KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Evangelical Christian leaders and experts on Mormonism have expressed dismay at recent comments made by Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints‘ “signature pulpit” in Salt Lake City.
Mouw spoke briefly Nov. 14 during the second night of a three-part series titled “Evening of Friendship,” which was sponsored by Standing Together Ministries, an evangelical Christian group headquartered in Lehi, Utah. The main speaker for the nightly lecture series was noted Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias.
According to articles published in the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune as well as transcript of the speech provided by Mouw, he apologized at the event for evangelical Christians’ misrepresentation of the Mormon beliefs.
“Let me state it clearly. We evangelicals have sinned against you,” he said, according to the Deseret News.
“We’ve often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of members of the LDS faith,” the Salt Lake Tribune quoted Mouw as saying. “It’s a terrible thing to bear false witness … We’ve told you what you believe without first asking you.”
Some evangelical pastors at the event were disturbed by Mouw’s comments.
“Some of my people were there and they were turned off by the whole event because of him,” said Mike Gray, pastor of Southeast Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, and one of the sponsoring evangelical Christian churches for the event.
“I chose to be a part of it simply because I knew Ravi would present the Gospel,” Gray said of the rare occasion for an evangelical Christian leader to speak at the Salt Lake Tabernacle. “Everything Ravi did was well done.”
The last evangelical to speak at the Tabernacle, according to reports, was 19th-century preacher D.L. Moody.
“[Mouw] was wrong. He had no business. And it will hurt,” said Gray, who branded Mouw’s generalized comments as “insensitive,” “inaccurate,” and “ignorant” of activities by many evangelical Christian churches in the Salt Lake City area.
“He doesn’t live here and he doesn’t know what we do,” Gray said. “We haven’t been ugly to our Mormon neighbors. We love them and care about them.”
According to Gray, comments like Mouw’s present Christians yet another obstacle in their work to evangelize and minister to Mormons throughout the world. The comments blur the lines between Mormon and evangelical Christian teaching, Gray said.
“We want to become all things to all men to reach them to share the Gospel,” Gray said. “And the tension and balance is how do you share the Gospel but not become part of standing with the Mormons.
“That’s always the balance that we try to find here.”
Tim Clark, executive director of the Utah-Idaho Baptist Convention, said that a statement from an evangelical leader like Mouw’s can cause weak believers to stumble and give credence to the Mormon message by muddying the waters.
“[Mouw is] sending a message to Mormons that they are a part of mainstream Christianity,” Clark said.
“The Mormons will take that and use that kind of language. It’s a half truth, but that’s how they report it,” he added, noting the targeted evangelistic efforts of Mormons to convert evangelical Christians, like Baptists and Methodists.
Both Gray and Clark mentioned full-length movies being funded and/or produced by Mormons, such as “Baptists At Our Barbecue,” which depicts a Baptist preacher and his church pitted against Mormons in a small town, as evidences of efforts to reach out and convert evangelicals.
“The evidence is tangible. Why are the Mormons building temples in New York City, Dallas and Atlanta? It’s because they’re targeting Baptists who don’t know what they believe,” Clark said.
Mouw, responding to the criticism he has received from his comments, wrote in an e-mail to Baptist Press that he acknowledged not all evangelical Christians have sinned against Mormons by “bearing false witness.”
“I certainly did not mean to imply that every evangelical has sinned in this regard,” Mouw wrote. “Suppose I were to address an African-American gathering and say that we whites have sinned against you blacks. Who would deny that this is a correct assessment? But who would think that I was speaking about and on behalf of all white people?”
From the transcript provided to BP and comments attributed to him by the Salt Lake Tribune, Mouw stated that there are “very real issues of disagreement” between Mormon and Christian doctrine “of eternal significance.”
Then he added, “But now we can discuss them as friends.”
“In none of this am I saying that Mormons are ‘orthodox Christians.’ But I do believe that there are elements in Mormon thought that if emphasized, while de-emphasizing other element[s], could constitute a message within Mormonism of salvation by grace alone through the blood of Jesus Christ,” Mouw wrote. “I will work to promote that cause.”
Although Mouw noted that many will inevitably disagree with that approach, he wrote, “at the very least admit that we have not always been fair in our wholesale condemnation of Mormonism as simply a false religion.”
Clark said Mouw’s comments at the Tabernacle will be felt throughout the Utah-Idaho Baptist Convention.
“It sets back our work as Christian witnesses in Utah and Idaho,” Clark said. “I can’t speak to what it does outside of Utah and Idaho, but I can tell you it does not communicate a clear Gospel presentation.”
Clark suggested a better message for an evangelical leader like Mouw speaking at such an historic occasion: “If I had been Dr. Mouw, I would have talked about the life, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Roger Russell, pastor of Holladay Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, was present at the event with his Mormon neighbor and was shocked at Mouw’s comments.
“I did not appreciate his comments at all,” said Russell, who has served as a pastor in Utah for more than 16 years.
Afterward, Russell said the conversation between him and his Mormon neighbor of more than four years centered more on Zacharias’ comments.
“Fortunately, after it was over, we did not talk about that,” Russell said referring to Mouw’s comments.
“I had absolutely no problems with what Dr. Ravi Zacharias had to say. He was on the mark and to the point and he didn’t pull any punches. But it was the comments before and after he spoke that were kind of off the mark,” said Russell, who was in the audience all three nights of the series.
According to Russell, although he was “red-faced” at Mouw’s comments, he suggested there is some truth to his comments, because most Mormons don’t know what the LDS doctrines are.
“The average Mormon in the pew, he doesn’t care,” Russell said. “It doesn’t make any difference to him. To them it works. They have friends. They’re big on family. And not only that, they can spend eternity with their family. They don’t stop to think about how it works. So they’re happy with it.”
In his e-mail response Mouw mentioned a “discernible pattern of sinning against LDS” members by evangelicals, pointing to authors like Walter Martin who has “oversimplified Mormon teaching” and Dave Hunt who represented Mormonism as “Satanic in its inspiration and practice.”
“I think this is bearing false witness,” Mouw wrote.
Mouw also clarified comments he made about upcoming celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s birth, which caused rumblings among many in the evangelical community.
“I can see how people heard me say that we evangelicals should join in ‘celebrating’ Joseph Smith’s birthday, but that is not what I intended to say,” Mouw wrote. “Instead I said that I hoped many evangelicals would participate in those events that would allow us all to ‘pay special attention to Joseph’s life and teachings’ during this year.”
Mouw said that his statement caused “unnecessary confusion,” but that events like Smith’s birthday allow “critical give and take” when “we evangelicals can try to sort out the good from the bad in Joseph’s thought.”
Instead of arguing about Mormon beliefs that are “offensive,” Mouw wrote that upcoming dialogue opportunities could be spent “reflecting” on salvation through Jesus Christ alone and His atoning work on the cross.
In clarifying his own beliefs, Mouw wrote, “For the record: I do not believe Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God; I do not accept the Book of Mormon as a legitimate revelation; I do not believe that temple baptism saves; I do not believe that all people will be saved.”
But Mouw added, “And it [is] precisely because of this that when my good friend [and Brigham Young University professor] Bob Millet says that his only plea when he gets to heaven is ‘the mercy and merit of Jesus Christ,’ I want to respond by saying with enthusiasm, ‘Let’s keep talking!'”
“I am deeply sorry for causing distress in the evangelical community,” Mouw wrote. “[But] I make no apology for wanting to foster gentle and reverent dialogue with Mormon friends.”