As Pastor Bob Smith rounded the corner, heading toward his study after Wednesday Bible study, he was met by Clarice Jerdan, one of his church members who had a way of turning a not-quite-current phrase, with a whole series of questions. "Pastor, what was all that noise about the Fellowship of Christian Athletes here in Tennessee barring a Mormon athlete from receiving an award? How could they have kept that from him? After all, Mormons are generally good folks, aren't they? They even have missionaries and baptize by immersion don't they?"
Pastor Smith, who had been asked those questions before, replied, "Well, dear sister, I won't try to interpret FCA practice or policy but I'm happy to talk with you about Mormonism. You may remember that when this news broke, a newspaper ran a column entitled "Baptists Find Mormons A Little Too Close For Comfort." It's a cute title, but the truth of the matter is that we find them far too distant, doctrinally speaking, for comfort. For instance, while members of the Latter Day Saints church don't like to be called a cult, which technically they are, it is the Mormon church which teaches that all denominations are heretical and that the LDS group is, in fact, the only true church.
"I don't know if you even know it, but Mormons argue that their church alone possesses the true and "restored gospel." That "gospel" they maintain, is found only in the teachings and authoritative writings of the LDS church. Their founder, Joseph Smith, claims that Jesus had appeared to him in 1820, along with God the Father, who was in a "body of flesh and bones." Jesus then told him that all existing churches (including Baptist, Methodists and Presbyterians) were "all wrong...their creeds an abomination," their "professors (church members) corrupt." (Pearl of Great Price - Smith, History 1:19). Why else do they call non-Mormons "gentiles" and bar everyone but the best LDS members from their temples? They call themselves 'Latter Day Saints' because, according to them, no true saints have existed since the time of the New Testament.
"You're right about one thing — they do immerse. But the LDS church also teaches that one must be a Mormon, having been baptized in a Mormon temple, with a letter of recommendation from their bishop in order to enter the highest level of their heaven - the celestial kingdom. By the way, the plan of salvation to enter that realm includes tithing to the church, baptisms on behalf of dead people and other "works." The cross is not at all important to them and is generally avoided. It is seen as negative and bloody. Rather, they say that the "atonement" took place in the Garden of Gethsemane and atoned only for Adam's original sin. Clarice, have you ever noticed that you never see a cross on a Mormon ward house or temple? It's because it doesn't play an important part either symbolically or in substance in their plan of salvation. God's grace only makes up the difference for the diligent Mormon who has done his best. But first they must do their best to be worthy of the reward of the celestial kingdom.
"Let me mention other important issues that divide Mormons and Christians. For instance, they believe that God was once a man and that every good Mormon man can achieve godhood. Jesus, they believe, was born to God as his spirit child in heaven and was Lucifer's spirit brother, who was also God's spirit son. The virgin birth? Well, let's just say that will take more time and discretion to discuss than we have now. But if God is confined to a body, then as my teenager says, "Go figure."
"Clarice, they also teach their people that the Book of Mormon, the revelations of Joseph Smith and other Mormon prophets are divine scripture equal to, if not superior to, the Bible itself. These other 'scriptures' are contained in another book — Scriptures and Covenants. It's there that you'll find the real beliefs of Mormonism, and in their opinion, the full truth of God. We could go on and maybe even on and on, or perhaps on and on and on, to discuss our real differences in belief. In light of all this, we must ask, 'Are Mormons mainstream Christians, or what we'd call evangelicals?' Only if cows fly, my sister!
"We Southern Baptists certainly don't think we're the only ones in the Body of Christ. In a 1994 SBC resolution, Southern Baptists made clear that we confess 'with all true Christians everywhere belief in the Triune God, the full deity and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth ... His substitutionary atonement for sins,' and 'the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ above without any additions ... of human efforts.' Where people believe these truths we believe they are genuinely Christians. Unfortunately, the LDS church falls far short of this standard. Some Mormons, in spite of their church's teachings, and in contradiction to it, might be true believers. We certainly hope that is the case.
"And we're more than happy to talk about the things of the Lord with anybody. The '94 SBC resolution affirmed 'the benefit of conversation with any religious group, which is willing ... to discuss their faith ... on the basis of Holy Scripture.' Let's hope that we'll be wise, Spirit-filled and loving enough to share with our Mormon friends, neighbors, and, yes, even those missionaries on bicycles, the good news of the cross and resurrection of the biblical Jesus Christ!
"It's important to remember that I Corinthians 13:6 reminds us that 'love rejoices in the truth.' As far as our Mormon acquaintances are concerned, let's both rejoice in the truth and find a way to tell them that truth in love!
"Clarice, I hope this little hallway comparative religion course helps you to understand that when a religious group claims to be Christian; it is tested by its teachings, not its public relations."
Clarice, not used to the pastor being so exercised, grinning and nodding, said, "Right on, Pastor."
Phil Roberts is director of the Interfaith Witness Department of the Home Mission Board.