In the United States Mormonism is something of an enigma. The Mormon Church is still distinctive enough in its core beliefs to draw suspicion in mainstream churches but, unlike other aberrant groups, it plays a full and active role in American society, culture, and politics. The struggle is on to square that circle, to reconcile these dichotomous elements of this intriguing faith. Some hold to the historical view of Mormonism as a cult, others hold out the hope of conciliation and acceptance in the name of unity. What do Mormons think of this paradox?
One interesting comment on the issue comes from a Mormon writer who refers to her ‘atheist days,’ and to herself ‘as someone who is moving back to full faith in God and in Mormonism.’ Mette Ivie Harrison is recently described in her Huffington Post byline as, ‘The Mormon author of The Bishop’s Wife, who holds a PhD from Princeton, and is a nationally ranked triathlete.’ You can read her thoughtful article here
She does a thorough and honest job of addressing her friends’ objections to Mormonism. But, while she makes every effort to intelligently deal with and divest Mormonism of the cult label, her article ultimately betrays all the marks of a cult we have become used to.
She looks at Mormon theology, what they believe, and Mormon practice, how they act out what they believe, against a particular definition of ‘cult,’ and against the historical background of Mormonism. I want to highlight something further, something deeper, and that is Mormon praxis. A typical definition of the word is ‘practice as opposed to theory.’ But it goes beyond that to what is customary, definitive, explanatory, and historical. Praxis describes the family of ideas so natural to us as to be embraced and practised unselfconsciously. This is where we discover the true nature of a group.
Her aim in writing is for, ‘Mormons to understand more clearly why so many people think of Mormonism as a cult.’ She asks, ‘Are these reasons that are true and are things we embrace? Are they true and things we might want to change? Are they simply not true and things we need to correct people about?’
The Church, The Church…
Nothing is so instinctive to a Mormon, nothing marks them out more than the way they pepper their conversation with references to, ‘the church.’ Mormons belong to ‘the church.’ The Mormon story is the story of, ‘the church’; become a Mormon and you join ‘the church’; a Mormon’s allegiance is to, ‘the church’; they believe in, ‘the church’,’ the typical Mormon testimony is of, ‘the church,’ and any Mormon will tell you they ‘know the church is true.’
The critics whose concerns Mette Harrison addresses are critics of, ‘the church’ and are typically regarded by Mormons as, ‘enemies of the church.’ Mormons speak of ‘the church’ as though there is only one. And it is touching how, as a child instinctively cries ‘mother,’ with thought for nothing but her all-encompassing comfort, so a Mormon says, ‘the church,’ thinking nothing but that it is all-in-all and everything to them. So her article, peppered with this expression, is an analysis, a defence of and, ultimately, an apologetic for ‘the church.’
Mormons feel enormous affection for and loyalty to their church, its history, customs, and lore. So it is for so many whose ‘god-fearing’ loyalty proves to be to an organisation first and last, rather than to the Deity. Such loyalty is to fallible men, and the consequences of such loyalty are written across Mormon history, woven through every Mormon apologetic, found in this very article.
The writer is honest enough to recognise problems, but ‘the church is true’ so there must, ultimately, be reasonable and acceptable explanations for every one. ‘The church’ cannot be wrong in the same way that, to a Christian believer, Christ cannot be wrong. The way she rationalises her church’s praxis demonstrates the folly of such misguided loyalty to an organisation and screams ‘Cult!’
The New Testament Church
It is interesting that the first Christians became the church, the gathered, called-out people of God, but nowhere do we find prospective converts invited to ‘join the church.’ In the KJV, the Mormons’ preferred Bible, I have found 80 matches in 79 verses in a search for the word ‘church.’ I am sure there are more, but nowhere is this dynamic first century community so rigid and legalistic as ‘the [Mormon] Church’ portrayed in her article. Indeed, it was not a ‘church’ at all in the sense Mormons think of ‘church.’.
A Theological Word Book of the Bible informs us:
Church, Assembly Eng. ‘church’ (cf. Scottish kirk, Dutch kerk, German kirche) is generally derived from Gk. Kuriakon ‘the Lord’s house,’ a building for Christian worship. Kuriakon does not occur in this sense in the Bible. Until after the 1st Century, Christians had no Church buildings. ‘Church’ in NT translates Gk. Ecclesia, which always means an assembly of people, and cannot mean a building.
It is noteworthy that the King whose name the King James Bible bears drew strict red lines for translators, one of which was his insistence that they translate ecclesia as ‘church’ and not ‘congregation’ as it was correctly translated by Tyndale. This was a straightforward political move. The church gave legitimacy to the crown. King James, rejecting Presbyterianism, put it succinctly, ‘no bishop, no king.’ ‘Church’ was, and still is for many, a political term, having to do with power, and control, whereas congregation has to do with the simple gathering of God’s people.
For the Mormon hierarchy ‘church’ is essential to the smooth running of The Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – Mormon Inc. In her article Mette Harrison admits that the wide-ranging sanctions wielded by ‘the church’ are a stumbling block for anyone trying to assert that Mormonism is not a cult. She writes of ‘the church’ keeping tabs on people who leave, even an informal practice of shunning.
She also expresses concern over the controlling of information, and the withholding of ‘blessings’ such as temple recommends, to those who prove to be less than unquestioningly faithful. Her concern over ‘the rash of excommunications in the last two years,’ is well founded. She describes them as, ‘another way of making people who might be inclined to disagree shut up instead.’
And yet she typically continues to defend the indefensible, to rationalise her continued allegiance to the organisation that raises so many issues to trouble her. It is a form of self-deception, an almost deliberate blindness that states, whatever I uncover in my search for facts ‘the church is true.’ Every Mormon apologist, whether they realise it or not, is complicit in this deception as they rationalise away the very marks of a cult that they admit are there, but refuse to see them for what they are.
Mette Harrison admits that, ‘when I was a child, we talked a lot more about Joseph Smith than we did about Jesus Christ.’ Much has been, and still is, made of Joseph Smith and, while she insists, ‘…this is something that has changed dramatically in the church since then, and for good reason,’ I wonder has she thought about what that good reason might be.
Does she think this is a correction of past heterodoxy? If so, was the church that so emphasised Joseph to the marginalising of Jesus ‘the true church’ at all? The founders of the 1st century church preached Christ crucified, and risen to glory – Acts 2:22-36; 1 Cor.1:23; 2:2; Gal.6:14. Indeed, Paul warns the Galatians, ‘Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now we say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!’ (Gal.1:8-9)
Was the church in which she was raised to so venerate Joseph Smith ‘true’? The legacy of her upbringing, and that of millions of other Mormons, is with us today.
‘Jesus the Saviour reigns, The God of truth and love:
When He had purged our stains, He took His seat above;
He sits at God’s right hand Till all His foes submit,
and bow to His command, and fall beneath His feet.’
(Rejoice, the Lord is King, Charles Wesley)
Mormons still carol Joseph Smith:
‘Praise to the man (Smith) who communed with Jehovah…
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old…
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.’
(Praise to the Man, LDS Hymns, 27)
Whose glory are Mormons celebrating exactly? Whose kingdom and whose crown?
There are seven Mormon hymns that, directly or indirectly, reference Joseph Smith, including, Now we’ll sing with one accord, For a prophet of the Lord…; and Joseph Smith’s First Prayer (Oh, how lovely was the morning).
What of current leaders? She does suggest, ‘It might be useful for us to think about the way in which we talk about current leaders, as well.’ So how are they regarded? There are fourteen Mormon hymns that teach unquestioning allegiance and loyalty to Mormon prophets, including, Come, Listen to a prophet’s voice…; We Thank Thee, O God, for a prophet…; God bless our prophet dear…; and this:
‘Oh, holy words of truth and love, we hear from day to day,
Revealed to Saints from God above, To guide in heaven’s way.
They’re from Apostles good and true, Whose names we all revere,
Who daily teach us what to do, In words of love and cheer.
They’re from the prophets God inspires, In counsels oft withstood,
Reproving all our ill desires, Commending all that’s good.’
(Oh, Holy Words of Truth and Love, LDS Hymns, 271)
I wonder has Mette Harrison, raised a Mormon, any idea how very strange this looks to a Christian. Our sermons are peppered, of course, with the names and examples of ‘the saints,’ the great heroes of the faith. They are even celebrated in Scripture, Hebrews 11 being a notable example, but a hymn is ‘a song of praise to God.’ It couldn’t be better put than in the preface of Christian Hymns, a collection published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales (1977):
‘…the basis of a hymn-book that is to be spiritually healthy will be a solid core of hymns that are robust and objective in their statement of God’s glories and in the ascription of His praise. Such hymns will set Him forth in the majesty and sovereignty of His Being, the magnificence of His attributes, the greatness of his works, the unfettered freedom of His grace. Hymns that do this will say to the congregation: “Behold your God!”’
What do these words say to the congregation that hears them, ‘Praise to the man (Joseph Smith) who communed with Jehovah…Great is his glory and endless his priesthood’? Whose majesty, sovereignty, magnificence, and greatness is being celebrated here? Worse, why does God have no more than a walk-on part in this paean to Joseph Smith?
In a telling remark about the Mormon attitude to their leaders Mette Harrison writes:
I fear that when we perpetuate the idea that the prophet would never tell us to do the wrong thing or say that even if he does, God will bless us for being obedient, we lean too far to the side of obedience and looking like Mormons are robots rather than free-thinkers.
Lets not Fight over Essentials
Mette Harrison remarks:
‘When Mitt Romney was a candidate for president, Mike Huckabee made a big fuss over a few Mormon beliefs that went outside the line as far as most fundamental Christians are concerned…’
That word ‘fundamental has some very unfortunate associations these days. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt but a little question comes into my head about whether this was a deliberate association of Bible-believing Christians with that kind of ‘fundamentalism.’ Lets be clear, in Christian circles ‘fundamental’ means nothing more nor less than identifying and adhering to the fundamentals of the faith.
It works like this: some things we hold tightly, some things we hold lightly, and some things we hold away. Mette Harrison readily admits that there are Mormon beliefs that go ‘outside the lines as far as most fundamental Christians [are] concerned.’ I seriously question her claim that these erroneous beliefs are few and I am disappointed that she downplays these differences, describing evangelical objections as ‘a big fuss.’ You could almost finish her sentence for her, ‘about nothing.’
Lets look at what this ‘fuss’ is all about, taking it ‘line upon line, precept upon precept…and try [her] and prove [her] therewith.’ (D&C 98:12) The words in italics are hers.
‘There are a number of Mormon beliefs that are variations on typical Christian beliefs, including:
1. Universal resurrection: In this she is quite mistaken. Christians believe in a universal resurrection (1 Cor.15:21) The difference is between the biblical view that we are resurrected to eternal life, or to condemnation (John 5:28-29) and the Mormon view that we are resurrected to different degrees of glory and reward, an idea inferred from but not implied by 1 Corinthians 15.
2. An emphasis on work rather than grace alone: Again, a fundamental and familiar misunderstanding on the part of Mormons. Christians certainly do emphasise works. The difference is between the biblical view that works issue as a fruit of saving faith, and the Mormon view that works contribute to our salvation. As their third article of faith declares, ‘We believe that, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we are saved by obedience…’
3. The belief that men can become gods: Surely this is a ‘fundamental’ on which we are bound to part company. What is to be said here? The Lord says it best:
‘This is what the LORD says – Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty: I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God…Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other rock; I know not one.’ (Isaiah 44:6-8)
On the one hand, Mormonism is clearly a Christian religion, since:
4. We believe Christ was the literal son of God: This sounds so right but what Mormons mean by this is that the Son was the issue of God’s having sexual intercourse with his wife, Heavenly Mother (see LDS Hymns, 292, Oh, my Father…) Mormonism teaches that we all are the progeny of God in this way, that Jesus and Satan are brothers, our elder brothers in a literal sense.
When the Bible speaks of the Son of God, it refers to Jesus’ titular position in the Godhead, his status as God the Son. He is not, as Mormonism teaches, ‘the literal Son of God.’ The implication here is that God the Father ‘preceded’ God the Son, that there was a time when the Son ‘was not.’ This was an issue that was thrashed out hundreds of years ago in church councils from Nicea to Chalcedon and is an old heresy revived by Mormonism.
Simply put, Scripture tells us that, ‘the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…’ (Heb.1:3) The Son is the exact duplicate of the Father, the word here being the Gk. charaktēr. Jesus said of himself, ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’ (John 14:9) Everything the Father is the Son is, and the inference we may safely draw is that, since the Father is eternal, the Son is eternal.
5. We use the Bible as a scripture (though we believe the Book of Mormon is a more pure translation of Christ’s word): Had we just the Book of Mormon what would it teach us that we don’t already know? The Book of Mormon does not contain a single gospel. More, the Book of Mormon does not contain Mormon teaching. No plurality of gods; no God as an exalted man; no Plan of Salvation; no pre-mortal life; nothing about priesthood; no eternal marriage; no hint of post-mortal ‘degrees of glory,’ or of men rising to godhood. There is neither gospel nor Mormonism in the Book of Mormon, so it is difficult to see how it is, ‘a more pure translation of Christ’s word.’
Are We Mormons a Cult?
She ends her commentary:
Mormons do have some rather different views on Christianity than the mainstream. Some eras emphasize these views more than others in the history of our church: This is how Mormons have learned to deal with their theologically confusing past; that was then, this is now. When the late Gordon B Hinckley was asked about men becoming gods, he replied that ‘we don’t emphasise that much these days.’ Its a dissembling approach that is ultimately unsatisfying to the person seeking the facts, the truth. It gives the lie to the Mormon claim that there is continuity and consistency in ‘the church.’
Do these different beliefs make us a cult? Does the Book of Mormon make us a cult? I don’t think so, but I can see why other Christians do see us that way. I’m not interested in giving up the Book of Mormon, but I think we can work at making it clear how much we value the Bible and that we still believe in the trinity and almost every other Christian belief, but that we see it slightly differently. As for Christ and Satan being brothers, we believe everyone is a child of God, even Satan and his followers. Don’t other Christians believe the same? (see The Origin of Satan)
I think we have seen that the Mormon understanding of these issues – that she sees as simply misunderstandings on the part of Christians – are considerably more serious than she suggests. The Book of Mormon she will not consider giving up is woefully inadequate in bringing us the Christ of the gospels – in bringing us Mormonism!. The Trinity she insists Mormons see ‘slightly differently’ is nothing like the picture of God we have in the Bible.
As to Christ and Satan being brothers, and all mankind being children of God, what does the Bible say?
Israel was referred to as God’s son, ‘When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.’ (Hosea 12:1)
In creation we are considered God’s children, ‘Have we not all one Father? Did not God create us?’ (Malachi 2:10)
However, Jesus is called God’s ‘one and only’ Son and is the unique Son of God, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…’ (John 3:16, cf. 1:14)
Mankind falls into two categories in relation to Sonship:
Those who are disobedient are said to be, ‘children of wrath’ (Eph.2:2); ‘sons of disobedience,’ (Eph.5:6). Those who rejected Jesus were called, ‘of your father the devil’ (John8:42-44) but…
‘To all who received him, who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of God.’ (John 1:12)
‘For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship.’ (Ro.8:14-17)
This sonship is received by adoption:
‘…when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God..’ (Gal.4:1-7)
All who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ become adopted, sons and daughters, into God’s family. Here is the gospel, not that we are literal children, following a plan to become like God, but that we are children of wrath, saved by trusting in the work of God’s one-and-only Son, and adopted into God’s family. Just as God took people, that were not a people, and made them his people (Ro.9:25), so he takes people who were not family, and makes them family.