John Wesley, founder of Methodism
How can a church named The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints, with its first article of faith proclaiming that "We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ," with a canonized scripture that reads "we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, [and] we prophesy of Christ," possibly not be considered fully Christian? This question has baffled Mormons for a century.
A committee of Methodist scholars and clergy recently considered a somewhat narrower question, namely whether Mormon baptisms should be considered valid Christian baptisms or whether Mormons converting to Methodism and seeking to formally join a Methodist denomination must receive a proper Christian baptism as a condition of entry. In Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People From The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the committee reports their recommendations, based on careful doctrinal comparisons between Methodist and Mormon beliefs in five key doctrinal areas: scripture, God, Jesus Christ, salvation, and baptism (special thanks to Ann for sending me the link to this report). Their findings, summarized below, are a good start toward the Christianity 99R project I outlined in an earlier post. For Mormon doctrine, the committee relied primarily on LDS scriptures, selected entries from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and statements that Elder Jay Jensen, an LDS Seventy, delivered to a Methodist Seminar in Salt Lake City in 1998. Methodist doctrine was based on quotes from official Methodist pronouncements such as "The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church" or similar documents. My quotes from the report (including material they quoted from Methodist or LDS sources) are in italics; see the full document (a fascinating read) for specific references.
1. Scriptural and Doctrinal Authorities. The issue of canon is foundational to establishing the differences between the two traditions, since church doctrine develops from the understanding and interpretation of scripture. Methodists, of course, accept the Holy Bible. Methodist doctrine stems from Scripture as interpreted by tradition, experience, and reason, subject to the basic boundaries already established by the church's historic and ecumenical creeds.
By contrast, the LDS Church clearly rejects the creeds that The United Methodist Church uses to interpret the Bible. The rejection of the historic creeds of the church is actually foundational to the establishment of the LDS religion. The report concludes that the scriptural foundations of Methodism and Mormonism are radically different.
2. The Nature of God. There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This statement of the Methodist position follows the Nicene Creed fairly closely.
By contrast, LDS scripture states that the Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man's; the Son also. After citing passages from the Encylopedia of Mormonism, the report summarizes that [LDS] belief regarding a gendered, married, and procreating god is at the core of LDS doctrine of God and makes claims about the essential nature of God that are in sharp contrast to the doctrinal statements of United Methodism.
3. The Nature, Origin, and Work of Jesus Christ. We believe in Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly and inseparably united. He is the eternal Word made flesh, the only begotton Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. Again, this Methodist statement follows the Nicene Creed closely.
By contrast, the Jesus of the LDS tradition is not co-eternal with the Father and "of one substance with the Father." The report cites Jay Jensen's statement that the Father and the Son are not united in substance, but only in love, will, focus, and effort. The report concludes that LDS belief cannot be said to constitute a monotheistic theology; it more closely resembles a tritheistic or possibly a polytheistic faith.
4. Creation and the Way of Salvation. The Son is the only Son of God and is begotten, not made. Everything else is created--made. Furthermore, human beings are not begotten of the Father but are, rather, created by the eternal and triune God. To Methodists, there is a very clear distinction between the human and the divine. This is tricky for Mormons to grasp. In the Methodist formulation, only Jesus (the Word) was in the beginning with God; we came later. We are created, not begotten.
By contrast, the report summarizes the LDS belief as follows. [H]uman beings are literally the children of the Heavenly Father (and Mother) in their pre-mortal, spiritual form, as was Jesus. Their spirits are begotten of the Father, not created. This makes them of the same order of existence as God. The LDS insistence on viewing the human condition as one of embryonic godhood clearly offends the Christian sense of humility and submission to God.
5. The Meaning and Role of Baptism. Baptism is a sacrament and means of God's grace. It is first and foremost, about God's action, what God does for us. Baptism is a pardoning both of our actual sins and of our original sin, the "inherent inclination toward evil" with which we are born.
By contrast, LDS baptism is, first and foremost, about human acceptance of God's plan. In LDS baptism, God acts to forgive sins in response to human worthiness. The report cites the words of the LDS baptismal prayer with favor, but notes that the intent or meaning of those words varies greatly from traditional use. For example, the LDS Church rejects the historic Christian belief in original sin. Even so, my reading of this rather detailed section of the report is that the words and conduct of LDS baptism is so similar to Methodist baptism that they have a hard time criticizing it, yet they are still unwilling to accept it is as essentially equivalent to a Methodist baptism. It's worth noting, I suppose, that the Mormon Church categorically rejects the sufficiency of Methodist baptism.
Conclusion. The report concludes that the Mormon Church, by self-definition, does not fit within the bounds of the historic, apostolic tradition of Christian faith. . . . It is our recommendation that following a period of catechesis (a time of intensive exploration and instruction in the Christian faith), such a [Mormon] convert should receive the sacrament of Christian baptism. Ouch. I suppose in the interest of full disclosure I should note that I received a fully valid Lutheran baptism when still a babe in arms, long before I received the "not quite Christian enough for the Methodists" LDS baptism. So all this Methodist hand-wringing applies to BIC or otherwise "unbaptized" Mormons, but not to me. I got my Christian ticket punched already.
Two other details noted in the report deserve special mention. First, in light of the rather odd LDS conception of "membership," it is strongly recommended that prior to Christian initiation, the person seeking membership . . . be urged to initiate his or her formal removal from LDS membership rolls. Second, the report urges creation of a special supplement to the general Methodist teaching materials, to be tailored to the special needs of Mormon converts because of the unique and confusing nature of such a conversion.