Part 1 of a series.
I recently finished the manuscript for my most recent book, called “Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor”. In one appendix, I deal with how to handle the question that comes up often: are Mormons Christians? I’m going to lay out my thoughts on this over the next few posts. You can find the expanded version in the book when it comes out next year (Zondervan).
When we talk about who is or is not a Christian, it has to be understood from the outset that Mormons and evangelicals are using the word “Christian” in two different ways. It is fundamentally about definitions. In some ways, the debate is about who has the right to define what the word means. To be honest, I don’t think this is a very fruitful topic. I always try to redirect the issue, because until we evaluate the different definitions in play, it is likely that the two groups will continue to talk past each other on this matter.
Evangelicals use a narrow definition of the word (complicated by the fact that we use the word in different ways ourselves, in different contexts – which creates even more confusion for Latter-day Saints). I’ll discuss this in the next post.
But Mormons use a broad definition: for them, a Christian is someone who follows Jesus Christ. They point out that Jesus is central to the church’s very name. They wonder: how can “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” not be considered a Christian church? Mormons believe in that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, healed the sick, raised the dead, and offered himself as a sinless sacrifice of the sins of the world. They believe that he literally rose from the dead and lives today. They commemorate his death in every Sunday service, and conclude their prayers in his name.
Evangelicals understand that Latter-day Saints mean different things than we do when they make some of those claims. But to Mormons, that is not enough of a reason to deny them the use of the title. But because of these core beliefs, and because their devotion to Jesus is real (as they understand him – which is another matter), Mormons are bewildered when anyone claims that they are not Christian.
In practical terms, many Latter-day Saints also have in mind an ethical or behavioral definition: Christians are people who live Christ-like lives. They point to their lifestyle, which embodies “Christian” virtues like marital fidelity, obedience to God, service, tithing, care for the poor, and the like. I suspect that when people claim Mormons aren’t Christian, it comes across to Latter-day Saints as saying, “Your upright way of life is not recognized as valid.”
By contrast, Mormons look at the lives of many people who attend recognized Christian churches, but whose lives bear little resemblance to Jesus’ example and values. They wonder: Why do those people get a pass? Why do they get to be called Christians – even when they don’t live like followers of Christ – and we don’t?
Based on the broad definition, the LDS Church has a pretty good claim to make. Jesus Christ does have a central role in their beliefs and practices. Mormonism is certainly within the Christian family of religions, compared to Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.
Go here for the next point in the discussion: what definition are evangelicals using to determine that Mormons are not Christians?