Good Mormon Families?

When discussing the success of Mormons, who prefer to be known as Latter Day Saints, in spreading their religion,  people point to four points of persuasion:

  • They have good families
  • They are nice people
  • They’ve had an intense religious experience
  • They’re right on the social-family issues

I sometimes worry that the same ethos that makes Mormonism attractive to middle-class, suburban American families has a greater influence in evangelical and Reformed churches and families than we might realize. To be sure, it is a great blessing to have a peaceful, well-ordered family. Being appropriately pleasant is a good thing. A Biblically-informed, confessional piety of Word and sacrament may be quite intense at times. Most confessional Reformed folk probably reach similar conclusions regarding the necessity of stable, nuclear and extended families for the well-being of society. These things are all to be desired.

The interesting thing about this list, however, from a Christian perspective, is that there isn’t anything distinctively Christian about it. Virtually every world religion has produced followers that meet these criteria. Lots non-Christian religions have adherents who have good families, are “nice” people, have had intense religious experiences, and place a high value on sound families and societies.

The use of such criteria is symptomatic of the temptation to set up standards of measurement in the church that may be good, true, and useful but that are not well grounded in Scripture.  Such criteria may be useful when thinking about standards for what makes a good civil community but is this how the Scriptures think about the people and social units that make up the visible church?

Take the Mormon doctrine of the “burning in the bosom.” The confirmation that the Mormon claims are true lies in a subjective religious experience. The truth is, however, that the NT says remarkably little about our feelings. There are passages in the ESV translation of the NT that use the word “feeling” that have some reference to subjective religious experience and in each case the translation is questionable. There are other passages that imply religious feeling or experience but where does the NT use such as the basis for doctrine or as the basis for conviction? The basis for our conviction that the tomb is empty is the eye witness testimony of witnesses recorded in Scripture. That testimony is reliable. The Spirit gives us new life, gives us faith, and through faith justifies and unites us to Christ. The Spirit witnesses to us that the Scriptures are true but the illumination of Scripture and witness of the Spirit is not a “burning in the bosom.” It is not the intensity of one’s personal experience that makes us certain. Experience waxes and wanes. It is the unchangeable promise of God that we rely.

The other criteria are just as frail under examination. The question that lingers is why such criteria find such a foothold in our midst.

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  1. All true. But with apologies to Walter Martin, it may also be the case that in the post-Jonestown age it is imprudent to cast our good Mormon neighbors and fellow citizens as “cultists.”

    • Hi Zrim,

      Who used the “c” word? I didn’t. Near as I can, you’re the first person to use the “c” word in this discussion. I didn’t use it just to anticipate this objection — which I still don’t fully understand.

      What word would you have us use, to describe religions that were originated by a huckster who interpreted plates delivered by an angel named Moroni (surely a giant practical joke) via a hat and magic glasses?

      Sect is the traditional word but that’s confusing because it gets used to describe varieties of generally orthodox branches of the visible church.

    • I suspect, with the fluidity of the english language and with the common propensity to view things in a post modern light, that the definition of cult is closer to what might previously have been called a cult of personality. If the religious group maintains itself past a single generation of leadership people today would think of it as a religion. I am not saying I agree with that particular reasoning or definition, simply that that is how I see it used in language today.

  2. Scott, it wasn’t an objection to anything you said, it was an affirmation. It went on to be just an observation about a word that uncritically rolls off the tongue when many of us speak of Mormons.

    But I’m content with calling false whatever is false, regardless of its relative huckster-o-sity; I see little need to inject the subjectivity (except for comic relief amongst the good natured) since it can tend to impugn the reputations of our neighbors whose religion has dubious origins. I agree that sect muddies things in this case. False religion seems sufficient.

  3. … religions that were originated by a huckster who interpreted plates delivered by an angel named Moroni (surely a giant practical joke) via a hat and magic glasses?

    Elmer Gantry is looking better all the time… (let’s hear it for Burt!)

  4. Maybe this is the influence of Walter Martin (and we can debate whether that is a good or bad thing) but when I use the “c” word, in this context, it connotes “spiritually dangerous.” The most neutral term, of course, is “new religions” but that tends to flatten out all religious claims as just manifestations of a basic human impulse (history of religions school). Rome is a sect, a false church, and dangerous. Her apologists seem to be more aggressive these days but in the past I saw the the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormon and the like as aggressive, manipulative, and even, in some cases, coercive in a way that Rome hasn’t been, at least in the modern period. Does “false” capture those aspects?

  5. If I recall correctly–the folks at CRI would define a cult as a group that says that they are Christian but they deny all or part of the five essential Christian doctrines.

  6. Scott, I think “false” captures all that needs to be captured. But “cult” seems to include, at least to my mind and rather looming at that, “anti-social.” And so it seems to me that while all cults are false religions, not all false religions are cults.

  7. Well, Mormonism has morphed over its history from being a threat to the the civil order to being a strong proponent of the established civil order (both Romney and Reid are Mormons! — you can’t get much more “establishment” than R & R).

    Which group do you think qualifies as a “cult” by your definition? What about Scientology? They’re a little scary and there are credible reports about, shall we say, unconventional tactics used to persuade members not to leave.

    • Bob,
      How do you deal with mariolatry then? It is the stated position of the RCC that Mary is “co-redemptrix and mediatrix” which would place her on par with Christ, forming a quadrinity.

  8. Bob Suden –

    According to CRI, Rome is not a cult because they adhere to the 5 essential Christian doctrines. The 5 well known essential Christian doctrines are 1. Inerrancy of the Scriptures. 2. Diety of Christ. 3. The Virgin Birth. 4. The Trinity 5. The bodily resurection.

    We can all argue if those are indeed the only “essentials.” But, I would agree with Zrim, that there is a difference between cult and false religions even though they are all false.

    Probably most of the Reformed and Lutherans would also include the 5 “solas” of the reformation as a sixth “essential.”

    One thing that I learned from Pastor Riddlebarger, is that we can disagree with others on theology as much as we want to, but at least study their stuff and get their positions right–in other words, don’t misrepresent their viewpoints.

    Recently I took the time to read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. My big take-a-way from it is that the Catholics confuse the law and Gospel much like most of Christiany today–in other words, they are semi-Pelagians, much like a Calvary Chapel and many others.

  9. Scott, I don’t know much about the Scientologists, but I agree that what I do know seems to be anti-social and so fairly cult-y.

    And if how a group either gets outsiders in and keeps them in part of the puzzle, then another wrinkle is how true religionists can be cult-ish (as in anti-social-y) in their tactics with their members. Here is where “false” helps out, because it’s one thing to be true but act cult-ish, another to be false but act non-cult-ish. The true religionists just need to shape up and act accordingly, but behaving non-cult-ish doesn’t do anything to make false religion true.

    This actually dovetails with the point of your post: I don’t care how Mormons behave socially, even that they outpace Christians at it, it does nothing to make true their falsehood.

  10. RK,

    The 1994 Catechism of the Roman Church §970 says,

    §970 “Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it.” “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”

    The Catechism in §969 doesn’t call her co-mediatrix but it does call her “Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix.” It cites Lumen Gentium (Nov 21, 1964).

    This is, of course, a horrible corruption of Christian doctrine but it only formalized what already existed popularly in the centuries prior. Mary is chief of the other mediators/saints. This was common teaching in the 16th century when we received Roman baptisms.

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