Junior Ganymede
We endeavor to give satisfaction

Why denying Mormons are Christians is a problem

August 31st, 2012 by Vader

There’s been a fair amount of buzz over the post at Patheos by Ben Witherington, who evidently should know better, barring the gates of Christianity against Mormonism.     

There have been some excellent theological and historical responses here and here, and I have nothing really to add to these rebuttals.

But I would like to add a [i]practical[/i] rebuttal, if “practical” is the right word.

What is the response when Muslims are told they are not Christians? My guess: “Allah be praised, we are not.”

What is the response when Jews are told they are not Christians? “Oy vey, who ever said otherwise?” Or perhaps, given the historical Christian persecution of Jews, “From your mouth to G-d’s ears.”

In other words, neither group is at all disturbed to be told they are not Christians.

But the great majority of Mormons clearly are deeply hurt when they are told they are not Christians. Why the difference?

One possibility is that the deep hurt is all feigned, or, at most, is the reaction of liars caught in a lie. And there is no lack of evidence that some critics of the Church actually believe this, and use it to excuse the pain they are inflicting on Mormons. This is a deeply uncharitable thing, but then I have from time to time sense a lack of charity among some critics of the Church. It also contradicts my own feelings (I am hurt by the accusation — for so I regard it — that I am not a Christian, and it’s for far more honest reasons than because I’m upset at being caught in a lie) and it certainly doesn’t jibe with what I’ve seen of my fellow Saints growing up in the Church.

That leaves the possibility that Mormons really do believe themselves to be Christians, and that this belief really is important to them. Otherwise, why would they care?

And — on top of all the theological and historical arguments presented so well by others — doesn’t the fact that Mormons are deeply upset at not being considered Christians a powerful practical argument that they are, in fact, Christians?

Comments (18)
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August 31st, 2012 09:50:32

Adam G.
August 31, 2012

On my mission, the Muslims I argued with never thought I wasn’t Christian. They realized I was an unconventional Christian. But Jesus was still the rock on which our discussions foundered.

August 31, 2012

The thing that bothers me about this argument, is that I never hear the word “Christian” defined in this context (not that I recall anyway). Doesn’t it depend on the definition?

Of course there could also be a debate about the best way to define “Christian”. But how can the argument even begin without first delimiting the discussion in this way?

There are some Catholics (a small minority) who believe that only Catholics are Christians truly so-called. Some Baptists believe that Catholics are not Christians because they don’t believe in salvation by faith alone. We can argue that both these people are wrong.

But the point is that each of them is understanding “Christian” in a different way: The Catholic, as expressly belonging to the specific Church (so they believe) that Christ himself founded; the Baptist, as professing belief in certain doctrines, without regard to membership in a certain body.

Don’t we at least have to agree on which of these criteria, at least (if not others as well), we are including in the definition?

If a Baptist defines “Christian” as “someone who believes, among other things, that salvation is by faith alone”, then I can hardly condemn him for judging me to be non-Christian on the basis of that definition (once I state my contrary belief). He has no choice. It simply follows from his premise.

Now, do I have the right to demand that he change his premise on the ground that it excludes me from his definition? His response is liable to be something like, “Better for you to fit my definition by changing your belief to the correct one, than for me to change the definition, thereby leaving you in error.” And I’m not so sure he would be wrong about that, from his point of view.

That being said, I think it’s a bad idea to go around stating publicly that Mormons are not Christians, knowing how hurtful and offensive it is to them, regardless what our particular definition of the term might be. Those who believe Mormons are in error, can make that case by addressing the specific error in question, as I frequently do with other Catholics without publicly branding them “un-Catholic”.

Adam G.
August 31, 2012

My view is that in clearly understood technical contexts, people are free to define words however they want.

However, in general usage, Christian denotes something like ‘someone whose religion is based on Christ as the central figure,’ which clearly applies to Mormons. It also connotes lots of stuff that doesn’t apply to Mormons. I thinks its better to have a misleading connotation than a misleading denotation, though. But awkward constructions like ‘non-creedal Christians’ on our side or ‘marginal Christians’ on yours probably minimize the confusion.

August 31, 2012

Throughout most of the world, it would be a good thing for Mormons to not be labeled Christians. In the eyes of billions of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and atheists, Christians have given Christianity a bad name.

Therefore being labeled non-Christian among the non-Christians could gain us more converts from those who harbor prejudices against Christians.

It’s quite possible that the converts who come (or will come) into the church from non-Christian religions may exceed in number those whom we “lose” among mainstream Christians (who might otherwise have converted if we weren’t labeled non-Christian).

The Lord has an economy, and a scale or order of preferences that we most often don’t understand. So perhaps the labels “Mormon” and “non-Christian” may actually serve His purposes among those who’ve never before received any preaching of any form of Christianity.

August 31, 2012

That’s a distressingly plausible thought.

Because I like being considered a Christian. But that might be selfish of me.

Adam G.
August 31, 2012

Cute, Books., but all those Hindus will quickly figure out for themselves that we’re Christian whatever we call ourselves.

You can’t wordsmith conversion.

August 31, 2012

We’re Messianic Hebrews.

August 31, 2012

I have no great desire to be associated with mainstream Christianity. If anything, I prefer having a certain level of distinction.

The only issue at hand for me, is letting others understand that we believe in Christ.

That is the only issue that I can see.

September 1, 2012

Adam, I guess I should have said investigate. As long as they figure it out -after- they start to investigate.

Actually, it might be possible to separate “Christian” as a denomonym apart from a belief in Christ as Messiah and Redeemer. My thesis is that it might be a good thing to do in the non-christian world.

I could imagine an investigator saying they could believe in Christ as long as he wasnt’t being asked to become one of -those- Christians.

In my youth, perhaps the main thing that turned me off to Christianity was the icky behavior and beliefs of mainstream Christians, both Catholic and protestant.

Well, lo and behold, i later found out that most all that icky stuff wasn’t really part of -true- Christianity (ie., the restored gospel.)

So while we want to claim to be Christian because we believe in Christ, we really do need to distance ourselves from the behavior and beliesf of the vast majority of those who claim to be “Christian.”

Non-LDS Christians have poisoned the well, if I’m using that idiom correctly.

September 1, 2012

Ooops. No, I didn’t use the idiom quite correctly.

Mainstream Christians have not “poisoned the well” in the sense of planting adverse information with non-Christians about Mormons.

I meant to say that some of the behavior and doctrines of Mainstream Christians have prejudiced non-Christians against Christians.

My hope is that even though non-Christians may be prejudiced against Christians, they (the non-Christians) will understand the difference between Christians and Christianity, or at least between (Mainstream) Christians and Mormons.

For instance, it would not be productive to go among non-Christians and proclaim us to belong to the same group who had recently gone among them and arrogantly told them they were all going to Hell.

I’m still not finding the right words, but the more I think on it, the more I’m starting to comprehend the non-Christian’s view of mainstream Christians.

Adam G.
September 2, 2012

imho, that’s not really fair. Christianity is incredibly huge and incredibly diverse. You are just as likely to find a christian ‘going among them’ feeding the poor and caring for the sick as announcing that they are all going to hell or what not.

September 2, 2012

Adam, Yes, but only if you limit your focus to the tiny geographical areas of impoverished non-Christians which have been fortunate enough to actually have been served (or know of such service) by such charitable mainstream Christians.

The many atheists and Jews that I’m thinking of mention affrontery by Christians far more often than their charitable works.

I probably haven’t had enough exposure to Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists from other countries to get a feel for the preponderance of their opinions on the matter.

Some of my friends from the hinterlands of various African countries also mention self-aggrandizement (by Western evangelical Christians) ahead of charitable works by Western Christians who have penetrated their countries.

On my mission in South America, I heard more complaints about self-aggrandizement and hypocrisy concerning organized religion (Catholic and Protestant) from people on the street than plaudits about charitable works.

But thank you for pointing out the many charitable services by mainstream Christians towards non-Christians. They do exist. May our collective Christian (both non-LDS and LDS) light shine, and may the light increase.

Generally, one hopes that most people are smart enough to know there are “good Christians” and “bad Christians” just like there are good and bad among all religions, as well as among those who are irreligious.

And by saying there are good Christians and bad Christians, I do not mean to imply that most non-LDS equate to bad Christians, nor that all LDS equate to good Christians.

If I were to sum up all the acts of my life and weigh them in the balance, I’m afraid my net would put me in the “bad” territory. Praise the Lord for his mercy, because I surely need it.

Adam G.
September 4, 2012

My general feel is that groups that are ideologically committed to being non-Christian are probably bad sources for objective views on whether Christians spend more time being charitable or being annoying.

But I realize that you aren’t talking about objective views anyway. So carry on.

September 4, 2012

Bookslinger writes, “For instance, it would not be productive to go among non-Christians and proclaim us to belong to the same group who had recently gone among them and arrogantly told them they were all going to Hell.”

Well, when you go around preaching salvation, you’re kind of forced to say what salvation is from; hence, implying that people are in danger of going to hell. But that’s not directed at anyone in particular, and it’s made quite clear that if Christians are saved, it’s not because they’re better than anyone else; quite the contrary.

The fact that people perceive it the way you describe, doesn’t even prove that the message is being presented in the wrong way. The Gospel is designed to appeal to those who are open to hearing that they are sinners, and is fully expected to be offensive to those who are not.

Christ himself predicted that since “the world” hated him, they would hate his disciples just as much. So I’m not the least surprised nor vexed to hear that the majority of the non-Christian world thinks ill of Christians. If people thought we and our message were just swell, that might indicate we’re not saying it right.

September 4, 2012

Agellius: thanks for chiming in. You make good points. Discussing this helps me refine my word-choices.

Perhaps another way of wording what I’m trying to convey is that it appears to many non-Christians that Christians-behaving-badly outnumber Christians-behaving-admirably.

Part of that is due to the bad press that Christianity has received over the last 50 years. But I also got much the same report from talking to people on the streets of Ecuador in the mid 1980’s.

September 4, 2012


“I also got much the same report from talking to people on the streets of Ecuador in the mid 1980?s.”

Well that’s kind of puzzling. Are there very many people in Ecuador who identify as non-Christians? Was it atheists you were talking to? Muslims?

I don’t doubt for a minute that Christians behaving badly outnumber Christians behaving well. But I’m not quite sure who you are including under the umbrella of “Christians”. Is it anyone who was baptized, regardless whether they were brought up in the faith? Is it anyone who is a citizen of a country that throughout history has been traditionally Christian? Many Muslims think of Americans as Christians, but for myself, I hardly think of the U.S. as a Christian country, though at one time I suppose it was fairly strongly Protestant.

Whereas if someone said that people who self-identify as devout Christians, who say that the Gospel is the most important thing in life, who firmly believe that the Bible is the very word of God, that death is to be preferred to mortal sin, etc. — I would be surprised if the majority of that type of Christian were found to be generally behaving badly.

There are a lot of “Christians”, but not all that many Christians. And I submit that Christians generally are quite nice people to be around.

September 4, 2012

I’m reminded of an old thought experiment (which you’ve no doubt heard):

If you were walking alone in a dark alley in a seedy part of town, and there was a group of young men coming towards you, talking loud and acting a little bit rowdy, would you feel better or worse if, when they came into the light, you realized that they were all carrying Bibles?

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