Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Mormonism Christian?

"Whoa!" you're thinking. "You've been on a month-long blog hiatus, and this is what you've come up with? Trying to kick the beehive again?"

Or perhaps you're thinking, "Blimey, it's a yes-or-no question. What's the big deal? Does it matter?"

You'll have to indulge me though, because this question has been on my mind a lot recently. Not one, not two, but three people in different corners of the country have sent me a recent article from Christianity Today magazine which explores how people are answering that question. My own quick-and-dirty answer to this question is not changing, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Mormons by and large will state that they are "Christian." You'll notice that I titled this post Is Mormonism Christian? and not Are Mormons Christians? because in reality, I'm not sure we can even ask that question about the traditional, evangelical denominations. Can you really ask if "Baptists are Christians" or "Methodists are Christians"? I submit that you cannot, because merely being a Baptist or Methodist or a member of any other church or denomination has little to do with whether you are a Christian, in the strictest sense of the word.

The way someone is a "Mormon" is vastly different from the way someone is a "Christian." You're a Mormon when you've been baptized into the Mormon Church, when you have, at least at one time, professed a belief in the creeds and doctrines of Mormonism, and your name is on the membership rolls, and you have otherwise jumped through the various hoops required for membership. (I'm not picking on Mormonism here; you could say the same thing about many of the traditional Christian denominations as well.)

But there is no human institution or governing board that has the right, responsibility, or authority to bestow upon (or deny) anyone the title of "Christian." There is no overarching human authority that recognizes what is and is not a "Christian" baptism, a "Christian" confession, nor is there some kind of membership roll locked up in some safe, or on some computer database that keeps a tally on who is a card-carrying member of the club called "Christianity."

I would submit that all of the things that make one a Christian are governed completely and entirely in the heavenly realm. A baptism is Christian if it is a baptism according to Jesus' command. A confession is Christian if it is a confession of the biblical gospel. And the only "membership roll" is what Revelation calls the "Lamb's Book of Life" which to my knowledge is one of the few remaining things not yet accessible by Internet.

Yes, someone could argue that this is just "my" definition (as if I dreamed it up on my own), but I think I can say that, at the very least, 2000 years of biblical and Christian tradition back up this definition, for whatever that's worth.

In popular culture, however, the term "Christian" has taken a much broader meaning than was ever used in the Bible or in early Church history. Today, the term "Christian" (as a noun) has come to mean someone who is or has ever been affiliated with any religious organization that claims some tie to Jesus Christ, without regard to doctrine or theology.

When a Mormon hears someone challenge whether Mormonism is Christian or not, the nearly universal response is, "Well of course we're Christians; after all, Jesus Christ is in the name of our Church!" I often ask them whether they consider the polygamist fundamentalists, whom they consider anathema, as fellow Christians. After all, the Fundamentalist Church of (ahem) Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have an identical claim, as well as identical beliefs and doctrines about Jesus.

So if we go by the modern definition of "Christian," then of course Mormons are Christians. And so are the dozens of Mormon Fundamentalist polygamist groups, including those guys down in Eldorado, Hildale, and Colorado City who have been forcing little girls to have sex with old men (how "Christian" of them). Then of course there are the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Christian Scientists, and for that matter, the Muslims, who acknowledge Jesus as a true prophet in their scriptures (granted they don't go around calling themselves "Christians.")

Mormons are what they are. Muslims are what they are. Baptists and Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses and Presbyterians are what they are. There are many things that can be verified and documented and proclaimed from the rooftops with relatively little challenge. What's really going on, then, is actually a border dispute over the term "Christian."

If you want to get technical about it, the word "Christian" means, quite simply, one who is of Jesus Christ. That's actually what the word means, etymologically speaking. The "-ian" suffix (derived from the "-ianos" suffix in Greek) literally means one who belongs to, is a part of, imitates, resembles, is like. And that's essentially the way the term is used in the New Testament (only twice in Acts, and once in 2 Peter, by the way). Christians imitate, are like (albeit imperfectly), follow, adhere to and belong to Jesus Christ. If you really think about it, that's an incredibly profound statement.

Nevertheless, the New Testament definition of "Christian" seems to be getting lost in the modern understanding of the term. I actually am finding myself subconsciously (and sometimes consciously) weeding the term "Christian" out of my vocabulary. Don't get me wrong; I'm not ashamed of being a Christian, I'm not trying to hide my belonging to Jesus. It's just that the term has become so watered-down to the point of near uselessness in the public arena. So if anything, I suppose I'm kowtowing to the inexorable march of linguistic drift.

So instead of launching a campaign to "re-take" the word "Christian" for its original definition, I find myself speaking in more simple terms. Because when I say "I'm a Christian," what most people hear is, "I am affiliated with a religious organization that claims a connection with Jesus Christ, and I generally subscribe the the Judeo-Christian code of ethics and morality." All of which may be true, and that's fine. And if that's the idea I'm trying to communicate, then I say that I'm a Christian. But what if I'm really trying to communicate something more profound? Like "I know, love and follow Jesus"?

So really the title question of my post should be this: Is Mormonism an institution that knows, loves and follows Jesus? Or rather, is its reason for existence to help their membership to know, love and follow Jesus?

If you know me well or know what I've been involved in these past few years, you can probably guess exactly how I'd answer that question. But don't take my word for it. I'd challenge you, if you're really interested, to do some exploring on your own. Find someone who truly knows, loves and follows Jesus, who has also been a part of the LDS Church, and ask that question. And don't just ask it as a yes-and-no question, really delve into it, and explore it. I can almost guarantee you a fascinating discussion. And if you can't find anyone on your own, I can probably hook you up with someone more than happy to talk about it.

2 comments:

  1. Hello Scott, Gerald R. McDermott, the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College and author, with Robert Millet, of Claiming Christ: A Mormon-Evangelical Debate, addressed the question of whether Latter-day Saints are Christians in an article "Is Mormonism Christian?" published in First Things magazine (October 2008).

    By examining Professor McDermott's critique in light of the Bible, one can see that Mormonism differs from historic Christian orthodoxy to the degree that historic Christian orthodoxy diverges from Biblical truths. See the following link:

    http://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B2mH1gj1Vq-BYjczOWYyMDItNDE5NC00YzAxLTgxZDUtZGZhN2IxMzc2MjIz&hl=en

    Most points where sectarian Christians have problems with LDS doctrine illustrate the departure of sectarianism from the Bible.

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  2. Hi Peter,

    I'm familiar with this vein of argument, however, I have to respectfully disagree with the fundamental premise that historic Christianity's critique of Mormonism is in those areas where it supposedly diverges from Biblical truth. The facts simply do not bear that out if you use the basic principles of biblical exegesis. Most of these arguments rely upon ignoring or even hiding what has been foundational Mormon doctrine (that clearly contradicts the biblical text), and/or a gross misrepresentation of what the Bible actually says using the peculiar form of Mormon biblical eisegesis.

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