What is a Christian? Part 1

First a story by way of analogy. When I was in Brazil as a young LDS missionary I once had a conversation with a native Brazilian that went something like this:

Me: Hello, I’m an American.

Brazilian: I’m an American too.

Me: Huh? Aren’t you from Brazil? Of course you aren’t an American!

Brazilian: Yes, I’m from Brazil, so by definition that makes me an American.

Me: Huh?

We realized that we were talking past each other because we both were employing different definitions of the word “American” but we both assumed that the other shared our definition. I was defining “American” as someone from the United States. He was defining “American” as anyone from the North or South American continents. Once we cleared up that confusion we realized that we didn’t really have a disagreement, we just used the same word in two different ways.

So it is with the word “Christian” among LDS and Evangelicals. I think the usual heat of this debate can be tampered if we simply make it clear what our respective definitions of “Christian” are. In my experience, Mormons and Evangelicals generally use two very different definitions:

Mormon Definition (MD): A Christian is one who strives to follow the historical person Jesus Christ.[1]

Evangelical Definition (ED): A Christian is one who (a) believes the essential biblical doctrines required for salvation and (b) is saved. [2]

I’ve actually met Evangelicals who sincerely don’t consider the Pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, to be a Christian. This is understandable considering the narrow definition that they are employing (ED). So, when an Evangelical confronts a Mormon and tells him that they are not Christian, the Evangelical has ED in mind, whereas the Mormon has MD in mind. Feelings are hurt and the message is lost. As a Mormon, if an Evangelical approaches me and says, “You are not a Christian” this is a very strange and odd thing to me, because from my perspective, with MD in mind, there is no question but that I am a Christian. But if an Evangelical approaches me and says “According to the essential doctrines taught in the Bible, you are not saved”, that is a totally different statement to me. In each case, from the Evangelical point of view, the same thing was said. But in each case the Mormon understood it very differently.

In common Evangelical parlance, the word “Christian” = “saved”. They are synonyms. In this view, there is no such thing as a Christian who is not saved. But not so in LDS vocabulary. There are many, many, many Christians who are not “saved”.

In summary, I think this entire issue can take a huge leap forward if we would all just take the time to carefully define what we mean by Christian. Then we can have a conversation about whose definition is better, if such a debate is even worth having.

This is the first of a series of posts I plan to do on this topic. The next post will critique the common Evangelical definition of “Christian”.

Notes

[1] The LDS Newsroom makes the same argument I’m making here, and they define “Christian” in the way I’ve outlined above: http://beta-newsroom.lds.org/blog/are-mormons-christian-

[2] For an example of this, see here: http://carm.org/christianity/christian-doctrine/christian

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7 comments on “What is a Christian? Part 1

  1. jon says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you identified being Christian with being saved. I’ve long suspected that for these evangelicals it’s less about which doctrines you accept than it is about your relationship with Christ. They cannot stomach saying that Mormons (or other heretics like JW’s etc.) have an equivalent relationship with Christ than they do.

  2. Wes Widner says:

    What it means to be a Christian is clearly defined in Scripture. In places like 1 Corinthians 15 where we have the earliest Christian creed less than 30 years after Christ’s death. While the creed is short, it does contradict and thus exclude traditional Mormon doctrine, thereby excluding them from what can rightly be considered under the umbrella of Christendom.

    While it may be rhetorically advantageous to claim that our issue here likes in semantics, the truth is that Mormons excluded themselves from the Christian camp when they adopted doctrines that explicitly contradicted Scripture.

  3. jon says:

    Wes, I just reread 1 Corinthians 15 to make sure I wasn’t missing something, but I’m not sure what you refer to. Can you point to the verse(s) you’re talking about?

  4. James says:

    Wes,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m aware of the creed in 1 Cor 15:3-8 that you’ve mentioned. The problem is, as I will detail further in a coming post, is that this creed does not provide a definition for the word “Christian.” Rather, this creed provides a summary of ideas that Paul taught. What we do not find is Paul saying, “And if you don’t believe these things than you are not a Christian.”

    But, and just as important, I see nothing in that creed that could possibly keep Mormons from the Christian fold. If this is the creed that you want to establish as the litmus test for determining who is Christian, than Mormons pass with flying colors.

  5. James says:

    FYI, I’ve added another link in the Notes of the post. The LDS Newsroom makes essentially the same point that I’ve made (I hadn’t read it until this morning, after writing this post last night). It is a well written piece.

    http://beta-newsroom.lds.org/blog/are-mormons-christian-

  6. Well said, James. I agree completely with you – this all comes down to how the word is defined.

    Back in High School Debate, if (as the it unfolded) the debate came to center around the meaning of a specific term in a topic, it became what we called a “definitional debate.” Such debates were ALWAYS the least productive and most frustrating, as they never seemed to go anywhere. As judge (I have volunteered as a judge since graduating), they are the most difficult to select a winner, because inevitably all the “winner” did was establish his definition of the word, but both sides failed to establish their position on the issues. How can you win a debate on Health Care, for example, when all you did was prove that your definition of “government assistance” is superior to your opponents?

    Nonetheless, equally frustrating and unproductive are the debates where both sides define there terms differently (usually both sides will present a set of definitions at the beginning of the debate), but simply ignore each others alternate definitions and debate the points AS IF they both were defining the terms the same way. This results in each side arguing past each other; side A’s arguments prove nothing, and in fact make no sense, to side B, and vise-versa. Again, as judge how do pick a “winner” when the two debaters are like ships passing in the night? Side A may think their arguments adequately refute side Bs (and vice-versa), however, such is only the case GIVEN their definition. See the problem?

    Because of this, I do feel like a good definitional debate may be in order, as long as we do not allow the dispute in definitions to take precedent over the key issues at hand.

    Good debaters, learned to insist on the superiority of their definition without spending a great deal of time on it. They would simultaneously be able to argue that their opponent was wrong by their (the opponent) own definition.

    In short, this debate needs to evolve. Evangelicals need to learn how to insist that Christian means ultimately means “saved” while at the same time trying to show that even by the Mormon definition Mormons are not Christians. On the other hand, Mormons need to illustrate that their definition of Christian is superior while also showing that we can meet the Evangelical defintion of “saved.” Once we get to that point, perhaps progress can be made (though I doubt it).

    Wes,

    As I see it, the primary problem with trying to use 1 Cor 15 (or any other chapter in the Bible) as the standard for Christianity is this: Most of the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters, were written to inform the “saints” of the true doctrine, convince them of said teachings, and correct them of any errors. In short, those to whom these letters are addressed (who are unequivocally called “saints” and “disciples” by the authors of the letters, and always referred to Christians by modern commentators) didn’t believe these teachings when they were first sent the letter, and some doubts may have remained even afterwords. Hence, if the Corinthians could still be called “Christians” while not having yet accepted EVERYTHING in 1 Cor 15, then why couldn’t Mormons (though I would dispute that Mormons don’t accept 1 Cor 15)?

  7. nathan000000 says:

    Very concise and well put, James. When I get in discussions like this, I try to begin clearing up the definitions by asking them, “Do you believe there are any Christians who are not saved?” That’s usually simple yet precise enough to cut to the main issue.

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