What with the recent controversy over a certain Texas Evangelical minister accusing a certain high-profile Mormon of being a non-Christian — because Mormonism is, according to this minister, a non-Christian cult — I thought I’d briefly address this criticism that has been repeated ad nauseum for the past two hundred years: are Mormons Christian?
The Problems with the Evangelical Definition of “Christian”
In order to accuse Mormons of being non-Christian, one has to define exactly what “Christian” means. In this instance Christianity cannot simply mean a professed follower of Jesus Christ (as the dictionary defines it), because obviously Mormons claim to follow Jesus Christ. Nor can it simply mean that one believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind; obviously Mormons believe this as well. In order to exclude Mormons from Christianity, one has to create an extended and slightly convuluted definition of what constitutes a “Christian.”
Among Evangelicals, this definition typically includes adherance to several Protestant doctrines, including especially sola scriptura (lit. “scripture alone,” and here “scripture” refers exclusively to the Bible) and salvation by faith alone. Mormons of course reject both of these and therefore do not fit into that narrow definition of “Christianity” that some Evangelicals seek to impose.
I could spend more pages than anyone wants to read explaining why those doctrines have no real biblical basis. But for our purposes let it be sufficient to say that the large majority of Christians in the world are not Protestants, and they are certainly not Evangelical Protestants — the majority of the world’s Christians are Catholics and Orthodox, and the majority of history’s Christians have been overwhelmingly Catholic and Orthodox. And neither Catholic nor Orthodox Christians believe the first two doctrines on the Protestant list given above: both of these ancient churches reject the relatively-modern ideas of sola scriptura and salvation by faith alone. It should be pointed out that there is no evidence of either of those beliefs ever being publicly professed by a Christian — and certainly never given as a prerequisite for what constitutes a “Christian” — until the years preceding the Protestant Reformation in Europe in the fifteenth century. That means, according to those who would exclude Mormons from Christianity for these reasons (such as the Evangelical pastor currently making headlines), that there were no “real” Christians until the years before the Reformations began in Europe during the 1400s. Are Evangelicals really prepared to claim that there were no “true” Christians for over a thousand years?
One cannot easily create a definition of “Christian” that excludes Mormons but does not also exclude most of the professed-Christians who have lived since the time of Jesus. Even Saint Peter himself would not qualify as a Christian according to the definition spouted by many Evangelical leaders.
Jesus Christ & The Book of Mormon
It strikes Mormons as particularly ironic that we might be considered non-Christian because we adhere to the Book of Mormon in addition to the Bible since the central theme of the Book of Mormon is its testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of mankind. In one early Book of Mormon passage, an ancient prophet points out Christ’s importance to the ancient Book of Mormon people: “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26). A page of the Book of Mormon rarely passes without a mention of Christ. On its title page, the Book of Mormon declares that its express purpose is “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that JESUS is the CHRIST, the ETERNAL GOD, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
For one to claim that our belief in the Book of Mormon — a book devoted completely to teaching people about Jesus Christ — would qualify us as non-Christian seems simply absurd to those who know anything about the book.
What Do Mormons Believe about Jesus?
It might be helpful to briefly point out what exactly Mormons do believe about Jesus Christ, including where our beliefs might differ from those of traditional Christians. Mormons believe in the Bible, and therefore they believe what the Bible teaches about Jesus. Below I will name the major Mormon beliefs that agree with traditional Christian beliefs regarding Jesus. After that I will mention beliefs that Mormons have about Jesus that other Christians may not share.
- Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem to the Virgin Mary. He is the Son of God.
- Jesus Christ lived a mortal life as described in the New Testament Gospels.
- Jesus Christ was crucified for the sins of the world. Because of his sacrifice, we can be forgiven of our sins and return to the Father.
- Jesus Christ was resurrected after three days in the tomb, as both he and the ancient prophets prophesied.
- Jesus Christ appeared to his Apostles, Mary Magdalene, and other disciples after his resurrection. He also later appeared to Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.
- Jesus Christ now sits exalted on the right hand of the Father.
- Jesus Christ will return to the earth in the last days to reign in glory.
This second list are additional beliefs that Mormons have about Jesus that may not be shared by traditional Christians:
- Jesus Christ is a distinct being and exists independently from God the Father and the Holy Ghost. They are perfectly united in purpose and desire, but they are three separate beings.
- Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and we (you and I) are also children of God. Because of this, Jesus is considered our elder brother.
- Before he was born to Mary, Jesus Christ was Jehovah/Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament. It was Jesus Christ as Jehovah who appeared to Moses and other prophets and gave them commandments.
- The Atonement of Jesus Christ did not happen instantly when he died on the cross; the process began when he suffered in Gethsemane and sweated drops of blood.
- After his resurrection, Jesus Christ appeared to other peoples once he had appeared to his Apostles and other disciples in Palestine. One of these peoples were the Nephites who lived anciently in the Americas, the account of which is recorded in the Book of Mormon.
- In the early 1820s, Jesus Christ appeared to the boy Joseph Smith and instructed him not to join any of the contemporary American churches.
Are the differences in belief regarding Jesus between Mormons and mainstream Christians vast enough to exclude us from being Christians? Do the few differences really outweigh the overwhelming similarities that exist?
The Centrality of Jesus Christ within Mormonism
Whether or not one wants to include Mormonism under their restrictive label of “Christianity,” no one can honestly claim that faith in Christ is not the most important aspect of Mormonism and the foundation of every Mormon’s belief. Jesus of Nazareth is the center and immovable focus of Mormonism and our belief in him is the corner stone of our religion. Every other doctrine, teaching, ritual, and ordinance that Mormons believe or practice can rightly be considered appendages to our belief in Jesus Christ.
It is after the name of Jesus Christ that God has named our Church — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; it is in the name of Christ that we end every single one of our prayers and blessings; and it is his sacred name that we take upon ourselves every Sunday when we eat and drink the bread and water that represents his flesh and blood. The Bible was written to bring the knowledge of Christ and his mission to the world; Mormons believe the Bible and they believe what it teaches about Christ, and we believe that the Book of Mormon was written to convince people that Jesus truly is the Son of God. The modern prophets of Mormonism testify that Christ still lives and that it is to him that we should look for comfort and purpose.
Mormons are as Christian as any Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, or Copt: we do and will always profess Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and the Savior of our souls. It is in Jesus Christ that we have all of our faith and hope, and when we finally meet him, we Mormons will fall and worship at our Savior’s feet, those same feet that were pierced two-thousand years ago to save us from both sin and death. When that occurs, I hope that our fellow worshipers do not still consider us to not be true followers of our Savior — but if they do, I do not think that we still mind much.
And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of [Jesus Christ], this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father.
Joseph Smith, a modern prophet of God