Guest Post: New Testament Lesson 1

This guest post is by Brad Masters. He is a judicial law clerk, an Angels baseball aficionado, and a contributor at Normons.com.

It’s been sad to watch friends and family struggle with their testimonies. Lately, we’ve been inundated constantly with tough stuff, from priesthood bans to polygamy to any other number of topics du jour. Far too many have lost faith in Mormonism. (One is too many.)

Interestingly enough, many whose faith is extinguished not only leave the Church, but leave Christianity altogether. Rarely do the exmormon.org boards (which look increasingly like the kinds of caves trolls retreat to after long hours spent pestering unexpecting bridge-crossers) or other “recovering Mormon” blogs showcase testimonies of no-longer-Mormon Christians.  Instead, the posts are mostly from newly-minted atheists.

Now, I have no problem with someone adopting an atheistic worldview, even though I may disagree with them. There is no unassailable case against atheism, just as there is no knock-down-drag-out case against theism. What I’m interested in instead is why, in a religion said by one outsider to be “obsessed with Christ,” so few retain their belief in Christ when their faith in Mormonism crumbles?

I confess: I don’t know the answer. There are several possible explanations, but I want to focus only on what I see as most likely (or at least, most fixable). [1] As Mormons, we are taught to obtain our testimonies of Mormonism and Jesus Christ simultaneously and by identical processes. Search, ponder, and pray.  But we tend only to emphasize gaining a testimony of Mormonism, in part because we expect belief in Christ to follow (if the Church is true, of course Christ is too, right?). So we take Moroni’s promise to learn if the Book of Mormon is true. We ask God if this is his Church or if Joseph really saw what he said he saw. But, how often, if ever, are we asked to pray about whether Jesus really lived, performed miracles, taught sermons, died on the cross and was resurrected?

There are problems with treating Christ as derivative, and those problems become particularly acute when a person’s testimony of Mormonism falters. For one, these members may not possess independent testimony of Jesus Christ. So, at the very least, losing faith in Mormonism leaves these members with unasked and unanswered questions about Christ’s divinity. And worse than that, because they trusted that “still small voice” that helped create their testimonies of Mormonism, the subsequent disbelief as a result of, say, “new” information can lead to distrust, even anger, toward God. At worst, then, these members experience simultaneous disbelief in both Mormonism and Christianity.

Of course, I do not want anyone to lose faith in the Church, and I certainly would prefer not to have occasion at all to think about why my ex-Mormon friends are atheists instead of Christians. The fact is, however, that far too many are struggling, and far too many of those who are struggling also haven’t gained independent testimonies of Christ. It is critical that we develop faith in and testimonies of Jesus Christ, that we believe in Christ and Mormonism, rather than simply believing in Christ because of Mormonism.

And here’s the real clincher: I firmly believe that gaining a testimony of Jesus Christ, independent of Mormonism, will enhance one’s commitment to Mormonism. I believe that studying His life and teachings, connecting with His Atonement, and basking in His resurrection’s hope will direct us to Mormonism’s core and ease our minds about whatever historical messiness may otherwise be cause for concern. Put simply, gaining a testimony of Christ will enhance our testimony of Mormonism and prepare us for any faith crisis, come what may.

This is our opportunity in Sunday School this year. We get to focus on Jesus Christ’s life and mission, His and His servants’ teachings. It is my fervent hope that we take advantage of this year and become better disciples, that we become Christians.

And all this reminds me of that great Chesterton quote: “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” Amen. Let’s get working.

Notes

[1] Other *possible* explanations not addressed here: 1) selection bias: those who struggle with Mormon theology are also those who are likely to struggle with Christianity generally; 2) Accepting Mormon doctrine, even for a short period of time, makes it less likely to find credible the claims of other Christian sects  (of course, one need not belong to a sect to identify as Christian, so this explanation still begs the ultimate question); 3) religious burnout: the loss of one’s beloved faith (and perhaps their cultural identity) might turn them off to religion. These are just a few top-of-mind ideas.

Comments

  1. Brad, I’ve long believed that studies that seek to assess why people stay or go in the face of challenges with Church should control for this very thing- has the person actually experienced the atonement of Christ and felt their sins forgiven, instead of just learning about as one concept among the thousands of other things we learn about.
    I wish we could change the name of the Church to reflect the centrality of Christ in our teachings. Our current name is like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: do they identify most with Los Angeles, angelic status, or Anaheim?

  2. martha my love says:

    John Dehlin could probably provide a lot of information about that. I’m guessing he’d have hard data from a wide sample. But the church prefers that Mr. Dehlin not talk publicly.

  3. Perhaps Atheist ex-mormons are more talkative? or perhaps the academic nature of this board skews the results? I think it’d be an interesting study to see where people go after mormonism relative to their education level.

    Perhaps if you join another christian church after leaving mormonism you have a new support system, while there may not be an obvious support system for an atheist.

    IME leaving the church involves going through a sort of mourning process-it is a huge change. I would assume that an ex-mormon would have a path to follow to mourn WITH Christ, but may have to blaze their own trail or seek support to mourn without Christ. An atheist person may feel more adrift and alone at first.

    I am still and always vastly in favor of gaining a knowledge and love or Jesus Christ. Studying the New Testament is a fabulous way of doing that

  4. A Happy Hubby says:

    I think that part of it is that we are STRONGLY taught in the LDS church that the LDS church is in every way superior to other churches. It isn’t said so bluntly, but that is what you are taught. I suspect that some can’t really think about going to a “lesser” church that has no “authority” since that has been pounded in us as LDS. I wonder if those outside the Mormon corridor that rub shoulders with other fine Christians can more quickly realize that Christ may be more than in Mormonism. I live more than a thousand of miles from Utah in the bible belt. I have some wonderful Christian friends. In my faith crisis it never crossed my mind that Christ wasn’t real. I had been living as a Christian AND a Mormon for decades. I remember praying like never before asking, “Lord, are you telling me I should leave the LDS church?”

  5. blackpearlbiker says:

    “why, in a religion said by one outsider to be ‘obsessed with Christ,’ so few retain their belief in Christ when their faith in Mormonism crumbles?”

    As a resigned Mormon, I would say that one of the main explanations is that once you start deconstructing the Mormon faith it can be hard to stop religious deconstruction in general. By that I mean that you move from deconstructing Mormonism to deconstructing the Bible in general and Jesus specifically. At what point do you stop and try to put it all back together again?

    I agree with your clincher statement, but have found it to be generally applicable – gaining a testimony of Jesus, independent of the Christian denomination one subscribes to, will enhance one’s commitment to that denomination.

  6. Jack of Hearts says:

    I think blackpearlbiker is right. Once you’ve decided the Book of Mormon is nothing but fiction, why stop there? The case for the Bible involves as much faith as the case for the Book of Mormon, much as people may like to act otherwise.

  7. I have found that the Book of Mormon increased my belief in and understanding of Christ. It’s hard for me to see the value of limiting my understanding of his mission to only the New Testament, or only the Book of Mormon. Where would I be without Isaiah, or without The Savior’s personal description of his suffering in the Doctrine and Covenants? Is my belief in Christ made stronger by limiting my study of him, or expanding it?

    To the OP’s point, if our testimonial focus of the Book of Mormon centers more on Moroni than Jesus, I would agree we missed the point. The same could be said for other scriptures as well.

  8. I (along with a few others) have a special calling to work with those in our Stake who are struggling with their faith challenges. Of course, those who completely walk away are often those who don’t have their testimonies of Jesus, but those who want to meet with us to see how (and if) we can help them almost always maintain their testimonies of Jesus and the Father. That forms a foundation that allows them to get a new type of faith that typically is stronger than what they had (although its certainly different). This is a great post.

  9. Not what I believe, but what I see happening . . .
    At least one piece of the story is that ‘one and only’ comments are easily and frequently promoted and heard as ‘one and only true manifestation of Christianity’. A natural consequence is that rejecting one is rejecting the other.

  10. Peter Yates says:

    The question that might be frequently asked is, does one really need a specific religion to be considered a Christian.

  11. Very interesting ideas about getting an independent testimony of Christ. I think I’ll try it.

  12. I have been asking myself this same question for months. While I ride the wave of my faith crisis, I cling to my Christ more than ever. Never has my faith in Him faltered, but only gained in strength and personal manifestations of the Holy Spirit. What makes me so different from most of the people I come in contact with is that they have lost belief in anything about God, let alone, Christ. Why is this so? I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that people didn’t have a testimony of Christ independent of Mormonism. Well that is where I guess I got it right. My testimony is firmly in Jesus. I read the bible first, and believed in Jesus first. In fact, as a missionary, I remember teaching about God first and then faith in Jesus Christ second, from our 6 discussions. Book of Mormon, Priesthood, etc, was further down the shute. My foundation is in Christ. I don’t know if I will continue to be a member of the LDS faith. I sit back and shake my head at the exclusivity, corporate culture, and general businesslike manner that this church is run by and think, “There is very little Christ in this.” I need Christ more, and man less. That is the whole reason for me taking a step back from church and watch the chaos ensue. I’ll admit, I am more willing than ever to sit in on a Gospel Doctrine lesson now that we are in the New Testament. Give me Jesus.

  13. terrianngawthroupe says:

    Perhaps we have too much to study other than Christ. Only once every four years do we study the New Testament. Our focus is split between so many things (BoM, D&C, church history, General Conf) that teach true doctrine but do not directly address Christ and the atonement. Then there is a church to run and callings to fulfill. As primary president I do not get any direct adult study classes.

    My faith in Christ finally grew into what it needed to be once I started attending a mid week morning bible study at another church. While I still retain my faith in Mormonism, I never had such a personal relationship with Jesus before.

  14. “I sit back and shake my head at the exclusivity, corporate culture, and general businesslike manner that this church is run by and think, “There is very little Christ in this.” ”

    An interesting observation. Jesus was itinerant, and people followed him. That’s very different even from a few decades later, with Paul and the Apostles establishing house-churches here and there, which raised very different problems. I read a post a few weeks ago (can’t find it now) about why people leave Protestant churches. Among the five listed, was “too large/corporate.” That is, the *feel* of a new church planting, a small intimate group of maybe a dozen, two or three, is very different than a few hundred, a thousand, or several thousand (megachurch territory.)
    IOW, it seems that to the extent any church is trying to build a growing community, it has to deal with a disconnect inherent in growth-in-one-area, which as I pointed out above, Jesus does not seem to have done.
    The counter-hypothesis would be much more Protestant-like. That is, without some kind of top-down quasi-professional management, a 14-million member worldwide Church would be either be terribly managed, likely including waste, corruption, and overhead, or it would be completely decentralized and Protestant-chaotic… or you’d have it be quasi-professionally managed, as it is. I think each has its own set of problems, and I’d prefer to stick with the problems we have. Certainly, we can make changes and improvements. As President McKay said years ago, “Men must learn that in presiding over the Church we are dealing with human hearts, that individual rights are sacred, and the human soul is tender. We cannot run the Church like a business.”

    -David O. McKay Diaries, May 17, 1962. (Cited in the Dialogue article on “the Twin Sisters” of something or other.)

  15. (I just came back from a long bike ride, so if the above comment is less than coherent, please ask and I’ll clarify.)

  16. Ben, I see what you are saying. In the Christian world, Francis Chan sees these same problems with the mega churches and there is a movement to “unchurch” to create small units of people instead of these huge institutions that end up being an entity unto themselves. I don’t worship a church or “brethren” or systems within. They all change, are imperfect, and designed by men. If you point that out, people gasp in horror. When I read the New Testament, I just feel like everything we have become barely resembles what Christ preached. I feel surrounded by Pharisees instead.
    Christ saves us individually. He surrounded himself with individuals deemed unworthy. Why can’t we do the same? Why toss people that don’t fit? We should welcome everyone with open arms. If I have to sit in a church and accept the Pharisees as part of the Church, why can’t they accept those that are not? It has been a great awakening for me. As I am beginning to see that all churches, even ours, have these same problems. And I feel the problem is the focus has shifted from Christ, to the Church. They are not one in the same.

  17. As Mormons, we are taught to obtain our testimonies of Mormonism and Jesus Christ simultaneously and by identical processes.

    Yes, that’s it exactly.

    But, how often, if ever, are we asked to pray about whether Jesus really lived, performed miracles, taught sermons, died on the cross and was resurrected?

    There are problems with treating Christ as derivative, and those problems become particularly acute when a person’s testimony of Mormonism falters.

    No, that’s not the point. If you’ve concluded that prayer isn’t a good way to find out information about the way the universe works, then it fails for both Jesus and Joseph Smith in the same way — even if you tried it individually for each one.

  18. Joel Winter says:

    Is there a chance in all this reasoning, that, if Christ himself ordained the Book of Mormon as “a record of a fallen people, and the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ;” i.e., he designed it to illustrate most clearly the “need” for a savior and the wonder and miracle of His grace; then rejection of the Book of Mormon is a rejection of the need for a savior.
    If this were a true statement, then to cut oneself off from the Book of Mormon after having received it, is to reject the personal need for a savior. By extension the mission of the Holy Ghost is to testify of Christ, hence a person separates themselves from those influences, is left to themselves and feels without God in the world.

  19. One of the purposes of the Book of Mormon, according to Nephi anyway, is to prove the truthfulness of the Bible. I think the aim of Moroni’s challenge to pray about the Book of Mormon is ultimately to strengthen a testimony of Christ. A testimony of the vehicle that helped you get the Book of Mormon (the church) can be created as a side effect, but I don’t think Moroni ever intended a testimony of the Book of Mormon to focus on the institutional church. However, I think most members today would argue a testimony of the Book of Mormon is for the purpose of gaining a testimony of the church.

    I agree with others that we tend to confuse testimonies of Christ with testimonies of the church – this could be a byproduct of our emphasis that the voice of Christ’s servants are equivalent to Christ’s voice. It may also play into the deemphasis of the Bible in Mormon culture. When someone leaves the church, they’ve kinda incorporated the message that the Bible is defective as currently transmitted.

  20. I am one of the ones (few?) that remained Christian. I think blackpearlbiker describes the phenomena perfectly by saying “once you start deconstructing the Mormon faith it can be hard to stop religious deconstruction in general”. I am not sure why I didn’t head down that road. Maybe because my faith crisis wasn’t historical/intellectual, at least not at first? I was on a quest for personal peace and sort of assumed Christianity would be part of it.

    I have been in your shoes, Emily. Whatever you choose, you will be a stronger, better person for it. My prayers are with you.

    Ben S., I belong to a “completely decentralized and Protestant-chaotic” church and it isn’t all that bad. It definitely requires a lot more patience and consensus building. But I like it. It builds real relationships and forces you to fully consider another person’s point of view. Although I like your President McKay quote, my inner feminist is glad to no longer be presided over, even in righteousness.

  21. “If you’ve concluded that prayer isn’t a good way to find out information about the way the universe works, then it fails for both Jesus and Joseph Smith in the same way — even if you tried it individually for each one.”

    That’s not the point that he’s making. The point is, if prayer isn’t leading you to any conclusions about Joseph Smith, that doesn’t mean it can’t lead you to faith in Christ. Your comment assumes that either both are true or neither are true and prayer will work the same way and turn out the same answers for both. Regardless of their parallels– it is important to develop an independent testimony of Christ that isn’t entirely dependent on Mormonism. And perhaps it’s more complicated than to assume both are true or neither is true. Perhaps we are still working out the kinks in our doctrine, so you might find a strong testimony of Christ, and still be working on your testimony of the Church.

  22. Thanks for the great comments/discussion. Definitely a privilege to post here on BCC.

    I think I would say two things by way of follow-up. First, I did not intend to downplay the significance of the Book of Mormon. Indeed, the BoM was critical to my current (and perhaps nascent) testimony of Christ. Instead, I mean only to point out the importance of parsing between a testimony of the BoM (or say, Joseph’s First Vision) and a belief in the Savior’s life, death, and resurrection. If we tend to think about Christ’s reality only through a BoM lens, I think we miss out on a sweet opportunity to receive more direct witnesses of His divinity that could otherwise come through taking a “Moroni’s Challenge”-style approach to His life. In fact, perhaps this approach could re-orient our relationship to the BoM and/or other TCOJCOLDS truth claims. If we prioritize general Christian truth claims over Mormon ones, perhaps we will find some of the problems that vex us so will be alleviated through more direct contact with the Savior’s grace.

    And second, avoiding the temptation to make Christ fit into Mormonism is, as I see it, critical to the endeavor I outlined in the OP. Often, the footnotes or LDS commentaries on the New Testament will point to certain of Christ’s actions/teachings as proof-texts for Mormon truth claims. In a way, the Gospel writers themselves did this sort of thing, too. Think of each time Matthew highlights an event in Christ’s life and ties it to an Old Testament passage to show that Christ fulfilled a prophecy. I think if we really want to encounter Christ as He is, we must be prepared to let him unsettle us, and to do that, we must not presuppose what it is that Christ is all about.

    All that said, I’m excited.

  23. Allison,

    “If you’ve concluded that prayer isn’t a good way to find out information about the way the universe works, then it fails for both Jesus and Joseph Smith in the same way — even if you tried it individually for each one.”

    That’s not the point that he’s making. The point is, if prayer isn’t leading you to any conclusions about Joseph Smith, that doesn’t mean it can’t lead you to faith in Christ.

    I think you’re missing chanson’s point, though. A lot of people’s faith transitions out of Mormonism occur because they come to realize that the Mormon method of “search, ponder, and pray” isn’t a reliable method to ascertain truth. And if you feel that it isn’t a reliable way to ascertain truth about the Joseph Smith, it wouldn’t be a reliable way to ascertain truth about Jesus.

    Chanson’s comment doesn’t assume that either both are true or that neither are true. It’s just a statement that if your method for validating either one is “search, ponder, and pray,” and you come to doubt that methodology, then you’re going to have to find a different methodology to attempt to salvage either belief.

    While I think many disaffected Mormon atheists might argue that Mormonism has *more* issues than Christianity in general (so it’s more likely for Christianity in general to be true than it is for Mormonism), they would probably argue as well that they aren’t Christian because ultimately, the same criticisms that ungrounded their faith in Mormonism apply sufficiently enough to Chrsitianity.

  24. A very thought provoking article, with quite a bit of wisdom. This is precisely why I believe parents and leaders should encourage the children and youth to bear testimonies of Jesus Christ, and of specific doctrines if they feel so inclined, and not just get up and say they know the church is true. While this may be difficult for a young child, it will help them reinforce their testimony in Jesus Christ as their savior, and not in the institution. Testimony of the institution may result from gaining a testimony in Christ, but it won’t be the foundation of belief. When these children (or anyone for that matter) encounter unanswerable questions about church leaders or church history, their faith will be less likely to falter because it will be based in Jesus Christ.