An Open Letter to Fellow Evangelicals

Posted: March 3, 2012 in Mormon Studies, Tim McMahan

by Tim
Over the past 180 years the Evangelical world has had two primary missions in response to Mormonism. The first was to protect our own sheep, the second was to call Mormons to repentance and motivate them to join the fellowship of true believers. These were both accomplished by pointing out the heresies inherent in Mormonism and by drawing questions to the trustworthiness of Joseph Smith and Mormon origins. I hope to persuade that the time is now upon us to consider a new approach to Mormonism. I do not wish to criticize the way we have historically approached Mormonism. On the contrary I think the two overall missions have been praiseworthy and Biblically motivated. I do not by any means think that Mormonism stands with historic, orthodox Christianity. I do not think the LDS church teaches truth in regards toward the nature of God. I think the LDS church draws the majority of those it teaches away from the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his apostles. I do not think that Joseph Smith bears the marks of a trustworthy prophet. Despite my continued stance against Mormonism it’s becoming clear to me that a new set of circumstances is now upon us. The signs of a new season are showing and we need to pause for a moment and consider our efforts and the allocation of our resources.

A New Day
We are entering a new day. The world of Mormonism has changed significantly in the seven years in which I’ve explored it. As many have observed, the internet has sparked an information revolution. Materials are widely available and the ability to collaborate and unify with like-minded people has increased tremendously. This has had a tremendous effect on traditional Mormon debates. I’m flabbergasted to see faithful Mormons agree with Evangelicals on the facts of such things as the Kinderhook Plates and the Adam-God theory much less Joseph Smith’s Polyandry and his non-translation of the Kirkland Egyptian Papers. The focus of the debates has changed from “is it true” to “does it matter”. That is a monumental shift.

In addition, non-traditional Mormon voices are beginning to form and they are being heard. The censoring of the “September Six” is not likely to happen in today’s environment. If such an attempt were made by Mormon authorities it would not go well for them. In many ways such efforts would only make those “un-correlated” voices more clearly heard because the controversy would add attention to their work. Grant Palmer was correct when he predicted that church discipline would only increase sales of his book “Insider’s View on Mormon Origins”. Many disaffected and “New Order” Mormons may even hope for church discipline as they continue to speak out on a number of topics.

In many ways our concerns about Mormon origins and the character of Joseph Smith are being carried further and farther by those still inside the church. Ex-Mormons, New Order Mormons, Disaffected Mormons and even some BYU professors and other faithful Mormons are carrying this message forward. Their words about these concerns travel further and farther because it is often wrapped in the package of “Mormon” rather than Evangelical. A perceived friend is more trusted than a perceived enemy.

For many reasons we Evangelicals have been viewed as the enemy. We are not at fault for all of those reasons. Mormonism began with a strong polemic against traditional Christianity and hasn’t let up. In addition we have a Biblical mandate to defend against false doctrines and false prophets. We’ve been correct in taking a stand against the false ideas Joseph Smith presented. Sadly that stand has not always been carried out in love. Evangelicals who think it is appropriate to literally slam their doors on Mormons or in any other way treat them inhospitably have not been the best example of the love of Christ. Those that have intentionally exaggerated or misconstrued Mormon beliefs have given Mormons plenty of reason to view our message and our intentions skeptically. But reasons and motivations for the animosity aside; we need to recognize that the way Mormons perceive us stands in the way of our hope to carry the true Gospel forward. I think we need a new strategy and I think the time to aggressively change modes is now.

Why Change Now
Recently Elder Marlin K. Jensen conducted a Q&A at Utah State University. In that session Elder Jensen stated:

“The fifteen men really do know, and they really care. And they realize that maybe since Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now; largely over these issues.”

This statement isn’t all that revealing in terms of the suspected number of people who are now losing their faith in Mormonism (whether they officially resign or remain members is another topic). What’s remarkable about this statement is that it’s being stated by Elder Jensen, Church Historian and a member of the Quorum of the 70. The real news in his statement is that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the 12 are aware that people are losing faith and they are aware of what is causing them to lose faith. That Elder Jensen states this in any kind of public forum is significant. The effects of this apostasy are being felt. In addition the LDS church’s growth rate in the United States is hovering somewhere near its birth rate (which is also dropping). Finally, Generation Y is less committed to the faith of their parents than any generation before it. I do not believe that any sort of significant change will take place within the LDS church to change these trends. The church is too bureaucratic and too invested to make a significant risk that may backfire. In addition the age of the leadership does not incline them to take risks. At best the church will make apologetic answers from unofficial resources such as FAIR more broadly available. But I do not believe this will stem the tide.

People discover questions that threaten the LDS church from search engines not from Gospel Doctrine classes. Those same search engines are already providing these apologetic answers and they are proving to be largely ineffective. Publishing these answers in a manual is only taking a step backwards in technology. Additionally, providing answers in official venues has a double edge, publishing these questions under the church seal reveals them to members who are already disinclined from reading anything that is not officially published by the church.

I predict in the next 20 years there will be a radical shift within the LDS church. If Mitt Romney becomes President that shift may occur sooner (due to heightened media scrutiny). Many people will leave the Salt Lake branch either because they no longer believe the message or because they believe the church is making compromises that it shouldn’t make. We’ve already seen the pattern of this behavior in the Community of Christ and the Worldwide Church of God.

In that sort of environment the LDS church will need friends. Many may be glad to see the organization crumble and hope for its entire evaporation. I do not. I believe the organization of the LDS church can be separated from the heresies of Mormonism. There is much good in the organization and in the people of the LDS church. What doesn’t directly conflict with the authentic Gospel of Jesus should be preserved if at all possible. Jesus is out to make all things new.

If you disagree with me about the organization, I still think it would be appropriate for you to consider changing strategies. Your Mormon friends and neighbors in this time of change will need friends. I’m alarmed and discouraged by the great many ex-Mormons who become secular agnostics or atheists. This is in part the bad fruit of Mormonism. As the saying goes; “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Another part of this is the rising cultural shift toward secularism. A third part has to do with the way Evangelicals are perceived by Mormons. We are rarely viewed as helpful or friendly by Mormons. In our efforts to stand strongly against heresy we’ve become viewed as the opposition. For many in the midst of a crisis of faith the idea of joining in worship with Evangelicals is immediately rejected because of the preconditioned view Mormons have of Evangelicals. A Mormon missionary in distress is not likely to seek out a Protestant minister for help. Again, this isn’t entirely our fault, but perception is the reality that we must deal with. We must make an extra effort to overcome perception. We must do what we can to help Mormons see us as a friendly and helpful face in the midst of a faith crisis.

A New Strategy
For these reasons I believe we need a new strategy. I think we need to largely abandon our role in exposing Joseph Smith and Mormon origins. As I’ve mentioned, I think this work will continue at the hands of Mormons and will have greater traction than anything we could hope to produce. The role “Rough Stone Rolling” has had in changing the tone of the debate should be evidence enough. Terryl Givens has a forth coming book on the evolution and progression of Mormon doctrines. This book will undoubtedly challenge the notion that many Mormon doctrines have been static. Works such as these will continue to erode the traditional Mormon narrative. Our best efforts at expose’ can’t do better than these in terms of effectively demonstrating the LDS church to not be what it historically has claimed to be. The era of Joseph Smith being viewed as a trustworthy figure is closing one internet search result at a time both inside and outside the church.

Instead I think we need to focus on explaining how and why we live out our faith. Many of us have effectively learned how to communicate and frame language in a way that Mormons are familiar with. We need to talk more about the advantages of grace over legalism. We need to proclaim the heart of living solely in the New Covenant. We need to explain better the beauty we see in the Trinity. We need to talk more openly about our own struggles in faith and how we overcame them. We need to better explain appropriate hermeneutics. We need to explain clearly what we mean by “inerrant” and how that differs from “literal”. We need to more boldly proclaim our confidence that the Bible was transmitted throughout history reliably. Many are already doing all of these things, but we need to step up these messages at the expense of talking less about Joseph Smith.

Rest assured, Joseph Smith is being talked about and will continue to be talked about. But don’t spoil your future witness by leading with his failures. Continue to resist his influence. Boldly state when asked about him that you think he’s a false prophet. But don’t get into details. If you are asked for details share them slowly and cautiously. Be confident that everything you know can and will be discovered. The heart of your message is not the bad fruit of Joseph Smith, the heart of your message is the hope that lives within you. Stick to your message. Instead of making you and your ministry the place Mormons become disenfranchised with their faith become the place where they can safely ask “what’s next”. Become a recovery center for the spiritually wounded rather than an artillery range against Joseph Smith. Though some are still converted to Mormonism, the LDS church is not the threat it once was and mostly likely never will be again. I wouldn’t want even a single Evangelical converted into Mormonism but I don’t believe guarding our sheep needs to be our chief focus any longer.

Some may be tempted to disregard what I’m saying. I’ll be branded by some as a compromiser. I can assure you I am not compromising. Instead I’m calling us to see what even the Mormon apostles recognize; the times have changed. We have a new mission. Let us recognize that our battle is not against Mormon flesh and blood but rather Mormon powers and principalities.

Begin your transition. It’s time to be spiritual healers. It’s time to be pastors. Let us no longer erect bulwarks against those lost to Mormonism. Let us now build bridges for those Mormonism has lost.

NOTE: I think the “Transitions” study produced by Western Institute for Intercultural Studies is a great start. Let’s build on it.

NOTE #2: These survey results were posted shortly after I posted this article. They illuminate more on why Mormons become disaffected.

(reposted with permission from the LDS and Evangelical Conversations website)


Comments
  1. Russ Bales says:

    Good stuff. Thanks to Fred for posting it on facebook. -Russ

    Like

  2. Martha Golden says:

    I think this article is spot on. Instead of debate, show the lovely Mormon people the true love of Jesus Christ. The love that is not dependant on appearances, but dependant on our heart. The unconditional love of Father God when we worship and praise Him as our God. That He sent is only son to redeem our sins for us as a free gift that does not need to be paid back. That when we believe in Jesus Christ we are sealed to the Holy Ghost and that is the only seal we need to show God that we are totally devoted to Him. To God be the glory for the work being done in bring the Mormon people to Jesus Christ.

    Like

  3. fredwanson says:

    The following comments are from Art Vanick, Christian Mormon Studies Scholar, co-Author of the well known book, “Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon” (see http://www.solomonspalding.info/our_book.html ).

    They are reposted from a Facebook discussion group ( https://www.facebook.com/groups/216814145070836/252122004873383/?notif_t=group_activity ) where this article was being discussed and with Art’s consent and kind permission:

    “A couple of things.

    First, the “does it matter” stance by Mormons has been around for as long as I’ve been at this – since 1975.

    Second, Bott is the latest example of the “September six” method of silencing those who try to publish the truth, and it will continue, though perhaps in more subtle ways.

    Third, and very importantly, work must never stop on exposing the origin of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, but it must stop being done in a sensational way, like through some of the videos I’ve seen over the years.

    It must also not be done from a “turn or burn” kind of attitude that many Christians exhibit toward Mormons and the other cults.

    Thankfully, this sort of attitude seems to be less prevalent than in the past, but I have seen it still with newer Christians, especially exmo’s who are now Christians, which is understandable, given their former circumstances.

    One of the biggest reasons that research into Mormon origins must never stop is the fact that somehow, countless hundreds or even thousands of original source material documents are disappearing that are critical of or that expose the origin of Mormonism and the Book of Mormon, and in spite of how wonderful the internet may be as far as spreading the current research, it cannot find or protect new material that it doesn’t know about.

    No, the search for original source material must be given the highest priority that it has ever been given, AND people have to get rid of their ridiculous biases over which theory is best regarding the origin of Mormonism and/or the Book of Mormon.

    It is precisely this squabbling over whose theory is right and the subsequent turf battles that are waged in numerous chat rooms that helps to feed the Mormon notion that they indeed belong to the one true church because we can’t even agree on Mormonism.

    The most important thing we can do is to come together and provide a unified front to Mormonism, and until we do this, they will always find ways to ignore any efforts to show them the truth.

    We must pray daily that Christ will fill us with a unity of purpose and help us all to come together to spread the true Gospel to the millions of Mormons and possibly even more important, the many other millions of people who have been victimized by Mormonism and have left the church, moving on to atheism or whatever.”

    (later, in another post ….)

    “One other thing: our church bodies need to speak up officially about Mormonism, which is difficult for them, given the fact that Mormon money finds its way into many Christian organizations and frankly,

    I think those organizations would rather “look the other way” than criticize Mormonism and risk losing the money. Who are we to obey – God or men? It’s just a thought…”

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  4. Brad says:

    You are spot on for the most part in my opinion. While I think that efforts still need to be made to expose the history of the LDS church (I don’t think we can rely on the LDS church to give completely accurate information), our main focus needs to be SHARING THE GOSPEL! When Christ sent his disciples out during the great commission, it was to preach the Gospel, not to say that Joseph Smith was a false prophet. While it is something that needs to be addressed, it’s a secondary concern.

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  5. McKay V. Jones says:

    While it would be refreshing if the counsel in this post were followed by evangelicals, I’m not holding my breath. I don’t think most can resist the temptation to “twist the knife” in “reaching out in truth and love” to Mormons. This is doubly the case when the Mormon one is witnessing to is competent, knowledgable, and skillful —- the witnesser who sets out to be above the fray lashes out with bitterness and anger, despite the best of intentions going in. As the post pointed out, this makes Mormons look much better to people in the middle.

    This sentiment, that Mormonism’s demise is right around the corner, is not a new one, and it has been just as confidently expressed many times before. This post’s comparision to Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God is interesting, because that is precisely precedent that the Southern Baptist Convention used in forming its similar expectations for its 1998 blitz of Salt Lake City. The expectation at the highest levels was that the Mormon Church would enthusiastically abandon the “usual suspects” in theology (nature of God, latter-day revelation, prophets, latter-day scripture, works-based salvation, etc.) in a manner similar to W.W.C.o.G and Community of Christ. A real head scratcher was that apostles Dallin H. Oaks and Jeffrey R. Holland were perceived as being the point men on this “bloodless coup.”

    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=18&num=2&id=626

    Current expectations that “it’s really going to work this, time —- honest!” are similarly overblown and naive. The availability of information on the internet and new approaches in undermining belief and confidence in the foundations of Mormonism have actually served to strengthen and hone Mormons’ assumptions and premises, not the other way around. In this regard, advances in anti-Mormon sophistication have led to corresponding advances in Mormons’ sophistication. I can testify to this as one who has been more heavily involved in counter-anti-Mormonism than most (as a member of FAIR and a bishop). While there are certainly people who lose their faith and confidence in the faith, this is true of all churches, including the very churches, denominations, and groups who delight in the ostensible demise of the Mormons. It was also true in the New Testament Church as well, and the expectation for this is a common thread in Jesus’ parables (the sower, the net and the fish, the wheat and the tares, etc.). But, the perceived mass exodus of people out of the Mormon Church is greatly exaggerated, and many more solid converts come into the Church every year than people who leave.

    As an example of the types of sophistication believing Mormons are capable of in the face of “new approaches,” my ward (congregation) has held a series of community presentations that directly take on the “difficult” questions. Over 130 non-Mormons have attended and participated in “anything goes” Q&A sessions following.

    http://www.fillthenet.com/AMCpres09.pdf (Are Mormons Christian? slides)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/AMChand09.pdf (Are Mormons Christian? handout)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/BoMFF.pdf (Book of Mormon: Fact or Fiction slides)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/BofMPresTrans.pdf (Book of Mormon: Fact or Fiction fireside transcript)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/BofMQAtrans.pdf (Book of Mormon: Fact or Fiction Q&A transcript)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/BoM_fireside_handout.pdf (Book of Mormon: Fact or Fiction handout)

    http://www.fillthenet.com/Sep2.pdf (Can Mormon Prophets Stand Up to Scrutiny?)

    —McKay V. Jones
    Maricopa, Arizona

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