by Doug Ward
OXFORD, OHIO-In the late 1990s, Brent and Lisa moved into our neighborhood. My wife Sherry quickly became friends with Lisa, with whom she had several things in common. Both were mothers of children of similar ages, and both were members of tight-knit religious communities with traditional moral values. We belonged to the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), a small Adventist denomination; while Brent and Lisa were Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Brent and Lisa were the first Mormons with whom we had had much personal contact, and this was quite a learning experience for us. The WCG, which had previously been very exclusive and insular, was at that time moving into the mainstream of evangelical Christianity. We were trying to figure out our own religious identity, and learning more about other religious communities was part of that process. We found out that we had some important beliefs in common with Brent and Lisa, and also some key differences.1
A Larger Discussion
At the time I was vaguely aware that our relationship with Brent and Lisa was a sort of microcosm of a larger discussion going on between conservative American Protestants and Mormons. One book that we borrowed from the public library during that period was How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation by Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson (InterVarsity Press, 1997).
More recently, I learned more about the dynamics of that larger discussion from a stimulating lecture given by Miami University professor John-Charles Duffy on April 3, 2017. The lecture was entitled, "Cautious Pluralists: Making Sense of Interfaith Dialogue between Evangelicals and Mormons."
Duffy, who comes from an LDS background and is a coauthor of Mormonism: the Basics (Routledge, 2017), began his lecture by describing an interfaith event held at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, on November 14, 2004. Billed as "An Evening of Friendship," this event was attended by some seven thousand people, with audience and speakers representing both the evangelical and LDS communities.
A short introductory address was given by evangelical leader Richard J. Mouw of Fuller Seminary. Mouw apologized to the LDS community on behalf of evangelical Christianity, saying that evangelicals often have tended to bear false witness by misrepresenting Mormon beliefs. Speakers included LDS scholar Robert Millet and Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias. Zacharias spoke on "Jesus Christ: The Way, the Truth, and the Life", emphasizing common ground, and received a standing ovation. Biola University apologetics professor Craig Hazen gave an irenic, inclusive closing prayer, asking for wisdom for all in attendance.
Agendas in Tension
At this remarkable gathering, each side was reaching out sincerely toward the other with friendly intentions, but neither was abandoning its convictions. There was much going on between the lines, with various agendas at work. Duffy explained that the evangelicals involved hoped to promote an LDS move toward orthodox Christianity. WCG (now called Grace Communion International) had made such a move in the 1990s, and evangelicals hoped that Mormons might follow suit. In fact, WCG Pastor General Joseph Tkach, Jr., gave the opening prayer at "An Evening of Friendship."
The LDS church, on the other hand, hoped for better public relations. They wanted to be seen as Christians and recognized as part of the Christian community.
Outside of this gathering, of course, both sides would continue to enunciate their core beliefs. Mormons would continue to see their church as the locus of the true, restored Christian faith. Christian apologists would continue to bring out the errors they saw in Mormonism. Zacharias has been an editor of Walter Martin's Kingdom of the Cults, which includes a lengthy chapter on LDS beliefs. Hazen, who has written extensive critiques of Mormonism, later characterized this belief system as "a tremendous achievement of the devil."
Duffy emphasized that there is nothing unusual about the behind-the-scene tensions in the Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. Interfaith dialogue in general, he said, is much more like "high diplomacy" than like "a relaxed reunion of friends." People involved in this kind of dialogue typically are attempting to strike a fine balance, reaching out to the other side in love while not abandoning core beliefs-in contrast to "liberals", who are willing to sacrifice convictions in order to get along. Duffy observed that Americans usually try to position themselves as "centrists" and avoid being “liberals.”
Although everyone tries to find a "sweet spot" in the center, people do not always agree on what that looks like. For example, the goal of the evangelicals at "An Evening of Friendship" was to be "loving but convicted." Mouw aimed toward "convicted civility" and "speaking the truth in love" (based on Eph 4:15). However, he received severe criticism after the gathering for his apology to Mormons. Some felt that he had neglected to speak the truth and had instead sold out to the enemy. Hazen received similar criticism for his prayer, which mentioned LDS founder Joseph Smith without condemning Smith's errors.
I appreciated Duffy's description of the evangelical-LDS dialogue and his discussion of the dynamics of general interfaith dialogue. In the particular case of conservative Protestants and Mormons, it seems to me that the core beliefs of both faiths require them to pursue dialogue. Both believe that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, and we cannot do that without getting to know our neighbors. Both believe that part of loving our neighbors is to try to persuade our neighbors to join us, and we cannot evangelize effectively to people if we are not in a genuine relationship with them. Despite the pitfalls and tensions involved in such dialogue, it is a valuable and worthwhile effort for all concerned.
1Sherry wrote about this in an editorial called "Love is Enough" in Issue 5 of Grace & Knowledge, where she expresses the view that on a practical level, the common ground matters more than the differences.
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On 05 Jul 2018, 17:11.