I’d like to speak to some common representations Evangelicals have of Mormonism as well as some common questions I hear when people discover that I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Mormonism.
First off, I think it’s important for Evangelicals to recognize that a lot of information they have about Mormonism comes from second or third-hand anecdotes that Evangelicals pass on to one another. That’s not exactly the most reliable source of information and is typically how urban legends get started. While you might trust the person giving you the information to be passing along what they know accurately, rarely do people pause to question what the original source might have been. More often than not that original source for Evangelicals was a book or a movie titled “The God Makers” by Ed Decker. Without getting too deeply into the specific truth claims of Mr. Decker’s work I think Evangelicals need to know that “The God Makers” was largely created with the intent of scaring Evangelicals away from Mormonism so they would not be tempted to convert. Many Mormon beliefs were twisted to make them sound weirder or more devious than they actually are. Another popular source for Evangelicals is “The Kingdom of the Cults” by Walter Martin.
As effective as these books might have been in saving Evangelicals from Mormonism, they made for a lousy platform to evangelize to Mormons from, even worse if that information was passed on second or third hand. Some of the negative information in those books comes from true things taught by Brigham Young which the modern LDS church no longer teaches or holds to. I commonly hear Evangelicals say “Mormons just don’t know what their church teaches”. This is a laughable statement if you really think about it. If anyone will know what a church teaches it will be the people sitting in its’ pews every Sunday. It might be accurate to say that “Mormons don’t know what Brigham Young used to teach” or even “Mormons don’t understand the deeper beliefs of their church”, but you can be sure they hear exactly what their church teaches. (This same charge can be levied against Evangelicals because most can not give an accurate summation of the Trinity). On that note I’d like to comment on some of the things Evangelicals “know” about Mormonism.
Adam-God, Blood Atonement & Brigham Young
More than once I’ve heard Evangelicals holding Brigham Young’s teachings over Mormons. Quite often these attacks come with references to the Journal of Discourse replete with volume and page numbers as proof. There are two important things Evangelicals don’t understand about these teachings. The first is that the Journal of Discourses is not scriptural. It’s a collection of sermons. It’s no more fundamental to the Mormon faith than any book written by Billy Graham is to Evangelicals. Those sermons may be interesting, but they are not inerrant canon for Mormons.
This naturally leads to the second point, Brigham Young was not an inerrant prophet of the LDS church. Mormons do not believe in inerrancy. Evangelicals make a mistake when we try to hold Mormons to our standard of inerrancy. A fundamental of Mormonism is the belief in modern revelation. That means new prophets can not only introduce new doctrines, they can also contradict and overrule previous doctrines. This is the case with another one of Brigham Young’s favorite doctrines, polygamy. He taught that it was important and necessary; later prophets received new revelations about its’ practice and now taking on a second wife is the kind of thing that will get a person excommunicated from the LDS church. So while discussions on whether or not Brigham Young taught that Adam was God might be interesting or foreign to Mormons, they are Young’s teachings, not the teachings of modern Mormonism.
Jesus and Satan are Brothers
If Evangelicals know anything about Mormonism it is that the LDS church teaches that Jesus and Satan are spirit brothers. What Evangelicals don’t know is that this is an implication of Mormon teaching. It is accurate, but you can sit through a year’s worth of Sunday school meetings and read every word of the Book of Mormon twice and you will not hear an explicit teaching on this. I’m not saying it is not true. It is. What I’m pointing out is that it’s not the kind of thing Mormons develop lesson plans around.
The more overt teaching that implicates Jesus and Satan as spirit brothers is that we are all spirit children of Heavenly Father. You probably will hear Mormons talk about how Jesus is our spirit brother if you spend any time with them. If they can figure out what you are getting at, they will agree that Jesus and Satan are brothers.
What Evangelicals need to understand about this teaching is that Mormons are not elevating Satan to a similar plane as Jesus. Instead they are lowering Jesus to the realm of created beings. Mormons still consider Jesus to be highly esteemed and want to devote their lives to his teachings, they even call him God. But (fancy word alert) ontologically they don’t consider him any different than us (or Satan). That may not remove the offense to Evangelicals, but it puts it in the proper light.
Angrily confronting a Mormon with “you believe Jesus and Satan” are brothers won’t gain you much traction in getting them to attend church with you this Sunday. It’d be a bit like someone saying to you “Evangelicals believe Adolf Hitler might be in Heaven.”
The term “temple Mormons” is one that was solely invented by Ed Decker as far as I can tell. Mormons do not have any such distinction for “temple Mormons” and “non-temple Mormons”. If you use that term, it’s a dead give away that you got your information from “The God Makers”.
The secrecy surrounding LDS temples tends to creep out Evangelicals a little bit. Our minds start racing to all of the worst possible explanations for why Mormons keep the temple ceremony secret. Statues of oxen and pentagrams on some of the temples don’t seem to ease our imaginations. Let me put your fears to rest. There are no animal or human sacrifices taking place. No one is required to perform any sort of sex act on any of the altars. There are no beds in the temple. Mormons do not enter the temple and laugh at how well their mild-mannered, family-values ruse is throwing everyone off from their love and devotion to Beelzebub.
Evangelicals will not find the temple ceremony to be something familiar to their typical religious activities, but there is nothing overtly offensive, crude or blasphemous about it. The rituals performed there would not be terribly unfamiliar to those who are involved with freemasonry. A great many of your Mormon neighbors and coworkers find the ceremony to be uplifting and inspiring and I’m guessing that you’ve found that you can trust them to be decent and honest people in all situations.
If you are a savvy enough researcher you can find the entire temple ceremony and discover what it is about. Mormons consider the ceremony sacred and will not appreciate you prying into it; you need to consider this before you go looking. Within the last year a nationally televised program acted out the entire ceremony. Mormons were upset that this happened, but I did not find any one that would say that the presentation was inaccurate. So all that is to say, if you don’t trust Mormons when they tell you nothing freaky is taking place there, you can go find out for yourself if you’re so inclined.
Are Mormons Christian?
For some reason Evangelicals like to “serve notice” to Mormons that they are not Christian. As if we can wash our hands of the souls of any missionaries who visit our doorsteps because we’ve let them know they are going to hell. This isn’t particularly useful or effective. Please avoid dismissing Mormon missionaries with the words “you aren’t Christians” as you close the door on them.
If you’d like to debate Mormonism’s place in the Kingdom, I’ve found that engaging the question “are Mormons Christians” is not a great place to start. Mormons and Evangelicals are talking about different things. Mormonism comes straight out of Christianity. It doesn’t make any sense outside of the larger religious context of Christianity. So at least in one sense Evangelicals can acknowledge how Mormons are Christian. If you want to talk about the same thing with your Mormon friend, I’d recommend asking the question “Does Mormonism teach a saving faith?” You may not come to any better of an agreement, but at least you’ll be talking about the same thing.
Grace and Works
Mormons are not as monolithic in their view of the role of grace and works in salvation as they might have once been. There are some who believe exactly as Evangelicals do. This is NOT the thing that separates Evangelicals and Mormons the most. Sometimes though it appears to be our biggest dividing line. Part of the reason for this is that both sides are at times engaging in “boundary maintenance” and taking a harder line on their perspective than they actually believe.
For 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. we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Notice why verse 10 says we are saved by grace; to do good works. Don’t be ashamed of the good works we are called to do. Evangelicals should feel free to give in a little bit and agree that there are good works for us to do. That doesn’t mean we have to agree those good works are adequate to save us, but we shouldn’t give Mormons the impression that we go on doing whatever we want because of grace. Evangelicals should also acknowledge that our good works will earn Christians something, namely jewels in their crowns. Both sides have to fight against a caricature created of them. Instead of reinforcing that caricature, do your best to give in where you can. Not for the sake of giving in, but for the sake of having your beliefs properly understood by someone who may have a cartoon understanding of them. Be prepared to also recognize that your own understanding of Mormon beliefs may be a little cartoonish.
The LDS church does not teach its members to shun those who leave the faith. There is not an automatic threat that an ex-Mormon will lose all contact to their family including their wife and children. It does happen at times, but not because the LDS church says it must happen. Often when family ties are broken for ex-Mormons it is because of the tremendous stress such a paradigm shift creates in their relationships. It’s no different than when Evangelicals decide to become Atheists, Mormons or Catholics. Sometimes relationships can not adjust to the new expectations and those relationships dissolve or fade away. Evangelicals should not believe that those relationships dissolve due to a threat of ex-communication from the LDS church. It simply does not happen.