Part 2 of a series.
When it comes to the question: “Are Mormons Christians?” I’ve pointed out that Latter-day Saints tend to use a broad definition of the word “Christian”. According to a broad definition, Mormonism can be considered a Christian faith. But evangelicals have reasons to use a much narrower definition. Before I elaborate on that, let me point out that some confusion arises because evangelicals use the word “Christian” in different ways among ourselves.
We are willing to use “Christian” in a broader sense when we’re talking about the entire historic Christian tradition. In the context of history, we talk about Nestorian Christianity even though we disagree with the Nestorian view on the divine and human natures of Christ. In the context of the broad Christian tradition, we include the Episcopal Church as a Christian denomination even though we may be concerned about their views on homosexual practice. Latter-day Saints I know look at this as a double standard. How can evangelicals grant Christian status to a church that denies fundamental biblical morality (Mormons might say) while denying it to another church that takes a strong stand on biblical morality? There is no double standard; we simply use the word “Christian” in varying ways in different contexts.
Speaking of different uses, the whole question is further confused by the difference between institutions and individuals. To ask: “Is Mormonism Christian” is a different question than: “Are Mormons Christians?” Let me explain.
When it comes to institutions – a college, an agency, a denomination – evangelicals typically use a theological definition. The institution in question is called “Christian” or not based on what it professes as truth. “Christian” becomes a shorthand for a particular set of beliefs. This definition is an attempt to coalesce the essential, biblically derived doctrines on key issues – such as God, humanity, creation, salvation – that have characterized Christianity worldwide since the first century. When we ask if an institution is Christian, we typically mean: does it stand within the mainstream of historic, biblical Christian doctrine, by virtue of what it asserts to be ultimately true?
But when it comes to individuals, we commonly use an experiential definition. We call a person “a Christian” based on their status in relation to God. Using biblical categories of experience, we’re asking whether or not that person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit or still dead in sin, bound for heaven or for hell, under God’s grace or still under his just condemnation. The issue is not simply right doctrine or a certain kind of ethical life, but a right standing with God as a function of one’s response of saving faith in God’s gracious work. None of us can see into another person’s heart, so we have no absolute assurance of where anyone else stands with God. So we use “Christian” to refer to individuals who profess that they are right with God by virtue of their trust in the saving work of Christ alone. Certain basic truths must be believed, even if imperfectly or incompletely. But believing those truths does not constitute anyone as a Christian in this sense. A changed lifestyle is expected as the consequence, and thus as some sort of evidence, of salvation. According to this experiential definition, we would certainly not assume that a person is right with God – and thus a Christian – simply because of the church he or she attends. In other words, when we ask if an individual is or is not a Christian, we mean: has that person trusted in God’s provision through Jesus Christ alone so as to effect an eternal, spiritual change in his or her life?
In the next post, I’ll apply these two definitions of “Christian” to Mormonism.