This will be the final part of this short series. In Part 1 I identified the fundamental issue that keeps mainstream Christians and Mormons from agreeing on whether Mormons are “Christians” or not (we use different definitions). In Part 2 I shared a study of the use of the word “Christian” in the Bible (from “Offenders for a Word”), and concluded that nothing in the Bible justifies the Evangelical insistence on denying Mormons the title “Christian”. In Part 3 I am going to discuss why Mormons can reject the Evangelical definition, and I’m going to propose a better definition.
Rejecting the Evangelical Definition
To review, the typical Evangelical use of the word “Christian” is basically a synonym for “saved”. For Evangelicals, a “Christian” is someone who is “saved”, and a person who is “saved” is someone who believes in certain doctrines that they (Evangelicals) have decided are essential for salvation. So, a “Christian” is someone who believes certain doctrines (determined by Evangelicals) which are essential for salvation. If an Evangelical doesn’t think that the Pope is saved, then they probably won’t consider the Pope a “Christian” (obviously a detriment to the credibility of their definition of “Christian”).
Why should a Mormon accept this definition? It is a definition that is based on Evangelical theology, a theology that Mormons reject. We don’t share their idea of “essentials” and we don’t share their idea of “saved”. Neither do Catholics (usually) and other groups who clearly belong to the Christian tradition. This definition is essentially a doctrinal litmus test, and there is absolutely no compelling reason to agree with it. It is a definition that is unique to one relatively new and minor sub-culture of Christianity. The only people who agree with it are those who have some sort of need to define themselves by excluding others. Mormons don’t have any obligation to accept it, and we whenever the occasion arises we should point out that it is a self-serving and arbitrary definition with absolutely no compelling support.
Appealing to Historic Christianity
Sometimes a definition of “Christian” is fashioned by an appeal to “historic Christianity”. This basically means that those doctrines which historically have been mainstream are the litmus test for who is a “Christian” and who is not. This obviously suffers from the same exclusivist mindset as the definition I discussed above. While this definition is probably a bit better than the “saved” definition, it still has its issues. For example, under this definition are we to consider the formidable Arians as “non-Christians”? What are we to make of Origen, the influential theologian who was later condemned as a heretic? What of the Donatists? Montanists (Tertullian is widely considered an important Christian theologian)? Ebionites? The list goes on and on. The history of Christianity is shaped by theological controversies, and it ridiculous prima facie to dismiss every person or group who eventually fell out of of favor as being “non-Christian”.
A Better Definition
I return now to the definition that most Mormons use when they speak of being “Christian”. It is a definition that is practical, historically fair, and inclusive. It isn’t a definition based on an arbitrary doctrinal litmus test. It doesn’t discriminate against those who consider themselves “Christians”. It doesn’t have anything to do with who is theologically right or wrong. It doesn’t have anything to do with who is “saved”. It simply is a designation for those who believe in Jesus Christ. A Christian is someone who has Jesus Christ at the very center of their theology, whatever that theology may be.
I anticipate that some Evangelicals will roar about how Mormons have a “different Jesus” than their Jesus. This is just foolishness. To circumvent this let me modify it thusly: A Christian is someone who has the historical person Jesus Christ at the very center of their theology, whatever that theology may be. There is no question but that Mormons have the historical person Jesus Christ, the man from Galilee, at the very center of their theology.