These days Mormon Conferences are rather like the Reader’s Digest; convivial, safe and predictable. You will smile at old men with a twinkle in their eyes telling heart-warming anecdotes about when they were in Primary a zillion years ago. You will laugh at the folly of muddle-headed home teachers and the fun apostles can have intimidating them. There may be a catch in your throat as a speaker’s voice breaks in the retelling of a story filled with the wisdom of those who were once his elders and betters.
What you will struggle to find is a reason to rush out and tell anybody about it. If asked about your marathon conference weekend you will search your memory in vain for that weighty nugget of insight you know would be bound to impress your non-Mormon friends; if only you could recall…
Your heart will sink as you hear the especially thick conference edition of the Ensign magazine dropping on your doormat, and wonder if its some sort of test that, having listened to, you now must read those same inane pep-talks you thought were behind you for another six months at least. You wonder if anybody does read the conference Ensign.
That, at any rate, was my experience as I listened to the priesthood session of the conference.
Good ‘ol Boys
The session was typically avuncular, good ‘ol boys chewing the fat and putting the world to rights, the audience, appropriately suited and booted, awed to be invited to sit on the porch with the big guys, nodding sagely and agreeing eagerly, laughing in all the right places, sharing knowing looks and aping their ‘betters.’
Thomas S Monson was last to speak, sitting sagely as five men took their turn at the podium to present their credentials and give another little turn on the screw that bears down on every faithful priesthood holder, reminding them of their duties, urging them to achievement, setting ever higher goals and informing them that “life is a test!” (Dieter Uchtdorf)
You could almost hear the younger generation fidget in their seats, anxious to get out and get the job done, while the older men, who have been here before so many times, sucked air through their teeth, secretly praying, “How long, oh Lord, how long?”
The Mormon prophet spoke about Home Teaching, a worthy church programme in which every family gets a monthly visit from priesthood holders. The message was, “A home teacher is a friend.”
Anecdotes amply illustrated the right and wrong ways to go about the task, from the home teacher turning up unannounced to be confronted with three apostles and their wives ‘visiting’ in one of their homes, to the man who turned up at the prophet’s home alone to confess that he had only made the visit so he could tick it off his list. These guys always seem to have the best stories.
The message is summed up using the example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, “Brethren, as the priesthood of God we have a shepherding responsibility. The wisdom of the Lord has provided guidelines whereby we might be shepherds to the families of the Church”
The problem is that, whatever the vehicle, however sincere the sentiment, worthy the cause, or great the sacrifice it is the gospel of Joseph these men bring and not that of Jesus. “Oh, but Mike, isn’t service part and parcel of the gospel?” Well, yeeesss…but….let me explain.
Henry B Eyring, speaking of “overburdened priesthood holders,” used a biblical illustration. “It is a parable for overloaded priesthood holders.” he insists. “We sometimes call it the story of the good Samaritan. But it is really the story for a great priesthood bearer in these busy, difficult last days.” He goes on, “Just remember that you are the Samaritan and not the priest or the Levite who passed by the wounded man.”
The irony here, of course, is that the Samaritan is not a priesthood holder. Indeed, it is the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side and, like those priests and Levites of Jesus’ time, Mormons make much of their position and authority. It is Mormons who, like the priest and Levite, claim exclusive access to truth and authority. It is they who are rejected by Jesus, and the Samaritan, the one regarded as apostate, who is the exemplar in the story.
The emphasis on duty would have suited the priest and Levite to the ground but Jesus’ emphasis was on the spontaneous, sacrificial act of a stranger and outcast as an example of true, selfless service.
Dieter Uchtdorf insisted, “life is a test!” and urged men to positive thinking and goal setting. “You are stronger than you realise,” he assures them, “you are more capable than you imagine; you can do it…Brethren, our destiny is not determined by the number of times we stumble but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward.”
As he spoke, the words of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus echoed in my mind:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul…
…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Is this the good news of Jesus Christ? I can do it? My fate is in my hands? The message of the New Testament is clear:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them…” (Eph 2:1-10)
We were dead, God made us alive in Christ. We were not capable, we were dead. Christ died because we can’t do it. We now walk in good works, not because we are capable but because we are God’s workmanship, “Created in Christ Jesus for good works…”
[Note to any Mormons reading this: Christians believe in good works. Christians do good works. You see us do them all the time, sometimes you do them alongside us and report on it in your publications and at your conferences. So stop peddling the lie that Christians are somehow antinomian, lazy, sitting light to our duties and responsibilities.]
Randy D Funk insisted that we receive strength by proving ourselves worthy and obeying the commandments, quoting Doctrine and Covenants 112:22:
“Inasmuch as [which means the promise will be fulfilled if] they [meaning the missionaries who are sent] shall  humble themselves before me, and  abide in my word, and  hearken to the voice of my Spirit.”
He goes on, “The Lord’s promises are clear. In order to have the spiritual power necessary to open the door of the kingdom of God in the nation to which you are sent, you must be humble and obedient and have the ability to hear and follow the Spirit. These three attributes are closely interrelated. If you are humble, you will want to be obedient. If you are obedient, you will feel the Spirit.”
Certainly, the Bible teaches us the discipline of discipleship but, while Mormons “strive to be worthy to return to Heavenly Father,” a Christian knows he is already accepted by God through Christ (Romans 8:1; Hebrews 4:14-16) and it is the new nature, what the Christian has become and is becoming that is the motivation to obedience and spiritual growth.
Gérald Caussé confirmed a suspicion for me because, like Dieter Uchtdorf, he seemed warmer, more accessible, his message more sympathetic and appealing. Of course, both men are European and the difference in culture shows. The unremitting demands of Mormonism are very much the product of the burgeoning, can-do America of the past 150 years. European history, longer, bloodier, more mature has, I suggest, produced a more nuanced approach to life. I wonder what this bodes for the future of Mormonism.
Two things stood out for me and they are not insignificant. The first is his handling of the familiar doctrine of Abraham being the father of the faithful, making all who trust in Christ children of Abraham and heirs of the promises made to Abraham. For Christians this is explained by Paul in Romans 4.
The difference here is that he puts this explicit gospel promise into the story and time of Abraham, quoting Abraham 2:10 from the discredited Book of Abraham. “God promised Abraham that ‘as many as receive this Gospel shall be called after [his] name, and shall be accounted [his] seed, and shall rise up and bless [him], as their father.’” Of course, Mormonism is full of such anachronisms and we shouldn’t be surprised but here Mormons are claiming exclusively to themselves those same promises; “As members of the Church, we are admitted into the house of Israel.”
Where Paul declares this promise to be for the faithful in Christ, Mormonism teaches that church membership and faithfulness qualifies them, keeping “the law of the gospel;” an oxymoron if ever there was one. Paul clearly precludes any idea of winning that place “according to the flesh,” and goes on to make plain:
“For if it is to the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring…to the one who shares the faith of Abraham…” (Romans 4:14-16)
L Tom Perry took us back some 80 years to his last days in the Primary organisation of the church. He proved his mettle by confidently handling the thirteen Articles of Faith of the Mormon Church, a tribute, he insists, to his Primary teacher, but…
Where God himself declares, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god…Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isaiah 44:6-8)
L Tom Perry insists: We learn from the first article of faith that the Godhead is three personages: God the Father, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Ghost. Three gods.
Where the Bible states, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22) In other words, you are either “in” Adam, or “in” Christ.
L Tom Perry states: The second article teaches us that we are responsible for our own actions on earth. In other words, you we are either good or bad people.
Where the Bible teaches, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” (Romans 10:9-10)
L Tom Perry says: The third gives a vision of the Saviour’s mission for the salvation of Father in Heaven’s children. The third Article of Faith teaches a salvation not by faith and confession but by obedience and ritual; “by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” The next three articles, likewise, teach laws, ordinances, priesthoods, hierarchies. There are, of course, aspirational articles of faith – notably the thirteenth – and very commendable they are but…
Mormonism isn’t “The Old, Old Story”
When I became a Christian I was astonished, and not a little embarrassed, to find that the old, old story I had so long rejected, reviled and ridiculed as simplistic, easy-believism was actually the true story of salvation – by grace, through faith, in Christ.
The hardest thing about being a Christian is not the weight of duty, the busyness of church involvement, the call to sacrifice, or the responsibilities of leadership. The hardest thing is coming to that place at the foot of the cross and confessing we can’t do it, that all our best efforts count for nothing before a perfectly holy and righteous God. That, far from being able we are poor and needy, helpless and defiled, dead in sin and in need of a Saviour. That is not the story of Mormonism, it is the story of Christians saved, at last, not by works so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory,
Of Jesus and His love;
Tell me the story simply,
As to a little child,
For I am weak and weary,
And helpless and defiled.
That I may take it in—
That wonderful redemption,
God’s remedy for sin;
Tell me the story often,
For I forget so soon,
The “early dew” of morning
Has passed away at noon.
With earnest tones and grave;
Remember I’m the sinner
Whom Jesus came to save;
Tell me the story always,
If you would really be,
In any time of trouble,
A comforter to me.
When you have cause to fear
That this world’s empty glory
Is costing me too dear;
And when the Lord’s bright glory
Is dawning on my soul,
Tell me the old, old story:
“Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”
Tell me the old, old story,
Tell me the old, old story,
Of Jesus and His love.