In a discussion on the on-going controversy over Richard Mouw’s 2004 apology at the Mormon Tabernacle, a fellow Evangelical asked me to comment on a passage from Richard Mouw’s book “Talking with Mormons”.
“My assistant came into my office to tell me that a caller wanted to talk with me: “He says he’s a Mormon and he wants to ask you a question about his personal faith. Should I tell him you’re too busy?” Then she quickly added: “He seems quite nice, and he says he isn’t calling to argue with you about anything:”
I decided to take the call. The person on the line asked whether he could briefly tell me about his spiritual journey. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear his story, but my assistant was right: he did seem quite nice. He had been raised in a mainline Protestant church, he told me, and during his youth he had never felt challenged to make any serious commitment to Christianity. As a student at a university – one of the most distinguished ones academically – his roommate for all four years was a Mormon. “He was very bright, and very committed to his faith;” the caller reported. “It was the first time I encountered someone who was serious about his religious convictions and who was also interesting to argue with:” In his senior year my caller himself joined the Latter-day Saints. “That was ten years ago;” he said. “Lately, though, I’ve had some questions. I’ve read about your dialogue with some of our LDS scholars, and I’d like you to tell me whether you think I’m a Christian:’ I told him that I’d have to ask him some questions, and I’d need some honest answers from him. He agreed. Here’s the gist of our exchange: “How many gods are there?” I asked. “Well, there is one Godhead, made up of three divine Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:’ he responded. “Will you ever become a god like them?” “Oh no. I hope I’m becoming more Christ-like, but only the three Persons of Godhead are worthy of worship. More like God – yes. To be a god – no way!” “What is the basis for your salvation? Do you earn it by your good works?”
“No, my good works can’t save me. I’m saved by grace, through the atoning work of Christ on the Cross. My good works – those I perform in gratitude to what He has done for me:” I gave him my assessment. “I can’t judge your heart, but I can say something about your answers to my questions. If someone else had called me out of the blue, telling me that he was a Methodist or a Presbyterian, and asked me whether I thought he was a true Christian, and if he had given those same answers that you’ve given, I would say, `Yes, those are good Christian answers: So, I have to say to you that I think you’ve answered some important questions in a very Christian way.” He then pushed me a step further. “Well, I really do believe what I said to you. So – do you think I should leave Mormonism if that is what I believe?” I paused before answering. Then I told him I’d recommend that he stay in the LDS church. “But keep saying those things;’ I urged. `And if the Mormon leaders ever tell you that you can’t give those answers to the basic questions, then I’d recommend that you leave Mormonism'”
(Richard J. Mouw. Talking with the Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals (Kindle Locations 385-404). Kindle Edition)
Setting cynicism and experiences in which I’ve had Mormons tell me the answers they think I want to hear aside I’m willing to take the Mormon in this story for his word. I believe he was being sincere and that he’d give those same answers to his Bishop and have the courage to express his convictions in a Priesthood meeting or while delivering a talk in Sacrament meeting. I have to agree with Mouw that any individual who gave me the same answers would more than likely qualify as a “Christian” in my theological orthodoxy rubric. I’m more than willing to concede that such individuals exist within the LDS church.
It should be noted, with significance, that Dr. Mouw considers these to be correct answers to properly designate a person as a “true Christian.” Responses outside of the scope of these answers would deem the caller to be “not-a-true-Christian” in Dr. Mouw’s understanding.
There is only one more question I wish Dr. Mouw would have asked his caller; “What do you think of Joseph Smith? Was he a true prophet and inspired by God when he claimed to be.” I don’t know that a “yes” or “no” answer would necessarily change my initial evaluation for baseline orthodoxy, but his answer to this question would be very telling.
I think the most controversial segment of the passage is Dr. Mouw’s response to the question “do you think I should leave Mormonism if that is what I believe?” I think this is where Dr. Mouw and I may depart. I’d have several other questions for the caller on this topic such as “Are you thinking of leaving?”, “What motivates you to stay?”, “In your experience do correlated church teachings agree with you?” While I’m comfortable with the idea that individual Mormons might have orthodox views I do not think the LDS church teaches or conforms to this same orthodoxy.
I think the LDS church would be a difficult place to remain with this set of beliefs. I could not do it. I would more than likely be called in to the Bishop’s office for proclaiming and defending these notions with tenacity. Additionally, I would expect such a believer to be able to identify and reject false prophets. I do not believe a true Christian can follow a false prophet in the long term. I can’t imagine a man identifying Joseph Smith as a false prophet to be warmly embraced or comfortably situated in the LDS church.
There might be personal situations in which such a man may need to maintain some affiliation with the LDS church for some time (Attending on occasion without identifying as a Mormon is a reasonable compromise in my mind). I have sympathy for people in those situations and do not envy their need to make those decisions. But I would most definitely encourage such people to seek spiritual encouragement outside of the LDS church. I think that the pursuit of Jesus free from the encumbrances and distractions of a false prophet is ultimately worth any and all personal sacrifice that may need to be made.
The loss of a job, a marriage, friendships, and family relationships all pale in comparison to the fruit of knowing Jesus in spirit and truth.