Thursday, January 4, 2018
Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018
Tags: Audio, Mennonite Church, Mormonism, Playboy, Thomas Monson
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, January 4, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
We’ll look today at major religious news in the United States this week, first among Mormons and then among Mennonites. Then we’ll note yet another strange milestone in the sexual and moral revolution.
Mormon President’s death highlights differences between historic Christianity and Mormonism
Major religious news in the United States came yesterday with the announcement of the death of the president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints otherwise known as the Mormon Church. The official Mormon authorities released a statement yesterday,
“With tender feelings we announce that Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died this evening,” that would be Tuesday evening, “at 10:01 pm in his home in Salt Lake City. He was with family at the time of his passing. He died at age 90,” said the statement, “incident to age.”
And speaking of age, the man who is expected to follow him as the president and prophet of the Mormon church is a 93-year-old former heart surgeon named Robert Nelson, and we also need to note that Thomas Monson who would serve for more than a half-century as one of those men identified as apostles of the church had served as an apostle for 20 years before his fellow apostle Robert Nelson joined the quorum. Worldwide Mormons now count about 16 million members, but it is also true that the Mormon Church has a particular history, a particular influence and a particular legacy within the United States of America where the movement was born. But we also have to recognize that many evangelical Christians simply are quite confused when thinking about Mormonism especially when it comes to their Mormon neighbors. There is the immediate perception of the fact that many of their nicest and most cooperative neighbors are Mormons, and there is the immediate recognition of two different factors. First, Mormons speak often of Jesus Christ even naming their church the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and secondly Mormons speak often of the family and clearly hold to many common beliefs about marriage and the family with Christians including what would often traditionally be known as family values. On many of the current issues of white-hot controversy in the United States, evangelical Christians find themselves in common terrain in the culture with Mormons.
But that news release from Mormon authorities yesterday about the death of their President Thomas S. Monson cues us into one of the major differences between evangelical Christianity, historic biblical Christianity, Trinitarian Christianity and Mormonism. And that very first sentence the authorities announced that the president and prophet of the church had died. Thomas Monson was actually the 16th prophet and president. The very first of course was Joseph Smith in the 19th century. The important thing to recognize here is that the word prophet is intentionally designated within Mormonism to refer to the fact that the leader of the church is believed to be a direct voice from God, and thus there is a living prophecy and not only that a living apostolate. The second-highest ranking body within Mormon authorities is known as the quorum of the 12 apostles. And by using the word apostles and prophet, there is the direct claim made by Mormonism that those authorities are the very voice of God or at least through them God continues to give ongoing revelation. That very claim at the foundation of the question of religious authority indicates the great distinction between biblical Christianity and Mormonism.
It also comes coincidentally with the fact that a major book appeared just in recent weeks that registers a Mormon concern that many Mormons are confused to the extent that they have been adopting certain Protestant beliefs and practices especially within the American context. The authors of the book are Fiona and Terryl Givens. Terryl Givens by the way is the Jabez A. Bostwick professor of English at the University of Richmond. He is also a well-known scholar of Mormonism and a prominent Mormon his books published by Oxford University Press. This book was written with Fiona Givens. The title is The Christ Who Heals: How God Restored the Truth That Saved Us. What's most interesting about this book and particularly relevant to the timing of today's discussion is the fact that in this book these authors are quite concerned that Mormons understand the difference between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity where in this case historic Protestantism as well.
In this book the authors press the case that finding shared ground with historic Christian denominations can be valuable, but they also warn that to Mormons it can be confusing. They use the word restored in the title of their book, and they remind the readers of the book over and over again that Mormonism claims to be a restoration, a restoration of authentic Christianity, which according to the Mormon timeline had simply fallen into decline and disappeared between the apostles in the New Testament and Joseph Smith. Now note what that means. It means that the restoration was a repudiation of historic Protestant Christianity as well as the historic Catholic tradition in terms of major doctrines, most importantly the doctrines concerning Christ and the Trinity. Speaking of Christ, the authors write,
“Do Latter-day Saints worship the same Christ as other Christians? “The answer,” they say, “is not a simple one.”
As Joseph Smith said, the fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the apostles and prophets concerning Jesus Christ that he died was buried and rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it. So yes, they say, of course we worship Jesus Christ as the son of God Redeemer of the world. But immediately they go on to say, at the same time,
“The Restoration radically reshapes our understanding of his character and role as it emerged in preexistent councils, where he positioned himself to be our spiritual Father and to reunite us with our Heavenly Family, committing himself with unparalleled devotion to the project of our return. The Restoration,” they say, “reclaims Christ’s Atonement as an act of healing.”
Now what it repudiates in other words very clearly in terms of authoritative Mormon teaching is the idea that Christ came to save us from our sins much less the fact that Christ was our penal substitute. In this book there is the affirmation made to Mormons indeed in the form of a doctrinal warning that they remember the fact that Mormons do not believe in the doctrine of original sin, and they do not believe that the Son died in our place in order to pay the penalty for our sins and that this was both required and provided by the Father as we find in a crucial text such as Romans Chapter 3 Verses 21 and following. The work of Christ as described in this book by these two Mormon authors in these words,
“The Restoration also reconstructs judgment and salvation: the first as a process of self-understanding and self-revelation that is merciful and formative, the second as an eternal process by which an infinitely devoted Healer will work tirelessly to draw us ever onward into eternal realms of belonging.”
In this book we find an affirmation of the historic Mormon teaching of deification. In fact the authors go back to Eastern Christianity and point out that if Mormons are looking for some kind of theological partnership, it is far more likely to be found in the notion of theosis – that is deification in Eastern orthodoxy – than in either Catholicism or in Protestantism. Why? Because as they make very clear, the theologian who bent the church toward what they say is misunderstanding was Augustine, the great church father of Western Christianity. They argue that with Augustine the Western church fell; first the Roman Catholic Church into its historic understandings of sin and depravity in atonement and later quite explicitly they blame the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther particularly. But they also blame figures in the lineage of the reformers such as Jonathan Edwards.
They also remind Mormons that Mormonism denies the Trinity, the most basic of all Christian doctrines. And as a matter of fact in this book there is the affirmation of the Mormon teaching of both a male and a female deity in terms of a heavenly father and a heavenly mother referred to historically as heavenly parents. They remind their fellow Mormons at the very foundational level that what they claim in terms of the central thesis of what they call the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is that the church had fallen and disappeared and had to be restored. As they write,
“A wholesale restoration would not be needed if 19th century Christology had not been lacking plain and precious truths. We believe it was,” they say, “the Lord’s message to Joseph in the Grove,” meaning Joseph Smith, “using disturbingly stark language was that certain crucial creedal declarations about Christian fundamentals were devastatingly, destructively wrong.”
That's referring to the historic doctrine of the Trinity and doctrines concerning Christ that inform the very basis of historic Christianity drawn from Scripture.
Should the Mormon church be considered a Christian denomination?
Furthermore in another development that gained the attention of the media just in recent days, Brady McCombs reporter for the Associated Press ran an article that was published in several major American newspapers. In the Orlando Sentinel the headline was this,
“Pposthumous LDS baptisms resurrect ire”
As McCombs reports,
“Mormons are posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims as well as grandparents of public figures like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Steven Spielberg, despite church rules intended to restrict the ceremonies to a member’s ancestors, according to a researcher who has spent two decades monitoring the church’s massive genealogical database.”
Now the big news that breaks here is the fact that the Mormon authorities had given assurances to many groups, most particularly to Jewish groups, that they had stopped the practice of posthumously baptizing those whose names became known through the list of the dead in the Holocaust. These baptisms for the dead otherwise known as proxy baptisms were well explained by the Associated Press. I quote,
“Proxy baptisms are tied to a core church teaching that families spend eternity together, but the baptisms do not automatically convert dead people to Mormonism. Under church teachings, the rituals provide the deceased a choice in the afterlife to accept or reject the offer of baptism.”
The report also tells us,
“Posthumous baptisms are performed at the church’s 159 temples around the globe, mostly by young people. Members are escorted to a decorative baptismal font resting on statutes of 12 oxen. An adult or older teen male reads a short prayer, and the member — representing the dead relative — is immersed in water.”
Each baptism is then recorded in the Mormon database. Most of the media attention fairly understandably has been addressed to this controversy about posthumous or proxy baptisms concerning victims of the Holocaust, but the bigger theological issue actually turns out to be the implicit universalism within Mormonism. You'll notice here that there is the assurance that those who are baptized posthumously are expected to have a choice in the afterlife as to whether or not they will accept the baptism and thus the blessings that are promised by means of the Mormon church. So with these media events very much in mind, the major news story about the death of the Mormon president and prophet, the news story concerning the controversy over proxy and posthumous baptisms and the news story concerning this new book warning Mormons not to be confused in adopting Protestant evangelical beliefs and practices, all this brings us to some very important questions and now urgently in timely questions.
The most important question is this: should we consider the Mormon Church, the church known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as a Christian denomination? No, we should not. It simply fails every major test of Christian orthodoxy. It is itself at its very foundation a repudiation of historic Christian orthodoxy. It claims an authority of a living prophet, living apostles and the book of Mormon as a successor. They call it another Testament of Jesus Christ to the Bible itself. They deny the most basic Christian doctrine of all, which is the doctrine of the Trinity, and they also reformulate the doctrines concerning Christ not only in terms of the person of Christ but also of his work. They preach what the apostle Paul identified in the book of Galatians as another gospel. And this must be recognized.
At the same time this is also a very timely reminder to Christians that in the name of Christ and in the service of the gospel it is never wrong to live amongst our neighbors with mutual respect. But that respect does not mean it's a respect at the expense of the truth. We should expect our Mormon neighbors to believe in Mormonism, and we should also protect their religious liberty to do so where religious liberty that is threatened for both Mormons and evangelicals. But at the same time our respect for religious liberty and our respect for our neighbors does not prevent us in any way from either the responsibility or the urgency of evangelism. And we should note that goes both ways. Mormons are seeking to evangelize biblical Christians even as biblical Christians are seeking to evangelize Mormons. That's honest and it need not be disrespectful. Furthermore there should be the recognition of the fact that we in terms of the biblical doctrine of common grace are glad to find the affirmation of certain very essential moral principles and affirmations of the structures of creation wherever they are found. We should be very happy to find a rightly ordered family wherever that rightly ordered family is found. That’s simply a testimony to the goodness of God in the very structures of the creation that he made for human flourishing.
But lastly we also need to recognize that there is a rightful sympathy we feel for anyone who is morning. Indeed blessed are those Jesus said who mourn and in that sense we are right to be sensitive to our Mormon neighbors in understanding that millions of Mormons in the United States are mourning right now the loss of the man they have seen for a decade as the president and prophet of their church. We are to be at all times as Christians the people of the truth. But as we also know they will know we are Christians by our love.
In spite of “official” doctrine, Mennonite church continues leftward trend
Next in other major religious news in the United States, Religion News Service reports the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, the largest group of Mennonite congregations in the United States, has officially separated from the broader Mennonite community after a long term disagreement over sexuality and the church. It becomes very clear that this largest group of Mennonite congregations in the U.S., the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, left out of frustration with the fact that the larger Mennonite organization known as the Mennonite Church USA was simply not holding to its own doctrine and policies concerning the definition of marriage as exclusively the union of a man and a woman. But as RNS reports,
“The two groups fractured over the definition of marriage — an issue roiling virtually every U.S. religious denomination in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. The LMC,” that’s the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, “opposes same-sex marriage and,” according to the RNS, “members were increasingly uncomfortable with some Mennonite Church USA policies that affirmed it, including hiring policies that address LGBT people.”
The next sentence is particularly crucial,
“the issue of sexuality has riven the Mennonite community — and many other Protestant denominations — for decades.”
The next sentence,
“The Mennonite Church USA officially views homosexual activity as a sin and defines marriage as between one man and one woman,” the sentence continues, “but there has been pushback against that from within as several pastors have performed same-sex marriages (and been censured or resigned) and smaller regional conferences that affirm LGBT relationships have departed.”
Now there are a couple of important observations to make here. The RNS story is not exactly wrong, but it's also not exactly right to say that the issue of same-sex marriage is,
“roiling virtually every U.S. religious denomination.”
It’s certainly roiling just about every mainstream liberal Christian denomination and now that includes the Mennonites. But we should also note that what's not acknowledged here is the fact that the Mennonite movement has been at least bureaucratically and institutionally trending leftward for some time. But there's another interesting observation here. The RNS story says that the Mennonite Church USA officially views homosexual activity as a sin and defines marriage as between one man and one woman. Well in that sense officially the Lancaster Mennonite Conference exactly agrees with the Mennonite Church USA. The problem is that that word officially indicates the fact that even though it is the official formal church teaching and policy the church has not policed it and is not expected to hold to it.
So let's observe this, when you have to use the word officially in front of your church or denomination's doctrine or policy and then when more or less you have to put scare quotes around the word officially, you are indicating that that official doctrine or policy is not pervasively held. It's not regulative amongst the church or the denomination. So maybe we should summarize that the progression goes this way. It goes from saying this is what we believe to this is what we officially believe to we don't believe that anymore we now believe something else. When you start to use the word officially in this context, it's a pretty clear signal that it will not remain official and certainly not actual for long.
Another strange milestone in the sexual and moral revolution
Finally in another sign of the times, the Wall Street Journal ran an article this week with the headline,
“Playboy May Turn Page Drop Magazine”
You'll recall the fact that on The Briefing we discussed the news as it was announced some time ago that Playboy had decided that it would no longer run pornographic nude pictures of women. That was news. It was less shouted from the house tops that Playboy subscriptions continued to fall after that decision, so the magazine returned to its explicit pornography. But now it turns out that the pornography enterprise has been so utterly transformed that no pornographic magazine may be able to continue in print. The magazine we are told has lost as much a $7 million annually in recent years. But make no mistake this isn't because there is any less of an appetite in the United States for pornography. It’s the fact that there is now a virtual ocean of pornography available online. No one needs the magazine anymore.
But it is a sign of the times that the iconic name Playboy may soon cease to be a magazine, and it's also an odd sign of the times that that isn't even necessarily morally good news. Not in this sense the loss of the magazine does not mean a net decrease in either the appetite for or the supply of pornography, it simply means that both of these are now so gargantuan in scale that the magazine ceases to be so significant. You can't have the sexual revolution of the 20th century without pornography and at the center of that story was Hugh Hefner and his magazine. Together for decades they told a false story about sex, a false story about women, a false story about marriage and sex, a false story we sadly note now being told by literally millions of others.