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Defining Christianity

Are Mormons Christians?

With Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy gaining steam, that’s a question that more and more people are asking. To many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the question seems absurd on its face. Look at the name of the church, for crying out loud! Read the Book of Mormon, which proclaims that it is written “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.” Many point to this and other evidences that our faith is centered in Christ and then say to the detractors, “What more do you want?” or, “How can you even ask me that?”

The first time I was asked if I was a Christian was back in Chaparral Elementary School in first or second grade. The irony was that, at my tender young age, I didn’t realize that non-Mormons believed in Jesus, too. I had a lot of Jewish friends, and I knew that they weren’t big fans of Jesus, so it was thrilling to discover that there were other believers in Christ out there. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that the vast majority of people who call themselves Christians didn’t include me in their number, and it took me until I got on my mission in Scotland to really understand why.

Now, when people ask me that question, I’m a bit more circumspect in my answer.

That’s not to say that I’m in any way reluctant to admit that I believe that Christ is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the only way back to the Father. I believe He was born of a virgin, that He lived a perfect life, that He suffered for my sins, that He died for me on the cross at Calvary, and that He was resurrected and ascended into heaven on the third day. Indeed, I stand with Paul, who proclaimed, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” (Romans 1:16)

Surprisingly, that doesn’t necessarily make me a Christian in the eyes of the world.

There’s an excellent book by an LDS scholar by the name of Stephen E. Robinson titled, appropriately, Are Mormons Christians? I thought it made an airtight, indisputable case for the “yes” answer, so I lent it to a friend of mine who was an evangelical Christian to see if he would find it persuasive. He read it thoroughly and made plenty of insightful notes in the margins, and, in doing so, provided a window into how orthodox Christians see my faith. The result was most illuminating.

Here were some of his comments, lifted verbatim from the margins of my book.

When Christianity came into being, there was already an established religion, Judaism. The Christians couldn’t just go around calling themselves Jews. They had 2 options: change the Jews’ minds on the issues, so the Jews would accept them, or find another name. Otherwise the name “Jew” would have been meaningless.

He’s right, but the early members of the New Testament church probably didn’t realize this at first. Those early Christians probably did “just go around calling themselves Jews,” since they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of their religion, not the usurper of it. They also balked at attempts by Paul and others to take the Gospel to the Gentiles. It’s important to note that the members of the New Testament Church were “called Christians first in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26) It’s not a name they chose.

Similarly, nowhere in scripture, ancient or modern, are members of my Church designated as “Mormons.” That name, like the title “Christian,” was initially a derisive term coined by others. When Mormons say “we’re just Christians, like everybody else,” they forget that “everybody else” views much of our theology as extraneous nonsense, like living prophets, restored priesthood authority, and modern revelation.

I wish I’d understood this better back in Scotland. I wasted a bunch of time as a missionary trying to appear acceptable to members of Christian churches with a message that effectively said, “Hey! We’re just like you!”

To which the following answer came back: “Great! Then I’ll stay where I am, thank you very much!”

Look at all the trouble Ann Coulter has recently gotten into for referring to Christians as “perfected Jews.” To a Jew, it seems a bit presumptuous that she gets to define the term “Jew” in a way Jews don’t accept, even though, from a theological perspective, she’s probably right.

Another great quote from the margins:

Most Christians try to build the universal church, not their own sect.

This hasn’t always been so, but it seems to be true today. Protestants and Catholics alike may disagree doctrinally, but most of them view each other as part of the same theological family.

In contrast, we Mormons, who are neither Catholic nor Protestant, are even more exclusive than the churches who refuse to recognize us as part of their ranks. We claim to have “the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Doctrine & Covenants 20:9) and say that all other churches are in various degrees of error and apostasy. Indeed, one Mormon apostle went so far as to say the following:

“Mormonism is Christianity; Christianity is Mormonism; they are one and the same, and they are not to be distinguished from each other in the minutest detail.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 513)

In other words, if you’re not a Mormon, you’re not a Christian. So take that, James Dobson!

With that kind of position, why are we surprised when Dobson and Co. don’t welcome us into the Christian fold with open arms?

More from the margins:

In arguing that Mormonism isn’t a cult, particularly by citing the early church, you are strengthening the argument that, if not a cult, Mormonism is, at least, a new religion – and not a sect of Christianity.

Again, the logic is perfect here, although Mormons would say we’re the same religion as the people in the early Church, and that all you Christians in the intervening years are the ones who have gotten it wrong.

Another good marginal point:

If Mormons had rejected the Council of Nicea when it happened, okay, but 15 centuries later? That’s a little weird.

It certainly is if you define a Christian as someone who accepts the Council fo Nicea. Under that definition, Mormons clearly don’t qualify.

More:

When you claim to be speaking for God to an established religion, if they don’t accept you, have the honesty to say you are of another religion – even if it’s the only true one.

Point taken.

I think he sums it up perfectly with this one:

You forget one thing: we came first. We get to make the rules, buddy.

There it is.

So am I saying Mormons aren’t Christians? Well, it depends on how you define the word. We’re not part of the historical Christian tradition, and we reject almost all of the extra-Biblical creeds and practices that have evolved over the centuries. (We’re big suckers for Christmas, though.)

So if you define Christian with these historical and doctrinal caveats, then Mormons don’t fit the definition.

However, that’s not the definition most people have in mind when they use the word “Christian.” Webster’s Dictionary primary definition of Christian is “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.” Certainly Mormons – and Catholics and Protestants – qualify under that criteria, no matter who came first or what Bruce R. McConkie says.

And that’s the heart of the matter.

Very few people who hear the statement “Mormons aren’t Christians” are thinking historically or theologically. They just presume Mormons don’t believe in Jesus, and we worship Joseph Smith, or we’ve all got polygamous harems up on Mt. Timpanogos. I’m sadly convinced that some people who make the “Mormons aren’t Christians” accusation understand the theology behind it, but they still accuse while knowing – and hoping – they will be misunderstood.

As for me, I really don’t care whether James Dobson or Billy Graham or the Pope or any other Christian leader thinks I’m a Christian or not. I’m far more concerned with what Jesus Christ thinks of me.

When the time comes, He’ll call me by whatever name He thinks will suit me, and that will be enough.

Ever Been Stabbed?
Of Bach and Beavis

Leave a Reply

  1. Jim,Just curious. What did you think of Gibson’s movie (Passion of the Christ)? I found many (not all) lay “Christians” thought the movie was spiritually moving while members of different religous orders (Jesuit, Franciscan etc) were repulsed by the film’s focus on the brutality.

  2. I haven’t seen it. Once upon a time, I thought seriously about it, but I’m somewhat reluctant to let Mel Gibson define the visuals of Christ’s suffering for me. I’m very glad that it did so well, though. It demonstrated that there is a huge religious audience that Hollywood typically neglects.

  3. Personally I liked it. My wife is afraid to see it (we just received it from Net*lix). Hopefully I can convince her this weekend. I told her it would be a sin if she doesn’t watch it, but she isn’t buying it.

  4. “We’re not part of the historical Christian tradition, and we reject almost all of the extra-Biblical creeds and practices that have evolved over the centuries.”It’s amusing that LDS rejects creeds and practices that have been vetted out over hundreds of years, but think that the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants are adequate replacements. The context of universal Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) can be traced through historical sources. The big bad powers in Salt Lake City have yet to prove any of their claims by displaying (A) some golden tablets or (B) the special stones [urum and the thurum or however you’d like to spell it]. Lot of b*llsh*t if you ask me.

  5. LDS people do not see themselves as part of the historical context of traditional/universal Christianity. We have a completely different framework of reference. Nor do we see the Book of Mormon and D&C as replacements for extra-biblical creeds. We see them as essential parts of a restoration of the original truths of the meridian Gospel, in addition to continuing revelation through modern prophets. SC’s clarification of the arguments hold absolutely true. Personally, it has never really bothered me when someone calls me a cultist (in print or to my face), because it is simply a term they have applied according to their own definition. To me, it is just so much water off a duck’s back.

  6. “When Mormons say “we’re just Christians, like everybody else”

    I can’t understand why any Mormon would say this. As you point out, the best they can do is say “We’re Christians, but different”.

    I’m not seeing it a lot, but are you observing that Mormons continue to [wrongly] say “we’re the same as you”?

    PS: My favorite quote: “I’m far more concerned with what Jesus Christ thinks of me. When the time comes, He’ll call me by whatever name He thinks will suit me, and that will be enough.”

Webmentions

  • “Mormon Jesus” vs. “Christian Jesus” | Stallion Cornell's Moist Blog January 11, 2010

    […] national Are-Mormons-Christians nonsense that has once more reared its ugly head. I said my peace here, and I addressed it even further here. In that second link, I address the idea that even though […]