Is Mormonism Christian?

I’d like to revisit the theme of the most recent Restoration Studies, while keeping my comments largely to the LDS Church (although with obvious implications for Community of Christ).

For most Mormons, to be “Christian” means being a believer in Christ.  But orthodox Christianity has higher standards, not unlike the standard of “the one true church” of the Latter-day Saints: Christian churches are true expressions of salvation through Christ; and to admit a church into this elite category requires recognition that it falls within the doctrinal, spiritual, and sacramental traditions of the universal church, handed down and preserved from Christ to the apostles, the apostles to the bishops, and the bishops to the present-day.  Before being recognized as part of this “one true church,” Christians are as exclusionary as Mormons, for, for both groups, salvation is on the line.

Regarding the lineage and genealogy of the Christian tradition, Mormons reject most of it as apostate.  Most believing Mormons believe, however, that–in addition to believing in Christ–they ought to be recognized as Christian because they are true successors to the primitive, pristine first-century church.  They are not the first Primitivists to do so: many Baptists, the Stone Campbell movement (Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, etc.), and others made similar claims about being the New Testament church restored; yet, importantly, none fell outside of doctrinal, spiritual, and sacramental traditions of the universal church, though they didn’t always honor the creeds or lineage.

Mormons, however, didn’t seek to restore the church through reading Acts like other Primitivists: theirs was a revelatory restoration—a recovery that wasn’t afraid to go beyond the doctrinal, spiritual, and sacramental footprint of the Bible or Christian church.  As such, they not only eschewed the traditions as being apostate, but they recreated basic Christian tenets and practices, and added to them, until they were unrecognizable as expressions of salvation to the orthodox Christian body.  That is, unlike other Primitivists, they pushed Primitivism beyond traditional Christian boundaries.

To claim to be Christian, while simultaneously claiming the rest of Christianity is apostate, is not likely to succeed in being welcomed to the club.  The irony of all of this is like a city condemning a building while simultaneously planning on housing its offices therein–irony except for the planned and massive renovation that makes the building unrecognizable to its previous tenants.  Mormons do not concede that, should mainstream Christianity recognize Mormonism as a true expression of salvation through Christ, it would then seriously undermine the very things that define who they are and what Christianity is.

On one hand, Mormons are at a loss to understand why they are not accepted as Christians; on the other, and without seeing any hypocrisy, many Mormons deny that polygamists or fundamentalists should be called “Mormon.”  That is, the mainstream Mormon is unwilling to do for the heterodox Mormon what they demand mainstream Christianity should do for their heterodox form of Christianity.  In both instances, recognition would mean a pollution of what they hold as the “one true church” and confusion regarding the only way to Christ and salvation.

Fundamentalist Mormons aside, claiming to be Christian while simultaneously claiming Christianity fallen is a sort of necessary dissonance for the average Mormon.  And the resistance by many Christians to calling Mormons “Christian” is necessary to the corporate Mormon psyche and worldview.  In fact, should mainstream Christianity admit Mormons into their fold, something would need to be, or would soon become seriously wrong for both groups and their supposed amalgam, at least as presently constituted.

For the sake of space, I will allow those commenting to conjecture on where Community of Christ fits in all of this, especially in its evolving sense of identity and calling.  Your thoughts?

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14 comments on “Is Mormonism Christian?

  1. Doug Gregory says:

    Personally, I could give a rip whether anyone else thinks I am a Christian or not. Many members of all denominations are no more Christian than my window pane, despite their membership (just ask Ghandi). It is superfluous, and as you point out, perhaps this is an acceptance we all would do well to do without.

  2. FireTag says:

    Seth:

    These identity issues for both LDS and (at least) Evangelical Christians, as you note, are so important because salvation is on the line. CofChrist and liberal Christian denominations tend to focus more on the equivalent of “Zion-building” in their theologies and leave it to God to sort out who are the sheep and who are the goats.

    Excellent post.

  3. Beth says:

    You make a very interesting point. However, Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches are classified as Christian, even though they have doctrines that vary considerably from, say, Catholicism and most American Protestantism. Coptic Christians, for example, believe that humans will become Gods. Mormons are usually excluded because they do not believe that God, Christ, and the holy spirit are one being. Prior to the Nicene Creed (and also afterward) there were many who did not subscribe to this philosophy and they were still considered Christians. The famous St. Nicolas punched someone on the council because he did not subscribe to the Holy Trinity idea.

    There are many flavors and variations in Christianity today, all with differing doctrines and philosophies and opinions. Yet we call them all “Christian.” Why not Mormons?

    I propose that Mormons refusing to call the Polygamists Mormon is unlike Catholics refusing to call Mormons Christian. Catholics still call Baptists, Lutherans, and Congregationalists Christian because the definition of Christian is pretty broad. But the definition of what makes one Mormon is very well-defined. Namely: alignment with the current prophet in Salt Lake: Modern Revelation, Temples, and all that. There are other differences among the sects, of course, but that one is the most notable.

    • sethbryant says:

      Beth,

      I was doing a little reading in the former appendix of the Community of Christ D&C. What was Appendix A, and before that Section 107, states this: “for I [the Lord] deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world; things that pertain to the dispensation of the fullness of times” (App A:13b; LDS 124:41).

      I think it’s fitting that Community of Christ moved this to an appendix in 1970, and removed it altogether from the scriptural canon by conference action in 1990.

      Community of Christ is not comfortable moving beyond a Christian foundation, yet has much less trouble giving up or moving beyond what Smith did in Nauvoo (and which Young codified in Utah). The removal of Appendix A, with its ultra-Christian ideas not limited to that quoted above, is a clear example of this.

      However, many CofC members seem, to me, to fail to grasp the envelope-pushing ramifications of a Temple, modern revelation including the Book of Mormon, and a prophet-led church which have been and continue to be part of the DNA of the Restoration–not since Nauvoo but almost if not day one.

      Let me pause there, and offer another but a related response to your comments: the apostolic foundation of the Coptic Church is historical fact. The church may be different, but it is part of the conversation and tradition, and has been for a very long time.

      Unlike the Coptic Church which is very interested in continuity without rupture, Mormonism makes it living off of severing the conversation and tradition and then joining it back together in its own way with new elements. It’s apostolic foundation is a matter of faith, not history. Further, the God of Mormonism “deigns” to add things which other Christians don’t have, and which have never been had on the earth until now.

      You may (or may not?) think Mormonism is the most true, or the only true form of Christianity–but it shouldn’t be too difficult to understand why other Christians have a hard time accepting this. Its claims are all faith based, and history will never be able to back it up–until and unless Thomas Monson announces the Savior as presiding officer of the LDS General Conference.

      Both suspending and learning from one’s commitments as a Mormon might make it easier to understand Christianity’s reticence in extending full fellowship to Mormonism. You have all sorts of reasons why fundamentalists aren’t Mormon, but don’t see any good reason why Mormons shouldn’t be recognized as Christians. Yes, the two are different–but not that much different that we can’t hold them up in tension.

      Don’t tell me that I’m the only one who sees just a little irony and even hypocrisy in most Mormons demanding other Christians call them “Christian” while at the same time demanding that the rest of the world not call fundamentalists “Mormon.”

      If you can brand Mormonism, and then exclude a marginal group based on a litmus test that the majority administers, then the same can apply to Christianity as well. (Frankly, I’m more of a live-and-let-live sort of guy, but I realize that many believe that there will be hell to pay for blurring the boundaries of the one true church and salvation).

      As to Christianity having more wiggle room than Mormonism, I’ve got to respectfully disagree.

      The bottom line, applicable to Saints of all stripes, is that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. At some point, you’ve got some and perhaps many concessions to make it you want to sit at the table with the Christians as a fully accepted sister church. My question is this: What are those concessions going to be, and are they even feasible without destroying your integrity? I’m not talking about blurring the boundaries of salvation (although others certainly will be), but the boundaries of a people, a movement, a history, a religion, an identity, and a worldview. And what do you get in return should such be undertaken?

      Community of Christ finds itself in the midst of this dialogue.

      On the other hand, I think that the LDS Church’s official position is a sort of monologue to the rest of Christianity, and as such doesn’t anticipate, want, or need an answer other than rejection.

      Although other Mormons have begun dialogue in unofficial or quasi-official ways, if the church leaders really wanted to come to the table to talk, perhaps they would do best to argue for Mormonism as being a form of belief in Christ rather than a form of salvation through Christ. It’s a starting point, for even the devils believe in Christ, but, presumably, aren’t saved for such belief (James 2:19). Or, perhaps, devils are beyond redemption, but any human who truly believes will be saved. These sorts of conundrums and closed doors are why I envy Doug Gregory’s comment and candor (see above, Comment 1).

      Does it really matter if anyone but Christ accepts us as Christians? That’s not rhetorical, by the way.

      • FireTag says:

        Good comment, Seth. I agree that it doesn’t matter if anyone but Christ accepts us as Christian. But I would then ask WHY we are motivated within the CofChrist to take our place as a sister church. There does come a point at which it IS moving beyond the foundations of Christianity which is important to the whole concept of “envelope-stretching”.

        We believe in continuing revelation only to the extent we DON’T say, “Me, too.” but say “this is new”, i.e., “never revealed from the foundation of the world.”

        Maybe we need to affirm more what Jusus is doing than discuss what the church ought to be doing. I would suggest that the difference between an Apostolic church and a Prophetic church is largely that the latter expects God to lead it beyond the foundations of its tradition. Jesus isn’t back in 1st Century Judea, nor just out there at the end of time; He’s actively fashioning history today.

      • Beth says:

        I enjoyed reading your comment. It gave me some insight into the Community of Christ that I didn’t have before.

        I think it all depends, then, on how you can define “Christian” and “Mormon.” Are Mormons people who affirm the 13 Articles of Faith? If so, Polygamists could be classified as Mormon (even though the 11th article of faith talks about being subject to the laws of the land; polygamy is illegal in the US) while C of C members would not. After reading some information on the Community of Christ’s official website, I would be far more inclined to group the Community of Christ in with “Traditional” Christianity than with Mormonism.

        I also think that for the most part, adherence to principles and tenants of their faith are more important to Mormons than whether other people think they’re Christian. I don’t think they’ll give up their beliefs just to be in the “Christian Club.”

  4. sethbryant says:

    FireTag–all good points, especially about continuing revelation as part of a prophetic church being alive and meeting the challenges of the 21c. But, let me push back a little and ask two questions:

    First, how much of continuing revelation is only applicable to our body? How much of it does and says things that other Christians have not done or said? Do you expect a Section 76 revelation anytime soon, or new new light hid from the foundation of the world?

    Second, could it not be a good thing to shed Restoration insularity inherent in not dialoging and working with other Christians? Isn’t there something to be said for allowing Christ’s intercessory prayer (John 17:21) to become active and alive across denominational boundaries, to unite all of His believers?

  5. FireTag says:

    Seth:

    Since 1830, the world has gone through a full revolution in thought about biology (evolution) and maybe a second (molecular biology); in the earth sciences, we’ve had plate tectonics to reorient our understanding of the permanence of the continents and oceans themselves; in physics we’ve had two full revolutions, relativity, and quantum mechanics that change our relationship to space and time itself. In 1830, did psychology even exist? Whole new systems of government and economics have been invented and tried. My wife is the artist, but I think she always expects new music to be written.

    It seems to me that religion, almost uniquely among all human endeavors is the one that has fallen into the trap of trying to “domesticate” the notion of revelation and preserve what has been given rather than seeking more light.

    So, my answer to your first question is yes. I don’t expect theologies devised when people thought stars were a few holes in the sky and the earth was flat to stand up. I don’t expect what emerges will necessarily be a “scientific” religion; the cultures of the third world that are increasingly becoming the core of Christianity often see spirits as impinging upon the physical world very differently than we in the West do, for example.

    As to your second question, there is a hidden assumption there which I think invalidates the framework of the question. The assumption is that Christ relates to the world primarily through CHURCHES. So the CHURCHES tell us. I don’t think its about the insularity of the Restoration vs. the ecumenism of working with other churches. I think its about the insularity of religion seeing itself as the “body” instead of performing one of many necessary functions for the true “body of Christ”, the planetary entity being built over billions of years into what we call Zion.

  6. Doug Gregory says:

    Guess I will jump back in here…

    Seems to me there is a large element of “what I say unto one, I say unto all” in revelation that we have received. It seems to me that revelation is applicable to all, but the interpretation of God’s self-revealing is where we get stuck. Would it not be wonderful to have access to all of God’s revelation, as I’m sure most of us would agree that God does not limit self-disclosure to the people we happen to be aware of.

    Sharing revelation with others requires an openness and freedom of judgment or superiority on both sides. My belief is that institutions are developed to protect themselves at any cost, thus precluding input that threatens the institution. You may have Catholics that believe in latter-day revelation, but Rome never will, just as there may be CofC’s that see beauty in various creeds while the denomination is against creeds.

    As much as I marvel at the progress of mankind in its consideration of the world around us and of our perspective on God, that acknowledgement always makes me understand how far away we remain in both areas.

    Oh, to have a truly open mind and spirit unencumbered by my physical surroundings and social underpinnings that I might better see the truth all around me! The truly prophetic among us somehow seem able to peel away these wrappings long enough for the light of truth to break through and create understanding. What a gift…

    • FireTag says:

      “My belief is that institutions are developed to protect themselves at any cost, thus precluding input that threatens the institution.”

      That brings out what I was trying to get at. Where I am in my thinking is:

      1. God did establish the Restoration as part of His larger purpose for humanity.

      2. That purpose does not NECESSARILY require the preservation or expansion of the institutional Community of Christ; it MIGHT even require its institutional martyrdom at some point.

      3. If God does want the preservation and expansion of our institution, He’s relying on mechanisms other than our institutional efforts to bring that about; NOTHING we have done institutionally affects our size positively or negatively, and has not done so for at least 130 years.

      4.Attempting to preserve ourselves institutionally, when we do not control that, often leads us to do great harm, of which we need to repent.

  7. John Hamer says:

    This isn’t actually going to be an esoteric question for Community of Christ. Because of D&C 164, Community of Christ isn’t just sitting on the sidelines with popcorn watching to see if the Pope or the Southern Baptist Convention decide to recognize members of the LDS Church as Christian. The emerging policies regarding how and which baptisms are recognized as Christian and valid make this a very practical question for Community of Christ.

  8. chris says:

    The mormon-polygamist angle doesn’t work.
    If I were to say I were a Baptist, you’d have a problem with that, and rightly so. But still, I practice baptism. Regardless, I am not a Baptist.

    It’s just as uncharitable for a Catholic to tell a Baptist, they are not Christian because they do not accept the Catholic notions and long traditions of Christianity (and vice versa) than it is for a group of Catholics, Baptists, etc. to call Mormons non-Christian because we don’t accept their notions and long-held traditions of Christianity.

    We disagree. That is fundamental, and it is why we belong to different religions. But make no mistake, even though you appear to relish in doing so, a Mormon is a Christian, a Baptist is Christian, etc.

    Your arguments are built upon shaky foundations in this area, as you misapply the concept of religious denomination to the overall tree of Christianity.

    The early Christian churches were experiencing this stress in Paul’s time, and it was very clear by 400AD that different denominations of Christianity were emerging, and again this occurred in 1100AD, and again in 1500AD. It’s strange to me why this are all Christian, but another schism, which occurred a few hundred years later in 1800AD, is suddenly “not Christian”, while those in 1500 are.

    Do you think the Catholics of the 1600s believed the protestants were Christian? I think not, because they were killing each other by the tens of thousands. It’s not surprising, but a bit saddening, frankly, that a few hundred years later, we have the same attitude (fortunately with less murderous zeal) being applied again.

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