2005 saw the publication of the revised Missionary Discussions of the Mormon Church. What seems to have been done is to combine in one volume the old discussions from the Uniform System for Teaching the Gospel and the old Missionary Guide, which is designed as a sort of “How To” for Mormon Missionaries. This has afforded an opportunity to revise both format and content, and the new discussions are reduced from six to five. It is also an opportunity for us to:
1. Observe some of the key changes, which are mainly a matter of presentation.
2. Identify witnessing opportunities, mainly in that missionaries are encouraged to depart from the script and address issues.
3. Take a fresh look at basic Mormon doctrine, which these discussions expose more then ever as a gospel of works as far from biblical Christianity as anything one could imagine.
The main points are:
• Whereas the old format suggested – misleadingly in many eyes – the idea of “discussion” the new is, more honestly, labelled “lessons”. Furthermore, missionaries are encouraged to be able to discuss issues that arise and be prepared to depart from the script.
•The old discussions began with the “Plan of Salvation” being revealed through prophets and introducing Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, then the Mormon “Gospel”, teaching faith, repentance, salvation and baptism. The third discussion then covered the “Restoration”, teaching about the “Apostasy” and Restoration of the true church, i.e., the Mormon Church.
•The new lessons begin with the “Restoration”, teaching the “Apostasy”, the Restoration through Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon. Then they have the Mormon “Plan of Salvation”, teaching the three stages of existence and the three kingdoms. Thirdly, they have the Mormon “Gospel” message of faith, repentance and baptism.
•The fourth and fifth lessons combine the old fifth and sixth discussions, with parts taken from the fourth about membership, obedience, the Word of Wisdom, etc.
The change in order can be seen in this chart:
|1. The Restoration||1. The “Plan of Salvation”|
|2. The “Plan of Salvation”||2. The Gospel|
|3. The Gospel||3. The Restoration|
|4. Commandments||4. Eternal Progression|
|5. Membership||5. Obedience|
How should we proceed and what might these changes mean to our witnessing? The content remains much the same and no one that I know of is making an issue of these lessons. Indeed, some former missionaries have welcomed the new format, one saying that he was glad to see the old sixth discussion go since it was just boring. Of course, it is subsumed into the new lessons but perhaps the principles will be easier to teach from there. We could make something of the fact that the “Gospel” has been relegated to third position. By the time you get to it the idea has been even more firmly established that it is Joseph Smith we have to thank for the gospel. Even the all-embracing “Plan of Salvation” takes second place now to the message of the Restoration.
The greatest opportunity we have, however, is in the fact that missionaries are being encouraged to engage more with issues, rather than doggedly sticking to a script they learn by rote. They are meant actually to understand more about what they are teaching and this is a great opportunity to engage them in intelligent and challenging discussion. Some of the implications of these changes are discussed here as we look at the lesson outline.
Lesson 1 – The Restoration
Many attempts have been made to produce a “life” of Jesus with varying degrees of success. However, the gospels are clearly not biographies and the emphasis of the gospels is the last week of Jesus’ life and the events surrounding the Cross. The emphasis of every evangelist is the “evangel”, the good news of Jesus Christ and a typical opening presentation of the gospel might start with the Fall of Man, the Love of God expressed in Christ, the finished work of the Cross. Paul declared:
We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor.1:23; 2:2)
In stark contrast, the emphasis of this opening presentation of Mormonism is Dispensationalism, the role of Prophets, the Apostasy of the Church and the person of Joseph Smith. The Lesson outline is reproduced here:
Missionary Lesson 1: The Message of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
2 God Is Our Loving Heavenly Father
2 The Gospel Blesses Families
6 Heavenly Father Reveals His Gospel in Every Dispensation
2 The Saviour’s Earthly Ministry
9 The Great Apostasy
10 The Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ through Joseph Smith
3 The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ
3 Pray to Know the Truth through the Holy Ghost
The bold numbers at the beginning of each line represent the number of paragraphs dedicated to each subject. Out of 37 paragraphs, fully 25 are dedicated to the message of Joseph – 6 on dispensations, 9 on apostasy and 10 on restoration. Note only 2 on “The Saviour’s Earthly Ministry”.
Lesson 2 – The Plan
Before the Mormon “gospel” is presented in lesson 3, it is first put into the context of Mormon Cosmology (the study of the universe) and Cosmogony (the theory of origins). In other words, the familiar Plan of Salvation.
The basic Mormon gospel is the Plan of Salvation. From a pre-mortal existence as spirit children of God we come to earth to gain a body (like God’s) and pass through the test of mortal life, walking by faith. In Mormonism, this is how God came to be God. Because of the fall of Adam we are subject to death but Jesus overcame death for us and so we will all be resurrected. According to how faithful we are to God, we will spend eternity in one of three kingdoms. The highest is reserved for those most faithful Mormons who will go on to become gods and start the process over again. It is important to realise that everything, even God himself, is subservient to the Plan. It is also important to realise that our future hope is based upon the degree of our faithfulness to the Plan.
Lesson 3 – The Gospel
The Christian gospel is a matter of being kept by Christ. Jesus said:
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Jesus also declared:
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
The apostle Paul wrote:
“You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14)
The Mormon “gospel” is a matter of keeping covenants. In Mormonism Jesus is part of the way. The Plan is the way and we must be prepared to follow it.
“The atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ made it possible for us to overcome the effects of the Fall…Christ promises to forgive our sins on the condition that we accept Him by exercising faith in Him, repenting, receiving baptism by immersion, and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, and striving faithfully to keep His commandments to the end of our lives.” (Preach My Gospel, p.52)
To understand this, the lesson manual gives a helpful guide to key but potentially unfamiliar words and phrases used by missionaries. NB: this list underlines the importance of defining your terms in any conversation with a Mormon, as you will see:
“Covenant: An agreement between God and his children…God gives the conditions for the covenant, and we agree to do what he asks us to do. God then promises us certain blessings for our obedience…”
“Gospel: God’s plan of salvation, made possible through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. The gospel includes the eternal truths or laws, covenants, and ordinances needed for mankind to return to the presence of God.”
“Grace: The enabling power from Jesus Christ that allows us to obtain blessings in this life and to gain eternal life and exaltation after we have exercised faith, repented, and given our best effort to keep the commandments…”
“Eternal Life: To live forever as families in God’s presence. Eternal life is God’s greatest gift to man.”
In the Doctrine and Covenants we find the following:
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated – And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:20-21)
“And they who are not sanctified through the Law which I have given unto you, the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom.” (D&C 88:21)
In other words, when someone becomes a Mormon they enter into a covenant with God based on law. The gospel itself “includes the eternal truths or laws, covenants, and ordinances needed for mankind to return to the presence of God.” Every blessing they receive is recompense for keeping the law on which it is predicated, i.e., if they keep the law God is bound to bless. The law they keep determines the estate they inherit in the afterlife. To gain a celestial inheritance (Eternal Life) they must keep a celestial law. Note the words in the second quote above, “sanctified through the Law”. Makes you wonder how they can go on to state that, “Eternal life is God’s greatest gift to man”!
Lesson 4 – The Commandments & Lesson 5 – Laws and Ordinances
Both these reinforce the idea of Covenants, Commandments, and Ordinances being the route to get us to God. They unpack, if you like, how Mormons are to conduct themselves in order to prove their worthiness and faithfulness to the church. Many of them we would, of course, agree with. Christians believe in keeping the commandments but have a completely different motivation for doing so, and different understanding of where commandments fit into the scheme of things. Many we would disagree with, i.e., the Word of Wisdom, the Mormon dietary code. Christians adhere to Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 8,
“Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do eat, and not better if we don’t.” (c.f. Romans 14:17)
The Lessons comprise a total of 60 pages. The “Gospel” section comprises 12 pages. To a Mormon it is all, “the gospel” and Mormons believe they are bringing good news when they share it. They also have a high view of their faith compared with the traditional Christian faith. In a piece about prayer they are advised:
Although prayer has a role in many religions and cultures, rarely is prayer considered to be a two-way communication between God and man. Help those you teach understand that they can speak the feelings of their hearts in prayer. Demonstrate this in the way you pray when beginning or ending a lesson. Use simple language that they can also use when they pray. Help them understand that our Heavenly Father will answer prayers, typically through the feelings of their hearts and thoughts in their minds. If they are sincere and really want to know whether God is there, He will answer them. Invite the head of the household to offer a kneeling prayer at the end of the lesson. (Preach My Gospel, p.39)
Furthermore, they present the Book of Mormon in such a way as to lead their investigators to infer that it has answers not found elsewhere. These are the questions they claim to answer. I thought it would be a good exercise if I challenged you to answer them yourself from the Bible – if you can. I give my own answers in the linked article at the end of the list of questions.
The Book of Mormon Answers Questions of the Soul
Is there a God?
What Does Jesus Expect of me?
How can belief in Jesus Christ help me?
Is there a Life after Death?
What is the Purpose of Life?
Why does God allow evil and suffering?
Does my infant need to be baptised?
Does God know me?
Does God answer prayer?
How can I find peace and joy?
How can my family be happier and more united?
How can I balance my family and career?
How can I strengthen my relationship with my spouse?
How can I avoid the evils that threaten my family?
How can I avoid sin?