This is a post continuing my analysis of Mere Christianity from an LDS perspective. See my table of contents here.
The Meaning of “Christian”
Lewis addresses the objection that he should not be allowed to define who is and who is not Christian. He says,
“People ask: ‘Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?’: or ‘May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?’ Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.”
He goes on to tell how the word “gentlemen” once had a useful meaning. It meant someone who had a coat of arms and some landed property. Over time, it eventually came to be used more as a compliment when someone else did something you liked. As a result, it becomes quite useless if anyone tries to use it in its old sense. As Lewis says, “it has been spoiled for that purpose.”
He concludes that it’s important to define who is a Christian so that it does not become useless. It, like the word gentlemen, will simply be used as a compliment. Instead, he suggests that
“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.”
I think Lewis’ analogy is a good one. It is important to define who is Christian so that the word doesn’t lose it’s meaning. He is not looking to exclude people; he is simply trying to make sense of the hundreds of Christian denominations he sees and find a common ground.
The question of who is Christian will be one that he tries to answer for the rest of the book, and I think generally he does a good job (though I don’t agree with everything he says). But while he takes an entire book to answer that question, it is important to note that he answers it wonderfully in just two lines – someone who is a follower of Christ and of the apostles whom Christ chose to speak for him after his ascension.
Are Mormons Christians?
But are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Christian? As a member of the Mormon church, this question has particular import for me. I have worshiped and followed Jesus Christ all my life, but often mainstream Christians would call me unchristian, or worse, a member of a cult!
(For an in-depth discussion of this, see my post on Mormonism and Robert Jeffress. Briefly, though, the claim that Mormons are members of a cult is also one of semantics. Much like the word “gentleman” has been corrupted into little more than a compliment, the word “cult” has been corrupted to little more than an insult. We’re a little weird, sure, but who isn’t? Perhaps someone who is abiding be the rule Lewis mentions as “common to the whole house” should choose different terminology (see Part 4).)
This is not a simple question. If, when we say “Christian” we mean something akin to what Lewis identified above, a follower of Jesus Christ and his apostles, then certainly Mormons are Christian.
Usually, though, the term “Christian” means something entirely different for those who use it. Instead of a follower of the apostles, one must also be a follower of the Church Fathers and all their creeds, including the doctrine of the Trinity (for a discussion of the authority of the Church Fathers, see here). They must also adhere to only the Bible, and believe that God has stopped speaking to his Church as a whole. In this respect, Mormons are unlike other Christians.
I am somewhat unique (among Latter-day Saints) in my belief that there is great power in focusing on what makes us ‘non-Christian’ rather than shouting, “We’re Christian too!” In the introduction to his book “Here We Stand,” Joseph Fielding McConkie expounds on this idea:
“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 we do! We believe that he was born of a virgin, the Only Begotten of the Father, the Creator of heaven and earth. He died for the sins of all men, becoming the only way we can gain salvation (Mosiah 3:17). He is King of kings, and Lord of lords. As a church,
“we bear testimony… that 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” (for a summary of what Mormons believe about Jesus, see this statement written by the apostles of the Church; compare it to what makes someone a “Christian”).
But we also believe in a Jesus Christ that appeared to Israelites in the Americas, showing to them as well as other scattered tribes that he indeed had died for them and had been resurrected (See 3 Nephi 11; also 3 Nephi 11-30). We also believe in a Jesus Christ who is a separate and distinct personage, separate from the Father and the Holy Ghost (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). We also believe in a Jesus Christ who appeared to answer the prayer of a 14 year-old boy and end the dark night of apostasy that had swept over the world since the death of the apostles (see Joseph Smith – History; see also here and here). We also believe in a Jesus Christ who stands at the head of this Church, leading it today through a modern prophet.
Is that different? Yes! And it’s wonderful! So are Mormon’s Christian? As we can see, the answer is yes and no depending on what you mean. But Latter-day Saints can find great strength in not abandoning those things that make us different. We can find great strength in not abandoning our “sacred ground.”
For more information on the Restoration, see here.
Study Questions from this Section
The Meaning of “Christian”
- Is the analogy about the term ‘Christian’ a good one?
- Who is a Christian?
- Are Mormons Christian?