This month’s issue of First Things includes an article in which Bruce D. Porter, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Gerald McDermott, a religion professor at Roanoke College, discuss the question, “Is Mormonism Christian?”
Mormons, not surprisingly, consider any negative answer to this question to be an expression of religious bigotry. Who do you think you are, saying that Mormons are not Christians? Mormons certainly profess to be Christians; wouldn’t they know?
In almost every discussion I have with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this question comes up—and I’m not the one who brings it up. If I’m trying to have a conversation about whether Jesus really did deliver the Sermon on the Mount to the Nephites almost verbatim as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew, I’m likely to hear, “You think we’re not Christians, don’t you?” I encounter many Mormons who bitterly resent anyone who denies that Mormons are Christians. In my experience, Mormons often use this question as a “gotcha” basis for shutting down reasoned discussion of our theological and religious differences. The mainstream media is now following this same lead, with reporters asking evangelical leaders if Mormons are Christians in order to generate an inflammatory headline (“Evangelical Muckety-Muck Says Mormons Are Not Christians”).
On the other hand, admittedly some evangelicals do seem to think that blurting “Mormons are not Christians” is a sufficient, clear, and helpful statement on the matter. More seriously, tracts and articles on the subject often pose this very question and then proceed, without ever defining the term Christian, to argue that Mormons are not Christians based on a litany of doctrinal errors. These resources often have good information, but the way it is presented or framed invites some confusion, as well as polemical exploitation from Mormon apologists. Worse still, some evangelicals accuse Mormons of “posing” or “pretending” to be Christians.
What I propose to do here is to take a fresh look at this question. I wish to bring some clarity and focus to the issue. My purpose is not to denigrate Mormons but to help them to understand what evangelicals typically mean when they assert that Mormonism is not Christian. I would also like to make some suggestions to my fellow evangelicals that may help us to present our point of view on this subject in a clearer way.
Christianity—The Two-Billion Member, Five-Ring Circus
From a comparative religions perspective, Christianity is the largest world religion, numbering a little over two billion members. (The next largest world religion, Islam, numbers perhaps as many as 1.5 billion adherents. Don’t be smug, friends—Islam is growing faster worldwide than Christianity.) Hereafter, when I use the term “Christianity” in this piece, I am referring to this mega-sized world religion.
Christianity includes an incredible diversity of belief and practice. (The numbers I use here are extremely rough approximations for sake of getting the big picture.) (1) About a billion people—about half of all Christianity—are found in the Catholic Church. (2) About a quarter of a billion people belong to one of the Orthodox or Eastern churches (which includes Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc., and also the Coptics and other groups). (3) Nearly a third of a billion people are associated with some conservative Protestant church or movement, either evangelical Protestant or Pentecostal. (4) Another quarter of a billion people belong to mainline, mostly moderate to liberal, Protestant denominations.
(5) This leaves roughly a quarter of a billion people whose forms of Christianity do not fit into any of the aforementioned categories. Within this none-of-the-above category is a wildly diverse assortment of religious communities. If each major type of Christianity represented in this fifth category were its own species, it would look like the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine or an assemblage of delegates to a parliamentary meeting of the United Federation of Planets (take your pick!). It includes (deep breath) Adventism, British-Israelite groups, Christian Science, the Family, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Messianic Judaism, Metropolitan Community Churches, New Thought, Oneness Pentecostalism, Rosicrucianism, the Sacred Name movement, Swedenborgianism, the Unification Church, Unitarian Universalism, The Way International, and many, many others.
Now, please note that I put Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, in this fifth catch-all category of “none of the above” forms of Christianity. I do not think anyone who is LDS would object. They certainly do not consider themselves Catholic or Eastern Orthodox; they do not consider themselves liberal, evangelical, or Pentecostal varieties of Protestantism. They might wish to create a sixth category and place themselves alone in it—and that’s fine—but my point is that we agree that Mormonism belongs to the larger world-religions classification of “Christianity” and that it does not belong to any of the major branches or religious traditions of Christianity as they are conventionally distinguished from one another.
What a lot of these religious groups have in common is a radical belief in restorationism. The largest and most influential types of Christianity that do not fit into the four major categories purport to represent the restoration of original, pristine, or full Christianity to the earth. This is clearly true of Adventism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Messianic Judaism, Oneness Pentecostalism, the Sacred Name groups, The Way International, and quite a few others. Even within this category of restorationist Christianity, the specific religious groups differ markedly in their doctrines, rituals, and practices. Nevertheless, from a historical, sociological, and comparative religions approach, we are on safe ground in classifying the Latter-day Saints as a type of restorationist Christianity.
Let’s be clear. Mormonism does not belong in the world-religions classification of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shinto, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, or Neo-Paganism. (Admittedly, some evangelicals have on occasion described Mormon theology as “pagan” or as teaching something more akin to Hinduism than to Christianity. Whatever legitimate point these critics might have been making, it remains an objective fact that Mormonism is neither pagan nor Hindu.) Mormonism arose from the Christian “tree” and retains obvious elements of Christianity as its religious orientation, not the least of which is its emphasis on Jesus Christ, both in its official name and in its literature and speech. From this perspective, in this context of world religions classification, the LDS Church belongs under the heading of Christianity, and more narrowly within that fifth “none of the above” category of types of Christianity that are neither Catholic, Orthodox, conservative Protestant, nor liberal Protestant.
If we use the term Christian to mean any and every adherent to any of these various types of Christianity, regardless of their beliefs or practices, then of course Mormons are Christians. (Note: anyone quoting only the last clause of the preceding sentence in order to misrepresent me will be guilty of intellectual malpractice!) I can’t imagine any evangelical disagreeing. This doesn’t tell us very much, though—and it tells us nothing about the validity or soundness of Mormonism as an expression of Christian faith.
According to Daniel Peterson and Stephen Ricks, “If anyone claims to see in Jesus of Nazareth a personage of unique and preeminent authority, that individual should be considered Christian.” By this definition, the vast majority of individuals in the world religion of Christianity are Christians. If this is all one means in affirming that Mormons are Christians, evangelicals should have no objection.
Similarly, LDS leader and spokesman Bruce Porter writes:
Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling.
By this “simple dictionary definition,” I totally agree that Mormons are “Christians,” along with virtually all of the religious groups in the fifth catch-all category of the world religion of Christianity.
When Is a Christian Not a Christian?
If speakers used the term Christian uniformly to mean any and every person who affirms the centrality of Christ to their belief, there would be no confusion on the question of whether Mormons are Christians. In fact, though, the term does not always carry this sense.
In particular, evangelicals tend to affirm that someone is a “Christian” only if that person gives credible evidence of believing in Jesus Christ according to certain minimal standards of faithfulness to the biblical teaching. Now, please understand something right here: no evangelical has the competency to make an infallible judgment in this matter. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to maintain that some individuals, and some groups, are credibly viewed as Christian in this narrower sense while others are not.
Let me give some examples that ought to cool some of the heated emotions this issue tends to evoke. Suppose Mr. Jones over here is a Southern Baptist. He accepts its doctrinal statement (the Baptist Faith and Message 2000) in its entirety. He attends church weekly. He tithes. In fact, he’s the pastor of the church. He attended a Baptist college and a Baptist seminary. Is he a Christian? Well, you would think so! Yet I know a man who fit the above description entirely (although I have changed his name) and who one day realized—while he was the pastor of a Baptist church!—that he was not himself a Christian. Those are his words, not mine. He went before his congregation, confessed to them that he had never personally trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord, told them that he had just become a Christian, and offered to step down as their pastor. (The church reaffirmed him as their pastor.) By this man’s own testimony, he had not been a Christian all those years. He had an experience not unlike that of John Wesley, who went to America to convert the Indians and then realized that he needed to be converted himself. This is how evangelicals think when they talk about whether someone is a Christian. They are ultimately concerned about whether people actually know Christ as Savior.
Now imagine running into a man who also professes to be a Christian. He affirms emphatically that he has personally trusted in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He claims to have been born again. However, he insists that only those people who have spoken in tongues are really saved. This man has started his own religious group organized around his idiosyncratic views. He has developed a course that all of his church’s members are expected to take that will teach them how to be saved and speak in tongues. (Yes, it costs money.) Is this fellow a Christian? Evangelicals would confidently answer No. Such a person is not really a Christian (in the narrower sense). People who follow him and accept his teachings cannot be considered Christians, either, as long as they subscribe to his views. This isn’t hypothetical, either; I am referring in this case to Victor Paul Wierwille, the late founder of The Way International. He sounded evangelical (more specifically Pentecostal), and a lot of people from evangelical churches bought into his claims, but The Way International is not, by evangelical standards, an authentically Christian church.
My third example is the bishop of a major Christian denomination, yet he denies every line of the Apostles Creed (which is part of that denomination’s official liturgy). He does not believe that Jesus Christ is a divine person, or that he was born of a virgin, or that he atoned for our sins on the cross, or that he rose from the grave. Is he a Christian? Well, in the broad, world-religions classification sense of the word, he is. After all, he claims to be one, and he is a member of a Christian denomination. He would affirm that he is a follower of Jesus. But really—is this man’s profession of Christian faith credible? Obviously not. I refer here to John Shelby Spong, the former bishop of the Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey. When evangelicals (including many in his own denomination!) assert that Spong is not a Christian, their meaning is not hard to grasp. They are taking the position that anyone who rejects the essential elements of the Christian faith is not a Christian, even though he may be a leader in a Christian denomination.
The point is that it makes perfectly good sense to use the term Christian in a narrower sense to mean someone who genuinely espouses the beliefs and values that are essential to the Christian faith. Now, admittedly, there is widespread disagreement about what those essentials are. I don’t deny for a moment that there exists considerable disagreement on that question. But the usage is perfectly understandable and legitimate. I think Mormons can even agree with evangelicals on this point to a considerable extent. For example, surely Mormons can agree that there is something odd about calling a person a Christian if he denies the resurrection of Jesus. We therefore ought to be able to agree that there are some essential truths and values that all Christians ought to accept and follow, even though we don’t agree entirely on what those essentials are.
No Recent Innovation
Mormons sometimes claim that the evangelical practice of using the term Christian in a narrower sense to refer to people accepting the essentials of the faith is a recent innovation, a novel polemical ploy introduced by “anti-Mormons” or “anti-cultists” to denigrate those with whom they disagree theologically. This is a historical claim, and it turns out to be mistaken. There is a long and venerable history in Christianity of denying the designation “Christian” to those who deviate from what are deemed essentials of the faith. Let me cite just three examples:
Justin Martyr (early to mid-second century church father): “Moreover, I pointed out to you that some who are called Christians, but are godless, impious heretics, teach doctrines that are in every way blasphemous, atheistical, and foolish. . . . For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians. . .”
John Calvin (sixteenth-century Protestant reformer and theologian): “And this is the place to upbraid those who, having nothing but the name and badge of Christ, yet wish to call themselves ‘Christians.’ Yet, how shamelessly do they boast of his sacred name? Indeed, there is no intercourse with Christ save for those who have perceived the right understanding of Christ from the gospel.”
Jonathan Edwards (eighteenth-century American preacher and theologian): “They that receive only the easy part of Christianity, and not the difficult, at best are but almost Christians; while they that are wholly Christians, receive the whole of Christianity.”
Say what you will about these men, the point is made. Denying that professing believers are properly called Christians if they do not believe specific doctrinal essentials, if they do not really know Christ in truth, is not an innovation of twentieth-century anti-cultists. Christian leaders have been making this distinction by since the second century.
“Mormons Never Say that Others Are Not Christians”
Mormons often make such assertions as that “no LDS publication has ever denied the title Christian to anyone professing a belief in Christ.” Or, “LDS Christians have never made the accusation that orthodox Christians are not Christian, and we never will.” Perhaps this is correct in the narrow sense of actually stating explicitly that certain people who profess a belief in Christ are “not Christians.” However, LDS publications have at times spoken of some people professing belief in Christ as if they were not Christians. Consider the following statements:
“Hence, true and acceptable Christianity is found among the saints who have the fullness of the gospel, and a perverted Christianity holds sway among the so-called Christians of apostate Christendom…. As the day of the great apostasy set in, the term Christian continued to be applied to the supposed followers of Christ, even though in reality they had departed from the true doctrines. Today those who purport to believe in Christ though they may not actually accept him as the Son of God, are called Christians.”
That McConkie did not consider members of “apostate Christendom” to be genuine Christians is evident from his reference to them as “so-called Christians.” They may be “called Christians,” but in McConkie’s usage, they were not really, because the true Christians are Mormons, as he clearly stated:
“Mormonism is Christianity; Christianity is Mormonism; they are one and the same, and they are not to be distinguished from each other in the minutest detail…. Mormons are true Christians; their worship is the pure, unadulterated Christianity authored by Christ and accepted by Peter, James, and John and all the ancient saints.”
Now, Mormons will likely argue that McConkie does not speak for all Mormons. Of course he doesn’t. (Please, no comments or emails accusing me of making such a claim.) But they will have a difficult time making a plausible case for the claim that McConkie’s opinion is unacceptable in Mormonism. I have yet to see Mormons make the same sorts of charges against McConkie that they make against evangelicals who take a similarly dim view of Mormonism. I doubt I will ever see Mormons make such criticisms of McConkie.
In any case, the claim made by some Mormons that such opinions have never been expressed in an LDS publication appears to be rather undermined by the above example.
Please notice also that McConkie stated that some people “who purport to believe in Christ…may not actually accept him as the Son of God.” In his view, the orthodox Christ is not the real Christ at all. He stated elsewhere, “virtually all the millions of apostate Christendom have abased themselves before the mythical throne of a mythical Christ whom they vainly suppose to be a spirit essence who is incorporeal, uncreated, immaterial, and three-in-one with the Father and Holy Spirit.” McConkie was prepared to bite the bullet and to say that the Christ of orthodox Christianity was a myth. If Mormonism is true, McConkie surely had a legitimate point.
Or consider, from yet another angle, the following quotation from Peterson and Ricks. Referring to an evangelical effort denying that Mormons are Christians, Peterson and Ricks quote with approval a statement from Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem, that the “attitude” of the evangelical opponents of Mormonism was “less than Christian.” How can an “attitude” be “less than Christian”? Here “Christian” seems to mean something like “consistent with the values and teachings of Christianity” (according to some unspecified standard). Mormons frequently fall into this irony apparently without realizing it. I have found numerous blogs in which a Mormon author questions whether it is “Christian” to say that Mormons are “not Christian”! Again, whenever someone speaks this way, he or she is no longer using “Christian” to mean “anyone who professes to follow Jesus Christ.”
The fact is, then, that even Mormons use the word “Christian” in more than one way. I’m perfectly comfortable with that. In one sense, many Mormons use the word “Christian” in a broad sense to refer to anyone and everyone who professes to follow Jesus and who wants to be called a Christian, irrespective of their beliefs or behavior. In another sense, at least some Mormons use the word “Christian” in a narrower sense, that of fidelity to what Mormons consider the values and beliefs of the true Christian church as defined by their own standards. All I have suggested is that non-Mormons be accorded the same privilege. I have repeatedly agreed that in the broad sense of the term, Mormons are Christians. I have then repeatedly suggested that it is not idiosyncratic for evangelicals and other orthodox Christians to use the term in the narrower sense and to import to that sense their own understanding of the standards by which fidelity to the core values and teachings of Christianity is to be judged.
Light, Not Heat
In closing, I’d like to offer some suggestions to my fellow evangelicals for ways to do a better job in handling this subject.
First, we ought to make the distinction between the broader and narrower use of the term Christian whenever we can. That is, when Mormons ask if we think they are Christians, we ought to respond by explaining that it depends on the definition of the word. We can then help them to understand what we mean, rather than simply make a statement that will anger or offend them. Admittedly, our view that Mormonism is not a sound, authentic form of Christianity will not be heard gladly by any Mormon. Nevertheless, I have found that Mormons take less offense, and sometimes take no offense at all, once they understand the distinction I have defended here.
Second, those evangelicals who have been saying that Mormons are “posing” or “pretending” to be Christians should stop using this inflammatory rhetoric. Most Mormons are not engaged in any sort of deliberate or intentional effort to pretend to be something they are not. They sincerely, though from our view mistakenly, think they are genuinely following Christ. Are there Mormons who are intentionally glossing over the differences between Mormonism and historic Christianity for polemical or public-relations gain? Yes, I think so. Is this true of most Mormons? I don’t think so.
Third, rather than state baldly that “Mormons are not Christians,” it would be more constructive to offer more qualified statements that communicate more clearly what we mean. For example, we could say, “Mormons are not theologically orthodox Christians,” or, “Mormons are not Christians in the traditional, historic understanding,” or, “Mormonism is a heretical form of Christianity.” I was happy to see Bruce Porter, speaking for the LDS Church, acknowledge the legitimacy of such qualified statements: “To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate—unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different—but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.” The point is that from an evangelical point of view, Mormonism is not authentically or faithfully Christian, even though Mormons sincerely think of themselves as Christians.
Fourth, where possible it would be advantageous if we were to make disarming statements that demonstrate that our disapproval of Mormonism is not peculiar to them. For example, a Presbyterian could say, “No, I don’t consider Mormons to be authentic Christians, but then, I have the same opinion of a good number of my fellow Presbyterians.” Such statements can be both disarming and provocative, allowing us to engage our Mormon friends in a constructive discussion of what really is essential to biblical Christian faith.
In interreligious discussions, it is vital that we understand each other (cf. Prov. 18:13). When evangelicals say that Mormons are not Christians, they simply mean that Mormons do not adhere to the essentials of the Christian faith as evangelicals understand them. When Mormons say that they are Christians, they simply mean that they disagree with the evangelical criteria for what constitutes acceptable, authentic, genuine Christian faith. Evangelicals are not necessarily being mean-spirited when they say that Mormons are not Christians (although some evangelicals may in fact be mean-spirited in the way they say it). Mormons are not necessarily being duplicitous when they claim to be Christians (although some Mormons may in fact be duplicitous in the way they present this claim). Eliminating these generally unjustified, prejudicial misunderstandings of what each other is saying would help clear the air and allow meaningful, constructive discussion of our differences to go forward. It’s a step.
 On this point, see, for example, Grant Underwood, The Millenarian World of Early Mormonism (University of Illinois Press, 1999).
 Daniel Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992), 185.
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 80 (ANF edition).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.6.4, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 687.
 Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits (New York: Robert Carter, 1852), 373.
 Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 132.
 Ibid., 513, emphasis in original.
 Ibid., 269.
 Peterson and Ricks, Offenders for a Word, 4.
 E.g., Raymond Takeshi Swensen, “Why it’s unchristian to call Mormons ‘Not Christian,’” April 10, 2008, accessed here.