Making peace between Joseph Smith and Saint Paul

I came to the conclusion years ago that the difference between Mormons and Evangelicals was the difference between taking Paul’s philosophy and taking Joseph Smith’s seriously. If the LDS Church wants to be what it claims to be, I think it behooves them to think though and reconcile these differences in a way to keep the theology of both men intact, even if they have to be viewed within different metaphysical paradigms. My view currently is that the failure to reconcile these differences without discrediting what Paul said is a grave mistake. I think that the historical antagonism between the LDS and Paul’s theology has been as unhelpful as the LDS policy of denying the priesthood to people of African descent.

In my mind, Paul and Joseph Smith are very similar figures. Both assumed authority within their Christian communities because of supernatural experiences with Christ, and claims that they spoke and wrote under the authority of the Holy Spirit.  Both were religious geniuses, able to bring the patterns of ancient scripture to spectacular effect in promoting their new worldviews.  They both claimed to bring to light hidden knowledge from God that was hidden in the past due to false traditions perpetuated by the hard-headed, and hard-hearted.  Both claimed to speak the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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A meditation on religious conflict

[This is a prose poem that came out after I finished up writing brief about a particularly gnarly run in with original sin and the law that punishes it. Enjoy!]

“Religious War has signified the greatest advance of the masses so far, for it proves that the masses have begun to treat concepts with respect.  Religious War start only after more refined quarrels between sects have refined reason in general to the point where even the mob becomes subtle and takes trifles seriously and actually considers it possible that the “eternal salvation of the soul” might depend on small differences between concepts.” – F. Nietzsche

“But if all religious teachers were honest enough to renounce their pretensions to godliness when their ignorance of the knowledge of God is made manifest, they will all be as badly off as I am, at any rate; and you might just as well take the lives of other false teachers as that of mine. If any man is authorized to take away my life because he thinks and says I am a false teacher, then, upon the same principle, we should be justified in taking away the life of every false teacher, and where would be the end of blood? And who would not be the sufferer?” – J. Smith

Science tells us that our universe began as a single point, and that human beings are super-developed animals with incredible imaginations that in their limitless symbolizing and shaping of the world with their art spawned religion, civilization, and consciousness of our unfathomable beginning and becoming.

The orthodox catholic tells us that God is the unknowable Father that is the source of this point, but that he is nothing within it, that God is the substance of the man Jesus the Christ that became part of the created world, and the substance of the Holy Spirit that fills creation and the strange human souls that take on the the image of this substance but are condemned to be separated from it.

Mohammed tells us that man is nothing like God, and absolute and unknowable, who has no child and wills all that happens and all that exists, God is the final arbiter of this created reality and should be feared and loved.

The Buddha tells us that we are not separate souls, and God is irrelevant to our enlightenment to this fact; only in our giving up ourselves and our souls can we awake to the reality of God.

Paul tell us that man is a debased spirit separated from God, clothed in corrupt flesh but redeemed to God’s image through assent and capitulation to the reality of the single Christ, the God who submitted to death and suffering to save the world from it.

Moses tells us that there is a law from heaven that all must follow and that one people were chosen to proclaim it.

Joseph Smith tells us that God is the same as us: a single eternal soul living within the uncreated universe who discovered intelligence and then glory though the laws of reality that fill the immensity of space and makes all things as they are.

The Hindu tells us that we are all the shifting faces of God, the absolute reality that sits behind all appearances, and that only those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires surrender themselves to other gods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own many natures.

Pilate tells us that truth is an illusion and then spilled the blood of the man the Christians call God by the power of the law and might of Rome.

Jesus tells us that God’s law and all other truth is swallowed in Christ, the mystery and promise of God’s love, that God’s kingdom has nothing to do with Rome that killed him, but is in midst of the love and joy that springs from His blood and suffering and ours.

The Evangelical tells us that we should proclaim this last Word above all others, and attests that there is no end to this blood that saves us.

It seems that in this blood there should be an end to the blood Nietzsche and Joseph Smith spoke of, but how remains its mystery.


Religious Liberty in Post-Christian America

If you’re not aware, religious liberty is currently the hot button political topic within Evangelicalism and Catholicism (and perhaps Mormonism as well). The topic came to the national forefront in the last couple of weeks due to a bill that was attempting passage in Arizona.  I saw a flurry of articles recommend on the topic.  Some with an understanding of the political and legal nuances of the topic, others without. The rhetorical battle got kicked off with one Christian columnist claiming that Evangelicals wanted to reinstate Jim Crow laws, followed by a blogger declaring that there should be no discrimination laws at all. I personally felt challenged by a blogger’s reminder to “go the extra mile” when we feel our rights are violated.

Eric recently shared an article with me that is basically the voice I’ve been looking for.  “Religious Liberty Should be a Liberal Value Too”  It explains the tension between pluralism (which is losing cultural prestige) and egalitarianism.  I highly recommend the article.

Hearts of the Scattered

A controversy has emerged in the Evangelical community of Utah.  Shawn McCraney announced on his television show his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity.

I watched the program and found that Shawn seems to be reacting against Mormonism and Mormon apologetics perhaps more than the orthodox teachings of Christianity.  His arguments are first and foremost a rejection of tri-theism (a belief in three gods) and second a anti-parrallel driven narrative.  Whereas some Mormon apologist are quick to pick up on any parallel from the ancient world as evidence that LDS particulars are justified, Shawn has adopted the inverse argument that any parrallel to anything outside of Christianity proves it must be heretical (This argument is often employed against Christian spiritual disciplines as proof that they are New Age).  What’s even more troubling is that one of his primary sources is a dubiously conspiratorial, Anti-Catholic book called “The Two Babylons”.

I wasn’t so much concerned with his emphasis against the existence of three gods as much as I was by his unwillingness to engage the arguments that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. Towards the end of the program a caller challenged him with an argument that’s a low entry point into Trinitarianism and he was unwilling to engage the argument.

Shawn has a confrontational style and without a force to oppose I think he loses what makes him interesting to watch. This is not the first, nor I think the last time he will set himself up against the Evangelical community in Utah. I’m sure many Mormons are pleased to see this fracture, proclaiming a pox on both of their houses.  It will be interesting to see how Shawn and Utah Evangelicals interact in the near future. Some responses have already begun to appear.  My guess is that without correction, Shawn will be disavowed by Evangelicals and his teachings declared just as heretical as Mormonism’s.

The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles show us how the first Christians were Mormons?

Early Christian Gravestone, Jesus the ShepherdIf you haven’t read the Didache, it’s a fascinating read.  Named after the Greek word for “teaching” this short work purports to contain the teaching of the twelve apostles of Christ.  Written as early as the first century, it was considered by some prominent early Christians as part of the New Testament.  The Didache is intriguing because it was not written to tell a story, or to explain theology, but as a manual for what Mormons would call “living the Gospel.”

The Didache is ostensibly the direction of the Twelve Apostles concerning how to practice Christianity.  It lays out how to live, how not to live, how to baptize, how to prepare the sacrament, how to pray and fast, how to deal with traveling preacher, how to appoint local leaders, and how to prepare for the Second Coming. One reason the book struck me as “Mormon” is that Jesus is not mentioned by name at all. The “way of life” is straightforward– love of God, the golden rule, and shunning immorality. It’s approach to religion is unsophisticated and straightforward, not unlike most LDS conference talks. 

The book is also Mormonesque in the way it directs believers to appoint church leaders from their own congregations. Professional, traveling preachers are to be accepted, but tested. Those that hang around too long, or leach off the membership, were to be rejected.  It also smacks of the Mormon worthiness narrative.  The congregations were told to confess and repent of their sins before Sunday worship so that their sacrifice to God could be pure. They were also directed to resolve all disputes with others. 

It makes me wonder how Christianity would differ today if this guidance was considered the infallible word of God.  Would Evangelical-style money-preachers be rejected more readily? How would the church look if these practical principles were enforceable as scripture?  These are some of the fascinating questions these just-barely-uncanonical works leave me asking.

The Universalist Pope?!

Pope Francis appears to have a new, dramatic, position on salvation for the non-believer.  Catholic Online  gives a detailed account of the Pope’s sermon yesterday where he stated that even atheists were redeemed by Christ and would go to heaven if they “do good.”

A quote from the article:

Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

I recognize that the pope is not really making himself out to be a universalist, but he definitely opens the door to salvation to anyone regardless of belief. If this is a sign of things to come, I think this pope may have ideas that could really unite Christianity.  If the pope believes an atheist can get into heaven, this seems to change the entire dynamic of Christian interaction with the world.  The fundamental missionary act would be to promote and support good conduct–Christian love–rather than merely spreading Christian theology or belief.  Is the pope implying this? Am I reading too much into it? Whether this represents a sea change or is simply warmer rhetoric, I think its a very positive step. Thoughts?

Explaining Jesus to a child – How should I indoctrinate my children?

indoctrinate_xlarge_xlargeWhen children are taught religion, they are indoctrinated. As parents we can’t explain how the world really works to them–they won’t understand and nobody has the patience–so we happily give them simple skeletons which they can build on, that they can organize the necessarily limited experience and information they stumble across.  We hope that the skeletons are elegant and strong enough to gird all the good information our children come across and allow them to create a robust, useful picture of how things are. Of course the problem with indoctrination is that it shuts of lines if inquiry, creating intellectual bias.  If the process of education moves people from cocksure confidence to thoughtful uncertainty, indoctrination attempts to stall or abort this process–on a few important areas of thought at least.

Indoctrination is a big issue in our multi-cultural, increasingly divisive, political and ideological climate. At least one writer — David French– contends that Evangelicals’ failure to properly indoctrinate their children is part of the reason they fall short in church growth compared to moromons.   Citing the Barna Group’s conclusion that of the 84 million Americans who claim to be Evangelical, only about 19 million actually hold orthodox beliefs, French advocates that Evangelicals must follow the LDS lead in teaching their distinctive beliefs and culture early and well.

But indoctrination is an extremely inflammatory concept. It is almost universally condemned by those who don’t want children to be indoctrinated against their positions. But I don’t think indoctrination can or should have the bad rap given it by fervent opponents of religious indoctrination such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Arguably most childhood education in areas of history and even many areas of science smacks of indoctrination in one form or another.

Given its unavoidable necessity, I have started to take indoctrination of my own children more seriously. My kids are indoctrinated Mormons, their skeletons come from church.   They have a surface-level, Sunday-school understanding of the church, salvation, and the righteous life. But because I am no longer what can be fairly called a believing Mormon, I want to temper this indoctrination with indoctrination of my own–one that reflects the understanding I have developed in my spiritual life and education.  I am trying to find a way to explain Christianity differently without closing the lines of inquiry that I find critical.  I want to add a few limbs to my kids’ conceptual skeletons without making their existing frameworks useless.

So, my project is to develop simple, short, easy-to-understand narratives of important historical events and religious principles- sort of like the Gospel Principles Manual in the LDS Church. Something that can give my children a place to start inquiry based roughly on what I think are proper conclusions about history and the world; a different narrative to expand and allow critical evaluation of the narrative they receive in church.

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Corrupt but Christian

There is a Christian ministry that is located near where I live. In almost every way I think they exhibit the worst of Christianity. I think they have stored a great many treasures on earth at the expense of many desperate and lonely Christians. I would not personally want to give an accounting to God for the resources they have been given in the name of Jesus. It would be a rare day in which I would endorse anything related to their ministry. I would not support them in any positive way. I would not choose to worship with them. I barely want to support their claim on the term “Christian”.

And yet, I would say that they are indeed Christians. They get it right when it comes to the most important things about the Christian faith. The authentic discipleship they offer is shallow at best and rancid at worst, but they make the cut. If I were given the responsibility to ultimately judge the leadership, I’d see them in eternity but they would have the smell of sulfur on them for quite sometime.

I was recently asked by a Mormon, “If Evangelicals view the Catholic Church as Christian, what was the need of the Reformation?” I think my answer in regards to the Catholic Church of Luther’s day is similar to the ministry I mentioned above. The only difference being that in 1517, there was no other Christian alternative. A believer who was fed up and sickened by the corruption of the Catholic Church had no alternative.

As can be noted by the name “Reformation”, the original goal was not to overturn or reject the Catholic church. It was to reform it, to rebuke and correct it. It should also be noted that virtually every reform Luther was seeking of the Catholic church was fulfilled.

As Paul had serious disagreements with the Judaizers of the 1st Century; I have some serious disagreements with the Catholic church. But I welcome them in the fellowship of Christ (as they welcome me). I set those differences aside at the foot of the cross because they ultimately join me there. And when I see gaudy, corrupt, materialistic Christian neighbors there, I ignore the smell.

There’s No Reforming a Protestant Church

This last week I was talking with a friend who now attends my non-denominational church.  We have a lot in common because we are both pastor’s kids from the same denomination.  He “out-lived” my denominational experience by attending one of its’ private universities and was a youth pastor for a couple of years.  He recently finished seminary and has plans on becoming a pastor again someday.  I asked him if he still considered himself a part of that denomination.

He said “no” and told me a little bit about his reasons.  He went on to say that for awhile he thought of staying on the inside and trying to reform it, but ultimately decided that reform would be too difficult to achieve.

Our conversation moved on to other things, but it occurred to me that reformation rarely happens in Protestant churches.  It doesn’t happen because there are so many other choices. When someone becomes disaffected they just leave and find something that suits them better.  Even leaving and forming an entirely new organization is much easier than reformation.

As I teased out the idea it occurred to me that Christian churches as a whole are rarely reformed.  Ironically most of Luther’s reforms for the Catholic church were achieved.  But only after he and many others left and set up sizable competition.   I haven’t done any research on it, but other than that and the Worldwide Church of God, I can not think of a denomination that was changed by reformers.  There are plenty of examples of denominations moving from point A to point B, but this is usually the work of a long slide rather than a sudden reformation force. Those changes typically occur over a lifetime rather than a decade (or less).

I’m not even sure that reformation has very much success in any religion much less Protestantism. So to all you reformers out there. . . give up. 🙂

Two Ex-Catholics

I have been catching up on some old podcast and I just listened to this interview. Greg Koukl speaks with Chris Castaldo about his recent book “Holy Ground“. The two men are former Catholics and they talk about the recent trend of Evangelicals converting to Catholicism and the much larger trend of Catholics converting to Evangelicalism.

I surprisingly learned quite a bit about Mormonism while listening to this interview. Christian ex-Mormons are often attracted to the Catholic church. Hearing the things that Catholics like about the Catholic church clarified some of the reasons Mormons might like the Catholic church as well.

At the end of the interview Koukl spends some time explaining his concerns about Catholic Inclusivism.

Direct Link for download

By Whose Authority

Jared is fond of wrestling with the question of by what authority is “scripture” declared scripture. It’s a tough question for anyone of any faith and it’s of particular importance to our conversations here.

Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason recently took a couple of consecutive calls on his radio program dealing with this issue.  I think he does a good job of presenting the Protestant viewpoint. His basic argument is that the First Century Apostles had authority over the church and their authority extends to their writings collected in the New Testament. If it can be trusted to be authentic writings of the Apostles, then it has authority for us today.

He does a good job of flushing out the issues and I encourage you to listen to what he says in his own words.  What I appreciate about his program is that he takes time to give a complete answer (and in this case acknowledges that his answer may not fully satisfy).

A direct download of this portion of the program can be found here. Or you can download the entire program here.

Catholic Counter-Arguments

I found these videos on YouTube of a Catholic Apologetics class where they discuss Mormonism (surprised I beat Aquinas to this). I thought it was interesting to get their take on all of these topics. They take their shots at both LDS and Protestants and I acknowledge there are misinformed on a number of LDS beliefs.

Now I know LDS generally consider it bad form to talk about other churches. But I think if LDS missionaries are going to to try to gain converts from Catholic and Protestant churches, it’s reasonable for those churches to prepare their members with counter arguments.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

For the Bible Told Me So

Wulfstan earlier asked this series of questions. Miraculously, I have time to answer them at least in part.

I am curious about the converstation regarding the Bible and the assertion of its infallibility and authority in all matters pertaining to whether a religion is true or not.

It appears from historical record that “the pope was dethroned and the Bible was enthroned’ by the European reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries. The reformers claimed in different manners that the Roman church was apostate in its teachings and therefore its authority. The reformers then had a need to replace the authority that they had thrown down with the church in order to defend their” new” beliefs. The only available place they could go for a defendable position on this new doctrine was to claim that their new authority came solely from the “Word of God.”

It is interesting to me that when participants are separated from actual events by a significant time, how absolute their position becomes. The early controversies that surrounded these early events of the Protestant reformation are diminished by the fog of forgetfulness.

If your argument today is that every word in the Bible is the true and absolute Word of God and therefore if someone’s belief contradicts the Bible, they and their beliefs are fatally wrong, I ask you from which Bible (what auhority) do you make your claim?

Isn’t it true that there are many Bibles and that they all differ in content and meaning. Even if your current scripture is the result of translation using earlier versions of different text, what then was wrong with those earlier scriptures that they had to be retranslated?

And finally, if today you claim that your authority comes solely from the Bible, it being the word of God, how can you reconcile that you have the truth today when it surely was not the claim by any in the early churches that existed much closer in time and proximity to the Savior and his disciples, that their authority came solely from the Bible?

I think that’s a bit of a “retelling” of the Protestant reformation. It seems to be politically skewed to show Luther and others and wanting to break free from the Catholic church and back-ending Biblical authority as an excuse or tool to do so. It would be my understanding that the Reformers found the Priesthood Authority in the Catholic church to be corrupt as they compared it to the Bible. They already understood the Bible to have more authority than the Pope. As it became clear to them that there was a difference between the two, they attempt to pull the Priesthood back into orthodoxy with the Bible. When it was apparent that it was not going to happen, they were either excommunicated or left the Catholic church and went forward with the authority of the Bible and Christ as the head of the church (as He has always been). Interestingly the Catholic Church eventually adopted most of the Reformer’s key points, so it appears that despite maintaining the priesthood, the Catholic church also found the Biblical authority to be stronger than the practice of their priesthood at the time.

If your argument today is that every word in the Bible is the true and absolute Word of God and therefore if someone’s belief contradicts the Bible, they and their beliefs are fatally wrong, I ask you from which Bible (what auhority) do you make your claim?

I’m not going to deny that there aren’t Protestant Fundamentalist that blindly and ignorantly mandate that every single word in the Bible is absolute in it’s meaning. But that’s not my view and not the view of 95% of Christians I interact with. I believe that the Bible should be taken on it’s own terms. Genre, intent, audience, and context are all as important as the words that make up each verse. That doesn’t mean I’m nuancing the meaning out of the Bible, but it does mean that I think it’s important to know a lot about what surrounds the Bible in order to know what it’s saying and to whom.

Isn’t it true that there are many Bibles and that they all differ in content and meaning. Even if your current scripture is the result of translation using earlier versions of different text, what then was wrong with those earlier scriptures that they had to be retranslated?

No that really isn’t true. Your comments generally seem more educated than to think there are many different Bibles that differ in content and meaning. I’m surprised you asked the question in that way. There are many different translations of the Bible (almost as many as languages in the world) and there are in fact many English translations of the Bible. But they all say the same thing in content and meaning.

There is nothing wrong with the older translations. I think the KJV is a great translation and I use it all the time when I’m talking with people who are over 350 years old. We have newer translations because English is a growing and changing language. We have both archaic and emerging forms of English. New translations are introduced to keep current with our changing language. But these new translations are not based on older English translations, they are always based on the oldest Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew transcripts we can find. If we can find even older transcripts than the ones we currently have we will abandon what we currently have and use the new findings. That is another issue with the KJV, we now have much more reliable transcripts to rely upon. There are now known errors in the KJV (but even those errors are minor in the scope of the whole text).

There are some differences between peer translations. The NIV and the NASB for instance were both translated at about the same time but are worded differently. The NIV was translated phrase-by-phrase, the NASB was translated word-by-word. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. But nobody claims that these English translations are in any way superior to the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic that they were translated from nor are there are not really any differences in content or meaning between them.

And finally, if today you claim that your authority comes solely from the Bible, it being the word of God, how can you reconcile that you have the truth today when it surely was not the claim by any in the early churches that existed much closer in time and proximity to the Savior and his disciples, that their authority came solely from the Bible?

I think authority doesn’t just come from the Bible (though it has a great deal of authority). I believe that ultimate authority comes from Jesus and the Holy Spirit who are personally interacting with the world and the Church. I also believe that the elders and leadership of my local church have authority (given that their actions conform to the Bible). In addition I think husbands have spiritual authority in their families (though that is a call to submit to the needs of their wives).


unchristian-kinnaman “Christianity has an image problem.”

What if I told you that the top perception of Christians among those in Generation X and Mosaics was that we are first off, anti-homosexual, then hypocritical, judgmental, sheltered, too political and only interested in people if they’re going to convert. Would you be surprised? hurt? offended? Or does that sound about right?

It seems to be a far cry from Jesus’ prayer for us that we be known for our love. How come that’s not at the top of the list, followed by trustworthy, accepting, caring, loyal and gracious? Isn’t that what we want to be known for. . .

Almost exactly 15 years ago I met my first college roommate. I had traveled to California on my own with 2 suitcases and nothing more. I arrived in my dorm room before my roommate and sat in a very empty room. Several hours later Dave Kinnaman arrived with a cargo van full of stuff and a small army made up of his family to carry it all in. Dave’s memory is that I looked overwhelmed by all the stuff he was bringing into the room. I think my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of “oh good he’s got a stereo and a word processor.” Little did I know that one of my eventual lifelong friends was entering that room along with all of that stuff.

Dave and I stayed close throughout college and roomed again our senior year as we shared an apartment with 2 other guys. We have many memories of a number of antics that can’t be shared in a public blog. We served as groomsmen in each other’s weddings and welcomed each other’s children into our worlds. Since college we with a number of other friends have at times been in daily email contact as we’ve shared our takes on the latest in the sports world or felt the need to get any inane thought off of our chests. We’ve also prayed for one another and confided together as we have experienced the many up and down hills life has to offer.

For these reasons I am extremely excited that Dave has published his first book. “unChristian” Since college Dave has worked at The Barna Research Group and has now worked his way up to earn the title President. So he’s earned the right to be heard and in fact without knowing his name many Christians have been listening to what he has to say for quite some time. I’m also excited because I think it’s a message the Christian world needs to hear.

We are not presenting ourselves or Jesus to the world the way we would want to. As readers of this blog know, this is something I’m quite concerned about in regards to what Mormons think of mainstream Christians and something I am working to counteract. With startling sociological research Dave shows us just how off the mark our message has become to all younger Americans. What I really enjoy about the book is that he’s found a way to not condemn or criticize Christians for this turn in perception. But instead he simply states the facts and then leaves it the reader to question “is this what we want?” and more importantly “is this what Jesus wants?” He also does a skillful job of not encouraging us to water down our message or give up those things that are important to us.

The Only True Church of Jesus Christ

Pope Benedict XVIA couple weeks ago the Vatican raised eyebrows when Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ. Obviously, given that this blog is a conversation between Evangelicals and Mormons, many of us would disagree with that claim. But I think it’s a fascinating bit of news that is relevant to both the Mormon claim to legitimacy and our previous conversation of how to define Christianity.

The Vatican’s announcement basically said that the Roman Catholic Church is the only true church of Jesus Christ because only the Catholic Church can claim the requisite authority from Christ through apostolic succession. Echoing a similar 2000 statement, the Pope said that other orthodox churches were flawed churches, and that other Christian denominations weren’t even churches at all, but instead, ecclesiastical communities. Presumably, this would include all Evangelical denominations and perhaps the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well.

This isn’t actually anything new — the Roman Catholic Church has claimed its place as the true church of Christ all along, not just in 2000 and 2007. The Mormon Church makes a similar claim to authority, through through revelation and modern prophets rather than apostolic authority. Coming from an LDS background, I was very surprised when I first discovered that many (if not most) Christian denominations don’t make similar claims. In a simplistic view, why would you subscribe to a faith that doesn’t even think it’s the right one?

Of course, the simplistic view is woefully incomplete. As Tim described in an earlier post, many Protestant Christian denominations accept baptism and communion from other denominations. They see themselves as part of a world-wide family of Christian worshipers, and the idea of claiming sole authority is alien to them. Tim described that view when he wrote:

When the LDS church defines “the one true church” it leaves everyone else out. It says that all baptisms are invalid outside of the LDS church. It says that taking the sacrament is invalid everywhere outside the LDS church. It says that there is no priesthood authority outside the LDS church. In effect, the LDS church’s position that it is the one and only true church is saying that there is no true Christian worship outside of Mormonism.

While most Mormons would describe their claim to authority in less exclusive terms, that is essentially what they assert — that they and only they have the full truth and gospel of Jesus Christ, with the requisite power and authority to perform saving ordinances and conduct His church. That is also exactly the claim the Vatican has reaffirmed in its recent statement. Like the 2000 announcement, the statement is somewhat controversial because many see it as an implicit rejection or indictment of other faiths. But I don’t think claiming to have the truth is inherently exclusionary. Mormon Church spokesman Michael Otterson observed on his On Faith blog:

Obviously, many other Christians disagree with [the LDS Church’s claim to divine authority] as much as I believe in it, and there ought to be vigorous and constructive debate. Yet I can also acknowledge fundamental differences between Christian churches (many of them clearly irreconcilable) without being offended. It matters not one whit to me that the Catholic and some other churches don’t accept “Mormon” baptisms. We don’t accept theirs either. But I can look for a deeper mutual understanding of those differences, strive for good will and hope to embrace others as fellow Christians.

Like Otterson, I’m not particularly offended by the claims of the Catholic Church. I certainly hope they think they’re right. Even without agreeing with them, I can respect their right to claim authority, just as I hope they respect the claim of my own faith. I don’t see such claims as condemning other followers of Christ. The position of my own church is that other churches are full of faithful, good people who believe many of the true principles of the Gospel of Christ. From what I understand of the Vatican statement and the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church also recognizes the good works of other churches or “ecclesiastical communities.” Rather than interpreting the Catholic or Mormon claims as an indictment of the rest of Christianity, I see it as their sincere attempts to draw closer to Christ and the truth He taught. And that is something I can always respect.

What is a Christian?

I appreciate Dando’s brave introduction to one of the central points of contention between Evangelicalism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I know he spoke from the heart. It is never easy to say what you feel when you know those convictions will be open to criticism, a point with which I now fervently empathize. I thought Dando’s definition of Christianity was interesting, so here are a few of my thoughts on the subject.

Clearly, when speaking of whether Mormons are Christians, the definition of the word “Christian” will largely determine the outcome. Reader rcronk cited several dictionary definitions, which Dando accurately described as common usage definitions rather than theological definitions. And it would make sense that Mormons would use the common usage terms rather than the theological definitions. First, those theological definitions are formed with respect to a specific theology — Evangelical Christianity — that non-evangelicals such as Mormons do not espouse. And secondly, since Mormonism has no theological seminaries or professional clergy, it likely does not even have a “theological definition” of Christianity. Mormons use the word “Christian” in its common usage, which is inclusive rather than exclusive.

Interestingly, for most of the world’s population, the word “Christian” doesn’t have a theological meaning, but a common and practical meaning. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,* less than a third of the world’s population identifies itself as Christian. For the other two thirds of the globe, the the question of whether Mormons are Christians is easily answered by determining whether Mormons believe in Jesus as their Savior, or whether they believe Him to be the Son of God. The theological definition of “Christian” for a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist lacks the restrictive criteria of the Evangelical theological definition.

Under the Evangelical definition of “Christian,” denominations such as the Roman Catholic Church or Orthodox Christians may not qualify as Christians. Their understanding of grace vs. works, saints, and required sacraments for salvation do not conform to that of Evangelical Christianity. As more than 20% of the world’s population, these denominations make up almost two thirds of all denominations that are affiliated with Christianity. Clearly, I think, the Evangelical theological definition of “Christian” has legitimate use within Evangelical denominations, but that definition is not how the vast majority of the world thinks of Christianity. In fact, it isn’t even how the majority of Christianity defines the term, if we are to include Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians under the umbrella term “Christians.”

I see the word “Christian” as a category or a general indication of belief. Dando sees it to mean “Someone who believes as I do.” When Mormons talk of Christians, they do not exclude other believers in Christ with whom they have theological differences. Like most of the world, they are merely referring to the distinguishing factor that sets those believers apart from other world religions. I would therefore use a more inclusive definition of Christianity because I don’t think it makes sense for Protestants, making up less than 10% of the world’s population, to enforce a definition that has no meaning to the other 90%. I would simply ask if a person or denomination believes in Jesus Christ as the Savior or Redeemer, the Son of God. If the answer is yes, I would happily consider myself in the company of Christian worshipers, regardless of our other doctrinal differences.


* Data from 2005 available here, and a pie chart here. Note that, for organizational purposes, Mormonism and other “Marginal Christian” groups have been included in the graph segment for Christianity. If those groups were to be excluded, the percentage of Christians in the would would be smaller still.

Football Jesus

With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek I sent this email to the owner of this store Sadly, no response. What I really want to know is, who does that kid think he is, tackling Jesus?

Subject: Jesus Inspirational Sports Statues

I saw the Jesus Inspirational Sports Statues on your web site. The craftsmanship of these figures appears to be quite excellent but I have a concern in the message they convey. Why is Jesus not wearing any protective equipment in any of these figures? Is it really wise to portray the Savior with the message that a helmet while playing football or hockey is not necessary? Jesus is obviously some one children want to emulate. This is evident by the popularity of WWJD bracelets. How is a mother to respond when her child says that Jesus doesn’t think it’s important to wear a batting helmet while playing baseball, so why should she? Children are quite impressionable and are quick to pick up on these subtle signals.

I’m sure on my theology on this. Jesus was fully man and thus able to be hurt, even in light-hearted athletic activity. I think it would be only responsible for you to take these figures out of your inventory and demand the manufacturers amend this negligent oversight immediately. I’m quite sure that you agree with me that it would be unfortunate if any child were to ever get hurt as a result of a message they learned from these artistic yet dangerous figures.

I look forward to hearing how you resolve this issue.

Catholic and Evangelical Conversations

My wife and I had some friends over last night that are very committed Catholics. We had some interesting discussions about how some things practically work in each of our churches. They felt slightly guilty for “parish shopping” when they recently moved and explained that some Catholics feel strongly that you should always support your local parish. Our friends, on the contrary felt that some parishes were of such a poor quality that they should be allowed to die. We then explained how Protestants go about choosing what church to attend (church shopping) and expressed our concern with how easy it is for a consumerist attitude to rise up in people. It’s definitely something that is a big problem for some Protestants.

Later on our friend said “Don’t you hate it when a pastor recycles his sermons? You get the point where you know everything he’s going to say. It makes it refreshing to move so that you can hear something new.” We had to confess that this doesn’t really happen all that often in Protestant churches. If a pastor starts mailing it in and giving the same sermons over and over again, he loses his congregation. In this way, “church capitalism” protects people.

I am just thinking about how this conversation relates to Mormonism, where nobody has any choice about what ward they attend. The LDS church has an inactivity rate of something like 70%. I think that number would be greatly improved if people were allowed to pick and choose a little bit more (that way people could avoid toxic collections of people). Increased attendance would be a worthy goal, but it would come with a price. Like Protestants, LDS would need to fight against the “it’s-all-about-me” attitude in church. It’s such prevalent message in our society, it’s hard not to be influenced by it.