When I was a young Christian, I used to hear a lot about cults. We had to be on the watch for them. Among the groups so identified were the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Moonies, and the Worldwide Church of God. Each had their obvious peculiarities. I read not only the anti-cult literature (like Walter Martin), but also thought it a good idea to read primary sources. It seemed only fair.
I remember reading issues of The Plain Truth back in those days. The major publication of the Worldwide Church of God, one of the strangest things I found in their doctrine was British-Isralism, the teaching the the British people are the true descendants of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel. Sure, they were plenty heterodox in other areas, but this was the point that for me most set them apart as weird.
But then something happened. Herbert W. Armstrong, founder of the Worldwide Church of God died, and was succeeded by Joseph Tkach. The church began changing – toward Christian orthodoxy. It was an amazing story – an institution that was once labeled a cult entered mainstream Christianity.
Could it happen again?
It looks like Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate for president. Other than being an evil conservative and capitalist, he seems to be a nice guy. Since many American Christians also count themselves as conservatives, they are inclined toward Romney. But there’s a problem: Romney is a Mormon – a member of a church they’ve been taught to call a cult. Some have trouble imaging a cultist as president. But an increasing number aren’t having that trouble. The Christian estimation of Mormons is improving a bit. Sure, some of this is due to the relativism that infects almost all sectors of our culture. Who am I to say Mormonism is wrong? Who am I to call them a cult or say that they’re wrong. Some of it is the age old “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend;” maybe Mormons can be our allies against regnant liberalism. For these and other reasons, there is at least a shift of perception of Mormons.
But could there be more? Mormons have plenty of weird items in their closet: a founding story of Israelite migration to America, secret golden tablets and magic translating glasses, special underwear and secret temple activities. They also have plenty of heterodox views including polytheism and the lack of an ontological distinction between humans and God (just remember Joseph Smith’s “As man is, God once was; as God is, man shall become.” These teachings and others are a challenge for mainstream Christians. My prayer, however, has been that the Mormons – the LDS Church – would follow the path of the Worldwide Church of God and track toward mainstream Christianity in its faith. Surely this will be more difficult. The WCG had more centralized authority, making change at the top more constitutive of change in the organization as a whole. The LDS, though it has a single Prophet/President, is a much more democratic organization. Current doctrine is not merely a top-down imposition, but is supported by multiple institutions on many levels.
Despite the difficulties, I am prayerfully optimistic for change in the LDS. Having one of their own in the presidential race might even give them reason to consider such change.
If I recall correctly, one of the secondary branches of Mormonism, the Reorganized LDS, rechristened themselves the Community of Christ and have become somewhat more orthodox. I haven’t looked in depth at their theology, but it seems encouraging.