Dialogues With Myself
What It Means to Be a Mormon Christian
The opening statement for a defense of Mormons as Christians, sponsored by Sunstone, May 1983; a version of this to be published in BYU Today, Summer 1984.
[p.173] Three years ago I conducted a group of Mormon students through the ruins of the Palace of Caiaphas, not far from Gethsemane, where Christ was taken after his suffering in the Garden. He was there arraigned, abused, probably beaten, illegally tried before being taken before Pilate the next morning. As my group moved on through the dungeons, I stopped to look back into a room built like a huge bottle, with only a top entrance where Christ may well have been lowered by his bound hands to spend part of the night after being tortured. I heard a group behind us—Methodists I learned later—stop and softly begin to sing a hymn, one I didn’t know but was deeply moved by, about Christ being wounded for us. I felt solidarity with those pious believers in Christ as Savior, shared their trust in the efficacy of his suffering and death as the ultimate and necessary source of our salvation, and wept a bit with them. Later that day, our group had its own time of hymn singing and reading from the New Testament, at the Garden Tomb, which is preserved in refreshing simplicity by British Protestants. We sang some hymns most Christians would recognize, like “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” and “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” and also some that bear our own particular Mormon Christian witness, like this one by Eliza R. Snow:
How great the wisdom and the love
That filled the courts on highAnd sent the Savior from aboveTo suffer, bleed, and die![p.174]His precious blood he freely spilt;His life he freely gave,
A sinless sacrifice for guilt,
A dying world to save.
Then each of us meditated by ourselves, walking through the garden and into the tomb. As I stood inside the tomb vestibule, through the window I heard a mother, American Evangelical Protestant I would guess from her idiom, telling her young son about the resurrection and, with tears in her voice, bearing her witness to him that Christ had indeed risen from the grave and therefore all people, including his dead grandparents, would be raised too.
We visited other places in Israel that are sacred to many because of Christ, such as Bethlehem, and some of my students were disappointed—as others, especially Protestants, have told me they were—because the sites were built over with churches or encrusted with the paraphernalia of Catholic worship: lamps, crosses, etc. But I found myself able to be moved deeply by such places—because of the evidence there of hundreds of years of humble pilgrimage by Christians to those spots sacred in tradition. I felt part of a great community of faith, one of the millions over the centuries moved by our hope in Christ to make a pilgrimage there—to places made sacred not only by Jesus but by all those of us who go there to worship him as our Divine Savior. We returned to our study center in England where I continued with new vigor and understanding to teach my Mormon students two things: that they were part of an ancient religious tradition which they should know and appreciate, from the Old Testament prophets and forerunners to the New Testament apostles and evangelists and the early Church fathers, then the great scholastics and cathedral builders of the Medieval age of faith, to the great reformers and martyrs and translators, Luther and Calvin, Tyndale and Wycliffe, Thomas More and Charles Wesley, and, in America, Roger Williams and Jonathan Edwards. But that they also had their own special witness to bear, their own tradition, with its own special emphases and precious revelations, which at its best taught them both to identify with that great Christian tradition and to challenge it and other religious traditions, in love, with their own unique Christian witness.
I find the basis for this difficult, seemingly contradictory, stance in the New Testament. Paul taught it this way: “Prove all things; hold [p.175] fast that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:22). And in rereading the New Testament I have found that stance verified constantly by Christ. He does not use the term Christian, of course, and he proposed no creed. But while Jesus defines his followers as uniquely open and loving, universal in their sympathy and acceptance of others, just as he is the universal Savior, he also defines them as standing clearly for something specific and committed to bear witness of that to others. It is something rather simple: First he calls for faith in himself, Christ, as uniquely the Savior of mankind; second he asks commitment to, and expression of, hope in him through initial baptism and then regular symbolic renewal through the sacrament of the last supper, partaking of his body and blood in remembrance and to preserve the Holy Spirit with them; and finally, besides faith and hope, he commands what Paul designated “the greatest of all,” charity: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13: 35; my emphasis).
But what kind of love? “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). It is unconditional love, not constrained by differences in belief—or even by others’ wrongdoing. Paul exclaimed, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And Christ called upon his disciples to “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Christ gave a simple test by which to know those following this direction—in other words, by which we may best recognize true Christians: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. … A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matthew 7:16, 18). And he was tolerant in the application of that test, restricting it to deeds, not ideas or professions or creeds:
John answered him saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he folleweth not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part. (Mark 9: 38-40)
Christ would leave it to no one to define Christ—or Christians—for others: “If any man say unto you, Lo here is Christ, or there; believe it [p.176] not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24: 23-24). Instead in the very next chapter of Matthew, he gives one simple test by which we will all be judged by God and must judge ourselves, as to whether we are among Christ’s sheep, whether we are “Christians”:
For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink, I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me …. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:35-40)
And a few pages later we have Christ’s simple, final commission to his disciples: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Mormons meet these simple criteria, established by Jesus Christ himself, not perfectly but well, as well as any other groups calling themselves Christian. We therefore have as much right, no more, no less, to call ourselves Christian. I ask that Mormons—and all other Christians—be respected in that right, and be loved and accepted in that spirit, especially by any who would themselves claim to be Christian. As I understand the New Testament, a basic test of whether one is Christian is his love and tolerance of others, however different their theology. Thus the commonly asked question whether Mormons are Christian can be in itself an unchristian question, even a direct offense to Christ—unless perhaps if it is asked purely in the spirit of a quest for the mutual understanding and love that he taught. Let me try to promote that spirit here.
But first let us face honestly the fact that the question of whether Mormons are Christian currently rises most often out of a growing intolerance of, and persecution of, Mormons, a specific, planned, public attack, making use of public media, sponsored by some Christian churches and Christian presses and broadcasting stations as well as individuals. It is an attack that has many of the same characteristics and spirit as the shameful extremes of anti-Masonic and anti-Catholic movements of the nineteenth century and of anti-Communism and especially anti-Semitism in our recent past: It is clearly motivated by fear and jealousy. It indulges in stereotypes and name-calling. It does not engage in careful, honest exploration of issues with a view to finding truth together and [p.177] living in love together. Instead, by combining obscure, unofficial statements by various Mormons, it creates a parody of our theology which most Mormons themselves would reject and then attacks that parody as a “cult.” It creates fear and irrational prejudice (exactly as has been done against Jews) by calling up images of wicked, secret rites, of mass deception, of sexual looseness, of unbridled political and economic power and conspiracies. We forget easily: A book like Peter Bart’s Thy Kingdom Come, which uses precisely the techniques of Nazi propaganda, would not be endured in this country if it were about Jews. Because it is about Mormons, it is praised. Most Christians are not inclined, I trust, to use these techniques and excesses, and so I hope we can do something constructive in dialogue with each other. My purpose here is to affirm what it means to be a Christian, to suggest how we could all be better Christians, and to try to show how differences between Christians can provide an opportunity to learn from, rather than attack, each other.
Dictionaries, other generally accepted sources, and common sense all suggest there are three ways the term Christian is properly used: first, to designate those who claim to follow Christ, whatever the variants of their theology; second, to indicate those who confess a particular set of beliefs that is generally defined as Christian; and third, to identify those who live in a certain way generally called Christian. On the first category there can be no argument. Mormons have as much right to call themselves Christian as anyone. Who then has the right to judge them on the second and third categories: creed and ethical standards?
Mormons find it ironic to be labeled non-Christian at a time when they have been among the few Christian groups standing firm against various liberal Protestant and Catholic attempts to demythologize the New Testament accounts of Christ, to make Christ more a mystical, symbolic idea than a literal, redeeming, divine person. Mormons are aghast at the general loss of belief in a literal bodily resurrection guaranteed by Christ, at the declining belief in Christ’s literal return to the earth to reign over a real millennium, at the retreat among Christians, sometimes led by their ministers, from definite ethical standards about care of the body, about chastity, about abortion and euthanasia, about the evils of war and luxury. We are appalled by an increasing relativism and purely situational ethic generally in Christianity.
But Mormons do differ theologically from other Christians in some important ways—and certainly Mormons, both individually and as a [p.178] group, fail to live fully the high ethic of Christ-like love. And that is what we should discuss, for understanding and improvement. My initial and minimal point is that the doctrinal differences are not departures from the scriptures but merely from other Christian interpretations, whose proponents have no more right to claim orthodoxy than Mormons, and that the ethical failures are certainly no greater than those of other Christians. We are sinners all.
Mormons affirm, with the New Testament and all Christians, that we are saved by Christ. The question is how? Appeal to the Bible has not kept Christian groups from wide diversity on that question. Medieval Catholicism, for political and economic as well as theological reasons, moved to the position that Christ’s salvation was administered only through the Church and specifically through a form of works that required participation in Church-administered sacraments, including penance and forgiveness of sins. This allowed the monstrous but logical perversion by Tetzel, the sale of “indulgences” or payment, even in advance, for sins. Obviously the idea of salvation by works is dangerous, pernicious, offensive to the New Testament message—and Luther and later Calvin were properly offended. They brought the Reformation to life in the energy of rediscovered personal choice and commitment to Christ and the sense of his grace as central to salvation. Mormons believe these Reformers were inspired directly by God, and Mormon scriptures and official doctrines all affirm unequivocally that salvation, all of it and in every sense (including “exaltation”), is by and through the grace of Christ (see especially Doctrine and Covenants 20:30-31, where both of the technical theological terms, “justification” and “sanctification,” are used to affirm full dependence on Christ’s grace).
But Luther and Calvin, over-reacting to the extremes of Tetzel’s narrow view of salvation, went to their own narrow, and unscriptural, extremes. The official Lutheran movie of the life of Martin Luther shows him at the crucial moment, in his monk’s cell, reading the crucial passage from Romans, “that a man is justified by faith.” And the movie unashamedly shows Luther writing in the margin: sola, alone. But the New Testament does not say we are saved by faith alone; it makes the importance of works and ordinances clear in many places and many ways (and not just in the Book of James, which Luther tried to demean by calling it the “straw” epistle because it clearly contradicted his extreme position). The New Testament shows that grace is essential [p.179] but not absolute, or sufficient. Solafideism (salvation by faith alone) is as unscriptural as Tetzel’s reliance on hypocritical works, on buying salvation. And so is Calvin’s set of logical extremes: predestination to salvation or damnation, the irresistibility of God’s grace upon those he chooses to save, the perseverence in grace of those so chosen, despite all appearances in their evil actions to the contrary. We must respond to grace, grow in grace, show forth fruit meet for salvation. The Mormon position is that we are saved by grace, that salvation is a free gift, made available only through the life and teaching, the suffering and death of Christ. But Mormon theology recognizes the crucial role of agency; it posits the genuinely free will of God’s children and thus their ability and need to accept the gift of grace and grow in it through that continuing acceptance and response—that is, through sincerely performing the ordinances and producing sincere and obedient good works. We define faith, as ordinary usage certainly suggests, as behavior based on commitment, that is, as including good works.
But Mormonism is not a mere amalgam of salvation by grace and works, both of which notions are subject to severe abuses. Works, as Tetzel showed Luther, can be performed hypocritically or out of cultural habit, not out of faith in Christ. It would be foolish to rely on them as a basis for salvation. But the notion of grace alone can be just as easily perverted. It can, as Paul warned, be license to sin or, as Protestants themselves constantly warn, can take the form of “cheap grace”; as they sometimes ironically express the danger, “The word is admirably arranged. God likes to forgive sinners. I like to sin.” Emphasis on grace can also suggest a God who created beings and a word out of nothing, who for no discernible purpose, puts them through incredible suffering and exposes them to all forms of evil and then chooses to lift some out of the mire through his inscrutable grace. Life thus may seem to be an incomprehensible game played by a sadistic God, and the huge loss of faith in modern times seems to me directly related to such a view, one an emphasis on “salvation by grace alone” inevitably promotes.
Mormon Christians believe that salvation is neither an incomprehensible game of irresistible grace nor something that can be hypocritically bought with the appearance of good works. We believe in the New Testament call to become new creatures in Christ. Salvation is not an exterior thing, merely given or bought, but a genuine becoming, a complete, absolute, gradual (or sometimes sudden) permanent change [p.180] to a new being; it is made possible only through Christ but is also only possible through our own unforced choice to respond to him and grow in his grace through the sacraments and service. Salvation is ultimately a matter of what we are when we face Christ at the judgment bar. It is not merely what he has made us, for then he would be entirely responsible for what we were or were not, and it is not merely what we have made ourselves, because we could have made nothing of ourselves without Christ’s grace. Christ’s gospel is the power of God unto salvation; his teachings and his unconditional love, expressed ultimately in Gethsemane and on the cross, uniquely give us power to repent, to become and remain “new creatures.” The Book of Mormon makes that central Christian affirmation this way:
That great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal. And thus [Christ] shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. (Alma 34:15; my emphasis)
It can be said that such a comprehensive view of salvation—as involving grace and works and ordinances in a realistic integration that leads to genuine repentance and newness—is more logical and scriptural than the limited concepts espoused by other Christian groups. It can be said that Mormon doctrine, which explicitly provides for that same process of salvation for all mankind, living and dead, before and after Christ, is most fully in the universalist spirit of Christ himself—”Salvator Mundi,” savior of all the world. And such claims have been made, to the convincing of many converts to Mormonism, including intelligent, well-trained ministers, priests, and lay theologians. But Mormons do not thus claim to be the only Christians or exclude any groups which make claim to be so. We recognize that the experience of Atonement with Christ through his grace and through our response is not so much a matter of theology as experience. People with widely varying concepts of how it happens can experience that Atonement and enter the strait gate. The whole point of our message to the world is to add, to provide, on the basis of modern revelation, additional, clarifying concepts, new witnesses that will increase and expand others’ faith in Christ.
As a young missionary in Samoa I once taught a fine woman who was listening to me only out of cultural politeness until I told her that Christ’s salvation would apply to her pagan ancestors whom she knew [p.181] had been idolatrous, even cannibalistic. It could apply, not through some incomprehensible “Kings-X,” such as that God sent them to earth at the wrong—or right—time and so excused them from having to have faith in Christ and live his commandments. It applied because those ancestors were alive in the spirit world, were there hearing the gospel preached, and were committing themselves to Christ, aided by the love of people on this earth expressed as they performed baptism and other ordinances with and for them. Her eyes filled with tears. Already a Christian, she became a Mormon Christian, not in rejection of Christ or her faith in him but with additional understanding and rejoicing in his universal saving grace.
As a student I sat in a class in Christian ethics at Stanford University and heard the great Presbyterian theologian, Robert McAfee Brown, with tears in his eyes, say he was considered a heretic in his church because he could not accept the traditional Protestant concept of final judgment at death; he could not conceive of a God who was limited in his saving love and power, who had to stop it merely because we died. He imagined that in some way Christ continued to teach and love those of us who had no or little chance to know him on earth and that, therefore, there must be a continuing way to repent and be saved. I could tell him something specific about that way because of revelation to modern prophets that has come not in contradiction to the New Testament but in clarification of the scriptures on Christ’s preaching to the dead and on vicarious baptism for the dead. Surely Mormonism is not less Christian because it is more comprehensive and universalist in its understanding of Christ’s saving role.
How about Mormon ethics? The question is often whether Mormons, as well as Mormon ideas, are Christian. Mormon ideals are certainly as high as others! Our personal morality—respect and care for the body, honesty, chastity, in both the expressed ideals and in statistically measured practice—is impressive to outside observers and bears visible fruit in the health and appearance, the longevity and stability of our people, families, and communities. But what about the ultimate ethic of Christlike love—constant unselfish service to the hungry, homeless, and imprisoned and genuine love of, even service to, our enemies. Here Mormons, like all Christians, fall short. But it is not because of a lack of proper belief and leadership. The Book of Mormon teaches the ethic as clearly and unequivocally as the New Testament, in some ways more clearly. For instance, it includes the only account in scripture—or in [p.182] history, that I can find—of a group living out the love ethic to its ultimate consequences in personal sacrifice and redemptive power. They allow themselves to be massacred rather than take up arms, and their example moves their attackers to repentance—just as Christ taught love like his would do: It is the love, the only love, that changes people, makes enemies no longer enemies. It absorbs and does away with evil rather than striking back in retribution and passing on the evil; it is a love that stands in judgment over all our talk as Christians and as a so-called “Christian” nation about protecting our rights and our so-called national “security.”
I stand condemned by that ethic, but my Mormon faith and Mormon teachings call me to change—and I am slowly changing. Ten years ago, as a president of an LDS branch in Minnesota, I was approached one Sunday at church by a man who, it became apparent to me as we talked, badly needed food. I was in another town far from home; I didn’t have any money with me; and, as I tried to help or find a way to help, I couldn’t seem to find one that wouldn’t have made his plight public in a way unacceptable to him, a way that didn’t shame him. Finally, as I pressed various ways of getting money or food to him he literally rushed away and left me helpless. That night, lying sleepless, and freed from my public self-consciousness and uncertainties about how to give, I was able to think of at least five good ways I could have helped and that he might have accepted, but it was too late.
Just last month, as bishop of a new BYU student ward, I had another such opportunity and was able to respond immediately with my own and Church resources. I have learned in ten years to better understand and respond in grace to Christ’s New Testament command to “Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away” (Matthew 5:42), but I have learned also by responding better to Christ’s teaching to the Book of Mormon prophet, the great King Benjamin:
Ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain …. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent and except he repent hath no interest in the Kingdom of God. (Mosiah 4:16-18)
[p.183] The Book of Mormon makes the connection between our generous, graceful, Christ-like giving and our own salvation absolutely explicit: And now, for the sake of … retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4:26)
It is when we entirely separate our concept of worthiness, of a person’s Christian commitment, from such visible righteousness, that we get into deep trouble. Yes, overt works can be hypocritical, but that hypocrisy too, over time, will become visible, especially at the level of the highest ethic, sacrificial love. Not many are willing to die, or give up all their substance—not willing to come forth and lay it at the apostles’ feet, as the New Testament Christians did—merely to appear to be righteous. They only persist in doing so, only endure in good works to the end, because of their faith given in grace by Christ.
The Puritans in America made some serious mistakes in this matter of judging visible righteousness. They believed that good works were not efficacious to salvation and therefore rejected the great Catholic tradition of ethical discipline and careful, responsible moral judgment. This led to a combination of moral insensitivity and arrogance that has become a Puritan stereotype and a dangerous element in the American character. But, in contradiction, because of their emphasis on will, on a person’s decision to follow Christ in response to his election, and because of their growing anxiety to know, and also to show, by the visible means of good works, who was indeed among the elect, Puritans also became the most energetic activists in history—except perhaps for Communists, who, like the Puritans, believe everything is determined and individual effort meaningless!
Such ironies and contradictions abound in human experience. But for the Puritans the irony became tragic. The Half-Way Covenant was instituted in the second generation of Puritan America to give some kind of status to children of the original covenanted Christians, children who had not chosen for themselves and made explicit commitments based on the experience of grace like their fathers. But by the third generation the implicit contradiction surfaced tragically and ultimately destroyed Puritanism, both ethically and intellectually.
[p.184] The Puritans attempted to hold on to an absurd, morally bankrupt theological contradiction, what could be called “The Puritan Fallacy”: that salvation was willed and controlled by God, but that people—such as witches and adulterers—could be held responsible and punished, unto death, for their actions, as if they had willfully abandoned God’s supposedly irresistible grace. But then again, people could be judged to be witches, not because they did evil things but because people accused them of being such and claimed, or appeared, to be affected by their supposed demonic power. The key was the acceptance of “spectral evidence”: admitting to the courtroom evidence based on the assumption of the devil’s power over even apparently good people and his ability to possess them and use some form of them, their “specters,” to evil ends despite all rational, empirical evidence in their actual lives to the contrary—for instance, condemning as a witch the most righteous, pious matron of the community on the claim of jealous, addle-headed servant girls that her ghostly form had possessed them. Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” is about this fallacy—and about the consequent destruction of souls, not the souls of supposed witches and devils but of those like young Goodman Brown who leave “Faith” and enter the devil’s territory by taking spectral evidence seriously. Of course, modern psychology has helped us see that what they were doing was “projection”—seeing evil, actually conjuring it up, where they unconsciously most feared and suspected it in themselves.
What is the modern equivalent of spectral evidence? It is a good German acquiescing in, even secretly approving, the transportation to a death camp of his Jewish neighbors, believing the Nazi assertion that Jews are part of an international conspiracy that is destroying the German economy rather than believing the visible evidence of long years of good neighborliness. In our country’s famous case of Robert Oppenheimer, it is the acceptance by certain anti-Communists—jealous or fearful people who disagreed with his morals and political ideas—of innuendo and genuine uncertainty about his past; it is their letting that be more important than his long, persistent history of faithful service and trustworthiness and his obvious present character—and being willing to destroy him on that evidence. It is anyone accepting the mere claim that Mormons are not Christian on the spurious evidence of an isolated quotation from some Mormon’s unofficial book or even private conversation or an anecdote about some Mormon’s uncharitable action—letting [p.185] that be more important than a careful look at the central body of constantly preached Mormon doctrine concerning Christ and constantly practiced Mormon worship of Christ and the consistent Christian service of most Mormons. And—as I shall discuss briefly—it is a Mormon judging other Mormons by their political beliefs, their theology, by mere opinions rather than their total lives, especially their visible works.
My father’s great-grandmother hid under hickory bushes with her mother and watched mobs of professed Christians burn her home in Nauvoo, Illinois, and then walked 1,200 miles to worship Christ freely and well. My father’s grandmother, alone on a homestead in Idaho while her husband preached Christ crucified in a foreign land, so sick she could not get up for help, called her tiny children, including my grandmother, around her and asked them to pray to Christ for her because Christ loved little children and would hear them—and she was healed. My father left home at seventeen to work in a railroad shop far away, got up at 5:00 each morning to read the scriptures, and received a vision in a dream of Jesus Christ, calling him to lifelong service and consecration—a call he and my mother have fulfilled. As a boy I knelt with him in our wheat fields as he reaffirmed that consecration, and I felt directly the confirming presence of the Savior. There are Mormon men and women I know who are fully consecrated, like the early Christians. Avoiding all recognition, not imagining they are in any way buying salvation, they use their God-given talents to serve others; some earn in the process large amounts of money, which they in turn, beyond very frugal means for the simplest standard of living, come forth and lay at the apostles’ feet for the service of Christ.
Now, when someone says to me that these people are not Christian, he offends me deeply and does something very dangerous to our human community. He is using his own esoteric, idiosyncratic definition of “Christian,” essentially as a person who does not agree with him—a definition so trivial as to be meaningless—or else he is delivering a divisive insult which is destructive to the harmony of our society and the building of Christ’s kingdom, an insult that is itself perhaps the most dependable evidence that someone is not Christian.
Martin Luther, the great, inspired Reformer whose 500th birthday we celebrate on November 10 of this year, once wrote:
The Kingdom of God is like a besieged city surrounded on all sides by death. Each man has his place on the wall to defend and no one can stand where [p.186] another stands, but nothing prevents us from calling encouragement to one another.
It would be tragic if we Christians, standing each in our different places, were to desert our place on the wall against death—against our true enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil—and, accepting spectral evidence from the father of lies, were to turn on each other. We have no business but to call encouragement to each other.
Let me suggest an appropriate way for Christian groups to do this. Just as Paul suggested we have different gifts as individuals that together, recognized and appreciated by each other, can edify the whole body of Christ, so the differing emphases of Christian groups, recognized and appreciated, can edify the whole body of Christians. When I was a student at MIT and attended the Cambridge Branch of the Mormon Church, there was a Quaker meeting house just across the green, and with that more relaxed schedule we used to have, with time between meetings, I would go to the Quaker worship service for an hour of absolute quiet, broken only by a very occasional speaker. It was a marvelous change from the rather hectic, child-filled Mormon sacrament meetings, and I was sometimes envious. But after a time I realized that I missed, in the Quaker meetings, the meaningful content of sacrament prayer and doctrinal sermon and personal testimony, and I wished for some kind of combination.
About that time a decision was made by the Mormon Church not to have music during the passing of the bread and water to the congregation, and I found that the island of quiet and contemplation I had yearned for was there for me if I sought and concentrated on it. But attending the Quaker meeting, with its extreme form, had identified for me my need and helped me find it. I’ll always be grateful.
And I’m grateful that I lived for five years among Lutherans in Minnesota and learned the joy of a concentrated sense of grace, of gratitude for God’s gift of life and salvation. I had a Lutheran friend in Minnesota who would occasionally choose a day in the future, at random, circle it on his calendar with bright rings and rays and declare it a personal “celebration day”—celebration of his joy in the grace of Christ. I loved that and learned from him how to better break out into celebration as well as to be a responsible Latter-day saint, working out my salvation in fear and trembling. But I think both are needed.
[p.187] Mormons do tend to overemphasize their works sometimes, usually in overreaction to a challenge from someone who overemphasizes grace. Someone quotes Ephesians 2:8 (“For by grace are ye saved through faith”) and we turn quickly to James 2:17: (“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone”). Such mere opposition is no solution. We need to look carefully at the other testament of Christ, the Book of Mormon, and at the whole New Testament, to see if a complete picture, including the proper place of both faith and works, is apparent. James teaches that faith can be dead, without works, and Mormon gives, in a passage that every Baptist should love, the best attack on infant baptism imaginable, arguing that works, including ordinances like baptism, without sincere, knowing commitment, is what he calls “dead works.” Mormons can be, have been, guilty of dead works; Protestants I know can be, have been, guilty of dead faith. Let us learn from each other to avoid both, rather than merely fighting over emphases that are both wrong by themselves.
My great concern is that these processes of learning from each other, rather than improving, in our modern, ecumenical, supposedly enlightened 1980s, seem to be breaking down. What do we have instead: Respectable Christian presses publishing books like Gordon Fraser’s Is Mormonism Christian? (Moody Press, 1982), which does not enter into serious doctrinal discussion but takes the low road of implying that Mormonism is ethically corrupt and a dangerous conspiracy—all through the use of isolated quotations, misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright slander. Christian groups, in cooperation with “Ex-Mormons for Jesus,” have produced a movie, The Godmakers, which desecrates the most sacred religious rites and covenants of the Mormon people and engages in direct falsehood in its implications about Mormon teachings and practices and the effects of Mormonism on a particular, real family. These groups, as well as others who have illegally printed stolen and personal documents (including some of my own), clearly believe their intolerant ends justify their immoral means. But, you may say, those are aberrations which Christians in general abhor as well. And it is true that a Presbyterian minister in Mesa had the Christian morality and courage to denounce The Godmakers. But the fact is that Christian churches in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, and Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., etc., have used their facilities, which are [p.188] dedicated to the work of Christ, to show that scurrilous movie and to sponsor those dishonest people. I cannot believe that Christ is pleased.
Christians cannot give platforms to such people and disassociate themselves from their illegal methods and unchristian purposes. I appeal to Christians to withdraw support from all who do these things. As the minister in Mesa said, if you allow such methods, which are exactly those of anti-Semitism, to be used in our society against Mormons, those methods can be used against other Christian and religious groups as well. I appeal to you to turn your recognition of differences from Mormon Christians into a basis for our learning from each other and appreciating more fully the fullness of God’s grace as he works with all people to fulfill his purpose of salvation through Christ. For those who cannot, I offer this witness: You will wear out your lives fostering bitterness and destructiveness that will turn and sweep you up in it, and you will reap disappointment by and by. What you are doing is more unchristian than anything you accuse Mormons of, even if it were true. If Mormons are wrong in their beliefs, then invasion of privacy, slander, and desecration are not what they need but rational discourse, love, and testimony. If you cannot give that, Christ at the judgment bar will say to you, “Depart from me. … Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me” (Matthew 25:41, 45).
Finally, let me say something to my fellow Mormons. I am very proud that our Church does not engage in the practices of some others: We do not misuse our energies or our Church facilities and various media to attack other churches or condemn their members; the Church does not even engage in conflict with those who unfairly and immorally attack us as non-Christian cultists. But we do something that does us much damage and is in fact unchristian: We use spectral evidence on each other. We sometimes judge each other as unacceptable, not on the evidence of a demonstrated lack of love and good works, but on someone’s claim that we are unorthodox or inactive, because we have unpopular theological or political beliefs. Within Mormonism there is a great range of thought and action, all of it still within the generous limits of what Christ defined for his disciples and within any reasonable definition of a Mormon Christian—that is, one who proclaims openly his faith in Christ as Savior of all mankind, living and dead, who manifests that faith by baptism into a new life, continually renewed through [p.189] the ordinances, and who shows forth good fruits of his faith by attempting to love unconditionally, as Christ did.
But some of us too often fail on that last point, which would require that we not presume to judge others’ faith and hope. Three examples: First, when I helped found Dialogue, I was disappointed to find that some Mormons, directly contrary to Christ’s witness that anyone not against us is for us, assumed that any publication not officially Mormon was anti-Mormon. Some who actually knew me, contrary to the direct evidence of my continual service and good works in the Church, believed the spectral evidence of rumors that I was an apostate and sinner, even practicing polygamy. Second, far too many religious or political liberals I know at BYU assume that conservatives like George Pace and Orrin Hatch and their supporters are insensitive, warmongering, racist, and sexist troglodytes—in a word not really Christian; they believe this purely on the spectral evidence of the assumed consequences of such people’s religious or political beliefs and contrary to all the evidence daily that such “iron rodders” are as generous, kind, and reasonable—as Christian—as themselves. Third, especially right now, when the Church is increasingly attacked from outside, in some of the ways I have described, I find it appalling that many Mormons are drawing in, hunkering down defensively, turning with suspicion on each other and cutting themselves off from each other as well as many good non-Mormon Christian and Jewish and agnostic friends.
We need to consciously open ourselves to all the friends we have, join with all Mormon Christians and then all Christians and all others of good will. The Kingdom of God is like a besieged city surrounded by death. We will each have our unique place on the wall to defend. We will be different in belief and expression, in mode of worship and ideas. And no one can stand where another stands. But we can be anxiously engaged in calling encouragement to one another. If we cannot do that we will surely be fulfilling the frightening prophecy Christ made to his former-day disciples about what could happen among his latter-day disciples just before his second coming:
Ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another …. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (Matthew 24: 9-13)
[p.190] In a time of increasing persecution, a terrible “iniquity” that Mormon Christians can commit is certainly to “betray one another” and hate each other, or even let their love wax cold. True disciples of Christ, true Christians, will ignore persecution and resist the paranoia it naturally brings, will bend their energies to loving and serving others, whatever their differences, and thus will endure and be saved.