If the only thing you know about Mormonism is that it is wrong then your knowledge is woefully inadequate and you had better leave Mormons alone. Often what passes for witnessing to Mormons amounts to an exercise in “telling them, and telling them good”. Now, of course, truth must be told and we have dealt at length over the years both with what is the truth and with how we tell it. We have long advocated an approach that seeks to understand the practical difficulties faced by Mormons when faced, in turn, with the truth that Christians are so keen for them to know. A cardinal mistake is to assume that because Mormonism isn’t true it doesn’t matter. That is, once it is realised that it isn’t true it shouldn’t impact on people’s lives.
But often Mormons have enormous difficulties both in dealing with the implications a growing realisation of the problems of their faith brings, and with the practical outworking of leaving behind what has been the mainstay of their lives. The following are two examples that illustrate the importance of understanding these difficulties. The first concerns the struggle many Mormons have with personal worthiness and feelings of inadequacy. If you are to help a Mormon friend it often means struggling with them over the issue rather than just telling them it is wrong to think this way.
Mormonism teaches that righteousness can be attained through human effort. Many will, perhaps, be aware of their “scripture” which states that “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” (BOM 2 Nephi 25:23). The implication of this text is more fully understood against the background of their third article of faith, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” Put simply, the Christian gospel teaches obedience through salvation, while the Mormon gospel teaches salvation through obedience. Whilst our obedience is seen as the fruit of salvation (John 15), their salvation is the fruit of obedience. We both believe in obedience but disagree over where it fits into the scheme of things.
The result of the traditional Christian view is confidence. If we are saved by grace, through faith, then we have assurance. We repent of our sins and seek to serve God faithfully in light of what he has done for us, and of what Christ has accomplished for us on the Cross. We are troubled by our continuing sinfulness and take our troubles and our sins to the cross, confident that we have one who intercedes for us at the throne, and assured that what we are experiencing is the process of sanctification. We are saved! We cannot be unsaved. Even in our frailty (we have this treasure in jars of clay) we know that we are “going on with God”.
The result of the Mormon view is insecurity. If we are saved by grace “after all we can do”, then we must ask, “how much must I do?” As we consider our sins they can sometimes seem like an insurmountable barrier. We can repent but often harbour doubts about whether God has really forgiven us. After all, If we haven’t made our best efforts, given it our best shot, how do we know that he will be faithful to forgive? Perhaps we should have done better, and we know it, and God knows it, therefore why should he forgive? If we are “saved by obedience” then we know we are lost, because we know what we are really like. We are rebellious, weak and disobedient and, although we might get a “lift” from a meeting, or go through a period when we feel we are getting somewhere, the truth is that we often feel that we are not “going on with God” so much as getting away with something. This only makes us feel even more guilt.
The Mormon needs outward trappings to “prove” his faithfulness, his worthiness and his relationship with God. If obedience is the key, then we must be seen to be obedient. This is why “callings” are so important in Mormonism. To be called to teach, lead, minister in a myriad ways is an opportunity to prove worthy. The temple recommend is one of the most important, and perhaps the most significant “proofs”, both to others, and to ourselves that we are “worthy”. It allows a Mormon to attend the temple and get as close to heaven in this world as is possible.
Now it is a fact that only about 20% – 30% of Mormons ever hold a temple recommend. If a Mormon is in the 70% – 80% who don’t they can still serve in certain capacities in the church, and have an active role. There will be some things, of course, that they cannot do. They cannot hold “high office” such as become bishop, or elder’s quorum president, or Relief Society president. These are offices held by “temple recommend holders”. There are, however, many things that such a person can do in teaching and serving in the church.
However, if someone has once held a temple recommend but lost it that is most serious. It usually means that there is sin in their lives that disqualifies them from temple attendance. Perhaps they don’t keep the Word of Wisdom, the Mormon health law. Maybe it is more serious and can sometimes mean being disfellowshiped, which will disqualify them from any active role in the church. This means that they are welcome to attend all the meetings but denied “sacrament” (communion), barred from holding any office, and even forbidden to pray in public. This is a type of penance, although the Mormon would not call it that. It would be seen as the repentance process. Sometimes, if the sin is serious enough, it can mean excommunication, which means the complete loss of membership. This is much more serious but the repentance process still applies, albeit more rigorously.
No matter how apparently “minor” the offence, or how relatively mild the punishment, to lose one’s temple recommend is a loss of face and a potential loss of salvation in the highest, or celestial kingdom of God. Only “worthy temple recommend holders” have a chance to qualify for godhood and glory. Such a person will feel very exposed, especially if it is something that “everyone will know”. There will be interviews with the bishop, a lot of soul searching, a feeling of having let everyone down, of being a burden. There is also the impact on the family.
The road back can be very hard indeed. Whereas our faith in Christ affirms us as we read his sure promises in the Bible, the Mormon’s faith can provoke self-doubt and a preoccupation with their own unworthiness. Leaders may be very encouraging (some are, some aren’t), but they will only reinforce his feelings of worthlessness as they demand of him high standards to “prove” himself, and cause him to feel that he is being watched. A Mormon needs to know that he is indeed worthless before a holy and righteous God, but that he can be of priceless value through simple faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. He needs to see that there is “a righteousness (worthiness?) from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21-22).
He needs a Christian friend who is patient, gentle, kind but confident, holding out a hope for acceptance with God that the Mormons cannot offer. This acceptance is often best being modelled in action rather than taught in words. Understanding all this is the first step to showing real empathy, which in turn is the first step to modelling Christ-like love.
The Mormon Church v the Evangelical Christian Church
This second example concerns how a former Mormon might struggle with the realities of involvement in the local Christian Church. It is important to be able to help them think clearly about church and help them exercise patience and understanding as Christians turn out to be sinners saved by grace and not “saints” bound for godhood. These are things I would want to say to a former Mormon struggling to settle down in church life and ministry work.
Firstly, it is essential that an evangelical Christian should be in fellowship with other Christians in a church. The best definition of church I have ever come across is “the people of God, gathered around the Word of God, ready to do the will of God”. This is not the same as being gathered around a specific purpose. When a group of Christians gather together to do a particular work, for instance reaching out to the homeless, young people, or even Mormons, that is not the church. It is a part of the church in action doing the will of God but the church is bigger than that. I know that some are fond of quoting Matthew 18:20, but Jesus did not say, “where two or three come together in my name, there is my church”. He said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them”. Of course, this promise is very important because Christians often gather for all sorts of purposes. But church means more than these gatherings.
The people of God identify themselves by the very act of gathering and sharing the love of Christ with each other. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Now I know from experience that some people are easier to love than others, even in the church (perhaps especially in the church?). But Paul tells us that “love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). It seems to me that love is a tough thing to do and so when we see the church being less than it should be that is when we should apply these words.
“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25), and so it is wrong-headed to give up the church for Christ because we are frustrated with it. Trust me, I have been sorely tempted sometimes but I have seen where that road leads and have no intention of travelling that way.
When the people of God gather, it is around Gods Word. That means some form of leadership and teaching. The early church, “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). I know some believe in apostles today but for most Christians we have in place of apostles pastors, ministers, or priests, depending on which denomination you are part of. The apostle’s teaching is the same as it ever was, and one of the advantages of being together and having leaders is that we can encourage each other to be true to that teaching.
Checks and balances are so important to the church. Fellowship is the sharing of all these things and encouraging one another in them, breaking bread is commanded by Jesus himself, as you know, and prayer is for each other and for the wider world, for the church abroad, and for the work of the church in reaching the lost. In other words, so much of church is not about me but about others.
The people of God cannot do the will of God unless they know what is that will, and where they fit into the bigger picture. Now, if my ministry is to Mormons, then I need to see where that fits in with what others are doing. I cannot be all things to my Mormon friends, and so I must have the resources of the wider church to help me. Those resources are sometimes very modest, but I must use what is there. One of the mistakes we can make is looking at the shortcomings of the church and forgetting that it is the Spirit of God who convicts us of sin and convinces us of the message.
The mistake Mormons make is in thinking that the church should always impress people by its imposing presence. “Look at our temples, our organisation, our growth” they say. Then someone in a modest meeting hall somewhere hears the Spirit whisper and becomes a Christian. I am convinced that sometimes people become Christians in spite of the church and not because of it.
If I am wise then I will first find a place where I can practice the things I mentioned above for myself, and then I will have something, however modest, into which I can introduce my Mormon friends. If I have nothing to offer them then I had better leave them where they are. I also need to be somewhere where I can simply be a Christian. You know, people sometimes think that we spend most of our time speaking to Mormons, but the truth is we spend most of our time living our lives as Christians as best we can, growing in the things of God. It is this life that feeds and informs our witnessing, writing, and apologetics work. We don’t witness to Mormons because we used to be Mormons and have found out that is wrong. We witness to Mormons because we are Christians and know that it is right before God to be a Christian. The difference is very important.
Now to some objections someone might have to what I am saying.
It is hard to find a “good” church.
Well, it depends on how you define “good”. If a church matches the picture of Acts 2:42 then I feel you should be there. If God’s word is being taught, if bread is broken (and taken seriously), if prayer is taking place and fellowship is available then join. Now, it may be that secondary issues bother you. Maybe the prayer meetings are not well attended. Well, if you go that will be one more. Maybe worship and fellowship isn’t exciting. Maybe after you have been there for a while you will meet others who feel the same way. Perhaps you can encourage each other to help make a difference.
It is very important to realise that being in a church is like being in a family. Much of the time there is nothing especially outstanding in the experience, but there is the security, the love and the opportunity to grow. Occasionally in a family there are special events, like birthdays, anniversaries, outings and surprises. Because of the influence of some parts of the charismatic church some Christians have been misled into thinking that every day should be a birthday. This leaves a lot of Christians disappointed because their expectations are unrealistic.
People don’t understand my witnessing to Mormons.
Maybe people need to learn to trust you in that. And how can they do that if you are not patient with them and show yourself trustworthy? What picture do people have of you? When we became Christians we did nothing with Mormons for two or three years. We simply established ourselves as Christians. Even when we started ministry work it was low key, and grew slowly. And we always spoke to our leaders about what we were doing. I feel that because we applied ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, we fellowshipped, broke bread with other Christians and prayed with them they grew to trust us. Now no one who knows us questions what we do.
But the Mormon Church has so much going for it, and the Christian Church is so – disappointing.
You need to decide who you are and where you should be. Are you an ex-Mormon who is always looking over her shoulder at what she has had to leave behind? Or are you a Christian who is determined to serve the church Christ gave himself for? Now I trust that you have no doctrinal problems and that you embrace fully the good news of Jesus Christ. But I wonder if you nevertheless regret that Christians can’t be more like Mormons anyway. That you perhaps feel that believing the truth like a Christian and living the life like a Mormon would give you the best of both worlds. It doesn’t work that way.
Having the feel-good lifestyle of Mormonism with the Ensign magazine, a clear structure and organisation, missionary discussions and everyone seeming to follow the same path, is nothing compared with having the challenging lifestyle of Christianity, with the assurance of forgiveness, the fellowship of the Spirit, the knowledge of Christ, and the challenge of getting along with people who have an imperfect knowledge of truth but a perfect assurance of salvation. Remember the words of Paul who said,
“Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Php 3:7-9)
I have, over the years, realised how we can surround ourselves with the trappings of this world in order to reassure ourselves of our place in the next. The buildings in which we meet, the books we read, the programmes we devise, the friends who agree with us, the foes who oppose. But I have learned that all these can be lost and what then? I would only remind you that God is good, Jesus is Lord and salvation is found in none other. Not a book, no matter how seemingly inspired; not a man, no matter how apparently inspiring; not an institution, no matter how admirable and impressive, nor a system of religion, no matter how comforting and reassuring. It cannot be earned, no matter how hard we try, and once gained, it cannot be lost because it was not you who won it, but Christ. This is why it is truly a pearl of great price. I urge you to consider that when all else is stripped away and all you have is Christ then you have everything.
Michael Thomas is a former Mormon and Chairman of Reachout Trust This article originally appeared on the Reachout website