Mormonism and Christianity

January 14, 2004 | 18 comments
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“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”:

  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, and as a member of a pantheon that also includes Zeus and Vishnu;
  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, and as a reincarnated being; people are reincarnations of animals;
  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, who comes from the planet Zog and who will send flying saucers for the faithful;
  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, who tried to atone for us, but it didn’t work, and we’re all going to hell;
  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, who was a woman and a lesbian;
  • Belief in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, whose adherents should use Native American and Druidic chants to worship Him;
  • and so on
  • .

    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).

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    18 Responses to Mormonism and Christianity

    1. Nate Oman on January 14, 2004 at 11:37 am

      Kaimi, this is a good post. To be honest with you, I have never really cared that much about this debate. Clearly we believe in Christ as son and Savior. Clearly we reject huge portions of the Christian theological tradition. I am fine so long as we acknowledge both positions.

      As far as I am concerned, the much more pressing question is whether or not Christians are Mormons…

    2. Matt Evans on January 14, 2004 at 12:53 pm

      To objective observers with no dog in this fight, like atheists, Hindus, and Jews, Mormons are Christians.

      To these observers, someone who believes that the Jesus of the New Testament is God, that Jesus created the world, and that the only way to heaven is through Jesus, they would rightly conclude that they’re Christian. This is sufficient regardless of what else they believe.

      The debate arises because mainline Christians are trying to protect their tradename, just like the church does when it objects to journalists referring to polygamists as “fundamentalist Mormons”. But to objective observers, someone who believes Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, is a Mormon, no matter what else they believe.

    3. Adam Greenwood on January 14, 2004 at 2:48 pm

      “But in fact, all sides know that Mormons believe in Christ . . .”

      I don’t know that it’s true. I think we’re fighting about being ‘Christian’ because many, many people, told that we’re not Christian, assume that we do not in fact believe in the Sonship, saviorship, atonement, and resurrection of Christ.

    4. Brent on January 14, 2004 at 3:01 pm

      Conversations I have had with those who do not believe we are Christians generally focus on our belief in the trinity. Because we don’t subscribe to the “all in one” theory, then, according to them, we don’t believe in the same Jesus Christ that they believe in. Thus, even though we say we believe in Jesus Christ, we really don’t because we haven’t properly defined who he is.

    5. Taylor on January 14, 2004 at 3:35 pm

      Jan Shipps argued in “Mormonism” that followed the patterns of the beginnings of new religions. Rodney Stark also put Mormons in this category when he predicted the growth of the church. At some point, early Christians stopped calling themselves “Jews.” Though they beleived almost everything that Jews beleived, they also beleived something more. Isn’t Mormonism similar? I mean, we are supercessionists. Shoundn’t we just claim it outright by creating a new religious category?
      This question is fascinating from a sociological point of view, as groups want to define boundaries. The same kind of question can be put to Mormons. Who gets to decide who is a Mormon? Are fundamentalist sects “Mormon”? Are the RLDS? What are the standards for determining who is in and who is out? For Christianity, I am interesting not just in the criteria for defining Christianity, but why such a move is being made. What is at stake for Christians to want to define us out of their circle?

    6. Renee on January 14, 2004 at 5:26 pm

      >What is at stake for Christians to want to define us out of their circle?

      What is at stake is that if we really are followers of Christ as they are, then there might be something legitimate about our church.

      People are afraid to give us any credit because if they do, then they might feel compelled to learn more. That might require them to take actions out of their comfort zone and that’s just not good to a lot of people.

      Ever notice how when there’s specials on Discovery, The History Channel and A&E around Christmas and Easter, they never, ever bring up the Book of Mormon? On the Dead Sea Scrolls shows, they don’t even get BYU profs as commentators (and I believe the college did extensive work regarding the scrolls).

    7. chris g on January 14, 2004 at 6:16 pm

      Regarding Taylors comments.

      I really like the change of thinking from reactionary to pro-active. I always hated defending the “yes we are christians” point of view, because the other side just wants to find a way to leave us out.

      I think it is much more interesting to think of the potential consequences if lots of mormons started to defnine themsleves as the only “real Christian” group out there. Perhaps this would be based upon the value given to Christ as a true living God. At any rate I am sure evangeleical’s would get annoyed this, and I am sure it would turn a lot of people off the church by getting rid of the common ground of “Christianity”. However, it is, as Taylor pointed out, interesting to think about. Perhaps some one more knowledgeable than myself could do a post on how the current “non christian” attacks against mormons mimick the attacks on the old Christians of the pre-Nicene era.

    8. Jim F. on January 14, 2004 at 8:04 pm

      Renee, though there may be some non-LDS Christians who reject us because we are a threat, I don’t think it is fair to characterize most of them as you have. Most of them have as much interest in differentiating themselves from us as we have in differentiating ourselves from polygamous groups who use LDS beliefs and scriptures. The question of what it means to say that someone or some group is a Christian is an important one, one for which doctrine is relevant. As Kaimi has pointed out, it can also be complicated.

      Whether we are Christians depends on what definition one uses. Some definitions exclude us. Others do not. In any particular discussion, it is important to decide what definition is being used and what definition ought to be used. Of course, the second of these is a lot more difficult to agree about than the first.

      I say we are Christians because we believe that Jesus was Christ, the Son of God and the Creator and Savior of the world. (I think that is enough, in fact, to eliminate most of Kaimi’s hypothetical possibilities from meaningful consideration.) For most uses that is enough, but not for all. For some Christians, more is required, and for them we are not Christians.

    9. Kristine on January 15, 2004 at 10:46 am

      I grew up in Nashville, and so encountered this question pretty often. As I got smarter about dealing with it, I found that a simple acknowledgment of another definition went a long way towards defusing the hostility around the question. I’d answer something like this: “although Mormon beliefs differ from evangelical Christians on the nature of the trinity, we do believe in the divinity of Christ…, etc.” (Of course, since I was in high school, the response was often “oh, cool, so you do have a Christmas tree.” ) I think where we get into trouble is in trying to gloss over the differences, or worse, not understanding the nature of those differences because we don’t know enough about other people’s doctrine (and don’t bother to ask).

    10. Nate Oman on January 15, 2004 at 11:16 am

      I’m always tempted to respond, “We believe in Christ, but our beliefs are significantly different that those of evangelical Christians. On the other hand, Protestants feel more at home in our meetings since we eliminated the rituals with the goat…”

    11. Adam Greenwood on January 15, 2004 at 12:12 pm

      Out here in South Bend we still do the ritual with the goat, but I find that most visitors don’t really mind. Of course, we always bind and gag them as a precaution . . .

    12. M Parke on January 15, 2004 at 2:45 pm

      In response to Adam’s post, there are probably some people whose understanding is that Mormon’s don’t believe in Christ, but I’m guessing most of them live outside the U.S. I don’t know how anyone could have missed the numerous pieces appearing in national media the last several years in which the church explains that belief in Christ lies at the foundation of our church. Granted not everyone is as interested in the contents of Mormon-related media coverage as most Mormons I know seem to be, but it is still hard to miss. It seems to me that the disagreement tends to center not on whether we recognize Christ, but whether we “believe” Christ–a.k.a. do we believe that his grace alone is enough (no wonder they are confused, I haven’t been able to sort out what our church professes on this matter either).
      I tend to agree with Matt in that other Christians are trying to protect their tradename and any reluctance to recognize Mormonism as a form of Christianity is based on an unwillingness to call anything but we-are-saved-by-grace-alone belief “Christianity”. This makes perfect sense if you believe that you have the correct form of belief and anything else is counterfeit.
      I know at least one evangelical would does not refer to Catholics or Jehovahs Witnesses as Christian either.

    13. Nate Oman on January 15, 2004 at 3:03 pm

      Mr. Parke:

      I am not so certain. I think it really is about the goats…

    14. lyle on January 15, 2004 at 3:21 pm

      and what about the unicorn with the princess riding atop in the story about Christ visiting his American disciples after the resurrection?

      really, without the goat and unicorn, ’tis much easier to discuss the number of angels dancing on the tip of a pin.

    15. Adam Greenwood on January 15, 2004 at 4:19 pm

      M Parke,
      I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. My personal experience with reasonably educated people indicates that no one knows squat about the Mormons.

    16. Jack on March 5, 2004 at 11:03 pm

      While there may be some debate about what truly constitutes Christianity, all Christians agree that, at minimum, one must believe that there is one and only one god. Not that they choose to worship one god above others but there is only one god. Mormons believe in multiple gods. Thus Mormons are not Christian.

    17. Nate Oman on March 5, 2004 at 11:45 pm

      Jack: Does this mean that the Arians were not Christians? What about social trinitarians? Also, how do you differentiate between a differing voice that shows that there isn’t concensus on an issue and a differing voice that is simply condemned as heretical by the consensus? (See the circularity of the consensus argument? It tied Islamic jurists in knots for centuries.)

      BTW, I agree that by many criteria Mormons are not “Christians” but that is not the relevant question in my view. Rather, it seems to me that we need to know whether or not Christians are Mormons. Fortunately, there is room here to be optimistic ;->…

    18. lyle on March 5, 2004 at 11:46 pm

      Thanks Jack. That was rather witty of you. Consider my cheek slapped, and I’m turning it the other way. Got another witty reason why you get to tell me how I live and whom I believe in? :)