“A Genuine Follower of Jesus Christ”

Are Mormons Christian?

(Or, rather, are Latter-day Saints Christian?)

There have been a lot of variations of this question over the years (including the inverse, “Are Christians Mormon?” perhaps asked first by Truman Madsen). It’s a question I’ve always felt very strongly about, though my position has evolved over time.

In 2011, I was in my mid-20s. The Republican primaries were getting a bit intense, and once again Latter-day Saints had “a guy” in the race. Mitt Romney, a prominent member of the Church, was a serious contender for the party nomination. Whether or not you were a member of the Republican party, it made things exciting!

Some Republicans were less thrilled at the prospect of Romney seizing the nomination, including fellow presidential hopeful Rick Perry. It was that same Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, who was about to speak at the Values Voter Summit in October of 2011. But first, Perry was introduced by Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the “legendary” (his words) First Baptist Church of Dallas.

In his introductory remarks, Jeffress told his audience conservative Christians were looking for a candidate with “a genuine commitment to Biblical values.” The implication, of course, was Perry fit the bill and other candidates did not. He asked, “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person” – in other words, Romney – “or do we want a candidate who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?” Jeffress affirmed Perry, unlike Romney, was a “genuine follower of Jesus Christ.”

Smoothie Jeffress

This bothered me greatly, and it didn’t stop there.

Jeffress, perhaps emboldened by the applause, continued his crusade against Romney’s beliefs once he left the stage. Answering a question posed about Mormonism and Romney, he offered much more directly, “That is not some right-wing fringe view, that Mormonism is a cult. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the world, has labeled Mormonism as a cult. So that is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult. I believe Romney…is not a born-again follower of Christ.” He added, “I believe that every true, born-again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” Only if he had no other choice would he “hold my nose and vote for Mitt Romney.”

Was Mormonism a cult? “Absolutely.” Was Romney a Christian? “No,” he answered, and then quickly added, “Again, this is not some extreme view; this is the view of historical Christianity.”

(Hearing this vitriol impacted me greatly. Jeffress’ maintains a syndicated radio show I hear come on from time to time, and to this day I can’t stand the sounds of his voice.)

Shortly afterward, Jeffress – perhaps taking a cue from the Perry campaign’s obvious disdain for his remarks – began to backtrack from the force with which he originally offered those remarks (he was handled somewhat aggressively by Anderson Cooper). Unfortunately, he wasn’t exactly wrong when he suggested believing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be unchristian is “not some extreme view.”

Are Latter-day Saints Christian? Not everyone is as caustic as Jeffress, but it’s not uncommon for reasonable people to end up on different sides of that question. How can that be?

It turns out that this simple question is not so simple.

What is Christianity?

So what qualifies someone to call themselves a Christian?

In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argued for the importance of clearly defining words by giving a brief history of the word gentlemen. Once upon a time, gentleman meant someone who had a coat of arms and some landed property. Now, though, the term is used more as a compliment – someone who does something you like is behaving like a gentleman, and someone who does something you don’t like is not. As a result, the word has become quite useless if anyone tries to use it in its original sense. As Lewis says, “it has been spoiled for that purpose.”

Lewis consequently concluded it was important to define who is a Christian so that term did not become useless. Otherwise, like gentlemen, it will simply be used as a compliment. Lewis suggests:

“We must, therefore, stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts xi. 26) to ‘the disciples’, to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles.”

Where do Latter-day Saints line up on the question of Christian discipleship and adherence to the testimony of Jesus shared by the apostles? Joseph Smith taught:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”

Are we Christian? Of course! Latter-day Saints wholeheartedly accept the teachings of the original apostles. You could argue we’re even more accepting than is mainstream Christianity.

Days before Jeffress slandered Latter-day Saints, Elder M. Russell Ballard spoke about the importance of the name of our Church. He was not the first to do so (and he wasn’t the last, was he?). He said,

“The name the Savior has given to His Church tells us exactly who we are and what we believe. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior and the Redeemer of the world. He atoned for all who would repent of their sins, and He broke the bands of death and provided the resurrection from the dead. We follow Jesus Christ. And as King Benjamin said to his people, so I reaffirm to all of us today: “Ye should remember to retain [His] name written always in your hearts” (Mosiah 5:12).”

Google suggests a Christian is “a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings.” I can tell you what we believe, but you may want to investigate further on your own. I can make that easier, and give you a starting point or two:

That’s a fair start. If you can make it through those resources, and then use them as a springboard to find others, you will have a solid understanding of what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes about the Savior, whose name we bear.

It’s reasonable to agree, using Lewis’ and Google’s definitions, Latter-day Saints are Christian.

Unfortunately, that’s not the question many are after. When they ask whether Latter-day Saints are Christian, they really mean, “Are you like us?”

And we’re not, are we?

The Restored Gospel

As you know, a great deal happened in the Christian world before the vision of Joseph Smith.

There were church fathers, creeds (such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, or the Athanasian Creed), schisms, crusades, a reformation, and a number of awakenings (among a great many other events). This doesn’t even touch the development of “essential” doctrines like the Trinity, biblical infallibility and sufficiency, and gaining salvation. When mainstream Christians ask about the Christianity of Latter-day Saints, the definition of “Christian” includes both this rich history and these core doctrines. Latter-day Saints patently reject these in favor of what we believe is a restoration of the ancient Christian church.

These elements may not be part of a formal definition of what makes someone a Christian but are often considered important qualifications. When that happens, it’s not even an effort at trying to be exclusive. Rather, mainstream Christians, like C. S. Lewis before them, are simply trying to create a useful definition. Part of what makes mainstream Christianity “mainstream” is an adherence to these elements, and Latter-day Saints simply don’t fit into that mold. There’s no arguing with that.

But – and here’s the crux of the whole matter – we shouldn’t want to argue with that! It’s weird when we do!

In some of the best paragraphs ever written by man, Joseph Fielding McConkie describes this issue. He writes:

“Our inconsistencies may be more apparent to others than they are to us. A letter recently addressed to the editor of a Utah Valley newspaper by a local pastor illustrates this point. Bearing the title “On Common Ground,” it chided Latter-day Saints for not knowing where they stood. “Most Mormons I meet,” the minister wrote, “seem to be looking for common ground with the Christian community at large. Mormonism then relates to the outside world in two ways. On the one hand, there is the desire for acceptance, the desire to be able to say, ‘We are Christians too.’ [The not-too-subtle implication here is that Mormons are not Christians.] On the other hand, there is the actual theology of Mormonism that grows out of the idea of the Apostasy and the belief that the LDS Church is the restoration of Christ’s one true Church. This theology motivates the missionary movement of the LDS Church, which seeks to win converts from churches that are a part of apostate Christianity. The two different approaches are not compatible. What I find myself asking is why the LDS Church is so intent on finding common ground with the very churches it considers to be apostate? Why does it seek acceptance from the very people it seeks to convert?

“The minister’s criticism is a little embarrassing. It gives us the feeling that we have been caught. Certainly we want to avoid giving offense and of course we want to be accepted as Christians, but at what cost? Should we trade our birthright to be thought acceptable by a corrupted form of Christianity? And what becomes of our faith if we embrace the notion that we are sharing common ground with the churches of the world? In religion classes that I teach at Brigham Young University, I have found with some consistency that if I say, “We are members of the only true and living Church on the face of the earth,” not even a ripple passes through the classroom. If, on the other hand, I say, “We believe all other churches to be false,” I can expect someone to take offense at my intemperate and intolerant expression. It is as if we thought we could stand for something without being against anything. It is as if we could pick up one side of a stick while leaving the other undisturbed.

The message of the Restoration centers on the idea that it is not common ground we seek in sharing the gospel. There is nothing common about our message. The way we answer questions about our faith ought to be by finding the quickest and most direct route to the Sacred Grove. That is our ground. It is sacred ground. It is where the heavens are opened and the God of heaven speaks. It is where testimonies are born and the greatest truths of heaven are unveiled. It is of this sacred ground that we say, here we stand.

Do Latter-day Saints believe in Jesus Christ? Of course! As a church, “we bear testimony…Jesus is the Living Christ, the immortal Son of God. He is the great King Immanuel, who stands today on the right hand of His Father. He is the light, the life, and the hope of the world. His way is the path that leads to happiness in this life and eternal life in the world to come. God be thanked for the matchless gift of His divine Son” (The Living Christ).

But we believe differently than other Christians, and the difference is wonderful.

I believe in a Jesus Christ that appeared to Israelites in the Americas, showing to them as well as other scattered tribes He indeed had died for them and had been resurrected (See 3 Nephi 11; also 3 Nephi 11-30). I believe in a Jesus Christ who is a separate and distinct personage from the Father and the Holy Ghost (D&C 130:22), and whose Plan of Salvation allows us to become like Him (D&C 132:1-24). I believe in a Jesus Christ who appeared to answer the prayer of a 14-year-old boy and end the dark night of apostasy and confusion that had swept over the world since the death of the apostles (see Joseph Smith – History; see also Church History). I believe in a Jesus Christ who stands at the head of a living church, leading it today through a modern prophet.

These assertions do not fit the tiny and exclusive mold set up by mainstream Christianity to define what qualifies as “Christian”. And that is okay.

Supplemental Reading:

You can follow Danny on Twitter @backfromthat. Also, check out his fabulous blog.

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