant Reformation is basically complete ahistorical nonsense. Go read a book or something, and then come back.

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