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.
June 21, 2022
Thank you, David, for your comments. In response:
Scripture is the word of God. God’s Spirit accompanies it, and so Latter-day Saints are encouraged by Church leaders to be involved in daily reading, pondering, and prayer over the scriptures. Members are also encouraged to commit to memory especially meaningful passages. One Church leader stated simply that “We pray to talk to God, and we search the scriptures to have God talk to us.” We do not feel that a person can enjoy the guidance, enlightenment, as well as the reproof, correction, and instruction (2 Timothy 3:16) needed to draw near to the Savior without a serious investment in holy scripture. In that sense, scripture study represents a sacrament for us, since it is one of channels by which divine power comes to the individual.
If, as you say, you have been watching the Latter-day Saints from a distance for some time (about forty years), you may have noticed a very important spiritual development within my faith—namely, a greater focus on Jesus Christ Himself, the Atonement of Christ, and the divine grace that He offers to any and all who come to Him in faith. Just before leaving for a full-time mission in the late 1960s, I asked my father (who had been raised as a Latter-day Saint) what it meant to be “saved by grace.” He asked me where I had encountered the idea, and I told him I had seen it everywhere, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul. He then said: “We don’t believe in that!” I asked why we didn’t believe in grace, and he responded: “Because the Baptists do!” That response from Dad speaks volumes. For far too many years, Latter-day Saints saw themselves as a theological response/reaction to Christendom, that if “they” believed north, we would definitely head south.
The very first class I taught as a new member of the Religion faculty at Brigham Young University in 1983 was the second half of the New Testament. Some ten years earlier I had discovered and fallen in love with the Apostle Paul, and so I was eager to help the young people in my classes to appreciate and value highly what Paul taught and embodied. It was not easy to get the students out of a “works righteousness” mentality, but by the end of the semester they had come a long ways. The infinite power of the Lord’s Atonement and the grace He offers had become something they understood and, more importantly, something they felt and had begun to live by.
Oddly enough, thirty-one years later in 2014, the last class I taught at that institution before I retired was the second half of the New Testament. Teaching about Paul, about justification by faith and salvation by grace, was an entirely different experience. The students were open, eager, and excited to rejoice in the grand gifts of God. The difference in those two classes dramatizes what I have been saying. These young people were focused on the Lord’s atoning sacrifice, and they lived in a spirit of gratitude and love toward Christ. Grace had become a part of their thinking, their vocabulary, and, more important, their way of life. As C. S. Lewis put it, they were still trying to love and serve God with all their hearts, but they were now doing so “in a less worried way.” They had begun to understand that the question of whether we are saved by grace or by works is really the wrong question. The right questions are “in whom do I trust?” and “upon whom do I rely?”
Now while we still strive to maintain an independent stance in the Christian world, we have come to recognize tremendous goodness and truth in the teachings and lives of our Christian friends. The Church is much more prone today than when I was a boy to work closely with other religious traditions, especially those who hold to the same moral standards and absolute and unchanging truths that we do. My twenty-two years of interfaith engagement with my Evangelical friends has been one of the most soul-stretching and heart-warming experiences of my life. I have learned a ton about Christian history and theology, but I have learned half a ton about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hundreds of hours of serious but respectful conversations— pointing out differences and delighting in similarities—has been as intellectually stimulating to my mind as it has been soothing and satisfying to my heart.
I hope my responses to your comments are helpful.