Years ago, I used to believe that God had called me to win Mormons to Christ. I was the classic “anti-Mormon.” For 20 years, I studied Mormon culture diligently, believing that God would call me someday (a day that never came) to serve a Protestant church in Mormon territory. I found the culture to be fascinating, and I still feel that way today. If only I believed that Mormonism were true, I would love to be a part of it.
Nope. I firmly believe the Book of Mormon to be false, and I believe that Joseph Smith was a false prophet. The fact that the text from which Smith claims to have translated the Book of Abraham turned out to be a late Egyptian funeral text with absolutely no resemblance to Smith’s translation, is evidence about as damaging as digging up the bones of Jesus.
Lately, however, I have begun to have some disturbing thoughts. More and more, I am finding that I have more beliefs in common with the Mormons (whom I consider to be a “cult”, i.e. a false brand of Christianity) than I do with revisionists (my term for “progressives”) within my own church. As the Mormons literally risked their lives, property, and reputation to campaign in favor of California’s Proposition 8, I said to myself, “God bless them!” It felt weird to say that. I voted for Mitt Romney in the Illinois presidential primary. I find myself more in agreement with Glenn Beck’s statements on Jesus’ atoning death and his resurrection, than I do with the beliefs on these subjects expressed by some fellow Presbyterians, who reject our historic understanding of both the atonement and resurrection of Christ.
Now yes, I know well that a Mormon like Beck can use orthodox Christian words, and infuse them with very different meanings than what we mean. The official Mormon doctrine on Jesus’ atonement is that it only removes the guilt of Adam’s sin, not our own guilty track record, which must be atoned for by good works. And when a temple Mormon says that Jesus is God, he or she does so with a polytheistic rather than Trinitarian concept in mind.
Whether Beck means what I mean, whether he is a pretend orthodox Christian, or a not-very-Mormon Mormon, is beyond what I can discern. But here’s the rub: my revisionist colleagues do the same thing with language all the time. Some claim to believe in the resurrection, but they believe that Jesus’ bones are still in the ground. Some claim to believe in the atonement, but they reject as “barbaric” and “outdated” the notion that God incarnate actually paid the death penalty for human sin. They claim to believe in the authority of Scripture, but they set themselves up as judges over the Bible, declaring it to be guilty of error until proven innocent.
The Gnostics did the same thing back in the second and third centuries A.D. — they used our words, but gave them radically different meanings, just like our modern pseudo-Christian cults. So, where does that leave today’s revisionists? Suffice it to say that we have returned to the days of the early church, where we can no longer be sure what those who claim the Christian name mean when they use a word. What good is unity in Christ, if all we have is unity around an empty one-syllable word with very different fill-in-the-blank meanings?
Regularly I get asked (including by my own daughter) why clergy who don’t believe the historic doctrines of the faith want to be church leaders. Why do they want to invent a game of “baseball” with five bases, 43 players, hockey sticks, and a football? (Readers of Mad magazine from 40 years ago may recognize this game!) My answer is that these clergy want a job, and “baseball” is the only game in town that sells.
So what about my friends the Mormons? I am beginning to think that some of the Mormons may end up in heaven, despite their membership in a false church. It is easier for me to suspect that some of my revisionist colleagues may someday find themselves in the same place as Joseph Smith. I think particularly of those who claim that God created and blesses same-sex sexual love, and that we need to “catch up” to where God already is. The Gods of Mormonism and Islam (yes, you heard me right, even Islam) stand closer to the God of the Bible than this god, who is much more like the Gnostic god that was rejected by the early church.
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 27 years, has degrees from Gordon-Conwell (M.Div.) and Concordia (Ph.D.), and is currently seeking a call.