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Social Issues: Religion


by Stephen E. Robinson

A Review by Ross S. Olson

Are Mormons Christians? by Stephen E. Robinson is a stimulating and well written book by a scholarly author well qualified for such an analysis. His work asks the right questions and, to my mind, answers them well with a couple of notable exceptions.

In brief summary, Robinson's thesis is that Latter Day Saints have been excluded from the larger Christian fold for a number of reasons he considers unfair. This is because the reasons are not based on facts or have been applied unevenly to other groups.

One method of exclusion is by simply defining Mormons as non-Christians. Another involves distorting or misrepresenting what mainstream Mormons actually believe or by applying the label of "cult." Some seemingly require a continuous historical family tree back to the apostles to be a valid church. Other critics emphasize Latter Day Saint acceptance of non- canonical scriptures as disqualifying. Finally, some point to certain doctrines and practices as being outside the fold.

At the end of his book, Mr. Robinson makes a crucial point which is central to its understanding. "Even membership in the Church of Christ is insufficient for salvation without that personal experience of the Savior and of his atonement, which begets us spiritually." (page 107)

It has long been common practice for secular thinkers to label as "Christian" any who belong to a church with a broad Christian orientation. It used to be a term implying something positive, but has more recently become an slur, especially if carrying the modifier "fundamentalist."

I doubt that it is for the more vague label that Robinson is asking. Rather, I will assume that he desires the Biblical and spiritual meaning of the word "Christian" be applied. This would mean those who have experienced salvation, a personal encounter with the Savior and have been born spiritually. Robinson acknowledges, in fact insists, that salvation requires more than just church membership.

If this is the case, he also exposes a semantic flaw in the title which could otherwise be read Are All Mormons Really Saved? Perhaps it should have been phrased as Are Some Mormons Saved? or possibly Are Mormons Generically Christian?

With that clarification it might be possible to close the subject and move on to something else, because according to the Scriptures accepted (if not always understood) by Catholics, Protestants and Mormons, salvation is indeed a spiritual experience. Jesus spoke of a new birth. The letter to the Hebrews describes faith as a response that allows a person to step into an unknown future trusting God on the basis of what He has done in the past.

These same Scriptures also show this experience of faith sometimes coming to the unlikely and eluding the qualified. Prostitutes and thieves were among those saved, as well as many common people. Religious scholars and scrupulously righteous people often missed the crucial point and even became enemies of the truth.

By noting that God revealed Himself to a King of Salem (Melchizedek), a Moabite woman (Ruth), a Midianite priest (Jethro), a Samaritan women (who is probably glad her name is not recorded) and a Roman Centurion (Cornelius), it becomes apparent that He sometimes crosses the lines of experience and heritage that we tend to emphasize.

On the other hand, most members of the ethnic groups mentioned above did not either come to the truth nor commit themselves to the God of all truth. In fact, years after Moses lived in Midian, God commanded him to totally destroy that nation because of their wickedness. Yet, the genuine faith of his Midianite father-in-law is clear from the record (Numbers 18:9-12).

Even in Earth's first nuclear family (and in some sense first church,) Adam and Eve, who had experienced the presence of God in a way we can only imagine, found one of their children going bad. And it appears to have been a simple rebellion -- a matter of the heart. Knowing the truth does not guarantee obeying the truth.

A return to the experience of God's presence, moving back in the direction of His original will in the Garden, has been made available to us by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He took the punishment we deserve but asks from us a commitment of our lives, a journey beginning and continuing with steps of faith. The whole record of Scripture points to this truth, yet each time we study it, the magnificence and wonder become greater.

In comparison with what I now know of the grace of God, at the point in time when I first accepted it, I knew nearly nothing. And in comparison with the whole truth, it is not hard to imagine that what I now know is nearly nothing.

Therefore, we can see that God does not require us to "have it all together" before allowing us to begin our spiritual journey with Him. Just as an infant or young child only vaguely comprehends the adult world of his parents, I am often ignorant and sometimes misinformed about God.

Yet, the faith required by God, according to His Word, requires some knowledge. The existence of God and something of His divine nature are so apparent from what He has made, Paul tells us in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, that unbelievers are without excuse.

But there are questions about the natural world that cannot be answered by the unaided human mind without more information. Why is there evil? Does God not care or can He not help? Only as God reveals Himself do we have clues, but still no complete answers.

Job was not told of the exchange in heaven that led to His suffering. Yet He saw enough to understand that nothing was too hard for God and nothing could happen without His permission.

Likewise, we cannot totally understand the reasons for all the suffering and evil. Yet we see in Jesus: compassion, self sacrifice, and participation in our sorrows as well as the latent power to swallow them all up in victory.

Some come to Jesus with only the vaguest notion that there is indeed a Creator behind the beauty and grandeur of creation. They recognize their unworthiness and ask for His mercy. It is "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" which seems to represent the minimal core of the Gospel.

For most, this understanding grows as they mature and experience their commitment interacting with life. For others, who may remain spiritually like children due to limited time on earth or due to mental disability, that may be the sum total of their spiritual journey.

For the majority, however, the beat goes on. And while our heart keeps ticking, our faith often takes a licking. Life's experiences and ideas may lead us to act as if our relationship with God is either not true or not important. On the other hand, with a different response in our own heart, these same influences may drive us to a closer dependence on Him and more vivid understanding of what really matters in life.

Does this mean that facts are not important? Of course not. Sincerity in the service of deception is not rewarded by God. The prophets of Baal did not get brownie points with the Creator of Heaven and Earth for their passionate devotion to a false lord.

Some ideas are lies and some lies lead us away from God. Remember Eve in the Garden? Satan took God's command, twisted it a little, called the Creator's motivation into question and started a mental Domino effect that led our first parents to change the whole course of history.

Ideas may make it impossible for a person to recognize the truth when they see it. The Pharisees were familiar with all the scriptural data that should have made Jesus recognizable to them. They were also the most messianic of the Jews.

Yet their emphasis on the letter of the law blinded them to the fact that this man they were chastising for "doing work" on the Sabbath was actually performing miracles that defined a prophet. Their reliance on key tests, such as "no prophet comes out of Nazareth" deceived them due to incomplete information about Jesus origin. But for the most part, it was the pride of their hearts that proved to be the fatal flaw.

Some have clearly begun a spiritual journey with the One and True God, but along the way wandered off into some sort of wilderness. It is apparent from Scripture that Solomon uniquely experienced God. Yet at the end of his life, he was a depressed and cynical old man.

In writing Ecclesiastes, Solomon still knew the right answers, but they were recited without enthusiasm or joy. Undoubtedly this is related to the fact that although he had knowledge and wisdom beyond other men, he made the mistake of thinking that put him above God's clear commands.

Judas was one of the twelve but lost his way and perhaps his soul because he looked on the earthly and not the heavenly. Paul speaks of Demas as having left the mission team, and perhaps his faith, because he loved this present world.

In our own day, we see some like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Jim and Tammy Bakker. For the secular media, they are merely prominent examples of the foolishness they see in all religious faith. But for the discerning examiner, it appears that they began on the right track, but derailed and wrecked somewhere along the line.

The relationship of bad theology and bad behavior is complex. It is true that bad theology predisposes to bad behavior, but likewise, bad behavior seeks out bad theology to hide or justify itself. Hence the religious zeal for evolution by those who want to avoid being accountable to a Creator, followed by the assertion that various sorts of destructive or selfish behaviors are genetic or "have survival value."

Because humans are not logically consistent and because we are not capable of the sort of instantaneous comprehension that would allow us to see the end from the beginning, it is possible to hold ideas that are contrary to what we think we believe. For example, a majority of people who describe themselves as "born again Christians" in America agreed in a survey with the statement "there is no absolute truth."

Of course it is likely that these respondents are tangled in the post-rationalist idea that it really is true for them but they would be loath to impose it on anyone else. But I wonder how many would call the bank if their monthly statement showed evidence that someone with another concept of 2 + 2 had calculated their balance? Basically, if you have found absolute truth, you have to believe that it exists.

Yet, the results of the illogic may not be immediately apparent. A person may truly be a believer, go through life, experience spiritual growth and even be fruitful, with a major theological misconception. It is just as if a sapling with a huge unsightly tumor on its trunk continued to grow into a mature tree, and proceed to do all or part of what the tree is supposed to do.

Is the flaw without consequence? No, because it must have an effect whenever the normal structure is disrupted. Perhaps it will cause absence or decrease in the amount of fruit. Perhaps it will cause less dense shade. Or perhaps it will only show up as a weakness under extreme stress in a storm.

Also, the Christian who, for example, thinks all is determined by fate and it matters nothing what he does, may begin well. Out of habit, he may obey the commands and follow the disciplines, but when a particularly attractive temptation comes along, he does not have the understanding necessary to even want to overcome it.

Karl Barth, the founder of Neo-Orthodoxy, was afraid that archeology would not discover the historical Jesus. So, in order to protect the gospel, which he firmly believed, he wrote that Jesus existed in another realm, one of "meta-history," inaccessible to scientific inquiry. Even if they dug and found incontrovertible evidence that Jesus, the man, never walked the earth, Barth would still believe.

Barth did believe, but his spiritual descendants became the death of God theologians. They discovered that a God who cannot be confirmed is equivalent to no God at all. The theology of Barth was a hybrid of Biblical and secular philosophy, and was indeed infertile. It also had no roots.

In addition, God may use those who do not acknowledge or serve him. The high priest, Caiaphas, in plotting Jesus' death, spoke a God-inspired prophecy that "it is better for you that one man die for the people," even though he was far from God in his own heart. Paul wrote of those who preached the gospel out of jealously while he was in prison. Yet he welcomed this proclamation of the gospel, even by unworthy messengers.

Jesus said to his disciples, when they complained that some who were not of their group were preaching and healing in His name, "whoever who is not against us is for us." Although this seems to contradict his more familiar "he who is not for me is against me," it speaks of the diversity of God's kingdom and the greatness of God's power. Indeed, he could cause the rocks to cry out.

For example, I have friends who attend a church where the pastor is not a believer, although he preaches from the Bible. They regularly glean spiritual truths from his messages and ignore the rationalizations and explanations that make the same messages palatable to those spiritually blind "cultural Christians" who populate the other pews.

Thus it should be apparent that the question of who is really a Christian is not always clear to us. To be sure, God knows who are sheep and who are goats, and will have no trouble separating them. (For those who dislike simplistic divisions like this, they have to admit that indeed there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people and those who do not.)

Revelation speaks of those of every tribe, tongue and nation gathering in the presence of God. I suspect it would not do violence to the text to suggest that there may be some from every Christian church. The seven churches of Revelation, local congregations in John's vision but felt by some to also refer prophetically to historical periods in church history, show that spiritual vigor varied. For those whose lamp flickered and whose voice was uncertain, there may well have been quasi-members who had no real spiritual life.

It is obvious from history that the Catholic Church, at times, has focussed so much on external ritual that participants got no real understanding of what God requires. In some parts of the world that were evangelized, it became syncretistic with pagan religions so that the adherents worshipped both God and idols.

I know many Catholic believers whose understanding of spiritual realities as well as courageous and joyful lives can only come from the vital relationship with Jesus Christ which they claim. Yet there are others, who call themselves Catholic, for whom it makes not one iota of difference in their actions or attitudes, except that they observe a few church sacraments at critical times in their lives.

The Orthodox Church, with its reverence for heroes of the faith, may have revered them without understanding the lessons of commitment and spiritual discipline that God wishes each of us to follow today. The Protestant tradition, with its emphasis on God's grace, activated through faith, may miss the importance of living for the God I love as an act of obedience and worship.

I know strong believers who are part of all sorts of Christian churches. Some churches seem to be made up of only persons with genuine relationships to God. Others have lots of "hangers on." I imagine that the power which the church experiences in times and places of persecution is related to the "hangers on" letting go. After all, if asked to renounce their faith or die, those without a faith have no problem and those with weak faith give in.

Although I see that the gospel can be proclaimed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, there are also several dangers that can prevent spiritual birth or impair growth and fruitfulness. Some of these are touched on only briefly and inadequately by Mr. Robinson in his book. Others are not mentioned.

The core of the gospel, the minimum necessary for the new birth, can be gleaned from Biblical teaching as well as from encounters recorded in Scripture, some where only the minimum is seen. One of these is the thief on the cross. In this situation, the condemned man repented of his taunting as well as his crime, recognized his own sinfulness and Jesus' ability to save him. He then cried out for mercy, and Jesus assured him of his eternal security.

He did not go through any other steps because there was not time. It may well be that had he lived and afterwards refused to fellowship with believers or neglected to follow the spiritual disciplines, the genuineness of his conversion might have been called into question. Yet from what Jesus told him, we can be sure that his faith was real, and given time, would have showed itself in a life consistent with that faith.

This will sound like simultaneous affirmation and condemnation, but I am convinced that there are believers in the Mormon church. They have apprehended the core of the gospel and have passed from death into life.

When they have been born again, they are newborn babes in need of food. Even if some of the food is not nourishing, they may grow with varying degrees of health. They may even hold some ideas that are at variance with God's will and frankly untrue, yet they can still live and understand parts of God's will for them.

Let me explain exactly what I see those dangers to be. Notice that I am not excluding Mormons by definition, by traditional or historical exclusion and hopefully not by misrepresentation or name calling. The dangers I see are doctrinal and mainly revolve around the nature of God.

It should be noted that when Robinson appeals to historical inclusion of groups with doctrinal or canonical similarities to the Mormons in the larger fold of "Christian," it needs to be remembered that those groups may have experienced the very same problems I am speaking about.

It may well be that any who call Jesus "God" can be classified as Christian, and John writes that no one can call Him "Lord" without the influence of the Holy Spirit. But a New Ager who says Shirley McLaine is also God needs a lot of help and most likely is not a real believer. That person may be a legitimate seeker, however, who is just starting the journey from our polluted and confused culture in the general direction of truth.

The evolution of intelligences and nature of God doctrine is pivotal to this discussion. For either God is the ultimate source of all that is, or He is not. It may not make much difference in some situations whether God is merely great or infinite. But if He is not the source of all things, then there are beings or principles higher than He.

It may be possible to dismiss this sort of consideration as a diversion into "the god of the philosophers" sidetrack. Yet I believe that God created the human mind in a faint reflection of His own image and that communication and logic are part of His trademark, as implied by "Logos." God instructed us to use our minds to identify true and false prophets and exhorted us to serve Him with, among other things, our minds.

Deception and temptation often have a subtle intellectual twist to them, and Solomon warns that there is a way that seems right to a man but ends in death. Therefore, we need to first sanctify and then use our minds, cautiously but with the assurance that those with a pure heart will see God (and the others, presumably will see something else.)

The reason Eve fell for Satan's ploy in the Garden was that she had too low a view of God, thinking that just maybe God really did want to hold back the best from them, or maybe He had not really thought the whole thing through. This is one way that theology impacts behavior.

Some Mormons state that Eve did what was necessary for human growth and that "sinning" was therefore not really a fall. Robinson did not touch on the idea, and therefore must have considered it not to be mainstream. Those who believe it have a God whose commands are in the same ballpark as the mother who tells her toddler, "Don't eat those vegetables."

I believe that God is able to take evil that ought to have qualified us for obliteration and turn it into something beautiful because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But that is hardly the same thing as calling sin a necessity.

Now, if the statement of President Snow, "As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may become" simply refers to the incarnation of Christ and glorification of the believer, there is little to argue about. But if God was once a man on a world like ours and became gradually elevated to his present position. And if we may likewise be elevated by following the same principles, a number of problems jump out at us.

The first is that God is not the sole origin of the system under which He was elevated. And even though He may always stay above us in the cosmic pyramid system, the fact remains that He possibly has a God over Him and He at least is a slave to rules that allow elevation in the system. Throwing in a host of co-eternal spirits, un-created and existing with Him throughout eternity, regardless of their part in the organization of the system, you have something very different from a God who speaks all things into existence.

As I said, someone can have a very small idea of God and still be a growing believer, yet there is poison in some ideas that leads us away from the truth. A God who was once as I and is in a state of evolution may not really know everything He needs to know for running the Universe. He may sometimes want to help me but be unavoidably detained. He may have a lapse of moral purity and zap me, on a bad day, for no good reason but pique.

One might argue that God is so close to perfection that we cannot distinguish. But the Universe is so incredibly complex and human machinations so convoluted that tracking it all, much less guiding each believer and steering history is asking a lot of any non-infinite being. But then you might say that God operates as a chief executive and does not really get involved in the nitty gritty details. That is not the picture given in the Bible, however, unless you think God has to ask angels to check their computers when He needs and up-to-the-minute hair count for my head.

The other side to this is the attitude I have towards myself. Yes, I know that it says we will reign with Him and will be given authority, but always under his ultimate Lordship. I do not see myself as a God over a universe. In fact the thought is terrifying.

Do you think our God ever calls His God for advice? Would it be any better if He were finite and had no one to consult? Can you see a difference between the great glory God had planned for me as the fully developed image of the One Who made me, as compared to the glory gained by just following in the tracks of the One Who climbed the path before?

Despite the distinct differences between the fully developed world views, there seems to be a spiritual and intellectual movement of Mormons in the direction of a more standard understanding of God. Or at least there is a de-emphasis of the non-standard. This would be the clear implication of a book like Robinson's, unless he is a complete maverick.

And if this is happening, it is happening at a time when there is great ferment in the both the Catholic and Protestant churches. For there is a great falling away of the liberal elements, moving into New Age pantheism. There is also a disturbing lack of spiritual understanding on the part of many evangelicals.

I personally feel that drifting into moral compromise and sin has intellectually crippled many, so that they cannot and will not see the truth. Mormons, on the other hand, have maintained a purity of lifestyle which, I feel, allows them to be reached more easily by God's Spirit, if they do not succumb to pride.

A life of obedience does not make us worthy of God's grace, for even our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. But the one who is caught in a web of sin and deception is very hard to reach, unless he gets to the very end of himself and still has the humility to cry for help.

Which brings me to the most inflammatory part of this analysis and something the author of the book did not touch, namely Joseph Smith. Of course, it can be said that the church now stands on its own merit and that may be true, but there are serious concerns about the character and qualifications of the prophet.

It might be prudent from a tactical view to ignore this aspect of the matter and concentrate on the other issues. Yet I do not think it truly kind or honest to avoid what for many are reasons to write off the Latter Day Saints without a second look.

The allegations are serious and certainly well known to any Mormon who reads literature about Joseph Smith, whether written from inside or outside the church, for the accusations have not been kept secret and defenses are frequently made. Perhaps I do not need to go into detail, but there are accounts of involvement in the occult, especially for the purpose of treasure seeking.

There is also evidence of changing stories over time. I have personally researched changes in the Book of Commandments (Doctrine and Covenants) over the editions. It was not just a matter of sprucing up the language but wholesale deletions, revisions and insertions, apparently to correct erroneous prophecies.

Mormons to whom I pointed this out, after several weeks of consideration, returned with the answer, "God can change His words if He wants." And maybe a finite God needs to do so but the God I serve knows the end from the beginning.

The sexual misconduct allegations are serious and bear a striking resemblance to the sort of behavior seen in Jim Jones and David Koresh, where power became an aphrodisiac. The phrase, "God has chosen you to be my spiritual wife" might have been one of the all time great "lines."

If any of these are true, it would seem that Joseph was not a man of God but a slave of sin, and candidate for demonic influence. In our own day, those involved in "channeling" write amazing things beyond their own knowledge by the power of outside intelligences. They attribute them to good sources and only others with spiritual discernment are able to discover the distortion of truth that is promoted.

In summary, are some Mormons Christians? Yes, indeed. Are some lost? Undoubtedly. How to estimate the percentages might not be all that important if the principle on which they are saved is agreed.

Is at least something of the Word of God proclaimed in Mormon gatherings? Is God able to speak through official pronouncements? Is the Lord Jesus Christ elevated and truth proclaimed? It would have to be checked in each case against the Scriptures, just as words from a TV evangelist or Roman prelate.

Yet I do not see the remnant of truth as any credit to the founder, rather it is an example of the incredible staying power of the gospel. For its fundamentals were not lost in the superimposed extraneous additions. And in fact they have grown up and crowded out the weeds in the hearts of some whose desire is pure.

Yet the dangers are real, as they are within any tradition, that the unrepentant heart will lead its owner into unseen pits or deadly detours. For it is not possible to live the godly life in human power. Only a relationship with the Triune God Who made and sustains all things allows us to have any hope for time or eternity and only a daily walk with Him can keep us on the right path.

Ross S.Olson MD

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