Should I Care if My Christian Neighbors Call Me a Non-Christian?

January 24, 2008
By

Evangelical Christians have been very vocal over the last century in denouncing Mormons as a “non-Christian” religion. Even the more moderate Catholic and Protestant sects have followed suit. Should I care if my Christian neighbors call me a non-Christian despite my belief in Jesus as Son of God, God the Son, and Savior of the world?

With the Mitt Romney’s presidential run I’ve seen much written on the subject of Mormons being “non-Christians.” While some reporting is better than others, the general consensus of the media seems to be that “Christians” don’t consider Mormons to be Christians, but Mormons want to be called Christians desperately and feel hurt or left out because their “neighbors” won’t call them “Christians” too. As of yet, I’ve never seen a single media article on the subject ask the most obvious questions of all:

  • How do you define “Christian?”
  • Is your definition of “Christian” the dictionary definition or a non-standard one?
  • What is it about Mormon teachings that falls outside of your definition of “Christian?”

Scratch it up to poor journalism or the need for entertainment to sell stories.

I want to go on record as saying that I have no problem being theologically excluded by my Christian neighbors. To some degree, a lesser degree to be sure, Mormons theologically exclude them; so it seems only fair to let them exclude us. [1] If they want to judge me as non-saved, that is their prerogative. If they want to exclude me from their schools or clubs, that’s their choice too. If they want to point out how my beliefs differ from theirs, let them.

I draw the line at misrepresentation of my beliefs.

Let’s talk about how the vast majority of people in the world will understand the word “Christian.” Let’s start with a dictionary definition from dictionary.com.

1. of, pertaining to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings: a Christian faith.

2. of, pertaining to, believing in, or belonging to the religion based on the teachings of Jesus Christ: Spain is a Christian country.

7. a person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.

I picked 1, 2, and 7 because these seem to be the definitions at stake. The vast majority of people in the world understand a “Christian” to be one or more of the definitions above. Simply put, when people say “Christian” they mean “a religion that believes Jesus it the Christ.” Clearly, according to the dictionary, Mormons are in fact “Christians.”

Let me tell you a true story to illustrate this:

I once knew a man that was part of an “orthodox” Christian religion but wanted to convert to be a Mormon. He brought home a wonderful picture of Christ, the red robe picture, from his new future religion. He gave it to his sister and she said “Wow, this is a great picture! where did you get it?”

He explained that the Mormon missionaries gave it to him.

Confused, she asked, “then who is it then?”

The girl had been told that Mormons were non-Christian, so she naturally assumed her priest or pastor, or whoever told her this, meant that Mormons didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. It never even occurred to her that it might have meant something else.

Later on I attended a Mormon Crèche display. As Christians from far and wide came to see the beautiful displays of the birth of our savior from around the world, I was amazed to find that a common question posed to the Mormon hosts, after initial shock wore off that Mormons had a crèche display, was “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

“Yes” came the response.

“Do you believe Jesus is your savior?”

“Yes” came the response.

Why did these people not know that the Church that they just walked into — with “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” printed on the front — did not teach Jesus is fully divine and the savior of the world? I’m afraid the answer is the same. They were told Mormons are “non-Christian.”

Now I suppose the persons that told these people that Mormons were “non-Christians” were perhaps thinking something like this in their head: “Well, I don’t believe Mormons are Christian because while they do believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, they don’t believe they are ‘one of substance’ as the Nicene Creed states, thus to me that makes them non-Christian.”

I am not one to assume the worst of motives. When a person is on the spot trying to explain their beliefs, they won’t always be a clear as they wish. (Heaven knows I have a hard time with this on a regular basis.) Unintentional misrepresentation gets a wide latitude with me. (Particularly if the person clarified his/her initial comments with the words that followed.) I wouldn’t hold an honest mistake against anyone, nor do I wish to assume what’s in someone else’s heart. I will not assume that my Christian neighbors are intentionally misrepresenting Mormons to each other and the rest of the world.

However, this is not a mere sound bite problem either. Teaching that Mormons are “not Christian” is a systemic teaching of Evangelical and other Christian religions and has been going on for years and across the many states I’ve lived in.

I believe few of these good people are intentionally misrepresenting. I think it’s more likely that perhaps a few are intentionally misrepresenting while the majority repeat what they hear. Or perhaps a few used to misrepresent Mormons years ago, but now calling Mormons “non-Christians” has become a cultural part of their “orthodoxy.” Perhaps this so much part of their culture now that its hard for them to self-evaluate that they are misrepresenting other’s beliefs.

But this doesn’t change that this is a misrepresentation of Mormons, unintentional though it may be. To use an analogy, let’s say I decide red is green and green is red. To me, they are, right? Is there anything wrong with me deciding this? Of course not. But let’s say someone (from another country, maybe) asks me “in my car do I stop on red or green?” Now let’s say that I tell them “you stop on green!” Am I misrepresenting? To me it’s the truth, right? No harm done, right?

I am not comfortable with this answer and doubt many would be.

Now personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with someone calling Mormons “not Christian” if he/she did it in a representative way. For example, I would have no problem with someone saying to others “Mormons are Christians according to the dictionary, because they believe in Jesus, but I feel we should redefine ‘Christian’ to mean <fill in the blank with their personal non-dictionary definition.>” If the good Christians of the world did that, I just can’t see a problem with it. I wouldn’t even mind being called a “Christian heretic” (or even just “heretic”) by them as I think this correctly summarizes their view of Mormons while not misrepresenting Mormons as being “non-Christian” in the same sense a Jew is a “non-Christian.”

So in answer to the question: “Should I Care if My Christian Neighbors Call Me a Non-Christian?” The answer is “no” so long as they don’t misrepresent our real beliefs.

[1] Mormon beliefs are complex on this subject, but I think the following thought is noteworthy: While Evangelical Christians teach that Mormons haven’t really accepted Christ and thus go to hell, Mormons teach that they, the Evangelicals, will go to the Terrestrial kingdom where they will live with Christ forever as angels and Servants of God. In other words, Mormons believe they get exactly the reward they are hoping for. It’s true we believe that at some point, in this life or the one to come, that they must accept the full truth to receive exaltation — to become like God is. But I’ve been told by many Christians they don’t believe such a reward exists and they have no interest in it even if it does.

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25 Responses to Should I Care if My Christian Neighbors Call Me a Non-Christian?

  1. Bruce Nielson
    January 24, 2008 at 11:17 pm

    My apologies for posting twice in a row. I accidently signed up twice in a row.

  2. WestBerkeleyFlats
    January 25, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Are Mormons monotheists? Of course not. Then I don’t see how Mormons can be considered Christians, even with that Mormon-Christian synthesis developed by people such as Talmage, given the historical development of the Judeo-Christian. I consider Mormons to be post-Christians or perhaps quasi-Christians, similar to members of the Unification Church or followers of Hong Xiuquan, given that those groups also have a role for Christ, but their beliefs fundamentally depart from the historical and intellectual tradition of Christianity.

  3. January 25, 2008 at 12:28 am

    I wonder why those who hold that Mormons are not Christians do not use the tests that Jesus provided to determine whether someone is a true disciple of Christ:

    “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Matt. 7:21-22

    “And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
    And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
    Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
    For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
    Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matt 25:32-36.)

    I wonder what makes people think they can substitute their own modern tests for what makes a true disciple of Christ, rather than just using the ones Jesus provided.

    As far as I’ve always understood, Mormons consider people who meet the above descriptions to be true disciples of Christ, regardless of whether they are LDS. But some who label themselves as Christians do not hold reciprocal beliefs. It is strange to me.

  4. Peter Brown
    January 25, 2008 at 9:02 am

    “Are Mormons monotheists? Of course not. Then I don’t see how Mormons can be considered Christians, even with that Mormon-Christian synthesis developed by people such as Talmage, given the historical development of the Judeo-Christian. I consider Mormons to be post-Christians or perhaps quasi-Christians, similar to members of the Unification Church or followers of Hong Xiuquan, given that those groups also have a role for Christ, but their beliefs fundamentally depart from the historical and intellectual tradition of Christianity.”

    As Bruce has pointed out in earlier posts, this intellectual and historical definition was a hammer and cross credal creation sickle in the 4th Century. Arianus (2-person godhood model) and his group were drummed out as were others (Gnostics). New Testament Christians were also NOT in the category of one body with one substance trinitarians-it had not been developed to such an extent. I would use pre-Christian or proto-Chritian or retro-Christians, because Mormon definitions of Christ and God (two-person model) were alive and well predating the 4th Centurty AD. By the way, if modern Christians want to trademark “Christian” to be trinitarian (creedal) let them take it to court. I think its just a slam against their Mormom competitors to talk semantics like this.

  5. John Hamer
    January 25, 2008 at 10:12 am

    No, you shouldn’t care. Right-wing “Evangelicals” are actively narrowing their usage of the word “Christian” so as to not include mainline denominations like Lutherans and Episcopaleans. That Mormons continually take their bait — as you’re doing here — only gives them what they want.

    Meanwhile, your dictionary-definition-based argument fails to address the merits of the question. The question is not whether Mormons use the name “Jesus Christ” or believe in what Mormons call “Jesus Christ.” Christian Fundamentalists can rightly point out that Muslims believe in “Jesus Christ” — it’s just that Muslims have an additional prophet who revealed a different book of scripture, which gives them a significantly different understanding of Jesus Christ. For them, Jesus is not God; Jesus is a great prophet. The question is whether Mormons, in rejecting monotheism, are sufficiently distinct to be considered a new world religion.

    Were the Cathars Christian? Like the Mormons, the Cathars believed they were the true Christians. And like the Mormons, they rejected monotheism. Cathars were dualists who believed in two Gods: an evil God who created the world and all matter, and a good God who created spirits and light. They believed in Jesus Christ, but their concept of him was radically different, since they argued that he hadn’t had a human, material body.

    Were the Cathars “Christian” or had they diverged sufficiently from the parent religion to be considered a new religious tradition? The question is academic and you can legitimately argue both positions.

    Let me ask you a different question. When did the Middle Ages end? Was it 1453 with the fall of Constantinople? Was it 1492 with the discovery of the New World? Was it 1517 with Martin Luther and the 95 Theses? The dictionary defintion of medieval “of or pertaining to the Middle Ages” has no bearing on the question. The question is academic and a legitimate case can be made for all those dates and more.

    Are Mormons Christians? The answer is both yes and no.

  6. January 25, 2008 at 10:25 am

    I’m Mormon, but I have a hard time getting all that worked up over this issue. Few observations:

    1. Mormonism most certainly IS much different than mainline Christianity. Probably just as different from traditional Christianity as early Christianity was from its parent Judaism.

    2. The God we worship most certainly is different from the one the traditional Christians worship. To get a sense of this, just consider that Mormons reject creation ex nihilo. When you really start thinking about the implications of that, it becomes clear that we are worshiping a much different being.

    3. There is something rather pathetic and toadyish about the Mormon desperation to be a part of the American “in-club.” We want to hang with the popular kids on the playground. What’s even worse about it, is that group of popular kids is fast being marginalized and Mormons are too behind the times to realize it.

    4. This is almost solely an American debate and American concern. Outside the US, this issue has little to no importance. The fact that Mormons remain so obsessed with it shows a bit of theological immaturity and that we are still very much wrapped-up in American popularity contests.

    5. By many guy-on-the-street definitions, Mormons probably are Christians. We believe in Christ as the Son of God and our savior. Pretty simple. That’s what the common man considers “Christian” to mean. So why shouldn’t Mormons be allowed the title? Really a lot of this seems like little more than a sectarian negative ad campaign to keep people from listening to Mormon missionaries.

    6. If we want to be called “Christian,” then we will have to quit getting all pissy whenever someone calls those polygamist whack-jobs in Arizona “Mormon.” If we can be called “Christian,” then they get to be called “Mormons.” It’s only fair, and the same logic applies.

    7. Do we “worship” Christ?

    That’s the key question for me. If we don’t “worship” Christ, then I have a hard time making a straight-faced argument for us being “Christian.”

    So, do we?

  7. John Hamer
    January 25, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Amen, Br. Seth. I heartily agree with all 7 points.

  8. John Nilsson
    January 25, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Seth,

    I worship Jesus Christ, and I know many Mormons that do. I also know some Mormons who appear to worship other entities :) But are we only supposed to worship the Father in the name of the Son? Some statements, particularly those of McConkie, complicate this and make it unclear. I worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. That being said, I don’t think it’s part of Mormon discourse to talk about whom we worship. We get on with being a peculiar people and getting harangued about home teaching and worrying about our own salvation…

  9. NM Tony
    January 25, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I think John Hamer and Seth have it exactly right. If a person devoutly believes in Mormonism and abides by its teachings, believing they are God’s true words, why does it matter if some other group refuses to call you Christian? The church and members should be comfortable with their position and not worry about “the competition.” After all, many of them were offshoots of other denominations claiming to have the truth. In the eyes of the Catholics, they are heretics and apostates as well, and vice versa.

    Nevertheless, I can see some of the counterpoints made by these groups as to why Mormons are not considered “Christian” in the orthodoxical sense. Some of the doctrines are heretical and blasphemous by many “Christian” standards. But again, if a person believes that these things are truly revealed by God, then what does it matter if the mainstream refuses. Doesn’t this all go back to the idea of being a “peculiar people unto the Lord?”

  10. Bruce Nielson
    January 25, 2008 at 11:02 am

    Seth R.,

    Good analysis. I hope you picked up on the fact that I was in general agreement with you. I don’t really care what they call us as long as they don’t misrepresent us and leave false impressions. The real life stories are the key point here because they show the obvious result of misrepresentation. Labels alone mean nothing; it’s the info being communicated that counts. For example, if they called us “non-creedal Christians” ore even “Christian Heretics” or even just “Heretics” (as this implies Christian usually, so there is little room for misrepresentation) I’d be fine with what they are saying.

    I have a question for you about one point, however:

    >>> 6. If we want to be called “Christian,” then we will have to quit getting all pissy whenever someone calls those polygamist whack-jobs in Arizona “Mormon.” If we can be called “Christian,” then they get to be called “Mormons.” It’s only fair, and the same logic applies.

    This seems true enough to me as you stated it. But I was under the impression, perhaps a false impression, that most break off groups do not use the label “Mormon” about themselves. I haven’t been around a lot of breakoffs, but I have met some in the past. None of them, so far, has accepted the label “Mormon” as applying to themselves. “Mormons” were those other guys that aren’t them. So at least for the ones I met, not calling them “Mormon” is not analogous to others not calling us “Christian.” (However, if they eventually changed their mind and wanted that label I’d certainly be in favor of allowing it to them because they do believe in the Book of Mormon.)

    Do fundamentalist groups utilize the label “Mormon”? Perhaps they do but I’ve just never met any.

  11. dpc
    January 25, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Should I Care if My Christian Neighbors Call Me a Non-Christian?

    No.

    For what it’s worth, the current preoccupation with reinforcing our ‘Christianess’ seems a lot like Paul trying to show Jewish Christians that he still zealously followed the law even though he taught otherwise.

  12. Bruce Nielson
    January 25, 2008 at 11:19 am

    >>> But are we only supposed to worship the Father in the name of the Son? Some statements, particularly those of McConkie, complicate this and make it unclear.

    Actually, McConkie himself was unclear. I have books from him where he says we worship Jesus. It seems to me that what he was against was addressing prays to Jesus, not “worshiping” Jesus. But he was inconsistent and not very clear. Jesus commanded to address prayers to the Father. See, for example, Matt 6:6, 9.

    This strikes me as a semantics game. Confusion over words.

    Consider this quote: 1 Chr. 29: 20 – “And all the congregation blessed the LORD God of their fathers, and bowed down their heads, and worshipped the LORD, and the king.”

    Does this verse say that they worshiped the king? It sure does. But this doesn’t mean they worshipped the king in the same sense they worship God, right? Hmmm… can’t tell by the words alone since it says they worshiped the Lord AND the king.

    In other words, you have to assume some context and not be legalistic about wording and scripture. Nor should you be about McConkie (even though he seems to have tried to be legalistic at times – lawyer that he was.)

    I’m planning a post about this subject in the future… probably a long time from now.

  13. Heather Brown Martin
    January 25, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Having been both a born again Christian and LDS, I would encourage Mormons not to worry what others label you.

    Mormons label Christians as in apostasy and I’ve heard my share of silly stories about what Protestants and Catholics supposedly do and believe in LDS meetings. The Christians don’t really get worked up about what the Mormons teach about them. So why do the LDS care so much? Is PR really that important?

    If you ignore those kinds of statements, you take away the Christian groups power. In this election year it may seem like all Christians believe silly things about the LDS, but in reality the Christians on the far end of the spectrum scream the loudest. Most Christians don’t really give the “are Mormons Christians?” questions the time of day. I say this as a person with a BYU degree living in the Bible Belt. People just don’t care!

  14. Bruce Nielson
    January 25, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    Heather Brown Martin,

    I have to agree with you that most Christians don’t care. We get a poor heuristic because the vocal ones tend to be the militant ones. We see them in dis-representative numbers. (And the Media disproportionally represents them too because they are entertaining.)

    I do find it very interesting, though, that there is such a large over lap between the group of people that scream over Mormons “misrepresenting” themselves (and accuse them of doing it intentionally) and the group that misrepresents Mormons but feels it’s justified or sees nothing wrong with it. It’s a tweaked sort of thinking to be sure. But like I said, I think most of them just never really stop and think about their inconsistency in this regard and probably aren’t doing it intentionally.

  15. KLC
    January 25, 2008 at 3:06 pm

    I think Seth’s question about whether we worship Jesus deserves more attention.

    I’m pretty much an old guy, no matter how much I try and deny it. I graduated from HS in 1972. The LDS church that I experienced as a child and teenager in the 60s and early 70s spoke much more about God the Father and less exclusively about Christ than the LDS church I experience today. In fact, I would say that the message I distilled from those years was that dwelling inordinately on Christ and speaking constantly of Christ was a hallmark of protestant Christianity. If Seth had asked me his question in 1970 I think I would have told him, “No, we don’t worship Christ, just like we don’t worship Joseph Smith. Both were accomplishing the plan of the Father, who we do worship as our creator and author of the plan of salvation. That is the reason we don’t pray Christ but rather pray to the Father.”

    Now before some of the more academically blessed people out there start digging out theses, dissertations and quotes to prove me wrong, please note that I’m not saying that was the doctrine of the church in those days. I’m saying that is what my cumulative understanding of this topic was as an active, observant and committed LDS youth.

    My personal experience is that the 21st century LDS church talks much more about Christ exclusively than it did 40 years ago. I see that as a manifestation of Seth’s observation that we LDS have an almost desperate desire to fit into the mainstream, a mainstream that really doesn’t want us and never did.

  16. Jeff Spector
    January 25, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    I agree that the corporate church is trying way too hard to be considered “mainstream” by others. The logo change was one indication. I am not too bothered by what a narrow minded group of people thinks of my particular faith. I went through my childhood being called a “Christ-killer” and dirty Jew., so this stuff seems rather tame.

    I also got over the preachers in my high school declaring that I was going to hell because I didn’t accept Jesus as my personal Savior. Now that I have and become a Mormon, heck, I’m no better off.

    Rats! ;)

  17. January 25, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    To answer the question in the title, no.
    We should not concern ourselves with whether our neighbors think our beliefs are “Christian.” But we should concern ourselves with whether our neighbors think our behavior is Christ-like. That seems like a far more valuable question.

  18. Bruce Nielson
    January 25, 2008 at 4:57 pm

    Jeff, KLC, and Seth,

    Honest question for you. Consider these two scenarios:

    a) The LDS Church did a back to basics movement and rediscovered much that was always there in the Book of Mormon. Though they had always believed it, they hadn’t really emphasized it. This included such things as Jesus as a personal savior, Jesus as God (but not as God the Father), salvation through Jesus’ blood, Salvation by God’s Grace, etc. Discovering that they needed to emphasize this more, they did.

    b) The LDS Church watched longingly at the Protestant Churches of the world and really wished to be one with them. So they started to adopt many Protestant beliefs.

    Given these two scenarios, how would you tell them apart outwardly? Wouldn’t they look exactly the same to an outsider observer? Are we justified in assuming it’s b when it could be a? (And even if it is in fact “b” would there be any way to prove it? In other words, even if it’s “b” wouldn’t it be wrong to assume so because that’s the worst case scenario and we ought to give the benefit of the doubt when there is lack of proof?)

  19. January 25, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    I’m pretty much an old guy, no matter how much I try and deny it. I graduated from HS in 1972.

    I graduated in ’73 (I was born in 1955).

    I remember a strong focus on King Benjamin and being born again at BYU where I went before my mission (afterwards I finished my bachelor’s degree up at Cal State Los Angeles).

    There was a real effort to rediscover the Book of Mormon going on then.

  20. September 23, 2008 at 4:04 am

    I know this is an old post and possibly this comment will never be seen, but here goes anyway.

    It’s important not to be the victim of pograms. If we let people demonize us and don’t act to counter them, in my opinion, we’re leaving LDS children of future generations at risk. I understand that it’s the demonizers’ agency, their choice whether or not to slander us or indeed to tar-and-feather, rape, pillage, murder, or commit other violence against us. But making a big PR push to counter misconceptions can definitely help make friends. It’s a good idea to be friends, to the extent that we can, with our neighbors.

    So that’s why I think the PR campaign is wisdom, to the extent that it doesn’t water down our message or doctrine. We’re not just exactly like evangelical Christians, but we’re also nice people. That’s a very important message to send abroad.

  21. Steve
    September 26, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    #10

    Fundamentalists do refer to themselves as Mormon Fundamentalists. I believe that it was a general authority from the CoJCoLDS (Mark Petersen?) who coined the term.

    Steve

  22. Bruce Nielson
    September 26, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    #21: Steve, you might be right.

    However, I just recently finished a book by Kathleen Flake, who is an excellent scholar. I noticed that she mentioned that Polygamous breakoff groups have traditionally avoided refering to themselves as “Mormons.”

    So this issue is more complicated then perhaps you are indicating. Traditionally, there has been no such thing as a “Mormon Fundamentalist” as a self label. Only the media used the term, or the occaisional LDS authority, as you mentioned.

    But modernly, I’m not sure if that is still true or not.