Christianity Today posted an article on November 10th by Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. Titled Shoot-First Apologetics, Dr. Mouw here recounts a story he once read, written by the late Dr. Walter Martin, about the danger of too quickly labeling someone an “enemy of the gospel.”
As the story goes, Dr. D. G. Barnhouse was hosting a theological discussion at his Pennsylvania farm. While walking with Dr. Martin on the grounds, Dr. Barnhouse mistook a bluebird for a troublesome grackle and shot it dead. Being a bluebird lover, Dr. Barnhouse was upset over his error; but he used the incident to illustrate an important point. He told Dr. Martin,
“You are right in defending the faith against its enemies, but you are too inclined to ‘shoot from the hip,’ even as I was when I fired at this bird. In the excitement of the moment, it looked like a grackle, but a closer examination would have saved its life and my feelings. It is not wrong to contend for the gospel, but it is wrong to shoot first and ask questions later. What you think might be a grackle, an apostate, or an Antichrist might well be a bluebird you looked at in a hurry.”
I think Dr. Barnhouse offered some very good advice–advice we would all do well to heed. Many of us have a tendency to do too much talking and very little listening, which is not conducive to effective evangelism or efficient communication. Many times I’ve been informed by Mormons that I believe something which I do not believe, or that I’m motivated by something I do not possess. I’m thankful when there is an opportunity for conversation that allows me to explain what I believe or what motivates me in ministry. And I’m thankful when I can learn what things hinder someone from recognizing and surrendering to Christ, giving me the opportunity to teach that person what she most needs to learn.
Having said that, I turn your attention back to Dr. Mouw’s article. I think he has misapplied Dr. Barnhouse’s lesson of the bluebird. Dr. Mouw related the bluebird incident in print, he said, because
I was chided recently by someone who was upset with me because of my extensive dialogues with Mormon scholars. “How can you engage in friendly conversations with people who believe such terrible things?” he asked me. I tried to explain that if we are going to criticize Mormonism, it should be on matters that they actually believe, not on what we think they believe. I said the best way to know Mormon beliefs is to actually engage in dialogue with Mormons.”You don’t need to have dialogue with Mormons to know what Mormonism is all about,” the person retorted. “All you have to do is read Walter Martin! He had those folks figured out!”
Let me state up front that I don’t have a problem with Christians engaging in friendly conversations with anyone, regardless of what they believe. Indeed, friendly conversation is one of the ways God has ordained for the preaching of the gospel. My concern over Dr. Mouw’s comments is two-fold.
One, Dr. Mouw stated that any criticism of Mormonism must be based on what Mormons actually believe; Dr. Mouw has carelessly combined two different entities into one.
If I’m speaking to a Mormon–or anyone else–I do need to understand what that individual believes before I can determine whether or not he may have a saving relationship with Christ. Each person is in a different place in his spiritual journey, and each one must be approached with respect for who he is and what he actually believes.
But what Mormonism is, is not dependent on what individual Mormons believe. Mormonism is a specific set of official doctrines expounded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And to know what Mormonism is, there is much more wisdom in gaining that information through official LDS sources (as Dr. Martin has done) than through the Mormon who lives next door. My Mormon neighbor might tell me what he believes, and maybe even what he thinks is Mormon doctrine, but this does not guarantee that his understanding is in line with what the LDS Prophets have taught. If I want to evangelize my Mormon neighbor, I need to understand his individual faith; if I undertake to criticize Mormonism, I need to understand the official doctrinal positions of the LDS Church.
My second concern is over Dr. Mouw’s implication that, in keeping with the parable, Mormonism is not a grackle, but a bluebird. He concluded his article with this:
Not long ago, I came across a comment by G. K. Chesterton–another sharp-witted defender of the faith who was concerned that we sometimes shoot from the hip in identifying enemies of the faith. “Idolatry is committed,” Chesterton warned, “not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.”
Though he has not stated so directly, in the Christianity Today article Dr. Mouw has implied that identifying Mormonism as an “enemy of the faith” is setting up a “false devil.” This may be the impression he gets through dialogues with his Mormon friends; but in actuality official Mormonism–official doctrines of the religion–do oppose God’s truth in many essential areas (please visit Mormonism Research Ministry for specifics).
Dr. Barnhouse reportedly suggested that it is
“Better to pass up an occasional grackle in theology and leave him with the Lord than to shoot a bluebird and have to answer for it at the Judgment Seat of Christ.”
This counsel was offered to Dr. Martin in the context of taking care not to “shoot first and ask questions later.” Christians have been asking pertinent questions about Mormonism since 1830. The answers clearly reveal Mormonism is no bluebird, though it is possible that there may be some individual Latter-day Saints who are–despite the teachings of their Church.
I would like to see Dr. Mouw put away the gun altogether and resist taking pot-shots at those who responsibly criticize Mormonism for the doctrines that it actually prescribes.