Becoming Orthodox presents particular challenges for people who have arrived by way of other, specifically Protestant Christian traditions. Questions of ecclesiology, generally not part of the Protestant consciousness in the 21st-century, are suddenly pushed to the fore. The notion that Christ may have intended for His Church to have institutional, visible marks is alien, if not anathema to the western, Evangelical mind. The pluralism inherent to American Evangelical Christianity is functionally treated as a feature of the faith (yay diversity!), rather than the tragedy that it is. I say "functional" because many Evangelicals you speak to will readily concede that such fragmentation isn't actually ideal, but behind that sentiment is a presupposition that unity not only can't be achieved by means of establishing institutional authority (or consolidating under an existing one), but that it shouldn't.
But there's been at least one aspect of life in the pluralistic West that's been made unexpectedly easier by my newfound ecclesiology: conversing with Mormons. If I'd been more up-to-speed on Mormonism prior to my family's recent relocation to Salt Lake City, perhaps I could've foreseen this phenomenon, but the discovery has been a happy one nevertheless.
To explain, let's go first to Knoxville, TN circa 2006. It was early in my marriage, and my wife and I were blissfully childless (just kidding, kids). We got a knock on our door one evening when the sun was mostly down, and wouldn't you know it, we were being visited by two Mormon missionaries. The two men in their early 20s were all smiles and couldn't wait to "share their message of hope" with us. In a moment of foolishness, I thought, "I read a couple chapters about Mormonism in college a few years ago. BRING IT ON." So I invited them in.
If a conversation can be likened to playing soccer on a field 12-inches deep in oatmeal, that's about what transpired. There was a lot of gamesmanship going on in our living room, and after about two hours of regulation play and two extra periods, we went our separate ways in a 0-0 tie. The two gentlemen returned a couple weeks later with a ranking elder from their ward. That conversation (which I secretly videotaped like a loser) went even more poorly. I reluctantly told them they were welcome to a third visit after that, but I ended up calling them beforehand to cancel and request they not return.
Ever since, and prior to my move to Utah, I had respectfully spurned all Mormon missionaries who came to my door. But now we were in the Mormon Mecca, and literally our entire street belongs to the LDS Church. If not for our newfound religious minority status, we probably would've continued turning away missionaries. But not wanting to get socially "blacklisted" or some such by the local ward, we decided to let them into our home again.
But this time it was different. As an Evangelical, you have to grant the central Mormon premise that the Church Christ established lost its way shortly after the death of the apostles, only to be recovered in latter centuries. With this dynamic already present at the onset, there are really only two paths for the Evangelical. He can keep the conversation completely centered on the implausible historical claims of Mormonism, a topic Mormons are pros at obfuscating. The other option, especially if one affirms sola scriptura, is to descend into Proof Texting Hades, except unlike in Christ's descent, nothing and no one is getting redeemed down there.
So it was refreshing and almost humorous to be able to get the conversation off on a completely different footing this time around. "We deny your premise that the Church needed recovering," my wife and I were able to say without irony. And from then on, the conversation took a dramatically different course. The scripted aspects of the missionaries' presentation were still there: the description of Joseph Smith's "vision" and the smarmy follow-up questions about how it "made us feel", the kitschy bit about how "God wants us to spend eternity in Heaven with our families", etc. But all of that fell flat because we had taken away the missionaries' logical basis for recommending Mormonism at all. They thrive on the Evangelical effort, even need, to proof text. This has been our biggest revelation since engaging Mormons as Orthodox Christians.
Additionally, Orthodoxy can answer the ecclesial questions important to Mormons. Unless, as an Evangelical, you catch a Mormon at a time when they are becoming disillusioned with the authority of their church, there will be almost no appetite for the autonomy recommended by Evangelicalism. If anything, such an idea will feel like a threat to their security (a feeling I've come to believe is actually quite healthy). As Orthodox Christians, my wife and I have been able to say, "There is an ecclesial authority established by Christ, and it never underwent an 1800-year break in continuity."
Another bi-product of being Orthodox has been our ability to see the strands of both Arianism and Gnosticism in Mormon theology. And not only that, but to be able to appeal to an historic, ecclesial authority in denouncing those heresies. In fact, protip: a very simple way of focusing the discussion with Mormons is to tell them you affirm the Nicene Creed. In a sense, playing that card as an Evangelical is a slippery slope, since the creed was formulated by an ecclesial authority that Evangelicalism doesn't behold to, but in terms of cutting through the theological weeds with Mormons, the Creed is essential. And finally, to the degree that Mormon missionaries have any commentary at all on the Church between the Apostles and the 19th-century, they define themselves entirely against Roman Catholics. The Orthodox Church poses at minimum a rhetorical problem for them, because the histories they've been handed by their own authorities have left Orthodoxy all but unaccounted for.
The jury is out on how effective being Orthodox is when engaging our Mormon friends, however. We've chosen to take a "let the conversation come to us" approach with our neighbors, for example. For a while after we first arrived, we placed a sign in our front yard advertising our church with the hope of provoking inquiry. On the contrary, not one neighbor has asked us about our religious affiliation after eight months of residence. At work, there's been an even lesser effect. Only one Mormon coworker has broached the topic of "faith" with me since I arrived in June of last year, and on two occasions. He now seems to be irked at me for not fitting into any of the Christian caricatures he was given in Mormon seminary.
There's plenty yet to be revealed about God's purpose for my wife and I in Utah relative to our Mormon friends and neighbors. We pray for them, and we pray for opportunities to share the true Gospel with them. But there is no doubt that we are better positioned to engage our new neighbors as Orthodox Christians than we would have been as Evangelicals. Lord have mercy.
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