When is it Proper to Tell Mormons the Truth?

JAM200-Mormon Tell Truth

Review: JAM200 | by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

Book review: David L. Rowe, I Love Mormons: A New Way to Share Christ with Latter‐day Saints (Baker Books, 2005). This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 6 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

David L. Rowe, a professor at Salt Lake Theological Seminary and a Utah resident since 1975, has pooled his ministry experiences into a “how to” manual for Christians who are interested in sharing their faith with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints (LDS, Mormons). Rowe describes Mormons as having “their own culture, lingo, and worldview” (back cover).

There are positive aspects to I Love Mormons. The catchy title may prove to be a stumbling block, however, at least for some readers. Many Latter‐day Saints, after all, dislike being called “Mormons” and often complain that this term is only a nickname. The book’s subtitle, A New Way to Share Christ with Latter‐day Saints, may be problematic as well because many Latter‐day Saints think Christ already is the central figure of their religion. The subtitle also might be puzzling to Christians who have been witnessing to Mormons long before this book was published. Rowe’s “new” evangelism model centers on creating relationships with Mormons, which appears to be simply an offshoot of the “friendship evangelism” model that was popularized several decades ago. Is the subtitle implying that Christians who use the “old” model have failed to share their faith with Mormons? Or is it implying that those who use tactics other than relational evangelism hate Mormons, or that they have failed to “learn and respect LDS culture,” as the back cover puts it?

Rowe’s main point in the book is that Christians should avoid the “traditional way” of evangelism, which utilizes what he calls a “warrior saint” approach that uses “jousting games,” because it results in the three‐part sequence of “‘discussion,’ recoil, and shutdown” (17). He seems to jab mainly at the few vocal Christian street preachers who frequent Salt Lake City during the LDS Church’s general conferences, which are held twice a year. He wonders if these “wannabe zealots” may be exhibiting “unharnessed anger hurling imagined God‐bombs at people with a smug pride” (129). He adds, “Generally, ‘Bible bash’ evangelism with its heresy‐hunting rationalism simply squashes the life out of relationships and builds walls, not bridges” (154).

The impression Rowe gives, however, is that anyone who uses tracts or any other “confrontational” methods is not evangelizing using the recommended “wiser, gentler” tactic. If Rowe is merely trying to highlight the fact that Christians can be insensitive by cramming Bible verses down a Mormon’s throat and using inappropriate tactics, then we are in full agreement. Rowe does a disservice, however, to many Christians who practice bolder evangelistic methods while simultaneously exhibit‐ ing a sweeter spirit than those to whom he specifically refers.

Rowe states that Christians generally should not initiate theological discussions with Mormons, but he does not mean that we should not discuss doctrine. In fact, Rowe wants to hammer home” the idea that Christians “need to prayerfully seek and sensitively seize the doors of opportunity God grants us in which our theological knowledge truly counts” (68). We agree wholeheartedly; but there are occasions when there is not enough time to develop long‐lasting relationships, such as when sitting next to someone on a plane or talking to a clerk in a store. Do we set aside our sense of urgency to share important biblical truths merely because we do not have a relationship with the person? The mistaken message Rowe conveys—whether intentionally or unintentionally—is that successful evangelism can take place only after years of friendship.

Culture vs. Cult. One of the more controversial emphases in I Love Mormons is that Mormonism is a culture rather than a cult. Rowe practically apologizes for having his book listed under the category of “cults” that is printed above the barcode on the back cover. He writes, “As an author I have no control over this practice and the institutional bias that drives it. I’m arguing it’s high time we rethink this bias” (29).

This is where we have our sharpest disagreement with Rowe: Mormonism certainly has its own cultural characteristics, but this does not diminish the fact that Mormonism has characteristics that historically have warranted categorizing it as a cult. This designation historically has been applied to groups that insist that they truly represent Christianity while they deny or distort the basic biblical tenets that historically have defined Christianity. We should not intentionally use the designation “cult” as a pejorative, but it does apply to modern‐day Mormonism.

It may surprise some to know that LDS leaders have used this label to describe other groups. For instance, 10th LDS president Joseph Fielding Smith used it to refer to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‐day Saints (later changed to the Community of Christ) based in Independence, Missouri (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:284). Twelfth president Spencer W. Kimball described fundamentalist polygamists as cultists (Conference Report, October 1974, 5). Mormon apostle Bruce McConkie even went so far as to say that all Trinitarian Christians had a “false system of worship” with “a false Christ” and were therefore “a false church” and “a false cult” (The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man, 48).

For years the word cult has clearly marked the boundary between orthodox and unorthodox groups. It has served as a warning sign to those who may not understand the sometimes confusing doctrines and ideologies of certain groups. Does it really serve the general public, or the Christian church for that matter, to insist that the designation does not apply to the LDS Church just because it might offend someone?

Is Mormonism Changing? Rowe believes that the LDS Church is moving “away from the unorthodox, radically Mormon claims we do not find in the Bible” (166). He insists that the “subject matter of these changes is not just trivial but deals with central, crucial teachings of the LDS Church.” To bolster his point, he compares the 1978 edition of the LDS Church manual Gospel Principles with the more current 1992 and 1997 editions. Rowe correctly notes that the rhetoric on doctrines such as the potential for men to become gods has been toned down.

We would like to share Rowe’s enthusiasm over these changes, but we cannot over‐ look the fact that Gospel Principles is a basic overview of LDS teachings that is used to instruct new converts and those who are investigating the church. The LDS Church often prints this manual in a new language even before they translate the complete set of the LDS standard into that particular language. It is meant to be an introduction to the Mormon faith, so it is not surprising that the LDS Church might deemphasize or even omit doctrines from the manual that might unnecessarily alarm potential converts. Church manuals meant primarily for the instruction of LDS members, on the other hand, fail to demonstrate a departure from Mormonism’s historically heretical positions.

For example, the idea that men may become gods still can be found in the Doctrines of the Gospel, Student Manual: Religion 430 and 431 (which carries a 2004 copyright date). The student manual cites President Spencer Kimball: “Man can transform himself and he must. Man has in himself the seeds of godhood, which can germinate and grow and develop. As the acorn becomes the oak, the mortal man becomes a god. It is within his power to lift himself by his very bootstraps from the plane on which he finds himself to the plane on which he should be. It may be a long, hard lift with many obstacles, but it is a real possibility” (52) (from The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 28).

We would love to see the LDS Church leadership cease promoting heretical teachings, but the evidence from LDS conference speeches and church manuals is not encouraging. Just because a doctrine is not being emphasized fully does not mean it is being denounced.

Shared Concern. Despite our disagreements with I Love Mormons, we do believe that Rowe has a genuine concern for the spiritual welfare of the LDS people. His understanding of the Mormon mindset and the LDS belief system is, for the most part, accurate. Readers who plan to move to Utah or who have LDS friends or relatives certainly will benefit from Rowe’s personal experience of living among the LDS people.

It is unfortunate that the book comes across as offering the only legitimate method to evangelize Mormons. Christians, of course, should treat Mormons respectfully, but we should never think that friendship, apart from the truth of the Word, will convert anybody. Despite its many good points, I Love Mormons seems to be too cautious in this department. We personally know far too many ex‐Mormons who, after being confronted with the doctrinal errors of Mormonism, became Christians because someone who barely knew them spent the time and effort to share the truth in love. Different people and different circumstances sometimes demand different methods of sharing God’s love with the lost.

Bill McKeever lives in Utah and is the founding director at Mormonism Research Ministry (MRM). Eric Johnson is an associate at MRM and teaches high school, college, and seminary classes in Southern California. Together they wrote Mormonism 101 (Baker, 2000).

Apologetics, Journal Topics

The Gold Plates of Mormon

If there are two elements at the heart of Mormonism, they are Joseph Smith and the gold plates. The two are in many ways inseparable because Joseph Smith claimed he was told by an angelic visitor to retrieve this buried record at a specific time and to translate it. The result, of course, was the Book of Mormon, a record believed by Mormons to be an ancient scripture in which Joseph Smith claimed was the “most correct book on earth.” To many members of the LDS Church, the Book of Mormon validates Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet in these “latter days.” Yet it is this same book that has caused skeptics to draw the conclusion that Smith was nothing but a charlatan who merely took advantage of gullible followers.

While much of the critical emphasis is on the contents of the Book of Mormon, the lesser focus is on the plates that are allegedly the source of that book. If they actually existed, what were they made of, how heavy would they have been, and were they really seen by anyone? The problematic story as it has originally been told has led many Mormon historians and apologists to contrive explanations that are just as perplexing as the story itself. Do Mormon explanations solve the dilemma, or do they make the whole gold plates story even harder to believe?

Bill McKeever is the founder and president of Mormonism Research Ministry, a Christian ministry based in the Salt Lake City area of Utah. Bill is the author of four books, including In Their Own Words: A Collection of Mormon Quotations (Morris Publishing, 2010). His feature article, “Problems with the Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon” on which this post is based appears in the Volume 34, No. 2 issue of the Christian Research Journal (a 6-issue subscription is $39.50). To read the full article, please subscribe or renew your subscription or give a gift subscription.

For Further Study CRI Recommends:

Book: Mormonism 101

CD Package: Mormonism’s Greatest Problems

Article: DNA Science Challenges LDS History

Article: Pinning Down Mormon Doctrine: Part One

Article: Pinning Down Mormon Doctrine: Part Two

Article: LDS Apologetics and the Battle for Mormon History