Category Archives: Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor

Are Polygamists Mormons?

Part 6 of a series.

I’ve been sharing some thoughts about a question that often arises in discussions with Latter-day Saints: Are Mormons Christians?  I speak to this issue in my upcoming book, Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor, which is due to be released by Zondervan next year.  But I’m giving a preview in recent posts.

To help a Latter-day Saint friend gain some insight into why this question even matters to many traditional Christians, you might consider an analogous situation within Mormonism.

Polygamy has been in the news quite a bit in recent years.  Most of the polygamist groups are offshoots of the LDS Church.  They continue to follow Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.  These groups are commonly referred to by themselves and others as “Fundamentalist Mormons.”  But the LDS Church objects strenuously to anyone using the word “Mormon” in reference to polygamist groups (see here), because what the polygamists stand for is at odds with the mainstream LDS Church.  The Church is trying to control the definition of what “Mormon” means, and who has the right to use the name, because it doesn’t want to be confused with polygamists by use of the same label.  The Saints have some values and boundaries that they want to maintain.  They want to world to think certain things when they see the word “Mormon” – and not think certain other things that they don’t feel are legitimate expressions of Mormonism.

That’s almost precisely how evangelicals feel about Latter-day Saints using the title “Christian”.  Mainstream Christians have some values and boundaries they want to uphold.  Mormonism espouses some things that are at odds with historic Christianity.  The use of the same word to describe both groups creates confusion about what each group stands for.

If Latter-day Saints are uncomfortable with the polygamous groups being called “Mormon”, they should at least have some empathy with why evangelicals are hesitant to apply the title “Christian” to them.

Can Mormons Be Christians?

Part 4 of a series.

In my upcoming book, Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor, I discuss how to think about the question, “Are Mormons Christian?”  I’m sharing some of those thoughts in this series of posts.

In my last post, I explained why evangelical and mainstream Christians do not consider the LDS Church to be a Christian church: because its beliefs stand far outside the biblical and historical boundaries that mark the Christian faith.

But as I noted in a previous post, we evaluate individuals differently from institutions.  Institutions are classified by what they assert to be true.  For individuals, we use a more experiential definition.  We call a person a Christian based on their standing with God, which depends not just on affirming certain truths, but on accepting and acting on the truth – which evangelicals understand as trusting fully and solely in the finished work of Jesus Christ to be right with God.

While we can examine the beliefs of Mormonism to evaluate whether it is Christian or not, no one can see into the heart of another person to know with assurance where that person stands with God.  Thus I can state with confidence that the LDS Church is not a part of the historic, biblical Christian faith.  But I cannot declare whether any individual Latter-day Saint is a Christian or not.  Only God can ultimately know that person’s interior condition.

Based on the definition I accept, I assume that some Mormons are regenerate, heaven-bound children of God, and that some members of evangelical churches are not.  I imagine there are people who genuinely became Christians in childhood or youth, but joined the LDS Church as adults without full knowledge of its world view and beliefs, perhaps because of a romantic relationship.  I know people who, as Mormons, read the Bible and understood its meaning apart from the LDS interpretive grid, and came to adopt the historic biblical gospel.  I’ve met people whom I believe had an authentic, saving encounter with God as members of the LDS Church.

I do believe that the more closely a person adopts the LDS world view and central beliefs, the more unlikely it is that he or she could be a regenerate, heaven-bound Christian, because the core beliefs of Mormonism are contrary to the biblical good news message of God’s saving grace.  I know a number of people who left Mormonism because they found their newly discovered evangelical experience and beliefs to be increasingly at odds with the LDS world view.  In the end they felt they could no longer support the things the LDS Church stands for.  But it makes sense to me that other genuine Christ-followers within Mormonism would stay in the LDS Church for family reasons.

So Mormonism has to be considered Christian in the broadest sense.  In a more particular sense it is not.  Individual Mormons may be Christians.  But if they are, it seems to me that it is in spite of, rather than because of, what Mormonism teaches.  I guess we’ll find out when we get to heaven.

For a different twist on the issue, see my next post.

Is Mormonism Christian?

Part 3 of a series.

In previous posts, I’ve noted the underlying problem of definitions when it comes to the discussion of whether Mormonism is a legitimate Christian faith.  Latter-day Saints use a broad definition, and claim to be Christian because Jesus has a central role in their beliefs and practices.  Evangelicals use a narrow definition, actually two definitions: one for institutions and one for individuals.  (See my previous post.)

Referring to institutions, we use a theological definition.  The title “Christian” becomes a shorthand for a set of beliefs about what is ultimately true.  We define this in terms of what the followers of Jesus since the first century and around the globe have commonly understood the Bible to teach – not in every detail encompassing every secondary issue, but in the core, essential doctrines that define the heart of Christian belief.  The Bible is clear about the nature of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the human condition and destiny, the conditions for and the effects of salvation, and the like.  On these matters there is widespread agreement, historically and geographically, among the divergent movements within Christianity.

When evangelical Christians say that the LDS Church is not a Christian church, we are asserting that this biblically and historically defined understanding of the Christian faith sets certain legitimate boundaries.  Hinduism and Islam stand outside those boundaries.  I believe a number of sects that arose from within the Christian context have placed themselves outside of historic, biblical Christianity by virtue of their truth claims – including such groups as Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

Thus, by and large, Mormonism is denied the label “Christian” based on what traditional Christians consider to be unbiblical beliefs, such as the view that human beings can become gods, that God is an exalted man with a physical body, that people have a second chance for salvation after death,  that the fall of Adam and Eve was a blessing, that the basis of salvation is not the work of Christ alone,  that families are required for exaltation, and more.  The argument is that some LDS doctrines are so far outside the Christian faith as it is defined historically and biblically that they mark Mormonism as essentially a foreign religion.

Latter-day Saints would not deny that Mormonism is not Christian in this narrower sense.  In fact, they would not want to be considered Christian based on this definition.

But what about individuals?  If Mormonism stands outside the stream of biblical Christianity, can individual Mormons be considered Christians?  I will address that issue in my next post.

Are Mormons Christians?

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?