Utah is a wonderful place. When the Lord brought us here in 2010, I fell in love with the state and all that it has to offer — even its surprises.
Did you know that tumbleweed is a real thing? Or that rattlesnakes often live at the top of a mountain? Or that a full-grown bull moose can slip through thick brush barely making a sound?
But perhaps the biggest surprise was a religious one. I had assumed that the LDS Church would prefer to keep to itself. But quite the opposite is true — the LDS Church is extremely committed to interfaith cooperation. Every month or two, I receive an invitation to engage in various ecumenical functions spearheaded by the LDS Church.
About once a year, an LDS couple representing their church will attend one of our worship services to personally reaffirm their desire for interfaith cooperation. And let me be very clear — I am in no way offended by these requests. LDS representatives are always kind, respectful, and engaging. I’m simply trying to shine light on the dedication LDS leaders display for the interfaith cause.
But that begs the question – What do you say to those requests? Well, it’s not always straightforward and every situation demands careful consideration. But there is a question that can help clarify the issue. It’s this: _Is my (or my church’s) participation in this event a statement about the community or a statement about theology? _
Grace to the Community
On the one hand, Christ demands that our light shine before men (Matthew 5:16), which means we go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41), assist the poor (Matthew 5:42), and show extreme mercy at a moment’s notice (Luke 10:29ff). Sincere faith should lead to a community-wide reputation of helpfulness (2 Corinthians 1:12) as we show a genuine desire for the community’s good (1 Peter 3:10-11).
When our participation furthers those biblical ends, we try to help as much as we can. We’ve set up tents for community-wide celebrations, assisted an annual fundraiser for victims of pediatric cancer, lent support to a military family retreat, allowed local boy/girl scout troops to use our building, provided volunteers for a local marathon, and much more. It’s a privilege to serve our community and we’re always on the lookout for creative ventures.
Clarity in Theology
On the other, Christ also commands a clear line of separation from teachers who depart from the apostles’ doctrine (Galatians 1:8-9; 2 Timothy 3:1-8). False teachers abound in our world (1 John 4:1) and fall under the sharp condemnation of the Lord (Revelation 22:18-19). We have no right to undercut God’s sentence upon those who twist His words (2 Peter 3:16). If our participation blurs theological distinctions, places Mormonism on an equal plane with Biblical Christianity, or makes it appear as though we regard LDS Church leaders as allies in a common theological cause, then the Bible strictly forbids our participation. Let me give one example from many years ago.
A local LDS leader asked me to share a platform with other LDS leaders during a prayer of dedication for a monument to the Mormon Pioneers that settled in our region. I told him that I was honored that he would think of me, but that I would have to decline on the grounds that we pray to different deities. I pray to the one and only, Self-Existent Lord.
Latter-day Saints pray to Heavenly Father, who is one of many gods in the pantheon of those who’ve eternally progressed. My participation, therefore, would be an inauthentic display of ecumenicity and a confusing contradiction to those who understood the differences. He kindly accepted my explanation and sheepishly admitted that another, more venerable pastor had already given a similar answer.
It’s not Always Easy
The trouble comes when the lines between theology and community fade into each other. Most Utah communities are predominantly LDS; their theology compels its people to do community-wide good deeds. They’re not parsing the community/theology distinction – they’re just LDS people trying to do good things.
One such situation sticks out in my mind. A member of the local park board, a man who also happened to be a bishop, called in the spring to inform me that the park was putting on a family-friendly Fall Festival. He wanted me to know that everyone in the community was invited and said details would be forthcoming. So far so good. When fall rolled around, I saw advertisements describing a “First Ward Fall Festival.” With the words “First Ward,” I assumed it was a distinctly LDS event totally separate from what I’d heard about earlier. To be honest, I didn’t give it too much thought. “First Ward” signaled “Mormon” in my mind.
A few weeks later, the bishop called back, “Hey Greg, I noticed that none of your people were at the Fall Festival?” I told him I hadn’t received any further information and was unaware it had already taken place. He said, “You didn’t see the advertisements around the Valley?” I asked, “Wait … you mean the ads for The First Ward Fall Festival?” He said, “Yes, of course, you live in the First Ward.” Suddenly, it dawned on me, when he advertised “First Ward,” he was thinking of a geographical area – community, not theology.
When I saw “First Ward,” I associated it with the LDS Church and thought theology, not community. We both realized the confusion, apologized for the misunderstanding, and committed to better communication in the future.
In conclusion, please allow me to pass along three biblical encouragements.
First, model grace in everything. It’s unwise to express frustration or indignity at the LDS representative requesting your participation. Most of the time, they’re simply obeying a calling; they’ve likely never considered the convictions that are paramount in your thinking.
Second, encourage private dialogue. When I decline an invitation, I always try to offer a private conversation over a lunch of my treat. I want them to know that I care very much about them and their theology. Most Latter-day Saints are surprised at the vast differences between Mormonism and Biblical Christianity. A kind explanation of those differences in a private conversation can go a long way.
Last, remember that God is the ultimate Judge. The fact is, we don’t answer to LDS people; their feelings are secondary to God’s proclamations. The Lord Jesus Christ is the King of kings and He has called us to be His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20). Sometimes, ambassadors displease their host nation as they perform their Sovereign’s bidding. It’s not the ambassador’s job to create policy for the King, but to communicate our King’s wishes to the nation of our temporary residence (Philippians 3:20).