In evangelizing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the Mormons, I recommend a respectful three-step approach that I have found does at least two things: it fosters a conversation without causing an abrupt end to it, and it has never resulted in anything close to a cogent response from the Mormon.
Begin by praising the good
I have found the best place to begin a conversation with a Mormon is taking note of a Catholic-Mormon agreement on belief in an authoritative, hierarchical Church that speaks with apostolic authority. I usually bring up the Protestant tradition of sola scriptura in this context, showing it is unbiblical and affirming that Catholics agree with the LDS on this point. The missionary in my living room will nod his approval as I explain how far from New Testament theology this Protestant invention truly is. Then, in good Frank Columbo fashion, I will eventually steer the conversation to Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus gave us a definitive commandment:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you. . . . If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
The Mormon will readily agree that Christ was directing the faithful to obey the Church that he established and that this church would never steer us away from God. “Sola scriptura,” I say, “simply does not fit in with what Jesus commands here. Our Lord established an authoritative Church to which all of his followers are commanded to belong and to obey.” The obvious question now is: what “church” is being referred to here? This is where the wisdom of Columbo’s approach comes to the fore.
There is no need to scratch your head as you ask it, but the question goes something like this:
What if you were living in, say, 1785, and you were to read this very passage from St. Matthew? You and I both believe that this is the word of God and that it applies to all believers in Jesus Christ. You and I also agree that Jesus would never lead us to a church with no one who could speak for him. In obedience to Jesus, where would you go? The LDS did not exist yet. If the true church did not exist on this earth for 1,800 years, then Jesus misguided millions into obeying error-filled churches with no apostolic authority. That would be unthinkable.
There usually comes an awkward pause at this point.
The great apostasy that could never be
The second step is to respond to what will be the normal Mormon response—after that awkward pause I mentioned. Most Mormons have not been questioned like this, but soon enough the Mormon will claim that the Church that Jesus established fell into not just an apostasy but a total and complete apostasy after the death of the last apostle. Thus, the true Church of Christ did not exist for some 1,800 years. It has been re-established through another Testament given to Joseph Smith and LDS. Second Thessalonians 2:1-4 is the text they commonly refer to that teaches this apostasy to have occurred:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition (emphasis added).
St. Paul used the Greek word apostasia in verse three—translated as “the rebellion”—to describe this falling away or apostasy. The problem with this and other texts used by the LDS is that there is not a single word or inference indicating this apostasy would be total. Apostasy? Yes. But total apostasy? No!
Not only is a total apostasy as taught by the LDS never mentioned in Scripture, but it is impossible according to Scripture for at least three reasons.
1. Old Testament prophecies concerning the New Covenant and the coming of the kingdom of God, the Church, describe it as perpetual, beginning with Christ, and indefectible. For example, Daniel 7:13-14:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man (Jesus), and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (emphasis added; see also Isaiah 9:6-7 and Daniel 2:44).
2. The New Testament describes the Church as indefectible as well:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always (Greek, pasas tas hemeras, “all the days”) to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20, emphasis added).
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:18-19, emphasis added).
Most Mormons will attempt to make the case that these texts speak of the triumph of the Church but do not preclude the possibility of a total apostasy in the centuries between the time of the apostles and that final triumph through the LDS. Beyond the fact that Jesus said he would be with us “all the days” until the end of time, this contention leads us to what is, after the words of our Lord himself, perhaps the most definitive reason to say a total apostasy is impossible:
3. Paul uses explicit terms in his letter to the Ephesians eliminating the possibility of a total apostasy. In Ephesians 1:22 he describes the Church as “[Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” This Church is “built upon the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief cornerstone” (2:20).
Indeed, Paul describes the Church as being the instrument God has chosen so that “through the Church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places” (3:10). Paul reminds us that this Church must have apostles, prophets, pastors, evangelists and teachers “to equip the saints . . . for building up the body of Christ . . . so that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine” (cf. 4:11-14).
According to Paul, God gave us the Church so that we may know with certainty the truths of the faith. This is by no means the only reason for the existence of the Church, but it is a central reason. Most important for our purpose, we must consider Ephesians 3:20-21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul tells us that this Church he describes will be present to pasas tas geneas, “all the generations,” or “every generation” forever and ever. Jesus said he would be with us “all the days,” and Paul says the Church will be present in “every generation.” Both eliminate the possibility of a total apostasy.
Can I ask one final question?
At this point I recommend resuming the full-on Columbo methodology by asking a series of simple questions. First, ask if LDS theology contradicts what we find in the Bible. Any good Mormon missionary will explain that there are no contradictions between LDS’s sources of revelation: the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Bible. Your follow-up questions could go something like this:
“You believe in eternal marriage, right?”
“Yes,” the Mormon will respond. “If a marriage is performed in the Temple it will continue into eternity and forever.”
“Okay, well, forgive me, but can you help me understand what Christ says right here in Luke’s Gospel?”
Luke 20:27-39 recounts a dialogue between Jesus and some Sadducees and Pharisees. The Sadducees denied there was an afterlife and accepted only the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament, called the Pentateuch) as authoritative Scripture, and the Pharisees affirmed the afterlife and accepted most of the books that Catholics accept today as Scripture. Jesus sided with the Pharisees on these points.
These Sadducees thought they would deal a decisive blow to Jesus and the Pharisees by pitting the Torah against the book of Tobit and the idea of the resurrection of the dead, leading all who would listen to conclude that both Tobit and the resurrection are contrary to what all involved acknowledged to be God’s word, the Torah (many scholars will say it is likely the Sadducees were alluding to Tobit; it is indisputable that they were attempting to show the idea of an afterlife to be contrary to the Torah):
Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers . . . [who] took a wife, and died without children. . . . In the resurrection . . . whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.
You explain to your Mormon friend how the Sadducees thought they had Jesus in a corner. God had never permitted polyandry under any circumstances (and neither has Mormonism, you might add), and yet Tobit 3:8 refers to a woman (Sarah) who had seven husbands in succession.
The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to the angels.
Jesus answered by declaring there to be no marriage in heaven, so the question of whose wife she will be becomes a moot point. St. Paul seems to concur with this understanding because he says ‘a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning the husband’ (Rom. 7:2; see also I Cor. 7:39). This is clear-cut from Jesus, so how do Mormons answer this question? Whose wife would she be?”
The LDS would respond by saying she could only be “sealed” to one husband in eternity. But Jesus does not concur. He says there is no marriage in heaven. Thus, there is no answer except to say that the idea of eternal marriage as practiced by the LDS is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ and the New Testament.