June 24, 2017

On What Authority?

Don Johnson

Matthew 7.28-29 And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

A big story came out the other day – Al Mohler speaks at Brigham Young University. Mohler isn’t the first evangelical to speak at Mormon institutions, but at least his speech wasn’t the disaster of some in recent memory (Richard Mouw). Still, one has to wonder about the choice of venue. Questions immediately arise, in spite of plaudits that flood in as well. But the venue is a major issue. The fact is, surprise and/or shock at the venue serves to give greater attention to the speech itself. After all, if this were a speech given on the campus of Mohler’s own school, Southern Seminary, who would have noticed? If he had spoken at almost any Christian school, would it have garnered much attention? Not likely. It’s not news that Christians support traditional marriage and when they talk to each other about it, it isn’t really news then, either.

But when a prominent Christian speaks at the leading Mormon university, regardless of the topic, that’s news.

Perhaps the first question that rises, then, is this — was it just a publicity stunt?

Publicity Stunt?

What does such a speech in such a place accomplish? Will it give rise to some new movement in defense of marriage? Will it mobilize hitherto unconcerned Mormons to the cause of the defense of marriage? Will it move moribund Christians in a similar fashion? Will it forge some kind of alliance between co-belligerents in the marriage wars? Highly unlikely.

But will it get a little more attention about the topic of traditional marriage than otherwise? Possibly, although I have yet to see much notice of it in the secular press as of this writing. It certainly has gotten a lot of attention among Christian commenters. Is making a splash among Christians worth the obvious questions rising from a Mormon speaking venue?

A second question arises — how is this different from the concept of the Moral Majority?

Moral Majority

In 1979, Jerry Falwell and others founded the Moral Majority, a Christian Right political action group. The organization allied professing Christians from diverse theological backgrounds – Catholics, Charismatics, and Independent Baptists – to lobby for causes of mutual concern, including opposing homosexuality, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, and the like. The alliance had some political success, but critics question the spiritual influence of the organization as Bible believing Christians came into political partnership with those who held to experience or Church tradition as additional authorities to the Bible.

Is Al Mohler trying to enlist Mormons in common cause in the fight for traditional marriage? What influence will the diverse authorities have in such a case? Are we to consider those who hold Joseph Smith to be a prophet and give authority to the Book of Mormon as equal partners in the fight for marriage? What kind of spiritual impact would such a common cause have? Will it not serve to give credibility to Mormons as a “different kind of Christian” in the minds of the unsuspecting or undiscerning?

A third question — why is Al Mohler so open to co-belligerency? Is this another Manhattan Declaration moment?

Manhattan Declaration

In 2009, a “manifesto” was issued by Christians of Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical persuasions in support of “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” I suppose Bible believing Christians all support those three concepts, but Al Mohler and other evangelicals were roundly criticized for signing a document that declared all signatories to be Christians regardless of their theological positions. According to some, Mohler now thinks signing this document was a mistake, though a clear confession of that mistake is difficult to find.

Regardless, isn’t a moralistic speech at Brigham Young University similar in spirit to signing the Manhattan Declaration? What is gained spiritually by making any kind of common cause with unbelief?

A fourth question — are Mormons the sincere supporters of traditional marriage some think them to be?

Mormons and Marriage

Mormons are notorious for the former practice of polygamy (still practiced by ‘fundamentalist’ Mormon sects). Today they promote themselves as paragons of virtue, all for family values and American traditionalism. Yet their views on marriage are not above Christian criticism. Mormon marriage continues to include the concept of “celestial marriage.” In the Mormon temple ceremony, a couple is sealed not only for this life, but also for the life to come. In their view, there is marriage in heaven, in direct contradiction to the Lord Jesus Christ himself. But that is not all. Although no longer practicing polygamy, if one partner to a marriage union dies, the surviving partner can marry again – and be sealed again. There may not be polygamy on earth, but apparently it is just fine in the afterlife.

In Al Mohler’s speech the other day, the quote getting the most attention is this one:

I do not believe that we are going to heaven together, but I do believe we may go to jail together.

A catchy line, no doubt, but the paragraph from which it is taken goes on to say this:

Your faith has held high the importance of marriage and family. Your theology requires such an affirmation, and it is lovingly lived out by millions of Mormon families. That is why I and my evangelical brothers and sisters are so glad to have Mormon neighbors. We stand together for the natural family, for natural marriage, for the integrity of sexuality within marriage alone, and for the hope of human flourishing.

Do we really want to ally ourselves as Bible believing Christians with people who have a very questionable understanding of marriage? Do we want to credit them with “holding high” the importance of marriage and family? Do we want to affirm common ground with them at all on their “theology” of marriage?

And a fifth question — where was the Bible in all of this?

Bible or Opinion?

Read through Al Mohler’s speech. Find one instance where he cites the Bible as an authority. List the authorities he does cite to make his case. Who are they? Philosophers, Catholic priests, human thinkers — ninety percent of this speech could have been made by a conservative humanist.

At the beginning of this article I cited the summary statement for the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s Gospel. Mark has a parallel statement, referring to Jesus’ teaching in general. The Jews of Jesus’ day were astonished at his teaching because he didn’t preface his remarks by saying, “Rabbi So-and-so says…” Jesus spoke with authority.

Well, we obviously can’t speak with authority like Jesus did. But when we speak with authority, we speak this way: “Jesus said…” or “Paul said…” or “the Bible says…” and the like. We only have authority insofar as the Bible gives us authority.

The speech given the other day was a very human speech. Various authorities were cited. Bravo. Those who oppose traditional marriage can likewise offer up their authorities and their opinions. It all boils down to a battle of human opinion rather than any kind of authoritative Biblical truth which brings about conviction by Holy Spirit power.

Where was the Bible at Brigham Young University?

The last question — should we applaud Al Mohler speaking at Brigham Young Univesrity?

Pans or Plaudits?

You’ll have to answer that question yourself.


Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.


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