MORMON MISSIONARIES: MY FIRST ENCOUNTER
Let me tell you about the first time I got cornered by a pair of Mormon missionaries. I learned some valuable lessons about how and how not to engage them in debate.
It all started with an innocuous comment I made to a neighbor who had a Book of Mormon lying on her kitchen table. I had heard of the work before, but never had seen it, and I asked her what it was about. I should have realized something was astir when I saw the gleam in her eyes as she started to tell me about the book.
After she gave me a synopsis, I figured I'd better save her some time by telling her I was a Catholic, thereby putting to rest any hopes she might have. I thought I had made it plain I was curious about just the book, not the religion. I was wrong.
A few Saturdays later, I heard itthat inevitable knock on the door. Outside stood two sharply dressed guys with name badges emblazoned with the impressive title "Elder."
One of them, probably the more senior missionary, shook my hand and informed me that they were representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and that my neighbor had suggested they visit me and answer any questions I might have about the Book of Mormon.
I was on the spot. I wasn't sure how to handle a discussion of Mormonism with one missionary, let alone with two.
The problem was that I knew virtually nothing about that religion. After a few awkward moments of small talk on the porch, I decided to invite them in. We sat down, and the conversation quickly turned to the Book of Mormon. I let them give their spiel uninterrupted, until they made comments about an apostasy away from the true Church Christ had founded.
As a Catholic, I'd been raised believing the Catholic Church was the true Church. I still am convinced of that fact, but at the time of this encounter I didn't know what they believed about the Mormon Church.
For a novice apologist who knew quite a bit about his own faith but next to nothing about theirs, I have to say I didn't do too badly. That's not to say I didn't make mistakesI did, plenty of them.
First of all, I let them lead the discussion. Looking back on it, it's easy to see that they had a prepared delivery, and they tried to keep to it. They knew what they were there to accomplish. I didn't.
The second failing was that I tried to refute every argument they had against Catholicism with a Bible verse. It was a game of scriptural badminton. They informed me there was an apostasy in which the Church founded by Christ was distorted until its authority was removed from the Earth by the time of Constantine.
I countered with Matthew 16:18 ("and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it"). They brushed this aside and fired off another salvo of verses that seemed to contradict mine. And so it went, back and forth, for half an hour.
To be brutally honest here, I have to admit that if the Mormon authorities had sent a more experienced pair of missionaries, I would have been buffaloed. One mistake these fellows made was to get off the track of their canned presentation. I started to see some chinks in their defenses, and I knew I should try to take advantage of them.
Remember, I wasn't winning this debate, but neither were they, and they knew it. After I saw the badminton technique was getting me nowhere, I wised up. I changed my tactics and started to force an issue as far as it would go.
For example, we returned to the subject of the apostasy. Although I didn't know the history or doctrines of the Mormon Church, I knew something about Catholic history. The missionaries and I started to look at what the Bible had to say about Christ's Church. My thesis was that Christ either was lying, miscalculating, or telling the truth in Matthew 16:18.
An Unbroken Chain
They had no satisfactory answer for that one. When I brought up the fact that history and tradition point to an unbroken line of continuance from the apostolic Church to the present-day Church, they couldn't refute that. Again and again they left ecclesiastical history and the Bible and appealed to the Book of Mormon. They "testified" to me that they "knew" there had been an apostasy and that the Mormon claims were legitimate. Theirs was the only true gospel, they said.
The rest of the conversation centered on their testimony. They asked me to pray about the "truths" they had told me, and they assured me I would receive a "testimony" from the Holy Ghost (Mormons use "Holy Ghost" instead of "Holy Spirit") that the Mormon gospel is true, and so on.
I countered with this line: "How do you explain the fact that I have a strong testimony that's diametrically opposed to yours?"
I asked them to consider for a moment that the Catholic Church was the true Church and that Catholic doctrines were correct. If so, then their prayers were being heard by my God.
Then, I said, we could assume the reverse, that the Mormons were right and my prayers were heard by their God. Either way, only one God could be the recipient of the prayers.
The argument, I said, boiled down to one issue: How is it that we're being heard by the same God, but that we receive drastically different testimonies? How could God testify to you that the Mormon Church is the one true Church, but to me that the Catholic Church is? That doesn't make any sense, but it does show the weakness of a personal testimony as the proof of a religion.
The badminton game was over. We had moved into a more stimulating and more profitable area of debate. The key to getting there was being ruthless in pursuing a subject until it had been examined to the point of impasse. I stumbled on this insight too late in the game, but I learned a lesson.
By now the missionaries were uncomfortable. They couldn't give any answer to the question about Christ's promise to his Church in Matthew 16:18. They couldn't offer any logical or historical evidence to show there ever had been an apostasy. They were cornered, and they knew it.
"You're In Bondage To Satan"
Our conversation ended on a strained note. I demanded more explanations from them on these subjects, but they couldn't produce them. They offered to check with their state president and get answers for me.
Their final remark was this: "It's obvious that Satan has clouded your heart and mind so that you're unable to see the truth of the Gospel." That's where they left it. We said our good-byes, and they mounted their ten-speeds and rode off.
I hadn't won the debate, at least not in the way I would have liked. And they never gave me a rematch. Not only didn't I get a return visit from them, but I got the cold shoulder from my neighbor after that.
But that's okay. I did learn important lessons on how not to debate Mormons. No more scriptural badminton for me. I knew I'd have to stick with a subject until it had been exhausted, and I had to keep myself from being intimidated through double-teaming.
I knew I had to do two things in preparation for the next knock at the door. First, I had to become more familiar with the facts about the Catholic Church's history. I resolved not to sit still for any of that Emperor Constantine jazz.
Second, I had to study up on Mormonism. Just the basics, please. I knew I wouldn't have to do extensive research, and I got what I needed out of a few pamphlets the Mormons put out. I studied them and thought about how to answer the pamphlets' arguments.
The encounter with the missionaries whet my appetite. I realized I didn't have to be afraid or nervous, just persistent. The same goes for you.
Every time there's a knock on the door, it could be another opportunity for you to say, with a big smile, "Hi, elders! I'm glad you're here! I've been waiting for you!"
From This Rock Magazine, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177