Overheard while eavesdropping in the Deseret Diner:
First speaker (let’s call him Adam): I’m not a member of your church, as you know, but I’ve lived among Mormons for most of my life, talked with missionaries, attended lots of meetings with friends. Done a lot of reading. There’s so much I admire about your church– its moral teachings, its family life, its community. And its genuine faith in Jesus Christ. (I’m an Evangelical, and this is important to me.) I don’t know of a church these days that does as much to spread the basic Gospel message– through your missionaries and on-line videos and all.
But there’s one thing about Mormons that really bothers me– that is, your insistence that yours is “the only true church,” as I’ve often heard it put. Why do you have to say that? Mormons are annoyed when some Evangelicals say that you’re aren’t Christians. And understandably so. But don’t you see that you provoke this, and that you’re basically doing the same thing, when you say that yours is the only true church– or at least the only church with “the fullness of the Gospel”– and that in order to achieve exaltation everyone will have to join your church, in the next world if not in this one? This tenet actually undermines your efforts to spread the basic Christian message, I think, because people see your Christian videos or whatever and think, “That’s good, but they’re just using it to try to get people to join their church.” I’m not saying the suspicion is fair, but some people do think that.
Second speaker (call her Eve): You know, I agree. I am a member– an active member– and there’s so much about this church that I love. But I don’t see why it isn’t enough to believe that the church’s doctrines and moral teachings come from God, and that the church is guided by God, through leaders who are called of God. It makes me uncomfortable when members stand up in Testimony Meeting or Gospel Doctrine class and say they know this is the only true church, or when they make disparaging comments or snide jokes about other churches. This doesn’t happen as often as it used to, fortunately, and usually I think these are good-hearted people who mean no offense. But I really wish we could just get over the competitive, exclusivist thing, and join in full communion with the Christian community.
Third speaker (let’s call him, oh, . . .Nephi): I understand what you’re both saying. And I appreciate the sentiment. But I think you’re falling into a characteristic modern confusion. People these days don’t want to offend– that’s to their credit, mostly– and so they want to say, “Well, I think my belief is good and true, but your contrary belief may be equally good and true.” But that just isn’t logical. If X is true, then a contrary idea Y is necessarily false– or at least not as completely true.
And this logic holds for Gospel truths just as it does for mathematical or scientific or other truths. It’s been that way from the beginning. Polytheistic pagans in the Greek and Roman worlds would have been happy enough to accept Jesus Christ as a divinity– as one god in the pantheon. One emperor even put up a statue of Jesus in his private chapel, alongside statues of Abraham, Orpheus, and Apollonius. That seemed to the pagans to be open-minded and tolerant. But Christians couldn’t accept that kind of acceptance. Because they understood that to say that Jesus was one god along with Zeus and Apollo and company would be in essence to deny Jesus– to deny him as the God they believed him to be.
Adam: Hmm. . . Interesting, but I’m not sure this is the same thing. As I mentioned, I’m an Evangelical. A Baptist, as it happens. I have friends who are devout Methodists, and Presbyterians, and Lutherans. We all believe that we are being taught the Gospel in our churches. But we don’t feel we have to say that the others don’t have the Gospel. I might prefer the style of worship in my own church; my Lutheran friends probably prefer the Lutheran liturgy. We might even think that the teachings of our denominations– about baptism, say, or the ordination of women– are preferable, or more faithful to the Bible, than the teachings of other denominations. But we don’t have to claim that ours is “the only true church.” And we don’t have to deny that salvation can be found– through faith, and God’s grace– in any of these churches.
Even my Catholic friends wouldn’t claim that kind of exclusivity for their church–
Nephi: Are you sure about that?
Adam: Well, . . .no, actually. Maybe the conservative Catholics would. I’m not sure. But they do accept the baptisms of most other Christian faiths. (Not yours, I’m afraid.) And they have doctrines– about degrees of communion, and so forth– that let them extend fellowship to other Christians.
It may be that at one time most Christian denominations claimed to be “the true church.” That’s the way it was when your church was getting started; at least, your founder Joseph Smith surely perceived things that way. So it’s understandable that back then, Mormons would have claimed to be “the true church,” just as other sects did. But by now yours seems to be one of the few churches that still insists on that. At a time when Christians here and around the world need to strive for greater solidarity, this seems unfortunate.
Eve: Amen. And for me, I’d have to say that the “only true church” idea creates a sort of gulf between me and my Christian friends, even though we treat each other respectfully. In my mind anyway. And it creates a kind of barrier that makes it more difficult to appreciate and draw on the richness of the whole Christian tradition– and especially difficult to share aspects of that Christian tradition with my Mormon brothers and sisters. I can read and learn from Mother Theresa or Julian of Norwich. But start quoting them in Gospel Doctrine class and people would immediately be suspicious.
Nephi: I appreciate what you’re saying. But I think that for some things– some institutions, some ideas– the inclusivity you want is possible. For other things, it just isn’t; it would be contradictory– self-dissolving, in a sense– to embrace that kind of inclusivity. So you can say that your university is wonderful– or your state, . . . or your spouse– without denying that other universities or states or spouses may be equally wonderful. But you can’t say to someone “I accept your claim to be the Queen of England, but I also accept other people’s claim to be the Queen of England.” Because there can only be one Queen of England. So to accept someone else’s claim is to deny the first person’s claim.
Eve: Okay, but why is a church necessarily in the exclusivist class?
Nephi: I don’t think a church is necessarily in that class. It depends on the church. If your church says, “Our central mission is to faithfully teach the Bible,” then there’s no reason why you can’t allow that other churches are doing that as well. As well as or maybe even better than you are.
But the Mormon church– the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints– claims a lot more than that. Our self-understanding is based on a particular narrative. You both know the story. Jesus founded a church. It fell away into apostasy– disappeared from the earth. (Although vestiges and fragments remained– and you know that we always acknowledge lots of truth in other churches). Then Joseph Smith was called to restore the true church in its fullness.
If that’s our self-understanding– and I think it is– then we can’t just say, “Oh, and by the way, all the other Christian churches are true too,” because to say that would be to contradict and dissolve our own story. To cut the ground out from under our feet. And we would thereby lose our reason for being. We might as well just take down our tent and go home. So, like it or not, we pretty much have to say that we’re the only true church in the fullest sense.
And, incidentally, it’s not as if I have some psychological need for superiority– some need to say “My church is better than yours.” As a matter of fact, I’m as uncomfortable with that as you are; I’d be happy enough to join peaceably in full Christian communion, as you put it. But given our self-understanding, our church is basically an all-or-nothing proposition. So I think that this exclusive truth claim is something we’re stuck with, like it or not.
Adam and Eve (in unison): Okay, but here’s the question: is there any reason why this particular story– the apostasy-restoration story– has to be the Mormon story? That this story has to define what you (Adam speaking)/we (Eve speaking) are as a church? Couldn’t there be some other story or self-understanding that would still provide the church with a reason for being, as you put it, but that could be more inclusive?
Nephi: Well, the apostasy-restoration narrative is the story, or at least has been. Could we just replace it with some other story? I’m skeptical. Do you have some proposal?
The conversation continued, but at this point the eavesdropper had to leave to meet his companion for a ministering visit. So he never learned whether Adam, Eve, and Nephi came up with another viable story or not.