PROVO — They gather twice each year — once on the Provo, Utah, campus of Brigham Young University and once at the Fuller Theological Seminary main campus in Pasadena, Calif.
Evangelical Christians and Mormons.
In the same room.
Talking about religion.
And — believe it or not — getting along famously.
"Our meetings are extremely cordial," said Dr. Robert L. Millet, former dean of Religious Education at BYU, who has been participating in the meetings since their inception. "We have great fellowship with one another, and there's a real feeling of brotherhood and affection even though we spend hours discussing our differences."
Dr. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote about the semiannual meetings recently in one of his articles on the Washington Post's On Faith blog site.
"We have talked for many hours about key theological issues," Mouw wrote. "We evangelicals and our Mormon counterparts disagree about some important questions. But we have also found that on some matters we are not as far apart as we thought we were."
This cooperative effort between evangelical Christian scholars and their LDS counterparts is especially noteworthy since the last two months have seen a number of highly placed evangelical Christians making comments about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In early October, Baptist Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, called Mormonism a "cult," and another evangelical leader, Bryan Fischer, claimed that Latter-day Saints are not Christian and are therefore not entitled to First Amendment protections of religious freedom. Since those comments were made in public forums and were directed at presidential candidate Mitt Romney, they generated a media firestorm that has has generated through the ensuing weeks a good deal of public discussion on the LDS Church and whether or not it is truly Christian.
"To a Mormon, the claim that they are not Christian is confusing," said Dr. David Campbell, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a leading researcher on faith in American life. "They point to the name of Jesus Christ in the church's official name and wonder how they can be considered anything other than Christian."
Without going too deeply into the theological differences, Campbell, who is LDS, suggests there is a semantic difference at work here.
"When an evangelical Christian says 'Mormons aren't Christians,' what they are really saying is, 'Mormons don't believe the same things I believe about Jesus,'" he said "They are referring to very specific beliefs. But when Mormons say 'Christian,' they're thinking of a religious orientation that has a much broader meaning, that encompasses a lot of different Christian possibilities. So in a sense you have the two sides talking past each other, using the same words to mean different things."
In an effort to clarify the church's Christianity, LDS officials issued a statement in which they quoted a Book of Mormon scripture: "We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins" (2 Nephi 25: 26). Their point in doing so, they said, was to illustrate that "Christ is at the center of our worship, study, service and faith, and we believe this is clearly demonstrated in the lives of more than 14 million members in over 130 countries around the globe."
What other Christians think
Still, the Christian question continues to be asked.
"'Is Mormonism Christian?' is a very important question," writes Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. "The answer is equally important and simple. No. Mormonism is not Christian.
"If you are a Mormon," Slick adds, "please realize that CARM is not trying to attack you, your character or the sincerity of your belief." For a variety of reasons that Slick explains in his paper, "the Mormon is not Christian — in spite of all his claims that he is Christian."
Not all Christians share that view. Joel Osteen, senior pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church, often referred to as America's largest "mega church," said recently that he believes that Latter-day Saints are Christians.
"I do not know if it's the purest form of Christianity like I grew up with," he said, "but I know Mormons … and I hear Mitt Romney say, 'I believe Jesus is the Son of God, and I believe he's my Savior.' That's one of the core issues. I'm sure there are other issues we don't agree on, but I can say the Baptists and the Methodists and the Catholics don't agree on everything."
And so there is confusion on the subject, which is why Millet, Mouw and their colleagues have been meeting twice a year for 12 years. This is not, Millet points out, an effort to dilute or compromise doctrinal distinctives. Rather, he said, the collective hope of the group is to "build greater understanding, to do away with misconceptions and to better represent one another."
"Latter-day Saints are probably as guilty of misrepresenting traditional Christian beliefs as Christians are of misrepresenting ours," Millet said. "As a teacher, I take it upon myself to correct my students when they portray evangelical beliefs inaccurately. I tell them, 'We don't want them to misrepresent us, do we? Then we don't want to misrepresent them, either.'"
"No one has shown any impulse to walk away from the table of dialogue," Mouw said. "While I am not prepared to reclassify Mormonism as possessing undeniably Christian theology, I do accept many of my Mormon friends as genuine followers of the Jesus whom I worship as the divine Savior."
If these scholars and scriptorians have been unable to agree on every point of doctrine they have discussed through more than a decade of dialogue and debate, they have at least been able to come to some level of agreement on exactly what it is that they disagree on.
By way of context, Millet explained that he sees Christianity as a series of umbrellas. Under the large umbrella of Christianity there are three smaller umbrellas: Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant. Underneath the Protestant umbrella are three additional umbrellas:
mainline Christians (Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Methodists, Congregationalists, northern Baptists, most Lutherans, most Presbyterians, for example)
fundamentalist Christians (ultra-conservatives like Jerry Falwell and Bob Jones)
and evangelicals, "a Protestant group that tries to maintain a kind of middle ground," Millet said.
"Theologically, the fundamentalists and the evangelicals would be pretty similar," Millet said. "But philosophically, there are differences, some of them significant. And mainline Christians may not even be on the same page theologically with the other two groups. There are mainline Christians, for example, who question the divinity of Jesus Christ."
As a result, Millet said, its probably true that many mainline Christians accept Mormons as Christians. "They tend to be more open and accepting," Millet said. "Evangelicals, not so much."
So where do Latter-day Saints fit among the umbrellas of Christianity?
"That's a matter of some debate," Millet said. "Some think we should be a fourth umbrella of Protestant Christianity. Others think we should be a fourth umbrella of Christianity, along with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestants."
Still others, like Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, think that the LDS Church should be considered "the fourth Abrahamic religion," along with Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which trace their spiritual roots back to the Old Testament patriarch Abraham.
Regardless of the umbrella under which others choose to place The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this fact remains: Latter-day Saints consider themselves to be Christians, while many others in the Christian community do not.
According to a new national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released last week, 51 percent of Americans think Mormons are Christians, 32 percent think they are not (this number jumps to 47 percent among white evangelical Protestants) and 17 percent don't know, or refuse to comment. When compared with their own religion, 65 percent of Americans think "Mormonism is very different."
"That there are significant doctrinal differences between LDS theology and the theology of other Christian churches is not in dispute," Millet said. "From an LDS point of view, if there were no differences, there would have been no need for the Savior to re-establish his church through Joseph Smith. The question is, are those differences so great as to make us non-Christian?"
In other words, Millet said, citing a question frequently asked by one of his colleagues in the ongoing dialogue: "How much bad theology can the grace of Christ cover?"
Three major issues
Millet indicates that from his perspective there are three major issues that separate Mormons from evangelical Christians and many other Christian groups (keeping in mind that within that large Christian umbrella there are wide differences on matters of theology and philosophy):
1. Latter-day Saints believe God has a physical body, and is in fact an exalted man. "Evangelical Christians find this belief to be strange at best and blasphemous at worst," Millet said. "They feel that it shortens the distance between creator and creature. They feel the chasm between God and man is an infinite, uncross-able chasm. Then we come along and talk about a God that is knowable and comprehensible — who is the Father of our spirits and highly approachable. They feel that Joseph Smith bridged a chasm that one should not even presume to bridge. They would say that God is a personal being, but he is a spirit that has no form. He's a person, a personality, but certainly not a man."
2. Latter-day Saints do not accept the post-New Testament church councils and creeds as inspired. "For much of the Christian world," Millet said, "those are considered to be a very significant facet of Christian history. They helped to form and formulate Christianity centuries after the death of Christ. For example, the doctrine of the Trinity places us outside the realm of historical Christianity [Slick of CARM, quoted earlier, explains the Trinity thus: "God is a trinity of persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit ... They are not three gods and not three beings. They are three distinct persons; yet, they are all the one God." According to Millet, LDS doctrine holds that the "Godhead" is comprised of three distinct beings — God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost — who are one in purpose, power, knowledge and character, but separate, distinct individuals]. This is where we are. We're outside the realm of historical Christianity . . . we're an entirely different manifestation of Christianity — restored Christianity. While many Protestants have some difficulty with certain matters of Roman Catholic theology, at least they agree on the Trinity and the creeds. It's no wonder that they don't know what to do with us or where to place us."
3. Latter-day Saints believe in additional scripture. "The problem here is that evangelical Christians have a strong feeling about the sufficiency of the Bible," Millet explained. "They view the Bible as the infallible, sufficient, final word of God. They believe that our claim to additional scripture is prima facie evidence of our rejection of the Bible, or our feeling that it is somehow deficient. They say we have a low view of the Bible, whereas they have a high view of the Bible. We say, no, you misunderstand. [LDS apostle Elder Dallin H. Oaks] refers to what we call the Standard Works — the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price — as 'the Royal Family of scripture.' I say, 'I don't love one family member more than another. I love all four of them, equally.'"
Those three issues, Millet said, are "to some extent irreconcilable. Either God is an exalted man, or he is not. You either accept additional scripture, or you don't. There's no middle ground. You simply agree to disagree."
Three related issues
There are three other issues that frequently emerge during the course of discussions between Latter-day Saints and evangelical Christians. Most of them are in some way related to the first three issues, but they tend to have a life of their own ("My experience with the following three issues," Millet said, "is if we explain them properly, our evangelical friends may not agree with us, but they at least understand us"):
1. Grace. "Many evangelical Christians have been told that Mormons believe they are saved by their own works, that we don't believe we are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ," Millet said. "The actual doctrine of the church, which is found throughout the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, is that we are indeed saved by grace, which is freely given, the greatest of all the gifts of God. But we believe that this gift must be received by faith in Christ, which is manifest in deeds of faithful discipleship and obedience to God's commandments. Sometimes the language we use makes it sound like we don't believe in grace, but it is clear from the scriptures and the teachings of church leaders that we do. Every one of us is in need of pardoning mercy. Jesus is our only hope."
2. Latter-day Saints believe that man may become like God. This issue is related to the first issue mentioned above. "To say that man may one day become as God is . . . well, that sounds almost heretical to the evangelical Christian," Millet said. "We believe in the New Testament where we are told to 'be ye therefore perfect,' or that we can be 'joint-heirs with Christ' and 'partakers of the divine nature,' and that 'we shall be like him' . . . We believe that one of the purposes of the gospel is to cleanse us of sin, to purify our nature, so that we can acquire what Paul called 'the gifts of the spirit' and 'the fruit of the spirit.' These are Christ-like attributes. As we grow in those we become more like our Savior until one day we are prepared with our families to dwell with God and Christ forever, having acquired that divine nature. No thinking Latter-day Saint supposes that we will one day unseat the Father or the Son — that we will somehow take their place or be independent of them. They will be the Gods that we worship forever. I'm not aware of anything in the official literature of the church that even suggests that we will ever worship anyone but the Godhead."
3. Latter-day Saints believe in ongoing revelation. Evangelical Christians believe that God answers prayers and that he can provide inspiration and divine influence, but they believe that revelation ended with the Bible, that no more is needed. Latter-day Saints believe in living prophets and apostles who receive revelation from God for the ongoing benefit of his children. They believe this revelation enhances the personal inspiration and guidance one can receive through prayer and scripture study. "Modern, current, continuing revelation is another one of those issues that you either believe or you don't," Millet said. "I remember after one of our first meetings, when we had spoken at some length about revelation, Richard Mouw sat back in his chair and said, 'It seems to me it all comes down to Joseph Smith's first vision and divine authority.' I said, 'I couldn't have said it better.' Everything comes back to this, no matter what the issue is."
Much in common
There are, of course, other issues of theological difference between evangelical Christians and Latter-day Saints, including issues that are significant to other Christian communities: the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the concept of hell, and LDS temple worship, to name a few. But between evangelical Christians and Latter-day Saints, Millet said, the three issues (and three related issues) identified here are the critical questions that lead back to the first question: are Latter-day Saints Christians?
"Who has the right to decide whether a man or a woman is Christian?" Millet asked. "Who has the power to gaze into another person's soul and know their deepest desires, their eternal yearnings, the object and source of their faith?
"Almost without exception, evangelicals define one's Christianity theologically," Millet continued. "Latter-day Saints have a much more inclusive perspective and invite people to self-define. While doctrine does matter to us, we are far more prone to accept as evidence one's personal expression of belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ and their desire to live peaceably with others and to treat people as Jesus taught us."
Rev. George Lower, who has lived in Utah for more than 30 years and is the pastor of the Orem Community Church, acknowledges the differences. But he thinks more attention should be focused on what can be shared by all who love, honor and revere Jesus Christ — regardless of the fine points of differentiating doctrine.
"Our two religions have basic beliefs that have very little in common," he said. "However, in our living we have much in common. We love God and thus we love other persons. Both religious communities have a prominent place for Jesus Christ. Both communities exhibit good works as they serve in their congregations and in their communities."
So the way Rev. Lower sees it, "whether you are an active member of your ward or an active member of your local Christian congregation, we need to work together to share Christ's love and compassion in a world that needs our ministry."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company