Bridging the Divide: The Continuing Conversation between a Mormon and an Evangelical

By Dr. Robert L. Millet and Rev. Gregory C.V. Johnson
Monkfish, 2007

Reviewed by Eric Johnson

Bridging the Divide

“After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Pricilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he met with them, attempting to make friends with the Jewish leaders and building up their relationships so that, if possible, they could reach their missiological goals and become better friends.” (Acts 18:1-4, NIV)

For more than five years, former Christian pastor Greg Johnson and Robert “Bob” Millet, a professor of religion at LDS Church-owned BYU, have sponsored sit-down conversations in front of audiences in public venues to encourage better understanding between Evangelicals and Mormons. In this 186-page $14.99 paperback book—don’t worry, bibliophobes, as it shouldn’t take more than two hours of reading in one sitting thanks to the large 12-point, double-spaced type printed with wide 1 ¼-inch margin—the two friends have compiled some of their public talks into written form. The reading is easily understandable for any reader, even those with little to no understanding of Mormonism.

Roots in How Wide the Divide?

Bob and Greg—since the two intimately use their first names throughout their book, I’ll use them as well—dedicate their new book to Denver Seminary professor Craig Blomberg and BYU professor Stephen Robinson, authors of the book How Wide the Divide published a decade earlier. Writing in the foreword to Bridging the Divide, Blomberg and Robinson appear to take a stab at the criticism that Standing Together’s controversial approach has received from many Christian leaders, including a number of pastors in Utah. Although they could be writing partly tongue-in-cheek, they are quite clear in their position when they state: “If you have any doubts that you know everything there is to know about either Evangelical or Latter-day Saint religion and have even the slightest desire to learn more, this book is for you. (If you’re sure you do know it all, then this book is really for you, but you’re not likely to be reading it in the first place, except perhaps to tell others where it’s wrong!)”(p. xiv).

On the previous page, Blomberg and Robinson write: “They (Greg and Bob) want to dialogue, not to debate; to have a conversation, not a confrontation. Greg and Bob are passionate about modeling convicted civility—courteous, even loving interchanges among genuinely close friends over matters of the deepest personal conviction” (p. xiii). I would like to use this statement as a framework for my review of Bridging the Divide.

“They want to dialogue, not to debate; to have a conversation, not a confrontation.”

Many of you certainly noticed the “quote” from Acts 18 listed at the beginning of this review. In fact, it may have left some of you a bit confused. If you didn’t catch it, go back and read it again. Notice verse four, which begins with “Every Sabbath…” What I quoted is not really what Paul said. Instead, verse four should read like this: “Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.”

It needs to be pointed out that Paul did not intend to win friendships with those who disagreed with him. Rather, whenever he went to the synagogue—a normal occurrence whenever he first went to a city, according to Acts 14:1—he was “trying to persuade Jews and Greeks” to his way of thinking. How many friends did Paul make with the religious leaders of his day? Not many, apparently, because he complained in 2 Corinthians 11 that he received the infamous 39-lash penalty a total of five times. Three times, he says, he was beaten with rods, and once he was stoned. Just read through the book of Acts to see that Paul was much more concerned about disseminating truth than he was making friends and running all over Palestine participating in a “Christian and Jew in conversation.”

Yet the entire purpose of Bridging the Divide is laid out in the third and largest section that was both interesting and frustrating at the same time. The section, which is titled “Questions from the Audience,” provides honest and even difficult questions posed by sincere Mormons (of which there are more than 13 million) and Evangelical Christians, which they say numbers at 700 million, though no source is provided.

The first question in this section refers to Brigham Young’s Adam-God teaching that he gave during his presidency. Bob spends 4½ pages providing his answer to the question, which is much longer than the average 1-2-page response normally given. In a nutshell, Bob explains that not everything the prophets say should be considered authoritative LDS doctrine. Is this teaching in the Standard Works? Is it in an official declaration or proclamation? Is it in general handbooks or approved curriculum? Is it talked about in general conference?

Somehow Bob apparently wants non-Mormons to think that issues such as the denial of blacks to the priesthood (until 1978) and what God was like before He became God ought to be left alone. But going back to the Adam-God teaching (yes, it was taught at a general conference, so shouldn’t it be considered authoritative?), Young actually threatened his listeners with damnation if they treated his “doctrine” (his word) “lightly or with indifference.” Consider also that Orson Pratt’s reluctance to believe Young’s teaching about this doctrine was, in part, the reason why Pratt did not become Mormonism’s third president.

Bob writes,

“If you’re going to analyze The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spend your time studying what the Church has become, what it is today, in the 21st century.”

On page 133, he adds that the “anti-Mormon propaganda” lists what

“they perceive to be some of our ‘unusual doctrines,’ many of which were presented by a few Church leaders of the past.”

If his view is correct, then critics of the LDS Church should stay away from the more controversial teachings of these leaders. After all, if only a “few” leaders talked about these issues, why should anyone want to make a big deal of them? (I suppose we need to know how “few” are few in Bob’s book. Would the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve be considered only a few in Bob’s calculations?) But is this really fair, especially based on the criteria he listed in the previous paragraph for how we really can determine LDS doctrine? It appears that Bob wants to believe in men who are authorized to give “latter-day revelation,” but nobody is allowed to examine the revelations these men give. How convenient that he is allowed to set the rules that prevent us from discussing Mormonism’s “unusual doctrines.” It is like going into a courtroom and having the judge arbitrarily dismissing pertinent information in a case.

On page 66, Bob throws down the gauntlet by saying, “If we’re going to disagree, however, let’s disagree on the right stuff, on matters that we actually believe and teach today, not just something that was said years ago but is not really a part of the doctrine of the Church.” Later, on page 113, Bob claims the Virgin Birth is a peripheral teaching when he claims that Mormons “clearly believe in the same historical Jesus as Catholics and Protestants do: born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judea…” On page 138 he again attests that Mormons “worship the Christ of the New Testament” and “wholeheartedly in His virgin birth…”

So what should the Evangelical response be? Here’s how Greg officially responded in the book and apparently at that particular meeting regarding how Mormonism should not be understood from 19th and 20th century prophets:

“Do you folks hear what Bob is saying? I think what he has just said is very important…I think it is both important and fair to let Latter-day Saints define themselves and not to obligate them to believe and defend everything that might have been taught in their 180-year history” (p. 66).

However, Bob is not an official representative of the LDS Church. If what these past leaders said was not correct, then the current leadership ought to repudiate these teachings as false. But why shouldn’t Mormonism be liable for what its leaders have taught in the past? After all, are these men prophets and apostles of God, or are they not? If they are, then shouldn’t their sermons and writings be examined and critiqued so we can better understand and judge the character of such men? If Bob is correct, then the LDS membership should cease from the claim that they are being guided by latter-day prophets and apostles, admitting that these men are nothing more than latter-day opinion givers.

Although this was the perfect opportunity to utilize 1 Peter 3:16 and, in all gentleness and respect, respectfully disagree by pointing out the inconsistency, Greg makes it appear that Bob was correct in his assertion. In effect, he misleads people into thinking that these are no longer issues that ought to be considered by thinking Evangelicals and Mormons alike. However, the Mormon teaching of the Virgin Birth is not just a 19th century idea, despite what Bob may want the Evangelicals to think. (For the evidence of my point, see MRM’s article “Redefining the Virgin Birth” and chapter 2 in Mormonism 101, co-written by me and Bill McKeever.)

Another example can be found on page 83 when Bob explains how the Garden of Gethsemane was only the first part of Christ’s redemptive work, as he says the cross is inferred or talked about in other places by General Authorities. “We believe that what began in Gethsemane was completed on the cross, and that Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross are a vital part of His overall atoning mission.”(p. 84) While Mormon leaders certainly speak about the cross and its finishing act before the resurrection, it seems clear that the Garden is the crucial part of the LDS atonement story. Let me just provide several quotes to support my point:

In his book The Promised Messiah, Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “Forgiveness is available because Christ the Lord sweat great drops of blood in Gethsemane as he bore the incalculable weight of the sins of all who ever had or ever would repent” (p. 337). On page 552 of the same book, McConkie adds, “In a garden called Gethsemane, outside Jerusalem’s walls, in agony beyond compare, he took upon himself the sins of all men on condition of repentance.”

On pages 127-128 of his The Mortal Messiah, McConkie acknowledges the cross but stresses the redeeming quality of Gethsemane that “overshadowed” the other events. He wrote:

“And as he came out of the Garden, delivering himself voluntarily into the hands of wicked men, the victory had been won. There remained yet the shame and the pain of his arrest, his trials, and his cross. But all these were overshadowed by the agonies and sufferings in Gethsemane. It was on the cross that he ‘suffered death in the flesh,’ even as many have suffered agonizing deaths, but it was in Gethsemane that ‘he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.’”

On page 14 of The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth LDS prophet agreed, saying,

“It was in Gethsemane that Jesus took on Himself the sins of the world, in Gethsemane that His pain was equivalent to the cumulative burden of all men, in Gethsemane that He descended below all things so that all could repent and come to Him.”

Even Robert Matthews, Bob’s colleague at BYU, said,

“It was in Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, that Jesus made his perfect atonement by the shedding of his blood – more so than on the cross.” (A Bible! A Bible!, p. 282)

We could go on and on with many other additional LDS quotes from other recent leaders who stressed the preeminence of the blood shed at Gethsemane.

It is interesting to note that even many Mormon missionaries disagree with Bob’s ideas and teach contrary to what he says. Who should be believed? The missionaries? Or BYU professors? Bob points to the answer when he says how

“…these young men and women are just that—they’re young….their reading material and their research skills are narrow and rather limited. They are not trained theologians, nor does the Church in any way claim they are…. It is not expected that they will have the answers to all your questions or mine” (p. 19)

If so many missionaries are apparently getting the doctrine wrong, as admitted by Bob, no wonder those of us outside of Bob’s circle are improperly interpreting it as well.

“Greg and Bob are passionate about modeling convicted civility…”

Greg is a believer in “convicted civility” and is quite critical of those who believe in “confrontational” witnessing. (Of course, some hear “confrontation” and think that sounds negative, but why can’t it be called “biblical witnessing” if it is done in an organized, gentle and respectful manner?) Greg writes on pages 107-8:

“But let me also say that a lot of effort expended in the arena of confrontation can be less than helpful. I am convinced that when people are in relationship they have a far greater chance of communicating with and influencing others, particularly in the pursuit of spiritual truth. So to the Evangelical community I would ask that we be more empathetic of the Mormons’ feelings when we attempt to share with them where we think they are wrong.”

How far does this empathy go? It appears Greg thinks it is wrong to challenge others on their way of thinking. Sharing your faith when the other person may feel uncomfortable because his or her position is precarious is apparently equal to not having empathy with Mormons’ feelings. This is absurd. Issues that matter are usually issues that are the most sensitive. In fact, many ex-Mormons have expressed heartfelt gratitude to Christians who influenced their thinking because they presented them with information to make them reevaluate their presuppositions.

I regularly interact with almost a dozen folks who are leaders at a variety of religious buildings throughout San Diego County. These include those from a Hare Krishna temple, Conservative Jewish synagogue, Islamic mosque, and the Mormon Battalion Center in Old Town, San Diego. Why do I have a relationship with these religious leaders? I teach a comparative religions course at both the high school and seminary levels. Every year when I teach these classes, I arrange field trips to the venues of these religious sites. The leaders know that when I bring my students to them, they are given freedom to teach my students about their faith from their perspective.

My students—sometimes I bring 50-60 at a time!—are asked not to bring their Bibles since we go there to learn and not argue. Some may assume we go there to witness, yet this is not our purpose. While I certainly look for every opportunity to share my faith, the times I have effectively witnessed in an extended conversation after the presentation can be counted on one hand. My friendship with these men has limited my sharing with them because I don’t want to jeopardize future invitations to return.

Is there a danger of leaving my students with an improper impression of the religion that we are visiting? Yes. Could they possibly convert? I agree that it’s possible because they hear whatever the leaders are telling them. However, I believe that I have carefully and correctly taught them about each religion beforehand, so generally we hear what we have already studied. Occasionally things are said that just are not accurate at all. Yet I don’t have to worry about interrupting the imam or rabbi during his talk because I have the special opportunity in an “afterglow” time (away from the religious leader) to appropriately correct any wrong ideas the students may have received. And I will see these students every day for weeks following, where any other corrections and explanations can be made. None of my students are left in the dark.

“…courteous, even loving interchanges among genuinely close friends over matters of the deepest personal conviction”

There are many differences between my bringing students to a religious venue and Greg’s ministry. When Greg and Bob visit a church, they don’t know who’s in the audience. What impression are they leaving? Are some sheep being deceived? Do they even know or care? These are questions that I think ought to haunt anyone who is in this type of ministry since the spiritual leaders are responsible for their people.

Bob and Greg’s talks are often given in Evangelical churches, with many in the audience ascribing to Evangelical Christianity and not Mormonism. My criticism comes, then, because Bob has a license to say whatever he wishes. Deep down, he knows that there is a gentleman’s agreement to abstain from rebuttals. In fact, he admits to this very thing on page 98: “Greg and I have likewise chosen not to push too vigorously the hard buttons, to focus unduly on matters that divide us most directly.” Somehow, questioning a person’s statement is akin to pushing a button. This, according to the new evangelism paradigm, is apparently contentious.

Greg insists that political and moral issues can better be tackled by making friends with the Mormons. He writes on page 152:

“Without question, the shared values and morals that both Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints hold dear are under sustained attack from a hostile, unregenerate world, and if we do not discover ways to come together, we will surely suffer together.”

While it is certainly true that, generally, Mormons are very much in line with most Evangelicals when it comes to opposition to pornography, homosexuality, and many other moral and political issues, what is the biblical justification to join hands with other religions merely because they agree with us on what is right and wrong in the moral and political realms? Certainly Paul did not understand such a mindset! Allowing sheep to play with the wolves doesn’t appear to concern Greg or his organization, and this is the problem.

As Blomberg and Robinson originally put it, it’s about dialogue and not debate; about conversations and not confrontations. But when truth is allowed to get muddled and there is nobody to sound a warning, which is really what happens in the public conversations Greg and Bob have with each other, I think there is definitely something amiss.

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