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Saturday, April 22, 2006

a convicted civil discourse between an LDS and an evanglical

last night i drove up to 1st baptist of Manchester Ct. to listen to Mormon scholar from BYU, Robert Millet and rev. Greg Johnson of Standing Together model a inter-religious conversation guided the concept of "convicted civility."

This was their 41st public dialogue over the past 6 years and one that began 9 years ago. Johnson emphasized many times that this wasn't a debate with a winner and a loser at the end. The typical Mormon and non-Mormon interaction is either one of fight or flight. I've done both to the boys on the bikes who come to my door. I've told them I've had no time. I've pointed out the abundant inconsistencies in their theology. I've wanted to appeal to the benefits of the concept of grace in Biblical Theology but I haven't had visitors in a while. I do think I've lodged pebbles in the gears of their brains, but I don't know if they weren't small enough to ignore.

Millet appealed to Paul's dialogue on Mars Hill in Acts 17 as the biblical model that they are following. He admitted his own history with non-Mormon interaction begins with "if i can't baptize them, what do i do with them?" the concept of simply being friends and neighbors is tough to embrace. but friendship helps counteract the mental condition he called "hardening of the categories." his friend ceases to be a "protestant" and become Greg. They have both been criticized for being "too friendly" with each other. For Greg though, he had to appeal to both aspects of 1 Peter 3:15, ready to give an answer AND with gentleness and respect.

Both speakers shared some of their testimony. Millet is a 3rd generation LDS from Louisiana. His mother came from a Pentecostal Holiness family and married a Mormon. She converted. Her family is still Pentecostal, and that influence is still part of his life. He experienced religious discrimination in the heavily Roman Catholic neighborhood where he grew up. Johnson was raised LDS also. He was seriously involved as a teenager until he attended a Christian summer camp, out of fairness. It was there he had a "born again" experience when he heard about people relating to Jesus and not to a church. His mother and LDS stepfather divorced and her commitment to LDSism dropped also. They moved back to Southern California where he ended up in a Christian high school, Christian college, Westmont, and then Denver Seminary. In those post-LDS years he became an aggressive LDS debater. When he became outreach pastor at a Baptist church in Utah he was the minority religion representative and learned a friendship and neighbor based approach to religious outreach. He pointed out how this has paid off, including the appearance of Ravi Zacharias in the LDS Temple after a personal letter from Johnson to LDS President Hinckley. This has been reciprocated by LDS elders appearing at various seminaries.

Millet is blessed by how much he's learned and how broad his love has grown for people of all faiths. He does get frustrated when fellow Mormons make incorrect assertions about evangelicals. He is also frustrated when he's accused of not faithfully representing the LDS even though he's a professor at BYU and meets frequently with the higher up leaders, including apostles.

Johnson says that the direct benefit of this is personal holiness as he's learned to be more fair, more tolerant and more loving.

After these introductions Johnson started off the conversation by asking how does Millet expect non-LDS Christians to react to the exclusivist position of the LDS. Millet equivocated. He responded that exclusivity is integral to Christianity (only in the main things), that multiple denominations indicate that one group believes it has something others don't (although not at risk to others salvation status), that Joseph Smith was like the Reformers in claiming that the church has fallen (although they appealed to the same documents without adding new ones or claiming special authority), and that the apostasy although long wasn't complete - there must have been a few faithful believers. The LDS is unashamed of their claim that when the original 12 apostles died, authoirty was lost, but now restored, and some important doctrines were lost, but they can appreciate the Reformers for bringing the Scripture to to the people and pointing out the corruption of the Roman Catholic church. He appealed to the historical, cultural milieu that Smith operated in, including the contemporary Stone/Campbell movement that appealed to a return to primitive Christianity, even though they had all the material they needed in the Bible and didn't need new prophecy or documents.

Millet then asked a question. Who gives us evangelicals the right to decide who's a Christian based on their affiliation? Johnson replied that it is a relationship with Jesus. He can't write someone off solely on their affiliation, in fact there are many important doctrines he can agree with Millet on, but he also disagrees with him on many more. He finds it helpful to understand Mormonism as culture and not cult, and there are differences between the institution and the individual. i experienced this with the man sitting next to me, Joe. He was a single man in his 50's who was baptized a Mormon only a week before. He was raised Roman Catholic and eventually decided on joining the Mormons based on how nice the people were, even though he doesn't agree with everything they teach. i wish Johnson could have added that we evangelicals can't even judge within our own ranks who is in and who is out. we don't know other people's hearts, only God does. we can only speak of our own relationship with God and what things His Word indicates as prescriptive and descriptive to a life with Him.

Johnson then asked Millet about the relationship between the early teachings and the current LDS teachings. Millet responded with whether an early teaching meets one of these 4 criteria: is it in the LDS scriptural canon, is it found in the churchs official declarations/proclamations (only 6 in LDS history), is it taught by the 1st presidency and quorum, and is it found in the general hand books or approved curricula. then he examined a few of the famous ones.

Brigham Young's God is Adam; LDS don't believe in apostolic infallibility, and that doctrine died with Young. (sort of like the Roman Catholic exemption for anything said that wasn't pronounced ex cathedra.)
Jesus was conceived by a sexual union between God the Father and Mary; it doesn't meet any of the 4 criteria.
Blood atonement, it was simply revival rhetoric that was never practiced .
God was once a man. Millet acknowledged that God the father is corporeal with flesh and blood. he says there is no way to know what God's prior existence was like. he complains that the LDS are infamous for what they know least about. when he becomes like God he doesn't know if he'll create a world with beings that worship him but he will always worship Jesus and God the Father.

They moved to a question and answer time picking questions from those submitted on 3x5 cards.
Millet responded to the LDS belief in many gods. No, he doesn't belive in them but he doesn't believe in a trinitarian concept either. The 3 persons who are Gods are so united in love that they can be referred to in the singular (which would be called tritheism).

Johnson responded to why he converted. He referred to the relationship appeal but also that he no longer had to try to get into heaven. His 9 year old daughter in a Utah public school handed out a survey to her classmates about how to get to heaven. All the serious responses were along the lines of doing their best. No one responded like her by faith in Jesus. Millet responded that the LDS church teaches the gift of salvation, which implies something that can't be earned but he also recognizes the predominant works theology. Regarding the external works in the new believer manual, Gospel Principles. The church is trying to prevent licentiousness and has a James emphasis.

Millet responded to a query on the brotherhood of Jesus and Lucifer. He quoted Elder Holland who says we were all part of the pre-born existence with Jesus and he was the first born but no one else was God like him.

Millet answered if his doctrines have changed in this dialogue. No.

Millet answered the hypothetical of an LDS convert who died before doing any works. he pointed to the Doctrine and Covenants which rewards the intentions of the heart.

Finally, Millet asked for patience from the evangelicals. He says they have only been around long enough to be halfway to their council of Nicea. This is dishonest, because if they have apostles, then they'll not have need for a council.

Afterwards i stuck around to thank the speakers. i listened to a woman who left a small offshoot of the mormons called the church of Jesus Christ who broke from Smith after his polygamy teaching became public. They recognize the book of Mormon and the Bible only. she still thinks the American Indians are Jews.

Johnson agrees with my both/and view to Temple outreaches, onsite and offsite. and we both agree that the onsite stuff needs to be considerate and not obnoxious. In fact his website describes one on-site approach.

overall, this was excellent. i think Johnson pointed out significant issues and Millet acknowledged some of them and blew smoke at the same time. it was worth the time and i'm glad i went.

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