Partners, Not Combatants
The version of evangelical Christianity which nurtured me from my youth taught that The Church of the Latter-day Saints, commonly called the Mormons, were not Christian. They were a strange sect, or nearly a cult, with a set of obscure teachings, unorthodox practices, and mistaken founding personalities, along with a whole book claiming inspired status, which simply canceled out whatever remnants of Christianity were found among its followers. The only part of this tradition which received any appreciative attention was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
When I embraced the Reformed tradition, I found little difference. To the extent that the Mormon tradition appeared anywhere in my seminary training in Reformed institutions, such as in a course on American religious history, or perhaps in a course dealing with current cults and sectarian groups, the stereotypes of my early learning were mostly reinforced.
For this reason alone, I am very grateful that the decision was made to include The Church of the Latter-day Saints, through the presentation of Robert Millet, in these Respectful Conversations. That choice in of itself, before any words were put on paper, was an important ecumenical gesture. These conversations, after all, are between diverse and divergent Christian traditions. They are not designed as “interfaith” conversations with non-Christian religious traditions. Including The Church of Latter-day Saints in these conversations makes the implicit declaration that they are a part of the highly diverse Christian community.
That is a step which no major ecumenical body in the United States, or no major global ecumenical organization, has undertaken. The Church of the Latter-day Saints is not a member of the National Council of Churches of the USA, nor a member of Christian Churches Together. Neither is it a member of the World Council of Churches, nor the Global Christian Forum. The is not because The Church of Latter-day Saints has no interest in such membership. Rather, it is because some member churches (denominations) in those bodies would object to such membership because they do not regard The Church of Latter-day Saints to be a Christian church.
In fairness and of interest, the ecumenical connections of the Community of Christ should be noted. Formerly named the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ is a far smaller, divergent branch of Mormonism with its origins in 1860 and presently with about 1,100 congregations in the U.S. and around the world. It tends to place less emphasis on some of the more distinctive and controversial beliefs and practices of The Church of the Latter-day Saints (it never approved of “plural marriage” in its history for instance), it ordains women, and it includes an emphasis on peace and justice in its ministries. It does accept the Book of Mormon as part of its scriptures but has tried to refine its understanding of scriptural use and interpretation. It places a strong emphasis on core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity.
The Community of Christ made an application to join Christian Churches Together. But after focused theological dialogue, some members of CCT objected and vetoed the application. In 2010, however, the Community of Christ was accepted as a member of the National Council of Churches (USA).
Our dialogue in Respectful Conversations, however, is with The Church of the Latter-day Saints, by far the strongest expression Mormonism today, with 16.8 million members globally and 6.7 million members in the U.S., making it the fourth largest denomination in this country. Throughout our conversations, I have been deeply impressed by Robert Millet’s participation and contributions. With a wide knowledge of diverse Christian traditions and a deep theological engagement with others, Millet has modeled how the Mormon tradition can function as a respectful partner within the Christian community, instead of as a suspect voice outside of its circumference.
Millet’s presentation in this month’s conversation on what it means to faithfully follow Jesus continues this consistent and clear witness. One can only affirm that reading Scripture devotionally, practicing prayer, loving and serving others, and participating in worship are key elements in how we practice our faith. Writing as a voice for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he presents his tradition’s way of faithfully following Jesus in clear and unapologetic terms. I wonder if the unspoken subtext is, “Since this is how I understand and practice my faith in Christ, how can you possibly exclude me from the bonds of Christian fellowship?”
For me, at least, that is the beginning question. It’s like the ecumenical elephant in the room, which must be acknowledged. Most Christian traditions, including those represented in the Respectful Conversations, hesitate, or simply refuse, to include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in local, national, or global formal structures of Christian ecumenical fellowship. Are we justified in doing so? Have these months of Respectful Conversations with Robert Millet’s participation changed our views?
They have influenced me. It was right to include the tradition of Mormonism, as represented in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as part of these honest conversations between diverse Christian traditions. Perhaps it can serve as an example to encourage similar initiatives in other ecumenical settings.
Of course, I have a long list of questions around points where I seriously differ with various beliefs and practices of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And I would have been grateful if Robert Millet had acknowledged some of the serious differences between his church and the dominant expressions of Christianity. After all, historically those differences led at times to violent persecution, eventually driving Mormons west and out of the United States into Utah, which at the time was part of Mexico. But today the honest and earnest discussion of these differences should take place as partners in a common faith, rather than as combatants. My hope is that Robert Millet’s participation in these Respectful Conversations can open a door to an accepted framework of shared faith that can host and hold this difficult but necessary dialogue.
June 21, 2022
Thank you, Wesley, for your comments. I appreciate your sensitivity and your inclusiveness. It means a lot to me. I have spent the last thirty years trying to get persons belonging to traditional Christian groups to at least make an effort to better understand the Latter-day Saints. My critics have often commented that my Church is simply trying to “move into the mainstream” of Christianity, but this is not the case. We are who we are, and we believe what we believe, and those things will not change. What we ask of those not of our faith is to allow us to self-identify. We claim to be Christians, followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but Christians with a difference. We are not Catholics, nor Eastern Orthodox, nor Protestants, but we believe deeply in the Person and power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and accept wholeheartedly the apostolic witness of the New Testament writers.
Some years ago, while in New York City, I had a meeting with the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative Roman Catholic voice (founding editor of First Things). We spoke for about a half hour. Among his earliest comments was an expression of thanks for the work I had been doing with Evangelicals (Our Mormon-Evangelical dialogue had begun in May of 2000). He commented that much more of this kind of interfaith engagement needed to take place. He then said, “There needs to be more serious conversation between Latter-day Saint Christians and Nicene Christians.” I nodded in agreement and thought to myself that, while I had never heard that distinction before, it was surprisingly accurate, one with which Latter-day Saints would have no quarrel.
More than one of our dialogue colleagues has mentioned that while I did devote myself specifically to what it means for a Latter-day Saint to follow Jesus, they would be interested in knowing what I believe the principal differences between people of my faith and traditional Christians are. The following is what I have included in my response:
• a belief in a premortal existence; that we are all spirit sons and daughters of God (Numbers 16:22; 27:16; Hebrews 12:9).
• a belief in a kind of “fortunate fall” of Adam and Eve; that is, the Fall was necessary because it opened the way for the blessings of the Savior and His Atonement to be made available to all (John Wesley and C. S. Lewis expressed similar views).
• a strong belief in the effects of the Fall (both spiritual and physical death) but a denial of “human depravity.”
• a belief that the agony of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was a part of the Savior’s atoning suffering, that what began in Gethsemane was completed, climaxed on Golgotha. It was the withdrawal of the Father’s sustaining and comforting Spirit from Jesus—something Jesus had never experienced— that caused Him to sweat blood (Luke 22:44).
• a non-acceptance of the post-New Testament creeds and theological formulations, including the doctrine of the Trinity.
• a belief that God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons and three distinct Gods; we believe them to be one in almost every other way imaginable except for an ontological oneness. I might state our doctrine of the Godhead as follows: We believe there are three divine Persons within the Godhead—God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. We believe that each of these divine beings possesses all of the attributes and qualities of godliness in their perfection. We believe that the love and unity that exist between these three Persons is of such magnitude that they can properly be said to be “one God,” which for us means one Godhead. Our view of the Godhead resembles, to some extent, what is called social trinitarianism.
• a teaching that would definitely be one of our most distinctive differences from traditional Christianity—that God, our Heavenly, an exalted and glorified Being, has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as mortal men and women. We do not believe that a physical body limits or confines God in any way, any more than a resurrected physical body confined or limited the Risen Christ, who stated that “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18).
• that with the deaths of Christ and the apostles in the first century, a period of apostasy or falling away took place in which the keys of the priesthood given to Peter and the apostles was lost, requiring more than a Reformation. A Restoration was needed.
• that certain ordinances (sacraments) are essential for salvation.
• that at the time of death we enter into a post-mortal spirit world, an intermediate state; there we learn, grow, repent, and prepare for the resurrection.
• that every person will have the right to hear the message of Jesus Christ and His gospel, either in this world or in the post-mortal spirit world (compare 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 regarding Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison).
• that in Latter-day Saint temples vicarious baptisms are performed, as well as the sealings of husbands and wives, parents and children, not just until death, but for eternity.
• that in harmony with Jesus’s teachings that “in my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) and Paul’s teachings about various types of bodies in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:40-42), there is more than a heaven and a hell hereafter; there are degrees of glory (both Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley believed the same).
I hope the above is helpful.