“Are Mormons Christian?” The question comes up again and again, and causes no small amount of frustration and hard feelings between Mormons and (other?) Christian groups. The response of the church, and of many members, has been to assert “Of course we’re Christian! We believe in Christ, don’t we?”
Mormons are frustrated that that assertion doesn’t answer the question. After all, Christians, including those who believe that Mormons are not Christian, state that the requirement for Christianity is acceptance of Christ. If that’s the sole requirement, then Mormons are in (The church states “Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He was the Creator, He is our Savior, and He will be our Judge.”).
However, Dave’s recent discussion of a Methodist examination of differences between Methodism and Mormonism made me rethink the question. Are we all being a little too simplistic? That is, is Christianity defined solely by belief in Christ, or is there more to being “Christian”?
It is clear that a potential basic definition of a Christian is someone who believes in Christ. Let’s call this the “basic definition” of Christianity: “A Christian is someone who believes in Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the World.” Mormons meet that definition.
However, on reflection I’m not sure that that the basic definition is sufficiently specific. That is, the basic definition seems to allow far too much leeway for different beliefs. Consider that, under the basic definition, any one of the following belief systems could be considered “Christian”:
I list these options not to endorse any such belief systems, but to illustrate that the “basic” definition of Christianity lack real substance. When we say, “Of course I’m Christian, I believe in Christ, after all!”, we are asking others to accept a definition of Christianity that is broad enough to (potentially) include Zeus, reincarnation, or flying saucers. No wonder they don’t accept that simple reply.
Of course, church members protest that they are in compliance with the basic definition precisely because it is what we are (unfairly) accused of violating.
Christian critics of the church claim that the only requirement for Christianity is to accept Christ; they claim to only apply the basic test, and of course that is a test that church members correctly claim to pass. What is unspoken is that other Christian groups — unless they are willing to accept the Zeus, reincarnation, and flying saucer followers — do not really believe that the basic definition is the sole indicator of Christian status, but also apply additional tests.
Such tests make sense, given the lack of substance in the basic definition. Some of these additional tests are discussed in the Methodist discussion of Mormonism. The additional tests include adherence to certain views of scriptural authority; adherence to doctrinal ideas like the Nicene Creed; trinitarian beliefs; beliefs about the nature of baptism, of faith, of the creation, and of Christ’s work. In those areas, the church differs greatly from the rest of Christianity.
(Of course, there are also find areas of similarity between the church and other Christian groups. We can claim to be Christian in more ways than just the basic definition; for example, we could define “Christian” more tightly as “Someone who believes in Christ, repentance, baptism, and atonement.” But once we move beyond the basic definition, there is really no reason we should expect others to apply more specific definitions of Christinaity that would include Mormons, rather than using more specific definitions that would exclude Mormons, such as “Christianity is belief in Christ, the Trinity, the Bible as a sole source of scripture, and the Nicene Creed.”)
And so other Christian groups apply their own unspoken tests and arrive at the conclusion that Mormons are not Christian. Once that conclusion is arrived at, the claim is often made that Mormons don’t believe in Christ (violation of the basic definition). But in fact, all sides know that Mormons believe in Christ; where Mormons differ is in the implicit areas. To other Christian groups, we may believe in Christ, but our other beliefs are sufficiently different that we are the functional equivalent of someone who claims to belief in Christ and Zeus. And (unsurprisingly) they are just not ready to call such people Christians, despite adherence to the basic definition.
(Finally, I should note that church members believe that we are Christian and continue to be Christian, and that is is the other groups who have deviated in non-Christian directions. However church members feel about this, they should acknowledge the reality that the term “Christian,” as it has been defined over the last 2000 years, includes a number of implied requirements that are not compatible with Mormon beliefs).