On Wednesday, my friends Cary and Meg had invited me to join them at dinner with a couple of Mormon (LDS) missionaries. During dinner, we talked about their lives and about their mission. Afterwards, we move over to the couch, and got down to the nitty-gritty of the things which unite and divide us. It really was a blessing to have two missionaries as open to listening as these two men were. I'm not sure if we helped at all, but I think the Holy Spirit was able to use us a bit . In any case, here are the basic arguments we raised; I'd love to hear feedback about how strong or weak you feel each one is.
I . The "Great Apostasy" and Apostolic Succession
Cary went right for this one, because he'd been reading about it, and was genuinely confused by the Mormon position. In a nutshell, here's the LDS position:
Mormonism teaches that not long after Jesus Christ's lifetime, internal rebellions within the early Christian community caused the primitive Christian Church, led by the Twelve Apostles to disappear and be replaced by many factions, each of which had pieces of the truth, but not a fullness. More importantly, this falling away (see 2 Thessalonians 2:3) resulted in a loss of authority, which Mormons call Priesthood. Without proper authority from God, man cannot perform the ordinances of the Church. [...]
So in about 95-105 A.D., the Church which Jesus promised wouldn't be overcome by the gates of Hades, death (Matthew 16:17-19), was overcome by the death of the last Apostle, St. John. But then the Church was restored through Joseph Smith, and it hasn't been wiped out again.Many of the Apostles and righteous members of Christ’s Church were killed by the wicked, and the priesthood along with Christ’s Church were taken from the earth. Persecution of those who were called Christians began in about the first century by the Roman Empire. Revelation could no longer be received on behalf of the Church, because there was no one authorized by God to receive it, although individuals could and continued to receive inspiration in their personal lives. [...]The Restoration, a necessary event after an apostasy, came about through Joseph Smith. In the spring of 1829, while translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were visited by heavenly messengers who restored to them the Priesthood, the authority to act in God's name. In 1830, the Church of Christ, as the Mormon Church was originally called, was organized officially. The authority to act in God’s name was restored, as was true doctrine. Latter-day Saints believe there are again Apostles on the earth, and a Prophet who guides the Church of Christ through revelation and the power of the priesthood.
The missionaries explained that the early Church died out because of the wickedness of the people. If Mormons thought Catholics were wicked God-hating apostates, this view would make sense. But that's not the view they take these days. They tend to think that the early Catholics were God-fearing, but just didn't have the full truth. In fact, they think that these early Christians (1) more or less recognized which Books were the word of God (the Old and New Testaments), and (2) preserved these Books carefully. The Mormon Joseph Smith Edition of the Bible is based off of the King James Version, which is based off of the early Christian manuscripts. The JSE makes a few minor tweaks, but it's very close to the KJV.
So we're left to believe that there were early Christians trying to follow God, and doing a pretty good job of it (preserving the Bible, going to the death for the faith, and all that), yet who God considered too wicked for the Church to remain with. If they're too wicked to be trusted with the Church, how can we trust them with the Bible? We raised a few major points in response to these Apostasy/Restoration claims:
- Why was Joseph Smith able to carry on the Church and Jesus wasn't? Jesus personally founded the New Testament Church in Matthew 16:17-19, and calls it His Church. Within the Mormon view, God's own Church died out faster than 8-track tapes. Cary asked why this view didn't elevate Joseph Smith over Jesus.
- Doesn't this view leave Mormonism's status in serious question? If the early Church unwittingly fell into a total Apostasy, who's to say that it hasn't happened again?
- The third pope was already in Rome by the death of St. John. Cary mentioned this, but I thought his point was great. By the time the Apostle John dies, we know from Church history that Peter (who'd died about thirty years before) was succeeded by Popes Linus and Clements. If the papacy was a false Church, and if the rest of the bishops throughout Christendom were phonies, why didn't the Apostle John say anything to condemn them?
- Jesus praises the early Church. Not only do we see, from the Book of Acts, a Church which is on fire for Christ and rapidly growing, but even by the end of John's life, the Church is still pleasing God. Just read the praises bestowed in the Book of Revelation, perhaps the last-written Book of the Bible. In Revelation 1, Jesus tells St. John to deliver specific messages to each of the seven area churches. And He's got mostly good things to say to the churches in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, and Philadelphia. Sure, the Church, both locally and globally, had / has / will have problems, but Jesus is encouraging these Christians, not denouncing their wickedness.
One area where most Mormons are excellent is morality. The two missionaries we spoke to had no problem denouncing abortion as murder, and saying that even in the tough cases (rape, incest, etc.), there are better options. In fact, they pointed to the numerous social services which the LDS Church provided. I said, "I thought your church permitted abortion in some circumstances?" and they denied it. At this point, I read from the official LDS website:
Church leaders have said that some exceptional circumstances may justify an abortion, such as when pregnancy is the result of incest or rape, when the life or health of the mother is judged by competent medical authority to be in serious jeopardy, or when the fetus is known by competent medical authority to have severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. But even these circumstances do not automatically justify an abortion. Those who face such circumstances should consider abortion only after consulting with their local Church leaders and receiving a confirmation through earnest prayer.So in fact, while most Mormons are very pro-life, the LDS Church is much less so. Cary then asked, "Wait, so is murder sometimes okay?" The two missionaries were clearly unaware that their church taught this, and seemed troubled by it. One of them speculated that the local church leaders wouldn't permit an abortion, despite what it said, but I don't think he even convinced himself.
III. Disarming Their Best WeaponsMormon missionaries are apparently trained to fall on a few stock answers: to "pray on it," or "I can feel in my heart it's true" or some similarly non-falsifiable claim. If they're not trained to do this, it's at least the common refrain I've heard from countless Mormons I've talked theology with. So if you're going to move ahead with a discussion, it's important to take it out of the realm of the subjective and the non-falsifiable. Otherwise, as long as Mormonism "feels right," the person you're talking to will never move towards a fuller Christianity.
In other to move past these fall-backs, we talked about how the LDS think that non-Mormons still have some truth, and that the Holy Spirit still works through these other denominations or churches. They conceded that it wasn't as if all the Catholics and Protestants were acting in bad faith, or that Catholic and Protestants don't pray. So we talked about the phenomenon of a Catholic, a Baptist, and a Mormon each praying, and each walking away thinking that God's telling them different (contradictory) things. We were careful to note that yes, we should pray, and yes, God does communicate to us through prayer, but we explained that as Catholics, we saw prayer alone as fallible, since it's easy to mix up what God's telling us, and what we want God to be telling us.
IV. Polygamy and Contradictions
Most people's argument about Mormon's one-time fling with polygamy (what they refer to as "plural marriage") goes something like this: "You used to do polygamy. The Bible says polygamy is bad. You're wrong." That argument is weak. After all, we see polygamy in the Old Testament, and much of it goes uncondemned by God (we talked about that in the comments here, by the way). The Mormon answer is that just as the Jews are forbidden to eat pork, but not Christians, it's possible that plural marriage is right or wrong for specific people, given the particular culture and context.
So here's the approach I took to the question, instead, with a Q&A with the senior of the two missionaries that went something like this:
- Q: Can God contradict Himself? [I genuinely didn't know the Mormon answer to this, so this wasn't just a set-up].
- A: No
- Q: So I can see how God could theoretically say that plural marriage is right for David and not for Solomon, or vice versa, but can God says that plural marriage is both right for Solomon and wrong for Solomon?
- A: No, that would be a contradiction.
I then read from the Book of Mormon, Jacob 2:24,
Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord.We all agreed that sounded quite clearly like the Book of Mormon was saying that God was condemning David and Solomon's plural marriages as an abomination. Then I read from Doctrines & Covenants 132:38-39
David also received many wives and concubines, and also Solomon and Moses my servants, as also many others of my servants, from the beginning of creation until this time; and in nothing did they sin save in those things which they received not of me.
David’s wives and concubines were given unto him of me, by the hand of Nathan, my servant, and others of the prophets who had the keys of this power; and in none of these things did he sin against me save in the case of Uriah and his wife; and, therefore he hath fallen from his exaltation, and received his portion; and he shall not inherit them out of the world, for I gave them unto another, saith the Lord.Yup, this passage says that not only was David and Solomon's taking of plural wives not an abomination, it was not even a sin; and not only was it not a sin, these women were given to David by God. Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, is the only exception. At this point, the senior missionary protested that he wasn't a "Scriptorian," and realized it had gotten late and that they had to leave.
A Final Point: The Importance of Charity
While we had, as the above post shows, some obvious points of disagreement, the single most important thing to remember when dealing with Mormons (or anyone) is to do it lovingly. Name-calling, just telling them they're a "cult," or "not Christian," or anything else, is unhelpful. It might make us feel superior, but if we're genuinely concerned for their spiritual well-being, do for them what you would want done for you. Would you be convinced by someone simply blowing off your religion? So be prepared to make a defense of orthodox Christianity, and of Catholicism particularly, but do so with "gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:16). I can just about guarantee you that the Mormons are so used to being treated poorly by the folks they're meeting door-to-door that a genuine Christian witness done in charity will be a drink of cold water. That doesn't mean you have to compromise the Truth -- quite the opposite. If you truly love someone, you'll want them to be on the right track towards God.
We were fortunate because while Cary and I were pointing out many of the areas on which we disagreed, Megan balanced us out by talking about some of the great things about Mormonism, as well as many of the things we have in common. Her presence meant that there wasn't any "ganging up," and I'm quite thankful she was there. It's important for someone to accentuate the positive for a couple reasons. One, if you come across as simply argumentative, they're going to leave. And two, your goal isn't to just disprove Mormonism. You don't want some poor missionary leaving an atheist. Rather, it's to show how Catholicism is the fulfillment of those truths which Mormonism has.
That is, Mormons are great at recognizing the importance of Apostolic succession, of a central Church hierarchy, of a leadership guarded by the Holy Spirit, of speaking the Truth in love, and so on. Showing that Catholicism affirms all of these things, without suffering from the many flaws within Mormonism, makes the Church an obvious candidate to look to if a Mormon starts to wonder exactly how his Church can both condemn and condone the murder of unborn children, or claim that God both praises and detests David and Solomon's many wives.
You might find yourself in the position of trying to do both of these things at once: show how we're similar, and show how we're different (and right). It's a hard balance to strike, and I can nearly guarantee you'll have a strong sense of l'esprit de l'escalier after you say good night. Certainly, there are a number of things I wish had been said, or said differently. God understands. Finally, remember that "One sows and another reaps" (John 4:37). It's easy to let pride lead you to think you can convert someone, from start to finish, in an hour. You almost certainly can't. So just do your part, and let God do the rest.