Most Improbable Dialogue
Robert Millet would do things differently if he were carefully strategizing how fellow Mormons could best pursue interfaith contacts.
"I probably wouldn't have started with evangelicals," said the Brigham Young University (BYU) professor, considering the antagonism between the two groups since Mormonism's beginnings. "If we can have more civil and respectful relations with evangelicals, we can do it with anyone."
Not many years ago, evangelicals would have deemed substantive contact with Mormonism equally improbable. Yet since 2000, small scholarly teams of Mormons led by Millet and evangelical teams led by Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw have managed to hold 17 intense, closed-door dialogue sessions. The latest, held in mid-October at Wheaton College, centered on proselytism, a topic on which the two sides are intense rivals.
Millet said this is the only ongoing doctrinal dialogue with any outside religious group that occurs with the knowledge—though not yet public authorization, much less participation—of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' (LDS) top leaders, whom Millet advises on ecumenical strategy.
The talks are not the only breakthrough. LDS president Thomas S. Monson and his two counselors permitted Standing Together, an alliance of 90 Utah evangelical churches, to use the historic Salt Lake City Tabernacle for a September 13 revival meeting. Throngs of evangelicals and Mormons enjoyed gospel songs and prayed together.
The emcee, Standing Together president Gregory Johnson, called the event "historic." Evangelist Nick Vujicic said it was "one of the most memorable nights" in a ministry that has taken him to 25 nations, and warmly thanked the LDS leaders.
Mormon leaders specified that his message would need to be "generic and nondenominational." But Vujicic challenged LDS orthodoxy by insisting that "every human being is born with an evil nature," and by emphasizing that salvation cannot depend on a person's goodness because "you can't even forgive yourself."
More than 100 people stood in response to his appeal for personal commitments to Jesus Christ, then filed to the rostrum to register decisions and hug Vujicic, who was born without arms or legs.
Public and private talks
Adding to the unusual aspects of the emotional encounter, Johnson is a Conservative Baptist minister who forsook Mormonism at age 14. He has become a crucial bridge builder through evolving friendships, first with Millet and eventually with Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Mormon leaders are not trained in academic theology, but Holland—the hierarchy's point man with evangelicals and former BYU president—is one of the few apostles to earn a liberal arts Ph.D. (in American studies, from Yale). At 68, he is younger than many colleagues and thus could head his church someday. (The longest-serving apostle automatically becomes "President, Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.")
In another new step, Johnson and Millet have met in 58 public dialogues across North America. They also help broker meetings between evangelical and Mormon college students and initiate the scholarly dialogues involving such evangelical stalwarts as Christianity Today editor in chief David Neff, Biola University apologetics professor Craig Hazen, and Denver Seminary New Testament professor Craig Blomberg.
Two dialogue books from evangelical publishers were pivotal. Blomberg laid early groundwork for closer relations in 1997 when he co-wrote How Wide the Divide?: A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (InterVarsity Press) with BYU's Stephen Robinson. In 2005, Mouw contributed a friendly foreword and afterword to Millet's A Different Jesus?: The Christ of the Latter-day Saints (Eerdmans).