Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and ‘Church’

Nothing highlights more the very different needs of people coming out of the cults than the respective understandings of 'church' by Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses. In an article on the LDS Church website, an overview of membership mentions the word 'church' nine times, including the article's title, and all positively. It speaks of belonging to the church, access to blessings through the church, opportunities for serving in the church. It typically capitalises 'the Church' when referring to to the Mormon Church. Mormons understand 'church' to be an institution, much as does the Roman Catholic Church.first-vision stained-glass

'Traditional' describes the Mormon approach to 'church,' even when Mormonism stands in opposition to other churches in its claim to be 'the only true Church.' This is evidenced in Mormon buildings boasting stained-glass window portrayals of Mormon history (right).

Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, harbour a deep suspicion of 'church,' founded in historical antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church. Church is apostate ‘Christendom’. Put the word 'church' into the search box on and you get Why Don't Jehovah's Witnesses Call Their Meeting Places Church? Jehovah's Witnesses at least understand that church is a body of people, although in every respect the Watchtower Society behaves as if it is an institution.

Kingdom Hall PlainA JW friend recently explained that Kingdom Halls lack any ornament because 'Jesus went to a synagogue, which was a plain meeting hall.' Of course, the degree of decoration in a synagogue, as with most religions' buildings, depends a lot on the wealth, or otherwise, of the congregation. I recently had a Sikh explain to me, apologetically, that the local temple was not as ornate as other Sikh places of worship. Kingdom Halls can certainly be very plain, (right) though a quick search online will find some pretty handsome buildings as well. Below is the Kingdom Hall on Grandview Highway, British Columbia.

Kingdom Hall Grandview Highway

To a Jehovah's Witness, the very idea of 'going to church' is anathema, and leaving the organisation finds them facing a mountain of prejudices to overcome just to step across the threshold of a church building.

For a Mormon, 'going to church' is what comes naturally, an invitation to church no great issue. Even as Mormons, my wife and I sometimes visited other churches, particularly on special occasions. We even visited a Kingdom Hall on one occasion. On Nisan 14 some years ago we were made very welcome but were asked whether our Mormon leaders knew where we were. When we answered that they did our hosts looked truly puzzled.

For each, their expectations of 'church' will be different. A Mormon will look for an institution that will operate much as the Mormon Church does. A Jehovah's Witness will, with trepidation, approach 'church' harbouring deep suspicion, expecting to trip over the devil at every turn. Of course, a faithful JW will not be seen in a 'church'.

For both, it is important we can offer a clear teaching on what 'church' is, and what it isn't. For the Mormon, starting with a high opinion of 'church,' it is a case of coming to a more biblical understanding of an idea they already accept, though misunderstand.

For the Jehovah's Witness, starting with a very low opinion of 'church,' it is coming to the knowledge that Christians already know the arguments about church being people not buildings (see Why Don't Jehovah's Witnesses call their Meeting Places Churches?) We need to help them come to understand that, even in New Testament times, there were differences between Jewish and Gentile churches (Acts 15) and Paul recognised:

'One man regards a certain day above the others, while someone else considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.' (Ro.14:5)

For both, the question of authority is a big one. Early in our Christian life, my wife asked a church leader and friend, 'What do we believe about this?' This is typical of how a cult member might ask a question, expecting there to be an official line. He answered that some people saw it one way, others another, and she should read the Scripture prayerfully and think it through for herself. As she put it, at that point the bottom fell out of her world. The cult member expects all teaching to be wrapped up in a neat package, tied with a bow, and unwaveringly believed.

Jehovah's Witnesses struggle with the idea that Christians can disagree yet remain in fellowship. It is a revelation for them to hear the words of Richard Baxter:


As my wife and I learned, there are those things we hold firmly, those things we hold lightly, and those things we hold away. What makes this possible is a message of grace, and an understanding that unity is not the same as, nor defined by, rigid uniformity. It's a messy business, church, and you only have to look at Paul's letters to Christians in Corinth to see this. Yet, even as he censured them, he addressed his first letter:

'To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.'

We too often take such grace and peace for granted. If we want to recover our wonder at such great blessings sit down with a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness who has left their organisation, and enjoy the privilege of explaining it to them. You will hear it again yourself as though for the first time, and join in their wonder and joy as the dawning truth of it enters their heart.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Leaving the organisation, Joining the Body

One of the many challenges facing a person who leaves the Mormon Church, or the Watchtower Society, is the question of where to go next. Tragically, some are so disappointed and hurt by their experience of their former religious organisation they go nowhere. Many are done with the whole show and go their own way, often into a rejection of God, certainly of 'organised religion.' I understand that.

Eternity in Their Hearts

Many more still feel the pull of eternity, that God has put in their heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11) It is tempting, in these circumstances, to explore this need for eternal things in private religion, seeking the companionship of God in nothing beyond personal piety and disciplines. The danger here is of what one Christian leader has called 'will worship.' It is when what defines me as a Christian is whatever I think it should be, a matter of my individual effort. My faith and my world-view are formed by my own thoughts and conclusions, nothing from outside these to challenge and test my Christian walk.

Personal devotion is, of course, part of the Christian life but the independent Christian, the Lone Wolf Believer, is unknown in the New Testament. Indeed, the whole Bible paints a very clear picture of God's purposes being carried out in community, from the family of Abraham, through the people of Israel, to the Body of Christ, the church in the New Testament and in the world.

The danger of this message of the body's imperative, in the context of cults, is that it might provoke a bad reaction from people who have already fallen for the lie that a believer belongs to an organisation, only to find this organisation has let them down, hurt them. It is important, then, to have a clear understanding of what I mean when I refer to joining and belonging to the body of believers, what it means and what it doesn't mean.Mission Word Cloud 2

A Christian Community

Our 21st century world seems increasingly fragmented, people living 'silo lives,' dwelling in discreet worlds that rarely, if ever, touch one another. It is a dangerous phenomenon which can leave people feeling isolated and lonely. The psalmist writes:

''Sing to God, sing praise to his name...A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.' (Ps.68:4-5 NIV)

When we look at the people of God in the Old Testament, they are nation, community, family. God says through Moses:

'I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex.19:4-6)

God called his people out of the house of slavery to bring them into covenant relationship with himself and with each other as a holy priesthood. In this role the called out people of God are to mediate the presence and blessings of God to the world around them. This chimes with God's original purpose in creation, to make men and women in his image to have dominion, to steward the earth, mediating the person and will of God to all creation (Gen.1:26-28)

This same thought is used by Peter to describe the role of the New Testament Church, the called out people of God, Jew and Gentile (Gal.3:28):

'But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.' (1 Pet.2:9-10)

These are people who identify with each other as they never would have, except for their calling into God's family. It is a people drawn together with purpose, to proclaim God's excellencies, to testify, by word and deed, the wonderful mercies of God in salvation. What does this look like? This picture of God's people is described in Acts:

'They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had things in common...And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.' (Acts 2: 42-47)

Believing, Belonging, Becoming

Paul describes the church with a familiar and helpful analogy:

'For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, as we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.' (Ro.12:3-5)

The church is described by Peter as, like living stones...being built up as a spiritual house...' (1 Pet. 2:5) Note there is a process here, we are, 'being built up.' This process is reflected when Paul describes church leadership in his letter to Ephesus as, 'equipping the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the fullness of Christ.' (Eph. 4:11-14)

The body is 'being built up' by the mature leadership of experienced Christians, described as elders. Peter writes:

'I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the suffering of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you, not for shameful gain, but eagerly, not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.' (1 Pet.5 1-3)

The Bible describes God's people as, 'the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.' (Ps.95:7) Jesus describes himself as the shepherd of the sheep (Jn.10: 1-18) and Peter describes Jesus as the Chief Shepherd, while elders are 'under shepherds' (1 Pet.5: 1-4) This is organic, not organisational. The distinction is critical. We must understand that those who believe belong to Christ, and those who belong are becoming like Christ.

‘Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also, be patient.’ (James 5:7-8a)

This is the church, the people of God, gathered around the word of God, ready to do the will of God, described in the New Testament as 'the body of Christ.' (Col.1:24) This is the family of God, the holy nation, the people called by God as his own possession to be a royal priesthood that mediates God to the world. They are described as devoted to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to breaking of bread, and prayer, to the common life. To attack the church is to attack Christ (Acts 7:9).

Paul is very clear in reminding us, 'we, though many, are one body in Christ...' (Ro.12:5) 'In Christ.'

Christ Loved the Church

The unity of the body is nothing to do with being in an organisation, it is everything to do with being 'in Christ.' Paul describes Christ as, 'the head of the body, the church' (Col.1:18) Agreement over doctrine is not about simply finding like-minded people, who read the same books, and speak the same orthodoxy, but about finding and fellowshipping with 'Christ-minded' people and working together to better understand the work of God in the world, through the church.

It can be, and often is messy. You only need to read the New Testament letters to Christians in Corinth, Galatia, and Philippi, to Timothy as he leads a church in Ephesus. There is also the pressure of heresies such as Gnosticism, and legalism, to a point where Christians are urged to 'contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.' (Jude 3) But it is well to remember, 'Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.' (Eph.5:25)

Those who are 'in Christ' belong to the body, the church, and the church is the plan of God. How does one become part of this body, the church? Paul's description of his own conversion, his journey to become part of this body of which he writes so enthusiastically helps us:

'If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness that comes from God and depends on faith...' (Philip.3:4-10)

It is a process, an experience, that is described by Jesus as being 'born again' (Jn.3:3) Peter describes Christians as those who have been, 'born again, not of perishable seed but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God...' (1 Pet.1:23). John writes, 'Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God...' (1 Jn.5:1)

It is Paul who reminds us, 'Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. 'Test yourselves, or do you not realise this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless indeed you fail to meet the test!' (2 Cor.13:5)

In another letter to the same Corinthian Church Paul writes, 'Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of Christ. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgement on himself.' (1 Cor.11:27-29)

The body of Christ is a community that gathers regularly to read and understand God's word, pray, break bread and share the new life they have in Christ, to then go out and mediate the good news in the world. It is a community of people with one thing in common, they are born again, born of God, born from above, and find themselves 'in Christ,' part of the body of which he is the head.

As a body we examine our faith together to test its validity according to God's word. As individuals, we examine ourselves to see that when we take the bread and the cup of the Lord's Table we do so recognising Christ's body and living as part of that same community. Community; that’s a good word for it.

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