What I Have Learned that My Fellow Latter-day Saints Ought to Know

When I was first approached by Professor Harold Heie about the possibility of my involvement in an e-dialogue, “Respectful Conversations,” I wondered if I would have the time and energy to do so, given that I was already engaged in dialogue with Evangelicals, Nazarenes, and was a part of a Christian interfaith dialogue (eight of us) in Los Angeles. But when I learned that my friend, Richard Mouw, had recommended me, I felt that I should participate. And I am so grateful that I did. It has been a wonderful experience for me—expanding my understanding of other Christian groups’ beliefs and practices, correcting my own misperceptions, and possibly helping others in some small way to better understand my beliefs and way of life. I am eager to express some things to my own people that I have either learned for the first time or had reaffirmed. Some of these include:

  • that in spite of what many people through the years have accepted as fact, religion is an area that can be discussed and discussed seriously without dispute, rancor, or confrontation;
  • that interfaith dialogue can be helped along by a good dose of curiosity; because we live in a world of immense diversity, we simply ought to be interested in what other people believe;
  • that through interfaith dialogue one not only learns a great deal about the other person’s faith, but in the process may also learn a good bit about their own;
  • that God continues to work through people of various religious traditions to accomplish His purposes;
  • that the women and men with whom I have associated in this dialogue are followers of the Lord who want to do what they can to bless individuals and, in their own way, change the world;
  • that those who have participated in this dialogue manifest a deep and abiding sense, not only of love and adoration, but of awe and wonder toward Jesus Christ our Savior. Latter-day Saints could be greatly blessed by seeking to understand and feel such abiding reverence for the grandeur and majesty of Deity.
  • that not everyone out there dislikes the Latter-day Saints, and that in this group I have encountered God-loving and Christ-affirming persons who, while deeply committed to their own tradition, acknowledge goodness and Christian virtues wherever they may be found.
  • that after having read and studied the comments of eleven other religious scholars or church leaders from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant denominations, there are a number of beliefs or practices of my associates for which I feel, in the words of New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, “holy envy.” There is much that they believe and practice that I find both fascinating and deeply moving.

Advice from a Pentecostal to the LDS: Fly the Freak Flag!

It’s a true honor to respond to prominent LDS scholar Robert Millet, dean emeritus of religious education at Brigham Young University, the flagship of LDS higher education. Dr. Millett has spent decades explaining the faith to Latter-day Saints themselves, as well as patiently representing LDS beliefs and practices to those on the outside. I appreciate so much his teaching.

Let’s be honest: years ago, an LDS representative would not have been invited to the table for a respectful conversation like this. (I’m not sure a Pentecostal would have been invited, either.) Mormons lived under the ignominious charge that they weren’t really Christians, so who cared what they say about following Jesus?  The inclusion of Millet’s voice is a welcome reminder that many American Christians are no longer invested in the suppression of Mormon ideas and practices. And that is a sea change!

Millet’s treatment of the question at hand – what does it mean for a Latter-day Saint to follow Jesus? – seems to me prescriptive rather than descriptive. I hear authoritative voices, including his own, telling Latter-day Saints how they ought to follow Jesus:  Members of the Church are encouraged . . .  We are counseled to . . . God and Christ are in the “business” of people, and so must we be . . . Without the Church and Church affiliation and involvement, one simply cannot . . .

I realize these statements perform the pedagogical functions of faith formation. After all, Christians teach each other how to follow Jesus. Yet what might change in our understanding if Dr. Millet had included other voices from the LDS – from the grassroots up, from the margins toward the middle, rather than exclusively from leadership down? I strongly feel the absence of the witness of “ordinary” Saints who, as in the rest of our traditions, follow Jesus . . . sometimes ambivalently, sometimes with fierce devotion, sometimes stumblingly and with confusion, at other times faithfully, and still at other times, in ways that challenge the teaching authority of the church’s hierarchy.

Along with several other folks in this conversation series, I’ve repeatedly called attention to the importance of context in our articulations of what it means to follow Jesus. And I do that here as well. How have the life circumstances of the Saints in different contexts shaped the way they follow Jesus?  Have those ways shifted over time and across place?  What does it mean to follow Jesus now amid the inevitable changes in a tradition that reveres progressive revelation?

Speaking of context:  for much of U.S. history, from the founding of the Church of Christ in 1830 well into the late twentieth century, white Protestant “mainline” leadership led a damnable and sometimes violent smear campaign against Mormons.  Protestant leaders anathematized Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and their followers, castigating Mormons as, at best, misguided believers following a charlatan and, at worst, a cabal of dangerous misfits, neither true Christians nor real Americans.

The LDS practice of plural marriage was particularly galling to white Protestant leaders who cast Mormons as a religious, racial, and sexualized “other” not unlike Middle Eastern “Mohamedans,” complete with harems of women. Attitudes like this did nothing to tamp down the violent rhetoric that ultimately paved the way for Joseph Smith’s lynching at the hands of a mob in 1844 and the departure of the Saints to lands outside the boundaries of U.S. polity.

I recount this history because it’s important not to forget the lengths to which some Christians have been willing to go – slander, anathema, banishment, even murder! – to punish challenges to so-called “orthodox” faith and practice. So much for following Jesus.

Yet I’m also interested in what it cost the LDS to “normalize” themselves in the eyes of their white Protestant detractors, to downplay theological differences and suppress practices that most American Christians found strange, even abhorrent. The LDS movement from outsiders to insiders is one of the most fascinating of all transformations in the landscape of American religious life.  What was gained in that long and complex process?  And what was lost?

A point related to context: Millet’s focus on LDS perspectives means that there are Mormon voices that he doesn’t attend to at all.  What about other heirs to Joseph Smith’s teachings and prophecies, from Mormon “fundamentalist” groups to the old “reorganized” church, now called the Community of Christ? To include other Mormon perspectives risks challenging the LDS’s claim to be the authentic heir to the tradition, and I’m left wondering: Would widening the lens change anything Millet has taught us about following Jesus?

Finally, and I’ll say more about this in my own upcoming post about Pentecostals, I’m curious about what it would mean for the LDS to “fly the freak flag,” as the saying goes. To willingly embrace the “weird” aspects of one’s tradition, the ideas and practices that make you and your tradition less palatable to whatever constitutes the “mainstream”?  (For Pentecostals that might mean owning our dreams and visions, speaking in tongues, and healings, all integral aspects of following Jesus for most Pentecostals.)

“Flying the freak flag” means to turn unabashedly toward rather than away from some of the more arcane, less “mainstream” aspects of doctrines, covenants, and practices.  Mormon rejection of the Trinity?  Jesus as Jehovah?  A multi-tiered heaven of multiple gods who were once like us?  Sealed marriages that last into eternity rather than “till death do us part”? Playing up rather than down such ideas would mean puncturing the bubble of respectability LDS leadership, in the face of fierce opposition, has so carefully (and understandably) constructed over the decades. To “fly the freak flag” does not mean rejecting commonalities, but it refuses the domestication of distinctiveness and difference and embraces the risk of being misunderstood, even rejected.

What might it mean for Mormons – for Latter-day Saints as well as other heirs of prophet Joseph’s teachings and revelations – to “fly the freak flag,” to step off the path to respectability and reclaim what is strangest, most haunting, and most insightful about their teachings and continuing revelations? Is it even safe to do so?

The Ever-Present Need For Community

As I read through Dr. Millett’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from the Latter-day Saint tradition, I am encouraged to find there is significant overlap between this tradition and my own – the Black Church tradition. Both traditions believe that being a follower of Jesus requires us to “search the scriptures daily,” because, as Dr. Millett notes in his writing from current Latter-day Saint President Russell M. Nelson, “scriptural guidance helps us to recognize error and make the necessary correction.” Scripture allows us to see how our beliefs, actions, and commitments align or diverge from that of Jesus so that we might be able to evaluate if we are authentically following Him. Disciples of Jesus in the Black Church tradition are also, like Latter-day Saints, a praying people. We fundamentally believe that “no one can come to know Christ and acquire a Christlike nature unless they regularly and consistently offer up their petitions and their gratitude in prayer.” I am bold enough to declare that the majority, if not all, Black Church experiences include opportunities for corporate prayer during the service and emphasize the need for private prayer in the life of each believer. In other words, I am encouraged to see there is some synchrony in what it means to follow Jesus across multiple faith traditions because it reminds me of the importance of ecumenism in the body of Christ. We all need each other to hold one another accountable in our faith commitments if we are to continue to be dedicated disciples of Jesus in a world that seems to grow increasingly distant from Him and His principles every day.

But where I find Dr. Millett’s reflection to be the most helpful is in his note that for Latter-day Saints, church attendance is critical if one is to follow Jesus. He goes on to write that “we need the church” because “Christianity is fully lived out only in community, and “the Church is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.” It is impossible to live a life committed to following Jesus without the Church. We all need people in our lives who are going to alert us to the sin that prevents us from seeing experiencing Jesus and redirect us when we are off the path Jesus desires for our lives. Our wisdom and knowledge are limited; there are certain perspectives or growth opportunities that we will be unable to observe without the assistance of someone who has been walking with Jesus longer than us and can help us identify the areas of our lives that Jesus wants us to surrender to Him. Other Jesus’ followers serve as mirrors to us, allowing us to see what habits, practices, and beliefs must change for, as the apostle Paul writes, “the perfecting of the saints.”

This emphasis on church attendance is so salient because I am struggling to remain encouraged when I see the current trends concerning congregational attendance in the United States. My dissertation work is centered on the ever-declining church attendance numbers across almost all demographic data points (except for some Black populations). These numbers have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, which has made people even more reluctant to participate meaningfully in the life of a church. For various reasons, such as immoral or unethical church leadership, a lack of commitment to justice, or preaching and teaching that seems irrelevant and unhelpful, many people, particularly younger generations in the Black Church tradition, no longer see the Church as a viable option for their faith development. Black millennials and Gen Zers have embraced an individualistic faith that makes no room for the congregational body to do some of the very work that Dr. Millett identifies as essential to following Jesus.

I do not mean to say that many of the concerns listed above are not valid – congregational leadership must address the myriad issues that have caused countless followers of Jesus to reject the Church. Furthermore, there is something to be said for the ways that our faith traditions value the personal life of the believer. However, Dr. Millett’s work is a powerful reminder that are best efforts to follow Jesus will fall short without a community around us to keep us honest. If the very first disciples of Jesus emphasized the need to be in relationship with others to follow Christ in their writings, then who are we to declare that we don’t need others in our faith journeys? We as followers of Jesus then should do our best to discover creative and innovative methods to not just get people to church but to learn what it means to be an authentic disciple of Jesus who is committed to His will and work.

Pondering Across Two Traditions Both Shadowed and Hallowed

Robert Millet’s winsome portrayal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took me first back to my growing-up years. As has been true in the case of many traditions I’ve responded to, my early formation in Anabaptist-Mennonite communities and theologies predisposed me to view the Mormons, as we then knew the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with suspicion. I was taught by my tradition that Mormons were a cult. They based their views on the false foundation of the Book of Mormon claimed by then-New Yorker Joseph Smith to have been written on mental plates derived from an angel.

Mormons, it was said, falsely believed that they were the highest, most faithful version of Christianity due to their founding ultimately by Christ in New York  long after the other traditions. They believed in polygamy and tried to convert others to this lifestyle and problematic beliefs.

There are similarities here with Anabaptist-Mennonites. We often have seen ourselves as restoring the true church of Christ. We rescued the church from wrong directions taken from about the time of the Emperor Constantine and across the centuries of Catholicism and of Christendom (church and nation intertwined) expressions still partly maintained by the Reformers.

Mennonites also, it seems to me, have sometimes been careful to interpret our own history in ways that favor our preferred understandings of ourselves. This may be one reason some of us have favored a “monogenesis” view of having emerged largely from 1525 Zurich when Conrad Grebel rebaptized a number of other Anabaptist leaders. This can enable at least some carving away of the more shadowed historical details. In contrast, a “polygenesis” view that Anabaptists emerged from multiple streams and settings makes it harder to say well this is Anabaptism but that wrong turn is not.

For example, perhaps the most troubling dynamic in Anabaptist history emerged at Münster in Germany in the early 1530s. Anabaptists attempted to impose a theocracy on the city through what came to be known as the Münster rebellion. Jan Matthys was one of the noteworthy Anabaptist leaders until the bishop they had exiled besieged the city, killing Matthys and others. For a time the Anabaptist rebels still held considerable sway, as this paragraph from the Anabaptist encyclopedia GAMEO (Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online) summarizes:

The 25-year-old John of Leiden was subsequently recognized as Matthys’ religious and political successor, justifying his authority and actions by claiming visions from heaven. His authority grew until eventually he proclaimed himself the successor of David and adopted royal regalia, honors, and absolute power in the new “Zion.” There were now in the town at least three times as many women of marriageable age as men, so he made polygamy compulsory,[3] and he himself took sixteen wives. (John is said to have beheaded Elisabeth Wandscherer in the marketplace for refusing to marry him, though this act might have been falsely attributed to him after his death.) Meanwhile, most of the residents of Münster were starving as a result of the year-long siege.

For centuries thereafter, Anabaptist-Mennonites have wrestled with this. Are Münster and its leaders part of Anabaptist history? Or an aberrance to be bracketed out?

I pay attention to this example because it illustrates the complexities of my own tradition’s history and because there are  striking overlaps with Mennonite takes on Mormonism. Perhaps finding a path that didn’t affirm Münster or other thought-to-be-mistaken Anabaptist streams contributed to what I experienced growing up: Certainly Mennonites were not prepared to cede the one-true-church or the highest-expression-of-the-church mantle to Mormonism. This contributed, I’d guess, to the Mennonite tendency to form in its members the often-stereotypical perceptions I’ve summarized.

Eventually I went to college and seminary. I learned more nuanced understandings of other traditions. However, I have less often encountered sensitive interpretations of Latter-day Saints history and beliefs. It has been a privilege then to participate in conversation with such a generous sharer of his tradition as Robert Millet. And I want to spend some more time in, precisely, affirming Millet’s interpretations rather than questioning them.

Before I proceed, however, I do wonder if Millet would be willing to comment on the common perceptions–or surely often misperceptions as Millet has in other responses movingly reported–of the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps hinting at a kind of polygenesis of Mormonism, the Latter-day Saints offer, as I understand it, a preeminent (and non-polygamy-affirming) but not sole expression of Mormonism.

I note Millet has not mentioned the stereotypical takes on his tradition; I’d expect that’s intentional. Why focus on what may be misinterpretations when given the opportunity to write not so much a defense as a proactive statement of the visionary principles that guide the Latter-day Saints of today? Still, it would be informative to learn more of how Millet might address critiques of his or other Mormon branches. It would also be valuable to learn how Millet, who as highlighted below affirms Scripture, views Church of Jesus Christ specifics. For example, what is the role of the Book of Mormon, which I’d imagine few other traditions are prepared fully to embrace?

But turning beyond the shadows, I am struck that Millet helps me make sense of something of a turning point in my own impressions of the Latter-day Saints. Some years ago I was letting Spotify’s algorithms take me hither and yon. That particular night I was tempted to say the algorithm was Holy Spirit, but I doubt Spotify has itself achieved this though who can say how the Spirit may use Spotify!

At any rate, I was in something of a troubled mood and looking for the comforts of music. There were hints of this in various songs. But suddenly I stumbled across a version of “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” by The Lower Lights, about whom I knew nothing. I got goosebumps. I turned up the sound. I let the music fill my home and soul. I looked for more Lower Lights music and found many gems.

Then I looked up the group’s background. I was startled to learn that they are . . . Latter-day Saints. That caught my attention. What a clash between what I had been taught and what I was experiencing. I don’t want to claim there was a major theological impact, though once I knew about the Latter-day roots I could hear Latter-day influences in some of the songs. What really tugged at me was that above or beneath whatever the theological overlaps or differences might be, The Lower Lights were blessing me. My heart opened as it rarely had before to paying attention to Latter-day Saints’ gifts.

Then came Millet, who helps us understand core Latter-day Saints commitments and helps my mind continue the journey The Lower Lights have already helped my heart make. I see much for Mennonites to honor in Millet’s “Walking in His Steps: How Latter-day Saints Seek to Follow Jesus” summary:

Millet emphasizes the Latter-day commitment to search the Scriptures daily. As Millet summarizes, “There is a power inherent in scripture, a power unlike anything else we may read or study.” Meanwhile, at our best (which we don’t always manage), Mennonites are committed to believing as we do because we take the Bible seriously as a guide to daily living. We emerged from visionary leaders and communities that sought to read the Bible for themselves. They became convinced that the Jesus they found in this Bible was to be followed even when teaching such radical precepts as adult baptism or that enemies are to be loved.

Mennonites are perhaps not as known for being a praying people as adherents of some traditions. In fact, when I looked for prayer in the 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, I couldn’t find an article on it. I did find prayer appearing in footnotes, for example in the article on the Holy Spirit, in a note summarizing that “the Spirit of Christ is in the midst of the church in its gathering for prayer and praise.” I see Millet as speaking well for Mennonites in his descriptions of how Latter-day Saints practice being a praying people.

Millet describes Latter-day commitment to serving and loving others as Jesus did. This is in effect a Latter-day variant of one of the five core commitments of Mennonites I summarized in my post on Mennonites.

Latter-day Saints are deeply committed to church attendance–and this includes emphasizing community. As Millet puts it, “Christianity entails more than prayer, fasting, and searching the scriptures—more than an individual effort to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As vital as personal devotion and individual effort are, Christianity is fully lived out only in community.” In turn a core Anabaptist-Mennonite precept is that we are to live not primarily as individual Christians. We are to journey as followers of Jesus who through adult baptism commit ourselves to live as members of the body–or community–of Christ.

Many thanks, Robert Millet, for these valuable admonitions and for contributing to my own personal pilgrimage toward grasping the treasures in your tradition.

Some Historical Considerations

Dear Bob,

In thinking about how to respond to your very engaging description of the spiritual life of Latter Day Saints, I’m reminded of a two-page hand-out that I developed for use in my teaching of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary.  And with this, the grievously vexing, impossible-to-ignore question comes rushing back: If all the various Christian groups today are following Jesus in often very similar ways (as I think this Respectful Conversation is bearing out), why are these groups splintered into thousands of different denominations? – such that they offer to our very suffering surrounding society a very sad picture of fracture and disunity, rather than of vibrant unity in Christ, their common Lord.

This hand-out took shape as a direct response to my reading about the agonizing question that haunted and tormented young Joseph Smith as a 15-year old young man living in upstate New York in 1820: Which Christian denomination is the true one?—and his subsequent conviction that none of them was the true one, so he felt compelled to start a new one.

I’ve reread, Bob, our exchanges in this Respectful Conversation back in August and early September, and once again I’m moved by the openness towards and appreciation for Orthodoxy that you expressed then.  Please forgive me for not pursuing further discussion with you back then.

I’m thinking now it might be helpful to add—in the spirit of further honest, open, and respectful sharing of information and insights—some historical background to what I originally wrote in August about how Orthodox Christians follow Jesus.

With that in mind, may I humbly offer this hand-out for your consideration, for I believe it conveys “in a nutshell” what we Orthodox Christians believe is Christ’s answer to the multiplicity of divisions in Western Christianity.  I hope it will help you to better understand the basic historical reasons why the Orthodox Church considers herself, with humbled awe and wonder at our Lord’s faithful guidance and protection through history, to be the preserver of the fullness of the Christian Faith, in spite of the countless failings and persistent sinfulness of her members—and so making clear that this assertion is not made out of arrogance, or pride, or hubris, or willfulness, or fantasy, but simply from our understanding of the facts of history.

So here is the hand-out:

“All the Protestant denominations have arisen because their founders – and their subsequent followers – became convinced that every expression of Christianity as they knew it was grievously faulty, beyond hope of repair.  Each founder became convinced that the only choice, if one were to be a true Christian, was to begin a new form of Christianity – to start all over again.

“For example, the Protestant Reformation as a whole emerged in response to the perceived hopeless corruption and apostasy of the Roman Catholic Church.  Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, received his first “heavenly visitation” specifically in response to his anguished prayers about the confused state of Christianity in his day (early 19th century America), with its welter of competing, squabbling denominations (his own account is given in Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark A. Noll, eds, A Documentary History of Religion in America, vol. 1, pp. 338-341 [2003 edition]).  And Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the 1870s, was “a sworn adversary of historic Christianity,” according to Walter Martin (Kingdom of the Cults, p. 49 [1985 edition]).

“We as Orthodox Christians emphasize that the Christianity which the founders of all these movements rejected was indeed not true Christianity.  They were only familiar with various Western distortions of the True Faith, so to a great extent we can agree with them in their rejection of all the various forms of Christianity which they knew about.  But was it then correct for these founders of new forms of Christianity to assume that the fullness of Christian Truth and practice had been lost from the earth for so many centuries?

“Christ Himself promised about His Church, “I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  He also declared, “When He, the Spirit of truth, has come [at Pentecost], He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13).  So to believe that Christ’s Church failed to preserve the truth which He gave to His Apostles is to believe that He failed to keep His promises.  This is impossible, for He is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6; my emphasis).

“Besides, the New Testament calls the Church the Body of Christ: “Christ is the Head of the Church, and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23; also Col. 1:18, 1 Cor. 6:15, Eph. 1:22-23; Rom. 12:5).  Surely Christ the Lord is able to guide and keep His own Body, the Church, in the fullness of the Truth!  Similarly, the Scriptures say that the Church is the Bride of Christ, with Her members “married” to Him (Rom. 7:4; also Matt. 9:15, 2 Cor. 11:2, Is. 62:5, Hos. 2:19-20).  Surely the Lord of Glory has always been able – and is still able – to keep His beloved Bride from departing from the Truth, even in spite of all the sinfulness of Her individual members!

“The Apostle Paul states explicitly that the Church, as a visible, tangible, and identifiable place, is “the pillar and ground of the truth”: “I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).  Paul also tells us the specific means whereby this Truth of the Gospel, through the continual empowerment and guidance of Christ and the Holy Spirit, would be preserved from generation to generation down through history: “And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

“Now we can proceed to look at the history of the Church.  What really happened after the Book of Acts, and after the last Apostle died?  Many first-hand sources have been preserved which enable us to follow what happened through the centuries in the Church doctrinally, liturgically, organizationally, and spiritually.  If we are open to what these sources say, we will be instructed and guided by the Apostolic Fathers (beginning with St. Clement of Rome’s letter to the Corinthian Church, written in 96 A.D.), the great Apologists for the Faith in the second century, the Lives of the Martyrs, the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and the Lives and writings of the Church Fathers – the great ecclesiastical leaders and monastic teachers of the Church.

“And we will see how the Church in the western part of the Roman Empire gradually—and often not without great resistance—became subjected to the Roman bishop, in violation of the original equality of all the bishops (as strongly affirmed at the first four Ecumenical Councils); and how this part of Christianity gradually departed from the rest of the Church doctrinally, liturgically, organizationally, and spiritually.  This gradual divergence led to the Great Schism of 1054, when one portion of Christianity, the Church in the West under Rome, split off from all the rest of the Church – the Church in the East, which continued to be led by the great ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, and which expanded greatly, beginning in the 9th century, into Eastern Europe and Russia, and from there eventually across all of Asia and into Alaska.

“As we continue the story, we will be able to see clearly that while the Eastern Church – now coming to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church – continued to maintain the same doctrines, liturgical practices, hierarchical organization, and spiritual ethos of the Early Church, the Roman Church became even more divergent in all these areas, until the Protestant Reformers felt that that church had radically betrayed the Truth of the Gospel, and that therefore they needed to break away to start their own churches.  But tragically, this quite quickly led to the formation of scores, then hundreds, and later thousands, of denominations and cults – a process that continues to this day.

“And all these denominations and cults remain in disagreement with one another in various ways, even though virtually all of them claim to follow the same Scriptures and to be led by the same Holy Spirit.  But without the remarkably consistent guidance of the Holy Tradition of the True Church, within which the true interpretation of the Holy Scriptures is found, manifold incorrect interpretations of the Scriptures are inevitable.

“By an objective, open-minded and open-hearted comparison of the doctrines, liturgical practices, hierarchical organization, and spiritual ethos of the Early Church (as they had taken pretty much definitive shape by roughly the end of the fourth century) with those of all the expressions of Christianity in existence today, it becomes clear that only the Orthodox Church – through her direct, generation-by-generation, ongoing connection with the original Christian Church – has kept pure and intact, through twenty centuries, and in many different cultures, the fullness of the Truth of His Gospel, by the great love and grace of our Lord, and in direct fulfillment of His own promises.”

I would love to discuss any of these things further with you, Bob, if you’d like!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

A “Kindler, Gentler Form of Christianity”… with Real Differences

In a conversation full of irenic Christians, no one has approached this project in better faith than our resident Latter-day Saint. Month in and month out, I’ve not only learned more from Robert Millet about Christian theology and practice, but what it means to live out the principles that undergird the “respectful conversation” project. I’m sure it helps that, unlike me, Millet has had years of experience doing this kind of hard work in real life.

For example, Rich Mouw’s short book inviting evangelicals into conversation with the Latter-day Saints (Talking with Mormons, to use the older term that I will occasionally repeat, hopefully not offensively) starts with Millet inviting him to take part in a 2004 “evening of friendship” at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. That event initiated Mouw’s participation in a decade-long project of “Mormons and evangelicals… going out of our way genuinely to listen carefully to each other, trying to get a clearer understanding of what the real differences are between us.” (Mouw also wrote the foreword to Millet’s book A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints.)

Now, Mouw also emphasized the importance of evangelicals learning when they and their LDS interlocutors are “not quite as far apart as we had imagined. As an evangelical, therefore, I highly value how Millet’s contribution to our year-long conversation helped me see the many ways in which the Mormon way of following Jesus is so similar to my own. Most any Pietist could hear herself described in Millet’s essay about “a praying people” (and a singing people!) who “seek to follow Jesus by serving and loving others as he did.” At the same time, our bent towards individualism can find correction in a tradition that insists that “Christianity is fully lived out only in community,” through a church that “is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.” And would that each branch of this conversation join Millet’s in helping to meet the clearly “great need for a kinder, gentler form of Christianity, the kind that Jesus Christ displayed so beautifully”!

That’s all uplifting. But strangely, and to my real surprise, I felt myself a bit disappointed that so much of Millet’s essay sounded so familiar.

Earlier in his book, Mouw reflected on how LDS appreciation for Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis, and the Apostle Paul is, nonetheless, “mixed in with many things that I find worrisome. And I thank God for that.” I don’t know that I’d always use the word “worrisome” to describe the distinctive beliefs and practices of Mormonism; indeed, in reading the work of LDS scholars like Matthew Bowman (plus that of my friend John Turner, a rare evangelical historian of the Latter-day Saints who wrote an entire book about The Mormon Jesus), I’ve been struck by the Saints’ commitment to developing a theology of the body, a branch of Christian belief that often seems to be neglected or distorted by other followers of a Lord who is both human and divine. But precisely because I share Mouw’s desire for “our Mormon friends to help us better understand their answers,” I wish Millet had done more this month to help us understand the “real differences… between us.”

I particularly wish for that as a Pietist. Because I’ve made so much of my own tradition’s emphasis on the Bible, not just as an object of devotional study but “an altar where we meet the living God,” I’d love to understand better how Latter-day Saints distinctively “search the scriptures daily.” Does it make any difference, for example, if one’s canon includes texts beyond the Old and New Testaments? And if there are “teachings… received from prophets of God” who lived in the 19th or 20th centuries — or live in the 21st, how does one’s searching in scripture relate to a belief in continuing revelation?

Moreover, I could use the practice in listening attentively and speaking truthfully to a fellow follower of Jesus with whom I know I have significant theological differences. Precisely because I so highly value Pietism’s commitment to Christian unity, its aversion to heresy-hunting, and its relative decentering of doctrine in favor of emphasis on “lived faith,” I know that I am tempted to elide important differences. And to do that is to avoid the hardest aspect of the hard work of respectful conversation.

Encouraged by LDS Piety: A Baptist Response to Robert Millet

Robert Millet offers a treatment of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) way of following Jesus that is refreshing in its familiarity, at least to this Baptist: search the scriptures, pray always, love and serve others, gather in church community. It is hard to argue with that list — though what to make of scripture, what love and service are understood to require, what precise norms and values are communicated in church, these are left unspoken.

I have reached a point where I am skeptical both of diffuse forms of Christianity in which expectations of believers are minimal or unclear, and of focused forms of Christianity in which expectations are high and clear but may not fully reflect the radicalism of the love and justice of the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

I have been watching the LDS flock with interest in relation to US politics. Here I will lay my cards on the table: I believe that Donald Trump has seduced many white evangelicals away from Jesus; but that they were eminently seducible is also sadly clear. I have noticed somewhat greater resistance to Trump and Trumpism on the part of many LDS Christians. The examples of Senator Mitt Romney and candidate Evan McMullin, both of Utah, both Republicans, both very clear about Trump, have been most encouraging. I have hoped that the high-demand, high-engagement, high-commitment form of Christianity offered by the LDS might be the main factor leading to increased antibodies to the virus of Trumpism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church demonstrated ninety years ago in Nazi Germany that the best Christian answer to quasi-Christian political seduction is not a flight from Christian faith into “spiritual but not religious,” but a radical recommitment to the real Jesus we meet in the Gospels. This is the path I hope for as I look from afar at the LDS Church. If this is their path, the LDS contribution to the health of both church and nation here might prove indispensable.



Do Latter-Day Saints Get Any Help in Following Jesus?   

      The reflections of Robert Millet about the Latter-Day Saints’ (LDS) vision of the Christian life are thoughtful and helpful.  I have always been impressed with the level of commitment and real-life practice of the faith of many members of the LDS (a feeling I also share regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses).  But I must say that in the case of LDS thought and practice reflected in the paper, although I find many points of contact with my Lutheran heritage, a few themes precious to historic Lutheranism are missing in LDS heritage as presented.  And so I write in the spirit of learning whether the Latter-Day Saints do in fact endorse the faith-commitments I now highlight or could allow Lutherans to make them and still be considered brothers and sisters in our mutual walk with Christ.           

     Regarding the LDS commitment to Bible study, that is of course music to Lutheran ears.  Regarding what constitutes Scripture, in previous correspondences with you Robert (Dr. Millet) I have noted that, unlike other Protestant traditions,  Lutherans have not identified which books belong in the Bible. In short, in principle Lutherans have an “open canon.” This entails that nothing in principle forbids me, as a Lutheran pastor, to preach and teach on the Apochrypha of the Catholic and Eastern traditions. This could open doors to my church receiving The Book of Mormon as well.  Not in our lifetimes, to be sure.  Lutherans share with the Orthodox tradition something like the consensus fidelium, the belief that a document’s or a theological idea’s authority is demonstrated by its reception among the faithful over time (Formula of Concord SD, Rule and Norm). Who knows what the Holy Spirit will show to the faithful in the next centuries, and in the meantime the dialogue about the authority of these additional Books could continue.  And so I raise the issue with Robert whether an LDS-Lutheran dialogue on this matter is warranted?   

     I do want to respond to the opening claim in your paper that people in fields like Christian History or Theology may easily lose focus on Scripture itself.  Though of course that can happen, I would urge a little more charity to the intentions behind such study.  The reason for study of Tradition and theological precedents is to understand Scripture more clearly and truly.  The student of the Bible wants to be sure he/she is not imposing his/her own agenda on the Biblical text.  The study of how God has had His Word taught throughout the Church’s history ensures that we are more likely to discern Scripture’s true meaning in the consensus of the Church’s leaders over time in order to safeguard the Bible’s meaning from the whims of some self-proclaimed prophet.  Luther teaches us to study the past in order to understand God’s Word, because we can trust long-term perduring teaching since God would not deceive the Church that long by allowing false teaching to persist (The Large Catechism, IV.49).  This is why it will take at least a few more centuries and a lot of dialogue and increased ecumenical use of The Book of Mormon to get Lutheranism and her sister churches to consider accepting the authority of these texts.                

     Next let’s talk about themes missing from the paper.  There is so much in it that the Pietist strand of Lutheranism can endorse – prayer, serving and loving others, striving to grow in grace (The Large Catechism, II.57).  But what is missing or not much emphasized might be a source of concern, and that concern is reflected in the title of this response.  Do Latter-Day Saints believe like Lutherans that we cannot live the Christian life alone, that in these activities we need the help of (even the initiation by) grace and the Holy Spirit?  I hope so.   

     Is there not a stress on the character of salvation as a gift, not just in Galatians 3:6-13, but also in 2 Nephi 2:3-6; 10:24; 25:23?  And just as Lutherans insist that grace and the Work of the Holy Spirit make good works possible (Small Catechism, II.6;  Luther’s Works. Vol.31, p.57),  themes found in Ephesians 2:8-10 and Romans 6:1-14 and also in Jacob 4:7 (grace gives us power) as well as in Moroni 10:5-11 and 2 Nephi 32:5 (on the Spirit’s work in the believer), can Latter-Day Saints make that affirmation?  If not, why not, given these Biblical precedents?  And if so, why are these themes not presented with more specificity in the paper before us?   

      Of course I recognize the LDS concern with the believer’s responsibility for doing something, emphases clearly evident in texts like Ether 12:26-27 and 1 Nephi 10:17-19.  But are these texts to be understood as calling for the believer’s cooperation with grace like our Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox siblings teach?  In that case, Lutherans can endorse LDS thinking on these matters too, as long as the prevenience (priority) of grace over works is still affirmed (Formula of Concird, SD  II.90).  Where does the LDS heritage stand on this range of issues?  I also wonder why the paper did not pursue apparent LDS affinities with the Eastern concept of theosis, for then Lutherans could also link with this heritage (Complete Sermons, Vol.4/2, pp.279-280) 

      Several other topics raised in the paper are worth pursuing.  I sense a kind of American optimism about human nature and what it can accomplish in both in the paper and in The Book of Mormon (Moroni 8:8-24 claiming little children are not sinners).  Of course as a Lutheran/ Augustinian, I am more pessimistic/realistic about our sinfulness, contending that we sin in all we do from infancy on to the grave (Romans 7:7-24; Apology of The Augsburg Confession, II.42f.; The Augsburg Confession, II.3). Without agreeing with such an affirmation, can such realism be deemed legitimately Christian in LDS circles, and if not, why not?  If not, how does your tradition avoid the Pelagian heresy? 

     I note with appreciation that the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in each LDS worship service.  It is claimed that those partaking do so in “remembrance” of Jesus.  Are you doing so in a Greek sense of the term, that remembrance is simply recall in the mind?  Or as a Hebrew, did Jesus have in mind the Hebraic sense of remembrance (sakar) which includes the real presence of the figure remembered (witness God’s Presence of the Covenant of Shechem in Joshua 24, following the remembrance of  His mighty acts)?  It would be interesting to pursue the question of whether Native American understandings of remembrance more closely parallel this Hebraic or the more Greek conception.   

     Finally I turn to the concern raised about the marked growth of the Nones in America.  I have  devoted a book to this subject, and in it noted that one of the polls taken concerning the Nones indicates that a significant number are put off by a sense that the Church imposes rules on adherents which limit choices (Ever Hear of Feuerbach?, p.5; cf. Jean Twenge, Generation Me, pp.34-35).  To counter these perceptions, I propose the Lutheran stress on the spontaneity of good works and freedom from the Law (Galatians 5:1; Genesis 22:1-19; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.367-368; Ibid., Vol.5, p.150).  Of course, these themes would not be characteristic of Latter-Day Saint teaching with its concern to affirm the importance of good works, but is there anything in your tradition’s doctrine that would consider the spontaneity and situational ethic of the Lutheran heritage as a legitimate Christian response?  If not, why not?  Let’s keep the dialogue going between our traditions.        



The Latter-day Saints and the Resilience of Faith

My friend Robert Millet has been talking about his faith in relation to other expressions of the Christian faith for decades now, and I salute him for his contributions to fostering a better understanding. He has taken the initiative with me and others to engage him and other Latter-day Saints leaders in conversations about our similarities and our differences.

His essay here in Respectful Conversations is no different. He quotes both from church leaders and the New Testament to highlight the importance of prayer, service, worship, and the study of scriptures in the lives of Latter-day Saints. He also underscores the centrality of service to others, which the Latter-day Saints do as well as, or better than, most Christian groups.

As a historian of religion in North America, I’ve long been fascinated with the Latter-day Saints. (I’m sure, out of long habit, I will lapse into referring to them as “Mormons,” even though I know the current president is trying to stamp out that appellation. I mean no disrespect, but I also note that previous church authorities have launched similar initiatives, and yet the terms “Mormon” and “Mormonism” keep resurfacing.) I often remind my students that, aside from the obvious fact that the plethora of Native American religions are indigenous, Mormonism (there I go again!) is the first and certainly the most successful indigenous religion in North America.

My fascination with the Latter-day Saints is due in part to their resilience. Here you have a tradition that was widely reviled and persecuted in the nineteenth century; I doubt very much that the Supreme Court’s Reynolds decision would stand today, for example. And yet the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints not only persevered, it flourished, and it became by the middle of the twentieth century one of the religious groups most associated with patriotism and American values (it probably didn’t hurt that the Mormons consider America’s charter documents to be divinely inspired).

One thing that I find so admirable about the Latter-day Saints is the strength and durability of their faith – and I hope that my comments here will not be viewed as dismissive or condescending; I don’t mean that at all. When you look objectively at the controversies surrounding the Spaulding manuscript or Joseph Smith’s sexual history or the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the Book of Abraham, for example, you might reasonably expect that many of the faithful would simply walk away out of disillusion or even disgust. Some surely did so, but most remained loyal to the tradition. I have to believe that a true, authentic, and abiding faith played a role.

Despite my appreciation for Mr. Millet’s contribution, I wish he’d said a bit more about some of the distinctive characteristics of the Latter-day Saints. I know he’s spent his career trying to build bridges to various Christian groups, but one of the glories of religion in America is its diversity. As someone who harbors deep reservations about ecumenism, I’d love to hear more about what distinguishes Mormonism – uh, Latter-day Saints – from other Christian groups.

In It For The Long Haul

When reflecting on my colleagues’ responses to my original post, I appreciate their thoughtful and insightful perspectives regarding the complexities I attempted to name when exploring what it means to follow Jesus in the Black Church tradition. I was grateful for their attention to what I know to be true but failed to examine adequately in my initial comments – the need for spiritual practices that sustain the follower of Jesus as she pursues the call of justice. I am ending this month’s discussion with a sincere desire to create spaces within the Black Church that allow people to develop routines that strengthen their capacity to remain committed to the work of Jesus, in the same manner that our Savior modeled in His own life.

Several of my colleagues raised significant points in their writings, which highlighted some of the spiritual rituals that are primary characteristics of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. In his response, Dr. Ellingsen noted that my reflection “did not address how worship and the Sacraments facilitate following Jesus.” He makes an excellent point, as even Jesus Himself demonstrated how worship (through prayer) and the Eucharist can alert us to the presence of God and God’s desire for us in the world. These practices can encourage us to be faithful to the call of God in our lives, even when it appears that God is requiring us to do something that is beyond our capacity, ability, or even desire. As Jesus is headed towards the cross in the ultimate act of obedience in His life, it is arguably His quiet time with God that gives Him the strength to follow through with His life mission. Even amid His efforts to challenge oppression and proclaim good news to the disenfranchised, Jesus found time to seek God, hear from and receive wisdom from God, and refill Himself in his commitment to justice. Jesus knew that He had to be connected to God if He had any hope of staying faithful to His assignment on Earth.

Likewise, I must always remind myself that followers of Jesus can’t expect to be in the fight for justice for the long haul if we do not find and engage resources that give life to the spirit of God that resides in each of us. There is an ever-growing amount of people, organizations, and institutions that reject any effort to make this world a more just and equitable place. It can be exhausting when followers of Jesus who care that all of God’s creation live abundant lives are in constant conflict with so many who choose to discriminate against certain populations. Such statements are even more significant when I consider Dr. Gushee’s comment when, after writing about the systemic oppression African-Americans have faced for centuries, he notes that “after all, when you can do little to control what others do to you, maybe you focus on what you can do for yourself and what God will do for you now and in the life to come.” I can’t blame those followers of Jesus in the Black Church tradition who turn to practices such as prayer and scripture reading not to invigorate them in the quest for justice but rather to help them weather the harsh realities of being Black. When you “can do little to control what others do to you,” which has been the prevailing narrative for Black Americans throughout history, you might take solace in the fact that you have access to a personal relationship with God that can give you hope to keep living day by day until you see eternity.

However, I also see, through the life of Jesus, tremendous value in engaging in worship, prayer, and meditation as each is a life-giving tool in the journey towards justice. There is a reason why individuals such as Howard Thurman were so intent on emphasizing the inner life and care of the soul – they knew that if one could deeply know and experience God, she could increase the likelihood of gaining the fortitude required to persist in her push for social justice. It is these (sometimes) taken for granted practices that can refocus our attention on Jesus, the one who can provide us with what we need to keep challenging oppressive structures and discriminatory policies. Jesus is, as the Hebrew writer declares, “the author and finisher of our faith” – He is the one that upholds us when the “isms” of life threaten to suffocate our very lives. Therefore, I will leave this month’s conversation with a renewed understanding that to be a follower of Jesus not only means embodying an unrelenting commitment to justice but also a dogged determination to engage in spiritual practices that will refuel, energize, and stabilize us as we pursue this justice.