One of the oddest things about modern culture is the tendency to criticize others for the act of criticism.
Imagine a man sitting on the end of a tree branch. He looks around at others, telling them that they shouldn’t cut off their branches. Meanwhile, this man is sawing his own branch off. That is the image I have in mind when people criticize others for criticizing others, or judge others for judging others, or tell people not to believe in telling others what not to believe. It is very odd and confusing. It’s like watching people drive a car with their otherwise-working eyes… closed. Otherwise very intelligent people engage in this sort of self-refuting behavior. It seems to be an issue of spiritual blindness. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” (Ephesians 4:18) It’s not just a Mormon thing, but a really weird human problem. We don’t like being criticized, so we criticize people for criticizing. We saw off the very branch we are sitting on.
Selective Listening Fueled by Hyper-Sensitivity
Beyond the issue of self-refutation, I think when Mormons accuse us of not standing for what we believe, or of not teaching what we positively believe, they are usually being selective listeners. It is though I could preach for ten minutes on what I positively believe, but if I mention one critical thing of Mormonism, it suddenly becomes subject to the criticism of “you don’t even tell us what you believe!”
Not That, But This
Beyond the issue of selective listening, I think it is also an issue of not really being in tune with the Bible. The Bible sometimes communicates the gospel in the context of contrast and polemics. The Genesis creation story is an implicit polemic *against* pagan ideas about creation. Isaiah 40-45 is a courtroom analogy, of bringing in the witnesses for all the false gods into a courtroom and battling it out. Yahweh wants the worshipers of the other gods to give their best defenses, to reason it out, to put up their dukes. Yahweh then shows in the courtroom analogy that he is superior to all the other false gods. He can do things they can’t. He can declare the past and the future. He alone pre-exists all other gods. He alone stretched out the heavens. No other gods (like him) were formed before or after him. He gives his glory to no other. None is like him. He alone is the Most High.
In Galatians, Paul vehemently attacks the false doctrines of Judaizers, refuting the idea that our works can help justify us. Justification (forgiveness and being declared righteous even though we are unrighteous) comes by hearing with faith. Faith eventually works through love, but we are not justified by love or works of love, etc. We are made right with God by hearing the gospel of grace with faith. We have the Spirit working through us not by our own works, but by hearing the gospel of grace with faith. We only become true workers of love only if we stop trying to be justified by works of love.
It’s really hard to get away from the Biblical theme of “not that, but rather, this.” The Bible is willing to make stark contrasts between truth and error. But fallen man says to the world, “Don’t you DARE criticize us or our beliefs! Don’t you DARE explain your beliefs by means of contrast!”
Humility Gives a Fair Hearing to Criticism
Think about it: What do you think of people in your own life that are unwilling to listen to criticism? Isn’t part of humility giving a fair hearing to others’ criticism? Do you really believe your religion is exempt from the light of public scrutiny? Imagine having a neighbor who said, “I’ll be your friend, and I’ll listen to what you have to say, but if you ever say one negative or critical thing of my or my religion, our friendship is over.” Wouldn’t you consider such a person conceited, egotistical, and overly self-important… in need of a big dose of humility? Why is this kind of attitude suddenly acceptable when it comes to whether outsiders can criticize modern religion?
I think lurking behind this overly protective attitude are some deeper heart-issues. Mormons, I must ask you:
If the Church wasn’t true, would you even want to know?
If Mormonism isn’t true, would it still be worth believing?
If the Church wasn’t true, what should people do about it?
Do You Have Ears to Hear?
Mormons, are you willing to humble yourself to hear others explain their own beliefs by having them contrasted with your own beliefs? Since we share much of the same religious language, yet use radically different meanings, this kind of teaching-by-contrast is usually unavoidable if one is aiming for maximal clarity. If you love us, you will be curious about what we believe (and vice versa). Please, my Mormon neighbors, understand this: to really understand what we believe, you are probably eventually going to have to hear some expressions of critical contrast. You are going to have to swallow your pride.
Do you have eyes to see, and ears to hear what we have to say? Or will you mentally shut down when you sense that someone is critical toward your own beliefs and allegiances? The stakes are high.
Partial Accommodation, Partial Confrontation
Many of us, especially in individual one-on-one contexts, are trying to accommodate Mormon hyper-sensitivies out of love. We evangelical Christians continue to learn how to partially accommodate it and partially confront it. We have to swallow our pride and be like Jesus, both refusing to idolize the praise of man, yet significantly meeting people where they are at. Among evangelicals there are different opinions on how this should look. We are trying and stumbling. Lord have mercy on us, some of us have a tendency to cower to Mormon hyper-sensitivity, and some of us have a tendency to stomp all over it. Our witness on this earth will always be an imperfect one.
“We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Isn’t Jesus amazing? He perfectly integrated accommodation and confrontation.
Grace and truth in Jesus,