Bridges: Helping Mormons Discover God's Grace
[The following review was originally published on November 20, 2004 as "Evangelical Seminary's Outreach to Mormons Does Not Bridge the Gap," Witnesses for Jesus. In 2010, the Salt Lake Theological Seminary morphed into the Vine institute, however the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies currently distributes the Bridges video series.]
Are friendships with Mormons and criticism mutually exclusive? And should all evangelism to Mormons be in the context of friendship? The Salt Lake Theological Seminary Bridges movement(1) would answer in the affirmative to both questions. The movement has become quite influential in the minds of many that conduct ministries to Mormon people. In fact, it seems that it has become quite an influential mode of doing any evangelism in our post-modern culture. This movement seems to be manifesting recently in a series of dialogues between an Evangelical and a Mormon. Certainly times and people change, but as a result of these dialogues the question is raised concerning how far our modes of evangelism should cave to the culture. There certainly are concerns that this particular Bridges mode of evangelism does in fact excessively cave to the culture.
The seminar, video, and workbook produced by Salt Lake Theological Seminary (Bridges: Helping Mormons Understand God’s Grace) is an attempt by some local Utah educators and ministers to provide an alternative to traditional confrontational evangelism (evangelism that is primarily concerned about confronting with the gospel truth and not about first building friendships). In fact, traditional confrontational evangelism is not even a legitimate alternative according to this Bridges program. Rather, confrontational evangelism is generally an impediment and ineffective for Mormons coming to the real Christ. Ken Mulholland, president of Salt Lake Theological Seminary, and one of the driving forces behind the Bridges movement, argues that when an LDS individual is highly committed to her church, then apologetics is generally “counterproductive”. “[T]here is a strong temptation to use logical arguments and apologetics to convince Mormons of the flaws of their religion”, says Mulholland. “This approach generally backfires since the Latter-day Saint ‘knows’ - that is, feels emotionally – that his religion is true. The stronger the effort to persuade him, the more he will believe he is being persecuted.”(2) Not surprisingly, Mulholland has asked “for an end to the in-your-face style of preaching.”(3)
Pastor Scott McKinney of Christ Evangelical Free Church in Orem, UT states in the Bridges video curriculum, “We have to be about telling people the good news about what is right with Jesus, not what is wrong with their religion.” In addition, Pastor Ross Anderson of the Evangelical Free Church in Roy, UT says in the video, “In our evangelism we put the cart before the horse and we emphasize theological truth first. I think we have to start with the spiritual hunger.” Shortly after this he said, “Theological discussions, while they may help them understand me better, or me understand them better, are really not that fruitful in terms of leading someone to Christ.”
This “spiritual hunger” takes the form of building relational, experiential bridges of friendship. First and foremost, we ought to take them to church, share testimonies, pray with them, and in general, be nice to them. Then, and only then, does one bring in theology or apologetics, but never in a critical way. Referring to Rev. Greg Johnson (Evangelical president of Standing Together Ministries in Salt Lake City, UT), John W. Kennedy states in a recent Christianity Today article, “He believes that evangelicals have a greater potential for influence if they refrain from criticism, and that civil discourse is an essential prelude to a breakthrough.”(4) John Morehead of Watchman Fellowship in California led a Bridges seminar and said, “Several shared with us afterwards that while they were initially upset by the statement that ‘Mormonism is a culture not a cult,’ over the course of the day as Bridges unfolded they realized that this approach is indeed the proper one, and will likely be more effective than traditional apologetic ones.”(5)
At an LDS ward in Anaheim, CA on January 10th, 2004, Greg Johnson and Robert Millet (Richard L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding and Professor of Ancient Scripture at Brigham Young University) conducted a two-hour dialogue. The dialogue was presented before a group of around a thousand Mormons and Evangelicals. They spent a majority of the time talking about their friendship, its intrinsic value, and how they could still be good friends and disagree with each other. They spent the remainder of their dialogue asking each other clarifying questions regarding doctrinal issues. At no point during the dialogue was the other pressed further to make sense of his position, and there was never any criticism of the views presented. This dialogue was certainly not a debate, and there was not a question-answer time.
Johnson and Millet are on a 14-city dialogue tour according to the Christianity Today article cited above. They have publicly dialogued with each other on their friendship and religious similarities and differences in such places as BYU, Christian colleges like Westmont, public universities like UCLA, Christian churches, Latter-day Saint (LDS) wards, and LDS institutes of religion such as at Harvard University. They have become good friends over the years, and have developed a desire to encourage and demonstrate to both Evangelicals and Mormons (groups that have been rather abrasive and aloof toward one another) how a respectful dialogue is to take place between the two groups.
The dialogue between Johnson and Millet had the Bridges tenor about it. This comes as no surprise since Johnson used to teach the Bridges seminar for Salt Lake Theological Seminary. (It should be noted though that the Johnson-Millet dialogue is an evolving work in progress, and the February 11th, 2004 dialogue at the University of Utah avoided many of the problems associated with this Anaheim dialogue). First and foremost, one got the impression that all evangelism needs to be bridge building. Johnson seemed to run down confrontational evangelism to build his bridges approach in several ways.
1. He explicitly distanced himself from his early model, Walter Martin.
2. He noticed how “ineffective” Martin’s approach was; it was not bringing about Johnson’s desired goal of extended friendships with more resulting conversations.
3. He used the Bridges illustration of Christian mission teams coming up to Utah to kick the beehive (Utah’s state symbol) over only to leave the poor local Christians with such a backlash of some rather upset bees.
4. He attacked confrontational evangelism indirectly by quoting Mulholland’s statement, “Mormonism is a culture not a cult”. Confrontational evangelism (or even some other bridge-building approach for that matter) on the other hand is not worried about placating LDS ears with such a platitude. Confrontational evangelism will not do this for the simple fact that it is not going to compromise truth. And the truth is the LDS Church is a cult as well as a culture. (If it is not a cult, then nothing is. What well-respected Evangelical scholar who has written on the cults in general would not include the LDS Church? A “cult” is simply a term Christians use to specify a group that does not bother retaining a traditional denominational title and claims to be Christian even though it denies one or more of the essential doctrines of Christianity.) This does not mean that confrontational evangelists (or again, some other bridge-building evangelists) will lead with this particular controversial truth or even bring it up during a conversation or monologue.
5. All instances of street preachers were talked about in a negative way. Any stated positive instances would jeopardize Johnson’s program.
In addition to denigrating confrontational evangelism, the dialogue also let Millet get away with too much. Johnson did not really call Millet on anything. Johnson asked all the substantial theological questions with the exception of one that Millet raised, and, as already mentioned, Johnson never pressed Millet any further. For example, Johnson asked Millet to state what LDS doctrine is since many Evangelicals find that pinning a Mormon down on what the LDS Church believes is like “trying to nail Jell-O to the wall”. Millet offered his four criteria for what is LDS doctrine:
1. The scriptures (i.e., the standard works-King James Version of the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price),
2. Official LDS declarations or proclamations,
3. LDS general handbooks or approved curriculum, and
4. Material offered in current LDS general conferences or other official gatherings by LDS general authorities.
By sticking with this criteria, Millet can easily dodge such problems as former LDS prophet and president Brigham Young’s general conference statements about Adam being “our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom WE have to do.”(6) Now Johnson could have pressed Millet’s criteria as being arbitrary since not all LDS hold to this, or as self-contradictory since Millet’s own belief here is not found stated within these criteria. Johnson could have also tried bringing out the fact that Young claimed that all his sermons were in fact “Scripture”.(7) Of course Millet would say that Young was mistaken, but there are still problems with this.
First, the Bible damns Young as a false prophet for this teaching of Adam being God (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:1-5), and Millet certainly would not claim this. Second, Young was once a living prophet who spoke on this topic of Adam in a general conference. Wasn’t Young supposed to be listened to, especially when he claimed to have received this from God? In his time, who was more authoritative than Young outside of Christ? And isn’t Young still more authoritative than Millet anyway? Third, why are Young and others who followed him wrong and modern prophets right? Was it just because the latter are modern? But whom does this refer to-the fundamentalists (i.e., polygamist prophets that today hold Young’s teaching on Adam) or those in the Salt Lake City headquarters? Fourth, what difference do the standard works make for being the final word when the LDS Church has seriously altered them? So something is more authoritative than even the standard works. But according to Millet, we do not have to go along with this more authoritative something or other under certain conditions. Fifth and finally, what this comes down to is that the Spirit will lead His (LDS) Church, and we do not need to know everything. There is no need to determine if this really is the Spirit of the Lord once one has received the “testimony of the Spirit” (i.e., “the burning in the bosom”). The Lord would not lie and steer an individual in the wrong way. With this sort of blind loyalty, it is hard to see what would really count against the LDS Church in principle.
Now this may not bother Millet at all, and perhaps Johnson should have pressed Millet simply on how the Bible appears to at least contradict the other standard works. Instead, Johnson explicitly affirmed Millet in certain beliefs when Johnson said, “Millet is the world’s greatest authority on what Millet believes.” In other words, Johnson didn’t want the audience to accuse Millet of not believing certain items that may in fact be generally held by the LDS Church leaders or members when he explicitly denies them. But allowing Millet to be in agreement with Christianity on certain issues that go against the typically assumed LDS beliefs (even if this really is the case) misses the primary point that Millet may in fact have a problem being associated with a hopelessly false church. In other words, the dialogue focuses on Millet, and how he is really not that bad of a guy. It’s an autobiographical venture. A good “old fashion” debate (using “criticism” to Johnson’s dismay) would rather steer away from what is going on in Millet’s head, and instead focus it objectively on the LDS Church and what it teaches. As a result of losing this focus, the Salt Lake Theological Seminary Bridges approach utilized by Johnson seeks to earn the trust of the LDS individual in developing a meaningful relationship at the expense, at least initially, of contending for the truth. This is the stance of typical post-modern evangelism.
In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with seeking to earn the trust of the LDS individual, and in fact, it is quite commendable. And sometimes this may require certain beliefs and criticisms foundational for conversion to be temporarily withheld for the sake of establishing a deeper friendship. However, if these beliefs and criticisms are always permanently withheld (e.g., “We have to be about telling people the good news about what is right with Jesus, not what is wrong with their religion”, “refrain from criticism”, etc.) or even distorted in such a way as to placate the other’s ears (e.g., “Mormonism is a culture not a cult”), then just how deep and authentic is the friendship? And if in principle any confrontation is ruled out from the beginning of the friendship, then how can the Lord’s occasionally surprising will rule? Perhaps the Lord desires an individual to confront and criticize a stranger whether friendship between the two will result or not. The friendship though must never be divorced from truth in the overall scheme of things. And that is why other non-Salt Lake Theological Seminary bridge-building evangelists are free to criticize their friends at any point during the friendship, for “[f]aithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6) even though a “friend loves at all times” (Prov. 17:17). Friendship becomes over-rated and an idol when it is divorced from the leading of “the Truth”. This is the stance of typical traditional evangelism.
The Apostle Paul, for example, was not worried about the appearance of eating with the Gentiles as the Apostle Peter was when the Jews showed up (Galatians 2:11ff.). Peter was over-valuing friendship with the Jews and over-valuing their thoughts, and Paul immediately and publicly rebuked Peter because of it. At this particular juncture, Peter had disregarded the truth when he should have stood for it.
This is why the relationship between truth and friendship is asymmetrical. There can be truth without friendship, but there should never be friendship without truth. And this is why “the Truth” and “the Prince of Peace” came not to bring “peace, but a sword” to divide.(9)
The Johnson-Millet dialogue seemed to confuse and bother more people than it helped in its stated desire to demonstrate how an Evangelical-LDS dialogue should take place. First, by not allowing Millet to be pressed it left the unsuspecting very confused, while it left the suspecting very bothered. For the unsuspecting, Millet appeared to be rather similar to an Evangelical. For the suspecting, they were bothered that Millet was not pressed to clarify the nuances between Evangelicals and Mormons on certain key issues. Second, neither good friends nor strangers for that matter are required to let each other get away with this much. Why should all evangelism between two different religious groups really look like this? Is this really “the most effective” method? And effective for what… the intrinsic value of friendship, for having a better chance of having more open and friendly dialogues, or for actually getting people into the kingdom? And should effectiveness be the determining factor as to how we do ministry anyway? Of course if God is not drawing an unregenerate individual to Himself by the exclusive preaching of the Word, perhaps He will do it via an extended friendship.(10) But why should we automatically lead our evangelism with an extended friendship that at least initially refrains from criticism simply because some pastor-scientist-micro-managers view this as a “more effective” way? If the mind is just as fallen as the heart, there’s no guarantee that either will respond to the gospel or gospel-friendship appropriately at any point in the relationship. Third and finally in this regard, it became rather tedious to hear how much the “we can disagree and still be good friends” card was played. If they really believed this, then why didn’t they spend more time just showing the audience? It appeared that there was just too much cowering to LDS sensitivities.
In conclusion, an evangelist of either a more confrontational bent or of a more bridge-building bent is not going to want to be needlessly offensive. But both realize that some things are too valuable not to risk being offensive at times. No one likes to be offended by someone banging on one’s door in the middle of the night, for example. But if the home is on fire, the offense is understandable. Christ Himself is “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” (1 Peter 2:8, KJV), and His disciples are called to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, NAS emphasis added) as well as to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV). “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets” (Luke 6:26, NAS). Building bridges with LDS must never be at the expense of perpetually sparing the offensive truth of the gospel, watering it down, distorting it, or not being open for the Lord to use the preaching of His word and rebuking even “out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2).
For more information on Johnson and Millet see [our discussion page].
2) Bridges, Patricipant’s Workbook, 28.
4) Christianity Today, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/002/14.18.html, emphasis added.
5) Salt Lake Theological Seminary, Newsletter [Winter 2003-04], 3: http://www.slts.edu/PDFs_Downloads/2004WI_Newsletter.pdf, emphasis added.
6) Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, 50.
7) Ibid., vol. 13, 95.
8) Millet has lately been endearing himself to Evangelicals particularly over his book Grace Works, since it seems, prima facie at least, to uphold sola gratia and sola fide. But at least one well-respected Evangelical researcher of Mormonism says, “Where Dr. Millet really stands on this issue depends on what page you are reading” (Bill McKeever, Mormonism Researched [May/June 2004], 4).
9) Matthew 10:34ff.
10) This is similar to wives being subject to their husbands so that if any are unbelieving they may be won to Christ without a word (1 Peter 3:1).
R. M. Sivulka
President, Courageous Christians United