My well-dressed visitors

One evening early in March–the first really nice day of the year, as I recall–my doorbell rang. My girlfriend was coming over that night, but I didn’t expect her for another 45 minutes or so. I looked out the window and saw two guys in their early 20s, wearing black dress pants, white shirts, ties, and engraved nametags.
I knew instantly who they were representing. I debated whether I should answer the door, but I figured it would be better for them to come in and talk to me than to go knock on my neighbor’s door. My neighbor already has a church and doesn’t need another one, and I really didn’t want these guys trying to convince him otherwise. (For the record, my neighbor’s church isn’t my church and it’s not the same denomination as mine. I just want you to know that.)

They came in and they told me who they were representing. Then they proceeded to tell me that everything I know is wrong. I’ve been told that before. I think the first time was at a U2 concert, but I don’t think they really meant it. At least they didn’t mean everything. I heard it again at college, but their main motivation was to teach me how to think.

They told me a story about a prophet. When this prophet was about their age, he didn’t know what church to go to. So God the Father–this is important–and Jesus Christ appeared to him. They told him a couple of things, and the result of this was the church that the two of them represent.

There’s only one problem with that story. There’s another prophet named Moses. You’ve probably heard of him. He’s the one God handed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets. He also wrote the first five books of the Bible. Among prophets, Moses is in an elite class. When Jesus was transfigured in front of three of his disciples, two prophets also showed up. Those prophets were Moses and Elijah. To those three disciples, who were Jewish, the presence of Moses and Elijah and their submission to him indicated that Jesus was something special.

Well, one of the big reasons that Moses is something special is because he saw God. Once. Only he didn’t get to see God the Father’s face, because it would have killed him. (See Exodus 33:19-23.)

St. Paul was in an elite class of apostles. (According to these two guys, St. Paul was sort of a prophet. Remember the “sort of.”) St. Paul was on his way to Damascus to kill some people (see Acts 9:1-22) when he got interrupted. He got blinded by a light, then he looked up in the sky and saw Jesus. Jesus gave him a talking-to, then Paul went and changed the world.

When God shows up visibly to people, things change. It doesn’t happen very often, so when someone comes along saying he’s seen God, people tend to follow.

But the problem with the story these two guys told me is that it doesn’t mesh up. Moses couldn’t see God’s face because it would have killed him. Paul’s story meshes up with Moses’, because Paul didn’t see God the Father. He saw Jesus. But their prophet saw God the Father.

I pointed out this discrepancy to them. When they left that night, one of them handed me a piece of paper with the verse Acts 7:55 written on it. That’s the story of Stephen, the first martyr. Stephen saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. It says so. So how does that mesh up with the story of Moses and Paul? Five verses later, Stephen was dead.

These two guys put a lot of emphasis on their prophet’s testimony and on their own experience and feelings. I resented their implication that I’d never had an experience with the Holy Ghost. I resented them coming right out and telling me my baptism was invalid. It annoyed me when they told me that neither one of them had read much of the Bible, and they continued to talk down to me even after I told them I had read the Bible in its entirety. On a subsequent visit, one of them told me he very rarely read the Bible because he didn’t like it, but this other book they wanted me to read… He loved that book. That made sense to me though. Americans are very do-it oriented. Give an American male a list of things to do to be successful, and he’ll probably do them. He’ll probably thank you for it. Even if the list is 613 items long. There’s a reason why the self-help section in American bookstores is so big. The book these guys wanted me to read is well-suited for an American audience. While the Bible likes to talk about the things God did for us, this book is full of ideas about things we can do for God.

But the most important thing about that book is the experience and feelings you get when you read it. Let me tell you a little bit about my experience and feelings reading the Bible.

When I was about the same age as these two guys, I began the process of reading the Bible cover to cover. I was questioning everything I knew and everything that had ever happened to me, and that book and what I perceived as the misuse of that book was at the center of those questions. So I read it, looking for answers. I prayed at the same time too. I asked God where I should be going to church, because I didn’t know. He told me where I should go. Not because it was where I wanted to go–I didn’t want to be Lutheran–and not because the LCMS is right about absolutely everything, because they aren’t. When it comes to understanding the needs of a guy in his 20s and resources to help them, the LCMS has a whole lot of nothing. But the LCMS’s specialty is its teachings on grace and forgiveness, which was what I needed more than anything. God knew it, and I know it now, and I needed that message so desperately that I would have listened to the pastor talk through an electric fan if that was what he wanted to do. I returned to the denomination of my youth about a month after I finished the Bible.

These guys talked a lot about feelings. Sure, it was an emotional time. And while you should pay attention to feelings, you also should remember that feelings aren’t infallible. Our emotions can be 100% wrong and totally detached from reality. There are plenty of moments in just about any relationship of a romantic nature can illustrate that vividly.

Four years after I returned to the church body of my youth, I went on a mission trip to a very impoverished part of Florida. I saw the life of one of the teenagers in my small group completely change over the course of a couple of days. If God the Holy Ghost didn’t have a hold on him, then I don’t know who it was. That same week, five or six of us had finished up our task for the afternoon, so we went walking. We came upon a church, and it had become our habit that week to pray for the churches in the area. The prayers were pretty simple and generic: That the area churches would reach out to the community, and that they would have the desire and the ability to meet the needs of the people around them. After we finished, our pastor looked up and saw an elderly woman standing on a second-floor balcony across the street from us. “Are you watching us?” he asked playfully. “Yes I am, sir,” she said, humbly but without any shame or nervousness or timidity in her voice. Pastor asked if he could send a few of us up to her to pray for her. “I’d like that very much, sir,” she said. So I grabbed three guys and we walked up to her apartment. We talked to her for a few minutes, prayed with her for a few more minutes, then talked for a while again. The last thing she said to us is probably something I’ll never forget: “I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit outside when your group walked up to that church, and I just had to step outside and see what was going on out there.”

When my two visitors told me the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost is beyond description, I had to agree with them. And I’m sure that the Holy Ghost is working on them, trying to show them the way to truth, and I’m sure they feel that work in their lives. But they have it backwards. To them, the Holy Ghost is their reward for doing the right thing once. To use a baseball analogy, the Holy Ghost is a World Series trophy to them. That’s wrong. Yes, the Holy Ghost is there after you’ve gotten right with God, but only because He was already there. The Holy Ghost isn’t a World Series trophy. The Holy Ghost is the leadoff batter on opening day, and His work never ends until our final breath and the final beat of our heart.

These guys have a lot of things backwards, but I could never convince them to even think about any of that stuff. They’re constantly talking about proving things to God. The only thing we can ever prove to God is our inadequacy, but even that isn’t really proving anything. How can you prove anything to an all-knowing being? Of course, I’m not sure that their god is an all-knowing being.

They never encouraged me to read the Bible. They wanted me to read their book and pray about it. But they wanted a very specific prayer: Pray to know that their book is true. The problem is that when you pray a prayer like that, God may say no, but since you prayed for a yes answer, if some other being comes along posing as God and says yes, that’s the one you’ll listen to.

Truth be told, the ethics of their book aren’t bad. Their book reads much like the books Protestants call the Apocrypha: the books between the Old Testament and New Testament that Catholics and Episcopals accept but Calvinist and Lutheran denominations don’t. If the church these guys represent only believed and taught what was in the Bible and this other book, they’d still be a fringe group but mainline Christianity would have far fewer problems with them.

On the Saturday before Easter, they paid me a visit again. My friend Matt, who’s working on his Master’s of Divinity, happened to be over. They talked to me some more about why my baptism was invalid and theirs is valid: The authority to baptize died with the apostles and wasn’t restored until the 19th century, they said. After a half hour or so of miscommunication, Matt asked me if he could ask a question. I said certainly.

He had them turn to a second book they use–one that I was aware of but didn’t have a copy of–and read a passage from it. That passage stated that the Apostle John never died. (Matt later told me that that belief is a misinterpretation of John 21:20-22. Interestingly, John 21:23 specifically warns against just this interpretation.) But Matt went with their interpretation. Is it true that John never died? Yes, they said. Then the authority to baptize, which disappeared with the death of all the disciples, never left this earth.

The younger of the two was visibly taken aback. The older of the two struggled for a minute, then regained his composure somewhat and changed the subject.

The discussion quickly turned to the Nicene Creed and never veered back to this contradiction. But that very neatly illustrates a problem.

Whenever the Bible appears to contradict itself, it’s due to misinterpretation. Since English is a terribly imprecise language, often the problem comes down to word choice, and reading the verses in question in more than one translation (if you can’t read Biblical Greek and Hebrew) will resolve the issue. Or, often the problem is due to taking verses out of context. Re-read the offending verses in context and in light of similar verses, and the conflict resolves. Biblical prophets do not contradict themselves or one another because they were repeating the words of God, who doesn’t contradict Himself.

Statements such as “The Apostle John never died” are not the words of a prophet. They are the words of someone who didn’t read John 21:23. (Church tradition states that John died in Ephesus around the year 100 AD, at the age of about 94.)

In an early conversation, they told me that God used prophets in the Old Testament to bring people back after they became wicked. They then asked if it doesn’t make sense for there to be a living prophet today. I said no. They were taken aback; I’m certain that usually they get the opposite answer.

I held up my well-worn NIV Bible, then I said something like this: This is a book about relationships and sin. It took several centuries to write. There isn’t a single relationship problem that exists now that didn’t exist then and isn’t mentioned somewhere in here. And sin hasn’t changed. We’d mastered sin by the time this was written. Our need for God hasn’t changed, and what we have to do to be right with God hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s changed since this book was finished is our technology. God’s given us our answers; He doesn’t need to add anything else to it.

I’ve read books written by people who claim to have the gift of prophecy. But their revelations from God mostly affect them and the people directly around them, and they make no other claims about the messages they receive. They’re also incredibly short. And, most importantly, they don’t contradict scripture. In fact, many of them are simply restatements of scripture.

But when I’ve run across someone claiming infallibility, it usually hasn’t taken long for them to say things that do contradict scripture, such as that statement about the Apostle John. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and 2 Peter 3:16 have harsh words about these kinds of people.

Before they left angrily, one of them asked Matt what his motive was. Their motive, they said, was the truth. Matt said his motive was the truth. Have you read it?, one of them asked, holding up his secondary book. Matt said he had, and he was in the process of reading it cover to cover now. They each agreed that the other needed to find the truth (the less experienced of the two visitors didn’t say much and left looking shellshocked)and that was the end of it.

I see two major problems. The first is the assertion that the Bible isn’t enough. That opens the door to all sorts of crazy things. The second problem, just as bad, is the overemphasis on self and de-emphasis of God. Virtually every sentence they said began with the words, “You need to” or “We need to.” But it’s God working in us that enables us to do things. And in my experience, often when God’s working in us, we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s only after the fact that it makes sense. That doesn’t happen when your motive is to prove something to God though.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, and they haven’t called me or stopped by. I hope some of the truth has sunk in. But it usually takes a while.

5 thoughts on “My well-dressed visitors

  • May 2, 2003 at 10:22 pm
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    i was pointed here by dan the man (thetimesink.net) who is a very good friend–i’ve been to your site before and commented on another post regarding Mormonism. i thought it might be helpful to add some of my experiences with the church, as i was raised in an LDS environment and at one time tried very hard to fit into the Mormon mold. (for the sake of sharing and general knowledge.)

    first, i must point at that i am no longer LDS and am in the process of having my “records” removed. (the LDS church keeps a very careful record of each member’s existence; church attendance and so forth. having my records removed from church archives, or sent to me, means that i withdraw my membership from the church. it may sound easy to leave this church, and they like to say it is–a matter of choice, or “free agency”, but it really isn’t; it’s insanely difficult to actually break the tie.)

    growing up in the church, we were taught to believe in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and to read these scriptures often–daily, if not many times daily, and to pray unceasingly, (which is a precept of most Christian religions, i believe, as it is in the Bible.) we are taught that although the Bible (King James version only) is a good reference, it is ‘imperfect’ and has been mis-translated, and therefore is not an accurate scripture. the prophet/president of the church advises church members to read the Bible and be acquainted with its verses, but most of the focus is placed on the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. (here on out referred to as BOM and D&C.)

    D&C is a collection of ‘scripture’, mostly speeches or revelations from the ‘latter day prophets’–from Joseph Smith Jr. on up. we are taught that the prophet (also known as the ‘president’, as the church is also a wealthy corporation), can and does speak to God the Father often, and within a special room in the temple the prophet often communes with Jesus Christ, God, and other prophets who came before him. we are taught that whatever the prophet says is the word of God–from conference speeches to BYU firesides. we are taught to take the prophet’s words, usually published in the church magazine, ‘The Ensign’, as scripture. and at that, more reliable scripture than the Bible, as it hasn’t been mistranslated.

    that is a bit on the scripture aspect of things, and why the Mormons don’t seem to value the Bible like other Christian religions do–i’d be happy to talk about anything else in relation to Mormonism if you have questions, or need something clarified.

    and i have to say, for anyone reading this: the church is a vast system of mind control and yes, i agree with you, Dave–they want to teach you how to think. the missionaries that are sent out are very young men, leaving home at age 19–too young to understand anything about the world, and they first go to the MTC, or Missionary Training Center, to be brainwashed. (oh, excuse me–did i say brainwashed? i meant edified and enlightened in the gospel and doctrine of the Lord.)

    [i think that’s enough from this peanut gallery, at this time. please pardon my novel length comment, and i hope i might come back again.]

  • May 2, 2003 at 10:49 pm
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    A peasant living in England during the Middle Ages was illiterate. The priests and the noblemen read the Bible. Was the Bible used for control and is it still used as a broadsword against the peasants?
    Does not G_d simply love.

  • May 4, 2003 at 10:39 pm
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    Absolutely. I’ll admit, the main motivation I had for reading the Bible cover to cover when I did was because I saw it being misapplied and being used as a broadsword against me and against other people. I knew what they were doing was wrong, and I got tired of not knowing why.

    The Protestant reformation eliminated a lot of that by translating the Bible into the language everyone used every day and encouraging people to read it themselves. (It started with Luther translating the Bible into German, but it didn’t take long for it to appear in other languages as well.) Unfortunately, when you insist on using a dated translation that’s difficult for many people to read–and a number of church bodies and other sects do this–you undo that, and once again the Bible becomes an un-understandable weapon. A translation into Shakespearean English won’t cut it in 2003 because nobody talks like that now.

    You bring up a very good point. God wants to love directly. Without intermediaries. Ideally there never would have been any such thing as a prophet because we all would have been able to hear and understand Him. The more distant and impersonal a religion makes God, the more room there is for abuse.

  • May 6, 2003 at 4:50 am
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    [Frequently-quoted passage out of the Book of Mormon–a Mormon equivalent of John 3:16, only it’s not about God, it’s about itself–deleted. Executive summary: It says the Bible isn’t enough and if you pray with a sincere heart, God will answer. –DF]

    Being a “Mormon” myself, I do know that the Bible AND the Book of Mormon are both the word of God, having asked God myself and having received answers to my prayers. I agree that many missionaries are young and inexperienced, but God is not a respector of person so both old and young can be called to preach his word. And although we (both as a human family or as a church) may be imperfect, the Gospel of Jesus is perfect, and they (the Missionaries) may not know how to answer your questions, but I gaurentee, if you ask God with a sincere heart, he will reveal the truth of it unto you. Try it, what do you have to lose.

    [If it’s not God answering but another being posing as God, then, well, what do I have to lose? Everything. –DF]

    Here’s my challenge…seperate church and religion/faith…don’t go to the “Mormon” church, but in the privacy of your own home, read the Book of Mormon from front to back. After which, pray and ask God if it is true or not. You will come to know that BOTH the Bible AND Book of Mormon are true and are both the words of God. I promise.

    [What’s curious to me is that I never mentioned “Mormon” or “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” or Joseph Smith or anyone else in this passage. How do you know my visitors weren’t Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or some other sect? –DF]

  • July 24, 2003 at 1:03 am
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    I just sort of stumbled upon this page and I like it alot. I have come across a number of Mormons at my workplace (Yes, I’m a Christian) and after having several debates/discussions with them I was really driven to learn more about their religion. It also made me realize that I need to know more about my own. A really good book for those interested just came out titled “Mormonism 101” it is an excellent source for anyone wanting to learn more about the LDS faith and it’s many problems. I found rather than trying to take them to the Bible and show them how the book of Mormon contradicts it in so many ways, ask them about the origins of their own books. IE: the Book of Mormon, Declarations and Covenents, The Pearl of Great Price. The truth is that these books lack any real archealogical evidence. First of all the places and structures described in the book of Mormon are nowhere to be found. If Jesus was in the Americas as they claim where is the evidence? And why haven’t Scientists/Archeologists found any evidence to support the people/places in the book of Mormon. I don’t think anyone would argue that the Christian Bible has a ton of supporting evidence, because we can simply take a trip to the Middle East and see all the places that are recorded in the Bible. Mormons are quick to discredit the Bible, if they try this tactic show them the evidence to support the Bible. Then ask them to do the same for the Book of Mormon, and their other books. They won’t be able too. The witnesses to the book of Mormon do not even agree on what they saw, and how Joseph Smith translated it from the golden tablets. Their testimonies are readily available, yet simply read them and none of them have the same story. The Pearl Of Great Price(Which the LDS church uses in addition to the bible) is a book which was supposedly translated by Joseph Smith from Hieroglyphic Egyptian by “Divine Inspiration”. Joseph bought the manuscript (for $2,400) on rolls of papyri from a traveling showman who was displaying 4 other mummies. He claimed the writings were done by Abraham and Joseph. The original manuscripts that Smith translated were moved to a few different museums and thought to be lost for awhile until eventually turning up in a museum in New York. Finally they were transated with todays methods and found to be completely Pagan in nature. The proof that they were the original scripts translated by Joseph Smith was on the back of the papyrus rolls Smith had drawn architectural drawings of one of the Mormon Temples. Should I mention that not even scientists could translate Egyptian back then. Hope somebody finds this info usefull. The list goes on and on.

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