What is a Christian? Part 3

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.

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11 comments on “What is a Christian? Part 3

  1. Seth R. says:

    Don’t forget the “we were here first” argument.

    Which is also ridiculous – especially when coming from Evangelicals (who are a pretty recent development themselves).

  2. James says:

    Good point Seth. Thanks.

  3. Seth R. says:

    Might as well pre-emptively bring up the “Muslim argument” since it arises so frequently in these discussions.

    The argument usually runs thus:

    MUSLIMS:

    1. Muslims believe in the historical existence of a person named Jesus
    2. Muslims generally revere this person Jesus as a prophet and messenger of God and believe many similar things about him – including accepting the Bible as a holy book
    3. However, Muslims deny that he was the Son of God

    4. Therefore, they are not appropriately classified as Christian

    MORMONS:

    1. Mormons likewise believe in the historical existence of a person named Jesus
    2. Mormons likewise accept the Bible as holy writ in general, and revere Jesus
    3. However, Mormons deny that he was “one substance” with God

    4. Therefore, they are not appropriately classified as Christian

    This is a corollary to the “different Jesus” argument and is usually accompanied by explanations that I could worship my household pet as “Jesus,” but that would not make me a “Christian” in the proper sense.

    However, this argument suffers from the misperception that there is a clear bright line in the sand out there that – once you cross over it – you are no longer validly Christian. But this is not the case. Being Christian in both a sense of academics, theology, and popular public consciousness is always a matter of degrees. No bright line exists for who is in and who is out.

    Most people have no problem writing Muslims out of the definition of “Christian.” First off, their beliefs are very different. Christ is not even considered to be divine at all – not the Son of God, not the way to salvation – it’s a big difference.

    For Mormons there isn’t even close to this degree of difference. For one thing, we believe Christ to be the Son of God. For another, we believe him to be the essential path to salvation (any differences we share with Evangelicals on this point are hyper-technical in nature, and basically almost require a masters degree in theology to even understand – not a strong basis for claiming “fundamental” difference). Finally, we have a much stronger and binding view of the Bible than Muslims do. Our position on the Book of Mormon isn’t even close to the almost sola Koran view the Muslims take.

    It should be obvious to almost anyone without an axe to grind that Mormons are HUGELY further along the spectrum toward Christianity than the Muslims are.

    The Muslim argument also has the nice side-effect that it capitalizes on the present anti-Muslim bigotry that seems to be running rampant among certain segments of American Evangelicalism. Which the critics who use this argument will always deny was their intent – but one suspects that they don’t mind cashing in on the existing bigotry as a bit of a “bonus.”

  4. James says:

    Seth,

    I had hoped to ward off that accusation with my definition of “Christian” which argues that a Christian must have Jesus Christ at the very center of their theology. It is clear that Mormons have Jesus at the very center of their theology, but I doubt any Muslims would ever describe their theology that way.

    Regarding the argument that “I could worship my household pet as Jesus”, I’d be fine identifying someone like that as a Christian, so long as they somehow believe their dog is the historical person Jesus Christ from ancient Galilee.

    I always appreciate your thoughts.

    James

  5. aquinas says:

    James, I would be very interested to hear you thoughts about the following article by Rob Bowman written November 3, 2008: Yet Again, Are Mormons Christians? Shedding Light on a Hot Topic. I’d be interested in knowing where you agree and disagree with Bowman on this issue.

  6. James says:

    Aquinas,

    Aside from a few minor quibbles, I think Bowman’s piece is quite good. He basically identifies the issues in the same way that I do. He argues that the narrower sense of the word “Christian” is justified, while I argue that it isn’t. He concludes with Bruce Porter’s recommendation to use a qualifier like “unorthodox Christian” or “non-traditional Christian” when referring to Mormons, instead of bluntly saying “non-Christian”. I’m fine with that.

    The only other major difference is that Bowman is a better writer than me :)

    James

  7. Good article, James. The Bowman article is pretty good, too. I think it is true that ultimately Mormons, Evangelicals, etc. all believe that only adherents of their faith are “legitimately” Christians. However, I think to use such a narrow definition or classification in interfaith dialogue is dishonest and misleading. Imagine if we all used our own theology as the definition of what is “Christian” all the time! Most conversations would go something like this:

    Evangelical: “You Mormons are not Christians!”

    Mormon: “Oh yes we are! You are the ones who aren’t Christians!”

    Evangelical: “NO, you’re not Christians!

    Mormon: “NO, you’re not Christians!”

    etc, etc.

    It is also misleading because the lay person who hears or reads such allegations is almost certainly going to have a more broad definition in mind. Hence when they here that “Mormons are not Christians” they take it to mean Mormons do not believe in Christ.

    Hence, for interfaith discussions more universal definitions need to be used.

    Besides, if such narrow definitions are used, then what does claiming that another person is not Christian prove besides saying “I think you are wrong” or “We disagree”? It is pointless.

  8. Seth R. says:

    Actually Neal, a lot of Mormons I know (myself included) consider Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox (and all the rest) to be “Christian.”

    We just think they’re wrong – that’s all. But we don’t go around claiming they aren’t “Christian” or that they’re worshiping some “other Jesus.”

  9. Neal Rappleye says:

    Seth,

    I think you may have misunderstood my point. I myself am a Mormon who gladly calls anyone who professes faith in Jesus Christ as a “Christian.” All I am saying is that while most Mormons chose not to selectively and judgmentally apply the “Christian” label to others, we ultimately believe that only Mormons are the “true” Christians, or “right” Christians. That is too say, that by the narrower definition Mormons likewise view themselves as the only “real” Christians.

    The rest of other post should make it quite clear that I strongly disagree with using such a narrow classification in discussions with others.

  10. James says:

    Instead of saying “true Christians” or “right Christians” or “real Christians”, I suggest we simply say that among all Christian sects we have the most amount of truth.

    Unless I’m convinced otherwise, I reject any sort of “narrow” definition of the word “Christian”.

  11. nathan000000 says:

    One way I sometimes steer these conversations with Evangelicals is to let them know, “If you want to use that narrow definition, that’s fine. But just be aware of how many people you are excluding, including modern Catholics, as wells as thousands of people in the first five centuries A.D.” If the person acknowledges that, I’m less bothered by their insistence on their definition.

    But as has been said, the practical effect of using such an idiosyncratic definition is that when your average Joe hears “Mormons aren’t Christian,” he thinks, “Oh, they don’t believe Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paid for our sins and is the way to get back to heaven.” If a proposed definition results in such gross misunderstanding, it’s a pretty cruddy definition.

    Seth, really interesting point about the Muslim example. It’s an interesting question and a good response.

    I agree that James’s definition accounts for the difference between Mormons and Muslims with the phrase “center of their theology.” I believe the Buddha taught many true things, but it doesn’t make me a Buddhist because he’s not at the center of my theology.

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