A rare appearance in the Salt Lake Tabernacle by an internationally acclaimed evangelist was the occasion for an "Evening of Friendship" Nov. 14 between Evangelical Protestants and Latter-day Saints, two faiths that in the past have had strained relations over theological differences.
Ravi Zacharias, an India-born and Atlanta, Ga.,-based speaker and author who has been compared to the famous Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, gave a one-hour address to a capacity congregation overwhelmingly dominated by adherents to the Evangelical persuasion. He was joined on the program by Michael Card, a best-selling recording artist in the Christian-music genre, who gave a brief sermon of his own in addition to his vocal performances.
Co-sponsored by a local Evangelical organization called Standing Together Ministries and by the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding at BYU, the Sunday event in the Tabernacle was the second in a three-part lectureship, with parts one and three occurring in other Utah locations on Saturday and Monday.
Representing the Church at the request of the First Presidency, Elder Bruce D. Porter of the Seventy was among the dignitaries seated on the rostrum, though he did not speak. The only Latter-day Saint on the program, Robert L. Millet, a BYU religion professor who holds the Richard L. Evans Chair, set the tone for the evening as he greeted the congregation, saying, "This event has been thought about, planned for, prayed over and orchestrated for well over two years."
Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening came when Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said: "I'm not being melodramatic when I say this is surely an historic occasion. . . . Our public relations between our two communities have been, to put it mildly, decidedly unfriendly. From the very beginning, when Joseph Smith organized this church in 1830, my Evangelical forebears hurled angry accusations and vehement denunciations against the Mormon community, a practice that continues among some Evangelical quarters within this present day. But I think it's fair to say that some Mormons on occasion have responded in kind. Friendship with each other has not come easily for our two communities. But in recent times things have begun to change."
Dr. Mouw said that from continuing dialogue in recent years it has become apparent that "we Evangelicals have often seriously misrepresented the beliefs and practices of the Mormon community. And let me say today on this important occasion, especially to you LDS folks that are here this evening, that we Evangelicals have sinned against you. The God of the scriptures makes it clear that it is a terrible thing to bear false witness against our neighbors, and we have been guilty of that sort of transgression in the things that we've said against you. We've told what you believe without making a sincere effort first of all to ask you what you believe."
He said he has formed friendships with Mormons in the past few years who have helped him see ways in which he has often misinterpreted Mormon thought. "To be sure, as a result of these conversations I also remain convinced that there are very real issues of disagreement between us and that some of these issues are matters of eternal significance. But now we can discuss these topics as friends, . . . and I say God be praised!"
Noting that next year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, he said he takes courage from Joseph's words on the occasion of the founding of the Church in April 1830. The words he quoted, found in Doctrine and Covenants 20:29-31, are these: "We know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true; And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength."
Dr. Millet said the gathering was unique, first, because "there have been very few times when Evangelical Christians of the prominence and recognition of a Ravi Zacharias have been invited to speak in the historic Mormon Tabernacle." Citing Church Archives, he noted that Dwight Lyman Moody, one of the most influential preachers in American history, spoke in the Tabernacle on June 4, 1871, and again 30 years later on Sunday, April 2, 1899.
He said the Nov. 14 gathering was unique too in that it brought together two faith communities "who have not always manifested trust and civility and kindness to one another."
"It is oh so easy to dismiss with a wave of the hand another person who sees things entirely differently but extremely difficult yet rewarding to pay the price to understand what they really believe and what they really feel. It is so easy to pigeonhole, to categorize, to marginalize, even to demonize, as Richard said, someone you don't know very well. Unfortunately, we tend to be down on things we're not up on."
Pastor Greg Johnson, president of Standing Together Ministries, a group that has publicly decried the abrasive actions of street preachers protesting outside the Conference Center during general conference, expressed his gratitude to the First Presidency for allowing the use of the Tabernacle for the event He said he had been asked many times how the event came to be arranged in the Tabernacle, so he asked President Hinckley personally during a reception two days earlier. " 'Well, it sounded like a good idea, and we would like to help,' he said. So if you're wondering why this event is happening, it sounded like a good idea. We think so."
With a kinetic delivery and widely varying dynamics, Dr. Zacharias proclaimed "the exclusivity and the sufficiency of Jesus Christ" as "the way, the truth and the life." He expressed an awareness of differences in Evangelical and LDS belief systems but added, "We find a common ground on which to meet and talk, because conviction that is not undergirded by love makes the possessor of that conviction obnoxious." He noted that the Christian faith is uniquely the faith in the world that offers forgiveness, and he spoke in a personal vein of his finding Christ four decades ago in India, the land of his birth.
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