Mormons, Evangelicals, and the Family
Mormons and evangelicals are both known for their traditional, conservative “family values.” For example, both religious groups are well known for their opposition to homosexual behavior and same-sex “marriage,” as well as for their opposition to abortion. Beyond these political and cultural lightning-rod issues, Mormons and evangelicals have considerable agreement about the family. Yet they also have some very significant differences in their beliefs about the family as it pertains to its relationship to heaven or eternity. We will take a close look here at both agreements and disagreements between Mormons and evangelicals on the family, giving careful consideration to what the Bible says about the differences.
A. Mormon and Evangelical Agreements about Family
Although there is more than one way we might approach this subject, a very interesting comparison can be made between two representative statements about the family from a Mormon and an evangelical source. The Mormon source is The Family: A Proclamation to the World (FPW). This was an official proclamation of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the LDS Church, issued in 1995 and delivered by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley. Chapters 36 and 37 of Gospel Principles quote or cite this proclamation seven times (see pages 207-17). The evangelical source is Article 18 of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), the confession of the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest evangelical denomination in the United States. This article was first added to the BFM in 1998 and is part of the current version of the confession. Although the BFM is not authoritative for Baptists in the way that the FPW is for Mormons, and although the BFM does not even claim to speak for all evangelicals, it is quite representative of what most evangelicals believe about the family. We will take note of the agreements between Mormons and evangelicals as represented by these two statements, and then turn to examine the differences.
1. Both Mormons and evangelicals believe that marriage and the family are ordained by God. The LDS Church teaches that “marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God” and that “the family is ordained of God” (FPW). Evangelicals also affirm that “God has ordained the family” and that “marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime” (BFM).
2. Mormons and evangelicals also both affirm that men and women are equally created in God’s image (although, as we shall see, they mean different things by this). “All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God” (FPW). “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image” (BFM).
3. Mormons and evangelicals both teach that sexual activity is proper only in the marital union of a man and a woman. They also agree that one of the essential purposes of sexual activity is procreation. “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife” (FPW). “It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race” (BFM).
These common teachings about sexual activity lead to important if controversial positions on social and political issues raging today. First, both Mormons and evangelicals agree that homosexual activity is sinful and that same-sex marriage is wrong. Sexual activity is to take place “only between man and woman” (FPW), between “one man and one woman” (BFM). The LDS Church teaches that people with same-sex feelings or inclinations can live as faithful members “if they do not act upon these inclinations” (Gospel Principles, 227) but that indulging these feelings, even “in a so-called same-sex marriage situation,” is immoral (228). Similarly, the SBC has issued a position statement affirming that homosexual activity is “sin” but that “the same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals.”
Second, for both Mormons and evangelicals, this stance against homosexual activity is simply part of a broader sexual ethic in which sexual activity is to be exclusively the function of a marriage relationship between a man and a woman (see statements quoted above). Evangelicals share Mormon sensibilities concerning premarital sexual activity, immodesty, and pornography (see Gospel Principles, 226-29).
Third, both Mormons and evangelicals view abortion on demand as a grievous evil that often compounds the sin of sexual immorality. The LDS Church teaches that abortion may be justifiable only in rare, “exceptional circumstances” such as pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life, and even in such circumstances abortion is not automatically justified (Gospel Principles, 230). The SBC also opposes abortion, though its statement on the matter differs in lacking such qualifications: “At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, a being created in God’s image. This human being deserves our protection, whatever the circumstances of conception.”
4. Mormons and evangelicals agree that parents are responsible for the moral and spiritual development of their children. “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations” (FPW). “Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage. Parents are to teach their children spiritual and moral values and to lead them, through consistent lifestyle example and loving discipline, to make choices based on biblical truth” (BFM).
5. Mormons and evangelicals both assign spiritual leadership in the home to the husband while viewing the husband and wife as equals. “By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners” (FPW). “A husband…has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife…being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation” (BFM).
When one considers that these two statements, issued about the same time, are obviously independent of one another, their agreement on these five affirmations is especially noteworthy.
B. Mormon and Evangelical Disagreements about Family
Although Mormons and evangelicals enjoy considerable agreements about family and marriage values, those agreements pertain to matters regarding our present mortal life. Mormons and evangelicals have strong disagreements about marriage and family in regard to two related contexts: (1) preexistent life before mortality and (2) eternal life after mortality. Although these differences are primarily theological, they do have some important practical ramifications.
1. Mormons believe that all human beings are literal spirit sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father and Mother with the potential destiny of becoming gods. Evangelicals believe that human beings are intrinsically physical beings with the potential of living forever as God’s adopted children.
According to the LDS Church, each human being “is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose…. In the premortal realm, spirit sons and daughters knew and worshiped God as their Eternal Father and accepted His plan by which His children could obtain a physical body and gain earthly experience to progress toward perfection and ultimately realize his or her divine destiny as an heir of eternal life” (FPW). Thus, in LDS doctrine, human beings are essentially uncreated spirits who lived as God’s children in Heaven before creation and who came to the earth for the purpose of progressing toward their potential as divine beings, or gods.
By contrast, evangelicals believe that human beings’ existence begins with their physical lives on earth, so that we are essentially and intrinsically physical, created beings. We are not naturally God’s children, but God graciously adopts as his children those who come to him through faith in Christ. “God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men…. Man is the special creation of God, made in His own image. He created them male and female as the crowning work of His creation. The gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God’s creation” (BFM).
The differences between Mormon and evangelical beliefs relating to this point are substantial and pertain to a number of key issues in Christian theology. Mormons believe that God the Father is a glorified, exalted Man who is literally male and who is married to a glorified, exalted Woman. This divine Man and Woman are the “heavenly parents”—the Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother—of all angelic and human beings. Gender differences between male and female are therefore essential to deity and are inherited from our heavenly parents.
As discussed in our response to chapter 2 of Gospel Principles, the Bible does not teach or even hint at the idea of a Heavenly Mother. In fact, neither do any of the LDS scriptures. By contrast, the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants refer hundreds of times to God the Father. The Book of Mormon refers to Adam and Eve as “our first parents” (1 Nephi 5:11; 2 Nephi 2:15; 9:9; Mosiah 16:3; Alma 12:21, 26; 42:2, 7; Helaman 6:26; Ether 8:25), an odd description if our first parents were actually Heavenly Father and Mother. In the Bible, the LORD God is the sole Creator of the universe and of human beings (Genesis 1:1, 26-27; 2:7; Isaiah 44:24; Hebrews 1:10-12), excluding the notion that we are the literal offspring of a celestial father and mother.
Neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon teaches the LDS doctrine that the Father is an exalted Man, a being of flesh and bones. God is not a man, but is infinite, transcendent Spirit (Numbers 23:19; 1 Kings 8:27; Hosea 11:9; John 4:20-24). The first reference to God the Father as a physical being in LDS scripture came toward the end of Joseph Smith’s life in a revelation dated April 2, 1843. “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” (D&C 130:22).
The issue here is not merely whether God could, if he wanted, have a physical body. The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ, who eternally exists as God the Son, became flesh and lives forever in an immortal, glorified body of flesh and bones (Luke 24:36-39; John 1:1, 14; 20:24-29; Romans 8:11; 1 Corinthians 15:1-28; Philippians 2:5-8; Colossians 2:9). The real issue is whether God is a physical being who became exalted to Godhood and has sent us to earth to follow the same path to becoming gods as he did. Such a doctrine flies in the face of the whole Bible, which teaches that God is, always has been, and always will be the one and only God of all creation (Genesis 1:1; Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; Psalm 90:2; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6-8, 24; 1 Timothy 1:17).
The doctrine that human beings preexisted their physical lives as spirits in Heaven is also absent from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Not only is the doctrine absent from the Bible but it is at odds with what the Bible teaches. According to the Bible, the first man “became a living being” at the time that the LORD God made him from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7). Of all human beings, only Jesus Christ literally came “from Heaven,” from the presence of God the Father, to become a human being (John 3:31; 13:3; 16:28; Philippians 2:6-7). Thus, Jesus alone is, by nature, God’s Son (John 1:14; Romans 8:3; Hebrews 1:1-5). The angels are collectively called God’s “sons” in a secondary, lesser sense (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7), and human beings who come to God through his eternal, divine Son Jesus Christ become God’s adopted children (John 1:12-13; Rom.8:14-17; Gal. 3:26-4:7; 1 John 3:1-10; 5:1-2). These angelic “sons” and redeemed human “children” of God will in eternity live together as God’s “family” in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 5:9-14; 21:1-8; 22:1-9).
The Bible, then, does have a doctrine about God’s “family,” but it is very different from the LDS doctrine. The biblical doctrine begins with a different understanding of the nature of God. Through its revelations in the Old and New Testaments, we learn that God is one eternal, transcendent Being of spirit, existing eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; etc.). There is, then, a kind of “family” relationship inherent in the being of God, as the titles Father and Son themselves indicate. All other beings that exist or ever will exist are creatures, dependent for their very existence on God as the one and only Creator (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 44:24; etc.). God does invite some of his creatures to live with him as his “children,” a privileged status comparable to adoption. In fact, the Bible teaches that God’s purpose in salvation is that those who believe in Christ will become the Father’s adopted children in the likeness of his eternal Son (Romans 8:29). Human families, in this doctrine, are earthly pictures or foretastes of the heavenly “family” into which God invites us, and of which all who are redeemed by Jesus Christ are graciously made members. This leads us to examine the second major difference between the Mormon and evangelical views of the family.
2. Mormons believe that God intends for human marital and family relationships to be made eternal through sacred rituals performed in LDS temples. Evangelicals believe that God intends for human marital and family relationships to foreshadow and prepare us for our eternal relationship with God in Jesus Christ.
According to LDS doctrine, “The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally” (FPW). In practical terms, this is the essence of the Mormon faith. We are all part of God’s heavenly family, and our earthly families are extensions of His heavenly family that are each intended to become the nucleus of our own heavenly families. To make this potential a reality, it is of the utmost importance for us to form our own earthly families in this mortal life and progress as families along the spiritual path that goes through the rituals and covenants of the LDS temples. These rituals include eternal marriage (to make a Mormon marriage potentially eternal), sealing (in which children of Mormon parents are “sealed” to them for eternity), and baptism for the dead (so that non-Mormon departed family members might not be left behind but have the opportunity to join their eternal family in the afterlife).
The LDS Church sends its members mixed and frankly confusing signals with regard to the importance of these ritual “family ties.” On the one hand, it clearly teaches that marriage and family are “essential” to a person’s returning to live in Heaven with Heavenly Father. “Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan” (FPW, emphasis added). A couple must be married in a Mormon temple in order to have their family reunited in Heaven: “Families can be together forever. To enjoy this blessing we must be married in the temple. When people are married outside the temple, the marriage ends when one of the partners dies” (Gospel Principles, 209, emphasis added). “Eternal marriage is essential for exaltation…. Our exaltation depends on marriage” (219, emphasis added). Eternal marriages must be performed by a Mormon holding the priesthood authority and must be performed in a Mormon temple: “The temple is the only place this holy ordinance can be performed” (220). “Those who inherit the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, who become gods, must also have been married for eternity in the temple” (272, emphasis added). All of these statements would appear to teach that eternal marriage in the temple is a firm requirement for exaltation and for a person’s family to be “together forever.”
The implication of this teaching is that a person’s exaltation may depend, at least to some extent, on one’s spouse. There is ample precedent for this idea in LDS teaching. For example, Gospel Principles (222) quotes with approval the following statement from Spencer W. Kimball (emphasis added):
“Marriage is perhaps the most vital of all the decisions and has the most far-reaching effects, for it has to do not only with immediate happiness, but also with eternal joys. It affects not only the two people involved, but also their families and particularly their children and their children’s children down through the many generations. In selecting a companion for life and for eternity, certainly the most careful planning and thinking and praying and fasting should be done to be sure that of all the decisions, this one must not be wrong” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball , 193).
In context, the implication of this statement is that a Mormon must take care to marry someone who will be a faithful Mormon because their “eternal joys” depend to some extent on that spouse. That does seem to have been Kimball’s view: “Without proper and successful marriage, one will never be exalted” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 291). It also seems to have been the standard view from Joseph Smith until very recently. For example, Brigham Young said:
“And I would say, as no man can be perfect without the woman, so no woman can be perfect without a man to lead her, I tell you the truth as it is in the bosom of eternity; and I say so to every man upon the face of the earth: if he wishes to be saved he cannot be saved without a woman by his side” (Times and Seasons 6 [1 July 1845]: 955).
According to Joseph F. Smith, “no man can be saved and exalted in the kingdom of God without the woman, and no woman can reach the perfection and exaltation in the kingdom of God alone” (Gospel Doctrine, 272). Joseph Fielding Smith likewise taught that “a man must have a wife, and a woman a husband, to receive the fulness of exaltation” (Doctrines of Salvation 2:43-44). Many more such statements could be quoted.
On the other hand, the LDS Church now suggests there are what we might call “loopholes” that would allow those who have not been married in the temple to obtain the same blessings. The chapters in the new (2009) edition of Gospel Principles dealing with families include footnotes cautioning teachers to be “sensitive” to those who are not members of families having such a temple marriage. They tell teachers to “be sensitive to the feelings of those who do not have ideal situations at home” (207, 213). A footnote in the chapter on eternal marriage states:
All members, whether married or single, need to understand the doctrine of eternal marriage. However, you should be sensitive to the feelings of adults who are not married. As needed, help class members or family members know that all Heavenly Father’s children who are faithful to their covenants in this life will have the opportunity to receive all the blessings of the gospel in the eternities, including the opportunity to have an eternal family (220).
These statements are not found in earlier editions of Gospel Principles. The same idea appears in the new edition in the chapter on exaltation, which states that in order to obtain exaltation, “We must be married for eternity, either in this life or in the next” (278, emphasis added). Contrast this statement with the unqualified statement found in the same place in earlier editions of the book: “We must be married for time and all eternity” (Gospel Principles, 1978 ed., 226); “We must be married for time and eternity” (1997 ed., 303). These new, qualified statements are puzzling in light of the usual clear-cut assertions that a marriage not performed in the temple ends when one of the spouses dies. The thrust of LDS teaching on marriage is that it is vital and urgent that Mormons attain worthiness to enter the temple and do whatever it takes to be married to another faithful Mormon in the temple. What urgency is there if such marriages may be performed in the next life?
Evangelicals have a very different understanding of marriage and family in the plan of God. They view marriage and the human family unit as temporary, earthly relationships that anticipate or foreshadow the eternal, heavenly relationships that we will have with each other and with Jesus Christ in the new heavens and new earth. “Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is God’s unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church.... The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church…. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ” (BFM).
The evangelical doctrine does not mean or imply that married couples or earthly families cannot be “together” forever. Far from it: all human beings who are redeemed through Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice will live together forever as one very big and perfectly happy family forever! Husbands and wives who know Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord will know and love each other for eternity. Parents and children united by an authentic, common faith in Jesus Christ will be united with each other forever. However, these earthly relationships are mere foretastes of what “family” is really meant to be, of what it will be in the new heavens and new earth where God will be our Father and we will be his children. The grief of family separation will come to an end when God wipes every tear from our eyes and lives with us forever (Revelation 21:3-7). It is not that we will “lose” these earthly relationships, but that they will be taken to a whole new level as sin and death are eliminated and life and love are perfected in all of God’s people.
We have already seen that the Bible teaches the evangelical doctrine that human beings were created originally as physical beings and may, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, become adopted children of God. Consistent with this teaching, the Bible indicates that earthly human relationships, in their present form, are temporary. Jesus taught that there will be no marriage or child-bearing in the resurrection; the cycle of birth, marriage, child-bearing, and death will be over (Luke 20:27-40). Human marriage is a type of the relationship between the church, as the “bride of Christ,” and Jesus Christ as the “bridegroom” (Matthew 22:2; 25:1-13; Mark 2:19; John 3:29; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:6-9; 21:2, 9). Again, this does not mean that the relationships among redeemed people will end but that in eternity those relationships will be fulfilled and transformed through the consummation that will take place in the age to come.
The hope of this eternal family depends on just one thing: a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ. It does not depend on one’s affiliation with a particular religious institution, place of worship, or ritual. A relationship with the Father is not dependent on worshiping him at a specific place but on knowing him truly through Jesus Christ. This was the point Jesus made to the Samaritan woman when she asked him about the controversy between the Jews, who specified Jerusalem on Mount Zion as the mountain where people could meet God in worship, and the Samaritans, who designated Mount Gerizim as the proper center of worship (John 4:20). Jesus told her that although God had made salvation known through the Jewish religion that had been centered in Jerusalem, the worship of the Father would no longer be centered at either place but would be worship “in spirit and truth” (vv. 21-24). This new relationship with God as Father, rooted in the spirit and based on the truth, is what Jesus the Messiah came to bring (vv. 25-26). Such a relationship is not dependent on centralized places of worship (whether mountains or temples), nor on the religious organizations that control such places of worship, nor on the rituals performed at those places.
In biblical teaching, the hope of living forever in God’s family is also not dependent on one’s earthly family relationships. In fact, Jesus warned that our relationship with him—the sole basis of our eternal hope—takes precedence over blood family ties and may in some cases lead to divisions in our families. This is what Jesus meant when he said: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30 ESV; see also Matthew 19:29; Luke 14:26; 18:29-30). Christ does not seek to break up families and in many families the gospel actually heals and restores broken relationships. Nevertheless, in some cases a believer in Jesus Christ may be rejected by an unbelieving spouse or child or parent. In such situations Christ tells us to put our relationship with him first—and he promises that those who do so will find themselves part of a much larger family, with “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” united by their faith in Christ.
Both Mormons and evangelicals agree that differences of faith can divide people in the same family while sharing a common faith can help to unite them. However, in the evangelical doctrine, such a division should only occur if those who trust in Christ as their only Savior are rejected by those who do not. (Those who trust in Christ should do everything they can to maintain family unity.) It should not divide members of the family into the categories of the “worthy” and the “unworthy.”
When some family members believe in Christ and others do not, the division that sometimes results is something that believers must bear for the sake of Christ. Unfortunately, the LDS Church creates man-made divisions in families by requiring members to prove that they are temple-worthy and to be married in a temple ritual in order to keep their family together for eternity. Trusting in Christ is not enough in the LDS religion because its goal is to attain worthiness for exaltation to godhood, which Mormons are told can only be attained by progressing toward personal perfection and receiving spiritual empowerment available only in its temple rituals. In addition, the traditional Mormon view (which the new edition of Gospel Principles suggests may be undergoing revision) is that a person cannot make such spiritual progress and attain exaltation without a Mormon spouse who also is sufficiently worthy to share in the spiritual blessings of the temple. When a person’s “hope” is based on his own worthiness—and perhaps even that of his spouse—instead of being based on the grace of God alone, that hope is likely to disappoint.
The biblical gospel of Jesus Christ is very clear: my salvation is secure through my trust in Christ alone, and is in no sense dependent on the faith, progress, or worthiness of anyone else. If by God’s grace to me in Jesus Christ I know and love God, I have the assurance that I will spend eternity in his presence, and nothing that anyone else does or fails to do can interfere with that hope (Romans 8:38-39). Of course, I will do what I can to share this good news with everyone in my family, but entirely for their sake—not because if they don’t I might be held back spiritually. It is not that I need them or they need me but that we all need Christ, and Christ alone, to receive every spiritual blessing that God has for us (Ephesians 1:3). This gospel is a message of grace, mercy, and real hope for those of us who have experienced failure and brokenness in our human relationships. It is a message of God inviting us to become part of an everlasting family through the sacrificial death of his one and only eternal, divine Son, Jesus Christ. There is no greater hope for the family than the true gospel of grace.
For Further Study
Groat, Joel. “Mormon Families Forever: Too Good to be True?” Online article pointing out some paradoxes for the Mormon claim that exalted families will alone be “together forever.”
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 10: The LDS View of Family.” Available free when you sign up for our monthly, no-obligation mailing list.