Guest post by Eric, an active Mormon
Much of the discussion on this blog and various evangelical-oriented web sites devoted to Mormonism often focus on somewhat esoteric theological issues such as the nature of the Trinity (or Godhead in LDS-speak), the obscure words of mid-19-century church leaders, and polygamy. As a result, some evangelicals may get the impression that we Mormons spending a lot of our time discussing those issues. The reality, though, is that we probably don’t spend more time discussing such issues any more than evangelicals discuss them outside of a context that has to do with looking at what others believe.
As someone who has been an active member of the church for well over a decade, I find it somewhat amusing to be told how certain beliefs are a key part of our doctrine when they are subjects I may have heard discussed or taught once or twice in those years, if at all.
So what sort of issues do we discuss? A good place to find out is at our twice-a-year General Conference, a two-day gathering in Salt Lake City that any member can attend (although tickets are in short supply) and which is shown via TV at churches throughout the world and in some areas on broadcast or cable/satellite TV. Just as importantly, the sermons (we call them talks) are all published a few weeks later and distributed churchwide and are available to the general public online at LDS.org. We generally view the talks as authoritative and as a source of doctrine, and what is said may show in future church teaching materials.
We had our most recent General Conference this past weekend, and I thought I would share a few thoughts for this site’s evangelical Christian readers about what they might have heard had they attended, and how that might be similar or different than what they would hear if their own denominations had such an event. This should present a fairly good idea of what’s important to our church leadership these days.
Before going into details, I’d venture to say that most evangelicals would probably find themselves in accord with much of what was said. Many of the talks touched in one way or another to the sacrifice that Jesus made in dying for us and how we can respond to that. Most major doctrinal issues that divide Mormons and evangelicals were seldom mentioned, partly because they’re understood by those in attendance (just as an evangelical conference wouldn’t spend any time dwelling on the fact that our Heavenly Father isn’t corporeal). The theological differences that surfaced most often, repeatedly in fact, are our belief that our church’s priesthood has been called by God in a unique way and our belief that what goes on in our temples is part of God’s plan and essential to His grand design. But when our leaders talked about things such as prayer and the need to trust in God, for example, they often did so in terms that would be understandable to many non-LDS Christians and they frequently taught based in part on the New Testament.
Here, then, are the some of the things I picked up on that helped to make this General Conference different from some others:
Caring for the poor: This year marks the 75th anniversary of the church’s welfare system, and quite a few speakers emphasized caring for the needy. Much time was spent promoting our extensive efforts to help members as well as our (less grand) programs to help people regardless of their religious beliefs.
Caring for children: Partly for theological reasons (we believe families are eternal), many speakers talked about the need to make children a high priority. One said that Mormons should be in the forefront of efforts to make places of employment more family-friendly for working fathers and mothers.
Gender roles: Evangelicals are somewhat divided over complementarianism (men and women are equal in status before God but have divinely assigned roles) and egalitarianism (all good roles, including church leadership, are open to men and women). Mormons fall clearly in the complementarian camp, and several speakers talked in various ways about the vital role that women play in caring for children, suggesting that the family role takes precedence over education and career. But, interestingly, there are some changes going on in the church in this area. At least two speakers mentioned that both parents preside in the home (previous language emphasized the father presiding), and one pointedly said that women should not be judged as less valiant in the faith if they have a job outside the home. One said that bishops (kind of like pastors in Protestant churches) should listen to their Relief Society (the women’s organization) presidents when they call people to various positions, because the women may be the first to receive inspiration from the Holy Spirit. That’s certainly not enough to satisfy some of the more egalitarian-leading church members, but those are things that probably wouldn’t have been said even a decade ago.
Homosexuality: Actually, this was rarely mentioned, and then only indirectly. I bring this up because there are those who think we spend our time bashing gays. Much more mention was made of pornography, an evil that greatly concerns our church leaders, and of the sadness that divorce brings.
Don’t delay marriage: In at least four of the five sessions, a speaker said that young adult men should make it priority to get married, suggesting that they’re wasting their time if they don’t. (There are more single women than single men in the church.) I found this interesting in part because the speakers aren’t assigned topics; apparently the fact that young adults aren’t getting married readily is of great concern to church leaders. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s a concern to some Protestants too. See this: The Case for Early Marriage.)
LDS distinctives: It seemed unusual to me that very little was said about tithing or the Word of Wisdom (our teaching against alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea and excessive meat).
Not a cafeteria religion: At least two speakers criticized taking a cafeteria approach to our faith, picking and choosing what’s important to us. More interestingly, one of our apostles made a rare reference to trends in non-LDS churches, criticizing those who teach merely a feel-good type of Christianity that ignores the responsibilities that God has given us.
This far from covers all the topics that came up (after all, we’re talking about 8 to 10 hours of meetings), and I do want to emphasize that the overall emphasis was on living a life devoted to Jesus Christ and, secondarily, our families. But the topics above are ones that grabbed my attention and may give some ideas of where the church is headed (or of what I listen to most carefully).