Are Mormons Christians? Defining Religious Identity

“Violence is fomented by the imposition of singular and belligerent identities on gullible people, championed by proficient artisans of terror.”
- Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence

Chris Henderson over at Approaching Justice is hosting a round-table of sorts to discuss the question: Are Mormons Christians?

It is an interesting question, even for those on the outside. As we saw last week, some people in prominent positions in Buddhism were quick to claim that Aaron Alexis couldn’t really be a Buddhist:

Melvin McLeod, Editor-in-Chief of the Shambhala Sun and Buddhadharma magazines … writes, “when it comes down to it, he wasn’t a Buddhist, no matter what he called himself. If he really were, he couldn’t have done this.”

Our power to define ourselves and others is both a result and an exercise of power. Alexis is dead and McLeod has a rather formidable bully pulpit. In terms of Christianity this question may be facing a gradual shift in power. Mormonism is on the rise and with that comes an increasing need to listen to Mormon claims about self-identity. What do Mormons say, then? Chris writes:

For most Mormons, the question of “Are Mormons Christians?” is a silly, if not irritating, one. We proclaim and sing of our belief in Christ. His name plays a prominent role in the official name of our church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi proclaimed:

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

2 Nephi 25:26

Mormons tend to think that this should be sufficient enough of an answer. Maybe it is. But it clearly has not persuaded many.

The split, however, between Mormons and (other) Christians comes in the understanding of the Trinity as three separate beings in a unified purpose rather than one God in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Christian belief in the unity of the Trinity, or “triune God” is found most clearly in the Nicene Creed, or Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, completed in 381 CE. Before that, and after, there were other followers of Jesus who held different conceptions of both Jesus’ divinity/humanity and the nature of God. The List of Christian Heresies compiled over at wikipedia is telling of the amazing diversity of beliefs within the community of people claiming to follow Jesus.

That diversity should tell us something: that the ascendance of this one particular way of understanding the nature of Jesus and his teachings was one historical contingency among many.

I can understand Christian practitioners wanting their belief to be the ONE TRUE way, and sadly a lot of blood has been shed in the quest to eliminate the other ways (as I discovered in the case of the Cathars recently).

Und willst du nicht mein Bruder sein,
So schlag’ ich Dir den Schädel ein.

(And if you will not my brother be, then thy skull I’ll smash for thee.)
- German saying, via Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers

And of course Buddhists do the same: who hasn’t been told or read in some comment section somewhere that you must believe in karma or reincarnation to be a Buddhist? Based on the little bit of discussion on this topic I have read, I expect to see plenty of scripture quoted to bolster the views of one side or the other (and again, Buddhists do this too).

But perhaps, in this age of increasing cosmopolitanism, the best thing to do is simply ask: Dude, are you a Christian?


Okay then. Cool. Let’s talk about what that means to you and I can share what that means to me.

Allowing others to identify themselves empowers them. Accepting their choices opens the door to dialogue, where both parties can learn and grow.

That reminds me of one of my favorite religious jokes:

A man was standing on the edge of the Patheos Street Bridge — about to jump.

A passer-by tried to talk him down; he asked: “well, are you a Christian?” to which the man answered “yes.”

He exclaimed: “great, me too; what kind of Christian are you? Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant?” The answer was: “Protestant.” ”

Me too; what kind of Protestant? Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal?”

The man got excited: “me too; are you an initial evidence or a third wave Pentecostal?” “Initial evidence.” ”

Me too; what kind of initial evidence? Are you a AOG, CRC, COC, CCC?” “AOG.”

Now, he got really excited: “Me too; are you Premillenial, Post Millenial or Amillenial?”

The guy on the bridge said: “Amillenial” and with that the passer-by, becoming very angry, screamed: “Die, heretic!” and pushed him off the bridge.

(by Emo Philips – thanks to James for the attribution in the comments)

Fake Buddhist Monks hit San Francisco
Practicing Compassion, a review
“Why am I here?” – a post-event interview with veteran journalist and university teacher, Eileen Flynn
Mapping Buddhism in America
  • Ambaa

    Trusting someone’s self identifying has always made the most sense to me!

  • Rose Johnson

    I will accept a persons self identification unless I feel there is a very good reason to question it. The same goes for groups.

  • tomstpete

    It’s a very simple matter to know whether you are following THE Jesus Christ or a false Christ. It’s in how you define him.

    To Christians, and according to the Biible, Jesus Christ is the Creator of everything that exists, aside from the godhead (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) of course. “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn* of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” (Col 1:15-17)

    According to LDS theology, Jesus Christ is of the same species as man and Lucifer, the devil. He and Lucifer were born of heavenly parents and Jesus became a God in heaven and Lucifer became Satan, the devil. (Gospel Principles, pp 11, 17, 1995 Edition) This teaching is not found in the Word of God, the Bible. And, by the way, it is not found in the Book of Mormon. In the introduction to the Book of Mormon both books are said to contain the “fullness of the everlasting gospel”. How is it that none of the distinctive LDS doctrines are nowhere to be found in either volume of “scripture”.

    Now, if Jesus is Lucifer’s brother, and our older brother, how is it that he is said to be our creator. It can’t be both, my friends. Jesus is either what the Bible says he is, the creator of you, me, and the angels in heaven, of which Lucifer was one, or he is merely a creature like us only more advanced.

    You have a choice to make and it’s worth thinking about. Do you want to follow your creator who said to the jews who did not believe his claims to be God, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)


    Tom Jones >


    • justinwhitaker

      Dude. Nice selection of scriptural texts. Well done.

    • E David Ferriman

      Most of what you are saying here is not actually true.

      • tomstpete

        I’d love to know why you say that? What, specifically is not true and why?

        • E David Ferriman

          See above.

      • Julia Taylor

        After poking around your link, I also am curious which specific things fall under, “most of what you are saying is not true.”

        I guess I would start with, what things are true? What thing are not true? Are the things you believe are untrue, related to whether a person is Christian?

        • E David Ferriman

          “It’s a very simple matter to know whether you are following THE Jesus Christ or a false Christ. It’s in how you define him.” – Tom Jones

          The idea of saying that someone is NOT a Christian is, in my mind, unChristian. After all Jesus said we shouldn’t judge (Matthew 7:1-2). I can’t imagine saying someone wasn’t a Christian for accepting the Nicene Creeds over the Bible, so Catholics and many Protestants are fellow Christians with me.

          “According to LDS theology, Jesus Christ is of the same species as man and Lucifer, the devil. He and Lucifer were born of heavenly parents and Jesus became a God in heaven and Lucifer became Satan, the devil. (Gospel Principles, pp 11, 17, 1995 Edition) This teaching is not found in the Word of God, the Bible.” – Tom Jones

          This is not true, or it may be better to say that it is not stated correctly. To an LDS Christian, Jesus is the creator, “The light and the Redeemer of the world; the Spirit of truth, who came into the world, because the world was made by him, and in him was the life of men and the light of men.” D&C 93: 9 (I could easily use the Bible to prove this, but I’m using the D&C seeing that that all came from the same God).

          While it IS true that God the Father and Jesus Christ are co-eternal, Jesus IS a creation of God the Father, after all how did Christ get his physical form? The Bible tells us He is half man (I’m not going to site that Mary is his mother, I’m hoping that is well known), half God (Matthew 3:17).

          Now, who created Lucifer? Was it Jesus? No. So are they “brothers?” Sure, the same way Christ and I are brothers (Acts 17: 29). Am I on the same level as God or His Christ? No, and I never will be (Luke 15: 11-32 – every man woman and child is the prodigal son or daughter, we can wear the ring but we will never be on the same level as Christ, as he was perfect and died for our sins.)

          Seeing that this is so confusing, I’ll just quickly point out what Mormon Christians DO believe:

          1. God the Father created everything spiritually, including Jesus Christ (Acts 17: 29)

          2. All of His creations are eternal, as they have no beginning or end (Matthew 25: 46, keep in the mind that the term “eternal” means “lasting or existing forever; without end or beginning” Google dictionary)

          3. Christ has always been equal to God the Father (John 17: 11)

          4. Christ created everything physically, and thus is too our Father via physical creation and our spiritual Father when we accept His grace. (John 1: 3, 10; Jacob 4: 9)

          5. Lucifer was a morning star, but fell when he rejected God’s plan. (Isaiah 14: 12, D&C 76: 26)

    • Scott Thormaehlen

      Tom, your analysis of LDS theology is incorrect. While Christ created the world per the will of the Father, clearly before the temporal physical universe was created an eternal realm of sorts must exist. After all in Job 38 it says the sons of God shouted for joy at the creation. There had to be a “place” where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lived, as well as these “sons”. There are several other references to things happening before the “beginning” of THIS world. There is no clear telling in the Bible that God the Father, the Son, the ‘sons of God’, the ‘spirits in men’, the ‘offspring of God’, and Lucifer are not the same ‘species’. Angels are merely messengers. I don’t see anything specific that says God created the angels and Lucifer in the way that you mean “create”. Intelligence begets intelligence. Now, I will agree that “man” is finite. What I mean however may be different from how you see it. Because man is “finite” does not mean that a man or woman’s being or intelligence, or simply the spirit within us did not exist with God. I believe the Bible is very clear the hosts of heaven are the sons of God, who are also the spirits in men. Again, angels are merely messengers, being individuals who have or have not yet lived in mortality. If Jesus is the *firstborn* of every creature, you are admitting he too is a “creature”. But I view creature as merely an intelligent being begat from the Father, hence Christ is the firstborn, like you said. Obviously then, Jehovah (the Son) is a spiritual brother of Lucifer, the angel that fell from heaven. So being that we are his creations (our mortal bodies) but our beings are his brother, that is how that is possible. As fallen members of the human family, we are from “below” and he came from above. But you are forgetting the whole picture. This is why you limit us to being strictly “from below” when all that means is we are fallen in nature and Christ is God incarnate to save us. This speaks nothing on us living in pre-mortality. So you are twisting things so that you can ignore part of the Bible so you don’t have to accept something Biblical that your pastor’s didn’t reveal, but what Joseph Smith revealed. That would definitely hinder your preconceptions and challenge you to grow in Biblical understanding. Read more, go to Amazon: Day of Defense: Positive Talking Points for the Latter Days. The references to what I have said are in the book. Good day!

  • jamesiford

    It’s always hard defining religions, which are notoriously slippery things.

    For me, on the one hand, we are what we say we are.

    And there is another hand. I think in contemporary religious academic circles the term for the Christianity that most Christians believe, or say they believe, is “normative Christian.”

    Presumably “normative Buddhist,” etc. would be appropriate…

    Love the joke. Emo Phillips is the author.

    • justinwhitaker

      I’ve never heard of “normative Christian” or “normative Christianity.”* Perhaps its a new thing. The book I use in teaching Christianity (as a World Religion) focuses on the Creed as that which basically ties Christians together. Mormonism is thus lumped in with New Religious Movements and I’m okay with teaching it as such, but I think it will eventually be regarded as yet another branch of Christianity at some point.

      *In my field of comparative religions, normative refers to the “ought” statements within the religion as they are meant to be understood by followers; alongside “descriptive” – what followers say and do, and “metaethics” – dicing up the meanings of words and searching out the overall structure.

      • jamesiford

        probably an hallucination on my part. it wouldn’t be new, if was true, my seminary days are now a quarter of a century past…

    • justinwhitaker

      Oh, and big thanks for the Emo Phillips lead (I could only find uncited copies in my short search). I googled him and found a story about the joke along with a few others. This one seemed apt:

      · A Mormon told me that they don’t drink coffee. I said, “A cup of coffee every day gives you wonderful benefits.” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Well, it keeps you from being Mormon …”

      • jamesiford

        I had to find the citation as I wanted to use it in my last book…

  • jamesiford

    And, that other, somewhat less generous term I’ve seen used over the years for the more marginal groups, as measured by common theological stands, “Christian by courtesy”…