“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you. . . . By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:34–35). In his sermon at the Last Supper, Jesus identified the characteristic that would distinguish his disciples from all others. Genuine love for the other is the supreme Christian virtue.
Perhaps the Savior’s charge to love others is most challenging when “the other” is someone who espouses beliefs that conflict with our own. Much like Dennis Okholm experienced in “verbal attacks” from his fellow Evangelicals because he engaged in friendly discussions with LDS scholars about our respective beliefs, most of us who have been involved with the LDS-Evangelical dialogue have been accused of being in league with the devil and thereby seriously jeopardizing our faith. My experience with the dialogue group for the past ten years echoes Dennis’s sentiments, that through these exchanges, “I have learned more about my own orthodox faith and how to articulate it with more accuracy and sophistication.” Just as important, I have received the blessings of Christian love for my Evangelical friends. I have felt a confirming witness that through these exchanges, where we openly and honestly explain our doctrinal beliefs and sincerely listen to each other to understand, we are appropriately responding to Jesus Christ’s commission to “love one another” as he loves. By contrast, that same witness has never accompanied instructions to malign or misrepresent another’s religion or beliefs.
Craig Blomberg mentioned the constant potential for miscommunication in our discussions because we Mormons often assume different definitions for key terms than do Evangelicals. Some terms, such as “cult,” often carry more negative baggage than clarification and should therefore be “[laid] to rest once and for all,” as Craig suggested. In a similar vein, I am now more sensitive to how offensive our claim that Mormonism is “the only true Church” is to other Christians who have an equally deep commitment to serve God with all their hearts. I have learned to ask questions for clarification and listen to understand “personal convictions” from my Evangelical friends and have been deeply touched when they do the same for me. I believe some of our greatest moments together have occurred when, for example, Rich Mouw articulates Mormon beliefs that he personally rejects but does so in a manner in which we Mormons respond with something akin to “Amen, Brother!” Because, as Craig wrote, “we have never sought any kind of joint ministry venture” between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals, and because “we agree that none of us in our joint gatherings will try to proselytize the other,” our goal is clearly to build understanding and respect for each other’s beliefs and not to forge agreement on differing doctrines. Loving others as Christ did involves trusting the sincere expressions of faith in others, whether we agree with them or not.
The expectation has been that other Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints would commence similar dialogue groups with ground rules to ensure “convicted civility.” Craig’s hope “that we can pass the torch to the next generation” is likewise critical if the good that has occurred with our group will have any lasting meaning to our respective congregations. Publications are no substitute for “face-to-face conversations and give-and-take,” as Craig observed. Developing friendships where each side feels safe expressing their heartfelt questions and beliefs rather than “learning only secondhand about people whose religious views at times differ from theirs” will go far to dispel distrust, hatred, and lies about a variety of societal groups who are each trying to bring about the greater good for all. Furthermore, the same principles used to forge mutual respect in our gatherings can also promote civil exchanges and working solutions in politics and various social issues.
One of the greatest benefits to such open, honest, and thoughtful dialogues has been the realization that at the core, we love and cherish Jesus Christ as our Savior and desire to make the world a better place. Dennis wrote of the “aha” moments—“an insight into the other’s position that helps to clarify or surprise, a realization that what we thought we meant is perhaps not exactly what we have been saying, or . . . a recognition that we are in closer agreement on some points of doctrine than we at first realized.” I have had such moments during each of our gatherings. These moments explain why we are always ready to meet again, and why we always return home with greater appreciation for our respective beliefs and deeper love for others than we had before. In truth, we return as better disciples of Christ.