Richard Mouw is probably my favorite living Christian leader. President of Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California – the school where I started my graduate theological education – Richard is frequently turned to by the media when the culture has questions about how Christians are thinking about some question of social significance – usually controversial. He is intelligent, winsome and articulate – but above all else, he is spiritually centered and theologically grounded.
He is a thinking believer, just the kind of Christian that I myself am trying to be. And he is deeply rooted in his Reformed Evangelicalism. This is certainly not the only way to be a Christian, and he would be the first to tell you so. But it is a way of being a Christian, and it is from the solidity of this theological perspective that Richard Mouw consistently speaks and acts. It is an impressive thing to see and hear.
A few years ago Richard spoke at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah, the first evangelical Christian to speak from that platform since the evangelist Dwight L. Moody did it 105 years ago. It created quite a stir. It seems that there are large segments of the Christian community that regard civility in matters of theological disagreement to be a sign of weakness, or worse, as an indication of the abdication of faith. Richard had staked out the ground for Christian civility in his wonderful 1992 book Uncommon Decency. In it he lamented the way that people with convictions can sometimes wind up not being very nice, and how people who are nice sometimes get there by not having any strong convictions! Richard wanted to change all this. His book was a call for passionate people to be more polite, and for civil people to get some convictions! This is what Richard Mouw was doing on the platform at the Mormon Tabernacle.
In part, this is what we said on that occasion –
Public relations between our two communities have been – to put it mildly – decidedly unfriendly. From the very beginning, when Joseph Smith organized his church in 1830, my evangelical forebears hurled angry accusations and vehement denunciations at the Mormon community – a practice that continues from some evangelical quarters even into this present day. And I think it is fair to say that some Mormons have on occasion responded in kind. Friendship with each other has not come easily for our two communities.
…I have formed some wonderful friendships with Mormons in the past few years. These friends have helped me to see the ways in which I have often misinterpreted Mormon thought.
…I am convinced that we evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. Indeed, let me state it bluntly to the LDS folks here this evening: we have sinned against you. The God of the Scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in things we have said about you. We have told you what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe.
…We have made much of the need to provide you with a strong defense of traditional Christian convictions, regularly quoting the Apostle Peter’s mandate that we present to people like you a reasoned account of the hope that lies with in us – but we have not been careful to follow the same Apostle’s counsel that immediately follows that mandate, when he tells us that we must always make our case with “gentleness and reverence” toward those with whom we are speaking. Indeed, we have even on occasion demonized you, weaving conspiracy theories about what the LDS community is “really” trying to accomplish in the world. And even at our best, we have – and this is true of both of our communities – we have talked past each other, setting forth oversimplified and distorted accounts of what the other group believes.
…To be sure …there are still some very real issues of disagreement between us – and some of these issues are matters of eternal significance. But we can now discuss these topics as friends.
Two people who have done this – “discussed these topics as friends” – exceptionally well are Robert Millet, a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University in Utah, and Gerald McDermott, a professor of religion and philosophy at Roanoke College in Virginia. In their 2007 book Claiming Christ (Brazos Press) Gerald McDermott began by telling a story about a class he was teaching to which he had invited a Mormon historian.
Before class started I told him that he would have 30 to 45 minutes to share about LDS beliefs and history, and after that I would open it up for Q&A. But shortly after he began, I decided to challenge something he said. Then a few minutes later I asked a question that that implicitly tried to refute his second point. Before too long my students, following my lead, fired one question after another, often moving into flat-out argument. Some of them seemed happy to finally explain to this polite Mormon scholar why they believed he was not a Christian. The LDS historian was never able to finish his presentation because of all the interruptions from my students and their professor.
I had no idea I had done anything wrong until I received a letter from the speaker the following week. He said that in all his years of speaking on his faith to non-Mormon audiences, he had never been treated so rudely. He thought he would have an uninterrupted chance to present his own views, but discovered that he was barely able to finish a thought before he was interrupted by a question or assertion. The result was that instead of learning something new, the class was simply reinforced in its (and my) prejudices. We never allowed ourselves to listen. Not only were we disrespectful and intensive, but we went away with many false impressions uncorrected. (7)
And then in his introduction, Robert Millet described what can happen when that approach that Gerald McDermott had previously taken gets repented of –
This book is an example of what can happen when two people first become friends, learn to trust one another, pay the price of reading and refection and lengthy chats., go to the proper sources for information, and then engage challenging issues without rancor or defensiveness. As the reader will son realize, there are, to be sure, doctrinal differences between the Mormon and evangelical communities, and the two of us have sought earnestly to discuss those differences in a climate of what our mutual friend, Richard Mouw, calls “convicted civility.” But if we have done our work properly, the reader will also recognize that there are a number of areas about Jesus Christ – his person, powers, and plan – on which we agree completely and in which we both rejoice. Successful interfaith dialogue involves more than winning an argument. It also entails building and enhancing a friendship. People across the globe may disagree in regard to many aspects of the life and mission of Jesus Christ, but no one who is slightly acquainted with the four Gospels can deny that our Savior was and is in the business of people; for him, people and people’s feelings matter very much. (12)
And it is in this spirit of “convicted civility” that this Thursday evening at 7 we will be hosting our very own Evening of Friendship and Understanding with the Mormons at Northway.
This is a conversation that we who are Disciples should be eager to have. Our history and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints parallel each other. We were “born” at the same time in the same part of the country with the same sets of concerns, and we developed side by side following the trails of American Western expansion along the frontier. In many respects we are two peas in a pod.
But in a larger sense, we who are Disciples, because of our commitment to the unity of the faith and our refusal to think of ourselves as being the only Christians, should be at the forefront of any conversation with other believers that have understanding and friendship as their stated goals. Because the relationship between Mormons and other Christians has been one of great misunderstanding, misrepresentation and even outright hostility, it is important that we find ways to talk with each, learn about and from each other, and become friends. I invite you to come and be part of just such a gathering this Thursday evening. DBS+
Mormons & Disciples
An Evening of Friendship and Understanding
Thursday, October 4, 2012 – 7 pm
Northway Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ)
On Thursday evening, October 4, at 7 pm in the Fellowship Hall at Northway Christian Church (7202 W. Northwest Highway, Dallas, Texas, 75225) Dr. Newell Williams, President of Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and Professor of Modern and American Church History and Mr. Gordon Wright, a North Texas leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, will provide leadership for an evening of Friendship and Conversation. Dr. Williams will be making a presentation on the historical connection between Disciples and Mormons, and Mr. Wright will be making a presentation on what Mormons wished the rest of us knew about them. Following these two presentations there will be a moderated discussion with time for some questions from audience before refreshments at 8:30 pm.