“We are the one true church. After all, look at how many different churches you Protestants have. How do you know which one is the correct one?” The foundation of Mormonism hangs on this question. As the story goes, Joseph Smith and his family lived in Palmyra, New York at a time of religious revival after the Second Great Awakening. There were a number of different Protestant denominations in the immediate area. Smith claims that he wanted to know which of the denominations he should join, and after coming across James 1:5, he prayed to God and asked which of the churches he should join. Smith then had a vision of God the Father and God the Son telling him that he shouldn’t join any of the churches because they were all wrong. Smith then claims to have had a series of visions over the course of the next decade that led to the establishment of the Mormon church.
It is of great benefit to read about the establishment of the Mormon church in more detail, but the purpose of this post will be to address the Mormon indictment that there are many Protestant denominations and, therefore, there can be no way to know which one is correct. Mormonism claims to solve the problem by being the “one true church”, and we have Joseph Smith to thank for being the prophet to establish the one true church. The claim I will make is that it was completely unnecessary for Joseph Smith to start his own church.
What I realized in the course of my conversations with Mormon missionaries is that the claim that it is impossible to know which Protestant denomination is correct comes from the Mormons’ lack of understanding in denominational history and formation. The helpful tool that I used to explain denominational differences is the classification of doctrine done in what Albert Mohler calls theological triage. You can read the article Mohler wrote about the issue here. This is not only helpful for Mormons but it also helpful for Protestant Christians to think through why we have denominational differences.
In short, theological triage employs the same practices the emergency room doctors and nurses do when sorting through the urgency of medical issues but with theological matters. When a person comes into an emergency room, someone with a gunshot wound to the chest is going to be treated with greater urgency than someone with a broken arm. And someone with a broken arm is going to be treated with greater urgency than someone with a migraine headache. With that idea in mind, Christians treat certain doctrines with greater importance than others. I call these different categories of importance: absolutes, convictions, and preferences. Absolutes are of first-level of importance and cannot be compromised on. Convictions are of second-level importance and depending on what it is, these things can be seen as less important than others. And the third-level of importance is preferences, which are still important, but of less importance than convictions or absolutes.
So, what kind of things belong in each of these theological categories of triage? Here is a helpful visual that would show what kinds of doctrines or theological issues we would put in each category:
When we consider the importance of absolute or first-importance doctrine, none of the doctrines in the absolute category can be taken out. For example, if you take the deity of Christ as anything other than first-importance, then you don’t have it. Also, if you take anything that is of second or third-importance and put it in the category of first-importance, you don’t have it. In general, the things of second or third-importance stay in those categories, however, it is possible for some things to move up or down in second or third-importance.
Here’s where it matters. Typically, we see denominational differences occur in doctrines of second-importance. For example, Baptists and Presbyterians differ on the issue of who gets baptized. Baptists hold to believer’s baptism while Presbyterians will baptize infants. Both sides have good reasons for doing so, although, I side with the Baptist mode of baptism. However, I still call Presbyterians my brothers and sisters in Christ because we hold the same absolutes.
This is where the claim of the Mormon church to be the one true church fails. It was completely unnecessary for Joseph Smith to start his own church. While Protestants may have a number of denominations based on doctrinal convictions, Protestants are still one true church because of the absolutes we hold together. This is also why we cannot include our Mormon friends in our one true church because as you look at our theological triage model, there are a number of doctrines that Mormons take out of first-importance, and there are a number second-importance doctrines that they put as first importance.
How then do we answer their question of how we know which denomination is correct? The answer is that they all are correct in terms of absolutes. And while we may have more than warm debates about convictions, what makes us still one true church are the absolutes we hold in common. And as a side note, we can pose the same question back to Mormons which they must answer differently. They claim to have the one true church, but there are plenty of different off-shoots of the LDS church that practice different things, like polygamy in the RLDS church which boasts 250,000 members. How do we know with branch of Mormonism is true?
When I first explained theological triage to a couple of Mormon missionaries, they demanded to know more. The next time they came back I clarified some things, and they came to a greater understanding as to why Protestants have different denominations. I told them that having different denominations is really no problem at all when considering who has the one true church. Though we may differ on issue of second and third-importance, we still hold doctrines of first-importance together. We have seen things like this in the Bible where Paul and Barnabas hold different convictions on whether or not to take John Mark with them. Even after the disagreement and separation, both parties went on missionary journeys to proclaim the gospel.
As far as the great Mormon indictment regarding the Bible, that will come in part 2. For now, as far as I can tell, there was no need for Joseph Smith to start his own church. There is no indictment that can stand against Protestants having multiple denominations. The true gospel has always been proclaimed in these churches even if their methods, convictions, and preferences might be different. In the end, there’s not only a lesson for Mormons to learn, but there’s a lesson for all Christians to understand that having these differences is perfectly acceptable and should be discussed in the most cordial of fashions.