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.

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