Skip to comments.Who Gets to Define "Christian"?
Posted on 07/13/2007 7:28:01 PM PDT by restornu
Each time a group of Christians comes up with an unfamiliar way of understanding the scriptures and our relationship with God, there are other Christians who are quick to insist that anyone who believes like that cant really be Christian.
Much blood has been shed over these doctrinal differences; wars have been fought, boundaries have been changed, and people have gone into exile.
Whether it was the often bloody struggle between Arians and Athanasians, between Lutherans and Catholics, between the Church of England and the Puritans, people have been willing, it seems, to die, to kill, and to deprive others of their rights as citizens over differences of Christian belief.
In America, though, we long ago decided though not easily to put such things behind us. Many states refused to ratify the Constitution until it included provisions forbidding one religion to be given preference over others.
Besides the first amendment, there is this statement in Article 6: No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.
This didnt mean that Americans stopped caring about doctrinal differences. Quite the contrary America became a place where, if anything, we talked incessantly about religious differences.
I mean, what would have been the point of open religious discussion in Catholic France or Church-of-England Britain or Lutheran Sweden?
But in America, we agreed that people who had very different ideas of what it meant to be Christian could and must get along without violence.
Well, mostly without violence. There were many places in America where Catholics were not counted as Christians. And when we Mormons came along, well, we were clearly beyond the pale for precisely the reasons that Dr. Mohler outlines (though for other reasons as well).
While Dr. Mohler sometimes couches his summary of our beliefs in terms we would not choose, I am happy that his explanation is generally clear and fair-minded. (His characterization of the Book of Mormons presentation of Christ is the exact opposite of the truth the Book of Mormon makes every single point that he says it does not. But I dont expect him to be an expert on the book, or even to have read it.)
I am also happy to agree with him that when one compares our understanding of the nature of God and Christ, we categorically disagree with almost every statement in the historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations he refers to.
The only major point on which I could criticize Dr. Mohlers essay is that he begged the question in the first and second paragraph.
Christianity is rightly defined in terms of traditional Christian orthodoxy, he says. Thus, we have an objective standard by which to define what is and is not Christian.
In other words, he began the discussion by saying, We win. Therefore we can define anyone who is not us as the losers.
When he defines traditional Christian orthodoxy as the orthodox consensus of the Christian church [as] defined in terms of its historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations he is ignoring the fact that these creeds were the result, not of revelation, but of debate and political maneuvering.
Arians and Athanasians got along about as well as Shiites and Sunnis; the Athanasians generally prevailed by the authority of the Roman state and force of arms. It is hard for us Mormons to understand why ancient force and bloodshed, rather than revelation from God, should be the basis for defining the doctrinal consensus of Christianity today.
Many evangelicals have as many doctrinal problems with calling Catholics Christians as they have with us Mormons. While they accept the (Catholic) creeds insofar as the various Protestant denominations accept them, they reject other Catholic beliefs that were, prior to the Protestant reformation, every bit as orthodox.
Which is why the Catholic (i.e., universal) Church branded the Protestants as heretics, using precisely the kind of arguments that Dr. Mohler is using against us Mormons.
Because Martin Luther (and his fellow Protestant reformers) rejected many parts of the traditional beliefs and practices of the Universal Christian Church as they had been defined for a thousand years in the West, they could not be considered Christians they were heretics, and their ideas were forbidden for any good Christian to hear, let alone believe.
So the Christian world has been down this road before. Thank heaven we live in more tolerant times, where our debate takes place on the internet or from the pulpit or in quiet conversations in peoples homes, instead of on the battlefield or in the courtroom.
But what if we dont let Dr. Mohler define the question in such a way as to specifically exclude Mormons before the debate begins?
What if we define Christians the way most people would: Believers in the divinity of Christ and in the necessity of the grace of Christ in order to be saved in the Kingdom of God.
Or, People who believe Christ is the Son of God and the only way to please God is by following Christs teachings as best you can all your life.
Or how about, People who believe that the New Testament is scripture and that its account of the life, death, resurrection, and teachings of Jesus is true and that we should act accordingly.
We can come up with a lot of definitions that do a much better job of describing what most people mean when they use the word Christian.
How many ordinary Christians actually know or care about the historic creeds and doctrinal affirmations that form Dr. Mohlers definition-of-choice?
I remember, as a Mormon missionary in Brazil, how many times I would explain our doctrine of the nature of God, and the Catholic or Protestant family I was teaching would say, But thats what we believe. And they were telling the truth.
Their theological-seminary-trained priest or minister certainly did not believe what we were teaching, but time after time we found that the ordinary church-going Christian already saw things as we did, and thought that our peculiar doctrines were what their church had always taught.
The theologian is bound to say, Just because ordinary, ignorant Christians dont understand the doctrine of the Trinity does not mean that their ignorance should prevail over our more-sophisticated understanding. I agree completely. When Baptist theologians define Baptist beliefs, it is their privilege to base it on as sophisticated an understanding as they please.
But when we are defining words as they are used in the English language, we all get a vote. Dr. Mohler does not get to speak for all Christians. Nor does he get to speak for all English-speakers. The ordinary meaning of the word Christians definitely includes Mormons; and when you say Mormons are not Christians, most would take that to mean that Mormons do not believe in the divinity of Christ, which would be flat wrong.
Thats why I appreciate the fact that Dr. Mohler made it clear at the start that by Christian he means everybody but the Mormons, so that if we accept his peculiar definition of the word, the argument is, indeed, over.
But it still makes me sad that he would single us out for rejection, when we really ought to be working together.
I remember a few years ago attending a conference with the Templeton Foundation, which brought together scientists, theologians, and science fiction writers to discuss the future of religion in relation to science.
There was only one theologian present, a man highly trained in all those creeds that Dr. Mohler insists define Christianity. As we listened to a group of brilliant scientists and some science fiction writers who, unlike me, were also trained scientists explain with marvelous clarity some highly sophisticated concepts, I was impressed by how eager they were to communicate clearly to be understood.
But when the theologian spoke, he immediately did what the scientists could have done but chose not to he plunged into the jargon of his own intellectual community, deliberately excluding non-experts from the conversation.
However, I had read and studied enough traditional Christian theology and enough deconstructionist and multicultural mumbo-jumbo to know the vocabulary he was using; and the more I listened, the clearer it became that with all his sophistication, this man did not actually believe in the literal existence of the God and Christ described in the New Testament. He didnt even believe in the literal existence of the Trinity described in the Nicene and later creeds.
In fact, as I looked around the table, I realized that I was the only person in that room who believed that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Son of God, and that God created humankind in his image for the purpose of bringing us to a joyful reunion with him, after we had learned to control the desires of the flesh and turn our lives over to him, and after the grace of Christ has cleansed us of our guilt for the many sins we have committed.
He was an ordained minister of the Church of England who did not actually believe in the God of any official Christian creed.
I was an ordinary Mormon, holding no lofty office.
But in that room, I was the only believing Christian.
Yes, Dr. Mohler. You and I disagree on exactly the points you listed in your essay. You are correct in saying that we Mormons completely reject the neoplatonic doctrines that were layered onto Christianity long after the Apostles were gone.
And just as you would put any reference to Mormons as Christians in quotation marks, we Mormons refer to those who believe as you do as Christians in exactly the same way.
Heres the difference. While we have no patience with creeds that owe more to Plato and other Greek philosophers than to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, we do recognize and respect as fellow Christians anyone who confesses that Christ is the Savior of the world.
So I can go to "The Passion of the Christ" and be moved by it, even though Mel Gibsons view of what the passion actually consisted of is very different from the Mormon view. I recognize and respect the sincerity of his faith, and I recognize that despite our doctrinal differences, his faith is in Jesus Christ.
Its like the ancient Hebrew penchant for referring to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They did not try to subject God to the limitations of human understanding; they did not define him in ways that would say more about the limitations of their own minds than about the nature of God.
Their definition, unlike yours, was simply to point to the great fathers of their religion and say, The God they worshiped, thats the God we worship, too.
Can we not define God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit in a similar way? The God that Jesus prayed to, that is the God we pray to. The Jesus Christ of the New Testament, he is the one we believe has suffered to redeem the world from sin. He is the way, the truth, the life, as best we understand what he taught.
That last phrase is a key to our getting along, I think. It is one of the central tenets of Mormon religion that our understanding is not perfect or complete, that we fully expect that many of our present ideas are incorrect, and we look forward to a day when we will be ready to receive a better understanding.
In the meantime, we do our best with what light and knowledge we have received. We might be in error. So might you. We all struggle to puzzle out things that are, in fact, beyond the ken of mortal minds.
The points of disagreement between us are not insignificant. In fact, theyre so important that we do not recognize the efficacy of baptism performed by any other denomination, and anyone joining our church must be baptized for the first time, we believe regardless of any previous Christian baptism they might have received.
In other words, at the level of religious practice we believe that we are the only Christians who act and speak with the authority of Christ today. So we can hardly take offense when Dr. Mohler and many other ministers and priests of other Christian churches return the favor and refuse to recognize us as Christians of their communities.
On the level of theology, doctrine, practice, ritual, and even history, we Mormons stand alone, neither Protestant nor Catholic. Just as Lutherans and Baptists and Presbyterians generally dont accept the authority of the Pope, we dont accept the authority of anybody except those that we believe hold the keys of the Kingdom of God on earth today.
And so when we send out our missionaries to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ as we understand it, it is perfectly fair for Baptist ministers and Catholic priests and any other religious leader to point out to their congregants precisely what we point out to them that our beliefs are very different from theirs.
They call us wrong; we call ourselves right.
But thats a matter of private belief and conscience. Those who put our religion to the test and come to believe in it dont do so because we fooled them into thinking we believe just like Dr. Mohler.
If that was our message, who would join us? They could join the Baptist Church and accomplish as much (and it would be cheaper and easier, given the way we Mormons tithe and abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea, and tobacco).
We openly state that we teach a version of Christianity radically different from all others. We proclaim it.
But lets remember now why we are having this discussion. Its because Mitt Romney is running for President of the United States, and Mitt Romney is a Mormon.
Mitt Romney is not running for Pope of America, or Head Rabbi, or Minister-in-Chief. He is not running for any religious office. He is a citizen of this country, who has a distinguished record of achievement in business and government, asking people to vote for him to become the leader of our country and, perforce, the leader of the free world.
His religious beliefs are not irrelevant. Far from it. Americans should care very much about religious beliefs that will affect how a president would fulfill the duties of his office.
Heres a man who is faithful to his wife, without a breath of scandal associated with him; he is a devoted father and grandfather; he tithes to his church; he doesnt smoke or drink and never has. In other words, he not only claims to be a member of a particular church, he lives by the standards of that church.
I think that matters a great deal. It means hes not a hypocrite, pretending to be religious when he needs the votes. He has put in the time, made the sacrifices he has walked the walk.
So when Mitt Romney says, I believe this is the right thing to do, and Im going to do it, then American voters can be reasonably confident that he really does believe it and he really will do it.
Thats something that I would look for about any candidate, from any religious tradition. Does he live by what his religion teaches? Or is he a member in name only?
His profession of membership in a Church gives us a way to find out about the standards of good and evil, of right and wrong, that his religion teaches. Where I would be worried is when we have a candidate who does not profess any religion, or does not live up to the standards of the religion he professes.
How then would we find out what he really believes? What his standards are? How well he keeps his commitments? Its not impossible to determine that even with people whose religious commitments are, shall we say, skin deep. Certainly, for instance, it wasnt hard to find out what Bill Clintons standards of truth-telling and word-keeping were before he was elected; he absolutely performed exactly as his past behavior had given us reason to expect. We got what we voted for.
So by all means look at Mitt Romneys religion, and how well he has lived up to it. Its a fair test.
But dont look at his religion as if it were a complete guide to how he would perform as president. There are those who fear a Romney presidency because somebodys been telling them that Mormonism is a cult and they think Romney would get all his instructions from Salt Lake City or from what he imagined God might whisper to him.
May I suggest that before you leap to that conclusion, you consider carefully: Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is also a Mormon. As far as I know, hes a Mormon in good standing. And hes a Democrat a liberal Democrat, on most issues.
If Salt Lake City is telling Mormon politicians what to do, theyre sure giving Harry Reid a different set of instructions from those theyve been giving to Mitt Romney.
Like Harry Reid, Im a Democrat. If my own party nominates somebody that I think would make a better president than Mitt Romney, Ill vote for the Democrat. If my party doesnt, and the Republican Party nominates Romney, I might well vote for him.
It wont be because hes a Mormon. Itll be for a whole range of reasons his political views, his announced plans, and my assessment of his character. And that assessment wont be based on mere membership in the same Church as me. It will be based on how well I think he lives up to the commitments that Mormons make.
You dont have to be a Mormon to use those standards.
Now, what if you are an American citizen who absolutely hates every Mormon doctrine youve heard about?
My advice is: Dont join the Mormon Church if you feel that way. But what does it have to do with choosing a president?
Dr. Mohler has gone on record elsewhere as advising evangelical Christians not to vote for Mitt Romney, even though hes the candidate whose life practices and whose professed beliefs are the closest to fitting the political agenda of many or perhaps most evangelicals.
Why? Because he fears that the election of Mitt Romney will lend legitimacy to Mormonism.
Guess what, Dr. Mohler. Mormonism has legitimacy. Millions of American citizens already believe in it. And not the dumbest American citizens, either. Were above average in our education. Were also above average in our religious activity, our charitable donations, our marital fidelity, and the time we spend with our families. We try to be good neighbors and good friends.
We are as legitimate, as citizens and therefore as potential officeholders, as anybody else in America. Because there is no religious test for holding office in America.
And if you try to impose one, by saying that all persons belonging to this or that religion should never be elected president, then who is it who is rejecting the U.S. Constitution? Who is it who is saying that people with certain beliefs are second-class citizens, for no other reason than their religion?
I urge all evangelicals Christians who are worried about a Mormon as president to consider this:
What if somebody were saying that no evangelical Christian should be elected president, solely on the basis of his religious beliefs?
Oh wait they already are.
Think about it. How often has President Bush been mocked because he believes he was born again? How often have his critics ridiculed him because he believes that when he prays, God hears him and even, sometimes, answers?
How many have, in effect, claimed that evangelical Christians have no business holding the office of President that they are unfit for such a vital public trust precisely because of their beliefs about how God and human beings interact?
We Mormons dont agree with you on many vital points of doctrine. But I hope we all agree with each other about this: In a time when a vigorous atheist movement is trying to exclude religious people from participating in American public life unless they promise never to mention or think about their religion while in office, why are we arguing with each other?
You dont want your kids to join the Mormon Church; well, I dont want mine to join the Baptist Church, either. Thats because you think youre right about your religion, and I think Im right about mine.
But I would rather vote for a believing Baptist who lives up to his faith than for a Mormon who doesnt take his religion seriously or keep the commandments hes been taught.
And vice versa. Dont you feel that way, too?
Well, St. Paul set the standard. “If anyone comes to with a gospel other than the one I preach, even an angel” etc. So let’s see if someone comes up to you with golden tablets and wings and subtle (or radical) changes to the gospel and its theology/christology, you’re still supposed to say, “uh no thanks.”
That said, the church fathers raised the bar a little higher. Even translators of the bible who twist the meanings from the original traditions(i.e gnostics, et. al.) are anathema (c.f. Tertullian)
Pretty clearly, therefore, Mohammed, Charles Taze Russell, L. Ron Hubbard, and other “new religion” founders would be “not Christian.”
Sorry Mr. Card.
I vote according to a person’s political beliefs and his personal trustworthiness and character. Theology is not a political issue. So this is interesting and everything (Mormons are not Christians in any orthodox sense of the term), but it is too bad he ended it the way he did. I find Romney politically untrustworthy and that’s why I will not vote for him.
If you honestly study Gal 1 you will see Paul talked about his time as he conversed with the Lord who altered Paul that his words were being changed as they spoke and than Paul said that he received the Lord's Gospel directly.
6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
10 For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
11 But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.
12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ
The Lord is speaking currently not in the future but Paul's present.
So, according to you, Paul wrote the Revelation of St. John the Divine?
Since the god of Mormonism is not the God of the Bible, Mormonism is not, by definition, Christian...it is not orthodox.
You are assigning your personal assumptions to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints which still does not make it so no matter how many join you!:)
Is the Trinity Biblical?
Oh, oh, oh, I know the answer to this question.
It’s Shirley Dobson.
“In fact, as I looked around the table, I realized that I was the only person in that room who believed that Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Son of God, and that God created humankind in his image for the purpose of bringing us to a joyful reunion with him, after we had learned to control the desires of the flesh and turn our lives over to him, and after the grace of Christ has cleansed us of our guilt for the many sins we have committed.”
Hey, that’s what I believe, too. Yahoo!
Question: Are Elohim and Jesus of the same essence with the Holy Spirit?
I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is my personal Savior and the Savior of the whole world. Heavenly Father sent His Son Jesus Christ to suffer and die for me and the Holy Ghost tells me it’s true. Now, when you say that I do not believe in the same God as you do, what exactly do you mean? Are you saying that the same Jesus Christ who died for you did not die for me?
I love my Church. I was baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
I am sick and tired of people telling me what they have heard about Mormons - repeating stuff that is not true. But it’s a free country.
I have a question for you: What would Jesus do? I suppose you think He would fashion a whip and beat me to death with it. My Jesus loves and cares for me and I love Him with all my heart. He is the way, the truth and the life. No man, or woman for that matter, will return to Heavenly Father except by Him, Jesus Christ.
You think I’m deceived and I am worried about you. I guess we’re even. Only God knows our hearts.
I have been studying the LDS for over thirty years...I am not ignorant of your teaching.
Thank you for posting this. I enjoyed reading it. Very insightful.
Many’s the time during LDS meetings and events when members of our Church have complimented the faith and service of people from other Churches - for example Mother Theresa, who was just about as perfect as a Christian can be.
I was very touched last General Conference when President Faust told us to look to the Amish community as an example to follow regarding forgiveness.
There’s a lady I know who’s a Baptist and she is a real good person, a sweetheart. One day she said to me, “You’re not a Christian.” After I explained that I believe that Jesus Christ died to save me from my sins, that He is my Savior, she apologized. We are Sisters in Christ.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God; He said so and that’s good enough for me. I believe the Bible. Jesus laid it all out there for us.
Elohim is God the Father and Jehovah of the Old Testament is Jesus Christ.
And this is exactly where orthodox Christianity differs with LDS...biblical Christianity teaches that Elohim and YHWH (Jehovah is a non-word)are one in the same - two of many names for God. They are not two different Persons.
There are even times when God is called YHWH Elohim.