I recently finished reading a book by John Krakauer called “Under the Banner of Heaven.” It is a disturbing look into some of the fundamentalist views of the Mormon Church and the violent, destructive outcomes that can occur when we carry our beliefs to the extreme. If you are familiar with the Mormon church, you know about Joseph Smith, the gold tablets, the lost tribes of Israel in America and the doctrine of eternal progression (you too can be a God).
Yes. Those beliefs are a sliver of the views that separate Mormonism from Christianity. Much effort has gone into shaping Mormonism to seem like just another Christian denomination. It’s not. Now don’t get me wrong. Mormons are some of the most upstanding, moral, intelligent, mission-minded, self-sacrificing people in our country. They put most Christian church-goers to shame! But this is not a post pitting Mormonism against Christianity, I am talking about beliefs and taking them to extreme levels.
And, before we get to proud of ourselves, Christians, we need to look in the mirror and study examples like the one Krakauer documented. One can find a cautionary tale interwoven into this book. On the surface, getting back to the fundamentals of what we believe can be a good thing. But fundamentalism of any type can be a dangerous, slippery slope.
Christian fundamentalism grew out of the Protestant church’s response to the liberal theology that sprang up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During that period many theologians wanted to interpret Scripture based on modern perspectives and the influences of the Enlightenment without allowing any preconceived notions about the authority of Scripture. But many theologians pushed against that idea by arguing that the Bible was inerrant because, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true” (2 Timothy 3:16). God inspired or “breathed” His words into the various authors that He chose to write the Bible.
But now Christian fundamentalism in the 21st century looks a lot more like religious extremism. We’ve jumped into the political arena and sullied the gospel with a desire to earn votes, legislate morality and be in control. Fundamentalism also smacks of Christian legalism, taking the morality and laws contained in Scripture and making them more important than the message of love and grace found in the gospel. In his first recorded sermon Paul says, “[In] Jesus there is forgiveness for your sins. Everyone who believes in him is made right in God’s sight—something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:38-39, NLT) He’s talking about Jews, Gentiles and everyone [who is] believing (πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων), not just good people.
It can get pretty confusing for folks outside the Church looking in. I hear, “I’ll go (back) to church once I get my life together,” on a regular basis. We have miscommunicated or been misunderstood by many people. In our passion to strengthen our position and convince people that we’re right, let’s forget our own agenda and let the Holy Spirit lead, not a dogmatic, legalistic, fundamentalist perspective. Just like most Mormons would say that the Lafferty brothers and Fundamental Mormonism doesn’t accurately represent their beliefs, 21st century Christian fundamentalism doesn’t accurately represent the true Christ-follower.
So what do you believe? What separates your faith in Jesus Christ from the faith of a Mormon? What about a Bahá’í? What about your friendly neighborhood agnostic materialist? How do we witness about our faith to others? Leave the dogma and political baggage out of it. Grace is great place to start rather than a list of rules, a KJV Bible, attendance requirements and political affiliation. God’s grace expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a good beginning (Ephesians 2:1-10). Trust the Holy Spirit to speak though Scripture! And really, there is no better witness than your own life… depending on what you believe.