A scout is… Christian?

This week, the Charlotte Observer reported Christ Covenant Church, an evangelical Presbyterian megachurch in North Carolina, rejected two parents who had signed up as Cub Scout leaders. The father was even a former Eagle scout. The story ended up grabbing national headlines. Why?:

The Rev. Gabe Sylvia, Christ Covenant’s staff liaison to the Scouting program, confirmed the Stokes’ account. He called them to apologize but defends the church’s decision.

“Based on a once-over, informal scan, it looked like the Stokes would be good additions to our leadership,” he said. “But when it became clear that they were Mormons, they could not become leaders in our pack. Mormonism is not consistent with historical Christianity.”

The “Are Mormons Christians?” question always opens a can of doctrinal worms. Mormons seem to take particular umbrage at the declaration they are not Christian. Things were no different this time around. The Observer let local Mormons make their case here at length:

What upset the Stokes family most was the church questioning their Christianity.

“It was so offensive,” said Jodi Stokes, who was raised Catholic, then became a Mormon. “I have a picture of Jesus in my living room.”

And, she added, look at the formal name of their church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jeremy Stokes, a Bank of America financial consultant whose family has been in the LDS (Latter-day Saints) church for generations, wrote this when asked on Christ Covenant’s Scouting application to describe his relationship with Christ: “One of the most important things in my life is my faith and trust in Christ and in His Atonement. Without Christ’s help and guidance, I know I wouldn’t be the loving father or devoted husband or humble man I am today. His example is the one help I need and rely on every day and I am truly grateful for that.”

Bishop Steven Rowlan of the LDS ward, or parish, which the Stokes attend in Weddington, acknowledged that Mormon theology diverges from some beliefs shared by most Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. But he insisted members of the LDS church are as Christian as the members of Christ Covenant.

“Yes, there are distinct differences,” he said. “But not with respect to being a Christian. We definitely and truly are Christians in every sense of the word.”

It’s always interesting to me how, as Rod Dreher pointed out a few years ago, that Mormons get upset about not being called Christian when they themselves believe that every other Christian church is in apostasy. And by way of contrast, the argument against calling Mormons Christians was made by the Observer with an alarming lack of specificity. The issue of extra-Biblical scriptures was raised and it was also noted, “For Sylvia, that at least means that Scout leaders must believe in the Apostles’ Creed – a profession of faith dating back to the early centuries of Christianity.”

The article makes no mention of any specific Christian doctrines mentioned in Christian creeds that the Mormon church rejects. That’s unfortunate, because this would add a great deal of clarity to the debate here. The AP write-up of the story was slightly better, at least adding one specific doctrinal point to the discussion:

The Mormon church treats as holy scripture writings that aren’t recognized by other churches, such as the Book of Mormon, which it believes were divinely revealed to Joseph Smith in the 1820s. Mormons disavow belief in the doctrine of the Trinity: that God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one — instead believing the three to be individuals united in a single purpose.

So yes it’s worth nothing there are obvious and important doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians, even if they do share many of the same values. This could have been better explained in the story, but so could the importance of doctrinal distinctions and how they play a role in church outreach efforts.

That a church imposes certain religious standards for who can and cannot lead their youth groups isn’t exactly newsworthy, much less national news. The article itself raises the issue — with an inconclusive answer — that Mormon ward-based Scout troops aren’t likely to have a non-Mormon leader either. And it’s not like church groups aren’t within their rights to care about shared belief among youth leaders.

Unfortunately, these stories seem to overplay the “outrage” over the parents being excluded.

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  • Carl

    “I have a picture of Jesus in my living room.”

    It would have be kinder for the newspaper to omit this quote. Many non-Christians could make a similar claim. In fact, I have a Hindu professor with an Eastern Orthodox icon of the Virgin and Child in his living room next to other Hindu religious objects. Similarly, Muslims could put a picture of Jesus in their living room (well, modulo the iconoclasm thing), since they consider him a great prophet. Bahai… Etc. Etc.

    So, since the sentence doesn’t help the person’s case, it would have been nicer to leave it out, so the issue doesn’t get muddied.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Well, the article did make some effort to clarify that this was Christ Covenant Church’s policy, not that of the BSA (which allows Hindus and Buddhists and so forth). Also, I thought the line about not admitting homosexuals was a little awkward, open to the interpretation that homosexuals, like atheist and agnostics, are also excluded for not swearing ‘fealty to God’.

  • mattk

    Interesting. i thought all morman wards had their own scout troops as paart of their youth program. i wander why the boy isn’t in his ward’s troop.

  • Chad

    As an Eagle Scout and a Mormon, I can assure you it is very common in Mormon sponsored scout troops to have non-mormon troop members. This was common as a young man in my troop and in our current troop, we have many non-mormon boys and as recently as last year had a non-mormon scout master.

  • northcoast

    I would write this off as another identity crisis in the Bible Belt. Unless the Stokes are some kind of rabid evangelists the scouts would probably never notice anything unusual about the couple. (Maybe that they are really nice people?)

    The question of who can call himself a Christian is way beyond this old guy, and I’m used to tv ads proclaiming the Christian identity of the LDS Church. So I wonder what the megachurch’s response would have been to a Unitarian couple wanting to participate in the Scout program.

  • Marie

    The likelihood of a non-Mormon leader in a Mormon-ward based Scout program in small, but that is because of the make-up of Mormon Scout programs and the leader selection process. The Scout program and the youth programs for boys are quite integrated so unless a parent objected (I’ve never heard of it happening) all boys are automatically signed up for Scouts. The troop tends to be all members of the ward as they don’t recruit for more scouts. Non-Mormon scouts do happen if one boy invites a friend to join the troop or a family is looking for a troop and happens to settle on the Mormon one. THis is important because troop leaders have to come from either the Mormon Ward or be a parent of one of the Scouts. Official Leadership Positions (not just volunteers) are not by application. The leader of the Church organization over scouts (Young Men’s President for Boy Scouts or Primary President for Cub Scouts) prayerfully considers who should be the leader. They then submit the name to the Bishop (Mormon version of the Pastor) who prays about it an either accepts or rejects the name based on his prayer and any confidential information he may be privy to. Then the person is asked if they would be willing to serve as a Scout Leader. This person is a Scout leader for several years. Unless the leaders moves away or has a work conflict they do not end their service until a new leader is already prayed about, selected, and has accepted. The Ward will have leaders for each group in its age division: 8-10, 11, 12-13, 14-15, 16-17. To be a non-Mormon Leader you would have to have a child in a Mormon Pack/Troop and the Ward have a need in you child’s specific age group. The odds are against it.

    It is actually not unheard of to have a non-Mormon parent considered for a leader position when the opportunity arrises. Mostly because Mormons are so big on family and it provides a way for a parent to be actively involved in what the child doing who might not normally be as active because they do not attend church functions with their child. It also serves a practical Ward function in that a Ward position could be filled without taking an equally capable individual away from a position that requires church membership, such as Sunday School Teacher.

    In the end though it is a church thing and you know church people they are always praying about stuff. So, even if there is a need and Mr. Jones the non-Mormon is available and willing if prayer keeps popping up Brother Smith the Mormon then that is the way it is going to go.

    I can see why this wasn’t included in the article – it is a lengthy explanation – but a summary that Mormon Scout leaders must be members of the Ward or a parent of a Scout would not be too long.

    mattk:
    The beginning of the actual article points out that while the Mormon ward had a Cub Scout program it did not have a Tiger cubs program (for boys as young as 6). That is pretty standard in LDS Scout programs. The family had a 6 year old and wanted both boys in Scouts.

  • D Burns

    Not to quibble… OK I’m quibbling here… but there is no such thing as a “former Eagle Scout” as mentioned in the 1st paragraph. Like the Marines… once an Eagle Scout, always an Eagle Scout. The rank is the juvenile equivalent to a senior military officer. One does not refer to a retired general as a former general. He is “General John Doe, ret.”, like wise even adults are referred to as “John Doe, Eagle Scout” within the context given.

    Eagle scouts are very (and rightfully so) proud of their youthful accomplishment. By referring to the rank as a “former” you undermine the ranks importance (intentionally or not).

    This bog has been stalwarts of the proper use of titles for clergy. The same standard should apply to all titles regardless of circumstances.

    Douglas N. Burns, Eagle Scout class of ’89

  • Pahoran

    To state that the Mormons are not Christian insinuates that Mormons do not believe in Christ. This is false. The central foundation of the entire church is Jesus Christ.

    True enough, the Mormon belief in Christ and the Godhead is contrary to the tradition established during the Nicene Council in 325 A.D. Obviously there were “Christians” prior to this council who believed differently or no such council would have been required.

    Neither tradition nor duration mean one holds the corner market on the true definition of the word “Christian.” If so, we would all still believe the world was flat.

  • http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com Bot

    I was a Cubmaster in a Pack sponsored by the Hilltop Presbyterian Church for 11 years. No one thought that was improper.

    Then, I was a Scoutmaster and Troop Committee Chairman in my LDS troop. In that troop, we had Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic adult leaders. At times, one-half of the scouts were members of other faiths.

    To find why Mormons consider themselves First Century (not Fourth Century) Christians, read the following:

    http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com

    11 of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians. Christ Covenant Church probably wouldn’t allow them to be Cub Scout leaders because they didn’t believe in Christ Covenant’s Trinity.

    What a shame, and loss to our Republic.

  • mark

    Okay, this is not the forum to argue over doctrinal issues or whether or not Mormons are Christian. Keep the comments focused on the journalism, please.

  • CarlH

    Um, mark, I think it’s a bit late to cram the “Are Mormons Christians?” discussion on the back shelf after your own third paragraph. But hey, I’m no journalist.

  • northcoast

    Just a comment about the caption. A Scout is reverent. Although all of this has been about adult leaders, I’m reminded that one of my best friends earned his Eagle rank even though he insisted that he was an atheist.

  • Jettboy

    Mormons are Christians for more reasons than they believe in Jesus. I really hate it when people say that Muslism also believe in Jesus and are not Christians and so Mormons can’t be, as the comparison is absolutely false. It is comparing carrots to watermelon. They have nothing in common other than you can eat them. Mormons are Christians because they believe in the Divine Sonship and Salvation of Jesus as Christ. He is the center of belief! To a Mormon, saying they aren’t Christian means (theological differences aside) a denial of that Divine Personage of Worship considered The Savior! You don’t take that without getting upset and defensive.

    As for not allowed to bring this topic up? That question is what this post hinges upon and at the center of the articles.

    “. . . when they themselves believe that every other Christian church is in apostasy”

    There is a difference between considering Christians “in Apostasy” and calling them not Christians, as Mormons would never make that kind of a claim about Protestants, Catholics, or even Universalists. Mormons would gladly be called “non-traditional” or “non-Trinitarian” or “un-orthodox” Christians and no offense would be found. However, to call us “non-historical” or “non-Biblical” or at worst just plain “non” Christian is greatly offensive for the reasons explained above. It is a flat out denial of basic Mormon declarations of Faith about the Deity called Jesus Christ. The sooner “Evangelical” or other Christians find some other “outside-the-mainstream-Christian” label than is used, the more relaxed Mormons will be about not allowed into “The Faith Club of Christian Elites.”

  • Pahoran

    Mark:

    Your very article argues for the need to add doctrinal views and then you toss in this little tidbit:

    “So yes it’s worth nothing there are obvious and important doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians”

    Your statement draws a conclusion that Mormons are not Christians by separating the two! This is also the specific reason the Mormon scout leaders were removed.

    It is when these false statements are spread that you will get Mormons defending their position.

  • mark

    “So yes it’s worth nothing there are obvious and important doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians.”

    I hardly meant to take sides with that statement, I was simply making the observation there are doctrinal differences between LDS believers and the more traditional Christian churches that affirm, say, the Apostles’ creed. If you thought that was unfair or unclear because I should have written “traditional Christians” or something, it was not my intention.

    Again, this is not a forum for doctrinal debates, so let’s just refocus on what the story itself did or did not do right.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    tmatt here.

    I just spiked several thousand words of apologetics back and forth on these doctrinal wars.

    This go on forever, of course.

    My journalistic stance is this: I think that newspapers have to be willing to either (a) write detailed stories on the actual theological debates themselves, especially the clashes on the very nature of God and then exaltation (the heart of the fights with traditional Christians, as two members of the 12 once told me) or they have to get a concise sentence or two that says traditional Christians deny that Mormons are Christians, whole Mormons view themselves as non-traditional, non-Trinitarian, uniquely Mormon Christians on several key doctrines — including the nature of God — but Christians of their own kind, nonetheless.

    There is no way out of the maze, here, with either side — other than very detailed stories with the views of each side covered clearly. In my interviews years ago in Salt Lake at the LDS headquarters, the key facts always returned to the nature of God and exaltation. As the leaders stressed, they do not like the word “polytheism,” but it is accurate — but not in the sense that the word is used in other faiths. Mormons need to develop a concise approach to defending that doctrine openly in the public square.

    Spiking will continue on both sides. One can certainly see why newspapers will continue to fear this subject.

    And a note to Mr. Lambert:

    One or two concise comments. Not 10 or so on one topic.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    The confusion, that often isn’t covered very well in stories about Scouting, is that each unit is “chartered” to a “chartering organization.” That may be a church, or service club, or community; often used to be PTOs, but the sexual orientation restriction has largely ended those around the country (I’ve been a District Commissioner in two councils, and on a council Executive Board, and wrestled with both the policy and local United Ways).

    So some years back a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation had a Cub Scout pack in Kalamazoo, and learned after the fact that the Cubmaster was a Muslim. That was a flaw in their internal process, since the chartering agreement reminds the chartered organization they should review and approve the key leaders each year, but the truth is many packs and troops are semi-autonomous and the charter group pays little attention to them until a window or light fixture is broken, that sort of thing.

    But when the church requested the Cubmaster to step down, there was much hue and cry — people wondered why Scouting didn’t tell them they were wrong. In fact, local leaders tried to convince them this would kill their pack (which it nearly did), and the district immediately helped the man organize a new pack, where many of the kids and families went, but the reality is that the chartering organization can choose whosoever they will. So this church, if they are using the Scouting program as a core element of their youth program, certainly has the right to make a doctrinal issue their leadership requirement, and from the look of this “form” (that’s not a Scout registration thing), they’re not waiting to be caught by surprise.

    Some churches refuse to approve leaders who are cohabiting, or request removal if that becomes the case and/or known. I’ve had to referee a few of those; it’s not pretty, but it’s the chartered organization’s call. You can go find another organization, and start a new unit, and Scouting is likely to help you do file the new charter, but don’t ask us to impose that on the first group.

    Jeff Gill
    Eagle Scout 1979

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    When I first saw a shortened version of the story on the AP wire, my first reaction was that it must have been a slow news day. No big deal, I thought, since any church that sponsors Boy Scouts has the right to set its standards. (And I still don’t think it was a story of national import.)

    Reading the original story now, I think the reporter did a pretty good job of talking to both sides and letting them speak for themselves and even talking to people that were outside the dispute. The story turned out to be a good look at one aspect of Scouting rather than focusing on some complaining parents.

    I do find it interesting, though, that the pastor isn’t ever quoted as saying that the couple weren’t Christians, only that “Mormonism is not consistent with historical Christianity,” a statement the LDS church would agree with.

    And anti-kudos to whoever wrote the headline, which leaves out the “historical” in the quote. That changes the meaning of the quote significantly.

  • http://www.equip.org Melanie M. COgdill

    1. I am a member of the church in question. We are not that huge of a “mega church” about 2,000. We are in the PCA denomination not USA.
    2. I work in journalism specifically in Christian apologetics.
    3. What was missing in the Observer story was mention of Mormon doctrine. I have studied Mormonism for almost 20 years. And its beliefs are not similar to Christianity at all in Christian essentials. For example, Mormons in their official teaching are not Trinitarian, and do not believe in the depravity of man for example.
    4. Our church also has a very large sports ministry and for the same reasons they ask that volunteer coaches be professing Christians (as opposed to other religions etc since they lead students in devotions from a Christian viewpoint).
    5. The reason the LDS family was in our church troop was their youngest son was too young for the Scout troop at the Mormon Stake Center. Also they are homeschoolers and know a lot of Christian homeschool families which is why they opted to join our troop. The issue was leadership not can you join the troop. Of course they can join the troop.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    When the Unification Church was refused admission to the New York Council of Churches, the NYTimes quoted the official spokesbeing as saying that “They can’t be Christian because they deny the Trinity and claim a special divine mission for their founder.”
    But the New Church (“Swedenborgian”) does both of those things, and we got in back in the bad old days when it was still the “Protestant Council”.
    And we are active in the NCCC.
    To quote Edgar Pangborn, I will understand this some day when the sea is less wet.

    Will, member of a “strange church” that “doesn’t believe in normal things”.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blospot.com John Pack Lambert

    I have to say Will’s points are the most valid I have seen yet.

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims iteslf a Christian Church because they view Jesus as God made man, or as the Book of Mormon speaks of his then future birth “The Condenscension of God”. We also believe that it is only through the atonement of Jesus Christ that any recieve salvation.

    I think this article was very good. It answered many of the questions I had earlier on reading the article from the AP. I do have a suspicion that the chosen quotes from Bishop Rowlan might not be the best.

    He probably would have pointed out the fact that Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. The Prophet, currently Thomas S. Monson, is not the head. He has authority and power because he is the mouthpiece of the Lord.

    I think the biggest problem with the article is that they either failed to get a definition of what a Christian is according to Bishop Rowlan, or at least failed to get that answer.

  • http://www.bentworld.org Gabe Sylvia

    I read this article with great interest and I’m thankful for it. I was pleased to read “…that Mormons get upset about not being called Christian when they themselves believe that every other Christian church is in apostasy.” It is a lost point that all other major monotheistic religions make exclusive claims about the rightness of theirs and wrongness of others’ beliefs.

    It is a very good distinction to say that Mormons and Christians share many of the same values (we do) but also insurmountable doctrinal differences. Because we do, folks want to say that one is the same as another. But it is entirely consistent with historic Christianity to share values and practices with non-Christians without having to say those who are unbelievers must be believers because they share those practices. That, too, is usually lost.

  • Rathje

    Rod Dreher is correct that Mormons view all other Christian religions as apostate. But a Mormon is going to see that factoid as utterly beside the point.

    The problem is that Mormons mean something different by the word “Christian” than others seem to.

    To a Mormon, the word “Christian” merely means “someone who worships Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t matter how screwed up, apostate, harmful, or wrong your views of Jesus and his teachings are. If you are devoted to, and worship Jesus, just about any Mormon is going to freely acknowledge you as a Christian. For us, the label is one of self-identification, and if you want to use it – more power to you. We’re pretty generous with the term.

    That’s because the word does not have the same sense of defining who is doctrinally correct that it does for plenty of other Protestants and Catholics. For them, conceding you are Christian would be to concede that your doctrines are acceptable – because they conflate the word “Christian” with “acceptably orthodox.” So what an Evangelical really means when he tells a Mormon that she is not Christian is “your doctrines and beliefs are unacceptable to me.” That’s really all it means.

    I think one might well ask why Protestants have been allowed to hijack the English language in this way.


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